From Erie to Selma in 1965
Hammermill Paper's new plant drawn up amidst the historic Civil Rights marches
In 2015, U.S. Representative John Lewis spoke to the graduating class of Lawrence University.
"You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out, and get in good trouble," Lewis told them.
Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Lewis, of course, knew a thing or two about that. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC and pronounced "snick") during the Civil Rights Movement, he helped organize the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, planned countless boycotts, and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.
Lewis, like many civil rights activists, believed that sometimes good trouble was necessary in order to enact change.
In May of 1964, an unlikely city found itself in the middle of a Civil Rights Movement struggle: Erie, Pennsylvania. On May 8, The Selma Times-Journal first reported that Hammermill Paper Company, headquartered in Erie, was interested in constructing a pulp mill outside of Selma, Alabama. They had commissioned a feasibility study with the assistance of Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Selma Chamber of Commerce, and a committee of 100 "prominent members" of the community, all offering lucrative promises of tax exemptions and subsidies. They lobbied hard.
"Hammermill, a company with a top reputation in every phase of the paper industry, was just the type of industry Selma needs and wants," the paper reported two days later.
Hammermill had been an important part of Erie's economy since it opened to production in 1899. Founded by Moritz Behrend and his three sons, Ernst, Otto, and Bernard, they employed over 500 people within a decade. By the late-1950s, the company was expanding outside of Erie to places such as Oswego, N.Y. and Lock Haven, Pa.
When they set their sights on Selma in 1964, there hadn't yet been much national attention on the emerging civil rights activism there, but the city was increasingly attracting nonviolent civil disobedience by civil rights activists. A year earlier in 1963, SNCC field staff had arrived to help organize direct action in protest of discriminatory practices in voter registration. The Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and Selma's NAACP had already been fighting such practices for decades.
Selma was the seat of Dallas County. Despite a population that was 57 percent black, less than one percent of black citizens were registered to vote compared to nearly 70 percent of the white population.
Tragedy and Comedy
On Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan terrorists planted dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma's neighboring city of Birmingham. Four young black girls — Carol Denise McNair, age 11; Addie Mae Collins, age 14; Cynthia Wesley, age 14; and Carole Robertson, age 14 — were killed.
On the day of the funeral, as family and friends of the girls mourned, hundreds of Klansmen and other racists gathered nearby. For them, it was a celebration. A preacher who spoke at the rally said that the girls were "old enough to have venereal diseases" and "were no more human or innocent than rattlesnakes." This was what activists were up against.
When SNCC arrived in Selma, led by 23-year-old chairman John Lewis, they began their campaign with sit-ins. They were immediately met with violence and arrests. On Oct. 7, 1963, they organized "Freedom Day" in the city. Hundreds of black activists, including writer James Baldwin and well-known comedian Dick Gregory (whose wife had been previously arrested in Selma) participated.
Gregory, in a fiery yet still darkly comical speech two days earlier, told his audience that southern whites had no identity except for their segregated toilets and their ability to use the n-word. He joked that he wished all black people would disappear overnight, as then white people would realize how much the southern economy relied on their labor.
"They would go crazy looking for us," Gregory quipped to roaring laughs and applause. He then continued seriously: "But it looks like we got to do it the hard way and stay down here and educate them."
The nearly 300 demonstrators who showed up that day were met by Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse. Clark's men harassed and arrested many of them.
The News Adjacent to History
Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that following July, little changed in Selma. That same week, John Lewis marched dozens of black residents to the courthouse to register. Once again, they were met by Sheriff Clark. He arrested them all. A judge issued an injunction against any gatherings of three or more people in relation to civil rights activism.
By early-1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were involved. On Feb. 1, 1965, only a month after accepting his Nobel Peace Prize award, King was arrested for the first time in Selma after leading hundreds to the courthouse.
