January 17, 2013

History reminds us of the true meaning of the MLK holiday

In 1911, hundreds of white Fort Worth residents rioted because one movie theater for black people opened. And you wonder why the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is important?

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King Day weekends mean parades, or speeches, or TV specials.

We forget what they really mean.

For a reminder, check this headline from 1911:


Big Mob Holds Possession of Fort Worth for Hours

Trouble Starts With Opening of a Moving Picture Show

The previous day, a movie theater for African-Americans had opened on Main Street.

It was destroyed overnight by 1,000 whites.

In one of the least-retold racial incidents in Fort Worth history -- along with the ransacking of a neighborhood in 1913 -- a mob descended on 1200 Main St. and destroyed the Dixie theater.

Worshippers on their way to evening services at an African Methodist Episcopal church were attacked and came to church bleeding, the Star-Telegram reported. The Rev. M.L. Smith was grabbed and his pockets picked.

"The life of every negro in the business district was in danger," the Star-Telegram reported, using the racial term of that time.

The Dixie, one of five theaters on Main Street in the early days of "moving pictures," had just changed from being a white theater and hired a young African-American woman as a ticket seller, to complaints from other theater owners.

That night, a young crowd first gathered and threw rocks, the newspaper reported under the headline, "Police Ordered Not to Fire on Mob."

Police Commissioner George Mulkey said his officers were soon overwhelmed and felt like they were "trying to stem the rapids of Niagara."

He told officers not to shoot.

During the riot, according to the Star-Telegram, Mayor W.D. "Bill" Davis drove his new car through downtown with a police captain aboard and rescued two African-American men.

The next day, Davis blamed poor parenting.

"Race Rioting Is Attributed to Youngsters," the Star-Telegram decided. "Parents Responsible."

Women's clubs announced their support for a curfew or crackdown. Judges spoke out angrily to denounce "mob law."

The Dixie closed. But others would follow.

Nearly a half-century later, in 1959, the now-gone Majestic Theater at 1101 Commerce St. opened its front entrance and floor seating to African-Americans for the very first time.

About 400 paid to hear a young Alabama preacher.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon: "A Great Time to Be Alive."

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @budkennedy

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