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Commentary: San Antonio Protests — Then And Now

Alfred S. James, president of the city’s NAACP youth committee, protests the segregation policy at a San Antonio movie house during a showing of "Carmen Jones."
Alfred S. James, president of the city’s NAACP youth committee, protests the segregation policy at a San Antonio movie house during a showing of "Carmen Jones."";

San Antonians have been out on the city streets in big numbers this week to support Black Lives Matter and protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  Other protests make up San Antonio’s 300-year history.  Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides shares her observations about one that occurred some 65 years ago and remains relevant still today.  

A warm day in June of 1955 did not melt the frigid resolve of the ticket-takers who watched as Reverend S.H. James, the leader of the local chapter of the NAACP, led picketers in front of the Texas Theater which once stood at 105 E. Houston St. They were there to protest the theater’s policy of segregation.  African American patrons were told they could enter the theater but had to sit in specific areas of the theater — the mezzanine and the balcony.  The film showing on that day was Carmen Jones, an adaptation of the French opera. The movie featured an all-black cast. However, even this fact doesn’t ameliorate what those peaceful protesters faced in the foyer of the theater or in other contexts of the city.  Even the imagined space of the film did not mend the wide gap created by racial injustice and segregation.

To discuss this contentious moment in history without taking into account the film in question would mean missing the prevailing representations of people of color in popular film and what it meant for Black lives in a segregated America.

In the essay, “Life Straight in De Eye” James Baldwin reviewed Carmen Jones, casting a critical, unflinching, and acerbic critique on the Otto Preminger production. The cast that featured such luminaries as Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, and Harry Belafonte did little to redirect Baldwin’s slings and arrows.

Wrote Baldwin, “A movie is, literally, a series of images and what one sees in a movie can really be taken, beyond its stammering or misleading dialogue, as the key to what the movie is actually involved in saying.”  He went on to write that the film does little to help audiences relate more pointedly to the black characters and their storylines but that it does much to lead us to a questioning about “the interior life of Americans.”

In May of 2019, the touring company of Hamilton, the Tony-award winning play, attracted thousands to the front doors of the Majestic Theater in San Antonio.  Lin Manuel Miranda, a man of Puerto Rican descent, composed the music. The touring company featured people of color in the roles of the founding fathers of this country, including an Asian George Washington and black and Latino statesmen. 

On those May days at the Majestic, people of every walk of life brandished e-tickets on cellphones, took the elevator up to the merchandise tables, sipped wine from plastic cups, settled in for the show. On that day, everyone was allowed in the room where it happened.  

Yvette Benavides is a Texas Public Radio contributor.  A longer version of this essay appears in her book San Antonio 365: On This Day in History co-authored with David Martin Davies. It’s published by Trinity University Press.