As King sat in his jail cell the following day, hundreds more were arrested. According to the February 3 issue of The Selma Times-Journal, over 1,600 total activists had been arrested by that point as demonstrations continued. Adjacent to this article on the very same page of the same issue, the newspaper reported on another happening that same day in Alabama.
These archival photos from the Selma Times-Journal show Hammermill President John DeVitt and other corporate executives of the Erie-based paper company at a social get-together after agreeing to construct a $30 million pulp mill outside of Selma, Ala. — a move met with resistance due to Alabama Governor George Wallace's openly racist policies.
"[Hammermill Paper Company] announced today its plans to start immediate construction on a $25-$30 million pulp mill in Dallas County which will employ more than 250 persons," the article read. The plant, planned just outside of Selma, would have a daily output of 400 tons of bleach kraft pulp used in Hammermill's papermaking plants.
Hammermill President John H. DeVitt, Vice President M.E. Graham, and CEO Donald Leslie Sr. were all in Montgomery for the press conference. Alongside them was Gov. George Wallace, who all three praised during the event.
"We are looking forward to more expansion in this fine community. We appreciate the great job you are doing for your state," Leslie complimented Wallace, also noting the "character of the community and its people."
An Affronting Alliance
Wallace had been elected governor as a steadfast segregationist. In his 1963 inaugural address, he had famously declared, "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." That June, he'd stood in front of doors at the University of Alabama to prevent two black teenagers from entering, resulting in President John F. Kennedy's federal intervention. In a 1964 interview, King referred to Wallace as the "most dangerous racist in America today."
This, of course, was the very public state of race relations in Alabama when Hammermill executives made their public announcement alongside Wallace.
Dr. Robert W. Spike, a white preacher and civil rights activist in New York, blasted Hammermill. Spike (who was tragically murdered one year later on the campus of Ohio State University) was known for his civil rights activism. Jet Magazine, which covered black issues often ignored by white-owned media outlets, published a story quoting Spike, who referred to Hammermill's decision as "an affront not only to 20 million American Negroes, but also to all citizens of goodwill in this country."
Spike then condemned Leslie directly for his comments at the press conference: "For the board chairman of one of America's largest paper manufacturers to sit side by side with Governor Wallace of Alabama and say that Selma is fine ... is either the height of naiveté or the depth of racism."
Dr. Reverend Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stands before Selma, Ala. Sheriff Jim Clark after a protest march in 1965. Clark and Alabama State Police were condemned for their "Gestapo-like" approach to suppressing the activists. AP Photo.
Meanwhile, the Selma campaign was accelerating quickly. On Feb. 18, a night march was led by prominent SCLC leader and close friend of King's: Dr. Reverend Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian. Police attacked the marchers and murdered 26-year-old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson.
On March 7, the first of the Selma to Montgomery marches, later remembered as Bloody Sunday, took place. Nearly 600 marchers were stopped and then brutally attacked by state troopers along with Sheriff Clark and his police force, many who were newly deputized that morning.
The following day, the NAACP released a statement referring to the state police as "Gestapo-like." They condemned Gov. Wallace, whose orders they acted upon, as well as the federal government for inaction.
"Like the citizens of Nazi-occupied [Europe], Negroes must either submit to the heels of their oppressors or they must organize, underground, to protect themselves from the oppression of Governor Wallace and his storm troopers," their statement read.
The second attempted march took place two days later. On that same evening, James Reeb, a white minister and activist from Boston, was badly beaten, resulting in his death.
These two violent events were international news, escalating the situation and making it impossible to ignore in northern cities. In Erie, hundreds of citizens marched downtown in solidarity with the Selma campaign.
Hammermill executives may have privately had thoughts on what was happening, but publicly, they remained silent. In a scathing March 17 editorial, nationally-syndicated columnist Drew Pearson weighed in on Hammermill. He maintained that the fast-talking, back-slapping Wallace had charmed the foolish executives and was clearly using them to gear-up for a presidential campaign. Pearson ripped into them for staging the February "celebration" with Wallace. They were all smiles and handshakes while on the same day hundreds of black activists, including King, were sitting in Selma's jail cells. And all for what, Pearson pondered? Lower wages and weaker unions in Alabama.
