Partners Against Apartheid: Fort Worth Divestment
The story of Fort Worth’s divestment from South Africa in 1987 was decades in the making and unique among American cities. Spearheaded by Anthony Lyons and his fraternity brothers in the late summer of 1986, the movement sparked at the city council, gained footing in the media, then the Fort Worth business community and church establishment. From these cornerstones, the city built a moral reputation and became a leader on the anti-apartheid issue in the country, at a time when the President himself was doggedly opposed to intervening in the atrocities in South Africa. In many ways, the genesis of the anti-apartheid movement can be traced back decades before the odious apartheid system gained international attention, to Fort Worth’s black community; which produced community leaders in media, law, business and politics that inserted themselves into the city leadership and built relationships which triggered significant change. Based on oral history interviews conducted in March, April and May of 2017 with individuals who directly participated in the divestment movement, this essay will demonstrate that Fort Worth leadership was driven by strong, empathetic interracial coalitions, which paved the way for the anti-apartheid and divestment movements led by strident members of Fort Worth’s black community.
Young and Black in Fort Worth
A graduate of one of Fort Worth’s black high schools – Fort Worth Polytechnic – current Dallas attorney Anthony Lyons experienced the race-based disparities in funding in the Fort Worth Independent School District. He tells a story of how, before the city championship, the school district unceremoniously dropped off bundles of new football equipment – from a city dump truck. Lyons and his teammates performed well, shutting down a future NFL all -star wide receiver in the process (Lyons). From high school, he entered the Marines and served in Vietnam. He saw the brutal oppression of the North Vietnamese and helped evacuate the South Vietnamese at the Fall of Saigon. The value of helping others crystallized during his college years at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). Serendipitously, one of the young men his regiment rescued during the Fall of Saigon attended UTA concurrently with Lyons. Lyons saw him out of his dorm window between classes, and, suspecting they had crossed paths before, went up to him to confirm his intuition. Seeing a fellow young man, free to pursue his education and dreams in America, inspired Lyons. Experiences like this cemented Lyons’ passion for activism and equal treatment. When white fraternity members at UTA flew a Confederate flag and hoisted racist dolls on campus, he approached the UTA administration and demanded they take them down (Lyons).
Lyons cites the common retinue of civil rights heroes – King, Evers, etc – as inspiration, but his actions display a true commitment to their ideals. So when he, Ricky Brodus, and Charles Brown sat in front of the city council on August 19, 1986 and vituperated the evils of apartheid, exhorting the city council to pass a resolution enacting sanctions against South Africa and divesting retirement funds from South Africa, he was continuing his prior activism and following suit after the venerable icons that advocated for black rights before him. Lyons had a lot of help. Bob Ray Sanders, at the time already a strident journalistic voice at the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, counseled Lyons and his group on how best to present their case for a divestment resolution to the city council.
In many ways, like Anthony Lyons, Bob Ray Sanders’ experience in Fort Worth as a young boy shaped his passion for media’s potential for social change. Sanders poignantly says that he “grew up in apartheid” conditions in Fort Worth, which was wrapped in a “more benevolent racism” than East Texas cities and Dallas, but racism nonetheless (Sanders). His family had resided in the city for 150 years as land owning, tax paying citizens. But, although they faithfully paid taxes to the city, they were barred from enjoying the fruits of those taxes, along with the rest of the Fort Worth Black community. Blacks were not allowed at the community pool except on Juneteenth, and then in a cruel reversal of this annual ‘kindness,’ the city would drain the pool before the white citizens were allowed in (Sanders). He graduated from I.M. Terrel high school, a segregated all black high school. He remarked fondly that, even though he attended a segregated school, and the faculty was segregated, his teachers were some of the best in their field. They had attended Northern universities and earned their advanced degrees there since Southern schools would not accept them.
