The Uncivil Fight for Rights
By the time Ken Blackwell returned from Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta in early April 1968, the worst of the riots in Cincinnati were over.
Two people died during the melee on April 8, and the National Guard was called in to restore order. Still, anger hung in the air like a combustible fog and it would only take a small spark to reignite the whole thing.
Blackwell was a sophomore at Xavier at the time, as well as a volunteer for a local community agency. Realizing the delicacy of the situation, he chose to skip class and go into the streets to keep an eye on both protesters and police. As he was standing at his post, a nationally broadcast speech by activist Stokely Carmichael provided that spark and a surge of protesters washed down Rockdale Avenue toward Blackwell. Before he could react, he was swept along by the crowd and taken to jail with the mob.
Watch: 1995 Urban League conversation with Civil Rights leaders
As he was being released from the holding pen, Blackwell marveled at the irony of the moment, of how just two days earlier he was marching peacefully behind the casket of the assassinated leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Xavier administrators had sent him and three other black students to the funeral as a delegation from Xavier. It was a significant and meaningful gesture by the University that it was recognizing race relations. The Civil Rights Movement had been underway for a decade, mostly fought in the hot cities of the South, but had found its way even onto the mostly white Xavier campus. Though hardly a hotbed of radicalism, Xavier had its share of activist students who wanted to shake things up—even in the early days of the movement. They formed student groups, held protests, joined community boycotts, wrote editorials. They stuck their necks out, took risks, challenged authority. Some even went to jail.
Most of these students finished their degrees. Some did not. But in the end, their actions on and off campus succeeded in making Xavier a better, more open place for the students who came after them. Today, as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, their legacy still reverberates. Here are a few of their stories.
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FREEDOM RIDER On a hot Friday in July 1961, young Bill Hansen boards a Greyhound bus with seven other riders and settles in for the three-hour trip to Jackson, Miss. They sit in the back—whites and blacks together.
Hansen, a white Xavier student whose civil rights activism in Cincinnati has drawn the attention of the national leaders of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, is scared to death. The group has brought him to Montgomery, Ala., to join the throngs of Freedom Riders who are riding buses across the South to converge on Jackson, where they are routinely rounded up and jailed in their efforts to integrate the stations.
Images of a burning bus and riders being beaten keep playing in his head as they get closer to Jackson. There are a few others on the bus. Hansen learns later they’re undercover police assigned to protect them. And for good reason. As they pull into Meridian, Miss., he sees a mob of people packed into the town square. He stays in his seat, studying the angry faces through the window.
At 6:00 p.m., the bus pulls into Jackson. This time, there are no crowds. The driver lets the Freedom Riders off first. They file quietly into the whites-only waiting area. Twice, police tell them to move. When they refuse, they’re arrested and jailed. At trial, they’re convicted in minutes. When they refuse to pay their fines, they’re taken by paddy wagon to the state prison at Parchman Farm. Hansen’s sentence is six months.
Hansen was no stranger to jail. The first time he was arrested was when he and his roommate, a Xavier student from the Bahamas, went to look at a place in an upscale neighborhood of white homeowners near campus. When the landlord saw the two students standing there—one white, one black—he quickly tried to shut the door. But Hansen was ready. He stuck his foot in the door and refused to budge. The landlord called the police and the students were arrested. Two hours later, they were out.
They didn’t get the apartment, but the experience made its mark on Hansen. “It was the beginning of a long career,” he says.
Hansen’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement began when he came to Xavier in 1957 and met two people who would change his life—William Mason, a fellow student who was black, and David F. McCarthy, S.J., a progressively minded theology professor.
Because of them, Hansen began to ask questions. “My social focus began to change, and I began to think about race,” he says, including the racist views of his family’s all-white community. McCarthy helped them start the Xavier Interracial Council—the first race-oriented group on campus. The most important thing it accomplished was to convince the dean of students to post a list of approved landlords who would rent to blacks.
Hansen soon became involved with the local NAACP and CORE. They picketed Woolworth’s and boycotted Coca Cola. In May 1961, they took on Coney Island amusement park, where the pool remained whites-only. Hansen and Mason joined the protest group that refused to leave when the blacks were refused admission. Three times, they were arrested, and within a few weeks, the park opened the pool to blacks. They had won, but by then, Hansen had become a Freedom Rider and was soon heading to Parchman Farm, one of the most notoriously brutal prisons in the South.
At Parchman, blacks and whites are segregated in separate cells. When Hansen complains, he’s placed in isolation with no bed. For four days, he sleeps on the concrete floor. When he’s let out, he complains again and lands in isolation for three more weeks. Finally, after 43 days, he’s freed.
