Leaders of the 1968 Central High School black student walk-out, 45 years later
By Eric Hackley
Editor’s note: In part one of the Hackley Report on Black Kekionga Warriors, journalist, writer and television producer Eric D. Hackley profiled activist Rubin Brown and explored Brown’s roots in the civil rights movement. This week Brother Hackley talks with Brown and his colleague William Tubbs Muhammad about the historic protest they led at Central High School nearly half a century ago.
EH: What inspired your black community activism?
Brown: 1964 was a pivotal year for me. I worked as part of (SNCC) Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Voter Registration in Biloxi, Miss. This is at the time of Fannie Lou Hamer’s poignant stance of wanting to register to vote in probably the most backward state in the nation and the deaths of Schwarner, Goodman and Chaney. We were surrounded by the students who came for the Mississippi Freedom Summer, that plus the blessings from my mother who was the acting secretary of the Biloxi NAACP is where my impetus came from.
EH: What inspired you?
Muhammad: In 1968 when both Rubin and I were high school juniors, the only history education we had was HIS-Story, about George Washington, the cherry tree and honest Abe. But about revolution, we didn’t find out later that it meant bloodshed, and we didn’t want to shed any blood unless we necessarily had to. My main motivators were the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. Malcolm’s Ballot or the Bullet [speech] use to get me fired up and ready for battle.
What made us think we could make a change? We were getting ready to go to Vietnam supposedly to fight and give our lives for our country. I took a page from Muhammad Ali’s, “ain’t no Viet Cong ever called nigga.” So, I wasn’t going anyplace to fight an enemy way across the pond. My enemy was right here in the State of Indiana, in the Republic of America. So what drove us was the fact that we really believed that we could make a change.
Some of our mentors really helped us like Nate Norman, Dave Miller, Jacque Patterson, Elizabeth Dobynes, Charles Redd, Tom Brown, to mention a few. Some of our elders were, Coteal Walton, Albert Bruener. We felt that once the BSSC (Black Society for Social Change) got together and started formulating ideas, it led to a lot of awakening like who we were and being proud to be black. I didn’t like the word negro back then and I don’t like the name African American now. It’s just my personal choice. You’ll never be an American. You live within the geographical region of America, but your origin is from Mother Africa.
EH: How did your idea of having a student walk-out develop?
Muhammad: It was two things. We got wind that Central might be closing in a couple of years and there was a march over the opening of new schools. The idea was that they would close Central and open Northrop and Wayne. We wondered, “Why would you close a perfectly good school and open schools way out in the country where Caucasians live?”
There was a lot of interracial dating going on at the time. A Central football player slapped a white girl and one of our football coaches said, “We ought to hang him.” We always got little snipes of things like that. Racially, we knew where we stood. One time at a Weisser Park student dance, we attempted to merge black and white students. One of our teachers came out waving his arms, “get back, get back—white students over here, black students over there.” Now this was in the mid 1960s. At Central, interracial dating was called “scene fighting.”
Also, there was the Ministerial Alliance. This is not a knock on them, but the late Rev. Dr. Jesse White was a community activist. We called him “the white man’s mouthpiece.” As a matter of fact, preachers period, whenever the black natives got restless, the Ministerial Alliance was always sent in—“All right now, ya’ll calm down now.” Well we weren’t going for the okeydoke anymore.
When we came to Central, the black to white student ratio was about 1:3 with more whites. At the time of graduation, it had reversed to where black students were numerically dominant. They called us “the minority majority.” Brother Rubin Brown, Joseph Timberlake, Lawrence Williams, Charles Van Pelt, Dennis Walton, Charles Myatt, William Patterson, Sue Hassell Stubbs, Janice Magee, Beverly Stalling, Coteal Walton and myself were members of the BSSC. We desired a Black History Club, black teachers and we wanted a black history course to be taught to the student body.
We also wanted a black guidance counselor. Robert Horstmeyer was the dean of boys. Just imagine a young black student wanting guidance and college information and what a 1960s white man would tell you about your career choices.
EH: What was the key concern in the walk-out?
Brown: The administration was omitting us. Central was 60 percent black at the time. There was nothing that acknowledged that Central was predominantly black. It was like they didn’t want it to be known. In essence our culture was being suppressed. Not only was it done in our face, it was down right wrong. We decided to bring this out. Not only did we have an Art Festival, but we had speakers who came in and spoke to us. Bob Starke who was an excellent artist was one of our speakers.
The dean of boys asked, “Who put you all up to this?” No one put us up to this. We CAN think! We had meetings for about a year where we had speakers, we would listen to albums and we read all kinds of books. Our spirit emanated from a lot of places.
