Photos from history: How San Antonio protested during civil rights movement

‘NOT FAVORS BUT RIGHTS!’ written on sign during 1963 protest outside City Hall

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Courtesy of UTSA Special Collections, San Antonio Light collection

Members of the NAACP protest outside San Antonio's City Hall in June 1963. (Courtesy of UTSA Special Collections, San Antonio Light collection)

San Antonio has been here before: Decades following the civil rights movement and farmworker strikes, locals have remained defiant in the face of police brutality, racism and inequality.

As the death of George Floyd has gripped the nation already coping with the coronavirus pandemic, local activists say San Antonio residents of all ages are still here to rattle society.

After all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years.

Images from UTSA’s Special Collections, which include stills from the San Antonio Express-News and San Antonio Light, show the city’s presence during movements of civil rights and farmworkers.

Photos taken in 1963 show members of the NAACP demonstrating outside City Hall, signs painted with “NOT FAVORS BUT RIGHTS!” and “FULL CITIZENSHIP BY ANTI-SEGREGATION ORDINANCE” in hand. Other photos taken in 1960 show NAACP members participating in a demonstration outside a Handy Andy at New Braunfels Avenue and East Houston Street, demanding equal job opportunities.

People are protesting in small Texas towns, too

A variety of stills show NAACP members awaiting President John F. Kennedy at the San Antonio airport in 1963, workers joining the Rio Grande Valley farmworkers march to Austin as it stopped here in 1966, and members of the Mexican American Youth Organization picketing against a Texas Rangers captain who used excessive force during a strike in 1968.

Dr. Keely Petty, chair of the San Antonio Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, said one demonstration that stands out to her is the integration of the lunch counter inside the Woolworth Building in 1960.

In March of that year, local business leaders were faced with an ultimatum by the NAACP: face sit-in demonstrations or allow integration. The integration of the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, as well as six other downtown stores, came on March 16, 1960, after religious leaders met with store managers.

San Antonio civil rights activist arrested in the 1960s supporting ongoing protests

The integration was one way San Antonio has fought to be “welcoming to all,” she said. And that movement continues to be an example to hundreds across San Antonio as they focus on addressing racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Rudy Rosales, the director of LULAC Texas, made similar comments, saying San Antonio is unique in its eagerness to help out.

“I think what makes us so special is the fact that a lot of people here in San Antonio don’t realize how unique we are,” he said. “We don’t know our history enough to understand and comprehend what’s going on, but I will say this much: because San Antonio does at the very least do a very decent job of getting the history out there and maintaining who we are… I think that’s what brings out the special character of our city.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg delivers impassioned speech to protesters

He mentioned the city’s rallying behind the San Antonio Food Bank, which has received both local and national support after aerial footage of a distribution on April 9 showed the city’s need for basic necessities.

He added with the exception of the violence on Saturday, May 30, the city “did really well” during the protests. On Saturday, May 30, a 90-120 minute rampage followed an otherwise peaceful protest, resulting in vandalism and theft at downtown shops and landmarks.

Younger generation is ‘just not going to tolerate it’

Today’s protesters are fueled by a unique power that activists did not have decades ago: cell phones and social media.

“I am grateful for social media because it gives us a little bit of hope that now we can capture some of the abuses and injustices that past generations have been speaking about and blowing the horn about,” she said.

"Now we have actual evidence to say that: we filmed it, caught it live, we were there… what are the people in power going to do now that we’ve actually caught it on camera?”

She said in modern-day protests, people of all races are heading out to fight injustice.

A noticeable sign of change, she said, is to see that every single state has had protests in recent days.

“When we look at past protests and protests up to now, I think that the young generation, we could call the millennials, they have a different perspective because they are just not going to tolerate it to the degree that past generations have," she said, as older generations may have been more reluctant to protest.

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What’s next

Petty and Rosales are urging anyone who wants to get involved to protest peacefully, to find organizations that fiercely fight injustice, and to remain hopeful.

“This is the time where you’ve ever wondered, ‘why am I here?’ This is why you’re here now. Go out there. Get involved. Do something. Be a part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Rosales said.

San Antonians, city crews clean up downtown destruction caused by ‘bad actors’

Petty said there are a variety of organizations, from the systemic perspective to a human rights perspective, to be active in. She is also the program director for the Bethel Prevention Coalition that works with African Americans in San Antonio to reduce drug and alcohol abuse.

Petty expects a large showing in the 2021′s MLK Jr. March, with the addition of a stronger stream of funding, diverse speakers and a “different hue of marchers."

“I believe that we are on the precipice of enormous change — change that we’ve been waiting on for over 400 years.”

Organizers say it's the biggest Martin Luther King Jr. march in the nation... And it happens right here in San Antonio.

About the Author:

Rebecca Salinas has worked in digital news for more than 10 years and joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.