From Amicable Meetings to Brutal Beatings: The 1972 City Jail Sit-In

20, July 2017

The evening of July 11, 1972, was typical of a St. Louis summer—until 30 riot squad policemen armed with tear gas, clubs, and dogs stormed the chapel on the sixth floor of the St. Louis City Jail to break up a three-day protest against cold food, lack of hygiene supplies, poor recreation facilities, and inadequate medical care. The white policemen brutally attacked 25 male inmates, 40 female inmates, and 7 citizen negotiators, all of whom were black.  

Photo of newspaper clipping showing St. Louis City Jail inmates inside the chapel before the July 11, 1972, attackSt. Louis City Jail inmates inside the chapel before the attack, July 11, 1972. Image courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana.

Together the inmates and negotiators were “making real progress in mediating grievances,” said Betty Lee, negotiator and associate editor of PROUD Magazine. John Bass, welfare director for the City of St. Louis, echoed her sentiment, noting that “amicable meetings are taking place.” After several days of positive meetings, another meeting was scheduled to take place the next day.

Tensions eroded when two elevators allegedly broke down, slowing food distribution throughout the jail. At the same time, telephones went out, and the intercom system stopped working. Hungry inmates set their clothes on fire in their cells and stopped up drains and toilets with toilet paper. Inside the chapel, the citizen negotiators, including Rev. Clarence Dossie, Charles McClelland, and Wyvetta Ratledge, brought in food for the inmates and were in the process of distributing it. Sit-in leaders and inmates Henry Fleming and Henry Henderson were encouraging patience, but not everyone was able to exercise their level of self-control. One inmate hit jail warden Alphonso Lark in the face. Other inmates found the sixth-floor closet where tear gas was stored and took it. Warden Lark, who was already exhausted with the protesters, reacted by calling the police.

Pearlie Evans, a negotiator and the commissioner of community services for the city, glanced out the chapel window and saw police entering the building. Moments later, officers had chopped through the roof, and flashlight beams had replaced the overhead lights. Women screamed, tear gas filled the chapel, and the beatings began. The inmates fought back with pipes taken from the walls and the tear gas from the closet. All one could see, hear, and feel were the pops of the clubs and the growls and barks of the police dogs.

Photo of newspaper clipping showing inmate being escorted out of St. Louis City Jail by police wearing riot helmetsInmates being escorted out of St. Louis City Jail by police in riot helmets. Image courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana.

In spite of the risks, the male inmates looked out for the women and negotiators, offering wet towels to protect them from the tear gas and physically shielding them from the vicious dogs and flailing riot clubs. Inmates were dragged out of the city jail building and transferred to the police department’s central holdover. Regina Dennis, a negotiator and St. Louis United Front member, was thrown into a police wagon with the inmates. While attempting to climb out, she was beaten and thrown back in. Lee, though small in stature, forcefully proclaimed, “She is not an inmate!” until the police released Dennis from the wagon. Bobby “Brother Bob” Williams, a negotiator and coordinator for St. Louis United Front, was singled out by police as “that nigger social worker” and received additional beating.

The attack ultimately left 32 people hurt, including 9 policemen, 2 jail guards, 14 inmates, and all 7 negotiators. Lee received stiches for dog bites on her leg; others were treated for wounds, smoke inhalation, and tear-gas effects. Evans remarked, “We were invited in by city officials, but nobody bothered to invite us out.”

Long-Standing Inmate Grievances

Built in 1914, St. Louis City Jail had a history of deplorable conditions, with grand juries lodging criticisms of it ever since the 1930s. In 1954 inmates staged a hunger strike to protest the continuing poor conditions. During the next decade, inmates repeatedly demonstrated against overcrowding. Finally, in early 1972, Judge Theodore McMillian ordered an inquiry into conditions at the facility.

Blue-and-yellow flyer requesting support for St. Louis City Jail sit-inFlyer requesting public support for the sit-in and featuring photos of inmate leaders Henry Fleming and Henry Henderson. Image courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana.

In March 1972 the Committee for Equal Justice, led by Dr. Lucille McClelland, collaborated with jail officials and inmates to discuss how to reduce overcrowding and guard brutality at the jail. During these meetings, inmates also spoke out against the lack of minimum living standards. By July 1972 little progress had been made on the overcrowding and brutality issues. The jail also had yet to fulfill inmates’ requests for soap, a working shower, a ping-pong table, salt and pepper containers, a visiting area to meet with lawyers and children, and steam tables so that food could be served hot. Frustrated by the lack of action and respect, inmates launched a sit-in.

The Split among City Officials

Behind the scenes, Warden Lark argued to end the sit-in quickly through police intervention rather than negotiation. Mayor Alfonso Cervantes’s office also promoted the use of force to return the inmates to their cells. However, Director Bass preferred to “explore all nonviolent actions before resorting to excessive force.” 

Jail guards capitalized on inmates’ protest by refusing to report to work, claiming they feared for their safety because they weren’t allowed to carry weapons. In reality, the guards also had their own grievances that weren’t being addressed, namely pay raises, the establishment of relief funds similar to those in place for firemen and police, the hiring of additional guards, vacation issues, and the method of overtime payment.

In the heat of the sit-in, the jail’s administrator, R. Brent Murphy, announced his resignation. He had failed to order basic hygiene for inmates, forcing them to purchase goods from the jail’s commissary, in which he supposedly had a financial incentive.

Vigils and Victories—To an Extent

After the sit-in’s dramatic ending, St. Louis United Front and the Committee for Equal Justice held 21 days of protest directly in front of the city jail. Nightly vigils were organized and attracted national attention—social activist and well-known pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock even participated and spoke to the crowd.

Photo of newspaper clipping showing Dr. Spock at vigilDr. Spock was among those supporting inmates' push for humane treatment and living conditions. Image courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana.

Meanwhile, citizen negotiators continued to work with Bass’s office. By August 2 they issued a press release indicating that the following improvements had been made:

  • The city had appropriated $5,000 to improve food conditions.
  • An initial stock of 650 small toothpaste tubes had been ordered and additional personal hygiene items provided.
  • Inmates could now take showers when they wished.
  • City jail policy manuals were available on each floor.
  • Visiting regulations, especially with lawyers, were improved.
  • Round-the-clock medical care was now available.
  • Ping-pong tables were set up for recreation.
  • Plans for an inmate council were underway.

Although these were definite gains, they met only the minimum living standards. Ultimately the 1972 incident led to the closing of the St. Louis City Jail in 1999. It was replaced by the St. Louis City Justice Center, which opened in 2002.

—Regina Dennis-Nana and Bobby “Brother Bob” Williams, citizen negotiators during the jail sit-in

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Dennis-Nana went on to work as a development anthropologist all over Africa, designing and implementing health care, agriculture, governance, and education programs. She recently retired as a career diplomat and resides in St. Louis. Brother Bob continued to coordinate St. Louis United Front's activities, making frequent trips to Cairo, Illinois, to combat racial tensions and economic injustices. He remains an active force in the battle for equality and justice to this day.  

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