Before King

How college students changed the course of the civil rights movement

Gail Short

Frank Dukes
Miles College SGA president

In 1962, students at Miles College, a historically Black school in Fairfield, just outside of Birmingham, led an economic boycott to pressure downtown stores to stop discriminating against African Americans. 

The student-led boycott succeeded in putting Birmingham on the radar of Martin Luther King Jr., and other national activists who came to town the following year and made Birmingham the epicenter of the fight for civil rights.

The Miles student-led boycott is the subject of a 56-minute documentary called Stand!: Untold Stories From the Civil Rights Movement. The film describes how Frank Dukes, a 31-year-old Miles College SGA president, teamed up with classmates and local activists to organize a boycott to compel retailers to discontinue whites-only dressing rooms, bathrooms, and water fountains and to hire Blacks for more than just custodial jobs.

Donna Dukes, Dukes’s daughter, who wrote, produced and directed the film, says she made the documentary because she felt her father’s contributions to the civil rights movement had been overlooked. “I wanted to make this film because my mother and I felt it was important to tell the story of Miles College’s involvement in the civil rights movement, and specifically, about my dad’s involvement and his courage and leadership,” she says.

Moreover, the documentary attempts to dispel the myth that leaders in the movement were all Black, male and members of the clergy. 

“Stand!” features interviews with Dukes and other boycott leaders such as Miles College Professor Jonathan McPherson; Miles alumnus Judge U.W. Clemon; and three upper middle class Black housewives, Deenie Drew, Althea Montgomery and Ruth Barefield-Pendelton. All were members of the committee that organized the boycott. 

Miles’s president at the time, Dr. Lucius Pitts, arranged for the committee to meet secretly with prominent whites such as Emil Hess, whose family owned the department store Parisian, and James Arthur Head of the office supply company James A. Head & Co.

Other civil rights activists seen in the film include prominent attorney J. Mason Davis; Nims Gay, Dr. Willie Clyde Jones, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery. 

Donna Dukes, a Miles College alumna herself, says she also made the film at the urging of her mother, Jacqueline Dukes, who frequently became irritated when watching documentaries about the civil rights movement. “During one particular event, we were watching a documentary, and my mom was so angry, and she asked my dad, ‘Frank, what about you? What about Miles College? What about the campaign?’ And he’d say, ‘Jac, calm down. We didn’t do it for glory. We did it because it was the right thing to do.’ And I’m my mother’s daughter, and I was mad, too.”

We didn’t do it for glory. We did it because it was the right thing to do.

That is when Donna Dukes, who by that time was the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Maranathan Family Learning Center & Academy, Inc. for at-risk youth and adults, vowed to make her own documentary, despite having never made a film before.

Undaunted, her mother bought her a camera, and in 1994, Donna Dukes, with help from her cousin, Beverly Oden, who had recently graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a master’s degree in filmmaking, embarked on a heavy shooting schedule.

But along they way, her mother became ill and Dukes halted the project to care for her. Then in 2004, her mother died unexpectedly. 

“I just couldn’t pick the camera back up,” says Dukes. “I was just devastated. I’m an only child, and she was my best friend. But as the years went by, I started feeling the camera looking at me, and I thought, ‘She really wanted us do this film, I really need to finish it.’”

So in 2014, Dukes resumed production and completed the documentary. That same year, “Stand!” made its debut on Alabama Public Television, won a bronze medal at the 2014 Telly Awards, and was shown at the Jubilee Film Festival. In addition, the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) picked up the film to air it on PBS affiliate stations nationwide and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Man from Fairfield

Frank Dukes was born in 1930 and raised in Inglewood, a community that is now part of Fairfield, Alabama. 

One of eight children, Dukes has always taken pride in telling his daughter how he got his first job at age four doing yard work, she says. He was a good student, known for being a bright youngster who made excellent grades. Donna Dukes says her grandmother, however, worried about him because he had garnered a reputation for never letting himself be bullied, not even by whites.

Once, when he was 15, Dukes took a job at an auto repair shop. The employees who performed oil changes would don boots to work the oil pits. One day a supervisor sent him on a task down in one of the pits, but when Dukes reached for a pair a boots, the supervisor objected. Dukes asked why, and the supervisor told him that the boots were for whites only. So Dukes quit instead of going down in the grease-filled pit in his shoes. 

Donna Dukes says that because of confrontations like that, his mother breathed a sigh of relief when he enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from Fairfield High School. 

He spent four years in the service during the Korean War before discharging from the Army and landing a job at a Ford motor plant in Detroit. When he lost his job due to company layoffs, Dukes moved to Birmingham and enrolled in Miles College to pursue a degree in education.  

At age 31, Dukes was a popular student at Miles. He was so well liked that classmates elected him president of the student government association in 1961. “Everyone I’ve ever spoken with who went to school with my dad always talked about his charisma, his leadership quality, how he had such good character and was a snappy dresser,” Donna Dukes says. 

Everyone…always talked about his charisma, his leadership quality, how he had such good character and was a snappy dresser.

A Call to Action

Not long afterward, the school’s new president at the time, Dr. Lucius Pitts, drafted Frank Dukes in 1961 to organize a voter registration drive for the students. At the time, Blacks were made to pass tests and pay poll taxes before they could cast a ballot. Dukes heeded the call and took 160 students to the county courthouse to register to vote. All but about 10 were successful, according to the film. 

Afterward, under Dukes’s leadership, the student body at Miles issued a public manifesto titled “This We Believe.” In it, they wrote: “We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate in a nation professing democracy and among people professing Christianity the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Then, as Diane McWhorter details in her book “Carry Me Home,” in the spring of 1962, Dukes sent letters to downtown merchants asking them to hire Blacks in noncustodial roles and put an end to segregated facilities and lunch counters. Dukes and McPherson had researched holiday spending and knew that with the Easter holiday approaching, Blacks could be expected to spend an average of $4 million a week. 

While the department store Parisian removed the Black and white water fountains and replaced it with a single water fountain, the majority of merchants refused to heed the Miles students’ March 14 deadline. Consequently, Dukes and McPherson organized the “selective buying campaign” to boycott stores and got to work.

The three Black housewives, Drew, Montgomery, and Barefield-Pendelton, are credited with driving the Miles students to different neighborhoods to pass out flyers informing blacks about the boycott. “They had to get the cooperation of Black people not to shop and to wear old clothes for Easter,” Dukes says. “That was a huge challenge because it was a revered holiday where it was just understood that you would have a new outfit for Easter. And they had to convince the Black school teachers to not shop, because during that time school teachers dressed like professionals.” 

The “selective buying campaign” hit stores hard, with profits dropping as much as 40 percent. Some stores relented by desegregating their bathrooms and water fountains and dressing rooms, but they faced opposition from the city’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and the City Commission that threatened them for violating city ordinances. 

The “selective buying campaign,” however, demonstrated the power of non-violent protest and of Black dollars and prompted King to come to Birmingham the following year in 1963 to lead nonviolent demonstrations to end segregation. 

as long as people work together for a common cause, for good cause, change is possible.

Dukes went on to participate in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham and was even arrested three times. He graduated from Miles College in 1962 with a degree in education, worked for the Alabama Department of Education in vocational services and became a minister in the 1980s. 

Donna Dukes says her father, who is now 90 years old, loved the film. “He still loves it,” she says. 

Ultimately, she hopes that viewers will come away with an understanding of the roles a diverse group of people played in the civil rights movement.“ And at the end of the day, as Ruth Barefield-Pendleton, one of my ‘sheroes’ says, we’re a lot more alike than we are different, and as long as people work together for a common cause, for good cause, change is possible, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.”

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