Hansen was one of more than 300 Freedom Riders to serve time at Parchman. But by then he was broke, so he withdrew from Xavier and went to work as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was beaten several times, including by a jail guard in Albany, Ga., suffering a broken jaw, broken ribs and broken teeth. But he kept working for the cause, spending most of the next 10 years in Little Rock, Ark., where his marriage to a black woman caused a stir and threats of arrest. Eventually Hansen—and the movement—ran out of steam. He left for Europe, earned a master’s at the University of Maryland and studied toward a doctorate at Boston University. He’s been teaching at the American University of Nigeria since 2005.
Looking back, Hansen feels indebted to Xavier. It’s where he met the first black people he’d ever known and was awakened to the injustice that stirred his activism. He believes he made a difference. “I wish I had finished at Xavier, but at the same time, I don’t regret doing what I did,” Hansen says. “It was something that needed to be done.”
• • •
FREEDOM SUMMER Shortly after his last exam, Joe Meissner hops on a Greyhound bus and heads for Birmingham, Ala. It’s May 1963, and the city is the hot spot for lunch counter sit-ins and demonstrations.
He’s been debating the events with other students at Marion Hall, Xavier’s off-campus residence for its brightest honors students. Sheriff Bull Connor has been unleashing dogs and fire hoses on black people who want to order burgers and milkshakes with the rest of Birmingham’s residents, and Meissner wants to see it firsthand. He takes a room at the local YMCA and stays a week, interviewing people and writing about what he learns. He goes to meetings at the headquarters of the movement’s new leader, Martin Luther King Jr., takes pictures, attends church rallies. When King delivers a speech urging the people not to take to the streets again, Meissner is there, in the back row of the church, the lone white face in the crowd. “Dr. King was saying we would not break our pledges, and I was thinking, boy he’s got a hard speech to give. It’s not what people were expecting. They wanted to go back out and he was saying, no, we would get [city officials] to honor their agreements,” Meissner says.
A week later, he returns to campus in time to give the valedictorian speech, in which he talks about witnessing King’s theory of passive resistance. “I included what I saw going on in Birmingham,” he says. “I came back and told people about it.”
Meissner reveled in the political and philosophical debates in Marion Hall. They stoked his interest in the social issues of the day—Korea, Communism, civil rights—but the issues of segregation and poverty left him deeply troubled. As president of the student body, he pushed for change. By the time he’s ready to graduate in May 1963 with an Honors Bachelor of Arts, he is primed to do battle, or at least to do good.
He returns to Alabama the next summer after a year at Harvard Law School. This time, he’s in Mobile with a group of law students working on voter registration and desegregation issues. The work is performed against a backdrop of violent resistance to change throughout the South. The Freedom Riders of 1961 ended their campaign to desegregate the bus system, and now during Freedom Summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Movement is focused on helping blacks exercise their right to vote.
One of the most violent events of the movement—the murders of three young civil rights workers—takes place that June in Mississippi, one state over. On July 2, 1964, shortly after their disappearance, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law.
Despite the tensions, young people like Meissner throw themselves into the tedious work of going door to door, to homes and shops, churches and offices, to register voters and monitor desegregation efforts in both Alabama and Mississippi. He is assigned the job of testing public places to see if they’re following integration laws.
Meissner finds himself on a golf course one day with three black men. They play a round without incident. But he can’t stop wondering what has happened to the three civil rights workers who are still missing. In August, he learns their bodies are discovered buried in an earthen dam.
Meissner is so affected by the experience that he devotes his life to working for the poor as a Legal Aid attorney in Cleveland. “I wanted to be a lawyer because I had ideas of making the world better,” he says.
• • •
TOUGALOO Just before Christmas in 1963, Rudolph Hasl and a handful of Xavier students climb into his car and head south toward Jackson, Miss. They’re going to get an education about the South and the state of race relations at Tougaloo Southern Christian College.
The city is at the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and the historically black college is the movement’s focal point in Jackson.
Hasl is a senior Honors Bachelor of Arts student. He’s also president of the Student Council and is focused on waking up the student body to the social and racial issues fracturing the South. At the end of the 700-mile drive through Kentucky and Tennessee—before the days of interstate highways—is a college brimming with activity and civil rights leaders.
Tougaloo students, including English major Jerry Ward, open their dorm rooms to the Xavier students. Hasl and his colleagues spend a week interviewing students and community activists about the Civil Rights Movement. Hasl pulls out his tape recorder and records all the interviews—including one he gets with Ross Barnett, the Mississippi governor renowned for his racist rants and defense of segregation.