Nourished by these skilled educators, Sanders’ passion for writing developed early, expressed in little mimetic acts. He would interview firemen when they came into his neighborhood, then do a write up of the events that transpired in his own little ‘newspaper.’ His family nurtured his “natural nosiness” (Sanders). He gained an appreciation for world affairs by listening to BBC broadcasts on HAM radio with his dad, a radio hobbyist in Fort Worth. The 1961 assassination of Congolese independence luminary Patrice Lumumba had a sobering but inspirational effect on him. Even though his dad questioned his choice of journalism as a major, since no major newspapers hired black reporters or writers, Sanders landed a job right out of college. He walked into the Fort Worth Star Telegram and applied for a job. They gave him a “test” – consisting of him having to rewrite an obituary and another column – then he was given the job the next day. Sanders was assigned “the most racist beat” in the city at the time, which was the downtown courthouse (Sanders). He immediately began to write up his observations of the unequal treatment of black citizens as he observed jumpsuit clad criminals sit in the courtroom and receive their sentencing. To get inside information for what was going on with the criminal justice system in Fort Worth, he would talk to the black shoe shiner who was a willing ear for all the loose lips of attorneys and prosecutors and judges (Sanders).
Given his experience in segregated Fort Worth, as well as the injustices of the justice system, South Africa became a passionate subject for Sanders. At the advent of the anti-apartheid stir in Fort Worth, Sanders began to compare conditions in South Africa to South Dallas and South Fort Worth. This was more than just a rhetorical flourish. Sanders saw parallels in the institutional mechanisms by which people of color were cordoned off from the economic and political power of their cities. The very fact that both Dallas and Fort Worth had to push to get single member district representation, which finally allowed black majority districts to have a voice in city leadership, was proof of this marginalization.
However, he does not give himself credit as an activist. He leaves that to Lyons, Ricky Brodus, and Charles Brown because of their strident approach in demanding change from the city council. Sanders saw his role as bullhorn, amplifying the group’s clarion call for condemnation of apartheid and complete divestment. He used his columns and his landmark KERA news program to present these issues to the people of Fort Worth, and especially its black citizens. With KERA, Sanders produced a local telecast which gave a forum for Dallas and Fort Worth politicians to present and debate local issues (Sanders).
A Collegial City Council
Fort Worth was a relationship-driven municipal mechanism. And, in stark contrast to Dallas, Houston and many other big southern cities, the black and white cooperation seemed to be much more functional and collegial. By no means was racism absent, but changes in city policies and the city’s leadership attitude towards concerns of black residents often changed after black leaders voiced their concerns and reasoned with white leadership (Williams). Many of the ground-breaking work had been accomplished city leaders a few decades prior, by men such as L. Clifford Davis, a retired Senior Texas District Judge in Fort Worth. Davis filed a lawsuit in 1955 to integrate Mansfield school district and fours later did the same to integrate the schools in Fort Worth. A year later Davis filed another suit to make Fort Worth school board elections by single member districts and to end faculty segregation. He also helped get the first black representation on the school board, Tarrant County College Board, and city council (personal papers of L. Clifford Davis; Uzzel).
Much of this initial groundwork to integrate city leadership was done in a systematic way, with little public spectacle. Unlike Dallas, where even protests and strident tactics by Diane Ragsdale, John Wiley Price, and Al Lipscomb still had little effect on the city’s white leadership. When the order for integration came down, many Dallas school board members took their kids to different schools; whereas, in Fort Worth, the city council went into executive session and decided not to appeal the busing order. In fact, the school board provided buses for black parents to get acclimated to their new schools. Fort Worth had a smoother and quicker transition (Sanders). This characterized the “Fort Worth Way” (Sanders). And L. Clifford Davis bridged the gap between landmark progress in racial equality by developing personal relationships with city black council members in the eighties. He represented Bert Williams in a lawsuit against his opponent in the school board election in the early seventies, after Williams’ opponent falsely claimed Williams was supporting a candidate for the school board president (Williams). Even integration was a relatively painless process because, remarkably enough, business leaders decided that they would end segregation so as to avoid the din and disruption of the black community’s discontent, as happened in Dallas (Sanders; Williams and Gilley).
When asked about the dynamic between the council and the black constituents in his and Bagsby’s district, Williams recalled his confidence that they could have asked for whatever they needed and felt assured they would get it from the council at large (Williams). He proudly emphasized that the white leadership would listen and could be reasoned with on matters affecting the black community, and were not blind to the humanity of their black neighbors. Williams was deeply appreciative of Gilley, Newkirk, Luis Zapata, Mayor Bob Bolen and other white councilmen for being so understanding and willing to at least listen to him and Williams. “We always had five votes,” said Gilley. Those five votes were an initial base of support Williams could work with to get things done for his district.
