In view of the recent discovery in a Chattanooga attic of a voice tape by Martin Luther King Jr, I felt it was time for another obscure piece of civil rights history in Chattanooga to see the light of day: “operation tryout” integration of the white movie houses in this city.
It’s not in the history books or any written account that I’m aware of. No pictures were taken. But, yes, there was such an event…as uneventful as it turned out to be. And, unlike the sit-ins at the Krystal counters during this same period, it was surreptitiously handled.
Nobody knew but the immediate players. Who were they? Rogers Theater, the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times, Rev. Ernest Howard of the Unitarian Universalist Church, a civics teacher (can’t remember his name), and two 16-year-old sacrificial lambs, Gerald W. Patton from Riverside High and me, Phyllis Oneida Scott from Howard High.
It was the summer of 1964. We were nervous but excited: the first blacks ever to step foot in a white movie theatre in Chattanooga…maybe in all of Tennessee…maybe in all of Jim Crow South. What if they hurl racial epithets? Attack us physically? Throw eggs?
Our tickets were waiting for us at the booth. So far, so good. We took our seats. Laughter and heady screams of excitement abound. But not at us. It was Teen Saturday Matinee at the Rogers, a program designed for area youths where they showed a double feature and at intermission gave away door prizes. Gerald and I were thinking the same thing: we didn’t have activities like this at the “colored” houses on 9th Street: namely Le Grand and Liberty theatres. It was separate but not equal.
Why Gerald and I were chosen for this “experiment,” we don’t know. Maybe it was because we both were active in our respective schools. I had just garnered a column in the Chattanooga Times School Bulletin Board Page where hitherto only white schools were represented. Yes, maybe that had something to do with it. Or maybe we were “light-skinned” enough to go unduly noticed or feared.
I have to say the experience was surreal. We were expecting cataclysm and got tolerance if not acceptance. Did they even know we were there? Of our fortuitous foray, Gerald said recently: “…at a time of historical significance in the United States civil rights era even as high school students we made our mark for the cause of justice.” Gerald Patton resides in San Diego, Ca.
Phyllis Scott Ajisafe