I was having tea in Gloucestershire with a friend, and we got to talking about protesting. I don't mean complaining about bad service, or curly sandwiches, I mean real protesting, the sort that stops councils from closing libraries.
"I've written so many emails, I can't do it any more," said he. "I'm exhausted. It never stops. If it's not libraries it's the unemployed being made to work for nothing, or whales being harpooned, forests uprooted or our health service being wrecked. And really, in the end, what does it all achieve? Once they've worn us out, governments just go back to doing what they want. Protesting never does any good in the end."
I remonstrated with him, but maybe not very much, because I was feeling pretty discouraged myself. Then something
happened that made me think again.
I went to Texas.
I'd never been to Texas before, and no doubt my idea of the place was fairly similar to many another Englishwoman who has never visited. Cowboy hats and boots, tumbleweed, twangy accents and cattle. Of course I knew that there were cities in Texas, and skyscrapers, freeways and shopping malls, but I'm a child of the fifties, and was brought up on Dick West and the Lone Ranger. So of course I looked for signs of cowboys. They were easy enough to find. And along with the whites, in cowboy hats or not, there were of course Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, the whole rainbow of peoples that makes a place vibrant.
The first evening we were in a packed restaurant. "Years ago that wouldn't have been possible," said my companion, as a young black family came in and was shown to the last empty table. I engaged my mouth before my brain. "Why not?" I said. And then I remembered. Being a child of the fifties wasn't just cowboy films. It was also segregation. So we started talking about protest. We weren't drinking tea. She had watermelon juice and I had rice milk with cinnamon. We were a long way from Gloucestershire and I had a lot to learn.
"It was 1960," said Jo Ann. "I was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. My friend and I were looking for things to join, as students do, and we noticed a poster inviting people to a meeting, so we went."
The meeting was about the civil rights movement. Things were happening. The first black student had been admitted to the university (after a court case) in 1954, but there were still only a few black students by 1960. Martin Luther King was speaking, arguments raging, and people were getting hurt.
It took a lot of courage to be black and to protest, but it happened. Black people staged sit-ins, where they entered segregated drugstores and stubbornly sat there, asking to be served. There were beatings, and attacks by police dogs to endure. Jo Ann is white, but she and her friend saw these things happening, and decided to get involved.
There were a couple of film theatres on Guadaloupe, well patronised by students. The films were good, but no blacks were allowed. And so, at the meeting another sort of protest was devised. Stand-ins. The idea was simple. White and black students would queue up together. When they got to the ticket office the white student would ask for a ticket "So long as my friend can have one too." Of course they were refused, but instead of going away they simply rejoined the end of the queue and asked again. As more people joined the protest and clogged the foyer it became difficult for anyone to buy a ticket. Here is one of the theatres, The Texas. It's not a film theatre any more, but you can see that it used to be one.
Throughout that Spring and Summer the student protest went on. They didn't give up, although the film theatres refused to review their policy. After a while it must have been so tempting to give in. I wonder how many times I would have rejoined the queue, night after night. It can hardly have been a rewarding experience. But the students were determined, and as time went by they were joined by some faculty members, as well as some local churchmen. The students were targeting chain theatres, and in other cities sympathy stand-ins occurred. In Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio protests were promised, and even Boston and New York joined in.
In spite of all this action nothing happened. At the end of the summer term the students went home, having achieved precisely nothing. The theatres were still segregated. Their peaceful protests had failed. But in the Autumn when they returned they had a surprise. Quietly, over the summer there had been a change of heart. Instead of the protesters having been worn down, the theatre owners had given way. Now, everyone was welcome to buy a ticket. Maybe the owners had seen which way the civil rights movement was going, or maybe it was just because they had been hit hard in their pockets. What was important was that the protesters had won.
"I wasn't an organiser," said Jo Ann. "I was just one warm body among many, but I'm prouder of that protest than anything else I've done."
We talked about marches we had been on, Jo Ann against the Vietnam war in Washington, me against Cruise missiles in London. By then neither of us was a student any more, and our efforts weren't always successful. But somehow, it had always seemed worthwhile making the effort.
Students in Austin are still moved to protest about all sorts of things, and that is the way it should be. There can be few things more worth fighting for than fairness, which is one reason I have on World Book Night opted to give away copies of Andrea Levy's excellent novel, Small Island. Her book reminds us on the other side of the Atlantic that we don't have much reason to be complacent about our past.
I came home feeling very glad that I had met Jo Ann. "It matters to speak out," she said. I could see by the tears in her eyes how strongly she felt.
So here's to Jo Ann. Protests may not always be as important as the civil rights movement, but it does matter to speak out on issues we care about. We won't often win. But sometimes, just sometimes we will, and surely that makes it all worthwhile?