These relational connections drove the decisions that were made at the council level, breaking through obstacles that might otherwise impede them. Williams and Bagsby, the two black city councilman that represented the two black Fort Worth districts in the 1980s, were good friends since their time in high school. On the council, Williams and Bagsby became good friends with a long-standing white councilman, Gary Gilley, from the small town of Azle, Texas. Gilley worked as a land surveyor for one of Fort Worth’s first surveying companies and was well connected to Fort Worth’s established (and, mostly white) business community (Gilley). At the time of the divestment movement, he had developed long-standing relationships with what was known as “the Seventh Street Gang” – a group of wealthy influential businessmen in downtown Fort Worth (Sanders, Lyons, Gilley). These men decided who would be mayor and who would serve on the city council, not the city’s individual residents. That was until a bill to transition to single-member districts were passed, and the West portion of Fort Worth, which was mostly black, gained representation on the council. Sanders notes that such a momentous shift in city politics being passed in a rather simplistic manner was the quintessential “Fort Worth way” (Sanders). Fort Worth became known for facing a policy change (no matter how challenging), forming a committee, reviewing the options, and making the change. Sanders notes that he was surprised that Fort Worth was even able to vote in single member districts, given the difficulty Dallas had in making that transition. This type of smooth, orderly change at the city level set the stage for the divestment movement in Fort Worth.
Local Protest for Global Change
When Anthony Lyons, Ricky Brodus, and Charles Brown approached the council on August 19, 1986, they were not the only ones to make an appearance. Pam Dunlop, an attorney with the Black Women Lawyers of Tarrant County, and A.Y. Collins, also came as concerned citizens before the council (Fort Worth City Council Minutes Aug 19, 1986). They denounced the system of apartheid, demanded the council form a task force to review this issue, and demanded the city enact sanctions against South Africa and divest their funds from the racist regime.
Sanders and Lyons both recalled their disappointment that Bert Williams and Jim Bagsby were – in their eyes at least – reluctant. At the time, they perceived the two black councilmen to be unwilling to go along. Conversely, Williams perceived Lyons and Ricky Brodus as bombastic, rushing in and demanding change in a municipal government structure where, as he explains it, was built on relationships built over time. Sanders recalls that Williams was offended at the idea of not caring about his fellow black people in South Africa. Williams produced a picture of an African child he was supporting. Bagsby was virtually silent. Given the relatively recent nature of single member districts, and that Williams and Bagsby were new to the responsibility of representing their constituents, the idea that they were calloused to the plight of other blacks was an offensive one. Sanders’ played an important role at this moment as he counseled Lyons and his group about how to effectively talk to to them. Williams and Gilley both characterized Lyons as “hot and hostile,” however “behind closed doors” he would reason calmly with the city council and the committee could “rationalize with him [about] what was right and what was wrong” (Williams). They joked that Lyons and Ricky played good cop/bad cop, since Ricky remained abrasive in his dealings with council (Williams; Gilley).
The council had no shortage of educational material on the apartheid issue. Pam Dunlop came before the council again on August 26th, educating the council on the heinous state of affairs in South Africa (Fort Worth City Council Minutes Aug. 26, 1986). On September 2, the council informed Lyons, Collins and Brodus that the issue of anti-apartheid resolutions was sent to the city’s law department for review (Fort Worth City Council Minutes Sept. 2, 1986). This swift bureaucratic action was keeping with the Fort Worth way. The council then formalized a committee over a period of two months or so – the South Africa Study Committee,’with Lyons, Williams, Gilley, Dunlap, Reverend Warner Bailey, and others (Fort Worth City Council Agenda Oct. 28, 1986). Sanders and Lyons both praise Gary Gilley for his important work of getting other white businessmen and leaders on board with the divestment push during this time. And Gilley and Williams spoke fondly of their conversations in which Williams tried to convince Gilley to pull funds out (Sanders). Sanders, though critical when recalling the initial reluctance of the black council members, gave credit to the skill of Williams and Bagsby in convincing Gilley and other white leaders to get on board. Lyons gushed with praise of Gilley and his leadership and cooperation in getting much of Fort Worth’s business community on board (Lyons). Contrasted with the way many cities do business, patronizingly agreeing to meet, form a committee and look into an issue; Fort Worth actually took action (Sanders). Viewed in hindsight, Sanders’ initial criticism of the council members’ reluctance to divest may have reflected that, at the time, Sanders had an incomplete understanding of how the council operated. Once Lyons and his group met with Williams, Bagsby, Gilley, and other councilmen, the move to divest happened relatively quickly.
