ANALYSIS OF EVENTS SURROUNDING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO - FEBRUARY AND MARCH, 1964
The following is a report given to Antioch College President Dixon’s committee set up in April to investigate the nature of social action
First, I would like to preface my remakes by stating that I speak only for myself, and will not discuss my feelings about how other individual demonstrators conducted themselves. I take full responsibility for my actions and the actions of those whom I directed.
Secondly, some of the things that I say may seem perhaps irrelevant to some of the committee members in the beginning, but I think that if you listen, you’ll understand at least my feelings as to how they fit together. I look at the events of last quarter as an integral part of the national civil rights movement and as the growth of a local freedom movement. I do not view these events or my actions as concerning primarily Antioch College. My primary concern is for freedom. I hope that you won’t find my following remarks too cutting.
Let me summarize the events which brought about the March 14th demonstration.
After the Court of Appeals reversal had been handed down, making Gegner’s discrimination clearly illegal, my attitude and the position of ACRE began to change, in the direction of what might be called greater sophistication.
After repeated refusals by local government to enforce justice, we began to focus not merely on barber Lewis Gegner, but on the causes and reasons for his continued defiance of human rights. Thus we attacked those elements of the “establishment” that indirectly or openly supported Gegner as a bastion of segregation in Southwestern Ohio. (By the “establishment,” I refer to influential businessmen and and other influential members of the power structure as well as the local government).
To give a couple of examples, our attack was partially directed against county Prosecutor Marshall Peterson (we picketed the courthouse in this matter, because of his refusal to accept affidavits of discrimination in violation of the state law), and partially against the Yellow Springs Village Council which at a closed meeting had decided not to prosecute its own ordinance, dumping its
responsibility in the hands of one Negro citizen, Otha Nixon. We asked Council to reverse itself, and Council unanimously refused.
As our focus gained scope, the movement grew. Increasing numbers of indignant citizens concerned about justice joined us in our picketing, demands for haircuts, and demands for enforcement of the law.
Another aspect of our actions was directed against the local merchants, some of whom had perhaps actively supported Gegner, but all of whom tacitly contributed to his inaction by their silence. The picket lines that poured ever in front of other businesses than Gegner’s were at least partly calculated by us as a catalyst to arouse the concern of the merchants. (Incidentally, the bank, on the other side of the street and probably least affected by our action of all the downtown businesses, played a very curious role in its complaints to the police, not about Gegner’s illegality, but about us; the bank’s later aid to Gegner in asking for the injunction and its conspicuous abstention when BOYS [Business Organizations of Yellow Springs] asked for the injunction’s removal are even more curious.)
I bring up what you may perhaps view as unimportant details only to demonstrate the role of the power structure, the responsibility that the power structure must share in the events of March 14th, and ACRE’s reaction to the power structure. In a small college town, the college too is inevitably an important part of the power structure, and I shall shortly demonstrate its role.
To continue, the events following the March 7th demonstration are extremely interesting. Our March 7th demonstration was, according to Police Chief McKee, lawful and orderly, and it was newsworthy only in terms of numbers participating. We had a wide base of popular support from individual Negroes and from civil rights groups from Dayton, Cincinnati, Wittenburg Univ., Wilberforce and Central State College. As in most militant civil rights movements, the number of white liberals had dwindled and the number of Negroes had mushroomed.
Such widespread support was apparently used as an excuse for a strange provincialism. White liberals as well as conservatives told us that Yellow Springs could handle its own problems, and there was no need for outsiders. This failure to recognize racial injustice as a national problem has been characteristic of the South. But Rep. Clarence Brown and Rep. Colmer of Mississippi pointed out on the floor of the United States Congress that Ohio and Mississippi have this provincialism in common (“All the trouble is caused by outsiders.”) [Quoted from the Antiochian; a discussion of Gegner’s by the above Congressmen from the Congressional Record]
Following the March 7th demonstration, Gegner asked for an injunction with the support of the attorney who also represents BOYS (Business Organizations of Yellow Springs). The injunction came on March 13th, and I believe that its timing was partly calculated to prevent the demonstration that we had been planning since March 8th, to occur on Mar. 14th. It is especially relevant that the attorney for BOYS (who later denied, as far a I understand, that he represented anyone) helped push for the injunction at this time, when it had been made public that our next demonstration might be two or three times the size of the previous one - large enough to disturb that many more merchants.
Also significant in the request for the injunction is that the fact that Philip Aultman, attorney for the village of Yellow Springs, told the judge that the demonstrations must stop, according to the transcript of the hearing for request for the injunction. A reading of the transcript reveals that the village, the merchants and the county had all squeaked into motion in support of an attempt to prevent peaceable assembly. The power structure had joined hands in a collusion to protect Gegner from law enforcement and legal demonstrations.
We first heard of the injunction on Friday afternoon before our previously planned Saturday demonstration. It is my personal determination almost immediately after hearing the injunction’s terms that I could not submit to a ruling so blatant in its attempt to temporarily perpetuate Gegner’s racist practices. Those who had taken part in the previous demonstration and planned to take part again this week understood the nature of the injunctive process. Let me point out that the injunction has been used from Mississippi to Cleveland, from California to Harlem, New York, to protect the status quo and prevent the achievement of human equality; knowledgeable people living in 1964 cannot fail to realize this fact.
Friday night, mar 13th, the opinion of a civil rights lawyer in whom I have utmost confidence corroborated ACRE’s opinion that the injunction was legally absurd - the whole world could not be enjoined not to peaceably assemble. Breaking such an injunction would not be in any way illegal, although groundless arrests would probably be made.
Because we could not all assemble earlier, we were forced to wait until Saturday morning to make our final decision whether to break the injunction or to allow human rights to be trampled upon.
