Lawrence Spencer

Duration: 2hrs 18mins
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Interview with: Lawrence Spencer
Interviewed by:
Date: September 16, 1975
Archive Number: OH 173

Interviewer
0:00:02.9 It’s recording at this moment and you can tell by the needle moving slightly. Interview with Mr. Lawrence Spencer, September 16, 1975. Mr. Spencer, to begin the interview we’d like to ask 1 or 2 background questions. First, are you a native Houstonian?

Lawrence Spencer
No, I worked here in between 2 long terms of graduate education in the summer of 1962 and then moved to Houston in 1963—in May of that year—and have been here ever since.

Interviewer
What were your reasons for coming to Houston originally?

Lawrence Spencer
The first summer I was here, I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, studying to become a Presbyterian minister. I came here to study clinical training at St. Luke’s and Texas Children’s Hospitals in the medical center. I studied that summer in a counseling program there, and then we liked Houston at that time. This also was 1 of the most progressive areas of the Presbyterian Church in our denomination, and I wanted to come here where I felt like I could do some of the sorts of things that I was interested in in the church. An opening came available that I was interested in, and I came here right out of seminary. At that time I moved into the north side of Houston and became pastor of what was then the Aldine Presbyterian Church, which was a rural congregation in the backyard of what was then to become Houston Intercontinental Airport. I saw my job as to help that community make a transition from being a rural community to a newly suburban community. I was there for about 5 years working at that task.

To give you a little bit more background so that you’ll see the whole scope of the perspective from which my answers to your questions come, I then moved and became director of Presbyterian Resources to deal with urban social problems in the metropolitan Houston area. In that capacity I was a staff person on Brazza’s Presbytery staff and coordinated the resources of the Presbyterian church with those of other religious judicatories together with secular social service agencies and the private sector trying to stimulate some concern on the part of the whole community so that Houston didn’t have the sorts of explosions that took place in the northern cities. During that summer we worked very closely with 5 young black students. They served as sort of a link between us and the black community.

Interviewer
0:03:34.7 Do you recall their names?

Lawrence Spencer
Yes. Mickey Leland—who’s 1 of our state legislators—was 1 of them. Charles Freeman, who was, I think, the first black undergraduate at Rice and the first of the students to come to trial for the incident at TSU. He was 1 of the students. Deloyd Parker—who is head of Shake Community Center now and managed the first black homecoming queen’s campaign at U of H—was 1 of the students. And Sammy Johnson was another. There was a guy who was the son of a doctor—and I can’t remember his name—but he was also involved. At any rate, I worked in that program for about a year, year and a half, and then went to be a co-pastor at an affluent church on the west side of town—in the Memorial area—where I served for 2-1/2 years and left that position and did some private consulting work with the state education agency reviewing their policies and to see how educational policies in the state impact urban education. From there I went to the Model City Program and became senior planner for health, social services, and education projects for the city of Houston’s Model City Program. And then 2-1/2 years ago I came to the Houston Council on Human Relations as executive director.

Interviewer
Have you continued to be active as a minister?

Lawrence Spencer
Yes. I’m currently permanent clerk of Brazza’s Presbytery. That means I’m responsible for making sure that all the records are kept and am responsible for some of the policies for the way in which meetings are set. I’m also chairman of an administration committee and I guess about half of the Sundays lead worship in some Presbyterian church in the southeast fifth of the state that may be vacant or just as a guest speaker.

Interviewer
There’s 1 remark that you made earlier that I’d like to pursue a little bit, and that is when you first came to Aldine you said that you were aiming to help the transition. Was there an awareness even at this time that the area was going from a rural to an urban area?

Lawrence Spencer
0:06:19.5 Yes. While there was an awareness that the airport was coming in, and I think on the part of some planners in the community and planners within the church structures, there was an awareness of what that would mean to the whole area. I think people in the congregation may not have seen the full impact of what was going to happen to the area, but they had some idea that there was going to be some change.

Interviewer
Was there apprehension?

Lawrence Spencer
On the part of some people in that community. People had moved out there—most of my congregation was either long-time residents of that area or of areas similar to it, and it was a rural section on the north side of Houston. Half of the congregation were public school administrators and educators and had a mean educational level of 1 year of graduate school. The other half was primarily farmers or blue-collar workers that had a mean educational level of eighth grade, and they worked together just fantastically well. They had something in common of a value system and really liking to live in that sort of community. Many of those people—this is just a feeling on my part, but I would guess about half of those people were very open to growth and development in the area, and they saw that it meant new resources, new jobs, increased services for their community. The other half were somewhat disgruntled—not really upset, like really mad that the city had put the airport out there but just kind of sorry that their way of life was vanishing. And many of those moved on further out along Conroe or Spring, Cypress—which probably in 2 or 3 years they had to move again because the whole growth of the city has been in that direction.

Interviewer
Have you been back to the area recently?

Lawrence Spencer
Sure.

Interviewer
0:08:53.3 And it really has changed.

Lawrence Spencer
Oh, very much so. We relocated the congregation over on—it was on Highway 525 I think—and we relocated it to—it had been like the 3rd-oldest Presbyterian church in the greater Houston area, founded in 1904, and there were lots of interesting things from the history like—evidently at 1 time early in the history of Houston—in the early 1900’s—there had been a big part of the economy that had been fig production or fig growing. And there were even some records of the pastors having—the visiting pastors having been paid by so many bushels of figs. It’s kind of a common phenomenon of a lot of rural America where they were—the church was supported by setting aside so much of the production or whatever. The area went through a lot of change, and when I went there it still had very much of a rural flavor, and by the time I left it was solidly suburban.

Interviewer
Before we discuss the Council on Human Relations per se, there’s 1 other sort of background question that I would like to ask. Has your religious training dovetailed with the work you’ve done on these various councils and agencies?

Lawrence Spencer
Yes, I think so. My theological perspective tends to be pretty here-and-now oriented. I see religious perspective as being a way of looking at the world. I think everybody has ultimate values and ultimate—well, I don’t know how better to put it—ultimate values. And by definition, that is religious construct even though you may not tie that to some personified higher being. I think that for me my values of life are very much tied with those of the Christian faith, as I understand it, which may be very different from some ways other people understand it. But I see that it gives a frame of reference in which to live out your life and that it really doesn’t have to do with some superstitious ether up over the earth. But it has to do very much with relationships and the structures of creation that we’re all involved in. And whether you’re talking about nature or whether you’re talking about concrete and steel cities, whether you’re talking about individuals or families or groups of people, that’s all a part of the human experience and it seems to me that the Christian faith really has given me a way of approaching and dealing with a lot of what goes on in life.

I don’t use much religious language, either in church or in my business here. In fact, we play down very much my ordination in this agency because this agency has an image that’s very secularly based, and we’ll get into that a little bit later in the interview. But I do see that my training in terms of dealing with people, in terms of understanding values, in understanding the way in which organizations live out those values in their history is very much a part of both my theological background and my sociological sorts of bags of tricks that enable me to be director of this agency.

Interviewer
0:13:19.2 I’d like to ask you a few questions on the council now. First of all, how did you become director of the Council on Human Relations?

Lawrence Spencer
Well, you want the real, nitty-gritty stuff about how that happened?

Interviewer
I sure do.

Lawrence Spencer
Okay. I had been—I think that this is a good study in the way that things really happen. I had been the senior planner for health, education, and social services for the city of Houston and had been in that capacity responsible for planning and seeing the implementation get off the ground for about—well, depending upon what year you’re looking at, between 9 and 12 million dollars’ worth of programs in the city. As you may know, the Model City Program is the first major federal program that came into the city of any size at all, and it is the first really big socially oriented program the city has been involved in. Because of that, it was set up to be very repressive in many ways. Former Mayor Welch is reputed to have said—and I did not hear this or see it in print, but I’ve heard from several sources that he indicated that the Model City Program would be a success if there were very little or no misappropriation of federal monies. And so, what they did was to set up a fiscal system where there were about 5 or 6 checks and re-checks.

Well, that’s cool in terms of financial responsibility, but what it did was to put hometown agencies—small community agencies—really at a disadvantage because they don’t have the sort of financial cash flow to be able to keep their heads above water. And you get that combined with the fact that nobody in the city—and for that matter nobody in the country—had been able to deal with multiple funding sources before. Like you get a program that’s sponsored by Model Cities and that program was to attract other federal money and other private money. And say you get a foundation, 2 other departments of the federal government, and a state department all contributing in funding and people trying to figure out how in the world to help some agency get through the maze of that plus the maze of fiscal audits in the Model City department and the city comptroller’s office and so forth, and it’s a nightmare.

0:16:16.7 There’s 1 other small piece that went into a contribution that I made to this particular agency that referred me to the job with the council. And that is that I sensed that in city government—this is to a degree a function of any big bureaucracy, whether it be government or a corporation or whatever—but it’s especially true in government that people by and large are attracted there for security reasons. The scenario is something like this. I get a job in government because I want a secure position. The way to keep that security is not to make bad decisions. The way not to make bad decisions is not to make decisions. And so consequently, a lot of the elements in the social structure of a big organization are really prejudiced against decisive action.

