The 1968 Black Market Firebombing: Revolution and Racism in Bloomington, Indiana

 

Protesters at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Parade on January 15, 1968, courtesy of the AP.

“There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.”1968: The Year That Rocked the World

In the very literal sense of the word, 1968 was an extraordinary year. Even situated as it was within a decade characterized by social and political upheaval, 1968 was unique in the sheer number of transformative events: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Apollo 8 mission, anti-Vietnam War protests, protests against racial discrimination. The list goes on.

While the majority of these events occurred on the East and West Coasts of the United States, it would be a mistake to think that the Midwest was immune to the revolutionary spirit sweeping the nation. In fact, many of the movements seen at a national level played out within the confines of the Indiana University Campus in Bloomington. When recruiters from Dow Chemical Company (the company responsible for producing napalm for use in the Vietnam War) visited campus, hundreds of students marched in protest. Following objections to exclusionary judging standards drawn along color lines, the IU Homecoming Queen pageant was permanently cancelled.  African American students demanded more representation in all aspects of campus life and staged a sit-in at the Little 500. That sit-in led directly to the removal of discriminatory covenants from Indiana University’s fraternities.

Clarence “Rollo” Turner at the Little 500 Sit-in, Indiana University, Artubus (Bloomington, Indiana: 1968), accessed Artubus Archives.

While this wave of revolutionary fervor was cresting both nationally and on IU’s campus, another wave was close behind – the “third wave” of the Ku Klux Klan. Rising in response to the Civil Rights Movement, approximately 40,000 Klan members  belonged to the Klan nationally in the 1950s and 1960s. In the spring of 1968, Klan members from nearby Morgan County attempted to establish a chapter of the terrorist organization in Monroe County. A membership drive, which was to consist of a gathering on the Bloomington courthouse square followed by a march through the business district, was scheduled for March 30, 1968. But before events could get underway, Monroe County Prosecutor Thomas Berry requested and was granted an order blocking the event, citing the possibility of violence.

This was neither the first nor the last appearance of the Klan in Bloomington. In Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, Leonard Moore estimates that 23.8% of all native-born white men in Monroe County were members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920. The Indiana Daily Student on November 7, 1922 described the supposed first appearance of the Klan in the city:

Marching with slow and solemn tread, 152 men paraded Bloomington streets, garbed in mysterious robes of white, with tall hoods masking their identity, and carrying aloft the flaming cross of the klan, while hundreds of townspeople and students stood and witnessed [as] the pages of fiction and movie scenarios unfolded before their eyes.

Example of a calling card left by the Ku Klux Klan, accessed Nate-Thayer.com.

Although county officials blocked a similar scene to that described above from playing out in 1968, the Klan still made its presence known in the city. During a Bloomington Human Relations Commission meeting on September 30, 1968, African American commission chairman Ernest Butler showed his fellow commissioners and others present at the meeting a card which had been left on his door. The card read, “The Ku Klux Klan is watching you.” Butler claimed to have received as many as ten such cards, as well as several similarly threatening phone calls. Soon, local Klan affiliates would go further than simply making threats.

In the face of these threats, Black Indiana University students continued to demand more representation and equality, staging protests and demonstrations across the campus. The Afro-Afro-American Student’s Association (AAASA)—an organization formed in the spring of 1967 with the goal of fostering unity among IU’s Black students—frequently encouraged members to participate in this activism. At the forefront of many of these protests was AAASA co-founder and sociology graduate student Clarence “Rollo” Turner.

“Rollo Turner and The Black Market,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

In the fall of 1968, Turner shifted his attention towards a new project – The Black Market. Financed entirely by Black faculty and staff, The Black Market was a shop specializing in products made by African or African American artists. This included “free-flowing African garb, Black literature and records, African and Afro-American fabrics, dangling earrings, and African artifacts.”

As a leader in the African American community at Indiana University, Turner served as the shop’s manager and its public face. He and his backers had two main objectives when opening the shop. First, it was to act as a cultural center for Black students at the university, who had limited recreational opportunities in the predominantly white city. Second, he aimed to eliminate “misconceptions about black people” by exposing IU students and Bloomington locals alike to Black culture.

