Jefferson Bank: A Defining Moment

26, August 2017

The protests against unequal hiring practices at Jefferson Bank and Trust, which lasted for seven months, mark the largest—and most contentious—civil rights struggle in the history of St. Louis. Many local civil rights activists were involved, including William “Bill” Clay, Ivory Perry, Norman Seay, Charles and Marian Oldham, and Robert Curtis.

Black-and-white photo of Jefferson Bank protestersCORE protesters at Jefferson Bank, October 30, 1963. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

The protest was conceived by members of the Committee of Racial Equality. CORE leaders had been eager to stage a demonstration against the racist hiring practices in St Louis at a time when few African Americans worked in white-collar jobs. For example, out of the 5,133 workers in 16 local banks, just 277 were black, and 99 percent of these black workers had menial jobs.

CORE sent a letter to the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company, urging the financial institution's leadership to hire four black employees in clerical positions. It received a reply insisting that there were not “four blacks in the city” fit for such jobs. This answer spurred CORE into selecting Jefferson Bank and Trust as the location of its protest. The bank quickly filed for a restraining order to prevent protesters from disrupting business. The order was quickly granted—and even named several prominent members of CORE.

Nonetheless, demonstrators gathered outside the bank's location at Jefferson Avenue and Washington Boulevard on August 30, 1963. Initially they kept to the terms of the court order, but after an hour of peaceful, orderly picketing, approximately 100 people blocked the doors to the bank. They later entered the building and sat on the floor inside, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Black-and-white photo of sit-in at Jefferson BankDemonstrators sit inside Jefferson Bank and Trust to protest unfair hiring practices, 1963. Courtesy of Kristin Gassel, St. Louis Curio Shoppe.

This action resulted in the arrest of nine of those mentioned on the court order, including Bill Clay, later elected to Congress from Missouri's First District. Bonds were set extremely high, and a number of the demonstrators chose to stay in jail for a few extra days in protest of what they saw as a miscarriage of justice.

Opinions on these arrests and the protests themselves were mixed. On September 3 the St. Louis Globe-Democrat ran an editorial denouncing the protests, accusing the leaders of “brazenly violat[ing] the law and the court” and calling the protests “an extortion tactic in the guise of racial equality.” The St. Louis American, an African American newspaper, was against breach of the court order, although it sympathized with CORE's ideals and felt that the court's heavy-handed actions were deplorable.

Black-and-white photo of Bill Clay at Jefferson Bank protestsBill Clay (center, seated) during the Jefferson Bank protests, 1963. Courtesy of the St. Louis American.

October was a particularly fraught month in the history of the protests because the cases against the nine protesters arrested in August were brought to court on contempt charges. All nine were found guilty and harshly punished, receiving high fines and long sentences. Finally, after many weeks of appeals, the court relented, but it had damaged its reputation in the eyes of many in St Louis who promoted racial equality. Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged that “Judge Scott's decision should be reviewed by another court, not only to confirm the legality of the convictions but to determine whether the severe penalties imposed are commensurate with the offense.”

By November 1 the St. Louis Argus, another African American newspaper, noted that Jefferson Bank had hired one black person—a “promotable” messenger. However, it wasn't until March 1964 that Jefferson Bank gave in and hired four African Americans to clerical positions, bringing the protests to an end.

—Caoimhe Ni Dhonaill, former MHM volunteer

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can hear from people involved in the Jefferson Bank protests by visiting the Missouri History Museum's exhibit #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, open now through April 15, 2018. You can also find a wealth of information about the Jefferson Bank protests in Bill Clay’s memoir, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots, published by the Missouri History Museum Press.