So, you come back to the sorts of problems that these community agencies were having in terms of running their Model City programs and nobody could cut through it. Everybody was blaming the problem on somebody else, and it just didn’t make a damn to me who was responsible. I just wanted to see these people get some services out to folks that needed them. If you get a decision maker or somebody that’s willing to take some risks in an organization like that, up to certain limits the whole organization will respond when there’s vacuum and a need for leadership. My philosophy has always been that I’m going to make some mistakes and I’m going to make some right decisions, but I like to decide and go with things, and hopefully out of that we’ll see some successes. With that sort of style, I was somewhat different from a lot of other people that were in that agency and was very much a help to Vocational Guidance Service and Big Brothers in their project as well as to several others.

With that sort of background we can again focus on the job here at the council. Roger Armstrong had been the previous director before me. He had had some personal experiences, some inheritances, and some responsibilities within his family that caused him to resign this position and devote more time to his personal affairs. He was acting as president of the council board at that time, and the council had been without a director for about a year. They had sought applications and received about 35 applications for the executive directorship. But he was talking with John Craig, who was the executive director of Big Brothers and a friend of his, and he was saying, “John, we’ve got all these applicants. We’re still seeking other people. Do you know anybody?” And John says, “Yeah, I know the perfect guy—Larry Spencer.” So John came to talk with me about it, and at that time I really wasn’t all that eager to leave Model Cities but I said I’ll talk. And as it turns out, we had a couple of meetings and just talked. I met with Roger, then I met with the board committee as they went through some group interviews. They narrowed it down to 3 people, and they asked me to come on as director. And I came.

0:20:20.9 I think that whole story is a personal encounter—a personal accounting of something that is borne out by some social studies that show that—these were done several years ago, about 8 or 9 years ago—2 independent studies said virtually the same thing—that for the job categories at that time between $5000 and $50,000, 80% of the jobs were acquired where the first contact was through some personal reference or somebody knowing about the job. About 15% of the jobs were acquired where the first contact came through the employment agencies or some other advertising—like in the newspaper—and only 5% of the jobs were achieved where first contact was with the personnel director of an organization. So, it’s a personal sort of thing about how I got here, but it’s exemplary of the way things function in our society.

Interviewer
Is that the way you’ve hired people—through personal reference?

Lawrence Spencer
Yeah, there’s some of that. Sure there is. I believe very strongly that an organization is as good as its personnel. Sometimes it’s not as good as its personnel. Sometimes there are other things that inhibit it, but I’m very concerned about having good people around. We try not to bias ourselves and cut out opportunities for getting good people, and I’m very much convinced that group decision making is extremely important. I’ve gone through some 2 instances here where I had some people that I personally thought would be very, very good here—to hire on the staff. In 1 of those cases it was a friend, and the group that I set up to aid me in my decision making put each of those people in second place, and I went with their first choice. We do try to—I try to build in some objectivity. But of course, I ask friends, other acquaintances, other executive directors, and heads of other agencies if they know people looking for jobs. I must get 5 or 6 people in here a week looking for some sort of job, and if I don’t have something I’ll refer them to somebody that does.

Interviewer
I’d like to ask you a question about the Model Cities Project—back to that. Other than the statement by hearsay that perhaps our ex-Mayor Welch made, was there anything in terms of total attitude towards the project itself that more or less governed how well the project worked from the mayor’s office at that time?

Lawrence Spencer
0:23:52.6 I think that there was—again, this whole interview is my personal reflection, and other people may see it differently. I think that there was both some looking down on the Model City department from other departments and some jealousy. I know of several instances in which the Model Cities people were paid more money because of federal standards being higher and federal monies being available. A person at a certain accounting level may be paid $15,000 in the Model City job where at a comparable level in the city may be paid only 12 or $13,000. And that creates a great deal of problems for civil service and for the mayor and for everybody. But that was the case, and there were some hard feelings between people in other departments toward—or from people in other departments towards the Model City personnel.

I think that there was also a feeling that was present of those jokers are over there, just some short-term project, and they wouldn’t have any jobs anyway if it weren’t for this program, and so they don’t have much substance—that sort of feeling. I think that there’s another element that’s a part of my perspective and my theory about how some of the dynamics—why some of the dynamics that are present in Houston are as they are. I think that Houston is very close—both geographically and in time—to the western frontier. And on the western frontier, a person had to be a radical individualist to survive. There wasn’t anybody else out there to help you. You had to make it on your own. It was a lonely life. You were alone. You could do whatever you wanted to. It wasn’t going to hurt anybody else. I think that those sorts of values that get ingrained take a much longer time to diminish and get neutralized and washed out than the social structures developing within a given time in a given place.

Houston in many respects is a very cosmopolitan city right now. It’s becoming increasingly so. If you look at culture, if you look at the sort of business sophistication, if you look at the sort of economic base we have here, the diversity—all sorts of things—Houston is really coming of age as a city—as a major city. It’s a city that affects the whole of our country. But there are still value remnants of that frontier age here, and you see that in the sort of still an individualistically-oriented posture that says, damn it, we don’t want that federal money in here because that means that somebody else is going to be telling us what to do. We want to do it ourselves. I think that that was also a function of some city feelings about the Model City Program.

It’s also the feelings about some cooperative inter-governmental workings that are present today. It’s certainly present in terms of whether you’re talking about hospitals, symphonies, or fine arts or you’re talking about United Fund agencies or social service. Unless you’re dealing with large corporate entities that are controlled by people who have lived in the east and in the north or on the west coast, you still have a function of my organization is worthy and if we can’t get our money through 1 source we’re not going to cooperate with anybody else. We’re going to get it through another. And there’s very little cooperation at a substantive level between social service agencies here in this city—between all sorts of social structures. And that radical individualism I see has continued.

Interviewer
Okay. We may want to go into that in a little more detail a little bit later in the interview. There’s just 1 other point here. Others we have interviewed in city government have mentioned that there is a kind of fear of federal funding offered in the city government. They don’t want to become dependent on federal funds. Is that a euphemism or is that a genuine danger?

Lawrence Spencer
0:29:22.6 I don’t know how to respond to that. There have been lots of games played with federal funds—both from the local level and from the national level. Nixon started out on the new federalism as a way—on the surface he sold it as a way of breaking apart big federal control and putting control closer to home where decision making could be made by people who were needing the services. So, you don’t just have 1 program that gives out all over the country with the same sorts of guidelines that says here’s a chunk of change. Houston may have radically different needs in manpower than Rochester or Santa Barbara or wherever. On the surface that was really neat. But what he really did was to take the categorical programs that the federal government had, did away with them, and gave less money to the localities than they were receiving, in many cases, through the federal categorical programs. And that’s just not kosher.

Games have been played from that perspective, and in those terms I think that a local mayor and council are dead right. We can’t depend on those son of a guns. They’re going to—we can’t tell what the feds are going to do. They may not give us the resources that we have today tomorrow, and so we’re not going to put on 10,000 more employees on the public payroll and then in 2 years be faced with having to support them ourselves or have to lay them off and, 1, affect our economy markedly, and 2, get us out of office because those people are going to go screaming.

There’s some realistic stuff in there. The thing that I think is a gain from the local level is that—it’s multifaceted. One of the facets deals with part of the political gain is that you have to show successes in order to get re-elected, and the easiest successes to see are those that are bricks and mortar and paved streets. Innovative programs that deal in human needs—while they may be much more far-reaching and affect the economy and the social structure of a city much more, they still don’t have the kind of showiness of brick and mortar. And so the city politicians need some sort of mechanism to say we can’t depend on these federal funds so we have to spend them on 1-time programs. I think that’s a game. I think that resources are going to be there from the feds in some form. They may be different from revenue sharing or whatever, but they’re going to be there in some form for a long time. Nixon was able to affect a major policy shift in this country, and that’s going to be around for a long time, regardless of who gets in office.

Interviewer
0:33:04.9 You would argue then that they would prefer highway funds to Model City funds.

Lawrence Spencer
No. I’d say that they would prefer both highway and Model City funds, but the Model City funds would tend to go more into brick and mortar than they would into social services. They also would tend to—in terms of community development funds—a number of categorical programs that are HUD were formed into the community development monies, and Houston’s getting about 119 million in those funds over the next 5 years. I chaired a committee for the mayor to help write the first application for those this last year and tried to get citizen input as to what citizens wanted. Well, those funds are being slanted toward hard, capital improvement programs rather than the kind of software—helping people getting better jobs, helping people stabilize in terms of social growth, helping crime rates, and so forth.