Muhammad: It was just like we caught a cold, we caught the flu.
EH: And they actually asked, who put you up to this?
Muhammad: The school administration didn’t think we were independent enough to be able to think on our own. They thought we were influenced by “outside agitators.” We did have a couple of teachers on our side. One was a sister named Queen Brame. She put her personal life on the line. Her fiancé threatened her. I’m paraphrasing but he said that if she got involved with those militant students, their engagement would have to be postponed. It was real drama. From my way of thinking, they felt we were getting input from the Urban League.
EH: How did Malcolm X influence your thinking?
Brown: Malcolm was the first person to really come out and say, “Hey, things in America is all backwards.” We’re either going to have to vote or fight and the gun will be our weapon.
EH: Philosophically and conceptually, it sounds like you were implementing in the BSSC what Malcolm X was saying. How did the walk-out idea start to galvanize?
Brown: The walk-out idea developed over the year during our meetings. As we continued to meet, talk and share our views and we kept reading. William Patterson especially read a lot and would always talk about Malcolm and the movement and it was interesting. Not only was it interesting, my coming from Mississippi, I knew what the deal was. The bright lights of Fort Wayne were kind of camouflaging the real deal. We were still poor. We were still the worst and most hated people in America. No one ever saw the abuse of our neighborhoods, the abuse of our parents and that’s what Malcolm was talking about. We wanted to change that.
EH: Was it offensive to you to be called a black militant?
Muhammad: For me personally, it was a badge of honor. Leading up to the walk-out, we presented a list of ideas to the school administration of what we wanted. They weren’t demands, they were requests. We wanted a Black History Club, a black guidance counselor and a black history course to be taught to the student body. Their answer to us was NO! So we walked out! After they said no, we had a series of meetings at the Urban League and at each other’s homes. We used the meetings for strategy sessions, to tweak our ideas and to keep the fire burning. In our school curriculum we wanted to hear more than just George Washington and honest Abe. We want to hear about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Now those guys were heroes. Back then I was in a mental zone and didn’t realize it. I was hypnotized by Malcolm in one ear and serious brothers and sisters in the other. It was like reality TV.
EH: According to the doctrine of Willie Lynch, when blacks have secret meetings, usually there’s one black who can’t wait to tell authorities, did that ever happen?
Muhammad: Oh no! We didn’t play that! We didn’t have any Uncle Toms in our group. If we did, he was real low profile. I don’t think we had one of them. None of our plans were ever leaked because they would have headed us off at the pass anyway. In fact, they knew what we were going to do. But, they didn’t believe we would go through it. They thought we were hot heads just blowing smoke.
MORNING OF THE WALK-OUT
Brown: Early that morning, Principal Paul Spuller collared us and said, “You know if you all go through with this, you can’t come back to Central.”
Muhammad: Spuller threatened us and we don’t play that! We had already made our plans.
Brown: The threat was humongous and we called their bluff. “You all do what you have to do and we’re going to do what we have to do,” and we did it.
Muhammad: The morning of the pep session, at a certain time, we were going to walk-out of the school. During the pep session, Ruben nudged me. “Tubbs are you going?” I said, “Man, we’re supposed to.” He asked me again. “Are we going? Are we going?” All of the sudden Rubin stood up. I stood up. Brother Patterson and the rest got up and headed to the Lewis Street entrance. We didn’t realize how many students had joined us. A total of 65 students walked out that day. We wound up getting suspended for three days.
By Rubin Brown
It was an experience that we shared. Even some of the people who I run into now, we still talk about it. We were very proud that we did it and I think some good things came out of it.
By William Tubbs Muhammad
With Allah God as my witness, do not be ashamed, do not be afraid of the truth. The truth will set you free, a lie will continue to make you a slave. I’m proud of the fact that I came through this period of time, which tested my meddle, my grit and I have no regrets about going through the 1960s. What I’m most proud about is a little bit of organization skills a couple of high school students had. The most Honorable Elijah Muhammad said, “Unity for a Black Man is as powerful as an atom bomb.” I will leave this with our current generation. It’s in your hands, continue to carry it on. If you need to know something, ask those who went through it.
Eric D. Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons including Rubin Brown. Hackley recently produced two historic calendars. “The purpose of the ‘2012 Fort Wayne Blacks Declare War on Willie Lynch Slave Mentality Calendar’ and ‘2013 Fort Wayne HIS-Story Reform Calendar’ is to stimulate local interest, debate and action to correct the American History lies and distortions used to brainwash blacks and retard the literacy and relevance of Fort Wayne History,” explained Hackley. Both calendar documents are for sale at the Fort Wayne Urban league. Hackley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in our April 10, 2013 issue.