Columbia Journalism Review

We Wish to Plead Our Own Cause

In the sixties, the population of Clarksville, a small town in East Texas, was 70 percent white and 30 percent black. The area’s economy, long dependent on agriculture, was expanding to include manufacturing, but more than half of Red River County—of which Clarksville is the county seat—lived below the poverty line. In 1965, the Clarksville Housing Authority put up a series of housing projects: two buildings for black tenants and a third for white people. It was a deliberate sorting.

Not long after residents had settled in, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into effect the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which held that the Department of Housing and Urban Development could no longer tolerate racial discrimination in the sale and rental of federally subsidized homes. Over the next decade, the law was tacked onto a growing list of milestones; we were post Brown v. Board of Education, post Civil Rights Act, post Voting Rights Act, post Fair Housing Act and, ostensibly, post-integration. Not in Clarksville, however. Not even close.

Clarksville was divided by Main Street; black residents lived in a small area on the north side, which their white neighbors referred to using a racial slur. A monument in the town square was dedicated “In Memory of Our Confederate Soldiers.” The town’s public housing had become, like other projects across the country, essentially a legally tolerated apartheid system: the white projects, on paved, well-maintained streets, had ranch-style buildings and manicured lawns; the black housing, on unpaved streets, had cracked floors, unvented wall heaters, and decrepit kitchens.

On March 14, 1980, Lucille Young and Virginia Wyatt, two black women, sued the local housing authority and HUD. Young, a mother of six, and Wyatt, a mother of five, had applied for public housing in 1975 and 1978, respectively. Represented by East Texas Legal Services, Young and Wyatt, who had sought residence at the white buildings and were left to languish on a waiting list, asked that the court issue injunctions to grant them entry. East Texas Legal Services arranged for the suit to be a class action, seeking relief for some 40,000 black households in South Texas. US District Court Judge William Wayne Justice approved the request.

Three years later, Clarksville had failed to end segregation in public housing. To solve the problem, the story ran under the headline “Forced Home-Swapping Outrages Races.” published a piece, “Desegregation stirs dismay.” A United Press International reporter quoted the town’s mayor, a white man, saying that Clarksville did not have “racial problems”; the article included no voices of black residents.

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