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"When he came back, Al was the captain of our picket line," Johnson says. "For that, we needed somebody who could handle people in a dangerous situation, who could relate to people and speak with a sense of authority, and who was committed to the nonviolent creed."
Johnson says Lipscomb, who was an unknown at the time, took off his waiter garb and stepped into long and tense days at the barricades.
"He showed extreme courage," Johnson says. "There was a tremendous amount of threats and fear. I tell people all the time that I was scared to death all the time then. There were very few black people in Dallas at that time like Al Lipscomb."
Eventually Safeway gave up, closed its stores, and pulled out of South Dallas. Amid accusations from the black community that it had cost South Dallas some good grocery stores, the SCLC pulled out too. The civil rights movement was unable after that to put down enduring roots in Dallas, in large part because of the effective resistance of S.M. Wright and his minions.
And when the movement left town, it left Al Lipscomb behind.
In the decade afterward, Al Lipscomb ran an operation called the South Dallas Information Center (SDIC) out of a small house. The SDIC was an attempt by Lipscomb, a waiter with a limited formal education, to establish his own one-man civil rights movement.
It was really a social ministry, and it was where Al Lipscomb built his original political base among the poorest of the city's African-American citizens. A black person of means, after all, went to S.M. Wright, the community's scary taskmaster and godfather. People who couldn't go to S.M. went to Al.
In the early 1970s, Lipscomb ran for mayor of Dallas. He won few votes. He also allowed his name to be substituted for Peter Johnson's as plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city's at-large council system--a suit Johnson had launched before leaving town. Lipscomb's run for mayor and the lawsuit earned the SDIC some media attention and the beginnings of white liberal money support.
Even though he knew the white power brokers downtown from his waiter days and knew how to handle them once he had a foot in the door--he continues today sometimes to address them by the deferential Mister, as in "Mr. Pete," rather than Pete--he sometimes had to stir up a certain amount of smoke in order to get their attention. In seeking redress for his constituents, he carried many dire warnings of riot and mayhem to the gleaming towers downtown.
"That was the only way back then to get any white response," says Janice Winkley Gore. "The threat of violence. White people responded to the threat. And that was about all they responded to."
He was not necessarily betraying the nonviolent traditions of the movement in which he had been trained. Dr. King relied on violence too. He just counted on the whites to do it, and they seldom disappointed him.
The real difference between the larger movement and what Lipscomb was doing in South Dallas was that the movement, run from above by black intellectuals and supported by a national alliance of organizations, fought for broad issues. Al Lipscomb, with no money and no real organization behind him, didn't have the ability to fight for issues. So he fought for individuals.
"There is no way of counting the people whose kids Al has gotten out of jail," says former Councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw, "or the number of funerals he has attended or the people in need he has gone to visit. He was really more like a preacher than a politician."
The SDIC was his pulpit, Holy Church of the Least of These Brothers of Mine.
During that same period, Lipscomb forsook his career as a waiter and began trying to support himself more independently as a produce merchant in the Dallas Farmers Market, selling fruit and vegetables from the back of a pickup truck. It's an image often sneered at by Dallas whites and blacks alike--this man who would be mayor, hawking beans from the back of a truck.
A core teaching of the civil rights movement, however, lost somewhere on the high seas of affirmative action, was that African-Americans should seek economic independence whenever possible. Vernon Johns, the erudite pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early 1960s--a renowned religious scholar with degrees from the nation's best schools--outraged his own parishioners by showing up in front of the church after services with a truckload of smelly fish, which he mongered loudly while his solidly middle-class flock made their ways to their cars with downcast eyes.
Johns did it for effect, of course. The lesson was that selling fish--or produce--off the back of a truck was better, if it meant freedom from white purse-strings, than a good teaching job at the mercy of a white board of education.
But there were two things wrong with it in Lipscomb's case. The first was that the black community never got it. Even though Lipscomb and others like him opened the doors and fought the battles that the black middle class in Dallas was too timid to attempt, he continued to be shunned and even vilified by them, even after he was elected to the City Council in 1984.
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