There’s a tradition in the south of men taking care of problems in the community. They would just get together and figure out the best way to deal with the issue. No press. No social media. Just serious men, taking care of the community they cared about.
This story is one of the best examples of that process I’ve ever seen.
The integration of Marshall Space Flight Center
How Sen. John Sparkman, Milton Cummings and Woody Anderson helped save Huntsville’s space industry
By Bob Ward
A telephone call in 1964, or a pair of calls, may have played a crucial role in saving NASA‟s beleaguered Marshall Space Flight Center for Huntsville, and for Alabama.
Government leaders all the way from the White House to NASA Headquarters to Marshall Center at the time were alarmed and frustrated that the field center was unable to attract minority engineers and other such technical applicants to come for job interviews.
One important reason: Fifty years ago it was impossible for visiting blacks – or any blacks, for that matter – to get a decent hotel or motel room or dine at a first-rate restaurant in town because racial segregation ruled.
In a detailed 1997 book interview just now being made public, prominent local automobile dealer C.W. “Woody” Anderson recalled that he received a phone call one day in early 1964 from Huntsville cotton broker-turned-aerospace magnate Milton Cummings. The then-chairman of the board at Brown Engineering Co. – and later the namesake of Huntsville‟s sprawling Cummings Research Park — wanted to see Anderson right away on “some things.”
Anderson and Cummings were well-acquainted. They served for years together on the board of directors of the then-First National Bank, and both were active in Democratic Party affairs. “Milton and I had bumped shoulders,” Anderson said, “and I had a hell of a lot of respect for him.”
Two of Cummings‟ closest friends were Congressman Bob Jones of Scottsboro and Huntsville‟s U.S. Sen. John Sparkman, the national party‟s 1952 vice-presidential nominee on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson. Anderson in 1964 was the chief North Alabama confidant and political patronage contact of George C. Wallace, who was governor at the time.
The wealthy Cummings had called Anderson from the Huntsville Country Club and asked him to come out and meet with him that day. Upon arriving, the Woody Anderson Ford dealership owner and development investor asked, “Well, what you got on your mind?”
“I just got a call from John Sparkman,” Cummings replied, according to Anderson. “We got a serious problem in Huntsville, Alabama – one that, the way it is handled, is going to chart the growth of Huntsville.”
Cummings said Sparkman had just left Lyndon Johnson‟s office and had said the nation‟s new president “is madder than hell because they (Marshall Center) can‟t get anybody to come to Huntsville (for employment interviews) other than lily-white males, mostly.”
According to Anderson, Cummings also quoted Sparkman as saying that “Johnson is sincere enough about this thing, (that) unless we can find some way to bring some black people into the community to work at (Marshall), it is going to cease to be.”
The three Alabamians were well aware that Johnson, as vice president, had headed the National Space Council. They knew he insisted on seeing Texas get its fair share – or more – of the U.S. space pie. Marshall Center, although in a growth mode with the Project Apollo moon- landing effort fully under way, had been in existence just four years. And it didn‟t help matters that George Wallace was railing against the federal government at every turn.
Johnson, in the wake of President John Kennedy‟s assassination, was the prime mover for enactment by Congress of the 1964 Civil Rights bill. Johnson signed the act into law in July of that year. It included measures barring “places of public accommodation” – such as hotels and restaurants – from turning away racial minorities. And federal installations were required to have a percentage of minority employees that approximated that of their communities or areas.
About the same time, both NASA boss James Webb and Marshall Center Director Wernher von Braun were carrying the message of equal employment opportunity in speeches to North Alabamians.
Anderson said he asked Cummings, Why me? The Brown Engineering chief replied that he “didn‟t want to call somebody that couldn‟t or wouldn‟t do something about” the situation at hand. “I know you can help and I think you will help,” Cummings added.
Personally, Milton Cummings was known to take a liberal position in most matters of race. When his church board voted to deny membership to minorities, Cummings had resigned from the board. He championed several causes to help the community‟s poor, including blacks. He went on to lead the creation of a private local organization to promote the recruitment and hiring of minorities by missile and space contractors, and saw to it that a highly regarded black executive was hired to run it.
