MLK at East Texas State University (1967-1968)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never visited Commerce, Texas, a relatively isolated, university town an hour east of Dallas that’s home to ETSU which did not desegregate until 1964.  Even so, MLK’s presence was felt throughout this community, just as it was everywhere else across the nation and, indeed, the world.

Almost immediately after the first African American students set foot on this campus, MLK’s message began making its way across the community in unprecedented ways. Black students joined together and (often) alongside white allies to push back against ongoing injustice and demand change.

John Carlos (ETSU, 1966-1967) and Joe Tave (ETSU, 1965-1969) were leaders in this fight, bringing Dr. King’s message of racial justice forward in an attempt to disrupt the everyday racism that continued to persist most everywhere across the Jim Crow South. Carlos–the sprinter from Harlem, NY, best known for his part in the Silent Protest at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968–was first introduced to racism in the South while on our campus. Carlos often called his friend Joe Tave “the MLK of East Texas,” noting the ways Tave’s approach differed from his own, which Carlos saw as deeply informed by Malcolm X. Tave, a political science major from a segregated community in the area, was used to the legacy of Jim Crow. His being “used to” race relations like these, however, does not mean he was willing to let them continue. Quite the opposite. Like Carlos, Tave had already spent most of his young life leading social justice efforts. They fought, and each fight had consequences. The won some. They lost many. But though they weren’t able to meet every goal they set, they did end up changing our community in ways that enabled future social justice efforts unlike the town had ever seen.

Just as the MLK and the Civil Rights Movement he helped lead set the stage for unprecedented change across the nation, those who carried his message into local contexts helped pave the way for others to make a difference. We remember and celebrate them now alongside MLK himself.

Connections across Time and Space

The connections between MLK and ETSU are more than philosophical, however.

1. On the very night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, Joe Tave (ETSU 1965-1969) helped establish the Afro American Students Society of East Texas (ASSET), a group that would help usher in significant reform like the hiring of the first African American faculty and administrators, fair and equal housing and employment opportunities, and the creation of courses in African American studies.

2. Ten days before that, John Carlos (ETSU 1966-1967) was meeting Dr. King, Dr. Harry Edwards, and others in New York to discuss his part in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a movement he first heard about when he was on our campus a few months earlier. That fall, OPHR had been featured in his favorite sports magazine. He immediately sought ways to make use of the public forum provided by his athletic prowess  to call attention to ongoing injustices witnessed locally and across the state. Picking up that magazine at our local post office, feeling almost defeated by the injustices experienced and witnessed across our campus and what appeared to be the complete unwillingness of many of his fellow students to stand up and fight with him . . . it must have been particularly empowering. As he notes in a recent interview, “I was reading that at the same time I was living that in terms of social issues at the time. I was living that at East Texas State University (Kojo, 2011).

The timeline, then, reads this way:

1964: ETSU becomes one of the last two public colleges in Texas to desegregate

1965: Joe Tave transfers from Wiley College, an all-black Liberal Arts college in East Texas

1966: John Carlos joins the ETSU track team, bringing his wife and two-year-old daughter from their hometown of Harlem, the only place they’d ever lived

1967: Carlos reads about OPHR, begins speaking with local papers about ongoing racism. Local resistance is acute. More on that below.

1968: Carlos and his family return to Harlem. He meets with Dr. King and others about OPHR. See Dr. Carlos’s story of this meeting in the most recent issue of the San Francisco Bay View

April 1968: Dr. King is assassinated in Memphis, TN. Tave helps create ASSET. Organizes MLK march and series of public speeches in his honor.

May 1968: Tave brings ASSET’s “Declaration of Rights” to campus administrators and requests action. Leads to a series of campus-wide surveys, meetings, and related activities. Meets with president multiple times. Leads to the president’s campus-wide address and, within a few short months, all demands listed are met. More on all of that below.

October 1968: Carlos stands alongside Smith and Norman in Silent Protest at the Mexico City Olympics

How’s that for powerful links?

Video

In a remix entitled “A Clear Channel” (above), we feature Carlos and Tave and the stories noted above. The video itself begins with MLK’s statement concerning the promise of civil rights legislation: “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (King, Stride).

Of course proximity alone did not solve racism in America.[i] Desegregation at our local university thus serves as a useful starting point for a study of communication across difference. To introduce both the local landscape and its global context, the remix juxtaposes local artifacts alongside these national/international materials.

