How I Did It: When Civil Rights Came to My Box Office
BY Thea Singer
A Memphis businessman recalls how his chain of movie theaters prepared for integration in the Jim Crow-era South.
The entrepreneur: Richard Lightman, age 83, who integrated his movie-theater chain without serious incident in the Jim Crow South of 1962.
The company: Malco Theatres Inc., based in Memphis, began in 1915 as a single movie house in Sheffield, Ala., showing silent films accented by live vaudeville entertainment.
Moment of truth: In 1962 members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) showed up at the box office looking to buy tickets for the "white only" section of the theater. Lightman knew he had to act in order to keep his business out of the fray. "Everybody was afraid that once we had integration, that would be the end of the movie business," Lightman recalls. As a liberal, he was eager to integrate. But he wanted to manage the process carefully for the health of his company and the safety of his patrons.
The strategy: Lightman set up a "schedule for integration" with the support of community leaders and law-enforcement officers just three months after Goldsmith's department store became the first business in the city to integrate, at its lunch counter. Before implementing the schedule, Lightman wanted all his ducks in a row. "The subject was so delicate, you had to be very careful," he says. These are the steps he took:
1. Staggering the process. Lightman sat down with Vasco Smith, a member of the Memphis biracial committee, to devise a formula for admitting African Americans into his theaters. The two men crafted a three-week staggered-seating plan. In the first week, the box office of the company's largest theater, the Malco, would sell tickets to one black couple for seats in the "white only" orchestra, rather than in the balcony, where black patrons had always sat. In the second week, the theater would sell orchestra seats to three or four black couples. In the third week, it would sell even more orchestra seats to black patrons, and by the fourth, any African American who wanted to sit downstairs could.
2. Making a law-and-order appeal. To ensure that no law-enforcement officials would interfere, Lightman told the commissioner of fire and police, Claude Armour, about the plan. "I won't say Claude Armour helped us," says Lightman, "but if the police were going to stop us, the orders would have to come from him or the mayor." Meanwhile, neither Lightman nor apparently Armour told the mayor -- Henry Loeb, who had a reputation as a staunch segregationist -- what was happening.
3. Managing the news. For the weeks-long plan to work, it would have to stay out of the local papers. So Lightman visited the editors of the city's two major dailies. "We implored them to cooperate with us, to not have anything in the news about it at all," says Lightman. The editors complied.
4. Quelling outbursts quickly and quietly. In integrating his five Memphis theaters, Lightman recalls only one ugly incident. While watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra at the Crosstown, a white patron poured his Coca-Cola down a black patron's neck. Lightman hurriedly got Vasco Smith on the phone to soothe the man who'd been assaulted in order to keep the story out of the press. "That would have exploded the whole thing," says Lightman. As a gesture of goodwill, Malco Theatres Inc. bought the man a new suit.
The moral of the story: It pays to plan ahead. Malco Theatres' grosses continued to rise during and after integration. Today it's the 18th-largest movie chain in the country, with 1,000 employees and 290 screens housed in 35 sites in states from Arkansas to Missouri. Of integration, Lightman says, "It didn't affect us at all."