Saturday, we met, read the injunction, discussed its implications, and came to the conclusion that it could not stop our movement. We discussed the strong probability that arrests would be made, with perhaps no source of bail for a few days and possible heavy fines. We decided not to permit prison bars to deter us, and we planned the details of the demonstration. We would march downtown, as planned before the injunction had been issued, we would remain silent until reaching the barber shop, and in the tradition of the non-violent movement, those of us who felt so inclined would refuse to walk to police cars, forcing the police to carry us away. We would sit down and lock arms, as has often been done in many similar demonstrations; furthermore, we mentioned the advantage of sitting in front of police cars if possible. We then reiterated CORE rules for non-violent action and marched downtown.
I won’t here dwell on the chronology of the events downtown - the unannounced tear gas, the instances of police brutality, and the riot act - except to make some often neglected points about the crowd (I’ll answer questions later concerning the detailed events).
First of all, many bystanders, outraged by the police actions, joined us (if they managed to escape arrest before joining). Behavior of bystanders was generally neutral or anti-police, excluding such exceptions as the Antioch students who announced over the police loudspeaker that we should disperse or be sprinkled by hoses.
Second, I want to state that I was really proud of the discipline of the sitters-down. I was there until the end, and it indeed took discipline to remain orderly in the face of the mob action by the goon squads and took fortitude to remain present at all in the face of tear gas and nightsticks. I know of no instance in which a demonstrator struck a cop (of course I reserve my private opinion as to whether the cops deserved to be struck.) But I am told that some bystanders did pummel some of the cops when pushed. I’ve seen and heard of many civil rights demonstrations in which the police were incompetent but never have I seen them so totally inept at separating the onlookers from the demonstrators (excluding instances of anti-demonstration mobs deliberately left to maul demonstrators). In this case, the cops made the dirty work many times harder for them by constantly have to push through the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of spectators. The standing spectators were clearly distinguishable from the sitting demonstrators, and it would have been a simple matter
for the police to draw a cordon around those of us who were sitting.
By potluck, I was never arrested. Regarding events after the arrests, I have two types of comment.
(1) The demonstration was gratifyingly successful, and I judge an action by its results. The injunction was abolished, as it would not have been if we had merely request its abolition on Monday. The students were released largely without bail. Gegner closed and agreed to comply with the law in the future. Some business organizations finally realized that they had to push for an end to discrimination rather than an end to the civil rights movement, since the latter will simply not occur. Meanwhile, townspeople interested in civil rights were organizing and moving, forcing the inept and recalcitrant Council to take some pitifully microscopic steps in the appropriate direction. Central State was in the movement as never before. An lastly, the eyes of many people were opened; for instance, the Antioch faculty member who said, “I have always read about police brutality and never entirely believed it. But now that I’ve seen it in Yellow Springs, I know how bad it must be everywhere else. I now know that the police are nothing but goon squads for men with property.”
(2) Yes, many eyes were opened, but I was quite disappointed in many segments of the Antioch community. Many community members, unable to find fault with the results of our action, instead turned to criticizing the “decision-making process” by which our successful actions were decided. This misguided criticism, ladies and gentlemen, is, I believe, a major reason why you are, sitting in judgment of the “decision-making process.”
Dr. Dixon has in a sense prejudged ACRE’s action by stating before his advisory committee could arrive at any conclusions that the “decision-making process,” if the Record correctly quotes him, was “sorely tested” last quarter.
I contend that the mixed community reaction to ACRE is not merely an intellectual concern with decision-making. The content of a decision is as important as the process. Hitler may have become the Fuehrer by an appropriate “process”, and the American revolution undoubtedly “appealed to emotions” and was not entirely “democratic” in its thrust for freedom.
The administration reacted on two levels. Dr. Dixon appeared a strong defender of civil liberties in a television interview program, but he had previously made the unfortunate public statement printed in the Dayton Journal-Herald of Mon., Mar. 10th that the tenure of all participants in the previous Saturday
demonstration would be reviewed. I believe that it was the peculiarity of events, not the process by which decisions were made, that motivated Dr. Dixon in his public statements. Similarly, it was the flow of rapid events that caused J.D. Dawson to state Saturday night that any Sunday demonstration anywhere off of campus, no matter how peaceful, would result in automatic suspension of students (personal communication). Mr. Dawson later thought better of his threat, but he had been merely reacting to the situation. Nevertheless, his statements did result in intimidation of some students who otherwise might have joined the 1,5000 Central State and Wilberforce students and the thirty Antiochians in Xenia. Community Manager Steve Perry’s untimely public denial of the fact of police brutality may also have dissuaded some possible participants.
Additional disappointing reactions, from silence to belligerence, came from most of the faculty. ACRE was even informed by one faculty member that another faculty member had approached him and asked him to sign a petition demanding the expulsion of participants in the Saturday events.
I use the above specifics to illustrate a point that I made earlier - that the college, too, is a part of the power structure, and it should be remembered that college personnel, especially administrators, reacted like parts of the power structure - concerned about preserving academic freedom and civil liberties, but also afraid that a violent upset of the status quo might somehow upset the institution. For those reasons, the college did not condemn the police brutality and did not stand as firmly in defense of freedom as we might wish.
This possible necessarily ambiguous position of the college must be understood by this committee. But both this committee and the college as a whole must understand, appreciate and accept as realities the tactics of the militant civil rights movement. The present militancy is here to stay, but Antioch as a unique institution may not be. If Antioch does not wish to be submerged in the morass of “typical” American colleges, them we must insure student civil liberties in this era of action. Regardless of the educational value of social action, people take part because the believe in its social value - because they have confictions. The decision-making “process” is best left to those with the convictions to make the decisions to act, and a hands-off policy for Antioch as an institution would be wisest and most just.
Signed - Joel Aber