Eyewitness 1963: Civil rights advocates emerge in Pittsburgh

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Large demonstrations were the key to getting more employment in more industries for Pittsburgh's black residents, NAACP President Byrd R. Brown said 50 years ago this month.

Brown and Wendell Freeland, president of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, were featured speakers on Oct. 8, 1963, at a Downtown meeting of the Allegheny County Council on Civil Rights.

"Brown promised his audience that 'you will see more demonstrations and more picketing than you have ever seen before,' " Post-Gazette reporter Alvin Rosensweet wrote in a story that appeared Oct. 9.

Brown said he was disappointed that he had seen few of the people in his audience on picket lines during anti-discrimination events organized by the United Negro Protest Committee. That committee was an offshoot of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I don't want to mince words on this," Brown told his audience at the Downtown YWCA. "You cannot deny that the direct approach is correct. We have gotten more jobs in the last two months by demonstrations than we got in the last two years without demonstrations."

Among the companies that changed their hiring practices following those 1963 street protests was Duquesne Light. Speaking to a Post-Gazette reporter in 2001, Harvey Adams, another former NAACP president, said the utility "became a good corporate neighbor, hiring blacks throughout its ranks."

Brown, a graduate of Yale Law School, was elected president of the local chapter of the NAACP in 1958 and held that post until 1971. In 1989 he ran unsuccessfully for Pittsburgh mayor. He died in 2001 at age 71.

In his 1963 remarks, the Urban League's Wendell Freeland called for "action, not slogans, to compensate for the deprivations of the past."

"He said the Urban League has begun retraining courses and a 'census of skills' to help Negroes become qualified for employment," the newspaper story said. His organization also would go "into the Negro community to determine the skills of individuals, such as electricians, plumbers and other craftsmen, so they can be placed in jobs as employment opportunities open up."

Mr. Freeland is a Baltimore native who served as a bombardier with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. He graduated from Howard University and the University of Maryland School of Law.

He was more recently in the news in 2010 when he persuaded the state Supreme Court to posthumously admit George Vashon, a 19th century African-American lawyer from Pittsburgh, to the Pennsylvania bar. Vashon's application had been turned down by the Allegheny County Bar in 1847 and in 1868. Mr. Freeland and Nolan Atkinson, a Philadelphia attorney and Vashon's great-grandson, petitioned the high court on behalf of the lawyer's descendants.

Now 88, Mr. Freeland still practices law.

The two black leaders spoke during a landmark year in the struggle for equal rights. In June 1963 President John F. Kennedy went on television to explain why he had to send the National Guard to desegregate the University of Alabama. In August the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

Despite those national and local efforts, it wasn't until 1964 that a federal civil rights law was passed by Congress.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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