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Dick Simpson on His Life as a Chicago Progressive

Dick Simpson has seemingly been part of the Chicago political scene forever, first as an activist but then as an alderman, political science professor and twice as an unsuccessful candidate for Congress.

The story of his political life is told in his new book “The Good Fight: Life Lessons from a Chicago Progressive.”

Simpson joins us in discussion.

Below, an excerpt from “The Good Fight.”

Chapter 1 To Change the World

A muffled bang. Flying shards of stained glass.We ducked forcover, then raced to look through the shattered window into the alley.

The pipe bomb had ricocheted off the leaded window and exploded in a stairwell below, chipping cement, knocking out bricks, and blowing shrapnel for 25 yards. The young Texans that had thrown it were long gone.

The blast in Austin that November night in 1960 shook the first planning meeting of what would eventually become part of Texas’s own civil rights movement. A few dozen of us had been meeting in the Austin Student YMCA‐YWCA to plan desegregation demonstrations. We had heard about the sit‐ins that collegestudents in other southern states were holding to integrate lunch counters. Our twist on the idea was to use stand‐ins to integrate movie theaters – first on the Drag across from campus, and eventually in the whole state.

I was new to the University of Texas, having come there only two months earlier from an unhappy freshman year at Texas A&M. I joined the student meeting because I believed in full integration – not just desegregation. I supported full equality between blacks and whites.

Like all 60s activists, we believed we could change the world. We were black, white, and undeterred by the hate we faced. Uniformly naive and idealistic, we felt immortal and a bit self‐ righteous. Our view of justice recognized no shades of gray. We were unencumbered by responsibility or worry that demonstrating could get us fired from our jobs.Wehad no children to provide for. Our parents were far away. We were invincible. We didn’t really believe that we could be killed or jailed for demonstrating for justice in segregationist Texas.

We called ourselves Students for Direct Action, SDA. Unaffiliated with other national organizations like the Southern Christian Leader Conference (SCLC), the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), or Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), we were simply the local face of the movement. Our leaders, people like Houston Wade, Casey Hayden, Chandler Davidson, and Brad Blanton, rotated from week to week. But in truth, we were all leaders. Each night, whichever SDA member arrived at the demonstrations made sure they were run nonviolently and that the classic civil rights songs, with our own verses added, were sung as we stood in line at the theaters demanding freedom for all.

At dusk each night, between 50 and 100 students, both black and white, would head out to the Texas and Varsity theaters on the Drag across from campus. It mattered not what movie was showing. Our protest line at the box office was our focus.

On nights when we had enough people, we would add another picket line curbside to let passers‐by know that this was a protest, not just a popular movie. Drivers hurled insults, threats, even beer bottles at us. Catcalls ranged from “I hate you,” to “nigger‐lovers,” to “niggers pick strange places to make love.” We were spit on, pushed into the gutter, and knocked down.

Brad Blanton, who chaired the meeting the evening of the pipe bomb, was quoted in the newspaper stories that followed. A gravelly‐voiced man called him at home a few days later: “You nigger lovin’ mother fucker, I’m going to string you up and cut your balls off.”

“Well, if you do it in that order, it won’t be so bad,” Brad coolly replied.

The theaters attempted to counter our demonstrations with tricks of their own. When we appeared, they tried closing their box offices and selling tickets just inside the door as ushers and managers guided patrons around our demonstration and into the theater. Although this was partially successful, they still lost the business of customers who were unwilling to wait in long lines or cross our picket lines, even if they didn’t agree with our efforts at integration.

When we were turned away at the box office, or at restaurants when we did sit‐ins, we left a card prepared by the University Religious Council, a broader and more established group than SDA. Local theaters and restaurants collected hundreds of these cards, thecarrotto accompany the stick of our demonstrations.

Early on, SDA adopted a “Statement of Purpose,” a manifesto to encapsulate our feelings and idealism. We declared, without apology or equivocation, that a person’s race is a totally invalid criterion of his or her worth. We declared our radical belief in total integration.

To broaden our support, SDA created a petition declaring that, after April 1, 1961, we would “attend only independent integrated theaters or integrated theaters owned by chains which are pursuing a policy of racial integration in all their affiliated theaters.”

When Eleanor Roosevelt covered our efforts in her regular newspaper column, we began to get national attention. A telegram she sent to Sandra (Casey) Cason, one of our leaders, read, “I admire so much the stand which the students at the University of Texas have taken and I particularly hope there can be a change of policy at the theater at which Sunrise at Campobello [a movie about her late husband, FDR] is playing.”

National support increased even more when Sandra, who later married Tom Hayden, convinced the Executive Committee of the National Student Association to pass a resolution commending our demonstrations and encouraging other universities to take up stand‐ins against segregated theaters.SNCC later endorsed our tactic as well.

By January of 1961, allies in other states joined with us to put nationwide pressure on the large chains that owned the Varsity and Texas theaters. By August, SDA had successfully negotiated anend to the chains’ policies of segregation. We had succeeded in integrating over 100 movie theaters across the nation all at once, years before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 passed Congress.

As for the sophomore students who had thrown the pipe bomb, they were fined $200, spent three weeks in the Travis County jail, and were later readmitted to the university.

Being part of the stand‐in movement changed all of our lives. Most of us stayed active fighting for social justice for the next sixty years. I wouldgo on to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give a version of his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech in Chicago, and help elect the first black mayor of Chicago. Saul Alinsky was right – starting our fight with a success encouraged others to join and helped us keep the faith during the trials and tribulations that followed.

From The Good Fight: Life Lessons from a Chicago Progressive, by Dick Simpson, Golden Alley Press, 2018. Used with permission.