Sheriff Clark meanwhile told reporters on March 19 that running out Hammermill was going to hurt Selma and specifically the city's black population.
"If they are trying to bankrupt us, they're doing a damn good job," he told the paper. "If they do this, they'll be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. I understand that 75 to 80 percent of the workforce would be colored."
As for Wallace, he watched the two Selma marches unfold from Montgomery and continued to refuse protection. Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson intervened, agreeing to provide the protection of the Alabama National Guard and U.S. Marshals. The third and successful march, which followed a 54-mile stretch of highway between Selma and Montgomery, took place between March 21 through March 25.
Lewis Calls for Boycott
One day later, John Lewis called for a national boycott of Hammermill products. The boycott would continue, SNCC's statement read, "until such time as they reverse their decision to locate in Selma or exert pressure on Alabama officials to discontinue their racist policies."
Lewis declared that Hammermill's decision to open a plant in Selma was "a direct support to the racist policies of the state and its peoples." He called for "all freedom lovers not to buy Hammermill products and to send letters to Hammermill's president protesting the move to Alabama." He further encouraged people to contact their local stores, schools, colleges, unions, and local governments and request cutting ties with Hammermill.
"[T]he moneys which would build your plant were in part collected from people who have no say in their disposition," Lewis wrote in a letter to DeVitt. "And the funds which the agreement allows you to keep from tax reserves could be better used for community improvement."
Some Hammermill clients applied pressure. Jet reported that many black-owned businesses were cutting ties fast, including well-known Alabamian businessman A.G. Gaston, who owned finance companies, funeral parlors, a business school, and a motel. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the largest black-owned firm in the United States, told Jet that they could easily cut ties with Hammermill "tomorrow" if their response wasn't adequate.
"This is a mammoth organization which student civil rights workers and Dr. Martin Luther King are taking on," Pearson warned in a column.
"Hammermill is now deeply involved in the civil rights controversy, whether it likes it or not," another columnist wrote. "Rights leaders have served notice they will be watching the company closely … Hammermill is a marked firm."
A short drive away from Erie at Ohio's Oberlin College, Oberlin Action for Civil Rights members Joe Gross and Jerry Von Korff were planning a demonstration at Hammermill's headquarters.
Von Korff was already active in the movement. He was involved in the Freedom Ballot of Mississippi in 1964 as well as the Carpenters for Christmas that December. He had even hitched a ride with Stokely Carmichael (future chairman of SNCC and later leader of the Black Power movement) for an event.
"We got in touch with SCLC," Von Korff, now an attorney in Minnesota, remembers of the Hammermill demonstrations today. "We arranged to rent some busses and we posted the project around campus."
SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP all began recruiting students from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Maryland, and even Canada. The Penn State chapter of the Student Union for Racial Equality (SURE) planned to join the demonstration led by student Curry First. SNCC and SCLC also organized "sympathy marches" in major cities. At Oberlin, Gross and Von Korff pulled together two busloads of students to bring to Erie.
On May 11, 1965, the first day of these demonstrations (described in media reports as a "siege") began. It commenced with local activist Reverend Jesse MacFarland leading multiple groups of 25 marching from downtown Erie to the Hammermill headquarters on the shores of Lake Erie. Not coincidentally, this was during Hammermill's annual meeting of stockholders and directors.
"One group blocked the main gate where employees entered," explains Von Korff. "We passed out literature explaining that Hammermill was moving to the labor unfriendly south in order to pay lower wages and exploit their black workers. I took a group of students and staged a sit-in on the railroad tracks to prevent trains from supplying or leaving the plant."
Official SNCC notes provide further details. "They effectively immobilized the plant [in Erie], blocking all entrances to the plant including the railroad trestle over which the raw pulp from the plant is carried."
