Not all the civil rights victories of the '60s were won at the cost of vicious beatings and mass arrests played-out in front of television cameras. The Strange Demise of Jim Crow reveals for the first time on film how many Southern cities were desegregated in a quieter, almost stealthy fashion with behind-the-scenes negotiations, secret deals and controversial news black-outs. It makes visible a fascinating case-study of how urban power is really wielded.
Student sit-ins spread rapidly through the South in 1960, including Houston. When the Houston students, led by Texas Southern law student Eldreway Stearns, launched sit-ins and boycotts of downtown stores, a group of older black business leaders (who were secretly financing the students) opened quiet discussions with Houston's powerful Downtown Business Alliance led by an an old-time political "fixer," Bob Dundas. Dundas recognized the inevitable: either Houston would desegregate voluntarily now or involuntarily later. He convinced 70 lunch-counters to integrate all at once by promising to keep the event off the news. The Houston news media complied when Dundas threatened to pull advertising, and few people - including violent white supremacists - realized the students had won.
Hotels were targeted next, chosen because former mayor Roy Hofheinz's dream of building the Astrodome and bringing a baseball team to Houston hinged on black support. Would Willie Mays stay in a segregated hotel? Play in a segregated stadium? The white power brokers worked the downtown hotel owners while the black businessmen arranged for well-heeled black couples to reserve rooms on an appointed day. Again, the local press were persuaded to black-out the news and there was no violence.
Still, restaurants and movie theaters held out. This time 100 black students plotted to disrupt Houston's nationally televised ticker-tape parade for astronaut Gordon Cooper. Their black business supporters leaked the threat to the Downtown Alliance. As the parade was about to begin, the students got word that a last-minute deal to desegregate quietly had been brokered and they reluctantly canceled their protest. Houston's public accommodations had been integrated, but again, the press didn't cover the story.
The Strange Demise of Jim Crow is a multi-level story of urban power and change: student demonstrators vs. segregationists; the white power structure's fear of integration vs. their greater fear of violence, embarrassing national publicity and financial losses; secret deal-making vs. freedom of the press.
Most of all, the documentary demonstrates how threats of demonstrations and civic strife compelled the power elite to negotiate with more moderate, "responsible" black leaders and neutralize arch-segregationists. At the same time, by censoring news coverage, Houston integrated peacefully but also undermined efforts to build a mass movement that might truly threaten and destabilize white power and privilege.
The Strange Demise of Jim Crow completes the story of the civil rights movement and is ideal for political science, sociology and history courses.