Especially important to our analysis are the tensions surrounding the civil rights movement most traditionally represented in sentiments like that offered in the MLK quote that opens the remix and rhetoric of collective action that emerged, in part, as a response to the increasing frustration with the many unfulfilled promises of civil rights legislation. Our remix takes this tension into one local context, teasing apart the critical race narratives embodied in local attempts to disrupt the racism that persists in everyday life across the nation (Omi; Williams; Delgado; Crenshaw; Bell).

View this 18-minute remix here:

[i] On this point, critical race theorists like those cited throughout RRT are in nearly complete agreement. RRT draws extensively from CRT.

MLK is murdered. Students Respond. 

John Carlos on MLK (from San Francisco Bay View):

Introduction: John Carlos is best known as the man who, along with Tommie Smith, raised a clenched fist – the Black Power salute – on the medal stand after the 200 meter race. Carlos took bronze, and Smith gold, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But that moment was a culmination of months of political discussion among black leaders in America. One such discussion happened in early 1968 in New York City. Carlos explains, in a section excerpted from “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World,” written with Dave Zirin.

“I recall going down to the Americano that evening, walking into the lobby and being just overwhelmed by the size of it all. [more]

Joe Tave on MLK (from Carter and Dent):

THE BLACK STUDENTS OF EAST TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY have been discriminated against in several areas of the University community. That among these areas are: off campus housing, on campus housing, university employment, and university organizations.

–Afro-American Student Society of East Texas, “Declaration of Rights” (May 7, 1968)

 You are all aware that your President did receive and accept a Declaration of Rights presented by the newly formed Afro-American Student Society. . . . I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter with you in person in order that we may avoid any possible misunderstanding.

–President D. Whitney Halladay, “Statement Before the Student Senate” (May 15, 1968)

Within hours of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on the evening of April 4, 1968, Joe Tave began drafting the first of many interrelated documents designed to challenge racial discrimination persisting across his rural university town, which had desegregated only four years earlier. Tave, one of East Texas State University’s (ET) increasingly numerous and vocal African American students, did not plan to establish the Afro-American Student Society of East Texas (ASSET) that night. In fact, just a few hours earlier, he had planned to spend the evening holed up in his dorm room, memorizing notes for a test the next day. “I wanted an education,” Tave explained in a recent interview. “That was always my priority.” However, he also wanted justice, and that desire increasingly required this quiet, studious, and intense young man to take on leadership roles. “I dedicate my life to the betterment of human . . . life,” Tave wrote in his scrapbook in the winter of 1968, “with a great deal of favoritism for the black man and all who fall within his sphere of plights” (“Dedication”).

When the phone rang and a friend delivered the terrible news of King’s assassination, that same dedication caused Tave to drop everything and attend the meeting. As he recalls, “I was angry and hurt. We all were. …[Everywhere] people were crying and sobbing and looking” to one another for answers. Soon, however, his tears gave way to frustration. “Finally, I just stood up and said, ‘What in the hell’s it gonna be?’ I was angry—at the lack of leadership, at the lack of commitment, at just being lost.” If the ability to organize for social justice died alongside King on the balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, he would just return to his dorm room and his studies. He had a test the next day and a degree to obtain, the latter of which had been his primary goal since he first transferred to the newly desegregated ET from an area black liberal arts college.

“Joe’s right,” someone said at that meeting, likewise frustrated by the lack of action and determined to make something happen. Almost immediately, ASSET was established. Before he returned to his dorm, Tave had been elected president. Soon thereafter, he wrote the “Declaration of Rights,” a set of fourteen student rights that representatives argued had been violated by ET’s racist policies and practices. Within a few weeks, this document was ratified by ASSET, signed by many of the campus’s African American students, and delivered to President Halladay, who responded with a public “Statement Before the Student Senate.”[i]

A little over a month after that impromptu meeting he almost didn’t attend, the texts written by Tave and other ASSET representatives and circulated across the campus began to transform the local community, setting in motion a series of key hires and curricular, policy, and community changes that significantly altered future access to local public spaces for area African American citizens. That access remained limited, irregular, and excruciatingly temporary but nonetheless meaningful—to local citizens decades ago, of course, but to us today as well.

 


[i] Later that summer, Halladay would mimeograph the ASSET demands and his own public response, package them together with a letter expressing satisfaction and circulate to campus administrators, and politicians everywhere. In the final section, we return to this aspect of the literacy scene as captured in the formal archives.

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