“Advertisement for The Black Market printed in The Spectator,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

After its late-September opening, it seemed as though the shop would be a success. The campus newspaper, Indiana Daily Student, proclaimed, “suits and ties may eventually join the ranks of white socks and baggy slacks if the immediate success of The Black Market is a sign of things to come.” However, at the same time that the shop was proving a popular enterprise with IU students, factions within Bloomington were pushing back against its very existence. This resistance took the form of violence when, on December 26, 1968 a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window of the store.

The resulting fire destroyed the entire stock of The Black Market and caused structural damage to adjacent businesses. To those most closely associated with the shop, the motive for the attack seemed obvious, especially considering the heightened presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the city. As student newspaper The Spectator commented:

It was not very difficult, of course, to determine a ‘motive’ for the bombing. Since the construction of the Black Market in September, black students involved have been harassed periodically by abusive white ‘customers,’ . . . Larry Canada, owner of the building, had received telephoned bomb threads because he allowed the ‘n––rs’ to use the space for the store.

Black Market after fire, printed in The Spectator, accessed Indiana University Archives.

Two weeks later, 200 students attended a rally on the sidewalk outside of the burnt remains of The Black Market. Amidst calls for action from university and city officials and appeals to Black students to make a stand in the face of violence, Rollo Turner said, “the only reason this store was bombed was because it was a black store.” Behind the rally, hung across the splintered door of the shop a hand lettered sign that read, “A COWARD DID THIS.”

Eight months would pass before those students knew the identity of the man responsible for the attack, though. In the intervening time, IU students and faculty came together to raise enough money to pay back the financial backers of the shop, as the shop’s inventory was uninsured. Rollo Turner also made the decision not to re-open the store – all of the funds raised had gone to pay back investors, leaving none for re-investment in new stock. Additionally, the extensive damage to the structure necessitated its total demolition, meaning a new space would need to be secured and it may have proven difficult to find a landlord willing to risk their property if a repeat attack was carried out.

“The Black Market,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

Details about the search for the perpetrators are limited. An ad-hoc group formed by representatives from the community, university, and local civil rights organizations offered an award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties. The alternative student newspaper The Spectator alluded to a person of interest in their coverage of the attack, saying:

Acting on reports of witnesses, police are searching for a white male with dark hair, about 5’8”, 160 lbs., wearing a light gray finger-length topcoat at the time of the fire.

Whether or not either of these played any part in the search for the perpetrators, or if they were identified in some other way, on August 6, 1969 the Marion County Circuit Court issued arrest warrants for two men in relation to the crime. One of those men, Carlisle Briscoe, Jr., plead guilty to the second degree arson charges while implicating as an accomplice Jackie Dale Kinser, whom he accused of driving the get-away vehicle. Eventually, the charges against Kinser would be dropped, just before he plead guilty to three unrelated crimes.

Both men had strong ties to the local Ku Klux Klan – Kinser was a member who in subsequent years would be arrested multiple times in Klan-related crimes. Briscoe’s Klan connections are slightly less clear. At first, Monroe County Prosecutor Thomas Berry and Sheriff Clifford Thrasher announced that both men were Klan members. An article in the September 19, 1969 issue of the Indianapolis Star, states that Briscoe himself claimed to be a Klan member. The headline of Briscoe’s obituary in the Vincennes Sun-Commercial proclaims, “Notorious Klansman Dies in Prison: Briscoe Led a Bloomington Crime Wave in 1960s and ‘70s.” As late as 1977, he was arrested while committing crimes alongside Klan members, apparently while carrying out Klan business. However, in 1969, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, William Chaney, denied that Briscoe was a member of the organization. Regardless of Briscoe’s official Klan membership status, Briscoe at the very least maintained close ties with the terrorist organization. He was sentenced to one to ten years and was released on April 7, 1973 after serving approximately three and a half years of his sentence.

The story of The Black Market firebombing could have ended there. The structure had been demolished, the investors had been paid back, and a conviction had been made. However, the revolutionary atmosphere on the Indiana University campus stretched beyond the 1960s, and the space would once again be used to make a statement.

YIP Poster Advertising the 1968 Festival of Life, accessed Wikipedia.

In late February 1970, a group of Yippies, or members of the Youth International Party, were looking for ways to bring the community of Bloomington together. One of the ideas that emerged from these discussions was the creation of a people’s park on the vacant lot where The Black Market had once stood. People’s parks, which were spreading across the nation, could trace their roots back to the People’s Park in Berkeley, California. Typically created by activists without the approval of government or other officials, the parks were meant to promote free speech, activism, and community involvement.

