William H. Bruce—student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934
William H. Bruce, a Howard University student who took part in a direct action protest against Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol March 17, 1934, is shown in a 1935 newspaper photograph.
Howard University students staged the protest at the Capitol after several high profile interracial groups attempted to gain service in the House and Senate restaurants, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.
The demonstrations were prompted by the barring of Morris Lewis, an aide to the only African American U.S. representative Oscar DePriest, from the public House restaurant in January and the subsequent forcible removal of Mabel Byrd, a civil rights activist, from the Senate restaurant in February of 1934.
DePriest sought a resolution in the House that barred discrimination.
The students acted after a number of small interracial groups organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom began taking seats in the restaurants and demanding to be served after the Lewis and Byrd incidents. This campaign marked the first ongoing, organized sit-ins in the city.
After an interracial group was barred from service at the House restaurant, Afro American reporter Frederick Weaver was invited by waiter Harold Covington into the restaurant where Weaver was served a bowl of soup. Both were also Howard University students.
Covington was fired for the incident and word spread quickly to the Howard campus.
Kenneth Clark, the future sociologist who provided the scientific evidence in the Brown v. Board desegregation case years later, wrote an editorial for Howard’s student newspaper.
The next day Clark, Weaver and a few others organized thirty students, most dressed in suits, to attempt to obtain service at the House restaurant, but were barred by police. The Senate closed the restaurant in anticipation of the demonstration before the students arrived.
A second attempt to enter the House restaurant resulted in a scuffle between Covington and a doorman and Covington was arrested.
When the students went to the police station, four of their leaders were arrested for blocking the sidewalk.
The precinct captain quickly dismissed the charges against the four and expunged their records.
Newspapers ran sensational headlines about the demonstration and DePriest distanced himself from the ongoing protests
There were calls from Congress to expel the students and university president Mordecai Johnson followed up by asking for expulsions or suspensions for the participants.
However faculty disciplinary committee chair Ralph Bunche, a future Nobel Prize winner, argued that the students should be given medals and not discipline. The decision was no discipline
The charges against Covington were ultimately dropped with the prosecutor determining that Covington had not struck the doorman first. While the students’ versions of events were vindicated, the protests were effectively ended at that point.
DePriest attempted almost from the beginning to run an inside legislative game to end Jim Crow in the building, but was easily defeated by Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas Rainey.
DePriest was defeated in the next election and his successor, Arthur Mitchell, was not interested in the cause. The restaurants remained Jim Crow until the early 1950s.
However, the ten days of sit-ins and demonstrations in 1934 won some small victories in getting some of the interracial groups waited on at the restaurants and served as a tactical model to be refined later.
Howard students would conduct sit-ins at Washington, D.C. restaurants again in 1942 and 1943 with the Howard administration again threatening to discipline the students effectively ending the movement.
The use of the tactic would not become widespread until the Greensboro, N.C. sit-in of 1960. Within months of the Greensboro sit-ins, Howard University students utilized the tactic to desegregate restaurants in Arlington, Va., Montgomery County, Md. and Prince George’s County, Md.
For a detailed account of the campaign against Jim Crow in the Capitol, see washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/origins-of-the-c...
For related photos, see flic.kr/s/aHsmcArGZz
The photographer is unknown. The image appeared in the November 30, 1935 Indianapolis Recorder.