Civil rights activist John R. Salter Jr., who later changed his name to Hunter Gray, lived and worked in Jackson from 1961 to 1963. A professor at Tougaloo College, author of an important book about the Jackson movement, and an organizer before, during, and after his time in Mississippi, Salter is likely best known for his participation in the 1963 Woolworth’s sit-in and as one of the subjects of the most famous photograph of that event.
Salter was born in Chicago on 14 February 1934. His grandfather, Massachusetts native William “Mack” Salter, was active in the Indian Rights Association and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mack and Mary Gibbens Salter adopted Frank Gray, a Wabanaki Indian and the father of John Salter. Growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, John Salter was troubled from an early age by discrimination against both Native Americans and African Americans. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from Arizona State University, and worked with union organizers in the West and Midwest. After teaching for a year in Wisconsin, he and his wife, Eldri, were inspired by the Freedom Rides to move to Jackson, where John Salter took a teaching position at Tougaloo College. He became involved with the civil rights work almost immediately after arriving in Mississippi, accepting an invitation from Colia Liddell to work with the NAACP’s youth groups, coming into contact with Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry, and working with students and others at Tougaloo. In the fall of 1962 he helped organize a boycott of Capitol Street businesses, with activists demanding that stores institute equal hiring practices, use courtesy titles for African American shoppers, and do away with segregated seating and restrooms. Salter was arrested while picketing in December.
On 28 May 1963 a small group of students planned a sit-in to protest the whites-only policy of the lunch counter at Woolworth’s on Capitol Street. Salter and other faculty members went to watch, but Salter decided to join in the protest. Jackson police did not arrest the activists but instead allowed a group of white men to harass them, eventually beating some and trying to humiliate them. As participant Ed King wrote, crowd members “seized the closest instruments at hand—plastic, ugly yellow jars of mustard and squirted this all over Salter and the students. Next ketchup, then spray paint, then more lethal weapons of glass ash trays and sugar jars—and soon there was blood mixed in the mustard—and more blood.” Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell took a picture of Anne Moody, Joan Trumpauer, and Salter covered in food and surrounded by the angry mob.
Salter worked in Jackson through the summer, took part in the public march after the assassination of Medgar Evers in June 1963, and was the subject of a lawsuit, City of Jackson v. John R. Salter Jr., that sought to prevent activists from picketing or organizing. In addition to his arrest, Salter faced gunshots and was injured in an automobile wreck that he believed resulted from sabotage. Later in 1963 he and his family moved to North Carolina, where he worked for the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Salter moved to Chicago in 1969 and later to the Northwest, continuing his civil rights activity. In 1979 Salter published Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, a thorough account of his work in Jackson. He later changed his name to Hunter Gray to honor his father’s original name.
- Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1970)
- M. J. O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired (2013)
- John R. Salter Jr., Jackson, Mississippi, An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1987, 2011)
- Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website, www.crmvet.org