Courage in Black and White

by Jon Platt | October 29, 2019

How a student editor challenged segregation on the front page of the Lariat

Ella Wall Prichard’s voice has a high pitch. Her gait is the stride of a woman with a purpose. She is always smiling, always dressed elegantly, always ready to help.

Meeting Prichard in passing, she may not strike you as someone whose life has been spent speaking truth to power, but give her a minute and she will change your mind. She is able to make you care deeply about the issues in her heart.

But when you give Prichard a pen that is when things really light up.

With a pen Prichard can change an entire university. She has done it before in just 140 words.

Prichard was the editor of the Baylor “Lariat” in the fall of 1962, after being raised in New Orleans, LA, and Texarkana, TX, by parents whose moral standards made Prichard the woman she is today, she said. Their encouragement to do the right thing from an early age also got her into a bit of trouble when she was editor.

“I knew that Judge McCall was a person who was fully capable of carrying out a threat to expel or suspend, but I really didn’t think I had a professional or ethical choice,” she said.

Judge McCall—that is Abner Vernon McCall, the widely loved former president of Baylor—told Prichard at the start of her tenure as editor to stay away from two issues: criticizing Baptist principles and speaking about racial desegregation.

Prichard, of course, broke both of those rules in one semester.

Her tenure at the paper occurred in the middle of what many alums call the “golden age of the ‘Lariat.’” During this time, reporters learned to cover topics with a fervent rigor, voracity, and, almost, an “activist sentiment,” as Prichard put it. The peak of the “golden age” was a short five-paragraph editorial by Prichard calling for the end of racially-based segregation at Baylor.

Looking back, many see that editorial as the “tipping point” to an integrated campus.

“By 1962, it was inevitable. It really was,” Prichard recalls, referring to what she and other “Lariat” “activists” believed was the imminent reality of desegregation.

The “inevitability” Prichard speaks of is well-documented. Just eight years before Prichard took its helm, the “Lariat” conducted a survey and asked students for their thoughts on integration.
There were four questions in this survey:

“Are you in favor of segregation in public school through high school?”

“Do you feel that it would be alright to let Negroes attend Baylor graduate schools?”
“Would it be alright with you if Negroes attended as undergraduates at Baylor?”

The final question was much more detailed and much more personal: “Would it be alright with you if Negroes attended academic classes, P.E. classes, participated in intercollegiate athletics, ate with the white students, and participated in all phases of University life?”

To the last two questions, only 20 and 33 percent of student, respectively, agreed with the hypothetical forms of integration. At the same time, 70 percent were okay with public schools being desegregated and 62 percent were alright with African Americans attending Baylor’s graduate schools.

Extrapolating the results of the survey to the population of Baylor—at the time 5,900 total students—implies that more 3,600 students would be comfortable with an integrated campus, albeit still in a limited capacity.

The results of the “Lariat” survey ran on September 29, 1954 across its front page. That date and positioning say a lot. It was the year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, calling for the end of segregated education in the United States. It would be almost ten more years before Baylor trustees voted to desegregate the campus.

Prichard’s editorial ran on November 14, 1962. The night before, Baylor’s faculty senate voted in favor of opening the campus to African American students—a non-binding, but important stance against university policy. The previous Saturday, trustees approved the formation of a committee to investigate the possibility of desegregating Baylor. Just a few weeks prior, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, still a powerful governing body to Baylor, voted, as Prichard described it, “unanimously to condemn the sinful silence of Mississippi Baptists.”

Prichard, in praising each of these decisions in her editorial as “leading the way to the eventual desegregation of Baylor” wrote that “these actions indicate that Texas Baptists and those persons most directly connected with Baylor are recognizing their Christian obligations.”

Her overt stance could have cost her the position of editor, her scholarships, even her status as a student. McCall, Prichard will tell anyone, did not make idle threats. But her conscience would not allow her to remain among the sinfully silent anymore.

She met McCall in Pat Neff Hall the next morning, arriving before he or almost anyone else arrived at work. Bringing with her a copy of that day’s “Lariat,” she waited patiently on an old church pew outside the president’s office—“sinner’s row,” she jokingly called it—until he appeared. She said she remembers never once feeling regret about her decision.
She needn’t have worried. McCall did not follow through on his threat to expel her.

When asked why she wrote the critical editorial, despite all that could go wrong for her as a result, her reply was simple and stern: She had no choice but to speak up because she was someone who could speak up.

Prichard was inspired by a poem when making the decision to publish written by a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, in 1946 about the atrocities (and public passivity) during the Holocaust.

She paraphrased it: “First they came for the Jews and I wasn’t a Jew so I didn’t speak. And they came for the Labor Unions and I wasn’t a Laborer and I didn’t speak. And then they came for me and there was no one to speak for me.”

Almost 60 years after her editorial ran, Prichard, now a published author, former business owner, and world traveler, reflects on her days at the “Lariat” as having shaped her character, her worldview, and her life. She said her decision is a point of pride to her but also a reminder of the power of words.

Her editorial, as many remember it, stands as an ebenezer in Baylor’s history—a changing point, a pivotal moment, the voice Baylor needed.

Her words spoke into and broke the hold that silence held on the university.

“That [poem is] powerful,” she said. “In 1962 that was less than 20 years after Hitler. I was alive in World War II. And, so, this was very real, the price we pay for sinful silence.”

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