The memories from the segregation era are still seared painfully onto Otis King’s soul.
How he had to ride on the back of the bus from his home in the Fifth Ward to downtown. How all the schools were segregated. How black people couldn’t even grab a ham sandwich at local deli counters.
“It’s hard to visualize what a segregated society was like,” said King, now a successful attorney in his 70s. “But I can still re-create it in my mind.”
In 1960, as the civil rights movement picked up around the country, King — then a law student at Texas Southern University — was among many young people who said “enough.” He was one of a tight-knit group of TSU students who played a key part in the movement to desegregate Houston, protesting around the city and staging a series of sit-ins at area lunch counters.
On Thursday, 50 years to the day after the city’s first sit-in, 10 of those pioneers were honored in a series of ceremonies at TSU and the site of the sit-in near the university.
It wasn’t easy to be pioneers, the honorees said. The emotions pouring out Thursday showed it.
One woman wept as a historic marker was unveiled marking the site of the sit-in at 4110 Almeda, which is now a post office. In 1960, a Weingarten’s grocery store occupied the lot.
“It’s saying something has happened, that this is the fruition of the things that happened,” said Eddye Rigsby Hamilton, who helped lead the sit-in as a college student.
By March 1960, the burgeoning civil rights movement was gaining strong momentum.
In 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit on the back of a bus prompted boycotts in Montgomery, Ala. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. was delivering fiery orations and leading protests around the country. February 1960 marked the country’s first sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.
The success of the Greensboro sit-in emboldened young people at TSU to take their own action.
March to Weingarten’s
Led by a student named Eldrewey Stearns, they decided to protest at the Weingarten’s about a mile from campus. They were going to demand service at the lunch counter. Business by business, they would force Houston to desegregate.
The planning took a couple of weeks, and on March 4, 1960, 13 students gathered at a campus flagpole and made the 1-mile walk to the Weingarten’s.
Nobody was quite sure what would happen. But the students had a mission.
“It’s extremely difficult to describe my feelings,” said Deanna Lott Burrell, who was then a college junior. “I think there was uncertainty, but I also felt purposeful.”
Halcyon Sadberry Watkins, then 20 years old, remembers sitting down at the Weingarten’s counter and staring at the wall. One white man looked at her and said, “I’ll be damned.” He extinguished his cigarette in some coffee.
Other patrons insulted the protesters, but the group still stayed strong.
The successful sit-in was the catalyst for more protests throughout Houston. By the end of the year, Houston businesses were largely desegregated.
The students’ work had made a difference. Behind the scenes, business and civic leaders had been working, too, to ensure the city avoided the violence that plagued much of the South during the civil rights movement.
The civil rights pioneers say they remember the first sit-in as if it were yesterday. But still, recognition has been elusive. Thursday was the day the city said, “Thank you.”
At the sun-drenched post office, a stream of government officials paid their respects to the men and women, who are now in their 60s and 70s.
“There are very few events we can point to that changed the world,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “We’re here today to commemorate one event that changed the course of our city, irrevocably.”
After all the pomp and circumstance, Burrell took time to reflect on all she had been through and what Thursday represented.
“It’s overwhelming and affirming,” she said. “It brought up a lot of memories I didn’t even know I had. This is symbolic of all the struggles, of all the people in the movement we’ll never know.