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Racial tensions bubbled to surface in Missoula in '68

Racial tensions bubbled to surface in Missoula in '68

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Long, long ago, when racial injustice and unrest were at their peaks and University of Montana athletic colors were transitioning from silver and maroon to burnt orange, Herb White was an all-conference football player for the Grizzlies.

An offensive guard and defensive end from Michigan, White was “one of the quickest linemen I have coached in some time,” Coach Hugh Davidson said before White’s sophomore season in 1966.

White was also black, in a mostly white Missoula, and he wasn’t particularly comfortable with the baggage that came with it. Missoulian accounts don’t mention whether he made it to the first day of spring ball on April 5, 1968, before his final all-star season.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis the previous day, and we do know White was among 200 or so UM students and faculty who gathered for a silent tribute to King on campus before marching across the Madison Street Bridge.

Their target was a real estate office on East Main Street, where the owner had displayed in the front window a picture taken from a magazine in 1963. Ernest Johanson, owner of Aero Realty and the adjacent auto body shop, said it showed King at a Communist rally in Tennessee.

“We have felt that there is a definite communistic attitude among the leaders of the civil rights movement, but we are not prejudiced,” Johanson told the Missoulian.

White and 20 to 30 marchers crowded into the cramped realty office and refused to leave. Things got tense, the police arrived, then sheriff's officers. Some of the “sitters” were convinced to clear out, but 11 of them weren't. They were dragged and carried from the premises en route to jail.

White and 19-year-old Celeste Craig were the last to go. They locked arms, and when authorities couldn’t separate them, an officer sprayed them with Mace.

“Miss Craig was taken screaming from the room, and White was dragged from the room in a semi-conscious state. Both were revived and taken to the county jail with the other sit-inners,” the newspaper said.

Stop right here. Let's look squarely into the eyes of the 20-year-old White, from the suburbs of Detroit, and make an admittedly doomed attempt to understand him.

Those eyes would no doubt be smiling if they foresaw 50 years into the future, when Grizzly football linemen routinely weigh 300 pounds. He was listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds his senior year, when he earned the team’s Golden Helmet award as its hardest hitter.

In 1987 White was nominated for the Big Sky Conference 25th Anniversary football team on the offensive line along with Griz legends Steve Okoniewski, Guy Bingham, Brian Salonen and Tuufuli Uperesa. The man could play football.

In 1968 he was one of 14 blacks on a campus of 6,500 students. White was president and teammate Maceo Gray of Baltimore was vice president of the Black Student Union they’d helped establish the previous fall to support newcomers from urban areas. UM was just the third university in the nation to have one.

“I’ve known segregation all my life,” Ethel Monroe, a life-long Missoula resident, told the Missoulian’s Denn Curran a month after the Aero Realty sit-in. “Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act I would have rather been in Mississippi, where at least it was known that they didn’t want you.”

Until just a few years before, Monroe added, “a Negro had trouble finding a restaurant to eat in or a hotel to sleep in, or a job to work at.”

The big problem now was housing. Delores Daniels, a black student from Seattle and member of UM’s Action Seminar housing committee, conducted a survey, Curran said. She visited 13 houses or apartment buildings in Missoula in an attempt to find a place to live for summer school.

“At seven of the 13 apartments … she was told, politely by some and gruffly by others, that the apartment in question had already been rented," Curran reported. "Yet when white students visited the same seven apartments later, they were invited to look … and told that the apartments were available.”

White tried a similar experiment. He visited 15 apartments in Missoula and had a white student follow him to each. At five stops White was turned down while his “tailer” was not. He told Curran he was staying in Missoula for the summer but to avoid the hassle, he planned to live either on campus or with friends. When he was arrested in April 1968 his residence was 330 Elrod Hall.

As a senior White got involved in community outreach through the Methodist campus pastor, William Kliber. After graduation, he became a pastor himself with the United Methodist Church, serving in four states for more than 30 years.

Now let's back up for a few paragraphs and look into the 1968 eyes of Ernie Johanson, age 49.

Son of Norwegian and Danish immigrants, Johanson grew up on their Westby homestead. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Montana National Guard after that. As one of the original members of the 41st Infantry, he received a Purple Heart and a basket of other medals while serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

After the war Johanson was sent by the Army Reserve to Missoula, where he met and married Ellen King. He’d run Johanson Body Shop, first on Front Street and now on East Main, since the early 1950s. He and Ellen operated Aero Realty out of the same building for 12 years, “specializing in showing farms/ranches from the air,” the obit said.

“We will and have sold and rented property to colored people,” Johanson told the Missoulian after the sit-in. “They say there has been discrimination here, but I’m unaware of it."

Johanson, a member of the American Legion, added “it looks now as if everything we fought for is being lost.” 

After selling his downtown business, he joined the sales team at Grizzly Lincoln-Mercury. In 1977 Johanson was an unsuccessful candidate in a Republican primary for Missoula County Commissioner. Upon retirement the Johansons moved to Harlingen, Texas, and finally to Helena, where Ernie died in 2008 at age 89. He was interred with full military honors at the VA Cemetery at Fort Harrison. 

Missoula was lucky. In the days and weeks following King’s assassination, 39 Americans lost their lives in riots across the nation. All but five were black. Still to come in 1968: the assassination of Robert Kennedy in July, violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Olympic-scale outrage over Black Power salutes by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Summer Games in Mexico City.

But that was all long, long ago.

Right?

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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