Report on Project to Desegregate the
Sand Springs Oklahoma Public Schools
Remembering the Tulsa Sit-ins
I took part in the lunch counter sit-ins in Tulsa shortly after graduating from high school. I had met Clara Louper who led the 1956 Oklahoma City lunch counter sit ins. Not too many people know this, but those sit-in preceded the more famous 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, which are usually credited with launching the Civil Rights Movement.
Tulsa had had the country's worst race riot in 1921. I knew that at the time of the sit-ins. But I did not appreciate the reality of how close that was historically — 42 years earlier, meaning that it was still in the memory of Blacks and Whites in their 50s and older.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made mine and the others charges for the sit-ins moot, I initiated a project to integrate the nearby Sand Springs school system. In the course of that I met and worked with Marques Haynes, the legendary dribbler from the Harlem Globetrotters and a native of Sand Springs.
The following is a newspaper article that I wrote about that encounter in 1992 and one of my favorite stories.
MARQUES HAYNES GAVE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT A DUNK SHOT
The Chronicle (Willimantic, CT), December 7, 1992
By James W. Russell
Marques Haynes and the Harlem Magicians are coming to town. I've already bought my ticket.
I last saw Marques Haynes, the world s greatest dribbler, 28 years ago in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. I had first known who he was when, as a 9-year-old, I had watched the movie Go Man Go about the Harlem Globetrotters. What I remember from the movie is that watching him move the ball was more interesting than the actual scoring.
He sort of break-danced and dribbled at the same time. In a game where height usually counts the most, he was a skilled dancer and juggler, bouncing the ball behind his back and through opponents legs, always causing consternation and hilarity.
He later broke away from the Globetrotters and started his own comedy basketball team, the Magicians.
The first time I saw him in person was when he and the Magicians played at my high school in Tulsa. He was from Sand Springs, a nearby small town which is probably why our high school got the treat of a visit from the Magicians. I remember writing a story for the school newspaper about the game.
Two years later, my family moved to Sand Springs. This was 1964, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, and Sand Springs was a typical small town in the border South with a lot of the problems that racism had bred.
Its schools were strictly segregated. All of the black students from kindergarten through 12th grade went to one school, the school from which Marques Haynes had graduated. It had been built in 1898 and easily showed its age. Meanwhile, white students went to elementary school, junior high school and senior high school in separate, modern buildings. More importantly, the white schools offered a much greater variety of courses than did the black school.
That summer, the Tulsa branch of the Congress of Racial Equality was celebrating the passing of the Civil Rights Bill and the subsequent dismissal of charges against all of its members, myself included, who had been arrested in restaurant sit-ins.
As it next project, CORE took on the desegregation of the Sand Springs school system. Our organizing committee went from house to house in the town's black community discussing the importance of ending discrimination in education. We encountered support from a number of parents and opposition from some teachers, who feared that they would lose their jobs if the schools were desegregated.
The organizing drive culminated in an open meeting for the whole black community. The church where it was held was packed. Person after person got up to address whether it was desirable to take on the school system. The balance of opinion was in favor, but there was reluctance and fear, too. A number of parents worried about how their children would be treated in a white school.
At this point, a well-dressed young black man stood up with a prepared statement. (Several people whispered that he had been sent by members of the all-white school board.) He argued that it was foolish to end the black school because it had graduated so many fine students who had gone on to great success, the most prominent having been Marques Haynes.
As he finished, a man shouted from the back of the church that he wanted to speak. "I am Marques Haynes. It is true that I have been successful, but that is because I have a very unusual talent. I never wanted to become a basketball player. I was forced to.
"When I went to high school, I really wanted to become a printer. But I couldn t because there was no printing program in this school while there was one in the white school. If we want our children to have the most opportunities in life, they have to be able to go to decent schools."
Marques Haynes had ended the debate with a dunk shot. A number of parents then came forward, announcing that their children would attempt to enroll in the white schools.
When the white school authorities refused to admit them, CORE filed a complaint with the federal Justice Department. With new enforcement powers from the Civil Rights Act, the Justice Department obliged the school board to integrate the system.
All of this was a minor footnote in the history of the civil rights movement the New York Times reported the filing of the complaint to the Justice Department in a one-inch filler story.
Twenty-eight years later, though, Marques Haynes is still prominently playing basketball and sinking a lot of shots. Twenty-eight years later, I m not sure whether I can still play basketball and I was a kid when he was already famous as an adult player.