There’s a copout in terms of the federal funds may not be there so we’re going to put it into this hard brick-and-mortar stuff, which is really showier. I think that there’s another element and that is that a good many people in Houston are here from east Texas—newly arrived from east Texas—may have a more bigoted sort of mentality than other folks that live here in Houston. These are all sweeping generalities, but Houston tends to be socially much more conservative than cities in the west or the northeast. I think that there’s a concern on the part of some politicians and some city bureaucrats that some social programs may not be salable to the people that are doing the electing.

Interviewer
Could you give us an example of such a program?

Lawrence Spencer
0:35:36.1 It’s not just a program, but it’s like there’s a mentality that we discovered in a needs assessment that we did here at the council about 2 years ago. It looked something like this. A 30-year-old male moves here from Nacogdoches, has 2 kids and a wife, lives on the north side of Houston, drives a pickup truck to work—you know, all the stereotypes of a lower-middle income, blue-collar worker on the north side of Houston. And he says, you know, it just really chaps me that all those niggers and Mexicans and poor people are on the public dole and they don’t pay any taxes. In fact, they take all the money off of these programs. The rich people don’t pay any taxes. Hell, even our public officials don’t pay taxes. People in high places don’t—it’s all on my back, and I don’t even have enough money to feed my family let alone give them some sort of pleasure. I can’t take any more of it.

Well, what that guy has done is to take the sorts of prejudices that he has grown up with and use those as a vehicle for expressing what is really a different sort of concern than the inter-group conflict between blacks and whites. He’s used that as a way of expressing his frustration at being victimized by a system out there that he has no entrée to. That’s what comes out of analysis of that sort of comment, and people in nearly every social strata—male and female, black, white, and brown—are tending to feel in Houston—or a year and a half ago or 2 years ago when our study was done—are tending to feel very strongly that they as individuals are victimized by some social system out there that they don’t have entrée to. And so it’s an individual against a system, and people use the sort of prejudicial background that they grew up with to symbolize and to talk about all of that. So when you talk about social programs, they may not see that. They may lump all blacks as being welfare people or all Mexican-Americans as being welfare people. Or they may see that all people that are on welfare really shouldn’t be there. They’re just really trying to rip off the system, which is not the case statistically. They get all of these things together, and when they see some social program coming in to provide jobs for the poor, they don’t see how that’s going to benefit them personally. Any government that’s providing that sort of program—all they’re doing is for somebody else. They’re not doing it for me. And the elected officials are afraid of losing voters.

On the other hand, there’s another bind that they’re in because a good many poor people, a good many minorities are now voting much more than they were in the past, and I’d hate to be a politician today because they’re really caught in a bind.

0:39:20.9 But I think 1 of the rationales for feelings against the Model City Program and federal funds has to do with that sort of political concern about what people feel.

Interviewer
Why was the Council on Human Relations formed?

Lawrence Spencer
We don’t have as complete records as I’d like to have to answer that question definitively. I have 2 sorts of backgrounds that I’ve been able to dig up. One is that in the mid to late ‘50s, a group of people that were primarily affluent whites came together and they were an interdenominational group, and they were concerned to find some way of—in a secular way—living out their religious values—an ethical way of affecting change in this society or a way of affecting ethical change in this society called Houston. From another source I know that the council was started in ’58 as a formal organization, and I think it grew out of the conversations of these first people—first 5 or 6 people that began talking.

Interviewer
Could you give us the names of some of those people?

Lawrence Spencer
Yes. I’ll get those for you, and I’d like to give you the whole list. I’d like to get that full list for you, and we’ll talk about that shortly. I’m having somebody bring that up.

At any rate, what got focused on as the key organizing issue around which the council formed was—in 1958—to aid in peaceful desegregation of public facilities—restrooms, buses, restaurants, and so forth. I’m not sure whether it was just before that time or just after that time that some blacks in the community were brought on board. A few years later, some people in the Mexican-American community became members of the council, and it has grown so that today it represents black, white, brown, young and old, conservative and liberal politically, Republican, Democrat—the whole spectrum. It’s probably 1 of the most diverse groups in town. It does tend to be very equalitarian in orientation in that the basic reason for being on the council is still to research, find solutions, and catalyze those solutions to those urban, social problems that disproportionately affect minorities and women.

Interviewer
We’d like to ask you some questions about the organization of the council. What is its structure?

Lawrence Spencer
0:42:47.0 We have a 45-member board of directors that’s elected every year at an annual meeting. The board of directors hires me—or hires the executive director, which position I am currently holding. The executive director then hires the staff. We receive our funding from corporations, individuals, churches, and foundations. We receive no United Fund money and no government money for our main operation, though we do government contracts, all of which money goes specifically for particular projects. But the basic program of the council is funded by the contributions.

Interviewer
All right. You said that there was a 45-member board of directors. Is it broken up in any way into committees?

Lawrence Spencer
Yes. We have an 11-person executive committee of the board that’s made up of the officers plus 6 other people. Would you like those names?

Interviewer
I don’t think that’s necessary.

Lawrence Spencer
The council—they serve as the board between meetings of the board. The board constitutionally has to meet 4 times a year, and the executive committee gives policy direction the rest of the time.

Interviewer
Are there 6 members on the executive committee?

Lawrence Spencer
No. There’s a president, 2 vice presidents, secretary and treasurer, and then there are 6 other members—6 other board members that make up an 11-person executive committee.

Interviewer
What is your membership now approximately?

Lawrence Spencer
0:44:39.6 Approximately 600 dues-paying entities. Somewhere between 160 and 200—and this varies depending upon when you look at who paid last. We have, I would say, about 170 corporate contributors. The rest are individuals, churches, or foundations.

Interviewer
Mr. Spencer, at this point we’ll add as a kind of addendum the names of the founders.

Lawrence Spencer
Okay. Mrs. George Shaw, who now lives in Wimberley, Texas; Mrs. A. O. Sussholz—that’s Betty Ruth Sussholz; Mrs. George K. Dumbauld—D-U-M-B-A-U-L-D—that’s Ethel Dumbauld; Mrs. Frank Freid—Eleanor; Mrs. Irwin Gladstein—I don’t know her first name; Reverend James R. Nolan; Mrs. Charles Pemberton—that’s Doris Pemberton; and Mrs. J. Milton Richardson— Jean Richardson, Bishop Richardson’s wife.

Interviewer
It’s almost like a matriarchy.

Lawrence Spencer
Yes, sort of. I know that very early in the game Judge Woodrow Seals—I think he was not a federal judge at that time—he came on board as 1 of the early members. There were a number of other people, but I think Mrs. Pemberton is the only black member of that first group.

Interviewer
It would be fair to say that almost from the beginning the group had a civil rights orientation. The ‘60s gave it that stamp and it’s still retained that.

Lawrence Spencer
Correct. The council has—you may be aware that things have gone through an evolution in concerns about civil rights, like anything else. In 1954 President Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock, and some interesting things happened after that. Immediately thereafter, the economy of Little Rock went downhill—a great depression in the surrounding area. The reason for that was that national companies quit moving into Little Rock because they didn’t want their executive people—and I guess the rest of their employees, too—but most of their—I sense that most of their concerns were their management-level people that they move around a good deal. They didn’t want them exposed to social upheaval. And when that economy quit expanding it started deflating, and people in Atlanta—businessmen in Atlanta saw what was happening and said that wasn’t going to happen in Atlanta. It was the business community that got together and stimulated openness between blacks and whites in Atlanta. And it worked. That’s 1 of the reasons for Atlanta’s continued boom in the midst of all the social upheaval around the country. There has been a concern on the part of the business community and the minority communities to work together.

0:48:30.6 Here in Houston—and again, this is secondhand information—stuff that took place before I came on board, so this needs to be verified. But I’ve heard from a couple of sources that the way in which the public facilities were really desegregated here—I think that it was through the stimulation of the council that the then-president of TSU did a study of convention trades in the major cities in the south. Evidently ministers, do-good organizations, all sorts of people had been trying to use all sorts of means to get facilities desegregated, to no avail. So at the council’s urging, the president of TSU did this study of the convention trade, and they had some figures that economists used—that every person-day of a convention brings in so much money into the economy. And using that figure, they studied—I think it was Florida, Miami, New Orleans—several places in the south and the north—and applying some figures to sort of equalize the population and the hotel facilities and so forth, he came out showing that New Orleans’ economy was increased by—I don’t know how many millions of dollars—$11 million. Miami’s economy or whatever the desegregated cities were, their economies were markedly affected in a good way by having desegregated facilities. Houston’s was about $2 million. The other figures were 11 and 13 million and on up in that area. Two days later, all of the restaurants and hotels were desegregated in Houston. The reason was because there was a meeting called of the Restaurant Association and the Hotel Managers Association, and this study was just laid on the table and very factually put out. And changes were made.

Interviewer
When was the study?

Lawrence Spencer
I’m really not sure. It was sometime back in the late ‘50s.

Interviewer
Before the formation of the council?