As Gilley notes, the matter of pension divestment had to be reviewed separately from city purchasing policies for vendors and contractors. On September 30th, 1986, Bert Williams was re-appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Employees’ Retirement Fund. He had spent significant time working with Axa Advisors in Fort Worth, so he was well-educated in pension and investment matters (Ft. Worth City Council Minutes Sept. 30, 1986). Even though the resolution came somewhat quickly, and thus it is tempting to reflect and say that the process was easy – Gary Gilley remarked confidently that “it wasn’t simple” by any means, but rather took a large amount of research and collaboration (Gilley). This is because “home-rule cities are governed by state and federal law as to what you can do with public funds” (Williams and Gilley). The council would spend the next several months researching what state and federal law would allow them to do with the city’s pension fund.
On the morning of April 14, 1987, with Anthony Lyons and Reverend Warner Bailey present, Gilley presented Fort Worth Resolution No. 1152, “Resolution Concerning City Council Position on South Africa and Namibia.” Before any mention of divestment or financial matters, this resolution wholly condemns the apartheid system which it says for three decades had “resulted in the degradation and dehumanization of over four-fifths of” the South African people (Fort Worth Pre-Council Agenda; City Council Minutes April 14, 1987). So, the resolution reflects what Gilley said was the committee’s resolute decision to make “the city of Fort Worth” a “leader in denouncing apartheid” (Gilley). It was not just about money, but Gilley emphasized that the committee was working from a moral conviction that apartheid was reprehensible. The resolution also “[commended] the Board of Trustees of the Employees’ Retirement Fund for voluntarily undertaking…a review of investment strategies in order to seek out and utilize investment opportunities free of the taint of apartheid” (Fort Worth City Council Resolution 1152a). Two months later, the council also passed Ordinance 9899, which amended the city’s Finance code and called for a change in city purchasing policy. All bidders for city contracts had to disclose the extent of their business dealings and investments in South Africa and Namibia.
Along with activist citizens, and the interracial dynamics of the council, another major factor in getting divestment approved was the local KERA show that Bob Ray Sanders produced. Broadcast to Fort Worth initially and then to Dallas as well, Sanders and his team had city leaders from both city’s council to debate issues (Sanders). Their decisions were set centerstage before the public. And the public could pressure their council members to divest. In this way, Sanders continued to use his talent for writing, media, and public engagement in producing social change. As Gilley, Williams Sanders, and Lyons all said, there was not much local coverage of the apartheid issue, unless citizens actively sought out national news coverage. So, Sanders’ efforts made a strong impact on the local level.
Bert Williams and Gary Gilley know how to disagree, laugh, listen and get things done. Their time on the council was marked by a unique transracial cooperation, at a time when the city leadership was challenged by black leaders to include them. Gilley spoke frankly about the racial attitudes of his some of his family growing up in Azle, but explained how, for him, these ideas were not very resilient, changing soon after he began serving in the Navy. As he says, when you need help and your life is on the line, you are not really concerned with the color of someone’s skin. Williams jokingly chimed in, “we had to work on him” (Williams and Gilley). This quip was a small but powerful moment of their interview. The obviously deep respect and appreciation Williams and Gilley have for each other now is a result of the “[work]” that Gilley and Bagby did together with Gilley back in the 1980’s – understanding each other, listening, disagreeing, and showing empathy. The power of empathetic, productive conversations was like a mantra for Williams. He and Gilley repeatedly mentioned that you could talk to someone on the council and there was a good chance of them listening to what you had to say and understanding your point of view.