Demonstrators held signs. Songs were sung. There was also plenty of media attention. The police stood by idly. "We are going to let them sit there until they get discouraged," one Erie officer told the press.
Media reports estimate that there were as many as 200 demonstrators. This included Dr. C.T. Vivian, who was directly involved in the Selma campaign.
Vivian, who King called "the greatest preacher who ever lived," had first arrived in Selma in December 1964. He was the representative who first informed the Dallas County Voters League and SNCC that King would come with the resources of the SCLC if they wanted him. After they joined the Selma campaign, Vivian had marched with 70 black citizens to register, resulting in a heated confrontation with Sheriff Clark that ended with Vivian being punched in the face.
Despite the public pressure and Dr. Vivian's presence, Hammermill executives defended the company. They reasoned that they already had "a policy of equality in hiring and assigning personnel and hoped to help solve the negro civil rights problems of the south." Yet, very aware of the escalating situation, they agreed to meet with a committee of activists from each organization.
The next day, Gross and Van Korff joined Dr. Vivian and others at Hammermill's headquarters. They met with DeVitt and other executives, who were adamant that it was impossible for Hammermill to pull out of Selma at that point. A compromise was needed.
A Restless Resolution
"Joe and I and C.T. Vivian were invited up to an executive conference room with windows overlooking the plant grounds," Van Korff recalls. "They served us sandwiches and we negotiated, C.T. taking the lead."
Outside, a second day of demonstrations resumed. The Pittsburgh Courier estimated over 250 activists were present. Meanwhile, Hammermill's attorneys were in court petitioning Erie County judge Samuel Rossiter. He granted an injunction against the protestors. Fifty police officers arrived and began making arrests. The demonstrators complied. Around 65 were booked for obstruction of an officer.
On May 12, the New York Times reported on the negotiations. They had lasted around four hours and activists in Erie, they wrote, had withdrawn some of their demands. On May 13, they reported that Hammermill had signed a negotiated agreement, publicly committing Hammermill to hiring black workers and advocating for their voting rights.
"The agreement required Hammermill to support school integration and to provide equal compensation to their black and white workers," Van Korff adds.
In their statement, Hammermill "affirmed its intention to ... use its full influence as a corporate citizen of Dallas County to secure the full protection of the law for all such rights." Gross confirmed to Oberlin's student newspaper that Hammermill had made such a commitment. Still, he added that they would be back with two busloads of demonstrators in June after finals if the situation didn't improve.
The Lock Haven Express described the negotiations as "frank and fruitful ... [on] the social, economic and political aspects of this move.." DeVitt, they reported, was already planning to hire a black student from Gannon College, a senior and standout basketball player originally from Selma, for employment at their new plant.
The pressure clearly changed the tone of the conversation. DeVitt, who had praised Gov. Wallace and stood beside him gleefully only three months earlier, stated that building the mill in Selma "does not in any way indicate support for or approval of those who are opposed to civil rights or who accept the brutality and violence which has permeated the area."
DeVitt reiterated that they didn't and wouldn't factor in race when hiring. He still defended their decision, noting that "refusal to locate near Selma wouldn't remove civil rights problems there or advance civil liberties." The plant, he argued, would serve as an economic stimulus for the region, especially for black residents. He also pointed out that Hammermill had made public their plans to explore Selma an entire year before the event — although he conveniently left out that acts of protest were already well underway in Selma then too, only without the national publicity.
"We have publicly stated to Governor Wallace and to leading citizens of the Selma area that Hammermill is dedicated to the principles of respect for the rights of others and the maintenance of law and order," DeVitt asserted. He would personally speak with Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma's mayor, and the White Citizens' Council (a extremist white supremacist group that was essentially the KKK without the secrecy) to ensure a "change in the repressive and illegal [voting] procedures in Selma."
His words provided little comfort to many activists. They wanted more assurance beyond a signature on a piece of paper and a few carefully crafted public words.