Lawrence Spencer
0:51:06.5 No, no. I think after the formation of the council. This is all stuff that—when I came on board at the council I asked several people about the organization. I had known of the council and had been marginally related to some things that they had done. But I really didn’t know much about the organization, and 1 guy I talked with—who’s head of a big social service agency here—said the council isn’t an organization so much as it is an art form. I think that’s kind of neat for a human relations group. I have tried to bring a little bit more organization to it, but because of that kind of art form, free spirit organization that it had been, records are not of the best order here. Most of the things that I’ve told you have thus far been through talking with people that were early related to the council and so forth.

Interviewer
All organizations probably have an oral tradition, something like primitive societies.

Lawrence Spencer
That’s right. Or other primitive societies.

Interviewer
Yeah, right.

Interviewer
When you became director, what were your greatest hopes for the council?

Lawrence Spencer
I think that I had a sneaking feeling that bore true with some research that we did—that Houston was kind of growing up and needed some direction in terms of human rights and human concerns that were approached other than just on an individual basis. Let me give you a little background to that—that tells you a lot about me, too.

Much of my training in seminary and continuing education—when I was working as a pastor of a local church or on a Presbytery staff—focused on the areas of education, administration, and counseling. And I’ve served as a co-therapist at the Florence Crittenton Home for about 6 years on a part-time basis and have done a lot of individual and group counseling. And 1 thing that I saw there—and I also saw in some training that we did for youth and adults moving into administrative structures in churches—was that what often happens when you deal with individuals is that you get them geared up and equipped to live their life more creatively and openly and with a higher degree of development than they had been living. And then they go back and in many ways are victimized by social structures that keep them from operating as optimally as they could. I feel like some of my best strengths are in terms of dealing with individuals in small groups, but I also saw very little place around where those big macro-systems were being dealt with so that people who were getting the sort of personal development that we all need could maximize that. I’m not laying the blame on social structures because I think an individual has responsibility to make the most for himself. But I do think that those social structures can keep a person from maximizing.

0:55:17.1 So, I began focusing in on urban concerns, and I was concerned when I came to the council that we may be at a time where we need to deal with some of those big systems. We did. I purposely did not institute any new programs when I came on. Things had been kind of at a low ebb because of being without a leader for a year, and we did a 6-month study—had some people in corporations and universities—both on the council board and people who had in no way been related to the council in the past—chamber of commerce people, city planners, and so forth—all get involved in a needs assessment. And what we found in that needs assessment was that when you look at 40 crucial issues is that overt race relations fell about 20th in that list of 40. This was in late 1973. But when you began probing the top 5 with a second round of questioning—like transportation—and this was before all of the flack came up with Houston Transit Authority—the big election and all the stink that didn’t get anywhere. This was about a month before all of that flack hit the fan. People’s number 1 concern in Houston was transportation.

Employment, housing—those sorts of great big issues—when you began probing those with the second round of questioning, there was a very heavy overlay of concern about racial conflict. And so, 1 of the observations of Howard Wolfe, who’s a partner in Fulbright & Crooker—it used to be Fulbright & Crooker. Now it’s Fulbright & Jaworski law firm. Howard was on the committee and was not a member of the council board at that time. He observed that where 15 years prior to that time, when the council formed it formed around an issue that could be likened as conflict between—or inability for individual to relate to individual because conflicts were group to group. I as a black man come into your restaurant and you as a white waitress can’t get along with me or differentiate me as an individual because of our barriers, and I can’t differentiate you because you’re white. And so therefore, we’re unable to deal with each other as individuals.
In our survey, 1 way of interpreting all of the data that we got from elected officials, overt leaders, random-sampled people, council membership, a cross section of black, white, brown, young, old, and so forth—1 way of interpreting all the data from all those people was that about 85% of the issues could be lumped into problems of individual relating to individual where the block was individual to system. And I used the example before about the white male living on the north side. You’ve got the same thing in terms of a kid who feels that—in public schools that feels victimized by the administration and the teachers and feels that there isn’t anything really personal there for him, and he doesn’t see the point of it all. You get the same thing on the part of teachers that feel victimized by administration and by students, and they’re just kind of washing back and forth in a sea of pressure coming at them from some system that they can’t get a control on. You see the same thing on the part of black people and brown people toward police and toward city services and city government.

0:59:29.1 And so, what we tried to do after that needs assessment was to say, okay, where are some areas that other organizations are not currently involved? What can we do to try to humanize and personalize some of the social systems around in these areas of top concern of Houstonians? And we filtered out 5 or 6 objectives and went to work on them.

Interviewer
What were those objectives and the programs that more or less evolved from them?

Lawrence Spencer
One of them—that all filtered down to about a year and a half to 2 years ago. One of the top objectives was to look at the whole area of employment. What were some blocks in the system of employment that kept people from being treated fairly regardless of sex or race? The 1964 Civil Rights Act required private employers to submit employment profiles on their personnel. In ’72, that federal act was amended to bring on board higher education, public schools, and local and state governments. When that act was amended, they did not amend the confidentiality clause in the ’64 act, which said that you can’t—the federal government can’t report on any 1 individual agency or individual corporation. And though the feds had passed an open information act saying that information about public government should be open to the public at all levels, the way in which the new civil rights act was written prohibited the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from releasing information. So, information on profiles of what was happening in government was not available for Houston except as—you could look at a grouping of cities. Or we couldn’t tell what was happening in Harris County but we could tell what was happening to a number of counties in Texas.
So, what we did was to start—and we just completed this last week and released to the public—a study on employment opportunity in government, which released in September 1975. In that study we looked at federal, state, county, and municipal government within Harris County. The only municipal government we looked at was the city of Houston because it was the biggest unit. Those governments employ in excess of 40,000 people, and it’s the biggest single employer—or type of employment—within the area. We looked at their job profiles, at their affirmative action plans, and at recent hires—recent hiring practices—to see how they were changing their employment makeup. And this was 1 of the big objectives. We got the data now and are now in the process of addressing those units of government and saying, hey fellas, look. Here are some inequities.

1:03:11.9 The council has always been a group to research very thoroughly what it gets into and then where possible work behind the scenes and try to negotiate out some resolutions to the problems. And that’s where we are right now. That was a big objective.

The second big objective that we started on was saying that 1 of the biggest places where there’s both conflict and potential for interracial relations is in the public schools. A year before, the council had done the first black/brown study in the country—a study of relations between blacks and browns in public schools. Growing out of that study, we said what’s needed are some resources to deal with racial conflict in the public schools. When we began looking—this was before I came on board—when they began looking—the staff at that time—they found that all the materials available were designed either for black/white—black and white—and didn’t take into account Mexican-American/Anglo relations, or they dealt with Mexican-American/Anglo relations and not dealing with black/white/brown relations. The second characteristic is that they were designed by adults, and third, they were designed at a regional or national level and didn’t take into account the particular characteristics of Houston.

So, we wrote a grant and got funded through the Office of Education to devise a piece of curriculum that, 1, would address the local scene, 2, would be tri-ethnic, and 3, would be designed by students. We hired a staff that focused just on that element—Quinn Carey has been the project director—and we took a group of 12 students—black, white, and brown—from different schools around the city through a year-long process, and they received academic credit for this. The process identified their own needs, their own self-concepts, and their feelings about people of a different color. Then they looked at the dynamics of conflict within their own age group. And then they took those elements and built it into a simulation exercise that other people could go through and experience both excluding and being excluded in a fairly non-threatening way. And they did it through the game that’s called GROB, which stands for green, red, orange, and blue, and the simulation exercises have to do with helping people become a certain color—either red or green or blue or whatever—and those colors have characteristics, and they also have a certain amount of power, and as in any social structure, the power is inequitably divided, and there are processes to exclude and so forth. And by playing a series of games that are kind of fun, they’re able to experience the feelings and then talk about that and then make applications of what they felt there to the real-life sorts of things that are taking place in their public schools.

1:06:56.8 We tested this game on 800 students in HISD and got pre- and post-testing on both those 800 students and on a group of 800 other students that didn’t experience it for a control group. We found that the game reduced racial prejudice by about 30%, so we have been in process since then of training teachers, of getting it used at HISD at the secondary level. We’re working with them in a number of other ways but that was a second big focus that we did growing out of our study. And it was to deal with that social system where there’s oftentimes a lot of racial conflict.

Interviewer
Excuse me here. What was the reaction of the school board?

Lawrence Spencer
There’s an interesting sort of story behind that, too.

Interviewer
Before you go into that story, I’d like to flip this tape over so we can catch it all.

Lawrence Spencer
Sure.

1:08:07.0 (end of audio 1)

 

 

 

 

Interviewer
0:00:02.9 Spencer interview, September 16, 1975, side 2. I believe we were discussing the reaction of the school board to this game.

