Between Civil Rights and Black Power in the Gateway City: The Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), 1964-75

Article excerpt

Introduction

When construction began on the federally assisted Gateway Arch project in the early 1960s, St. Louis, Missouri's civic, business and government elite viewed it as a means of revitalizing the blighted downtown riverfront area. Located near the banks of the Mississippi, this tourist attraction would be the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park, symbolizing through formidable public art St. Louis's importance as the gateway city to the American west. Many local Civil Rights activists, however, saw the Arch project as indicative of continuing racial discrimination. African Americans worked as laborers at the site, but held no positions in the skilled building trades involved in the construction. During the midsummer of 1964, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed the Old Courthouse, which housed the downtown offices of the superintendent of the construction project. Then on July 14, one black and one white member of CORE staged a dramatic demonstration that became legend in St. Louis's Civil Rights struggle. While construction workers lunched, and protesters gathered for a press conference at the Old Courthouse, Percy Green and Richard Daly used a partially enclosed steel surface ladder to scale 125 feet up the north leg of the unfinished structure. Workmen returning to the scene found the two men perched above them, sitting on rungs of the ladder. Feet dangling, Green and Daly ignored orders by workers, National Park Service officers, and the project's assistant superintendent to disembark. A group of demonstrators, gathered at the base of the Arch leg, demanded that black workers receive at least ten percent of the jobs at the site. Four hours after making their ascent, the two Civil Rights activists climbed down the fixture to a reception of news media and police. Authorities charged them both with trespassing, peace disturbance, and resisting arrest. (1)

The incident focused attention on construction contractors, and black St. Louisans' longstanding grievances about the racially exclusive nature of the building trades in this strongly unionized city. It also forced the federal government to assay its nondiscrimination policies toward government contractors and federally assisted construction projects. The protest became part of a chain of events that led the U.S. Justice Department to file a "pattern or practice of discrimination" suit against the St. Louis AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council, and four of its member unions. This was the first such action under Title VII of the newly implemented 1964 Civil Rights Act, which governed equal employment opportunity. (2)

The demonstration at the Arch occurred under the auspices of St. Louis CORE, but it marked the beginnings of an offshoot group--the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION). Active between 1964 and 1984, the organization offers entry into several tributaries of social history on the black experience. First, ACTION's history adds to revisionist treatments of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s that address the intersection between the movement, black labor/working-class insurgency, and the locally-oriented nature of these activities. (3) Such narratives decenter national black protest organizations and their local branches, lending greater attention to indigenous, unaffiliated groupings. This "New" Civil Rights Studies also gives greater weight to local struggles than to the initiatives of the federal government. Third, a study of ACTION further challenges portrayals of the Civil Rights struggle as elite-driven and focused on a symbolic, narrowly conceived "integration." Rather, investigating such an organization illuminates how the fight for the right to vote and enjoy public accommodations on par with white citizens was wedded to strategies for expanding employment and other economic opportunities for black people. Fourth, this work augments new historical interpretations asserting that Civil Rights and Black Power were not dichotomous political projects, as historians have claimed in the past. …