When Cummings pointed out to Anderson that the only place a visiting African-American could get a room in the Huntsville area, aside from a private residence or boarding house or two, was a barebones, 14-room, black-owned motel, Anderson said he began to get the full message.
The car dealer was a substantial stockholder and president of the corporation that owned the new Kings Inn, a 180-room hotel – segregated, of course — on busy North Memorial Parkway, and its fine, popular, 150-seat restaurant. Anderson in the interview proudly described the property as “THE hotel in Alabama” at the time. (He also revealed that when a black person appeared at the registration desk, the clerk on duty would covertly press a button that turned on the “No Vacancy” sign outside. The clerk would then say, “I‟m sorry, but didn‟t you see our „No Vacancy‟ sign? We just don‟t have any [rooms].”)
Anderson said Cummings got explicit with his request: “I want you to make a number of rooms at the hotel available to the black community” and to any blacks from African countries such as Nigeria.
An incredulous Anderson responded, “Do you know what you‟re asking me to do?” And Cummings answered, “Yeah, I know it is going to be tough but in years to come, it will be looked at as a major decision for our total community,” for Alabama and for “the whole wide world,” given the international reach of Marshall Center and U.S. Army missile work at Redstone Arsenal.
“Woody, it is important that we do this,” Cummings implored. Thousands of jobs in Huntsville hung in the balance.
If the Kings Inn is desegregated, what happens if white people boycott the hotel and its restaurant? Anderson said he asked Cummings. “He said, „They possibly will but we can handle that.‟ I said, „Well, how are we going to handle it? What are the stockholders going to say if it starts to lose money?‟ He said, „You and I will buy it.‟ He would put his money where his mouth was.”
Anderson recalled telling Cummings that he couldn‟t give him an immediate answer, that he‟d have to sleep on it, get his partners together, and get back to him in a day or two.
But Anderson didn‟t wait. He called a meeting of the Kings Inn board members and shareholders for 4 o‟clock that afternoon. He and a building contractor each held 28 or 29 percent of the stock. The other director/shareholders were local businessmen in commercial development, lumber, real estate, insurance and other fields. All were Southerners.
Anderson said he gathered the group in “executive session” in his office at the hotel. He laid out Cummings‟ urgent request and its background. He told them what was at stake. He told them that both he and Cummings knew not to take the Texan LBJ lightly.
“Of course, Lyndon Johnson was a dictator within a democracy,” Anderson observed in the interview. “I don‟t mean that to be critical. He was a doer, and when he said something, he wanted it to happen. And when he shook his fist, he wanted the forest to fall.”
In the closed session of the Kings Inn partners, arguments pro and con were made. The men spoke their minds. Practically all strongly opposed desegregation of the hotel. Some of the language got rough, Anderson remembered. He said the “heated discussion and hard bargaining” continued into the evening – and beyond.
“We stayed there all night long and I could not get a majority vote to do it,” recalled Anderson. Then, at last, shareholder Vance Thornton, an insurance and realty agency owner and a past president of the Huntsville City Council, broke the ice, making the motion in favor of the proposal, Anderson said. “We finally got the resolution passed whereby we would integrate the hotel….”
Then the delicate task of carrying out that momentous change without fanfare began, with Anderson taking the lead. The plan was to avert publicity, avert a rush of blacks on the hotel, avert noisy celebrations and any other disruption there. It was a time of lunch-counter sit-ins and other civil rights demonstrations in the city, Anderson recalled, even if they were fairly low-key, nonviolent events.
The plan for gradual, no-fuss implementation of the change called for a number of steps to be taken.
One was to quietly contact several of the community‟s black leaders – including some like Dr. John Cashin who were openly supportive of the sit-ins and demonstrations – share the decision with them, and secure their cooperation.
Another step was for Anderson to meet with a key official at the then-Alabama A&M College, Leander R. Patton, the traditionally black institution‟s widely respected business manager. The purpose was to ask his help in discreetly getting out the word there but making sure that 50 black students didn‟t descend at once on the Kings Inn wanting rooms.
