4 min read
Posted on 07.28.15
  • 4 min read
  • Posted on 07.28.15

According to National Weather Service records, conditions at Lambert-St. Louis Airport, on January 14, 1970, were unseasonably mild. The day was sunny and temperatures by midday reached into the high 40s, conditions that prevailed through the week.

That day, just a few miles away, at the old National Personnel Records Center on Page Boulevard, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh gaveled in the first of three days of hearings as Chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Father Hesburgh was midway through his extraordinary 35-year run as president of the University of Notre Dame. At his side was St. Louis attorney Frankie M. Freeman, then a Commission member and general counsel to the St. Louis Housing Authority.

Their purpose in St. Louis County was to “collect information on the racial implications of suburban development as they relate to housing and employment for members of minority groups.” The commission had invited testimony intended to “deal with the subjects of employment opportunities” for African-Americans in suburban St. Louis, as well as “suburban housing, Federal enforcement of equal opportunity, government planning for housing at the Federal and local levels, and urban renewal."

Father Hesburgh set the tone:

"This hearing opens on the eve of observances in many of our cities to mark the birthday of a man whose wisdom and leadership inspired mankind. Almost 2 years have passed since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, but his spirit still resides in the hearts of many men, driving them on to seek the goals he saw so clearly from his mountaintop."

"We cannot hope through this hearing to make real all of his dreams, but we can search for answers to some of the problems that were of concern to him and remain of concern to millions of his fellow Americans. Our sincere efforts in this direction will honor not only this man but our own beliefs in a just society."

St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos was first witness at a half-day session on Saturday, January 17.

Mr. Roos was nearing the end of the second of three terms he served as St. Louis County’s top elected official. A Yale-educated banker and decorated U.S. Army combat infantryman, Roos returned from Europe at the end of World War II to establish a reputation as an energetic, moderate, no-nonsense Republican who championed serial reform and brought modern, competent government to St. Louis County.

The kernel of his testimony before the Civil Rights Commission took the form of the “State of the County” message he had delivered just nine days earlier to the members of the St. Louis County Council. In those remarks, made a part of hearing record, Mr. Roos summarized the challenge facing St. Louis County:

"Our challenge" he said, "will be to accommodate growth in an orderly way so as to avoid racial unrest, civil disorder, burgeoning crime and delinquency and increasing differences in individual opportunity for education, housing and employment. For the decisions we make today will determine the style and quality of County living for generations ahead.”

“By today’s decisions we can determine … whether our County will be committed to a policy of beauty or unplanned development with garish ribbons of neon-lighted strip commercial establishments along our major streets and highways; whether we permit our older urban sections to deteriorate by tolerating rooming houses, second-hand stores and other commercial and residential uses that so often cast blight; whether we continue to tolerate a costly jurisdictional jungle of more than 160 competing, overlapping, uncoordinated independent political units or attempt to mold a structure of local government which will better serve our citizens at a lesser cost; whether we assure equality of educational opportunity for our young people or we will be satisfied for the quality of available schooling to depend on the happenstance of local economic development.”

"These are the kinds of questions we must answer,” Mr. Roos said. “They are problems that can be solved and will be solved if only we have the good judgment to face up to them and the courage to do now what is necessary to conquer them.”

“We can travel the road of mediocrity and march sooner or later into oblivion,” Mr. Roos said. “Or we can move forward.”

Image (from Wikimedia Commons by Kbh3rd): St. Louis County Government Center. From left to right: St. Louis County Police Headquarters, Lawrence K. Roos County Government Building, Buzz Westfall Justice Center, St. Louis County Courts Building