Charlie, who was well-known around the UT campus in late-’60s Austin, ‘was a lefty, but always a heretic.’
Charlie Saulsberry, 70, a familiar figure on the UT-Austin campus during the late ‘60s, died Monday, March 16, in Alabama. Strokes and kidney failure brought about his death.
Saulsberry was known to thousands of UT students because every weekday on a Guadalupe Street sidewalk just steps outside the University Co-Op bookstore, he laid out a variety of books, pamphlets, and cause buttons, and spent the day selling them to passerby. His books and pamphlets included titles like How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam and Red Star Over China. His buttons carried slogans like “War Is a Drag!”
During the three semesters that he ran the makeshift stand, he jibed and conversed with hundreds of students who remember him if only because an impediment caused him to cut short the last syllables of words he spoke. To engage in a conversation with Charlie one had to lend an ear, but those who listened to him benefitted because he was a self-taught and unique commentator in a milieu of polarized and stylized opinion. He was a lefty, but always a heretic.
Saulsberry had grown up in Demopolis, a small town in the Alabama Black Belt.
Saulsberry had grown up in Demopolis, a small town in the Alabama Black Belt. In junior high he had applied for a card at the municipal library and been turned down because of his race. In high school he had become the ghetto’s village atheist, had marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King, and had afterward become a leader in efforts to convulse the region; he repeatedly landed in jail.
In 1966, when a group of white civil rights workers from UT returned from summer duty in Demopolis, he’d come with them, in part because, to protect her other children from her fears of Ku Klux terror, his mother had banned him from her house. Charlie’s speech impediment and his arrest record had barred him from local employment.
In Austin Saulsberry made his living from the sidewalk sales, and after a time, from participation in an anti-poverty-era job-training program, always securing cheap or free housing from people he had met at his spot on the Drag. He spent most of his evenings in the left-wing milieu of African-American student organizations and UT’s burgeoning chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A single story summarizes his life and that of Austin, back in the day.
On a Saturday evening, April 27, 1968, Leo Northington, an African-American UT student who had been hired as a musician at a North Austin bar, showed for work a few minutes early. He went inside to wait for the other band members, all white. A boxing match between a black fighter and a white fighter was showing on a television screen. According to Northington, when the black fighter won the bout, Don Weedon, who operated a Conoco station nearby, at 34th and Guadalupe, beset Northington, the only black man in sight, pummeling him until the bar’s manager intervened.
Northington took his case not only to the police, but also to a student organization at UT, Afro-Americans for Black Liberation (AABL). It called for a boycott of the station, alleging that Weedon had a contract to provide fuel to university vehicles.
For nearly a week two figures in the protest movement, Larry Jackson, who was prominent in the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Grace Cleaver of AABL, agitated for action. [The Larry Jackson of SNCC is not the person of that name who has been in Austin news recently.] They called for a demonstration on Friday, May 3.
As Larry Jackson interposed himself between a cop and the squirming Cleaver, another black male jumped onto the cop’s back.
That afternoon some 200 people, mostly members of AABL and SDS, sat down on the station’s parking lot. Austin police descended there too, and, spotting Cleaver, handled her roughly. Jackson, now an East Austin community leader, rose from the driveway to interpose himself between a cop and the squirming Cleaver. As he did, another black male jumped onto the cop’s back. A short-lived tussle ensued and when its parties separated — the assailant having run off — the cops handcuffed Jackson and hauled him away.
About 30 people who had remained seated on the driveway put up only passive resistance as, one by one, they were arrested and chauffeured to jail, where they were held only a few hours before being released on personal recognizance. [Full disclosure: I was one of them.] A half-dozen were tried as a group and found guilty of mere trespass. Afterward, most of the others paid $50 fines on the same charge and put the incident behind them.
Jackson, however, was accused of a more serious offense, assault on a police officer. He was innocent — and the authorities had to know as much. He had struck nobody, pushed nobody, threatened nobody, merely having tried to stand between Cleaver and the cop. When he went to trial on May 27, his attorney arranged for the showing of a black-and-white film of the event.
Charlie Saulsberry ran the movie projector for the courtroom screening; he volunteered to do that. He stood not more than six feet from the jury box. When the projector got to the segment showing the assault on the cop, he stopped his machine, reversed it, and played the scene several times, both at the projector’s usual speed and in slow motion.
When the jurors returned they gave the adage ‘justice is blind’ a new meaning.
Then Jackson’s attorney, Bobby Caldwell of Houston, rose and asked the jury, “Don’t you see that the man who assaulted the officer was a larger black male than Larry Jackson?” Jackson was about six inches shorter than the assailant, who stood 6’1” — Charlie Saulsberry. After the screening and summations, the six white jurors retired for less than half an hour. When they returned they gave the adage “justice is blind” a new meaning.
They convicted Jackson.
As the trial showed, Austin was then still an unpretentious part of the South, undistinguished by the rise of country music outlaws and as yet uninspired by slogans like “Keep Austin Weird.” What seemed weird in those days, at least to those who would later put their imprint on the city, were characters like Weedon and his friends at court.
Saulsberry headed west in the early ‘70s, spending more than 20 years as a janitor at the University of Utah, never to see Texas again. Among the activities that he later reported were two runs for state representative on a single-plank platform. Saulsberry lost both races, but got what he wanted: health coverage for the University’s custodial staff.
But because he was out of touch with both his Alabama family and his Austin friends, his high school graduating class listed him as dead in its anniversary bulletins, and did not see him again until he returned to Demopolis in 2010 to convalesce from a stroke and to manage the decline that has now resulted in his death.
[Dick J. Reavis is a retired Texas journalist who now lives in Dallas. His account is indebted to Gary Thiher, whose 1968 Rag story about the Weedon incident reformed his memory of the Weedon affair.]