The Activism of My Father
I end this year on a personal note. This past October, my father, Merv Weston, now 88 years old, was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the NAACP in Manchester, NH, which he helped to found in the 60s.
Whenever I hear Dr. King talking about letting freedom ring from the hilltops of NH, I am reminded of my father’s passionate dedication to justice and human rights. He not only was active in fighting racism, but he was also instrumental politically to many of the Democratic presidential candidates in the Sixties and Seventies through the work of his public relations firm.
Few days go by when I do not contemplate his achievements in the context to the work I do on fairjewelry.org.
Below is the speech my father gave at the award ceremony this past October.
~ Marc Choyt, Publisher, Fairjewelry.org.
(Marc Choyt and his father, Merv Weston, 2008)
I was brought up in Boston, went to college, and then served in the Army Air Force during World War II. I came to Manchester in 1949 to start my own advertising and public relations firm.
As a new resident, I decided one day to take a trip up to the celebrated White Mountains which I heard so much about. To my shock, I came across two high class hotels that had signs at their entrance which read, and I quote, “No Jews or dogs allowed.”
There were no signs that excluded Negroes, because such notices were unnecessary. At that time, no Negro would ever attempt to register in a fancy White Mountain hotel.
But discrimination in those days did not only happen in resort hotels. The Manchester Country Club and other golf clubs, did not allow a Jew or a Negro to become members.
Most private social clubs in Manchester and Nashua excluded Negroes. Although a majority of Franco-Americans were also discriminated against, it wasn’t as bad as what was happening in the south. Prejudice in New Hampshire was a prevailing attitude of the times.
In the 1960’s, there were only about 2,000 African Americans in New Hampshire, mostly living in the Portsmouth area. They were Air Force families who were stationed at Pease Air Force Base, and decided to remain in the area. Manchester at that time, if I recall correctly, only had about 25 African Americans families.
One of these African Americans was a bright young man, named George Franklin. In 1963, he was walking down Elm Street, carrying a bag of groceries on his way home to his wife Brenda. For no reason whatsoever, except that he was a black man, he was stopped by a policeman, and taken to the police station.
There, George was interrogated, and then released by Police Chief McGranahan, who was sympathetic to the rights of innocent ethnic people. I knew George Franklin as a casual friend, and he told me about his arrest. But there was something else more critical happening here at the same time.
The leading newspaper in the state, the Manchester Union-Leader, started publishing front-page editorials, which claimed that Negroes were an inferior race and should be held to their status as second class citizens.
The mastermind behind this diatribe was the paper’s publisher, William Loeb. His editorials became more frequent and vitriolic as the Civil Rights Bill was being debated in Congress. Loeb went as far as stating that President Lincoln was a firm believer in slavery.
George Franklin and I met, and grappled with the problem. How do we combat this lunatic fringe?
We decided the best way was to organize and try to start a local chapter of the NAACP. We contacted national and they gave us their blessings. This was in 1964 in the heat of the civil rights movement. We worked hard on this project for months.
In addition to the 60 hours a week I spent in my business, I took another 30 to 40 hours a week organizing a chapter. The time was ripe. We got together a board of directors, and held weekly meetings at my agency.
George Franklin became the chapter’s first president. Hundreds of mailers were sent out to potential members asking them to join the chapter. As a result, the Manchester Chapter quickly grew to 500 members, 95% of whom were white.
Five of us became Life Members, and we were told by national, that we were, by far, the “whitest” chapter in the country.
Who were the people who made up this chapter? They were teachers, businessmen, professionals, liberal Democrats, housewives and religious leaders. While many ministers and both rabbis in the city supported this movement, the Catholic Church remained silent.
Only one maverick priest, Father Phil Kenney, got involved. He marched in Selma and defied the neutrality of the Catholic Church.
However, St. Anselm’s, a Catholic college in Goffstown did get involved. Three of its professors, John Windhausin, Bill Farrell and Vince Capouski, became very active, and helped to recruit college students to the movement.
Our Board of Directors decided to have a big rally, and we got permission to hold it at the auditorium at St. Anselm’s. I was elected to get a speaker. I called Roy Wilkins, the national president of the NAACP.
On the phone, he asked, “Isn’t Manchester the town where Bill Loeb runs his paper?” When I answered, “Yes”, he said, “l will come”. Roy Wilkins was my overnight house quest.
The rally was a huge success. An overflowing crowd of 1,500 came to the auditorium at St. A’s, to hear him. Wilkins spoke with passion about the civil rights movement and then attacked William Loeb relentlessly, to a cheering crowd.
The movement continued in Manchester and more African Americans became involved. Some of the names I can remember were Frank and Inez Bishop, Bruce Bynum, George Hause; and of course, Lionel Johnson.
In Manchester we had a very eminent white lawyer on our side. His name was Win Wadleigh, and the chapter grew in prestige and acceptance when he was elected president.
My relationship with William Loeb was a mixed bag. As owner of the largest advertising agency in the state, I had to do business with the Union Leader, the largest newspaper in the state. However, this didn’t stop Loeb from attacking Win Wadleigh and me in front page editorials.
Win and I decided we should meet with Loeb, and we did so in his office on two occasions. They were polite meetings, but a total waste of time. In fact, Loeb went the other way, and became president of a national right-wing organization, based in the south, whose objective was to fight the civil rights movement.
I recall one troubling event in Manchester during the height of activity. There was a huge fire in a tenement apartment house where some of the black families lived. The NAACP worked hard to find new living quarters for those who lost their homes. While the details have slipped my mind, the question of whether it was a hateful act of arson was never resolved.
When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, we began to see changes. The New Hampshire State Legislature voted to establish a New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights, and I became one of the commissioners.
But change didn’t come that easily. Lionel Johnson and I planned a strategy. We would walk into a local club and asked to be served. When the club owner said he didn’t serve colored people, I would flash my Commissioner’s credentials, and told him he could be prosecuted. We were served.
Barriers also started to break down in other restricted clubs and hotels. The Manchester Country Club, once a bastion of anti-Semitism and Franco-American prejudice, began accepting all ethnic groups. Prestigious hotels, like Wentworth by the Sea were forced to open its doors to people of all religions and colors.
The signs up in the White Mountains which read “No Jews and No Dogs Allowed” were taken down. You may still see a sign at a hotel that says “No Dogs Allowed” but that is a problem for the Humane Society.
After spending 30 years fighting discrimination, I backed off. In the early nineties. Father Kenny and I were honored by being presented with the state’s Martin Luther King Award. The Chapter was now in the hands of the black community.
I cannot say enough kind words about Lionel Johnson who devoted his life to the cause. Membership in the chapter diminished but as president, he kept the Manchester NAACP alive. He also founded the successful Black Scholarship Fund to help minority students and almost single handedly pushed a Martin Luther King Day through a stubborn state legislature.
After some difficult years, I am happy to see that the Manchester Chapter is being revived. As a life member and long retired, I can only say that I wish you the best.