Lawrence Spencer
It’s a good insight into the politics of organization. The previous staff members prior to my coming on board had gone to great lengths to get top administration approval of our proposal to the Office of Education before instituting it. We had signed documents of their agreement to the—for our cooperation. They were also bound by law to cooperate because the way in which the Emergency School Aid Act funding—which this project was funded under—is rigged is that a portion of it—the major portion—goes to local education agencies—HISD. But also a portion is set aside for non-profit institutions like the Council on Human Relations. There’s a requirement that all grant recipients cooperate with each other and work together—especially the non-profits and school boards coordinate with each other.

There was some federal binding legislation. When it came time to do the testing of the game—after HISD had granted academic credit to the kids for participating in the course and we had involved principals, administrators, parents, and students throughout the process—there was some foot-dragging on the part of some top administrators. I went in to talk with George Garver about it. This was about 3 weeks before he was fired by the new, more conservative school board. George said, “You’re going to have to go to the board with it.” And I said, “George, you’re going back on everything that you’ve written. What’s the deal?” And he said, “Well, I’ve been catching flack because we’ve been dealing in controversial programs. We’ve been dealing in psychological testing, and we’ve been doing ‘experimenting’ on the kids. And all 3 are in your proposal. I just can’t approve it. I don’t have the authority.”

Well, in reality, George had had problems with the previous black/brown study. He didn’t like some of the conclusions. I sensed that that was his way of certainly acting out of his professional sensitivity at that point with that new school board. But I also felt that it was his way of getting back at some previous studies that he didn’t like the conclusions of.

Interviewer
0:03:23.9 What were some of the conclusions in not only the previous study but your study that you thought or suspected might have been offensive to him and the board?

Lawrence Spencer
We didn’t know what the present study was going to be because we hadn’t done the research. We didn’t know what students—1 of the things in the study that we were appealing to him to let us do in the schools—and testing—was to do a longitudinal study of the black/brown study so that we could look at how over a period of several years—several years later—how attitudes had changed. I think that’s what he reacted to—that tie in of the black/brown study. We didn’t know how the game would measure out. There may have been some hesitancy on his part—but in terms of how good an instrument it was and what it would do to kids in the schools—but we had had such close supervision before that that was minimal risk.

The black/brown study showed a lot of tension between blacks and browns. At that time it showed that the feelings of people in the black community and brown community were not for integrated schools but were for more desegregated schools, and we simply reported that. But he didn’t like that because it really undercut what he was trying to do and what was mandated by the courts. And I think it probably could have been written more tactfully. But that wasn’t part of my bag, and I felt like this was a new deal. So, he and I had a very lengthy conversation in his office about that.

Finally, I saw it wasn’t going to get anywhere and I said, fine. We’ll do it. We’ll go to the school board. And I went and had personal meetings with all but 1 member of the school board at that time. I simply laid it out for them. I was very candid about what we were measuring. I showed them the instruments. I showed them where it would be in their best behalf. I showed them where the pitfalls would be and was very, very open with them. I think that sort of approach won them over. They, too, were in need at that time—that school board was in need of some support from the minority communities and for some show pieces that they were concerned about what was going on because they had narrowly won the election—or had won the election narrowly in some places. The election had been pretty decisive against the incumbent board. They had won with the help of the black vote.

Well, we got a unanimous approval from that school board to do the testing and to do the piloting. It was in their self-interest to do that. We maximized that by the way in which we approached them, and it worked out. I think that there—I’ve had several people say to me that the current school board has a different view of reality than they do—as educators. And they have a different view of reality than I do in terms of what education should be about in some instances. But they’re people of—in most cases I think that they’re willing to listen to reason, and if you present it tactfully they’ll hear you. I think too often social-change groups like to rant and rave and raise hell, and all that does is end up offending people. But I think if approached right, there will be some reticence at some times, but I think people will tend to come through in terms of what you expect from them.

Interviewer
0:08:10.9 So the status of using the game now is just using it on other students in the school. Is it still in use in Houston schools?

Lawrence Spencer
In that we’re training teachers. We’re training community groups. Quinn Carey is now teaching a course at the University of Houston’s Sundry School, which is their free university. Teachers are also getting mini-university credit in HISD, which gives them release time or comp time for having attended these sessions. We’re implementing that right now.

Interviewer
In line with the race relations objective that you mentioned earlier, last week there was a release about the number of 1-race schools in Houston—something like 107 now as opposed to 88 two years ago—or last year—and then 100 in 1970. What’s your reaction to such a—the release of a report in line with the other game that was played?

Lawrence Spencer
I didn’t see that release. I’ve been out of town—up until last week—for both vacation and business in Alaska for a while. I did not see that release so I’m not—I can’t comment on that.

Interviewer
Basically, the point was that, in fact, 1-race schools had increased in the last couple of years.

Lawrence Spencer
I think that there are silly games that are being played with all this desegregation stuff. I think the guidelines say that you have to have 10% desegregation in any 1 school for it to be considered desegregated, and you need a certain percentage of the schools to be desegregated. People are playing games with minimums, and 1 of the things that we found in the study that we did related to GROB solved a question for me in terms of what we ought to be striving for in terms of desegregated schools.

0:10:54.6 One of the things we measured was group self-image—how a person feels about his own group as compared with how he feels about another group or how a girl feels about her group as compared with another group. And in what we found—it’s the first time that we’ve seen it documented anywhere, and it really surprised me. We hadn’t anticipated finding this in the study. What we found was that every ethnic group—both male and female—felt best about their own group and best about groups that differed from them in racially-balanced schools. And with a little bit of exception in terms of Mexican-Americans, there are some quirks about them as a group that’s a little bit different from blacks and Anglos—but there’s a very strong tendency for all 3 groups—black, white, and brown—to feel least good about themselves in racially-isolated situations.

What that implies—there isn’t a cause-and-effect relationship, but there is a very strong tendency that if I feel good about my group and my heritage that will affect a good self-image—individual self-image—that will very strongly influence that. And if I have a good self-image that will strongly influence my ability to succeed—and that means in school or at being a contributing citizen of society or whatever. So, if you make those assumptions and if you limit them to the tendencies and don’t say good group image causes a person to be a success—realize that we’re not saying that—but if you look at the tendencies and look at the statistical probability, if what we’re about is making kids good, contributing members of society, we damned sure better get on with the business of having kids in racially-balanced schools.

That solved the question for me which is present—the minority communities in Houston are split right down the middle in terms of wanting either racially-integrated schools or racially-isolated schools—all-black schools or integrated schools. And if the concerns are about the kid and about the future of the social structure, then we’d better get on with the business of integrating. And all this jazz about trying to get within the minimums of the courts and all of that isn’t going to get it. And I don’t think this school board or very many other school boards in the country are really tackling that big problem.

Interviewer
As a corollary of the study, have you looked at the test scores of the integrated versus the segregated schools to test your hypothesis about success?

Lawrence Spencer
0:14:15.0 No, we sure haven’t. That might be a good thing to followup.

Interviewer
Are there any other areas or programs that the council is directly involved in race relations in the community?

Lawrence Spencer
Oh, there are lots. You mean currently or in our history?

Interviewer
Currently.

Lawrence Spencer
In the not-too-distant past—within the past 6 months—we completed an intensive year of working with the League of Women Voters, Houston Urban League, and Houston Urban Bunch to stimulate a fair housing ordinance within city government. We got a very strong ordinance, and there’s now a fair housing administrator. That law tracks the federal regulations and puts control locally, and we’re very pleased about that.

We are currently—in fact, I just got through with a meeting this noon in which I got a firm agreement from the University of Houston to co-sponsor with us a massive equal employment opportunity conference that we’re going to have in probably early December or early January. We will bring together for the first time at least in this region—and perhaps for the first time in the country—all federal compliance agencies dealing in equal employment opportunity, and there are about 19 of them. We will have all or most of those here to conference to be held at the University of Houston. We will put them together with about 400 top management people from corporations and their staff people that are responsible for EEO guidelines. The purpose is to get 2 groups together that will mutually benefit each other. The feds are oftentimes concerned to have the first meeting with a company in an educational setting. They’re concerned about getting the regulations and standards out, and they don’t have enough personnel to get around and make personal calls on everybody, so it’s in their best interest to do it at a mass meeting and to let people know what the standards are before they come in for a compliance review.

0:16:53.9 Second, companies—some companies, of course, may have bigoted people that don’t want to comply. But I feel that most companies will want to comply with the law if they know what the regulations are and if they know that everybody’s being treated the same way. Oftentimes they don’t know what the regulations are or what new changes or new trends caused by recent litigation are all about, and so they’re reluctant to call in—like a banker may be reluctant to call the treasury, which is the compliance agency for banks, lest Joe Dokes at the Treasury Department says aha, maybe they haven’t been doing too good a job, and maybe we ought to pay them a visit. Or maybe even Joe Dokes may not have even thought of that bank and subconsciously think of them and then call in a compliance review.

