UT alumnus reminisces on civil rights activism on, off campus

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marshfield Clinic

When Leon McNealy and fellow student Chet Helms petitioned against the University’s annual blackface minstrel show, neither one could have anticipated its impact. For McNealy, this act of defiance soon turned into something greater: a lifelong fight against oppression.  

Though McNealy had already been aware of the racism surrounding him, it wasn’t until he was 17 and riding the bus home from school that he started to act against it. A white man boarded the bus and demanded an elderly black woman give him her seat. When she didn’t move, the driver began to insist she do so. 

“Racism is not so much about a seat, which he was entitled to by law, it’s about power,” McNealy said. “He could have any seat, but he wanted that one.”

From then on, McNealy began to get involved in civil rights work.

In 1958, McNealy joined a group of black students from UT and Huston-Tillotson College to illegally march across the State Capitol grounds and demonstrate sit-ins at lunch counters in downtown Austin.

In 1960, McNealy, Sherryl Griffin Bozeman and Mary Simpson went to then-University President Logan Wilson’s office to discuss the elimination of segregation on campus. When they arrived, they were quickly turned away. But the trio wouldn’t be ignored and refused to leave until President Wilson spoke to them. Soon, over 5,000 people joined them to chant the University’s maxim, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

A few years later, Students for a Democratic Society began orchestrating stand-ins for the integration of local theaters on The Drag. McNealy and other protesters would stand in line, ask to buy a ticket only if the establishment was integrated and if it wasn’t, they would go back in line and ask again. They drew so much attention that Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered
their support.

“It was a very powerful movement, and it had the seeds of something we saw around the whole country,” McNealy said. “I remember we were having an all-black meeting when Joann Cope, a white woman, wanted to join the movement. It was surprising because here was a person who didn’t have to get involved, but would put her life on the line for someone like me. That was incredible.”

But at times, leading the demonstrations turned violent, and McNealy was faced with threats of lynching and being shot.

“Naturally, as a mouthy, skinny black boy leading chants, I stood out,” McNealy said. “The man was soft-spoken, and he just said to me, ‘If I ever see you at an integrated place, I’ll kill you.’” 

Soon after, McNealy ate at a recently integrated restaurant called Hank’s Grill. As McNealy finished his meal and stepped outside, the same young man sped up his car and ran him over. 

Although McNealy said his recollection of the events is hazy due to the concussion he received, he recalls that two other boys carried him to their house after he was rejected treatment at a local hospital. 

“I think I was already pretty realistic about the kind of country I lived in, and this incident confirmed my ideals,” McNealy said. “As a minority, you live or die
whether the country wants you to or not.”

Despite the various acts of violence, McNealy never considered stopping his activist work. He said the social networks and people he’s encountered made it all worth it.

“The most rewarding thing has just been keeping in touch with my old friends,” McNealy said. “The people I met out there have become my closest friends. On one hand, I could say, ‘If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve never gone to the University of Texas,’ but on the other, I know if I hadn’t, I would’ve never met these people.”