Civil rights ac­tivist John Sal­ter helped make a stand by sit­ting at a Mis­sis­sippi counter.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - JOHN SAL­TER JR., 84 BY MATT SCHUDEL [email protected]­

When John Sal­ter Jr. ar­rived in Mis­sis­sippi in 1961, he was 27 and had al­ready served in the Army, worked as a la­bor or­ga­nizer in Ari­zona, re­ceived a master’s de­gree in so­ci­ol­ogy and taught at a col­lege in Wis­con­sin. He was tak­ing a new job as a pro­fes­sor at Touga­loo Col­lege, a his­tor­i­cally black in­sti­tu­tion a few miles out­side the state cap­i­tal of Jack­son.

Mr. Sal­ter did much more than teach at Touga­loo. He be­came a close as­so­ciate of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mis­sis­sippi field sec­re­tary, and helped or­ga­nize what be­came known as the Jack­son Move­ment.

Mr. Sal­ter, who later changed his name to John Hunter Gray to honor his Amer­i­can In­dian her­itage, was per­ceived as white at the time. In a state in which ra­cial in­jus­tice was en­shrined in law and so­cial cus­toms, he be­came “the Jack­son Move­ment’s rad­i­cal heart,” as M.J. O’Brien wrote in his 2013 his­tory, “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jack­son Wool­worth’s Sit-In and the Move­ment It In­spired.”

Mr. Sal­ter — as he was known through­out his ca­reer as an ac­tivist and aca­demic — died Jan. 7 at his home in Po­catello, Idaho, at age 84. He had re­cov­ered from sys­temic lu­pus, said a son, John Sal­ter III, who could not cite a spe­cific cause of death.

In Mis­sis­sippi, the home of Mr. Sal­ter and his wife be­came an in­for­mal head­quar­ters for civil rights ac­tivists.

“We de­cided to go south be­cause things were hap­pen­ing,” he told film­maker Loki Mul­hol­land for his doc­u­men­tary “An Or­di­nary Hero,” about his mother, Joan Trumpauer Mul­hol­land, who was one of Mr. Sal­ter’s stu­dents at Touga­loo.

“When his­tory calls, you usu­ally get, I would say, maybe one chance to do some­thing,” Mr. Sal­ter added, “and then if you reach out for it, you ride off on the wings of destiny.”

At Touga­loo, he or­ga­nized an NAACP youth coun­cil, taught tac­tics of non­vi­o­lence and pub­lished a mimeo­graphed news­let­ter, “North Jack­son Ac­tion.” He con­ducted a study of poverty in Mis­sis­sippi for the NAACP and tes­ti­fied be­fore the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights.

He was also un­der sur­veil­lance by the FBI, which com­piled a file of sev­eral thou­sand pages about him. Po­lice of­fi­cials of­ten tailed Mr. Sal­ter as he walked on the streets or drove on local roads. He once found the lug nuts on his car wheels loos­ened.

None­the­less, Mr. Sal­ter be­came “the Jack­son Move­ment’s rad­i­cal heart,” as M.J. O’Brien wrote in his 2013 his­tory, “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jack­son Wool­worth’s Sit-In and the Move­ment It In­spired.”

Af­ter a se­ries of com­mer­cial boy­cotts and protests, the Jack­son Move­ment burst into the na­tion’s con­scious­ness with the dra­matic events of May 28, 1963.

That day, Evers called for Mis­sis­sippi’s first sit-in. Stu­dents from Touga­loo and other ac­tivists planned to en­ter a Wool­worth’s de­part­ment store, sit down at a seg­re­gated lunch counter and ask for ser­vice.

An all-white crowd of sev­eral hun­dred, many of them young men from a local high school, quickly gath­ered and be­gan to taunt the protesters, pulling the women off their stools. The male demon­stra­tors were phys­i­cally at­tacked.

Mr. Sal­ter soon joined the protesters at the lunch counter. Re­porters and a pho­tog­ra­pher for the Jack­son Daily News, Fred Black­well, cap­tured what hap­pened next.

A for­mer Jack­son po­lice of­fi­cer, Benny Oliver — fired for his vi­o­lent ten­den­cies — punched black demon­stra­tor Mem­phis Nor­man in the head, knock­ing him down.

“As Mr. Nor­man lay on the floor,” a New York Times ac­count noted, “Mr. Oliver be­gan kick­ing him in the face un­til blood spurted from his mouth and nose.”

Po­lice of­fi­cers, who oth­er­wise stood idly by, placed both Oliver and Nor­man un­der ar­rest.

In Black­well’s fa­mous pho­to­graph of the in­ci­dent, Mr. Sal­ter sits in the left fore­ground at the counter along­side two Touga­loo stu­dents, Joan Trumpauer — one of the col­lege’s two white un­der­grad­u­ates — and Anne Moody.

