mlk parade 1968 stlpd

1968: A Black Hip Session In Lafayette Park

An officially sanctioned “black hip session” seemed unlikely in Lafayette Park during the summer of 1968, but it happened. There have been books written about the single year significance of 1968 in America. It kicked off with the Tet offensive, a coordinated nationwide assault that made the 85,000 US forces in Vietnam look shockingly inadequate for their task. 

 Two months later, President Johnson declared that he would not run for a second term. Peacenik Eugene McCarthy looked like the new frontrunner. 

Spring into summer – 1968

In early April, Martin Luther King was shot and killed by a crank with St. Louis connections, in Memphis. It immediately set off marches and riots over racial injustice. By May, protests had spread throughout the free world, demanding peace and reconciliation.  A 12 mile parade wound through St. Louis four days after the killing. It took skill and delicacy on the part of many to prevent the city from catching fire. That it turned out peacefully was a feat of forbearance on the part of the local black community. 

In June, just as he accepted a win in the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August saw Yippies, SDS and Black Panthers join clergy, students and citizens, grievance filled and sick of war. They converged on the convention. Protests led to riots, beatings, jailing and trials. 

The world was a mess. America looked like its unfortunate trendsetter. 

1968 was a time of cultural awakening too; of people realizing they were stronger together. Gatherings of all sizes and ethnicities sought to emphasize the good that remained. 

Lafayette Square in 1968 was on the cusp of a long move toward revitalization and restoration. At that time, a quarter of the 3,000 residents lived in boarding house accommodations, and  nearly 40% of properties there were vacant. It did have Lafayette Park, a cool island, even in a hot storm. 

On a steamy Sunday in late July, a pair of neighborhood support organizations put together an open-air “Black Hip Session.” The HDC (Human Development Corporation) sponsor was a St. Louis organization begun with federal funding as one of LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ programs in 1964. Its aim was to improve housing, heating and health services among underserved communities. 1.  

Neighborhood News; July 25,1968

What is hip?

The word ‘hep’ traces back to 1899 as a term for being up to date and aware. In Jazz Age America, it also implied youthful standards at odds with older ones. Hep became ‘hip’ in the 1930s, especially in black America. It was co-opted by white American youth in the mid 1960s, conveying the same awareness, and especially generational polarization. Hip today has become ‘woke’, and implies the same alertness, but with an emphasis on racial inequities. It’s difficult to think that the alternative to being unaware, whatever the term for it, would be a positive thing. It often takes events that can’t be ignored to force basic change, and that led to a lot of mass gatherings in the late 1960s.

The Lafayette Park session focused on a “Black Is Beautiful” theme, presenting black awareness and assertiveness in a positive and peaceful light. A noble decision in what was an extremely short-tempered summer. 

I’m unsure exactly where this session was held in the park, but 4-8pm on a Sunday might have suggested near the playground area, or what is now the Cook pavilion. Either way, it proved a success. 

Chester Lewis

The event featured “young Turk” Chester Lewis. He was a lawyer, and organized the nation’s first sit-in, protesting segregation of the lunch counter at a Wichita Rexall drug store. It led Rexall to desegregate its lunch counters nationwide, and made a name for Lewis. He had been president of the Wichita NAACP for 11 years by 1968. 2. 

Chester Lewis Park, Wichita, KS monument to sit in; 2007

Lewis continued to work as a grassroots activist, toward integrating public accommodations, ending employment discrimination, and promoting both fair housing and school desegregation. This was a fight to get laws already on the books adopted into real society. 

The “young Turk” designation came from the fact that the Wichita NAACP was often at odds with its own national organization. It stressed anti-poverty efforts and embraced a Black Power message of racial pride, economic development and community control. Lewis was the leading voice of the Turks, challenging the more conservative approach of national leader Roy Wilkins.

This would prove to be one of the final appearances of Lewis as a member of the NAACP. His group unsuccessfully challenged the national organization at a convention a month later. It lost a crucial vote, and diminished as a force within the NAACP.3. 

The Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s was a group of politically motivated writers, artists and musicians. When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, the Black Power Movement broke into two groups. There were the Revolutionary Nationalists, containing the Black Panther Party, and the Cultural Nationalists, working to create arts specifically for black people, to “awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.”4. 

Eugene Redmond

On the bill for the Black Hip Session was a poet in the Black Arts Movement. A longtime college educator, Redmond was the poet laureate for East St. Louis, IL. He went on to win the American Book Award in 1993, for “The Eye In The Ceiling: Selected Poems.” A notable entry in his book is entitled, “I Can Never Unlove You.”

To not want

Is to not exist

Is to be de-minded

Is to be disembodied

Is to be disem-personed

And to float like an apparition 

Into the non-where

Into the grey whim of limbo

And that is why I can never unlove you

Why I can never dismantle my passion

Why I can never decompose my desire

Ben Hazard

An artist and sculptor, Hazard created statues like “Buffalo Soldier” and “The Tuskeegee Airmen.” A year before the Lafayette Park event, he created this comment on the black within a military-industrial complex: 

Ben Hazard with Tuskegee Airmen monument

The Laniers

A newly formed band from Jackson, TN in 1968, also known as the Jacksonians. Their first single as a band was in 1971, released “to a deafening silence.” The Laniers went national in 1982 as Lanier & Co, hitting the Billboard charts, and played American Bandstand, but never broke through to much acclaim. They broke up in 1991 when Faris Lanier, the group’s leader, suffered health problems. 5. 

