By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
How many times do we have to get hit in the head with the same two-by-four?
Powerful white people handing out cheap payoffs to African-American elected officials in exchange for their "cooperation" is not what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for.
Last week I went with heavy heart to the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division on the 7th floor of the Dallas Central Library to revisit the Juanita Jewel Craft Collection, named for the woman Dallas reveres as mother of its local civil rights movement.
Depends on what you mean by Civil Rights Movement. Look. Juanita J. Craft (1902-1985) was a brave lady. She was the first black woman to vote in Dallas County, was instrumental in integrating the University of North Texas and fought successfully to open the State Fair of Texas to black people.
But Craft always said bluntly she did not believe in or support Dr. King or the campaign of confrontational civil disobedience most Americans think of when they hear the term Civil Rights Movement. It's a theme throughout the massive collection of papers, letters and memorabilia she left to the central library when she died.
"I never have been a follower of Dr. King," she told an interviewer in 1968. She also told the interviewer, who was compiling an oral history of the Civil Rights Movement, how hard she had worked in Dallas to steer young people away from Dr. King's politics.
Proudly tucked into files in her collection are notes and letters from white Dallas leaders--L.S. Turner Jr., president and general manager of the Dallas Power and Light Company; Robert B. Cullum, chairman of Tom Thumb Supermarkets; Mike McKool of the law firm McKool, McKool and Jones--expressing affection and proffering generous checks.
My heart was heavy when I headed off to look at this stuff because I knew exactly what I would find. I had interviewed Craft shortly before her death. Back then she wanted to tell me two things in particular: She wanted me to know how important she had been in helping keep Dallas' young black people out of Dr. King's movement. And she wanted me to know how grateful the rich white people downtown still were.
Frail and stooped, she led me to the back of her house to see the basket of food, milk and juice she received regularly from Schepps Dairy. Craft's house on Warren Street is now owned and operated by the city of Dallas as a museum, called the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House.
Now, 20 years later, I don't begrudge this poor elderly woman who had given so much of herself to the city these pathetic gifts of sustenance. But helping keep the lid on and taking gifts from grateful white people does not have anything to do with the Civil Rights Movement.
This point, far from being obvious or anachronistic, still is not accepted or even understood in Dallas. By black people. Or by the old white remnant still in control of private business groups like the Dallas Citizens Council and the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
To them it's just folks gettin' along. I'd say, yeah. But some folks might be gettin' along to prison.
This question--can you be a civil rights leader if you take payoffs from rich white guys--was a central element in the trial five years ago in which a federal jury found former council member Al Lipscomb guilty of 65 counts of bribery and corruption. A parade of white business leaders testified they had always provided black community leaders with "gifts." And revered black Dallas spiritual and political leaders were called by the defense to assure a mighty skeptical-looking jury in Amarillo that civil rights leaders had always taken under-the-table payoffs from white people.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told the jury: "If you are going to be a firebrand activist, you have to have some other method of income. This occurred across the country."
Craig Flournoy wrote a story at the time for The Dallas Morning News in which he checked with scholars of the movement to see if that was ever even remotely true. David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of MLK, told Flournoy: "I know of no single example of that, whether at the national level or at the community level, during the Civil Rights Movement. And clearly, it does tremendous harm to the legacy of the movement for anyone to claim that this sort of receipt of payoffs is any part of the movement's history."
Lipscomb's conviction was overturned by an appeals court because the court thought the trial judge had been wrong to take the trial to Amarillo. I always thought the appeals court was right on that score. But I covered the Lipscomb trial for the Dallas Observer. And I remember that the jurors, however white and ultra-conservative they may have been, sat up and paid close attention to one key point federal prosecutors very skillfully presented: that after Al Lipscomb started taking cash from the white owner of a cab company, he made a 180 in his position on taxicab issues and started voting against the interests of the people of color who tended to be small entrepreneurial cab operators in Dallas.