Houston, a Backwater of the Revolt The writer is a crack reporter on the Houston Chronicle. He spent a year at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship and is soon to go abroad under another journalistic grant program. 8 The Texas Observer Saul Friedman and the Houston image. So they give just what they seem to need to give. “In effect the Negroes of Birmingham, Oxford, Jackson, Plaquemine, Little Rock, New York, and Philadelphia have fought for the gains the Houston Negroes have gotten. Houston’s Negroes haven’t really deserved the advances that have been made.” Deserving them or not, Houston Negroes have gotten concessions from the whites, or more accurately the whites have given the Negroes concessions they weren’t really forced to give. Most restaurants, downtown theaters, hotels, the city and county public recreation facilities, and the public schools have ostensibly been integrated. They really have, for Negroes who have the price to go to the theaters, hotels, and restaurants; or forNegroes who want to journey out of their ghettoed wards to go to the parks . and playgrounds, or for Negroes who haven’t missed equality in the schools because they’re too old. Nearly 61% of the Negroes of Houston earn less than $4000 a year; nearly 25% earn less than $2000. Although the total income of Negroes in Houston is as high as or higher than the income of other Negro communities in the South, the average income is lower than Birmingham. Houston Negroes, without a-single exception, are confined to the traditional wards. There has been absolutely no attempt to begin to integrate housing. As a matter of fact, the city has now rejected any more funds to build needed federally-aided housing projects because they must now be integrated. Although there is more construction going on in Houston than in most places in the South, there is not a single Negro engineer, draftsman, union bricklayer, union electrician, plumber, or crane operator. Without exception Negroes are laborers on construction projects. Even the federal projects, like the Manned Spacecraft Center being built for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, employ segregated unions. This year the Houston newspapers heralded the fourth year of integration in the public schools. Under court order Houston is supposedly desegregating at the rate of a grade a year beginning with the first grade. There are about 25,000 Negro children attending the first four grades; only 250 are in previously all-white schools. There has been a consistent, continuous process of harrassment of Negro parents to convince them to keep their children in Negro schools. Principals of Negro schools have been reminded by school officials that their jobs would be jeopardized if they allowed too many Negro children to leave their schools for the all-white schools. The only sufficiently staffed and equipped vocational school in the system remains all-white; and the vocational schools in the Negro areas continue to emphasize courses for those jobs which have been traditionally filled by Negroes. Although law suits have been threatened, there has not been a single display of Negro anger at any of these defamations of the spirit of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Recently a Negro father humbly requested that his five-year old daughter be permitted to enroll in the kindergarten of a white school a block from her home. The Negro school was a mile-and-a-half away, said the father. He and his wife had to work and couldn’t pick up the child, he said. He could not have his little girl walk more than a mile home, he said. School Supt. John McFarland refused to soil the lily-white kindergartens even with a tiny Negro girl. “I walked more than a mile to and from school when I was a little boy,” drawled McFarland, “it didn’t do me any harm.” McFarland was able to add such insult to the injury of the Negro parents and get away with it. At the subsequent school board meeting not one Houston Negro, save the father, appeared to protest the cynical casuistry of the school superintendent. Nor has there been any strong attempt to desegregate a bit faster than a grade a year. Nor has there been any movement to integrate the vocational high school, although the Negro community knows the crying, desperate need to train Negroes for jobs. I T IS ALL VERY CURIOUS that the Negroes have done nothing effective to gain more than they have. Some leaders protest that the churches are segregated, that jobs are segregated, that even the jails and cemeteries are segregated, and that all the United Fund agencies are segregated. But that’s as far as it goes. Just a protest, carried perhaps in one of the newspapers. Then nothing. It is curious because the inaction of the Negroes ‘is completely contrary to all the processes of political revolt. .The mystique of revolt is difficult to decipher, but this much is well enough known. When the oppression is at its greatest there is little movement from among the oppressed, for there is little room and opportunity to move. But when gains have been won, there is room to move, and with opportunity and leadership the revolution then Houston In spite of demagogic efforts to join Texas to the conservative confederacy of the American Southwest, it remains inextricably an ideological if not entirely a geographical part of the South. Although chamber of commerce billings have Houston “the gateway to the great Southwest,” it is in fact the largest city in the South. Within the vague boundaries of metropolitan Houston there are about 290,000 Negro citizens who comprise one of the largest Negro communities in the South. According to the Census Bureau, Negro purchasing power here is more than $515,000,000 a year, making the Houston Negro community potentially the most powerful economically in the South. Yet for all their numbers, for all the dollars they spend, for all the voting power they wield, the Negroes of Houston are among the most politically docile and backward in the South, if not the nation. In Houston “The Kingfish,” not Martin Luther King, is the ideological leader of the Negro community. In Houston the Negro community continues to sup from the back door on rights that are thrown like bones from the table of the white power structure. In Houston as virtually nowhere else in the land, the white community is completely unaware, completely indifferent to its Negro neighbors. In Houston there has not been a single, effective demonstration by Negroes in more than two years. Dr. John Lash, a Negro who is a humanities professor at Texas Southern University, voices his frustration : “The tragedy of Houston is that the white community is indifferent. If the Negro revolt has done nothing in other places in this country, at least it has wiped away the smug look of indifference. Everywhere else the whites are getting mad, scared, hostile, or over-friendly. In Houston the whites are simply indifferent ; and that is the fault of the Negroes.” A white leader of the bi-racial Houston Council on Human Relations is equally frustrated: “One at our biggest problems is trying to ‘instill a measure of militancy among Houston Negroes. If our council is to be effective in getting the white community to negotiate and make concessions, we have to be supported by Negro strength. As it is, the white community is afraid of what demonstrations might do. to business
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