Working for Equity

Joining the SDA and "Standing In" for Civil Rights

When it came time for college, Carolyn Wilkins-Santos at first favored attending Fisk University, a historically Black institution in Tennessee. But her grandfather, Moses Leroy, helped convince her to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin which, in 1959 following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, was in its third year of racial integration for undergraduates.

One of Leroy’s good friends, Heman Sweatt, was a trail blazer who had already won a Supreme Court case, Sweatt v. Painter, that admitted him into the University of Texas Law School, in a Texas forerunner to the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas. It was everyone’s duty to advance racial equality, Leroy held, and his granddaughter could best do that by attending the University of Texas.

At the University of Texas, Wilkins-Santos had her first significant interaction with whites. Classes were racially mixed, she recalled, although residences were not. She became active in an interracial organization, Students for Direct Action (SDA), where she became good friends with some white students.

SDA staged many demonstrations against segregation in Austin businesses “on the Drag” near the UT campus. Black and white students, for example, would hold “stand-ins” in movie theater ticket lines and demand equal service. Wilkins-Santos and her SDA fellows were on the cutting edge of civil rights protest, as “sit-ins” by young civil rights activists at lunch counters and other public accommodations swept across America in the early 1960s.

SDA even hosted Martin Luther King Jr. on campus, where he spoke to a crowd of about 1,200 students in 1962 – an occasion that Wilkins-Santos recalled as particularly memorable.

After majoring in music at UT, Wilkins-Santos taught music in public schools – in Houston, then in California. She went on to earn her master's degree in cultural pluralism at Stanford University. Arguably, this is when her true educational vocation began. After graduate studies, Wilkins-Santos taught at Santa Clara University and directed its Race Desegregation Training Institute. Then she left academia for a few years to work for Xerox Corp.

This story is told in four parts:

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