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Obituary: Norman R. Seay, Educator And Civil Rights Activist, Dies At 87

Norman Seay holds a photo from the Jefferson Bank demonstrations
File Photo | Rachel Heidenry | Beacon

Norman Seay, a civil rights warrior who joined the fight as a teenager and became both infantryman and general in two of the most significant civil rights battles in St. Louis history, has died. He was 87.

Seay was an idealistic high school student in the 1940s in St. Louis, one of the nation’s most relentlessly segregated cities, when he joined a discussion group for young people sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews. He was part of the group when it formed what evolved into the St. Louis arm of the Congress of Racial Equality — or CORE — to combat racism through nonviolent, direct action.

The “Ghandi” approach appealed to Seay. He was soon part of the organization’s leadership in desegregating the city’s eateries and later breaching the hiring barriers for black professionals throughout the service industry.

He was on the frontlines of the legendary Jefferson Bank and Trust protests, which changed the face of employment in St. Louis.

“Norman was wonderful. Quiet. Purposeful,” said one of his CORE compatriots, Billie Teneau. “We were nice, quiet pacifists.”

The low-key strategy meant few initially recognized the power of the new organization.

“Quiet as its campaign was kept,” Jon Meacham wrote in "Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement," “CORE planted one of the seeds from which bloomed the city's public accommodations ordinance and perhaps the modern civil rights movement itself.”

As one of CORE’s most visible representatives, Seay continued the fight until his death on Tuesday.

Services are pending.

The Secret Protests

When CORE was born in 1947, Seay and a fellow Vashon High School classmate, Walter Hayes, were there. Each month, they participated in an interracial discussion group that crowded into the University City apartment of a white couple, Margaret and Irv Dagen.

No black people lived in the city’s adjacent suburb at the time, and some of the Dagens' neighbors complained about the visitors.

"It took guts to invite us there,” Seay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2002. It also took guts to go there.

Norman Seay remained active in the civil rights movement his entire life. The Missouri History Museum commemorated his involvement as part of its Civil Rights exhibit in 2018.
Credit Missouri History Museaum
Norman Seay remained active in the civil rights movement his entire life. The Missouri History Museum commemorated his involvement as part of its celebration of St. Louis at 250 exhibit in 2014.

They all mustered more courage when CORE decided their first mission would be desegregating restaurants. They began sit-ins more than a decade before four black college students made sit-ins famous in 1960 at an all-white Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“We demonstrated against Stix, Baer and Fuller for 18 months just to get the opportunity to eat in their restaurant,” Mr. Seay recalled in his profile in "Lift Every Voice and Sing: St. Louis African Americans in the Twentieth Century." “We sat in at Famous, and Scruggs, at the Chippewa Drug Store; Walgreens; Katz Drug Store; Howard Johnson’s.”

Their strategy was simple, counterintuitive and ultimately successful.

CORE leaders would first try to negotiate with managers. If no agreement could be reached, sit-ins began. Well-dressed blacks and whites would arrive daily in increasing numbers until the businesses capitulated.

Before each sit-in, police were alerted. So were newspapers, but coverage was not encouraged. Protesters feared violence; so did the newspapers. But Seay believed the newspapers had other motives for the blackout.

"(They) had advertisements from the stores and didn't want to disrupt the flow of money coming in,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 2005. “On the editorial page, the Post-Dispatch supported us. But nothing appeared on the news pages."

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat's editorial page called the protests “an extortion tactic in the guise of racial equality.”

Consequently, the North Carolina lunch-counter sit-ins rank first in the history books. But by the time those sit-ins began in 1960, CORE had succeeded in desegregating most public accommodations in St. Louis.

The Sheriff is Coming

The organization’s next focus was getting black professionals hired in the service industry. They began with Jefferson Bank and Trust Co.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph prepared to lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, CORE was ready for its own jobs march, scheduled for two days later.

At 31, Seay was now a veteran activist who had assumed a leading role with CORE, and he faced a dilemma.

“I decided to stay here in the city and demonstrate,” Seay said in "Lift Every Voice."

Ironically, Jefferson Bank was the only bank in St. Louis that had black tellers. It was targeted because its two black tellers disappeared when the bank moved to an area with more whites.

In 1963, Norman Seay was one of the organizers of the protests at the Jefferson Bank. He ended up paying a $500 fine and spending three months in jail for his involvement.
Credit Norman Seay
In 1963, Norman Seay was one of the organizers of the protests at the Jefferson Bank. He ended up paying a $500 fine and spending three months in jail for his involvement.

“I guess by a process of osmosis those black tellers were eliminated," Seay quipped in 2010, in a St. Louis Beacon interview.

Picketing began after the bank refused CORE’s request to hire four African American tellers. There weren’t four qualified black people in the city, the bank asserted, and got an injunction against the demonstrators.

