Columbia civil rights leaders reflect on historic election

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 | 8:50 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Eliot Battle recalls the first time he went to register to vote in 1945. He had read an article in an Alabama newspaper that said four black people and 200 white people had registered the previous day.

"I thought how terrible it was that so few blacks were registered," Battle said during an interview in his home last week. "I went down the next morning and was there early, and was number five or six in the (separate) line for African Americans."

But Battle never made it to the front of the line. He sat there waiting, even as hundreds of white people came in, registered and left. He returned the next day, only to be grilled for three hours on his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. The inquiry was a means of preventing black people from registering to vote.

"The man who did the registration could not pronounce the word ‘constitution,' but I was asked to interpret the Constitution," Battle said.

Despite the struggle, Battle, 84, was empowered by the experience.

"I remember how important voting was to me, as a result of that attitude," he said. "They thought I'd lose my patience and get out of line and go back home, but I persevered.

"I don't remember for whom I was voting for the first time, but I do remember the pride I felt as I cast my ballot, and I haven't missed voting at any time since."

Battle's experience in registering to vote was common among black people before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed as an effort to end racial segregation and voting discrimination. Even though blacks technically had been given the right to vote through the 15th Amendment late in the 19th century, discrimination persisted at the polls for decades.

Battle has been a leader in Columbia's black community for years. He was the only black faculty member to move to Hickman High School when Douglass High School closed as part of the desegregation movement of the early 1960s. In the days leading up to a historic presidential election, in which the nation was poised to elect the first black man ever to be president, he and other members of the black community reflected on how far the nation has come since those tumultuous times before the Civil Rights Act.

Battle remembers when there was a "total separation of the races in housing, schools and about every phase of life."  He said he recalls that not only were there separate schools and neighborhoods for blacks and whites, but black people could not go into white public libraries or even sit on benches in public parks.

Battle is originally from Mobile, Alabama, and said he experienced segregation and prejudice there. That didn't change when he moved to Columbia.

"Missouri was about as much like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia as the Southern states were like each other. There was as much prejudice and as much segregation here as there was in my hometown." Battle said.

A city divided

Wynna Fay Elbert, 64, vividly recalls the segregation that took place in Columbia. Her memory focused on a diner on Third Street, known today as Providence Road. Although "black folks lived all up and down Third Street," she said, they were not allowed inside the white diner.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Elbert said. "We had to go to the window to order in winter — rain or hail — and wait outside until our food was ready."

Elbert, a member of the junior NAACP at the time, remembers when she and seven or eight others, including "spokesman" James Nunnelly, walked into the restaurant and sat down at the counter.

"We don't serve niggers here," the man at the counter told Nunnelly.

"That's good, because we want coffee," Nunnelly responded.

The man was not amused. He came out from behind the counter, grabbed Nunnelly and "threw him out of the building by his arms," Elbert said.

The incident drew a "crowd that grew to approximately 300 people who got very excited and rushed the diner, turning it over on its side," Elbert recalls. It eventually attracted the attention of the Missouri Highway Patrol, the sheriff's office and Columbia police. 

"The next day the diner was moved from the neighborhood, never to return," Elbert said.

Elbert said that episode was "one of the big things in Civil Rights days" in Columbia.

Battle said that although he did not participate in sit-ins or all of the marches, he protested in other ways. "We were the first black family in Columbia to move out of the segregated area," he said. And two of his four children were the first black students to attend Grant Elementary School. 

Arvarh Strickland, namesake of MU's Strickland Hall, also made a difference during that time. Strickland was the first black professor to teach at MU. He taught an African-American history class that was requested by students.

"It was really a great experience because the students of the '60s and early '70s were very involved in things, and so when I came, they rushed into my classes," Strickland said.

Before his employment at MU, Strickland protested segregation on the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana campus where he attended graduate school. By the time he graduated, Strickland said the movement was in "full swing."  He began teaching in Chicago, where there was "a great problem with school segregation."

"We were involved in protesting the policies of superintendent Benjamin Willis, who built schools in locations that would maintain segregation," Strickland recalled.

Dreams fulfilled

After living through such a time, the candidacy of Barack Obama is especially meaningful to people who fought so hard for their rights.

"I didn't ever dream of seeing an African American as a serious candidate," Strickland said. "Of course, this has been an overwhelming experience for me to live through this election process this time."

Strickland believes Obama has already changed, at least somewhat, how the black community is viewed.

"The change has not been radical, but it has been a very positive thing," he said.

Strickland described Obama as "a man who certainly does not meet all of those stereotypes that many people have of African Americans."

"Any time we can whittle away at some of these stereotypes, it is good, and a lot of that has taken place since the Civil Rights Movement. That kind of set us on the course of learning and changing attitudes and perceptions of each other."

Battle has similar sentiments about Obama.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that his candidacy would happen," Battle said.

Battle is a proud Obama supporter, as evidenced by the sign in his front yard. He said he has been glued to his television this election and has watched almost every one of Obama's speeches.

Battle admires many of Obama's characteristics, including his family values and his communication skills. He said he feels Obama is a fair person and "wants to lift up the middle class."

"He's not a racist person. He's for the advancement of all persons regardless of race," he said.

Elbert also said she is enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy. She said she was ecstatic to have the opportunity to see Obama speak at his MU rally on Thursday. 

"He's another part of history I never thought I'd see," Elbert said.

Elbert attended the rally with her daughter and two granddaughters, ages 16 and 10.  She said she was glad to have "the opportunity to be there with my grandchildren and see them excited and questioning what he's doing and why he's doing things."

"My grandchildren got to see a part of history," Elbert said.

The Civil Rights Movement not only affected the generation that experienced it, but younger generations relate through memories shared by family and friends who experienced the movement firsthand.

Hope's homecoming

Dwuana Bradley, a student at Truman State University who traveled to the Obama rally with a busload of students, said she remembers hearing stories about her aunt who was involved in the desegregation of Arkansas schools. Comparing her own experiences to those of her aunt, she said she is amazed by the changes that have taken place. 

"I just can't believe my first vote is for a black man," Bradley said. "We went from the '60s when black people couldn't vote, and now my first vote is for a black man."

Julia Hickem, 46, also attended the Thursday rally. "This is the happiest moment, besides my child's birth, in my life," she said. "I love Obama. He is the man for the world."

Hickem spoke of her mother's involvement in the movement, but what she remembered most was her mother's spirit.

"She had hope, just like me."


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