Then Hasl invites Barnett to speak at Xavier. Barnett accepts. “I thought, What better way to reveal the attitude that was reflected in his policies than to bring him to Xavier and let him reveal what was motivating him?”
But Xavier administrators don’t quite see it that way. By the time school starts back up in January 1964, Dean Patrick Ratterman, S.J., notifies Hasl that Barnett won’t be allowed to address the student body because, as he tells The Xavier News, his position on segregation is un-American, anti-Christian and “basically immoral.”
The campus erupts when word gets out. The Xavier News reports that about 200 students carrying signs march down University Drive and give speeches decrying the decision. A red swastika is painted on the guard shack and an explosive device is tossed on Ratterman’s lawn.
“They were unwilling to have the University exposed to the attitudes expressed by Ross Barnett,” Hasl says. “He was a very controversial figure and was very much a focal point for anti-integration efforts.”
A month later, Tougaloo sends Ward and three other Tougaloo students to Xavier. Ward, who became an English professor at Tougaloo, finds most Xavier students are apathetic to the racial issues of the day. But Hasl and his group of council members are the exception. They were curious enough and courageous enough to go into the volatile South, where black students had to think twice before leaving campus.
“You knew these were people making tremendous sacrifices so you could have the rights you were being denied,” Ward says.
• • •
EVICTION NOTICE The eviction notice arrived about three weeks after Alvin Gay moved into the Cleneay Avenue house with roommate and running mate Gene Beaupre. He’s disappointed but not surprised.
Together, the two of them succeeded in being the first mixed-race ticket to ever win election as president and vice president of Xavier’s student body. After three years of working personally for racial equality on Xavier’s campus, Gay thought they would be beyond this kind of racism.
Gay arrived at Xavier in 1965 from Dayton, Ohio, one of a handful of blacks on campus. He stepped immediately into leadership positions, getting elected president of his freshman and sophomore classes, organizing forums to discuss issues of race and joining groups like the Organization for Interracial Awareness. He helped found the Afro American Student Association and worked as a summer intern in Washington, D.C., for Congressman John Gilligan. He put himself out there to try to change things and felt a level of success when he and Beaupre were elected.
But he also suffered for it, drawing attention from some people who just weren’t ready for the kind of change he was advocating. One white student in particular became his nemesis, blurting racist expletives at him at every turn, threatening him on the intramural football field, goading him to fight. When King was killed in April 1968, the student, a member of the football team, confronted Gay in the elevator. “I’m glad they killed that n—er,” he said, leaning into Gay’s face.
As usual, Gay ignored the taunt and walked away. So when their landlord wanted them out because he learned that Gay was black, Gay paid little attention. He was used to such treatment, though he thought that Cincinnati—and Xavier—should be past all that. Beaupre was not. He picked up the phone and dialed the landlord.
“You don’t really want to do that,” said Beaupre, now Xavier’s director for government relations.
“Because he’s the vice president of the student body, and if you do, you’ll have 50 students protesting on your front lawn.”
The issue never came up again. But the racism that dogged Gay all his life was never far off. Then, in the spring of his senior year at Xavier, something unusual happened. Gay went to Dana’s with friends and saw across the bar the student who so mindlessly harassed him since he set foot on campus. The student got up and headed his way. Gay told his friends there was no way he could avoid the confrontation, not this time. He expected the worst and steeled himself for a fight.
The student came up to the bar and, instead of taking a punch at Gay, said, “You know, we tried to hurt you on the football field and you hurt us instead. I admire that. But I still hate n–gers.” He then walked away.
Gay was incredulous. For that young man, so full of hate, to come up and show respect to him, albeit while still clinging to his racist identity, took a lot of courage. For Gay, it was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Gay often felt caught between two worlds at Xavier, finding it difficult to be an effective black leader of a nearly all-white student body. “I was between a rock and a hard place, not being black enough and being too black for whites,” he says. “I was in no-man’s land.”
Gay went to Santa Clara University that winter for a student government conference and fell in love with everything—the weather, the people, the progressive environment, the absence of racism. He transferred in the spring, grew an afro and a beard and became a spokesman for race issues at Santa Clara. He graduated in 1970.
But he holds no bitterness for Xavier, where he counted many students and faculty as friends. “If I made a difference at Xavier, it would have been with the people I knew or with that racist in an odd kind of way. For him to do that in the bar was amazing. Maybe I helped people understand we put our shoes on the same way, and there are cultural differences, but we’re smart people and we’re dumb people just like you.”
• • •
THE POWER OF THE PEN Deep in his heart, Mike Henson knew he was through with marching band. He wanted to become involved in something more important, something that would make life better for people.