What we want to do is to put them together in a neutral setting where the feds can say what they have to say, where the corporations can ask their questions, and it’s going to be a really first-class sort of conference. And again, we’re dealing with a big social system, and it’s going to benefit just a hell of a lot of people in Houston, be they minorities or be they women or be they handicapped or veterans. People are going to start being treated more fairly because people will know what the rules are for that fair treatment as mandated by the federal government.

Interviewer
Some other objectives of the council—we’ve mentioned employment and race relations. Are there other programs of interest?

Lawrence Spencer
We got involved with the community development application because—and we’ve also done some preliminary study in terms of charter revision—because we feel that both of these things in city government can tend to humanize and make more responsive to the people who are in need of services the source of government services that are there. I’m concerned that whether we be talking about governments, corporations, or non-profit institutions that we do a better job and focus on the people that really get the goodies—the folks out there that are citizens of Houston. I personally have been working—I’m currently president of the Harris County Conference of Agency Executives, which is made up of agency executives in Harris County. I’ve been trying to work with some people in that group so that hopefully there can be more cooperation—more working together so that there’s less overlap—so that we find what the real needs of people are and begin serving those real needs in whatever capacity. If it’s dealing in macro-systems like the council or if it’s dealing in direct services like the crisis hotline—that we deal with real needs and that people get services that they want. I think that oftentimes we go off on our own tangents and don’t do that.

Interviewer
0:20:44.1 You mentioned earlier that a lack of cooperation amongst some agencies in funding and how they would more or less say that if they were refused funds from 1 source that they would say that they could go to another source. Do you see the position of the council in negating that type of feeling amongst other agencies in the city? Or does the council have that close of working relationship with other agencies?

Lawrence Spencer
We try to maintain a close working relationship. I try to do that personally. It’s in my best interest, and I feel the need of support of other agencies. I feel I need to be supportive of what they’re doing. I have been very active in a number of coalitions around issues like the fair housing ordinance that I mentioned. I was involved with about 30 agencies in terms of getting some revenue-sharing money structured towards social services from the city government. There are a number of issues that come up where we coalesce with agencies, and we try to catalyze that. We try to stimulate and support it wherever we can. We’ve got a long, long way to go. A long way to go.

I’m very interested in something that’s happening currently. Two large corporations in the city have joined hands—corporations that give money to local agencies as part of their community involvement—as a part of maintaining good corporate citizenship. And they’re frustrated because they don’t know what the real needs are. It’s not their business to find out what people in Houston need. They just need to respond. But they need to have some criteria and mechanism by which they can make decisions on how to allocate their funds. They couldn’t get anybody to tell them. I shared with them our needs assessment after I found out that they had some needs in this area and had already embarked on a private study of their own. What these corporations did—they needed some criteria for their funding for giving away money and so they have hired somebody to do a needs assessment of Houston—paying bunches of money.

I think it could have been done—from what I’ve heard it may not be as thorough a job as they should have done, but it’s going to be really interesting when they begin setting criteria for their own expenditure of money. It’s going to be interesting how social service agencies respond in terms of the types of services that they start providing. Because what we saw back in late—I guess it was late ’72 or early ’73—there were some changes in both federal and state regulations regarding welfare money—Title 4A of the Social Security Act. Before that change, the focus in terms of welfare money was that it could be put in a community center and services could be given to a community regardless of financial need. With the tightening up of the federal belt what they did is to say that only people falling under certain poverty guidelines would be eligible for services provided with that money. And so, as that money was contracted through the states, to the cities, and to local community organizations to do programs for social services, the focus became not the geographic stabilization of a neighborhood but became dealing with poor people. And every social service agency in town went 180 degrees because that’s where the money was. It wasn’t where the need was necessarily.

0:25:26.4 What was needed was—and I feel like the prior regulations were much better where you try to stabilize a community and help the community marshal its resources to deal with its own problems and feed in some outside resources with 4A money and so forth. But build communities within the city—a great social theory, but when you take the funding away from it you don’t have the mechanism. And so once you start doing it again—start dealing just with poor folks and get them dependent on some government agency. Well, what happened in that whole process is that social service agencies went where the money is. I see some hope in the sort of study that these 2 big corporations are doing, and when it’s released—and if other corporations may start looking at those needs and channeling their resources according to those criteria—we might get the sort of stimulus to affect social change to meet the needs of Houstonians as Houstonians see them.

Interviewer
Could you give us the names of the corporations?

Lawrence Spencer
No, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.

Interviewer
I have a couple of other questions about past programs. Houstonians in Partnership—

Lawrence Spencer
Let me say that that information should be made public within the next couple of months. But I have to treat that confidentially because it was told to me confidentially.

Interviewer
The Houstonians in Partnership Program—is that still in operation?

Lawrence Spencer
0:25:26.4 No. HIP—Houstonians in Partnership—was formed by the council some years ago as sort of a neighborhood link up between resources in white suburbia and the inner city—more impoverished areas whether they be white, black, or brown—and for mutual sorts of aid and benefit. The benefit that the suburbanites got was kind of an increased awareness, an understanding that Houston is not just their sterile ghetto but that there’s a much broader understanding of life—or much broader aspects to life in our city. What the inner city residents got was some access to power that they hadn’t had before because people in a church out in southwest Houston or a Lions Club somewhere in the northeast part of the city or wherever—that group would call in behalf of a neighborhood and raise hell with some governmental official that was not cutting weeds or whatever needed to be done in that neighborhood. And they also helped the people in that neighborhood find the levers to getting things done themselves.

What happened to that program was much like what happens with a lot of council programs. We get something started and then spin it off. As we moved into more of a macro-system program and we dropped the sponsorship of Vista—which we had during the HIP program—gave us some community based, grass roots sorts of touch. Without that sort of staffing and with a different sort of approach growing out of our needs assessment, we spun HIP off to Houston Metropolitan Ministries for them to do it through their community organization.

Interviewer
What about the University of Thought?

Lawrence Spencer
Again, we sponsored the first free university in the city—the University of Thought—got it going and at 1 time had something like 3000 people enrolled in a number of courses. About a year and a half to 2 years ago, we spun that off to the University of Houston’s Sundry School where they pulled together the University of Thought and several other free universities that were going around Houston and put them all together in the Sundry School.

That’s pretty much been the council’s style. Because of our diversity in funding we can do some things that other people can’t do. We have not been concerned about building impacts but rather about kind of getting in where nobody’s there and starting something and then giving it to somebody else to run—like we sponsored the first Head Start program in the state of Texas and then spun it off. That’s pretty much—we did a study of housing conditions in Houston in 1968 that is still kind of the basic textbook and landmark study of housing conditions, and through that study we brought the Houston Housing Development Corporation into being, which sponsors and manages rent-subsidized and mortgage-subsidized housing for low-income people.

Interviewer
0:30:51.5 What was the title of that study?

Lawrence Spencer
I’ll have to get that for you. Let me get that for the exact title. But it was a study of housing conditions in Houston. I’ll see if I can get that.

Interviewer
We’ll let that ride for a minute and proceed with the body of the interview. On the housing, I think we pretty well concluded that except for the title that we need.

Lawrence Spencer
One other thing. I think there are a couple of other spinoffs that may be helpful that you weren’t aware of in that. That report was the basic thing that stimulated Houston’s housing code—establishing Houston Housing Development Corporation—and spinning off of the housing code was also pretty basic in terms of enabling the city to receive Model City funds. Without the code and without that study it would not have been possible.

The report was entitled ‘A Report on Housing for Low-Income Families,’ and it was published in April of 1967. Spinning off of that study was the establishment of a focus on housing in the mayor’s office, establishment of the Houston Housing Development Corporation—funded by private industry and foundations to sponsor low-income housing and rent-subsidized or mortgage-subsidized housing under some federal programs. Another direct spinoff was the enabling of a housing code in Houston; and with the housing code, the focus in the mayor’s office, and this study we were able to bring Model City funds into the city—the first time we received federal money. It had a lot of very significant spinoffs for the future of Houston’s social services.

Interviewer
Through the years, the council has been fortunate in gaining the support of important leaders in the community such as Leonel Castillo. Is he still with the council?

Lawrence Spencer
0:33:16.8 Yes, Leonel is still a member of the council. He, this last year, completed 6 years as a board member and had constitutionally elected to go off of the board. But in fact I just got a call from him this morning asking how he could be of help in terms of getting some changes implemented going out of the employment study. He’s still very much around. And that tends to be the case with people that have been connected with the council. Whether they’re currently on the board or currently in the membership, they tend to continue to be supportive.

Interviewer
How have other important community leaders contributed to the work of the council? If you had to name 3 or 4 crucial individuals in the community, who would you name?

Lawrence Spencer
I don’t know if I could limit it to 3 or 4.

Interviewer
All right.

