The Desegregation of Austin's Movie Theatres
A history of the stand-in movement
Efforts in 1960 to desegregate movie theatres along the Drag started with a bang.
Fifty-five years ago last week, while a few dozen UT students gathered at the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Association – known as the Y – to discuss how to foment racial integration among campus-area businesses, a nasty explosion jolted the room, spraying shards of stained glass and lead through blasted-in windows. Jim McCulloch, who attended that meeting, recalls, "There was a lot of excitement. I thought at first someone had thrown a large firecracker at the window, then someone who had gone outside said a bomb had gone off outside the building."
Police apprehended the perpetrators – white, anti-integrationist undergrads William McKnight and John Winborn, who built and detonated the bomb – and jailed them for three weeks. After initial suspension from UT, a student/faculty discipline committee in February 1961 unanimously opted to readmit them.
UT's dean of student life, Arno Nowotny, declared in The Texas Observer that the bombers "seemed to have learned a pretty good lesson," placing them on academic probation until the following June. Before the term's end, police would arrest McKnight for murdering a fellow student.
Unhurt and undeterred by the bombing, the very next week, on Dec. 2, 1960, a scant, multiracial group initiated a picket of the Texas Theatre to decry its refusal to admit black patrons.
Specializing in fine arts and foreign films, the Texas Theatre – now a CVS – sat across the Drag from the Texas Union and adjacent to the Y, then a progressive hub occupying the parcel presently overtaken by Scientologists at the southwest corner of 22nd and Guadalupe.
The new group, Students for Direct Action (SDA), opted for Friday and Saturday evenings to commence what metamorphosed into months of mannerly yet militant placard-holding.
The wintry inauguration to their "stand-in" movement in 1960 followed a fertile springtime of swiftly sprouting resistance to segregation, with black students across the South quashing Dixie mores by peaceably assuming "whites-only" lunch counters – often enduring a barrage of indignities and abuse as a result. In Houston, for example, in retaliation to downtown incarnations of the nationally blossoming "sit-in movement," that March, masked men kidnapped Felton Turner, carved "KKK" into his chest and stomach, and strung him by his heels from a tree.
Riffing on the sit-ins, Austinites pioneered a unique tactic: orderly lining up at the box office to take turns asking the attendant some version of whether they sell tickets to "all Americans." Upon the invariable reply that black patrons weren't allowed, the protester rejoined the line's end, awaiting the next opportunity to ask again – and thereby hindering any unbothered moviegoers from speedily obtaining tickets.
Despite a directive to UT faculty to steer clear of political involvement, professorial backing for the protests poured in by way of statements of support published in The Daily Texan, with 192 faculty members publicly endorsing the stand-ins within its first month.
Eleanor Roosevelt dispatched a telegram to student organizer Sandra Cason, relaying enthusiasm for their cause: "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 is playing."
Roosevelt referred to the film about her late husband FDR, set to screen at Varsity Theatre, a segregated, art deco-bedecked movie house at the corner of 24th and Guadalupe, where an electric Varsity blade still clings today. Protests expanded to encompass the Varsity, and ballooning numbers of students in Austin – from Huston-Tillotson University, McCallum and Austin high schools – and from across Texas arrived to join the stand-in ranks.
The Varsity reacted with intimidation: threatening to call the police, elbowing picketers away, and ambushing them with an invasive photographer who demanded their names. Several picketers whipped out dollar bills – symbolizing the theatre's lost income for clinging to segregation – to pose for his pics.
Braving icy conditions with the aid of coffee from University Methodists across the street, stand-in members also resorted to song: lifting their voices to lift their spirits. The Varsity aimed to drown them out, plopping a record player atop their box office to blare holiday ads hawking ticket gift-packs. Students answered in like volume with yuletide carols, serenading moviegoers with "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
A smashed beer bottle triggered the sidewalk choir to spontaneously break into "99 Bottles of Beer."
This fall, People's History in Texas produced "The Stand-ins," a short documentary rife with testimony from movement veterans. The organization has been touring the state to present the film at schools and educational gatherings.
Glenn Scott, the nonprofit's board chair, recounts that in researching the film, she found many white participants remember the theatre pickets more "peacefully" than black counterparts, most of whom, she says, readily recalled instances of threats and, at times, outright violence. The film attests to segregationists knocking picketers into a gutter and spitting on them. Dr. Leon McNealy chillingly recounts a man calmly threatening to kill him; another day, a lurking motorist ran McNealy down after he left the newly integrated Hank's Grill (now Hole in the Wall), compelling strangers to haul him to the hospital for urgent medical help.
Brutality was anticipated: The preceding spring, a civil rights activist from Marshall reported to an assembly at the Y about how firemen had recently blasted high-pressure water hoses at fellow black students peacefully gathered outside an East Texas courthouse.
UT firebrand Booker T. Bonner – who, outside the auspices of SDA, launched a series of multiple-day, one-man protest vigils in front of the campus theatres, forgoing sleep and sustenance to emphasize the seriousness of his conviction – endured violent kicks, a pulled gun, hurled eggs, and countless middle fingers and insults.
In January 1961, SDA ramped up nationwide pressure on the large theatre chains that owned the Varsity and the Texas. Allies in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Shreveport, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas – where that month a restaurant owner purged a sit-in of theological students with insecticide fumigation – agreed to a day of action at strategic theatres, set for February 12, Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Protests exceeded 400 participants in Austin that day, with stand-ins spilling over to the Downtown Paramount and State theatres.
In June, a foursome of socialists in New York City, at the urging of SDA, occupied – for 37 hours – the offices of the president of Varsity's parent company, ABC-Paramount, demanding desegregation.
By August, SDA had negotiated an end to the whites-only policy with owners of both the Varsity and Texas theatres (with no black Austinites at the table, reports historian Doug Rossinow). McNealy, among the first moviegoers to test the fledgling accord, says the agreement "was rejected at a meeting of black UT students" because it initially applied only to ID-card-bearing Longhorns, and not all black citizens – but within months that restriction faded away.
The triumph of Austin's stand-in movement triggered rapid desegregation at scores of movie theatres throughout the South and catalyzed further integration activism at UT and across the city. In March of 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King visited the Forty Acres, roaring to his audience, "Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed; the only question is how expensive the South is going to make the funeral."
Yet, running up that bill of moral indebtedness, the Paramount Theatre, a full year after King's words, still confined black Austinites to balcony seating, separate from white film attendees in the auditorium below. In March 1963, integrationists renewed efforts with a three-hour protest, motivating one Paramount employee to quit his job on the spot in favor of the picket line.
A month later, overwhelming popular support for desegregation compelled the Austin Chamber of Commerce to adopt a resolution calling for "immediate and complete integration of all public facilities."
Janet Means Scott, an Austin High student who participated in the stand-ins – whose sister Joan helped to organize stand-in solidarity protests in Chicago and whose brother Ron became the Varsity Theatre's first black employee in 1965 – recalls the reason for her involvement: "It's not that I wanted to go to the movies – I just wanted to be able to go to the movies."
Visit www.peopleshistoryintexas.org/standins to view "The Stand-ins."