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1963: Protests at Jefferson Bank lead to major changes in hiring practices in St. Louis

1963: Protests at Jefferson Bank lead to major changes in hiring practices in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS • By early October 1963, the demonstrations at Jefferson Bank & Trust Co. had gone on almost daily for more than a month. Civil rights groups demanded that the bank, which had only two black employees, hire four more for office jobs. Bank executives said they wouldn't be threatened.

It all began on Aug. 30, when protesters sat inside the lobby and sang, "We shall not be moved." Nine leaders were arrested, charged with violating a court order restricting the protests. On other occasions, police made arrests for entering the bank, blocking doors and sitting in front of police vehicles.

It was a year of civil rights actions across the country. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his riveting "Dream" speech in Washington on Aug. 28. In St. Louis, leaders of the Committee (later Congress) of Racial Equality, known as CORE, chose Jefferson Bank, just west of downtown at 2600 Washington Avenue, as a glaring example of widespread discrimination in hiring.

Robert B. Curtis, local CORE chairman, said of area employers, "They need to be forced into doing the right thing."

About 75 demonstrators went to the bank Oct. 7 to seek change in a literal form - coins for bills. Tellers responded with 25-cent charges for transactions. Police made 23 more arrests.

On Oct. 11, leaders of CORE and the NAACP met for almost two hours with Mayor Raymond R. Tucker, who wanted to defuse the tension. Alderman William L. Clay returned to the bank after the meeting and was arrested again for sitting on the bumper of a police truck filled with protesters.

The next day, Tucker met for less than 30 minutes with Jefferson Bank executives. Afterward, bank executive vice president Joseph H. McConnell said, "When aldermen and ministers and physicians picket your bank and block police vehicles, we wonder what our society is coming to."

Tucker proposed a two-week cooling-off period. But after 19 leaders were sent back to jail on Oct. 24-25, action moved to City Jail, where protesters held regular and noisy vigils. Sentences ranged from 60 days to one year.

On March 2, 1964 - 55 days after the sentencings - the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the 19 to post bond. By then, Jefferson Bank had hired six more blacks.

The protests endure as the most significant area event of the modern civil rights era. From its ranks rose many political leaders, including Clay, who went to Congress; and Raymond Howard and Louis Ford, who became Missouri legislators. And it led to better jobs for blacks in St. Louis.


 

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