Saturday, February 23, 2019

Jackie Archer: North Country Civil Rights Leader (1964)

Jackie ArcherIn 1964, Jackie Archer had several irons in the fire. She was a member of the Beekmantown PTA and was very active in several religious capacities as secretary of the Board of Christian Education of the First Baptist Church; a member of the church’s Guild and Missionary Society; a substitute Sunday school teacher; and, in June, she became Recording Secretary for the Clinton County Council of Churches.

Much of her time, however, was devoted ongoing issues of concerned to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its leader Paul Lewis: job and housing discrimination.

The City of Plattsburgh had previously formed the Plattsburgh Human Rights Commission for the Elimination of Community Tensions, but the president of that group said there was never a reason to meet because there hadn’t been any complaints. Lewis’s perspective was quite different: complaints had been repeatedly ignored, so the chapter was instead referring all issues directly to the Human Rights Commission in Albany, which promised to address their concerns.

In June, when Lewis vacated the presidency (but remained an active member), Jackie Archer, already quite busy fundraising, recruiting new members, and helping with local discrimination issues, was selected as his replacement. She immediately jumped into the fray, noting that refusing to rent to African Americans was unacceptable, and that, “Even trailer parks won’t let us move there.” She told all chapter members to immediately contact her with any such problems, and then assisted each person in registering their complaint with the Albany commission. “Albany is dependable,” she said. They act immediately.”

Thus began a protracted battle, mostly on behalf of black airmen stationed at Plattsburgh, to eliminate discriminatory housing practices. Because of resistance and the lack of cooperation at different levels of enforcement, thwarting unethical landlords and overcoming racial bias required undercover tactics. Twenty years later, Jackie described the process to Press-Republican staff writer Tom Bergin:

“Blacks would go and answer an apartment ad, but when they got there the place had been rented, of course. Then we’d send a white couple and the woman would carry a recorder in her purse. We’d tape the landlord offering that same apartment to the white couple.” Uncovering such practices was considered a bit risky, but necessary. “It was an exciting time,” she later recalled. “We didn’t have ho-hum days, that’s for sure. You could feel the country changing, and we were part of that change.”

In August of that year (1964), Jackie received an award from the New York State NAACP for “outstanding contributions in organization and fundraising.” She was only just getting started as an activist. She spoke out on many subjects, some of which remain high-profile issues today: police brutality, opportunities denied because of race, the restriction of voting rights, and disproportionately filled prisons. Providing possible solutions was also part of her process. For instance, she developed a Prison Outreach Program and worked closely with those caught up in the system. “I try to help inmates understand why a life of crime is a no-win situation,” she once said.

But as she told the Press-Republican’s Joanne Duval, “What galls me most of all is to see those Confederate flags still tagged onto Air Base license plates. We can’t be too optimistic about the progress in the South and voter registration when this insult is still being tolerated in a community like Plattsburgh.” Noting that the flags were sometimes accompanied by the words, “Like hell we’ll forget,” she added, “It’s bad enough anywhere, but on a military base it should not be allowed. If the President can make a statement that abuse of any kind is forbidden in the services, then something should be done — or he should stop making such statements.”

(I’d like to interject this — if you’re a New Yorker proudly flying the Confederate flag you’re ignorant of history. More New Yorkers fought in the Union Army than any other state, and more than 50,000 of them died OPPOSING what that flag stands for — so displaying it is unpatriotic and insulting.)

That summer of 1964 Jackie led an effort that registered 200 new African American voters, part of a national civil rights drive that netted six million new-voter registrations, more than enough to impact any future election. Complicating the Plattsburgh push was the reality that many people of color on the air base came from the south, where they weren’t allowed to vote. As Jackie told the Press-Republican’s Jerry Howard, “Some feel it’s useless to bother … because voting has been something alien to their lives. Even Negroes who live off-base in the city feel this way.”

When the subject turned to bigotry, she told Howard: “People seem willing to accept change where they won’t in the south. And not every northern city will. If you’re Negro, try to buy a house in Rochester, for example.” Bigotry had reared its ugly head locally at times, she said, referencing two recent incidents that received graphic newspaper coverage. At issue were unprovoked verbal attacks and threats by an Air Force staff sergeant from Plattsburgh who was clearly racist, and was particularly outraged by a black man married to a white woman.