DeVitt was clearly frustrated. Richard Phalon reported in The New York Times how when one visitor on a tour of the Hammermill plant mentioned Selma, DeVitt told him "to drop a quarter in the 'swear box.'"
Penn State students were not shy in expressing their opinions. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself had given a speech in State College that previous January to a crowd of 8,000 students. Many followed the Hammermill controversy closely. Some were skeptical of the demonstrations. One senior at Penn State, an Erie native, defended Hammermill in an op-ed for Penn State's university newspaper The Daily Collegian.
"Hammermill's integrity cannot be questioned," he wrote. "I have discussed Hammermill with many Erieites over the past few months and all speak favorably of the company. Hammermill should not be picketed."
Curry First, a senior at Penn State and a leader of SURE who had been arrested during the Erie demonstrations, spoke on campus. In his speech, he clarified that the demonstrations were not about Hammermill's hiring practices. It wasn't even over fears that Hammermill would succumb to discrimination. The pressure campaign against Hammermill was about solidarity with Dr. King.
In another op-ed, sophomore Penn State student Nancy Avery pushed back. "The Hammermill Paper Co. has long been known for … its equal opportunity and employment policies," she wrote. It was doubtful that Hammermill would ever betray their "high ethical standards and good business management." After all, she reasoned, the Behrend legacy was strong in their emphasis on education and their community-based philanthropy.
"SURE would do well to study the 'Hammermill image' in the world market and in particular, in the Erie area," she wrote. "Does SURE realize that the Behrend Campus … is one result of this interest in non-industrial endeavors? … Or that the Behrends' son willingly destroyed his own life by driving his car off the highway to avoid hitting a school bus full of children?"
The Penn State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative activist organization founded in 1960, responded with a picket in protest of SURE. They circulated a newsletter criticizing them, arguing that their Hammermill protest was "certainly not in the best interest of economic benefit for the Negro" and that the boycott would harm their economic condition.
Curry First shot back. He wrote about what he perceived as a misunderstanding. An earlier statement from a SURE spokesman had stated that the deal given to Hammermill by Wallace would give him "a de facto position concerning hiring for the new plant."
First clarified that point. He didn't dispute President DeVitt's commitment to equal rights. He also didn't want or expect Hammermill to relocate. It was about Hammermill's corporate morality and using their power to enact change.
"The demonstrations were undertaken to pressure Hammermill to use its economic leverage … to further civil rights," First explained. "The action was justified on the belief that business has an important responsibility to society, to the community it serves and supports … and from which it derives financial gain. Thus, the demonstrations were protesting Hammermill's plans to move into a state and a community which thrives on a lethal system of segregation."
For civil rights activists, the Selma campaign was a success. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6, 1965, banning the use of literacy tests and other tactics meant to disenfranchise.
For those vocal about the Selma plant, the plans to build still continued. Construction began that year — and while Hammermill, which was purchased by International Paper Company in 1986, shuttered its Erie plant in 2002, the Selma plant is still in operation.
Were the demonstrations in Erie a success or a failure then? As Curry First said at Penn State the weekend after his arrest, Hammermill executives hadn't made any commitment to "alleviate the unequitable environment" in Alabama before their demonstrations.
"Alabama with its quasi-legalization of civil rights murders, police brutality, and discrimination makes one very skeptical and afraid of the motives of Hammermill," he had said. The executives had initially "shown a lack of regard for human suffering" and their initial inaction was a choice, one which could only be interpreted as "support for the Wallace storm-trooper kind of government."
In that regard, Hammermill was subject to public scrutiny and, as a result, public accountability. In other words, during those two days during the spring of 1965, they had been up to good trouble in Erie, Pennsylvania.
And as John Lewis says, good trouble is necessary trouble.
NOTE: This article appeared in the May 20, 2020 print edition of the Erie Reader and was edited for length.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. Follow them on Twitter @RustDirt, and on Instagram @Rustanddirt.