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Monday, Jan. 26, 1998

How Corpus Christi survived in 1968

Leaders worked together for the good of the city

Staff Writer

   The events that shook America in 1968 hit close to home for Corpus Christi residents.
   Daily headlines and television news told of the deadly fighting in Vietnam; names of slain and wounded hometown heroes were displayed on the front page of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. In the Feb. 2, 1968, issue, residents got their first look of the now-famous Associated Press photograph showing a South Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong officer with a single shot to the head.
   Hubert Humphrey won the nomination at a stormy Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police officers forcefully subdued protesters. South Texans wept over the April 4 death of Martin Luther King Jr., and some rejoiced in the presidential victory of Richard Nixon that November.
   Along with the rest of America, Corpus Christi residents watched a country at war with itself and others -- a country caught in painful change.
   ``That was a tough year,'' said Tony Bonilla, a longtime civil rights advocate who started practicing law here in 1960. ``It was hard to imagine law enforcement officers beating up people, and it was all shown on national television. You're sitting there feeling so helpless, and you're wondering if our country would ever be the same again.
   ``There's no question that it changed forever.''
   Like the rest of the country, Corpus Christi faced difficult challenges in 1968. But with a population of fewer than 200,000 -- less than 5 percent black -- Corpus Christi's civil rights movement was calm in comparison to that of other Southern cities.
   ``We actually were further along than other parts of the country,'' Bonilla said. ``For example, when I attended Del Mar College in 1953, it was already integrated. By 1968, we had made much more progress than the cities that were still fighting.
   ``Of course, our black population was not as large and people didn't feel as threatened,'' he said.
   The battles here, while less violent, were deadly serious to those involved. The year 1968 brought the filing of a desegregation lawsuit against the Corpus Christi Independent School District -- a fight that spanned almost three decades, ending just last year.
   At the urging of local minorities that year, the City Council passed an open housing ordinance making it illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing.
   ``A lot of what went on in 1968 here was influenced by what had happened around the country,'' Bonilla said. ``Many of us who had learned to accept the status quo began to question why these conditions were allowed to exist in our own community.''
   Blacks in Corpus Christi had quietly integrated movie theaters, bowling alleys and golf courses, frequently working within the system to make strides in equality, said the Rev. Harold Branch, a Corpus Christi resident since 1956. New public housing was going up on the city's Southside. Previously, all such units had been on the west or north side of the city in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
   The Caller-Times published in September 1968 a 20-page special section called ``The Negro in Corpus Christi,'' which examined life for blacks, including housing, employment and heritage.
   In many ways, the Corpus Christi of 30 years ago looked a lot like other American mid-sized towns. ``To Sir, with Love'' with Sidney Poitier played at the Ayers Theater, while Clint Eastwood shot it up in ``The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'' at the Thunderbird Drive-In.
   Pork chops sold for 49 cents a pound; a six-pack of bottled Coke for 29 cents. Goodyear advertised tires for $9.95, and a new Chevy Impala went for $2,577. ``Dick Tracy'' and ``Alley Oop'' could be found on the comics page, while the ``Smothers Brothers,'' ``Mission: Impossible'' and ``Bonanza'' hit the prime-time airwaves.
   Then-Mayor Jack Blackmon welcomed Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, who visited Corpus Christi on April 8 to dedicate Padre Island National Seashore -- a culmination of more than 25 years of work to keep most of the island in its natural state. The Most Rev. Thomas J. Drury, bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, opened the ceremony.
   The Corpus Christi Museum, the first structure in Bayfront Plaza Park, opened that year, and Marvin Townsend was named city manager. William Mobley was elected district attorney; Noah Kennedy was the county judge.
   Still remembering the previous year's Hurricane Beulah -- which killed 15 people -- residents braced for Tropical Storm Candy, which caused little damage other than the flooding of Padre Island bridges and the Kennedy Causeway.
   Vice President Hubert Humphrey campaigned for the presidency on Aug. 9 with a visit to the Naval Air Station and an appearance at the American GI Forum convention at the Driscoll Hotel. He promised that Hispanics would be better represented in federal government positions and praised Cesar Chavez, a leader in the migrant labor unions.
   ``He is a man of controversy,'' Humphrey said of Chavez. ``Most men of any worth are.''
   A tri-ethnic atmosphere
   Another man of controversy and worth -- Martin Luther King Jr. -- was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, leaving a shocked and saddened America. The Caller-Times carried a front-page article on the assassination, but no front-page photograph of King or local reaction to the slaying.
   ``(The death) was tremendously shocking,'' Branch said. ``We just thought almost like the world had come to an end.''
   On the night of the assassination, a large group of distressed black youths gathered in the Hillcrest area on the city's Northside. Irvin Brown, then president of the local NAACP chapter, said that year that the youths ``may have been intent upon some type of retaliatory destruction.''
   Brown said he and other black leaders talked to the youths and averted the violence that spread in other cities. Several teen-agers also were angered when the Miller High School principal would not lower the flag to half-staff in recognition of King's death. Again, major trouble was avoided as black leaders spoke to the principal.
   City leaders, including Branch and other black ministers, Bonilla and Rabbi Sidney Wolf of Temple Beth El, organized a citywide memorial service held on April 7.
   ``We had so much turmoil around cities in the country, so our citizens here wanted to make certain that did not happen,'' Bonilla said. ``There were some meetings held in order to mark his death with something significant as opposed to rioting and burning.''
   About 500 Anglos, blacks and Hispanics marched one block to St. Matthew's Baptist Church on the city's Northside, where they honored King. The church filled with mourners, and hundreds listened to the service outside over loud speakers.
   ``At the time, we were building a tri-ethnic atmosphere in Corpus Christi, to emphasize the needs for contributions from all three ethnic groups,'' Branch said. ``Following the funeral services, we did structure a coalition here in Corpus that prompted some activities that got all three groups together.
   ``It was in that atmosphere that made it possible for me to run for the City Council in the early '70s,'' said Branch, who was elected as the city's first black councilman.
   Blackmon doesn't recall any major racial issues that surfaced locally, and he commended local Anglo, black and Hispanic leaders for working together.
   ``There's never been, in my judgment, any serious racial problem here,'' Blackmon said. The black population ``was 4 percent, so problems just didn't happen.''
   But young blacks frequently spoke with more force, and while their opinions didn't lead to the violence experienced in other communities, they still represented a popular view. The gathered 10 blacks, ages 18 to 22, as part of the special section on black life. Their names were not used.
   ``Black power is the Negro's ability to move within the society as a complete man, as an equal, as a man that's judged completely and solely by his personal ability,'' one youth said. ``It has to be a militant move because of the things that are being confronted. . . . The white man has his fingers on the throat of everything.''
   Said another: ``The problem here isn't as broad as it is in other places. I mean, Corpus Christi as a whole is really cute. But it's still that same, back-in-the-woods thing -- those (presidential candidate George) `Wallace in '68' people, you know what I mean? It's prejudice, regardless.''
   Desegregating the schools
   While the mostly quiet racial issues in Corpus Christi didn't gain much attention outside the city limits, a federal court lawsuit did. On July 22, 1968, about 26 black and Hispanic members of the United Steelworkers Union filed a lawsuit alleging the Corpus Christi Independent School District was unconstitutionally segregated.
   One of the plaintiffs, Jose Cisneros, got involved in the suit after his sixth-grade daughter came home from Prescott Elementary School on Gollihar Road complaining of smelly bathrooms and broken windows. Cisneros, who died in 1996 at age 65, and several neighbors complained to the principal, who said there was nothing he could do about the conditions.
   ``I felt there was a lot of inadequacy as far as the type of teachers and equipment,'' said one of the plaintiffs, Mike Zepeda, 72. ``The schools were rundown. Anybody who would come to the Westside would see the trash and the rats and everything else. There's been a lot of change, thank goodness.''
   Reports of dilapidated buildings and the construction of nearby Moody High School, which opened in 1967 and was viewed by some residents as a way to keep Hispanics and blacks on the Westside, prompted dissent and, eventually, the lawsuit.
   ``We got a feeling that they were building Moody High School to keep minorities in their own place,'' said Manuel Narvaez, 68, another plaintiff, who spent years monitoring the district's progress -- and continues to do so. ``When our people complained, they would not make improvements. Nobody would listen. Most of the improvements were being made on the Southside.
   ``The school argued that we were white under the eyes of the law and they were not discriminating against us,'' Narvaez said.
   Nueces County Attorney Carl Lewis remembers being among the first students at Moody.
   ``It wasn't finished,'' said Lewis, who scored the school's first touchdown in 1967. ``We didn't have a cafeteria or a gym for a long time.''
   The plaintiffs celebrated the filing of the lawsuit with a party and dance, not realizing that they had embarked on a battle that would stretch nearly 30 years.
   U.S. District Judge Woodrow Seals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1970, and he ordered the district to draw up a desegregation plan. The district unsuccessfully appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and began busing elementary school children under court order in 1976.
   In 1982, the plaintiffs and school district drew up an alternative to the busing plan. The alternative included majority-to-minority transfers, which allowed students in the majority in their neighborhood school to attend a school where they were in the minority.
   CCISD also increased the funding and special programs at several elementary schools that traditionally had performed poorly. Several of the special-emphasis and ``target'' campuses are now among the district's top test-scorers and have received national academic awards.
   The lawsuit ended June 27, 1997, with U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack declaring that the case had forever improved Corpus Christi education. A transcript of the case is on file in the archives of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
   The Cisneros case and a Houston desegregation lawsuit decided in the early 1970s were the first major U.S. cases to recognize Hispanics as an ethnic group distinct from Anglos. Until the Corpus Christi and Houston cases, desegregation lawsuits concerned only the mix of blacks and Anglos.
   More than half of the plaintiffs have died, but their surviving friends say their accomplishments will live on in generations of Corpus Christi schoolchildren.
   ``I've seen a difference,'' Zepeda said. ``I hope only one thing -- that the trustees, the administrators and the public don't forget why it was done and that the improvements have been made for the sake of the children.''
   Those residents involved in the local issues that dominated 1968 say they are proud of many of the strides made. But 30 years later, a new host of problems exist that require an equal commitment and determination, they say.
   ``Now we have some excellent educational facilities, but we have the problem of a high dropout rate, and too many youngsters are involved in violence and drug use,'' Bonilla said. ``Even though we've come a long way, we're still losing too many kids. Despite the progress, we still have these ugly social problems to deal with.''

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