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A Time of Protests

How the fight against segregation heated up in Montgomery County in the summer of 1960

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse.

 

On July 24, 1960, a small group of young black and white activists attempted to enter the Hiser Theater in downtown Bethesda on Wisconsin Avenue near its intersection with Old Georgetown Road. One of the last movie theaters in the county to still bar blacks, the Hiser was part of a stone-clad shopping, movie theater, bowling alley and restaurant complex that owner John Hiser had envisioned as an entertainment center for the town—but only part of the town.

Theater employees and Hiser himself blocked the way of the youths. A standoff ensued. The police were summoned, and two black activists, together with two white compatriots, were arrested for trespassing.

Word reached the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG) at Howard University, a student-run campus organization dedicated to fighting segregation and social injustice in the D.C. area, and on July 27, NAG activists, joined by local residents, converged on the theater and set up a picket line on the median strip of Wisconsin Avenue. They declared the picketing would continue for 100 consecutive hours, representing the years that had passed since the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 (two extra hours were added to make an even 100). Counterprotesters picketed to keep the theater all white. “Free Enterprise, Not Socialism,” read the signs.

The demonstration was one of a series of NAG actions that roiled Montgomery County in the summer of 1960. The protests began at segregated Glen Echo Park on June 30, when a group of about two dozen black and white men and women walked through the gates. White friends passed them 75-cent tickets to ride the park’s carousel. A security guard quickly appeared and threatened the group: Get off the ride and leave the park in five minutes or face arrest. Five were arrested.

Picket lines were mounted at Glen Echo, and demonstrations continued through five hot summer weeks. As both black and white picketers marched along the trolley tracks at the front gate, they were taunted and spat upon by members of the American Nazi Party. Residents of the nearby Bannockburn community got involved, painting signs and handing out food and lemonade to the picketers.

The 1960 season ended in the fall with the park still segregated. But under mounting political pressure and the threat of renewed picketing, the owners gave in and the park was integrated for the 1961 season.

Elsewhere in the county, there were more protests. On July 9, 1960, NAG staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of the Hi Boy in Rockville at the corner of North Washington Street and Frederick Avenue. The restaurant still followed a “whites only” policy. Town residents led by the Rev. Cecil Bishop joined the protest. Twenty-five demonstrators were arrested as white residents mounted counterprotests. After two weeks of picketing, sit-ins, confrontations and arrests, the owner relented, and the restaurant desegregated.

Back in Bethesda, theater owner John Hiser remained a staunch defender of segregation and, rather than be forced to integrate, sold the theater in September 1960 to the K-B chain. It was rechristened as the Baronet and promptly opened to all.

The last booking at the Baronet was The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. The theater closed in August 1977, and the Hyatt Regency hotel now sits on the site.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.

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