LAWS, CLARENCE ALVERT
LAWS, CLARENCE ALVERT (1907–1995). A major figure in the civil rights movement, Clarence A. Laws, known to many in Dallas, Texas, as “Mr. Civil Rights,” was born on March 23, 1907, in Opelousas, Louisiana, to H. V. (Halvin) and Eugenia Laws. H. V. and his wife Eugenia both worked as cooks but managed to help their oldest child, Clarence, earn a bachelor’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1932. Laws likely involved himself in civil rights issues around Louisiana after graduating. He married in 1938, although the union did not last, and no children came from it. Laws joined the United States Army in 1943. His enlistment record identified him as a college graduate and listed his civilian occupation as a “social and welfare worker.” Laws spent ten years in the military, serving in World War II and the Korean War, and earned a Bronze Star in 1945. He rose through the ranks of enlisted men to become an officer, leaving the service as a major in 1953.
Upon exiting the army, Laws went to work for the New Orleans Urban League and quickly became the organization’s executive secretary. In 1955 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked Laws to become their field director for the Southwest Region, and he moved to Dallas. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), white Dallas was uncomfortably coming to grips with its own segregation issues. Led by black attorneys like U. Simpson Tate, Thurgood Marshall, C. B. Bunkley, and William J. Durham, as well as leaders and organizers like Laws, the NAACP and related groups were pressing desegregation and equal rights in Dallas, in Texas, and throughout the South. By 1957 Little Rock was ground zero in the desegregation war. The NAACP sent Laws there after the Little Rock city council enacted an ordinance requiring certain organizations to open their confidential files. Primarily directed at the Arkansas NAACP, the ordinance led to the arrest of Mrs. L. C. “Daisy” Bates, the group’s president, when she refused to comply. Laws spoke for the local leaders and the NAACP that sent additional support for Bates. Lawyers immediately petitioned the Little Rock Federal District Court for a restraining order against the ordinance. Back in Texas, Laws faced mounting obstacles. Governor Alan Shivers was decidedly against integration. The state tried to have the NAACP banned as a foreign corporation in Texas. Lawsuits mounted with Laws nearly always one of the chief correspondents in the suit.
Laws served with the NAACP for ten years, a time about which he said, “There was nothing more important than implementing equal opportunities for blacks in all aspects of American life.” During this period, Laws served on several presidential commissions and testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He served on the planning committee and was the parade marshal for Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington and a point man during the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. Laws left the NAACP in 1965 to become deputy director of the civil rights department at the Dallas regional office of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). He was the first black administrator of the Dallas office. He received the Father John La-Farge Award from the Dallas chapter of the National Conference for Interracial Justice in 1969. Laws retired from HEW in 1978.
Laws married another civil rights activist, Ann Louise Parnell German (1921–2008), a widow who had children from her previous marriage. His wife, who had been a teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School, also worked for the local NAACP. The Laws attended St. Rita Catholic Church.
Clarence Laws sold real estate after leaving HEW. His was a well-known face, once appearing as a lucky $50 winner in an ad for the lottery. He continued his long involvement with school desegregation in Dallas. Laws chaired the Tri-Ethnic Commission, a court-appointed watchdog over Dallas school integration. On the occasion of the nation’s first observation of Martin Luther King Day, Laws implied that the work for people like him was not complete. “The failure of blacks,” Laws told a Dallas Morning News reporter in 1986, “to stand tall and ask without equivocation that everyone be treated on an equal basis has been one of the greatest handicaps to blacks in Dallas.” In a later joint interview with his wife, the Laws expressed a compelling need to remind younger blacks of the role groups like the NAACP played in places like Dallas. “A lot of younger people don’t know the local organization’s [the NAACP] history,” Mrs. Laws offered, lamentably.
Clarence A. Laws died of kidney failure at his Dallas home on March 15, 1995. Obituaries marking his death at eighty-seven called him “instrumental” to the civil rights movement. He was survived by his wife, a son, and two daughters. His wife died of cancer on February 6, 2008. She, too, received citation for her dedication to the civil rights movement and her devotion to education.
L. A. Bedford, Interview by John Bodnar [transcript], Dallas, March 28, 1977, North Texas State University [University of North Texas], Oral History Collection, Number 361. Dallas Morning News, January 19, 1986; March 17, 1991; March 17, 1995; February 12, 2008.
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