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From Behind the Screen How a Brash Young Man from Jim Crow New Orleans Became a Civil Rights Leader in Texas

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2023-08-01
  • Publisher: Bartleby Press
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List Price: $22.93 Save up to $0.11
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The native Creole culture of New Orleans and Louisiana is unique. We know its music, its food, its French and Spanish inspired accents. Ultimately though, the most distinctive feature is the people. What we now recognize as Creole developed over several hundred years, a “gumbo” of African slaves, and former slaves, free people of color, Europeans, even American Indians – all in just about any combination you can imagine.

In New Orleans, regardless of the mixture, they were considered “colored.” African Americans had separate neighborhoods, stores and parks. Where black and whites came into contact there was as strict code of deference that had to be followed. Even in the Catholic churches that allowed both races to pray, parishioners expected that they would sit in separate pews with whites given the most advantageous positions. Needless to say, opportunities for the city’s colored population were severely limited.

hen there was the “screen,” the New Orleans’ name for the “Colored Only” signs that were ubiquitous in the Jim Crow-dominated city. Every bus and trolley car had one to make sure the African American citizens knew to sit in the back, as if they needed to be reminded. “Screens” were found in many other places around town as well.

It is in this separate, but still rich and vibrant, world that the inspiring story of Curtis Graves begins. His remarkable parents were determined that Curtis grow up aware of who he was and his fascinating roots, which included both former slaves and plantation owners.

At first, this required deceptions by his family as they hid the most obvious signs of restrictions placed on their lives. As he became older Curtis observed life in New Orleans and was allowed to come to his own understanding.

Mabel and Buddy Graves also placed a great value on education, expecting that Curtis would go to college, perhaps become a teacher, or businessman, among the few vocations available for educated African Americans.

After a time attending college close to home, Curtis transferred to Texas Southern University in Houston, a large historically black college. The late 1950s was a time when even more attention was being paid to the burgeoning civil rights movement. A young Martin Luther King, Jr. had already emerged as its leader, focusing on nonviolence, a tactic and philosophy primary adopted from Gandhi in India, but enhanced through deep religious roots.

The young students at Texas Southern took notice. Faced with racism all around them, Curtis and others decided to protest in their own way – demanding equal access to public places. The first target was the lunch counter at a Houston supermarket. In March 1960, they staged the first “sit-in” there. Nobody knew what would happen, but the sit-ins continued at supermarkets and drugstores around town, drawing more and more interest.

When it made the national news, Curtis Graves’ parents were not happy. However, he made them realize that they had brought him up to take a stand, even if it was dangerous.

By the time Curtis entered the Army, he had already earned a reputation for political activism in the cause of equality. Returning to Texas, he ran for a seat in the Texas State Legislature. After a raucous election, Curtis Graves won the election, becoming one of the first African Americans to hold state office since Reconstruction.

He served six years, but even after he left office—and politics — Graves has never stopped battling for fairness and equal opportunity.

He tells his story with real style, remembering with warmth and good humor all the people –both famous and not so well-known— who have touched his life along the way. Even more, he gives us an important first-hand, inside understanding of the struggles for civil rights in America.

Author Biography

After Curtis Graves left politics, he had a long distinguished career as an administrator at NASA.

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