After the Great Depression, the United States saw a nationwide trend toward increased political engagement among young people. The NAACP, originally founded in 1909, took advantage of this movement to significantly restructure its youth program. The subsequent changes to the Youth Council formalized the participation of young people within the NAACP by allowing its youngest members more opportunities to interact directly with the larger organization. Regional Youth Councils were encouraged to host events that captured the energy of their younger members by focusing on local issues of racial inequality. The early NAACP Youth Councils formed anti-lynching campaigns, protested educational disparities, and petitioned for the desegregation of establishments designated for public service. The enthusiasm of young people had a significant impact on the NAACP throughout the 1940s. It inspired the organization to diversify its civil rights strategy beyond litigation and focus on direct community action efforts. The direct action campaigns of the Youth Councils of the NAACP in the 1940s provided a framework for future mass sit-in demonstrations that would become commonly associated with the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.
One such Youth Council action campaign took place in Salt Lake City in May of 1948, after five black women – Frankie Rawlins, Quendolyn Lewis, Izola Peake, Ruby Nathaniel, and Lucille Steward – were denied service at the lunch counter at the Salt Lake City and County Building because of their race. The lunch counter, located in the middle of the building’s main concourse, was a popular stop for members of the public who frequented the City and County Building on government business. While the business of running the lunch counter was contracted out to a private individual, J. Russel Durrant, the counter itself was considered the City’s property. The City Commission approved the lunch counter operator contract and oversaw its maintenance using public funds alongside the other building amenities. The City even received a small percentage of the money earned by the lunch counter.
Following the lunch counter incident, Frankie Rawlins, a senior at West High School and member of the local NAACP Youth Council, promptly filed a petition with the Salt Lake City Commission. She noted that the five black women were tax payers of Salt Lake City, and entitled to full use of the services in the public building. The petition demanded that the Salt Lake Commission forbid racial discrimination at the lunch counter, that the operator be advised of this action, and that if the operator of the lunch counter would not comply, that his lease be terminated.
At a hearing with the Salt Lake City Commission held on May 12, 1948, LaVerne Price, also a senior at West High School, acted as the spokesperson for the NAACP Youth Council. She presented the petition to the City Commission and spoke about the various forms of discrimination faced by the black residents of Salt Lake City, including racial discrimination in housing and at other businesses. She laid out the demands of the petition, stating that the city had an obligation to set an example for the community by requiring the lunch counter’s owner to serve all people. Records show that over 100 Black community members came out in support of the Youth Council petition and packed the Salt Lake Commission Chambers.
At the end of the public meeting, Mayor Earl Glade informed those present that the Commission would make a “speedy decision.” In an executive session of the Commission that followed, the members debated what action the Commission could take that would fit within the legal framework of national and state laws in place at the time. Some commissioners doubted they could legally require the private concessionaire to serve all individuals. But D. H. Oliver, the attorney for the NAACP, had earlier pointed out that the lunch stand contract required its proprietor to follow all policies set forth by the City. The Commission eventually voted not to remove Mr. Durrant from his lunch stand contract, but unanimously voted to request that he serve “anyone who presents himself, who is not individually objectionable.”
The motion of the City Commission was simply to request that the lunch counter concessionaire, Mr. Durrant, serve everyone regardless of their race. But the City Commission stopped short of formalizing their request in an official policy or contractual obligation. There is no evidence suggesting that additional cases of discrimination were ever filed against the lunch counter, which could indicated that Mr. Durrant began serving all customers without further protest. Or it could indicate that Black customers did not feel welcome at the lunch counter, and regardless of the outcome of the commission meeting, may not have bothered to patronize the business. The lunch counter remained on the main level of the City and County building until 1974 when the counter was moved to its current location on the building’s basement level.
Bynum, Thomas. NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965
1948 West High Yearbook. Accessed from Utah Division of State History
Salt Lake City Council Minutes. Accessed from Utah Division of Archives Series 82755