50 years ago, civil rights movement bloomed in Bluegrass

WOODMERE, N.Y. — Daniel S. Claster, 78, seems like your typical sociologist, but there is more to this retired professor's story than meets the eye. I know; I have read his FBI file.

Fifty years ago, in Lexington, Claster, a white native of Lebanon, Pa, was a University of Kentucky sociology instructor and doctoral candidate in social psychology at Columbia University.

During his 1958-62 stint at UK, he also would become a foot soldier in an integration movement mirroring others that took hold across the South. He united with Lexington's early civil-rights activists seeking the kind of progress made under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others.

"I was certainly considered a radical in Lexington in the 1950s," Claster recalled recently from the Long Island home he shares with his wife, Flavia, a retired social worker.

I met Claster through a chance introduction to his son, Andrew, earlier this year in Washington, D.C. We quickly realized that our fathers must have known each other during those early days of the organized Freedom Movement.

In 1960 Lexington, lunch counters and other downtown establishments practiced segregation in service and in employment. It was American apartheid, 15 years after World War II had been won with the allegiances of valiant black soldiers and civilians, and six years after the Supreme Court had invalidated the doctrine of separate but equal. The time seemed right to press for change.

Some individual and small-group protests had taken place, but they were only episodic. For example, in the late 1950s Claster and some others decided to enter a segregated coffee shop abutting the UK campus for service. Claster had heard that the owner was "a pretty outspoken bigot."

A small group "maybe seven or eight — probably three or four whites and three or four blacks — sat at the counter and were not served," Claster recalled.

The owner asked the group to leave. "Pretty soon we were told that the place was being closed for business." Nothing happened.

But then came the organization of Lexington's chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Claster, who joined, speaks highly of the group's success in applying the philosophy of non-violence as a method of direct action, including training members in disciplined dissent.

Lexington's chapter of CORE met near UK at the Pleasant Green Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Rev. William Augustus Jones Sr., a Morehouse College classmate and close friend of King's father, served as a strategy counselor to volunteers. Jones provided moral and material backup as events unfolded over the tumultuous decade. His wife and children would also take up the movement. Jones, who died in 1968, was my grandfather

The Kentucky Kernel explained what was happening in a May 5, 1960 article headlined "UK Students, Professors Active in CORE." Reporter Norris Johnson wrote: "LaMont Jones, an education junior from Lexington who has been one of the most active participants, said several other UK students had been active in the organization. More students from Transylvania and the College of the Bible than from UK have worked with CORE, Jones said. ... Jones believes that CORE's passive resistance policy will eventually be successful."

An August 1980 article in the Lexington Herald by Bettye Lee Mastin described LaMont Jones as the leader of the first mass sit-in in a downtown Lexington lunch counter. As noted in the article, Jones was drafted after the locally legendary activist Julia Etta Lewis had fallen ill and was unable to lead this first major demonstration as planned.

With brothers William A. ("Bill") Jones Jr., Louis Clayton Jones and Henry Wise Jones, LaMont Jones — now the Rev. LaMont Jones Sr., 71, and my father — was, in fact, a pillar of CORE, which my mother, Kay, joined after she arrived at UK in 1960.

During these challenging years, my father recalls that young Claster, while relatively unassuming in appearance, radiated resolve and courage rare even among the most vocal opponents of Jim Crow laws.

Though he had never had an interest in Lexington until a UK appointment was offered, Claster was interested in making a difference while here.

He had entered graduate school the autumn after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was announced and was mentored by Otto Klineberg. Klineberg's pioneering studies on the intelligence scores of black students helped the black plaintiffs win the landmark school desegregation case in 1954.

A believer in Klineberg's lifelong criticism and debunking of racial superiority theories, whether propounded by Nazis, white Southerners or black extremists, Claster took exception to the practice of racial segregation in Lexington. Claster's FBI file confirms this motivation.

Based mostly on news accounts and plainclothes agents' observations, the reports must have been appalling at the time but are almost laughable today. For example, one entry covering the Feb. 17, 1961, arrest arising from a CORE stand-in at the Strand Theater alarmingly described the offending demonstrators as an "inter-racial group."

The FBI frequently named my father and his three brothers as persons of interest. They had family support, though, as even their mother would regularly stand in or sit in. (They would be followed in later years by their younger sister, Sylvia, who was jailed at the age of 15, spending a frightful night at the county detention center on Old Frankfort Pike.)

Unfortunately, common knowledge of the trailblazing 1960s decade appears to be waning.

As a professor of constitutional law serving an integrated student body at a 70-year-old historically black law school, I have repeatedly encountered the misconception that the movement was spontaneous, unintentional and basically random.

In fact, it was coordinated, strategic and masterfully planned. The strategists were media savvy even before most American households contained a television set.

On my recent visit in Chester, Va., with the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, this 81-year-old civil-rights legend confirmed the accuracy of this assessment as reported in Taylor Branch's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.

Walker would know: As a founding director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and a founding member of CORE in 1958, he served as King's chief of staff in the national movement while spearheading local activism in Virginia and elsewhere.

The Lexington group was tactically sophisticated in its own right. My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Jones, declared in a recorded Jan. 19, 1979, UK oral-history interview, that during one Lexington demonstration she was unable to attend, she called the police purporting to be a citizen concerned about possible conflict as a crowd of Negroes were gathering to picket downtown.

She fully intended to attract publicity to the event because to do so would be to raise public awareness, placing on notice those business owners and political leaders who had insisted on maintaining segregation.

Such tactics succeeded.

The Feb. 28, 1960, issue of The Courier-Journal in Louisville flashed the headline from the previous day's event: "37 Negroes, Whites At Lexington Stage Lunch-Counter Sit-Down/But No Trouble Is Reported."

The article stated that H. L. Green & Company was targeted and five police cruisers arrived. "Those participating remained in the store about 2 hours, then disbanded. Police were called to the store by an anonymous telephone caller who said a fight was in progress there. There was no disturbance."

That was Lexington's first big one. The targeted lunch counter eventually integrated and the rest, quite literally, is history.