He saw the social changes happening all around him—marches, protests, black people being arrested—and it triggered in him a sense of social justice. He wanted to help. Coming in from the farm fields of Sidney, Ohio, just north of Dayton, Henson was wowed by what was, for him, the big city of Cincinnati. As he drove by the Taft Theater while visiting a friend at Xavier, he recognized the name on the marquee—Bob Dylan—and decided right then that he had to go to Xavier. “I thought it was pronounced ‘Die-lan’,” he says with a laugh. But standing at practice on Xavier’s football field early in his freshman year, he realized he wanted to be a writer. So he traded in his trombone for a job as a reporter on the student newspaper, The Xavier News, and over the next four years, worked his way through every writing and editing job available. “It was very exciting,” he says. “The injustices were so glaring and the heroes so engaging that it was just the place to be.” Henson made sure the paper promoted the social issues of the day, particularly the civil rights movement. His editorials excoriated white students to get more involved in the issues, and he made sure the paper covered all related events and speakers, beginning in 1966 with the young civil rights activist Julian Bond, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bill Hansen, the former Xavier student and Freedom Rider, accompanied Bond to Xavier and gave Henson a short interview. Henson wrote about Bond’s speech, a lengthy recounting of the movement up to that time. But he was more inspired by Bill Hansen’s indignation over Xavier’s handling of its appearance at the segregated Sugar Bowl basketball tournament in 1962. It triggered his first editorial in which he said the University must be “aware and respectful of all people.” “I was so inspired because I wanted to live a heroic life and that’s what heroes were doing at the time—standing up. This was something I wanted to be a part of,” he says. His big chance came when activists in Cincinnati staged a boycott of Hudepohl, claiming the beer company discriminated against blacks. So Henson pulled an ad the beer company had paid for—“I just didn’t run it,” he says. “Our faculty advisor was in charge of selling ads, and he was apoplectic.” After graduating with an English degree in 1969, Henson earned a master’s in English at the University of Chicago and spent a lifetime serving the Appalachian community in Cincinnati as a longtime employee of the Urban Appalachian Council and working as a drug and alcohol counselor. He still finds time to play music and write and has published three novels and four collections of poems. “I focused on Appalachian migrants living in poverty and being discriminated against in in ways similar to blacks,” he says. “That’s the channel I’ve gone down.”
• • •
ANDY WARHOL AND XAVIER Jack Goger is asleep in his dorm room when he’s awakened by a knock on the door. The dean of men bursts in. “Mr. Goger,” he says. “You’re going to have tell these people they can’t come.”
“These people” are pop artist and film-maker Andy Warhol and his entourage. Goger knows it’s too late to stop them. He tells the dean they’re already on a plane from New York. But Patrick Nally says, “You can’t have them, not after that film.” It’s April 1968, and Goger, who’s in charge of the speaker’s bureau for student government, has arranged for Warhol to show two of his underground films and appear in person. Administrators had previewed one of the films, which involved homosexual themes and nudity, and want to cancel the event. Who knows what the other film contains? But Warhol is on his way.
Watch: Video of the Warhol protest on campus
The dean insists on riding with Goger to meet Warhol at the airport and tell him he can’t show the film. The message doesn’t sit too well with Warhol or his assistant, Paul Morrissey, and superstar actress Viva. They aren’t shy about letting the dean know how inconvenienced they are coming all this way for nothing. By the time they get to Xavier, the situation has gotten worse. News of the cancelation has gotten around campus, and the Students for a Democratic Society are picketing. One of the professors persuades the administration to let the film be shown and he will moderate the discussion afterward. It turns out to be an anti-war film that takes on the American government. Afterward, students challenge the film as anti-American, but Warhol and Morrissey reply that they only make the films to make money. It isn’t much of a debate. “It was standing-room only,” Goger says. “Everyone turned out to see the great debate and at the end of the day, it was a great experience for everyone. It was a wonderful night. I’ll never forget it.” Goger, who graduated in 1969, was one of Al Gay’s best friends at Xavier and understood the importance of the movement. Now a judge in Atlanta, Goger tried to shake things up by bringing in activists who weren’t quite as controversial but had more to do with civil rights than Warhol. In 1969, he landed James Farmer, a founding leader of CORE, which had spearheaded the Freedom Riders in 1961, and Dick Gregory, the comedian-turned-activist. Both drew large crowds. “Farmer was the most articulate guy I’d ever heard,” Goger says. “He had an edge to him.” But Gregory’s speech “was absolutely electrifying. He was really into the war thing. What did resonate at Xavier was the war more so than civil rights. Those issues sort of blended together. Both involved government and oppressive policies and society issues. It was all there.”