At the end of the interview, Williams emphasized that he and Bagsby were able to get “whatever they wanted” for their constituents – housing, funding, whatever. At the time the council presented their resolution on South Africa, Bagsby had already been on the city council serving Fort Worth’s black constituency for ten years (Fort Worth City Council minutes April 14, 1987). Williams emphasized his relationship with the city’s economic and political leaders of Fort Worth, which was based on a deep respect of him and Bagsby because, as Williams says, they knew then and they know now that he never asks for anything for himself, but for his constituents. Williams emphasized that whenever he asked for something, it was because it was good for his district and in the best interest of the city as a whole (Williams). Anthony Lyons stated emphatically that one of the most poignant aspects of his time working with the Fort Worth city council was the interracial cooperation Gary Gilley exhibited. That experience left him forever convinced that there had to be interracial cooperation between white, black, and other racial groups in order for progress to be made (Lyons). The anti-apartheid issue in Fort Worth is strong evidence of that. Lyons and Sanders, both born and raised in the black community of Fort Worth, were able to petition their black representatives, themselves longtime residents in Fort Worth’s black community, and get this request approved through close cooperation with the white community. Williams opined on this unique relationship compared to other Southern cities. In fact, when he realized that many other black municipal leaders in Texas did not have this relationship and did not know about the relevant issues affecting their communities, Williams started the Texas Association of Black City Council Members and served as it first president. This is strong evidence that Williams was focused on the best interests of his community and the relationships with the city at large and across the state to achieve those goals.
However, a more cynical view of Fort Worth’s operations was that the business community did not want any disruption in daily commerce. They did not want the disruptions and rancor that characterized the civil rights era in Southern cities like Selma and Greensboro. And they wanted to avoid the protests that erupted in the seventies and eighties. The business community, with many connections to the black community by the time of the divestment movement, obliged their requests on many occasions. Perhaps this was self-serving, accommodationist, or perhaps their motives were not completely interested in racial reconciliation. And, perhaps that meant that the black community was not used to public shows of discontent, did not know how to do it, or even had not desire to. But given the testimony of those involved with city leadership, the black community did not have to because of the leadership of their own community – Sanders, Williams, Davis, Bagsby, and others. Williams tells a powerful story that when the Ku Klux Klan, who had a main office in downtown Fort Worth, decided to march, he called the NAACP and said quite simply and confidently “we’re not going to march or anything like that” (Williams). Then Gilley and Williams talked to the police chief and asked that his officers come out in strong numbers. The Klan members stepped out into a very anticlimactic scene–empty streets. The KKK left downtown unceremoniously – with no one riled up, no one hurt (Gilley, Williams).
Sitting back listening to Gary Gilley and Bert Williams laugh and talk about their council days decades ago is solid evidence of the collegial and cooperative atmosphere that they claim existed. Seeing their friendship on an early May Friday morning is a powerful indicator of the how they operated over three decades ago. The city of Fort Worth was a true leader in Texas, divesting before other major Texas cities and many other major cities across the nation. Lyons, Sanders, Williams, and Gilley all fondly recalled in their interviews that other cities from across the country contacted the city council for guidance on how to divest. In the end Fort Worth, seeing itself as a Western city and not a Southern one, demarcated itself from its sister city of Dallas through interracial cooperation, empathy, and friendships which drove progressive politics in the city (Williams). Williams and Gilley lament the current state of Fort Worth city council, remarking they have lost the same cooperation and relationship-driven dynamic that propelled Fort Worth into progressive politics before Dallas and before many other Southern cities.
Gilley, Gary and Bert Williams. Interview by Braunshay Pertile. Fort Worth, TX. May 5.
Lyons, Anthony. Interview by Braunshay Pertile and Claiborne Lord. Dallas, TX. April 3.
Sanders, Bob Ray. Interview by Braunshay Pertile and Claiborne Lord. Fort Worth, TX. March 27.
Uzzel, Jon P. “Special Recognition L. Clifford Davis Johnson, Vaughn & Heiskell.” Fort Worth Business. September 25, 2015. http://www.fortworthbusiness.com/.
Fort Worth City Council Records (Meeting Agendas, Pre-Council Agendas, Summary of Minutes, Resolutions and Ordinances). Collection housed at the Genealogy, History & Archives Unit of the Fort Worth Library.