Civil rights came slowly, softly to Colorado Springs

by Rosemary Harris/Gazette, Colorado Springs, CO

Somebody said the civil rights movement passed Colorado Springs by.
Somebody said people tolerated injustice here. That they stood by and watched inequity. That they felt the pain of discrimination -- and learned to live with the ache.

History tells me differently.

I've heard the history now. From the lips of those who lived it, like Tuskegee Airman and Realtor Samuel C. Hunter, retired nurse Alice McAdams Morgan, and pioneering civil service supervisor Lulu Stroud Pollard.

I've read it in books, like John Stokes Holley's ``The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region.'' I've seen it for myself in copies of ``The Tiger,'' the old Colorado College newspaper, which told me of a time when 500 black and white citizens marched to protest the killing of four little girls in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Of a time when James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality came to organize. Of a time when Peter, Paul and Mary came to sing their social protest songs.

I know there was a movement in the Pikes Peak region. Not the kind of political or social movement you might imagine.

No burning. No looting. No violence.

But, yes Lord, there was a movement.

It goes back. Back before the '50s and early '60s when black and white citizens in many U.S. cities began to push for equality in housing, jobs, public accommodations and education. Back before a brave NAACP secretary named Rosa Parks sat down in the front of a bus in Alabama. Before students sat down at those lunch counters in places like Jackson, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla. Before a Georgia preacher's son with a royal name became a household name.

Back before all that, Juanita Hairston made a name -- and helped start a movement. Mrs. Hairston had been a teacher and dentist's wife in her native Oklahoma. But 1944 found her in Colorado Springs, renting rooms in her house, and working as a cook at the downtown Walgreen's.

On April 1, 1944, she, her nephew, and a roomer in her home went downtown to see the midnight show at the Ute Theatre.

All they wanted to do that night was see ``Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.''

But it was time for a movement. And Mrs. Hairston wanted to see that movie on the main floor. Not in the balcony. Not in the seats reserved for black patrons.

She started a movement when she and her companions sat in seats on the main floor. And, yes Lord, she started a stink.

The manager tried to remove her. The police came. They told her to sit in the seat she had purchased. She considered that a joke. The ticket did not designate any certain seat, though she knew Jim Crow mores did.

She did not budge.

They took Mrs. Hairston to jail. At a hearing, she was found guilty of disturbance and fined $25. The papers paid little attention. I guess the editors did not see a movement in the making.

More than a year later, she filed suit in District Court. Mrs. Hairston had lost her purse and its contents, been publicly humiliated, been denied her civil rights. She asked for $10,000 in damages. The theater tried to get her to settle. But that would have thwarted a movement.

In the end, a judge sided with her. She got a grand total of $575 for her trouble. And, yes Lord, she started a movement.

Because of Mrs. Hairston, the city manager ordered an end to discrimination in city-owned facilities and in public places. Because of her, people knew they didn't have to take discrimination anymore.

One by one, they sat down. On the main floor of the theaters. In restaurants. Walked into stores they had never frequented. Tried to buy homes in neighborhoods in which they had only imagined living.

A movement had started.

No looting. No burning. No violence. A quiet movement. A slow, sure, effective movement. Yes, Lord, a Colorado Springs-kind of movement.

This place still isn't perfect.

Recent history tells us that well-dressed black professionals are still followed around stores by suspicious clerks. Tells us that brown and black folks are still denied service in restaurants. Tells us that a black man can't buy any business he wants and a black family can't buy any home it wants.

But, yes Lord, the movement brought about change here.

And thank you, Mrs. Hairston. May you rest in peace.

I'm sure that your movement is the reason I sit here and write this today.

Rosemary Harris is a columnist for The Gazette.