In a time when our mobile devices, television and movie screens are filled with images of people with superhuman abilities performing heroic feats that change the world, it is easy to forget that there have been those who have walked among us every day, who have also done some amazing and heroic things to change the real world.
It is not often that one meets and recognizes such a person. However, I had the chance to meet a civil rights giant. He is a person who helped shape Houston’s future through selfless acts that can only be described as heroic in every sense of the word.
On March 4, 1960, Texas Southern University alumnus John Bland helped organize Houston’s first sit-in at the Weingarten’s grocery store lunch counter. The sit-in was nonviolent and consisted of more than a dozen TSU students. Just as many of our celebrated fictional superhero teams do, this group of amazing real-life heroes gave their collective a name that reflected their resolve for change and social justice. The students called themselves the Progressive Youth Association (PYA), and Bland was the secretary.
With an unassuming headquarters in the TSU library’s special collection department, Bland painted a vivid picture of the horrible realities that minorities faced living in the Deep South at the time. Once his words had etched a clear, but all-too-familiar image on a blood-stained canvas of pain and suffering, he set out to strategize with the PYA to extinguish the roaring and hellish flames of racial injustice.
He spoke of how buses were burning while describing the heat radiating from the smoldering frames as an unmistakable smell of chemicals in the paint turned to an ashen smoke that seemed to reach out from the flames towards the clouds above. He spoke of being spit on while trying to desegregate movie theaters, yet remaining calm and resolute. Again, as a young man of unyielding conviction, Bland yearned for change and began to orchestrate it with his fellow collegians.
Armed only with their want for a better tomorrow, the real-life superhero team known as the PYA decided to challenge the ugly head of Jim Crow (laws) -- the villain in this story. They gathered at the flagpole in front of TSU’s Hannah Hall and began to call upon the strength of their ancestors, who once may have walked these same paths in chains, as they slowly began to march. With each step, the ground began to reverberate more and more as these brave youths walked over a mile from the flagpole on TSU’s campus to Weingarten’s lunch counter located at 4110 Almeda Road and possibly their own demise at the hands of Jim Crow (laws).
Shielded by the invisible hands of their ancestors, the PYA occupied seats at the segregated lunch counter as they became available. The air in the storefront quickly filled with racial slurs that were hurled like cannon fodder. However, through their conviction and resolve, they endured. In fact, other sit-ins continued at other businesses, which acted as a call to action for many other Black supporters to follow suit.