“An­nie and I were pulled off our stools,” Trumpauer, now Joan Mul­hol­land, said in an in­ter­view. “I didn’t get any bad blows, but I had ev­ery condi­ment on the counter poured on my head.”

Mr. Sal­ter was struck with brass knuck­les and slashed in the back of the head with the edge of a bro­ken glass sugar con­tainer. A wa­tery pep­per so­lu­tion was thrown in his eyes. His cuts and abra­sions were filled with salt and pep­per. Blood dripped onto his shirt and mixed with the ketchup, mus­tard and sugar that had been dumped on his head.

Cig­a­rettes were stubbed out on the back of Mr. Sal­ter’s neck, leav­ing scars that were vis­i­ble for the rest of his life.

“We knew we were go­ing to die,” Joan Mul­hol­land said. “My spirit had left my body and was hov­er­ing some­where above, pro­tect­ing me.”

The or­deal lasted for three hours. The po­lice stepped in only when the mob be­gan to loot and da­m­age the store.

The demon­stra­tors were es­corted out only af­ter the pres­i­dent of Touga­loo Col­lege was able to or­ga­nize a car­a­van of cars to take them to safety.

In the next few days, fur­ther demon­stra­tions were held in Jack­son. Po­lice tac­tics grew tougher, as Mr. Sal­ter and other protesters were ar­rested, hauled away in garbage trucks and held in cat­tle pens at the local fair­grounds.

“In some in­stances,” Mr. Sal­ter re­called, “po­lice uri­nated in wa­ter buck­ets, threw the food on the ground and said, ‘Eat, dogs, eat.’ ”

On June 11, two weeks af­ter the lunch-counter protest, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy went on na­tional tele­vi­sion to call for a com­pre­hen­sive na­tional civil rights bill. That night, Evers was as­sas­si­nated at his home.

The next day, Mr. Sal­ter was ar­rested dur­ing a protest march and beaten un­til he “woke up in a pool of muddy blood.” He was taken to the fair­grounds, where other demon­stra­tors were be­ing held.

“I stepped out of the paddy wagon and held my fist up,” he said. “You know in a nice early ’60s stance. Prob­a­bly one of the first times that had been done, and was im­me­di­ately cheered by a whole throng of peo­ple.”

Af­ter a sus­pi­cious car ac­ci­dent in which Mr. Sal­ter and a chap­lain were se­ri­ously in­jured, he left Mis­sis­sippi and con­tin­ued his civil rights ac­tiv­i­ties in North Carolina and else­where. A year later, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

John Ran­dall Sal­ter Jr. was born Feb. 14, 1934, in Chicago. He grew up mostly in Flagstaff, Ariz., where his fa­ther, an Amer­i­can In­dian de­scended from sev­eral tribes in the North­east, was an artist and col­lege pro­fes­sor. His mother was a teacher.

Af­ter serv­ing in the Army and help­ing or­ga­nize la­bor unions at min­ing camps, Mr. Sal­ter grad­u­ated in 1958 from Ari­zona State Univer­sity, from which he re­ceived a master’s de­gree in so­ci­ol­ogy in 1960.

He al­ter­nated be­tween teach­ing and ac­tivism, mov­ing from Ver­mont to the state of Wash­ing­ton, from Rochester, N.Y., to Chicago, where he worked with street gangs. He taught at the Univer­sity of Iowa, at a col­lege for Navajo In­di­ans (now Diné Col­lege) in Ari­zona and from 1980 to 1994, at the Univer­sity of North Dakota, where he di­rected the De­part­ment of Amer­i­can In­dian Stud­ies.

Mr. Sal­ter, who set­tled in Idaho in 1997, legally changed his name in homage to his an­ces­tors; Gray had been his fa­ther’s last name be­fore he was adopted by a white fam­ily.

His wife of 54 years, the for­mer Eldri Johanson, died in 2015. Sur­vivors in­clude four chil­dren, Maria Sal­ter and Josephine Evans, both of Po­catello, and John Sal­ter III and Peter Sal­ter, both of Lin­coln, Neb.; a brother; 12 grand­chil­dren; and two great-grand­chil­dren.

In 1979, Mr. Sal­ter pub­lished a book about his civil rights ex­pe­ri­ences, “Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi: An Amer­i­can Chron­i­cle of Strug­gle and Schism.”

“No­body who was part of it can for­get it,” he told film­maker Mul­hol­land. “You don’t have to re­mem­ber ev­ery de­tail, just re­mem­ber that you know there was a time when a pretty hideous sit­u­a­tion ex­isted and there were peo­ple who set out to change it.”


At the 1963 Wool­worth’s sit-in, white men pour condi­ments over the heads of Touga­loo Col­lege pro­fes­sor John Sal­ter Jr., left, and stu­dents Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody.

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