For a sample of their sound around 1973, check out “Sparkle Eyes”: 

Katherine Dunham

The marquis performer of the day was “Afro-style dancer Catherine Dunham.” Poor editing by the Neighborhood News toward Katherine, who richly deserved the correct spelling. In her near-century of life, she revolutionized American dance by infusing it with African and Caribbean movement. By 1968, she was an arts figure of international significance. 

Dunham was born in Chicago, and sang for assembled groups as a young girl. She was the first African American woman graduated from University of Chicago, earning bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in anthopology. Katherine founded a dance company, won a major endowment with which she traveled and studied Caribbean dance, and wrote essays and magazine articles along the way. 

The already accomplished artist brought ethnic and folk choreography into traditional European dance, creating The Dunham Technique. This transformed the dance world by integrating African, Caribbean and ballet into a new form. A one-night performance in New York proved so popular that it was held over for 13 weeks. She opened the Dunham School in New York City in 1945, where artists including James Dean, Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters and Marlon Brando studied.

The Katherine Dunham Dance Group and famous Katherine Dunham Company followed. The Company toured over 57 countries for two decades. Her influence on the development of dance in post-war Europe was profound. She appeared in at least ten films, and choreographed Aida at the Met in New York in 1963. Their last performance was at the Apollo Theater in 1965.

Significant to the 1968 gathering in Lafayette Park, Katherine Dunham used public appearances to “teach and strategize the social problems created by race and poverty.” She consistently refused to play to a segregated audience, and went on a 47 day hunger strike to protest Haitian immigrant treatment. Katherine Dunham was 82 at the time. 

She wrote several books along the way, and her honors, including a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, make a formidable list. In 2000, she was named “America’s irreplaceable dance treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. 

L’Overture School

Finally, in case of rain, the paper advised that the event would be held at the L’Overture School at 3021 Hickory Street. Toussaint l’Overture had led a slave revolt against the French in Haiti,  and successfully overthrew the government. Consequently, he’s known as the “Father of Haiti.” The middle school is still very much there. The $1 million facility opened in 1950, closed in 2013, then reopened in 2015. 

L’Ouverture Middle School; 2020

How it played all out

As it happened, July 28,1968 offered a fine, if steamy late afternoon in Lafayette Park. Several hundred attended a program that included African folk songs, dramatic presentations, a fashion show and the performance of African rituals, “intended to strengthen the Negro’s concept of himself.” (as the Post-Dispatch reported.) 

Chester Lewis was fiery, asserting that Black Power could bring unity to the Negro movement in the country. He praised Negro college students who demanded immediate freedom and he called for black control of schools in black ghettos. “The people of the ghettos want the right to control their own destiny and unity,” he said.

Things got worse before they got much better in St. Louis, The city continued to allow redline housing practices, which maintained segregation by other means. White schools and black schools remained the norm as the desegregation of schools mandated way back in 1954 failed through the 1970s. A frequent occurrence was the integration of a city school, followed shortly by the opening of a private school nearby, draining off white students and keeping segregation basically intact. As a teenager, I visited St. Louis from Montana in 1974, and was confused by barricades along Delmar in University City. Hearing the explanation that they were there to prevent race riots seemed ludicrous, like wouldn’t everyone just run around them? It was a complicated time, and the coming of every steamy summer renewed some fear and uncertainty with it, that it might be the summer everything came unglued. 

Epilogue

In 1968, things seemed a lot simpler, but all the signs pointed to a long hard journey toward equality in America. It continues. A Black Hip Session in Lafayette Park was never repeated, and would be unusual today, but watching the recent LGBTQ Pride parade through the Square brought all this to mind, along with how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go toward a full acceptance of each other. 

Still and all, nowhere I’d rather be. The recent recolorizing of the new Lafayette Square logo underlines the commitment of this community to all the people that go into making it work.

Notes and Credits:

  1. When federal grant funding for the HDC expired in 2011, it went out of business. Not that the need had ended or its goals were fully met. 

2.  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

3. The young Turks lost a challenge to the organization at the 1868 NAACP convention, and with it, lost their ability to influence the group. Lewis severed ties with the NAACP. 

4. The excellent website blackpast.org, in a segment covering 1965-1975, at 

5. Andrew Hamilton for All Music. com wrote a bio of the Jacksonians/Laniers band at https://www.allmusic.com/artist/lanier-co-mn0001417951/biography

6. See my earlier essay about Tremonisha at https://lafayettesquarearchives.com/2008-whats-a-treemonisha/

7. Katherine Dunham biography, with much more detail, at the Katherine Dunham Centers For Arts and Humanities.  http://kdcah.org/katherine-dunham-biography/

Kelly Moffitt also did a great segment on Katherine Dunham for St Louis On The Air, by 90.7 KWMU.

https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2017-07-12/a-way-of-life-remembering-dance-legend-katherine-dunham-who-made-her-home-in-east-st-louis

Also thanks to :

Dissent In Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1972; The Annals Of Iowa, 64 (2005) p. 86-87.

Description of Wichita Recall protest; The Hutchinson News; January 21, 2019. 

1968 demographics based on Lafayette Square Restoration Plan from the St Louis City Plan Commission; Fall, 1971, in cooperation with the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee and Lafayette Park Neighborhood Association

And the St. Louis Neighborhood News of July 25,1968 (p.5), for the original notice of the event. 

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Mike Jones

Managing editor of the Archives section, and a veteran of volunteer stints with the Missouri History Museum and Missouri State Archives. Constantly curious about what lies beneath the surfaces of Lafayette Square.

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