By May 1970, work had started on the project. Anyone who was interested in the enterprise was encouraged to join in helping to prepare the land for its future intended use. The Bloomington People’s Park was to be a mix of gathering space, community garden, and a place for “everyone to sing, dance, rap, and generally ‘do his own thing,’” and by the next summer, it was being put to good use, as reported by the Indiana Daily Student:

About 250 blue jeaned “freaks,” tapered-legged “straights,” the bell bottomed curious and two guys with rolled-up sleeves, greasy hair and tattoos celebrated the 4th in People’s Park Sunday evening.

Student protest in People’s Park, Artubus, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana: 1981, accessed Artubus Archives.

Over the next five years, various issues threatened to put an end to the whole affair. The city threatened to shut it down over “public health” concerns. The property owner, Larry Canada, had various plans to develop the property. In the end, though, People’s Park became legally sanctioned after Canada deeded the land to the city in 1976.

Throughout the years, the park has carried on the site’s democratic heritage, hosting anti-Vietnam War protests, protests against the US involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s, music festivals, flea markets, and, more recently, Occupy Bloomington protests. Today, the park serves as a reminder of the revolutionary ideals that swept through Indiana University’s campus in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2020, IHB, in partnership with the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, will commemorate those events by installing an Indiana state historical marker.

Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.

With these simple words Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma to the readers of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post. Rabbi Davis’s “walk” was a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When King asked civil rights leaders from around the country to join him in Alabama, Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration of solidarity. Davis had long worked for civil rights through both secular and faith-based channels. He advocated for community action in his sermons to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He led several civic action councils that combated segregation, racist policies, and poverty. And he extended his appeal for civil rights to the entire city through a regular newspaper column and a television show. Mostly, however, Rabbi Davis marched at Selma “because it was right.”

Jewish Post, January 20, 1956, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“You Were a Spark for Us”

Maurice Davis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921. Census records show that his Russian-born father Jacob managed a garage while his mother Sadie cared for five children. They did well for themselves and were able to send Maurice first to Brown University in 1939 and then to the University of Cincinnati where he received his B.A. in 1945. He then received his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After serving several different congregations as a student rabbi, he became rabbi of Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951. By this point he was already active in the local civil rights movement and joined the Kentucky Commission Against Segregation.

Sketch of current home of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at 6501 North Meridian Street, accessed https://ihcindy.org/who_we_are/history

Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) in March 1956, in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the large congregation which was in the process of planning their new temple at 64th and Meridian, which still houses the IHC today (a move from their earlier location at the Market Street Temple.) As the ninth Rabbi serving the IHC, Davis continued to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors, according to the Jewish Post. In his first year, he attracted eighty new congregants, and  temple brotherhood president Herman Logan wrote in the congregational bulletin:

You were a spark for us which turned into a flame when a new brotherhood was beginning.

It was an auspicious start for the young rabbi.

“Something Less Than Welcome”

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, his wife Marion, and their sons Jay and Michael, some other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that Rabbi Davis’s son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool at 5640 North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son. The rabbi told his congregation that while many people think segregation in the private sphere “has no meaning” and should be tolerated, it does have meaning to the people it affects. And in this case, the meaning was that a nine-year-old boy was made to feel inferior to his peers.

Jewish Post, January 1, 1958, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Jewish Post pursued the story, reporting on a survey of five “exclusive” Indianapolis clubs. Each club, including the Riviera Club, claimed not to discriminate against Jews. Some of the club chairmen and presidents even claimed they had Jewish members. However, when the Jewish Post interviewed the club managers, they reported that they knew of no Jewish members. Others in the club leadership claimed no Jews had applied for membership or that they did not keep track of religious affiliation. From the perspective of the Post, none gave a straight answer.

Jewish Post, July 17, 1959, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, July 29, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis did not only respond to discrimination when it was personal. He believed that it was his responsibility, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. In response to a 1960 Indianapolis Times poll of religious leaders (reported by the Jewish Post), two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis (Congregation B’nai Torah and Shara Tefila) reported that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and “to speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

Jewish Post, October 13, 1961, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis not only advocated for equality for Jews, but all people facing oppression. He encouraged Jews to look beyond their own community and work to end discrimination everywhere. He stated, “A decent and sensitive America is good for all Americans and we must help her be so” (more here). Indianapolis’s African American community took note. In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis its “honorary chairman” and the Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on his efforts to fight segregation and inequality. As president of the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, Davis worked to end racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and created segregated neighborhoods (more here). He conducted personal investigations of restaurants and other establishments which had reputations for discriminating against African Americans and reported his findings in the Jewish Post (more here). By 1962, he had a regular column giving his views on issues of the day and often advocating for civil rights.

