Human Flower Project
Saturday, June 02, 2007
‘The Death of Equal Justice’ 1953
In segregated Austin, Texas, of the 1950s, one quiet wreath proclaimed a travesty of the law.
Travis County (TX)
Courthouse, c. 1955
Photo: Austin Postcard
In the summer of 1953 a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, was, sad to say, carrying out business as usual. That July, a group of Austin’s finest—including several prominent merchants, an insurance man, one university professor, and the pastor of the First Baptist Church—“no billed” former Justice of the Peace Robin Forrester. According to the Austin American, two days before the grand jury’s decision, Forrester had delivered “his personal checks for $16,810.89” to the county auditor, “the full amount of an audit of his books showed he owed the county in fines and court costs from his days as justice of the peace.” (By the way, that $16,810 amounts to $113,581 in 2005 dollars).
Forrester and his father, the executive secretary of the Texas Medical Association, appeared before the grand jury July 16, and six hours later he was free. According to the newspaper, the grand jury wrote that it had “no apologies for any action or inaction taken; it has earnestly sought to temper justice with mercy.”
Meanwhile, the paper noted, “a Negro named D.C. Manor” was sentenced to a year in prison for stealing a lawn mower. As Forrester had reimbursed the county, Mr. Manor had returned the lawn mower. But “justice with mercy” seemed to have ducked out of the courthouse in his case.
An unassuming white friend, now in his 80s, was just starting a family and his professional career in Austin, back in 1953. He was aware of what was happening downtown, and he was appalled. “It went all over me,” he said. He had grown up in the segregated South and knew that the average white citizen “couldn’t care less what happened to blacks.” But seeing the Manor and Forrester cases side by side horrified him. “This was an out and out slap.”
Mysterious protest left on the door
of the Travis County (TX) Courthouse
July 16, 1953
Photo: Austin American
That evening he went to a florist near the University of Texas campus, removing his glasses before entering the shop. It was near closing time. “I told them I wanted a wreath for a small child that had died,” he recounts. The florist quickly put together a spray of white gladiolas and greens gathered with a white bow.
Back at home, our friend had his wife write out a card. It read:
for the death of
in Travis County
on July 16, 1953, 8:30 p.m.
He returned to the courthouse at dusk, hanging the flowers at the entrance just outside the sheriff’s office. And he then called the local newspaper, leaving an anonymous message for reporter Len Mohrman. “Tell him he needs to go up to the courthouse with a photographer….”
By the following morning excitement, curiosity and a tinge of alarm were crackling through the city as the floral protest was discovered. A photo appeared on the front page of the paper. “They thought East Austin,” the black district of town, “was rising up,” he says, smiling. “They thought they were in bad trouble, which is what I wanted them to think.”
That afternoon and for the next few days “they had the police checking every flower shop” in Austin. Our friend was suspected and even questioned point-blank about the affair, but he denied having anything to do with it. “I’d paid cash,” he says. “They’d have wanted to hang a wreath around MY neck!”
For more about the city’s racial past, the Austin History Center provides a good online overview of desegregation.
Interestingly, just two weeks after the white gladiolas declared Equal Justice dead, Mrs. Myrtle Washington was “arrested for refusing to move to the rear of the bus when asked by an Austin Transit Company bus driver.” The Austin Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) represented Mrs. Washington, “charged with violating the 1945 Jim Crow law requiring Blacks to sit at the rear of the bus.”
Myrtle Washington made her demonstration more than two years before Rosa Parks’s famous protest in December 1955, setting off the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.