Lawrence Spencer
Of course, right now 1 of the neatest people that we have going for us is Judge Andrew Jefferson, who is our president—our current president of the board. Jeff is just quite a man. He’s the highest-ranking black judge in the state—judge of the 208th District Criminal Court. He served on the constitutional revision commission of the state. He serves on all sorts of national and state advisory committees. And I’ve heard other agencies complaining that they haven’t been able to get to him because he’s so busy, but any time I call Jeff is there, and he gives of his time and counsel, and he is really committed to this organization. The employment study in government was basically his idea growing out of that study. It was 1 of his ideas of how we could kind of get a handle on some of the needs in the employment area.

He has been very instrumental in the negotiations for getting the housing code passed. It was just really deadlocked, and it looked like we might lose it at city council. Jeff got together with Jonathan Day—who’s the city attorney and was Fred Hofheinz’s campaign manager—got together Jonathan, the past, present, and future presidents of the Houston Bar Association, and me in his chambers that morning, and we talked about the importance of that housing code. They took it back to the Bar Association in an emergency meeting and decided not to act in support before that afternoon meeting of the council. But the presidents— the 3 presidents themselves went over, talked to city councilmen, and got the tide turned to get the ordinance passed. That sort of clout really makes a difference.

0:36:43.0 This November we’re presenting a first award of the—first Human Relations Award in the history of the council, and it’s going to Barbara Jordan. This is not to be released until about a month from today. This production is not. But Barbara will be the recipient and Leon Jaworski will be the speaker; and we’re negotiating with Ben Love, chairman of the board of Texas Commerce Bank, to chair the thing. It’s going to be a fundraising dinner and a big, big deal that he has personally been able to get the people involved to make the award and to pull the dinner together. That is reminiscent of some of the—a representative of some of the style that we have. Our staff works very hard here, But there’s only so much that staff can do, and we try to leverage the sort of influence and powering stroke that we have. And when it comes to making presentations, 1 person will do 2 years’ work of another. And my job is to make sure that the appropriate labor is returned.

Interviewer
I’d like to shift gears for a minute now from your interactions with other government agencies to your interactions with local churches. What kind of support do you get from various denominations in Houston?

Lawrence Spencer
We don’t get much support from the church sector. We have received support from 2 particular churches—Memorial Drive Presbyterian and Bellaire Christian—and then from time to time there have been other congregations involved. The Presbytery of Brazza, which is a regional church court over about a fifth of the state of Texas, provided the printing for 1 of our studies recently on employment. From time to time various churches get involved, but we have regular contributions from 2 congregations.

We also get support in terms of volunteer time and people taking on projects from certain congregations—Presbyterian, Baptist, Christian, Episcopal—whatever. We also do some things for churches like—there was a group of kids in a Presbyterian church in the Memorial area that wanted to kind of get into their own feelings about race relations and so forth, and we provided a weekend setting here at the council, gave them some training—gave the adult leaders some training in GROB—put them together with a black church—the Pilgrim United Congregational Church here—and the black leaders and white leaders and their kids came together and did the planning and put together a workshop that—they had a residential weekend here, played GROB, got to understand themselves and people that differed from them and made some plans for continued contact and exposure of other people. We do some of that direct-service sort of thing with churches, too.

Interviewer
0:40:39.6 I was wondering—as a byproduct of the council’s activities—not a goal but as a byproduct—do you feel that you might be encouraging an ecumenical spirit of drawing people together from different denominations?

Lawrence Spencer
I would hope so. One of my personal biases is that we’re living in a time when in order to survive we’re going to need to appreciate diversity, and we’re going to need to recognize our interdependence. I feel like anything that we can do to help people expand their consciousness and openness to people that are different from them cannot be threatened by change—to not be threatened by difference but to find that it could possibly be an enriching experience. That’s what I’m about, and that’s 1 of the reasons that I’m working here.

Interviewer
Some of the denominations in Houston and some of the independent churches are almost notoriously conservative in their social attitudes. Have you ever been criticized by any of these sects?

Lawrence Spencer
You bet, both from within my own denomination and from outside. The first time I had any exposure to kind of the furies that rage in Houston from time to time was back in about 1965, I think—or ’66—and I was asked to do a devotional at Aldine High School. They had a Christian student union. It was a big club of about 300 kids. One of my elders in that church was the head of the science department at the high school, and he said that basically 10% of those kids went there for religious reasons—out of some religious zeal—and that the rest went there because it was a neat place to hold hands with their boyfriend or girlfriend rather than to sit in homeroom.

I always tried to do something that was real and sort of meaningful to me and I felt would be to them, and our denomination had just come out with a booklet called ‘Towards Understanding Sex.’ It was a very straightforward book. It put sexuality in not a legalistic mode of you can do things and can’t do certain things, but it put it in a relational mode of what’s important in terms of our denomination’s viewpoint—the way in which people treat each other and that there were certain reasons or in certain circumstances that it wasn’t appropriate to have sexual relations before marriage; and likewise, there were other situations in which it might be okay, but that was pretty much up to the individual. And also that there were certainly—just because you were married didn’t mean that every way in which you had sexual relationships was okay. That there were—it was degrading to use another person sexually within marriage just as it was outside.

0:44:19.9 I made my talk to the Aldine High School Christian Student Union on the Christian understanding of sexuality and used much of the data from there. Two days later I was on the front page of the Post and the Chronicle as being this radical minister advocating free sex and nickel beer and all of this. The fury was raised and there were people that—when they understood what was said and saw the text of what I had said—were shocked and some that weren’t. I think that part of the mindset of fundamentalism and religious conservatism is that you block out things that have to do with the physical here and now and with emotions. That’s a part of a heresy that what the church—Christian tradition, Catholic and Protestant—has called a heresy since the first century of Gnostic heresy that says that part of the created order is good—and that’s kind of the spiritual side—and part of the created order that has to do with physical things and emotions and earthy sorts of stuff is bad, and that’s not at all what the New Testament or Old Testament say either 1. They say that it’s all a part of God’s creation and is all very good. People that still have that kind of feeling—that sort of feeling still pervades. It didn’t die out in the first century. It’s here now, and you find it especially in isolated, somewhat primitive, frontier societies where you—I’m not sure why. I’m really not sure why it survives there. It’s kind of like—it does.

Interviewer
Let me ask this. If you had given that little talk today would it have made front page?

Lawrence Spencer
No. After that—to the best of my knowledge before that happened, there was nothing in the papers about sex education in Houston. And immediately after that the papers started carrying a lot in the papers about sex education.

Interviewer
Good copy.

Lawrence Spencer
Good copy. Yeah. But somebody needed to break the barrier, and I certainly didn’t do the talk to break the barrier, to make any press, but it was just a matter of time. There is a lot of conservatism—religious conservatism—in Houston, and I sense a new wave hitting. I think it’s part of what’s happening to the culture generally, and I think it’s a part of a wave that happens after every major social upheaval. We’ve been through the ‘60s of urban upheaval. We’ve been through the ‘60s and early ‘70s of getting on, and you know, folks are tired. You see it in terms of their sitting back and not wanting to get involved in volunteer agencies like the council, the Red Cross, or like all sorts of things. You also see it in terms of their values in all sorts of areas—a sort of retrenching—and 1 of those areas of retrenchment is the church, which deals in overt value statement.

Interviewer
0:48:22.3 You use the word ‘tired.’ Would you go so far as to say also disillusioned?

Lawrence Spencer
Yeah. There are a lot of people that are disillusioned that I see. But I’m not so sure that what’s happening now is disillusionment. I sensed the same thing happened in the ‘50s after World War II—in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. There was a huge increase in church membership across the country. There was a huge focusing in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s on more religiously conservative—or fundamentally. I don’t like the conservative bit because there are not that many things I feel we need to conserve, and we need to deal with basic values; but the basic values I’m talking about are different from what maybe a fundamentalist might be talking about. I feel like there’s a retrenchment, and I think that that’s just a function of when there’s been a lot of social energy expended and a lot of chaos that society needs to sit back and sort of take it easy. And I don’t like that, but I think that’s just a function of what takes place.

Interviewer
This kind of goes along with what was just said about the relationship of religion to social causes, so to speak. You along with 2 other ministers visited Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

Lawrence Spencer
You’ve done some good research.

Interviewer
And then you came back and there was a group meeting on the front steps of City Hall, and in your speech you stated that the cause of Selma was the cause of all people. It is your cause and my cause. How did you become interested in the Selma situation?

 

Lawrence Spencer
0:50:26.6 Well, I saw what took place on TV with the chasing the people back with whips, tear gas, horses, dogs, and so forth at Selma. And I was just personally shocked. I felt that that’s not right. Again, I had—it was a very personal thing that I did in going there. It wasn’t a great big cause that I was out for. I really wasn’t concerned about publicity at that time of any sort. I just personally was affected by what I saw on TV and by the newspaper accounts. I felt that if it can happen to those folks it can happen to me and it can happen to my family. And that they need some support. They need to know that people care.

