Racial tension part of Clovis history

By David Stevens: CNJ Editor

Clovis’ history has included many difficult days. Retired school teacher Elaine Howell remembers Jan. 15, 1971, as one of the worst.

Thirty or 40 black students from Clovis High School were excused that morning to attend a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who had been slain three years earlier.

As the students walked to school following the service, they attracted the attention of police, who said the students were impeding traffic.

“They were kind of loud and they were emotionally charged from where they had been,” Howell said.

Violence and confusion followed soon after the students arrived on campus.

The Clovis News-Journal reported a “disturbance” resulted in the arrests of at least 10 black students and injuries to at least nine white students that day. The cause of the disturbance was not reported. The paper reported two students were treated at Clovis Memorial Hospital for unspecified injuries, while others were treated by a school nurse for “bruises, pulled hair and abrasions.”

Clovis school officials said they did not know if any black students were injured.

Howell, who is white, said she does not remember any injuries and did not see any violence. But there were rumors, she said, of “black and white kids hassling each other,” and by mid-day, the campus was surrounded by “every swaggering cop in the state.”

Jerry Large, now a columnist with The Seattle Times newspaper, was a junior at Clovis High School in 1971. He did not attend the MLK services and said he was in chemistry class when told to report to the gymnasium with other black students.

“We heard there was some kind of disturbance outside,” he said. “Somebody told me they thought some white kids and some black kids got into a fight.”

Large said he never saw any violence, but a black Clovis police officer — the only one on the force — lectured the black students in the gym about staying out of trouble before they were sent home for the day.

“It was mostly just weird, and a little bit scary — a little bit scary because there were so many policemen around,” he said.

About 140 black students were attending the high school in 1971, the newspaper reported. Total population at CHS was about 1,750.

The day’s tension did not end with the black students’ leaving school early.

“I was five months pregnant at the time and I was walking home for exercise,” Howell said. “A teacher came from across the hall and said, ‘You can’t walk home.’ I asked why and she said, ‘Because there are gangs of black students roaming the town and they’re liable to grab you up and rob you and rape you.’”

Howell said she walked home anyway, without incident. If there were gangs of black students roaming the town, she didn’t see them, and the newspaper didn’t report on them.

School officials held a series of meetings over the next few days in efforts to calm the community. School board member Leon Williams told parents the disturbance was not the fault of “one group only.” Attendance, which was below normal the Monday after the Friday incident, picked up again Tuesday and students fell back into their routines without further outbreaks.

“In all the years I taught — I started in 1960 and retired in 1999 — that was the only racially motivated thing I ever saw (at school),” Howell said. “We had people trying to deal with a situation who did not understand the situation. … It was one of the ugliest days, if not the ugliest day, of my entire teaching career.”

Racial tension always here

Racial tensions in Clovis can be traced back at least 90 years. The May 10, 1917, edition of The Clovis News reported a work stoppage had occurred at one of the Santa Fe Railway shops, with about 40 men walking off the job. “The cause of the dissatisfaction,” the paper reported, “being that Mexican labor was employed in this department.”

In 1918, The Clovis Journal began publishing a series of promotional tidbits about the city, ranging from its strong railroad and agriculture industry to its “two public bands,” “good hotels” and “paid fire department.” Also on the list of perceived city attributes: “Clovis is a white man’s town, there being few Negroes or Mexicans here.”

Clovis was never officially segregated, but many city restaurants and movie theaters separated white patrons from blacks and Hispanics until the mid-1960s.

Former New Mexico Gov. David Cargo (1967-71) said some Clovis business leaders were openly defiant of laws related to integration.

“We had kind of a tough time in Clovis,” he said in an interview last month. “There was a fair amount of prejudice there at one time, especially when it came to public accommodation. We had trouble because (black) people from the air base couldn’t go in the liquor stores or the bars, and that just wasn’t right.”

He helped solve that problem by issuing a liquor license to a Clovis veterans organization that agreed to serve blacks from Cannon Air Force Base, Cargo said. He visited Clovis often during his two terms as governor and met regularly with leaders of the minority community. One of its leaders was Nellie Moore, a mother of seven.

“She was kind of gentle, but she was also forceful … and I admired that,” Cargo said. “She’d tell me about things and she’d say she needed somebody to back her up. And so I’d bring (those racial issues) to the proper authorities’ attention because, No. 1, it wasn’t right, and, No. 2, they (blacks) were citizens and they were entitled to the full protection of the law and the respect of public officials.”

Moore’s picture was published on the front page of the Clovis News-Journal on April 7, 1968, as she participated in a meeting with representatives of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who had come to town to investigate allegations of “de facto segregation.” The commissioners said Clovis’ minority community complained public and private employers paid white people more money than minorities for the same jobs and refused to train minorities for advancement.

Susie Small, one of Moore’s children, said her fiery mother, who died in 1986, was also patient as she fought for her causes. “And she had lots of love for everybody,” she said.

Small, who lives in Dallas now, was aware of discrimination against blacks as a child, but said the impact on her life was minimal because of her mother.

“She taught us that we were worth something, that we were as good as any of the white kids,” she said.

Moore also taught her daughter not to use racial discrimination as a crutch. Small said she attended all-black schools until her senior year in high school, when she transferred to Clovis High.

“I was terribly upset because in the black school I had been a cheerleader and was pretty popular, but when I went to the white school I tried out for cheerleader and (didn’t make the team),” Small said. She told her mother the white students didn’t like her and wouldn’t talk to her.

“One day she came to pick me up after school and when I got in the car she said to me, ‘It’s no wonder the kids don’t talk to you. You have such a mean look on your face.’ She said ‘Why don’t you try smiling?’ And after that I became pretty popular.”

Level-headed leaders

A similar common-sense approach among Clovis’ minority leaders may have prevented serious race relations in 1964 after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager.

The incident took place on Aug. 11, 1964, less than six weeks after President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which spurred race riots throughout the deep South and elsewhere.

The News-Journal reported Mack Mackentire, 15, was shot in the process of stealing food from Cashway Supermarket after the store had closed. An investigation found that Patrolman John Fisher was justified in the shooting and Mackentire died after resisting arrest.

An Aug. 18 newspaper headline reported, “It was a long, tense week” as rumors of violence preceded the teen’s funeral.

“Whites feared the boy’s death would touch off a riot,” the story reported. “And Negroes became … concerned that the whites might take some sort of overt action. … Some whites asked (police) if they should take any sort of defense measures.”

Howell said Mackentire was popular among his classmates.

“I had dearly loved that child,” she said. “He came from a single-parent home, but it was not a criminal home. When I found out he was involved in a robbery, I was totally shocked. If he was stealing food, it was out of desperation.”

After a week in which the shooting was investigated by law officers and a representative of the NAACP from Albuquerque, Mackentire was laid to rest without incident.

“I’ll tell you, if it weren’t for the Negro leadership and level-headed attitude, there might have been some trouble,” Clovis Mayor Ted Waldhauser said after the funeral. “I want to compliment the leaders and members of the Negro community for their wonderful cooperation … during this trying period.”

Joe Cornish, a Clovis resident since the early 1950s, remembers some tension that week, however, most black residents did not believe the shooting was racially motivated.

“He (Mackentire) was doing the wrong thing. He was in the store after hours,” Cornish said.

Cornish, who is black, said he experienced racial discrimination in Clovis, especially in restaurants. But Clovis had a lot of good white people with “Christian hearts,” he said, people who knew discrimination was wrong and helped teach others. Those people gave many in the minority community the patience to wait for change, he said.