‘Polite protest’ marked racial progress in Indianapolis

Oscar Robertson should have been on top of the world. He had just led Indianapolis Crispus Attucks to the 1955 Indiana high school basketball championship, the highest achievement imaginable in the basketball-crazed state. The city had enthusiastically supported the all-Black team.

But instead of the traditional champions parade through downtown Indianapolis, the team and its fans were routed to a park in a Black neighborhood for a celebration. Robertson, insulted by the slight, left early for his father’s house.

“Dad,” he said, “they just don’t want us.”

The anecdote, from Robertson’s autobiography, concludes Richard B. Pierce’s “Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.” Published in 2005 by Indiana University Press, the book offers plentiful evidence that Robertson was right.

Its thesis is that Black people took a different path in Indianapolis than other Northern cities in seeking racial progress in education, housing and jobs. They largely rejected demonstrations and vocal advocacy for the “polite” tactics of coalition-building, petitions, lobbying and litigation. Thwarted by the city’s white power structure, Black citizens “met with interminable delays and ineffectual remedies,” according to Pierce, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.

In education, Crispus Attucks High School was Exhibit A. Opened in 1927, it didn’t admit its first white students until 1967 – 18 years after the Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation in schools.

“Indianapolis fought school desegregation with a ferocity rarely matched by any other northern city,” Pierce writes.

In the early 1900s the city’s elementary schools may have been segregated by neighborhood, but Black students attended high school with white students. That changed in the 1920s, a time of increasing racism and nativism nationally and the dominance of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. The school board voted to open Attucks as a separate high school for Black students. African American leaders pushed for integrated schools, but school boards resisted time after time.

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