Jewish Post, July 27, 1962, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

His columns were  often fiery calls to action. For example, in September 1963, he responded to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful arguments against injustice were often shaped by the legacy of the holocaust. He continued:

Segregation and discrimination, lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.

Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis received a bomb threat of his own.

“My Name Was One of Them”

Photograph of John Lewis, Hosea William, Albert Turner and Bob Mants Leading Marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Records Group 406, accessed National Archives Catalog.

By 1965, the civil rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the suppression of African American votes and the recent killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (more here: International Civil Rights Center and Museum). On March 7, the protesters led by John Lewis began a peaceful march, but were soon stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers and Dallas County police who were waiting for them. In an incident remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” police violently attacked the unarmed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. Police beat Lewis unconscious. On March 9, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Selma and called for others to join him. That day, a larger group followed King back to the bridge to kneel in prayer, but dared go no further as a federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march. Many were disappointed that King did not attempt to march on toward Montgomery. Others, however, credit his concession with expediting the passage of the Voting Rights Act.*

Hammond Times, March 8, 1965, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The night of the second march to the bridge a group of white men killed Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. Related protests erupted across the country and King called for a third march. On Sunday, March 21, civil rights leaders and supporters from around the country arrived in Selma to march over the infamous bridge to Montgomery. Rabbi Maurice Davis would march in the front lines.

When the Indianapolis Star reported that Rabbi Davis and David H. Goldstein (of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) had left for Selma, the newspaper estimated that these Hoosiers would join around 300 people. Instead, Davis reported that they joined thousands at Brown Chapel Methodist Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival at the church:

As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.

While President Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Davis and Goldstein met with some other rabbis after the service who had arrived before them. These rabbis told them that they were unable to buy a meal or place to stay, the reason being the Selma residents insisted on giving the activists whatever they needed.

Davis and Goldstein also looked to find out from the other rabbis where they could get yarmulkes, as a shipment was supposed to have recently arrived. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be as clearly visible as those of other faiths to show their support and numbers. They told Davis, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Davis and Goldstein had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Sabbath behind bars Friday, they announced they would hold a  service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported that “all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Daily News Bulletin, March 23, 1965, accessed Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the latter’s “magic” sermon. Davis explained:

Nothing but the word “magic” can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Post Archive. Rabbi Davis can be seen just behind King and to his left.

The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Davis stated:

Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .

He continued:

On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.

Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1965, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

When they arrived at the infamous bridge they paused to remember those who came before them and were attacked. They continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers were taking pictures of the marchers. Davis explained:

This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.

The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reed.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, Davis did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Daivs finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

“It’ll be too late when it goes off.”

When Rabbi Davis answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. Davis told the caller he was calling the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Jewish Post, March 26, 1965, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Police searched the house and found nothing.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to protect his family. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seems the rabbi was most hurt that the threats were possibly coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.

“The Time Has Come to Worship with Our Lives”

Like King, Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Herschel, who was also at Selma used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.

Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 27, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He called others to join him. He referred to injustices that needed to still be overcome in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray in the traditional way, but also with actions. He wrote:

Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. “One God over all” has to mean “one brotherhood over all.”

Muncie Evening Press, April 28, 1965, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He was again named honorary chairman of the NAACP. He served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and on the board of the United Negro College Fund. He was president of the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations and organized the Community Action Against Poverty (sponsored by the City of Indianapolis and the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity).

Jewish Post, January 22, 1986, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He never forgot his march with King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country:

You hear a song, or sniff an aroma, and all of a sudden you are miles and years away . . . It happens, too, with birthdays. January 20 was a very special day. The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom he loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.

Notes:

The impetus for this story came from Jennie Cohen, Publisher, Jewish Post & Opinion.

Sources for Davis’s report of the march:

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Heschel Finds The Right Word For It,” (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 2, 1965, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Davis Tells Why He Went to Selma,”(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other sources are linked within the text.

*For more on the disappointment of some civil rights activists with King’s role in the Selma to Montgomery marches see: Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., eds., Freedom on My Mind: A HIstory of African Americans with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s 2013), 675-6.

Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.