Seay said they had intended to obey the order. Things changed when nearby Gulf Electric Co. employees got off that Friday evening and wanted to cash their checks. The workers pierced the picket line, and pandemonium ensued. Demonstrators followed the workers into the bank singing "We Shall Overcome" and sat down, covering every inch of the floor.

When the bank closed, the protesters quietly dispersed and went home. That’s when sheriff’s deputies began picking up CORE leaders. Marian Oldham was first on their list. She sneaked a call to another CORE member with a simple message: “Hide!”

They hid and strategized. They decided to turn themselves in that Sunday and quickly went to jail. Among others participating in that action along with Seay were future Congressman Bill Clay; future state senator Ray Howard, CORE’s attorney; the organization’s chair, Robert Curtis; and activists Ivory Perry and Charles Oldham, Marian’s husband. Percy Green, another well-known protest leader, managed to avoid jail time for the bank marches (he was jailed the following year for scaling the Arch).

Seay would ultimately pay a $500 fine and spend three months in jail, where he promptly started a school for inmates who couldn’t read and write.

The picketing continued for seven months, and more than 500 people were arrested. The protests ended in March 1964, after Jefferson Bank relented and hired four African Americans in clerical positions. Other banks soon followed.

"With the Jefferson Bank demonstrations, we changed the city of St. Louis," Mr. Seay told the Post-Dispatch in 2005.

The Jobless Activist

At first, when he wasn’t marching, Seay was teaching grade school. He later worked for anti-poverty program the Human Development Corporation, and then the Health and Welfare Council, until his civil rights activities cost him his job.

The October 1974 issue of Jet Magazine reported his plight.

“Norman R. Seay, one of St. Louis’ most active civil rights leaders, left the city recently for Rockville, Maryland, because he couldn’t find a job in St. Louis,” Jet wrote.

He accepted a federal position with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare after nearly a year of unemployment.

Mr. Seay told Jet that it showed “a lack of progress in St. Louis.” He made the most of his time in Maryland, reactivating the NAACP chapter in Montgomery County.

Eight years later, he returned home and soon joined the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He served in several administrative capacities, including director of economic opportunity under Marguerite Ross Barnett, the first black woman to lead a major American university. He retired as director of the Office of Equal Opportunity in 2000, after establishing programs for Asians, Native Americans, women and women faculty.

Clarence Thomas v. MLK

Seay had little tolerance for people who were antagonistic toward the struggle for equality.

When Clarence Thomas was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court in 1991, Seay was less than enthusiastic, but hopeful.

"He is a victim of racism as well as I," Seay, who knew Thomas personally, told the Post-Dispatch. "Anybody who is 35 and older knows about direct, overt racism."

Within two years, Seay admitted his disappointment in Thomas.

His expectations were shaped by strong leaders like King, whom he worked diligently to honor.

He formed a committee that helped make King’s birthday a national holiday and spearheaded the naming of a local street and a bridge for him.

Seay met King when he visited during the Jefferson Bank demonstrations.

"I was just in awe," he recalled in a 2005 Post-Dispatch story.

He didn’t share King’s firsthand experience with police brutality, but he shared his zeal for ending it. Seay worked to eliminate discrimination in hiring and promotions in the St. Louis Police Department. He helped establish St. Louis' Ethical Society of Police and the National Black Police Association.

Joy and Pain

Mr. Seay was born Feb. 18, 1932, in St. Louis. He lived most of his life in the family home on Dixon Avenue (renamed James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue for his uncle, a Hall of Fame baseball player). He and his two younger siblings were raised by his mother, Mary Webb, and his maternal grandparents, William Thompson and Minnetta Thompson.

He earned an elementary-education degree from Stowe Teachers College and a master’s degree in business education.

The city dedicated a part to Norman Seay, located off of Martin Luther King Boulevard near Carr Square.
Credit City of St. Louis Parks Department
The city dedicated a park to Norman Seay, located off of Martin Luther King Boulevard near Carr Square.

A street and a park in his JeffVanderLou neighborhood bear his name. So does a Washington University School of Medicine lecture series, honoring his involvement with the school’s Alzheimer's research. Seay saw the debilitating effects of the disease while caring for his mother.

Family had always been important to Seay.

He took his 8-year-old niece, Janelle M. Nichols, and her brother, John A. Nichols Jr., to the first day of the Jefferson Bank demonstrations.

“We went with my uncle a lot," Nichols told the Post-Dispatch in 2003. “I didn't know (that day at the bank) would turn out to be history."

Seay was a lifetime member of the NAACP, 100 Black Men and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. His community service and activism were only interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army during the mid-’50s. He joked that it afforded him European travel.

One of his proudest moments came in December 2013, when he met President Barack Obama. Friends and former co-workers at UMSL made it possible.

“I didn’t think I would ever live to see a black man as president,” he said tearfully in an UMSL video made prior to his visit to the White House.

Among Seay’s survivors are his brother, Kenneth (Maggie) Seay, and his sister, Barbara J. Webb, both of St. Louis.