Testing Inequality

A part of bringing about peace in our world involves working to see that all people are treated fairly, regardless of their race, religion, national origin, sex, or sexual preference. With this thought in mind, back in the spring of 1963 I agreed to be a ‘tester’. You may be wondering what being a tester involves. Let me explain.

In that year Thomas Singer, a fellow church member and chairman of the mayor’s civil rights committee, asked me to go down to Slenderform Health Spa on South Michigan Street to inquire about membership. Many Blacks tried to join and were quoted exorbitant prices. So I, a White person, would go inquire; I would then be followed by an Black man. In this way we could compare what each would be charged.

So one Saturday afternoon I drove down. I was given a tour and offered a life membership at a fairly reasonable rate. While in their office an employee came in who seemed quite perturbed. I guessed what the trouble was: a Black man had just come in. He also wanted a tour and to be quoted a membership price. Of course this was before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that made such discrimination clearly illegal. As you might expect, Alonzo Watson (the Black man who followed me into Slenderform) was quoted a membership fee much higher than I was.

Mr. Singer documented several similar cases. He then filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The Commission had already received many such complaints from throughout the state and had always been able to resolve matters through negotiations…but not with Slenderform! They didn’t want to negotiate.

The first time the Commission came up to South Bend to hear testimony, I was subpoenaed. My employer excused me for the day, and I reported to a downtown courtroom in the old city hall. Along with many others, both Black and White, I was sworn in and told the Commission what my experience had been down at Slenderform. The Slenderform employees pleaded the Fifth Amendment. So as you might expect, the Commission ruled against Slenderform.

During these years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many protests and demonstrations were taking place around the country. Most people are familiar with the lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom rides. I like to think of our efforts here in South Bend against a health spa as part of this vast momentum across the land that finally led to the passage of these historic pieces of legislation and to a country that was more equitable for all.

by Dale Gibson