Anderson also called George Wallace and informed him. The governor, he said, was supportive. The fact that “Alabama was getting a pretty bad thrashing” in the news media at that time was probably a factor, Anderson noted.
He said Wallace offered to help in any way he could – including calling out the Alabama National Guard to keep the peace lest major “problems” erupt … problems like the Klan showing up to protest, problems like violence.
(The Huntsville power broker took pains in the interview to defend his good friend Wallace. He claimed Wallace‟s main race-related concern was forced school busing. Despite the governor‟s “Segregation forever!” image, “he never hated one person in his life,” Anderson insisted. “…George Wallace was never, ever, ever a racist. He was an opportunist and he took whatever opportunity was at hand to be elected…. You do whatever it takes to win. Then, after you win, you can do something about things.”)Another action Anderson took involved breaking the color barrier at the Kings Inn Restaurant. He called a black funeral home director, R.E. Nelms, explained the situation, and invited him to be the first African-American to dine there. Anderson met beforehand with the restaurant‟s manager and staff to ensure that things went smoothly.
But things didn‟t go smoothly.
On the chosen day, Anderson escorted the mortician into the restaurant, selected a seat for him, and seated himself across the room where he could observe. A waitress took the special customer‟s order. When the meal was served, it was a disaster, the steak inedible. The diner gave Anderson a signal they had agreed upon in case any trouble arose.
Anderson said he went into the kitchen, ordered that another, proper plate be prepared for his guest, and threatened to cancel the restaurant‟s lease if anything like that ever happened again. It didn‟t.
From then on, everything at the hotel and restaurant went well, Anderson said. Several days after the restaurant incident, “a (black) couple came in and another came in, and on and on. Pretty soon the restaurant was serving everybody….”
The week after Nelms had dined, blacks began registering at the hotel. “We opened the doors and started … accepting all comers – blacks, whites, Indians, whatever – without advertising,” Anderson recalled. “There was no fuss, no bother, no nothing, it just went off. You wouldn‟t believe in a hundred years that it could happen in Alabama in 1964 and not have a lot of bloodshed.”
The news media knew nothing about it, he remembered. It took about a week or so before townspeople began learning of the changes taking place at the Kings Inn. The most powerful banker in the city, Beirne Spragins, chairman of First National – on whose board of directors Anderson and Cummings sat — “heard about it, and he called me and said, „God bless you. I am glad that you did this.‟ ”
Others from the business community “finally started calling and (saying), „By golly, things are going all right.‟ … Strangely enough, I got more calls from people complimenting me for it than I did against it.”
Of the hotel director/stockholders at the all-night meeting, Anderson recalled, the most outspoken, roughest-talking one came by the auto dealer‟s office and apologized, even if it was six months later.
So the big step was taken. Cummings had believed it could happen, believed it must happen, and Anderson had led the way to making it happen. Other local hotels, motels and restaurants, sooner or later, followed suit.
Minority job interviews and recruitment increased at Marshall Center and at its contractors‟ facilities. The crisis had passed.
“I am totally convinced that Milton Cummings – I give him all the credit for it, because if he had not thought it, it would not have happened,” said Anderson. “I just happened to be in the right seat, or the wrong seat – whichever people want to judge – at that time.” … “I felt like, for the good of the community, what Milton and I did was the right thing to do.”
In the end, Anderson was inclined to give some credit to another source.
“I‟m not as religious as I ought to be, but I will guarantee you one thing: Somebody,
somewhere was out there holding my hand as we went through that…. I guess God was just looking down on us.”
It had all been worth it, he said.
“In my honest opinion, if that (Kings Inn desegregation) had not been done, (Marshall Center) would have been moved to Houston, Texas. No doubt about it.”
Woody Anderson, whose Ford dealership still bears his name, died in July 2003. Cummings had died in March 1973, Sparkman in November 1985, and Wallace in September 1998.
Bob Ward is a former editor of The Huntsville Times and the author of the 2005 biography “Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun.” The material above was part of his research for a planned biography of Milton Cummings, which was not completed