The staff sergeant in question spied the couple driving with their three children in the car. He yelled insults at them, including the word “savage,” and followed them to a grocery store parking lot. When the black man exited his car and asked what the problem was, the officer’s comments included, “You’re a black son of a bitch. You’re what’s wrong with this country. Civil rights or not, if you don’t get back in that car, you’ll wish the hell you had.” A complaint was filed soon after and the officer was arrested.

Before the case went to court, it happened again with the same officer and a different couple. The threatening comments this time included “lousy bastard” and “I’ll get rid of you yet.” Other witnesses besides the couples testified, but the defendant swore the charges were all false, claiming he didn’t know who the men were, and that, “most of them, if you don’t know them, you can’t tell one from another.”

The staff sergeant was convicted by a city court judge, fined $50, and placed on a year’s probation. Jackie publicly expressed her support for the court’s decision and wrote a letter to the base commander, warning him the convicted man might well have men under him who are black, which seemed likely to portend further issues in the future.

Despite how busy she was, Jackie took on new responsibilities as a member of the Mental Health Association, while still ensuring that the NAACP appeared frequently in various media. Her speech, “Civil Rights: How Far Ahead We’ve Come,” was delivered before a church group on the anniversary of the Selma March. She was invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in April, 1964, but recent surgery precluded her from attending; husband Lloyd went in her place. She was elected president of the newly formed Citizens’ Council on Alcoholism, and in late May she was the guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Clinton County Council of Churches, presenting a plea for support of the NAACP. “Our members risk physical violence for their work to break down the barriers of discrimination and segregation. Our weapons in the battle are the law and the Constitution…. We’re asking for a chance for eight million Negroes … to learn … for our children to go to decent schools . . . for employment…. The NAACP is an organization working towards self-liquidity — until there is no need of an organized movement to insure the Negro of his rights.”

Two weeks later, she confronted local Kiwanis with a speech titled, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Member businessmen and women were known for supporting the community, but Jackie pointed out that in Clinton County, the NAACP had received only a single Kiwanis-member donation of $25. Black Americans, she said, were fighting and dying for their country in Vietnam. “Surely you must support your fellow American…. I must help you arrive at a decision that you have an obligation to your fellow man.”

Before the year was out, she delivered the same speech to Plattsburgh’s Hadassah (the Jewish women’s organization) and a Presbyterian church group. She was also invited to speak at the Municipal Police Training School held at the Army Reserve Center, where she and three others discussed with lawmen their relations with minority groups. Her last major appearance of the year involved an open-to-the-public round-table discussion on three related subjects: the recent race riots, the Black Power movement, and the white backlash. She took seriously the job of holding open forums and maintaining a dialogue about the impact of national events on the local scene.

While keeping the lines of communication open, she was also vigilant in exposing instances of discrimination by local landlords, and by businesses that wouldn’t hire people of color. How successful was that effort? From 1964 to 1968, under her leadership, roughly one discrimination suit a month was filed. “Jobs were almost unheard of for African-Americans downtown,” she said, recalling that two black girls seeking job application forms went to Fishman’s store, and “The man wouldn’t even talk to them.”

While reinvigorating the Plattsburgh NAACP, she identified other instances of racial discrimination and helped bring public pressure to bear. Included were the ignoring of black candidates for nursing courses, and the roadblocks facing airmen seeking to confront bias issues that occurred both on and off the military base. Her efforts did not go unnoticed among the local NAACP membership. After a very effective and progressive first 18 months as president, Jackie was elected in 1966 to an additional two-year term.

Next week, part three: leading with distinction and dignity on multiple fronts.

Photo of Jackie Archer (courtesy of her daughters, Taryn Archer and Tracey Lawson); Headlines from the Press-Republican.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Robert James says:

    Thank you for this series. There are more confederate flags in the North Country than ever. It’s disturbing. As you noted thousands and thousands of New Yorkers died to defend the Union against the Confederacy and what it stood for.

  2. Thanks for making me aware of the contributions of this great lady

  3. […] Read the rest of the story at the Adirondack Almanack HERE. […]

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