I talked it over with my wife and some friends and just decided very quickly to go. I had never been so scared in all my life as I was when I was there. It was really kind of a major fencepost experience. I’ve never seen such hatred on people’s faces as was on the faces of the whites that were in the lobbies of the airport. As soon as I got off the plane—I didn’t know that there were a whole bunch of other people going. I knew that there were people there demonstrating from outside of Selma but I felt like—I was kind of surprised to see what had happened. I was going to rent a car and drive over. Well, the car rental companies wouldn’t rent to you, and they had shuttle buses that the churches and some of the people at Selma provided.

As soon as I got off the plane, I was very aware that there were 2 or 3 really surly-looking characters in the lobby, and they were watching everybody and then running over to the telephone and telephoning. And on the bus going over—this little Volkswagen bus—there were like 6 or 8 of us in the bus and from all parts of the country. They had some ministers coming up and getting us off the planes, and they were standing around and when they sensed that we were there to go to Selma—they were there to coordinate and get people over. There was a very uneasy feeling. We were all talking and making light conversation, but I sensed all of us were a little bit uptight about what was taking place because there were cars parked along the road between Montgomery and Selma, and it was a very scary thing.

The whole compound where the demonstration was taking place was encircled by about 60 cars—police cars from the state and city and so forth. Just before I—I guess the night before I got there, the minister was killed for going outside that compound. It was a scary time. I was only there for I guess 2, 2-1/2 days and came back, and I was met at the plane by my wife and by a friend who was from Mississippi. We took her home, and walking back to the car I was smiling, and she said, “What are you smiling about?” And I said, “You just don’t know how good it is to be able to go get in the car and not have to be afraid.”

Everybody there was very, very much together—inside the demonstration area—and people were concerned about each other. There was a kid that had an epileptic seizure in the midst of being outside in front of the police and just singing the freedom songs and so forth—and we took him home and waded through mud in the streets that was up to my knees, got him with his mother, and he was okay after that. But there were a lot of very, very personal things that happened in that time. That’s been a long answer to your question, but it was a personal statement that I made.

Interviewer
0:55:52.2 How did your congregation react to your personal involvement in Selma?

Lawrence Spencer
Very supportively. And I think that says a lot for them because a lot of them in that congregation had grown up in east Texas and had a lot of racial bias. But they sensed what I was about. I shared with them what happened. We had a special meeting and they asked questions. They were supportive. And I think that points up that a lot of what happens in terms of social attitude and social change has to do with certainly what’s being said, but to a great number of people it’s how it’s said and how they interpret what’s being said and whether they feel like you’re really there to tear them down or to build somebody else up. And there are always people that are just no-good sons of bitches. There are those sorts of folks around, and they need to be dealt with as they are, and they need to be said—you know, we live in a country that constitutionally protects the right of every citizen, and you’re not going to get in the way of that happening. And I had said that from time to time. Whatever we have to do within the law and within just and equitable sorts of processes we’re going to do to make sure that people are treated fairly. But I don’t think that that has to be stated so strongly to most people whether they be politically conservative or politically liberal. I feel like if you give a person a chance and help them overcome some of their fears that they’ll respond positively. But I tend to be pretty optimistic about a lot of things, and I’ve got a lot of colleagues that are pretty cynical about those sorts of things.

Interviewer
The other day I saw an interesting bit of graffiti. It said the ‘60s will be back. Do you agree?

Lawrence Spencer
Certainly.

Interviewer
And do you think that the council will play an even more important role when they come around again?

Lawrence Spencer
0:58:28.7 I don’t know that the ‘60s—well, yeah, I imagine the ‘60s will be back in terms of racial upheaval. I don’t know. I tend to see history as kind of an undulating thing. I think we go through times of involvement and striving forward and then kind of retreating back. I really haven’t given much thought to what that next wave is going to be about, but I’m not so sure it’ll be fought over the same issues.

I think that there may be—there’s a much more basic issue that most people haven’t dealt with than the racial or the religious bigotry between Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and atheists and the whole bit. I think the most basic thing is an economic thing. There’s just as much diversity in the black community in terms of values as there is within the white. You get elitist organizations in the black community. You get middle class organizations, and you get very low-income, radical groups. And you have the same thing in the Mexican-American community and the same thing in the white community.

For example, there is—or at least in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s—there was as much animosity on the part of the young, black, militant groups toward the affluent blacks that had victimized their people as there was in terms of black groups on the whole toward white groups. I think that there will be a day soon—within the next 25 years—in which we will be much more able to deal with people not in terms of color difference but I think that that socioeconomic difference is still going to be there, and that’s going to be the real toughie.
I don’t think that we’re on the verge of any Communist revolution—that sort of thing. But I think that there’s going to be the socioeconomic crunch, and I think that there’s—we’re also going to be forced—just because of low resources—to deal with the problems of emerging nations and how much resources we have in this country to use and how that stacks over against the third world; and I think this thing of interdependence is going to become much more of a conscious thing, and there’s going to have to be a lot of realignment of thinking on the part of people in this country for us to survive. I don’t know how that says the council is going to fit into the next series of ‘60s, but yeah, I think that there will be social upheaval in the future, and I’m sure we’ll fit in somewhere.

Interviewer
Are there any other areas that I have not asked questions about or touched upon that you would like to make some comment on?

Lawrence Spencer
Yeah. I’d like to make a couple of comments—they’re just sort of a random collage of things. I just got back from 3 weeks in Alaska, and 1 of those weeks I spent kayaking in Glacier Bay, which is our largest national monument. And the cruise ship took us up and dropped us off, and we kayaked back for about 55 miles. Something happened to me there that I think really helped me gain perspective on what happened in the cities. It also kind of reaffirmed some of the optimism that I mentioned before.

1:03:25.2 Where the cruise ship drops you is up at Muir and Riggs Glacier, and it’s just gigantic, barren mountains where the glaciers recently receded. The glaciers receded about 60 miles in 200 years. There is no life—absolutely barren, raw, grey rock that is kind of moon-like eerie. Within a very short distance of the glacier there’s some fire weeds that start, and these are weeds that come up—bright weeds that come up after a fire—the first sort of vegetation. And as you go the 60 miles back to the Glacier Bay Inn, there’s an evolution in what takes place. Until you get back about half way, there are these lush, very dense fir forests—spruce forests—and gorgeous mountains and all sorts of wildlife and bear and seals and all sorts of things. That trip kind of put in perspective for me that the earth—there is a fragile balance in nature, but the earth is able to recoup itself. If anything as destructive as a glacier—which is just awesome in its force.

I’ll give you an example. A piece of the glacier broke off in 1 bay in 1954. The bay was about a mile-and-a-half wide and about 2 miles long, and it created a wave 1700 feet high. That’s like 3 times as high—over 3 times as high as the Exxon Building or as 1 Shell Plaza. A couple of guys survived that. They were in a fishing boat and got washed out of the thing. But that’s almost beyond comprehension, and if those sorts of forces can be recouped—if the earth can recoup itself I think we, too, can recoup after some of these things that happened in the ‘60s—after some of the things that are going to continue to happen and after there is major social upheaval.

It tended to reaffirm my optimistic feel about the long term. The short term—people get bound up, people get hurt, and what we’re about here is trying to keep that at a minimum—and also trying to change the structure so that there isn’t as much destruction in the long term.

1:06:28.7 Comment 2. I think that I have an observation about what took place in recent political change within Houston that I don’t know as other people share—that Louie Welch was mayor for what—about 10 years. When he came on board as mayor, I really wasn’t involved much in stuff political. But from my observations, Houston was sort of an overgrown small town. It had a main street and 2 side streets and didn’t have much in terms of cultural affairs here, and the Astrodome had not been built. All sorts of things were in their infancy. The space complex down at NASA was brand new. We didn’t have the new airport. We didn’t have about half the buildings that we have downtown now.

Louie Welch was able to manage city government on a very personal sort of managerial style. All the department heads—22 department heads reported to him. He was able to make decisions personally. He grew with the city. He’s a man that—I don’t always agree with his perceptions of things and oftentimes stand over against them. But I have a great deal of respect for his ability, for his sensitivity, and for the way in which he managed things politically. At the end of that time—when he went out of office and Fred Hofheinz took over as mayor—I feel that nobody else will ever again be able to do what Louie Welch did in terms of managerial style of the city; because though Louie had grown with the city, nobody else could come in and have the sort of perspective that he did when it was a small town. No one can know it as completely. And I think what Hofheinz has done is to try to bring much more cosmopolitan, much more sophisticated managerial style to city government. I think that he’s made some—perhaps his staff has made some political misjudgments and has not kept him as open as he could have been to political responsiveness. For example, the president of a large organization that’s well known here—I can’t mention—said to me, “We enabled a lot of groups to hear Fred during his campaign. At least Louie Welch answered my phone calls.” And there’s a difficulty in breaking through the organization to get to Fred. We haven’t had trouble and he’s been very responsive to the council.

1:09:54.3 (end of audio 2)