By Susan Rittereiser
In November, 1960, as the Civil Rights Movement began to sweep the country, UT student, Chandler Davidson, was approached by another UT student, Houston Wade, to lead the Students for Direct Action or SDA to peacefully and lawfully integrate businesses along the UT Drag. Davidson was well-known on campus as an outspoken champion of civil rights and desegregation, which he often wrote about in his popular column “Beware the Jabberwock” for the Daily Texan. Having little success with integrating cafes and lunch counters (the lunch counter or restaurant would simply close down for the day thus ending the protest), the SDA decided to turn its attention to movie theaters. The inspiration for this approach came from the fact that although UT classes had been desegregated for a few years by this point, African American students were unable to watch films they would be assigned as part of a class assignment, therefore they were unable to complete their assignments. The majority of movies for these assignments were shown at the Texas and the Varsity Theaters. In an age before the vast array of movie viewing options we enjoy today--cable, online streaming, on demand, DVD’s, etc.--these theaters were the only places in town where the students could watch particular films. (AS-60-27281-17)
In early 1961, a small, biracial group of about 20 individuals began a series of “stand-ins” (a variation on the “sit-in”) at the Texas and Varsity Theaters on the UT drag. These theaters were where the vast majority of movies for assignments were shown. And, the Texas Theater was located right down the street from the YWCA where the group held meetings. SDA protestors would stand in line to purchase a ticket. When they approached the ticket counter, they would ask the ticket person if the theater sold tickets to all Americans. When the ticket person inevitably replied “no”, the protestor would return to the back of the line and the next person would step up to the counter and ask the same question. The intent was to jam up the line in order to prevent others from buying tickets, thus denying revenue to the theaters.
As protestors stood in line, picketers would carry protest signs, like the one shown here, in front of the Texas Theater. At the time, the Texas was owned by Earl and Lena Podolnick’s Trans-Texas Theaters, Inc. The Varsity was owned by ABC--Paramount based in New York City. This new form of protest began to garner national attention. Former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was still publishing her nationally syndicated “My Day” column in her mid-seventies, personally thanked the students, “…for making the effort to bring about the end of this kind of segregation”. Stand-ins were soon being emulated nationwide.
The rapidly growing SDA organized two to three stand-ins per week with about 150 participants per protest. The most ambitious of the stand-ins was held on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1961. Hundreds of people lined Guadalupe Street, many holding signs in support as well as in opposition. Similar protests were held that day in cities and universities across the nation. The event in Austin was heated, but for the most part peaceful by today’s standards; there was name calling and pushing, but that’s about it. Throughout the spring, the stand-in movement continued to gain momentum. On May 17, UT faculty and staff showed their support for the movement by each contributing the price of a theater ticket to pay for a one-page ad in the Austin American asking the owners of the Texas and Varsity to desegregate their theaters.
By September, 1961, the owners of both the Varsity and the Texas agreed to “come to the table”, so to speak, to discuss the issue. They agreed to a one-month trial period in which African American UT students (only those with valid ID’s) were allowed into the theaters if the stand-ins agreed to stop protesting. The owners agreed to open their doors to all if their revenue was unaffected by the change in patronage. The trial period passed without a hitch and, within a year, most of the businesses along the Drag were integrated. These theaters were among the first if not the first businesses in Austin to be desegregated. Although it is unknown when all of Austin’s other theaters integrated, it is likely that they, along with other businesses, followed suit by 1964. That year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public facilities, including movie theaters.
For more information about the Theater Stand-Ins, you can check out the archival collection: