Moved to the CORE
Kids to base MLK Sunday skits on memories of discrimination.
One morning 60 years ago, during her time coordinating lunch-counter protests in St. Louis, Billie Teneau discovered that a cross had been burned in her yard.
Joyce Best and her husband stood in for a young couple who wanted to buy a home in a nice neighborhood, but could not because of their skin color.
From 1947 to 1957, nearly a decade before the national civil-rights movement personified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) did much of the heavy lifting to improve race relations in the Gateway City.
Last Sunday, Teneau and Best shared reminiscences of those years with Sunday-school students—from kindergarten to 7th grade—at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road in Ladue.
“They listened to us for the entire hour,” said Best, 82. She and Teneau, 85, will be in the congregation this Sunday to experience how the classes interpret what they learned. The children will present a series of skits during the 11 a.m. program Jan. 16 commemorating the life and times of the Rev. Dr. King.
Trish Cowan, director of the Sunday School, said the kids will fine tune their vignettes during the hour preceding the program, and that her role will be only to supervise. Cowan, 35, herself had thought of the civil-rights movement as a 1960s phenomenon.
But by 1961, when the City of St. Louis made equal treatment in public accommodations the law, it was already a reality at many establishments.
And, the increasingly color-blind generations that have followed may thank the activists of CORE.
“We were determined to end racial discrimination in St. Louis through nonviolent, direct action,” said Teneau. “We managed to make friends out of some enemies.”
In those days, blacks could purchase anything they wanted at drugstores, department stores and dime stores—but were forbidden to eat at the lunch counters common in those establishments at the time. As recounted in the book “Victory Without Violence”, a white woman was mortified to witness a black woman surreptitiously eating her sandwich in a store restroom. As were Teneau, Best and so many others, she was compelled to act.
“We were peaceful, we didn’t speak with anger—and we were creative,” said Teneau.
In one scenario, a group of blacks would sit at the counter, but at every other seat. Eventually, white diners would fill the remaining spaces.
Or, blacks and whites would approach the lunch counter in twos, knowing full well that the white person would be served and the black person would not. When the order arrived, the first customer simply slid the plate down.
Typically, the police were called, but there was nothing for them to do. The rabble was not roused. Soon, many of the officers, and some restaurant managers, were won over by the sheer reasonableness of the proposition.
Eventually, those who resisted had to realize it was not just a bad stretch of weather that would blow over.
“We were persistent,” Teneau recalled. “They thought we would go away. But that didn’t happen.”