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John Hunter Gray, Of Mississippi Lunch Counter Sit-In, Dies At 84


The photo is one of the icons of the 1960s civil rights struggles in Jackson, Miss. - two women and a man sitting at a lunch counter while hatred and condiments pour over them. The man in that photo, John Gray, died on Monday. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: He began life as John Salter Jr.


JOHN GRAY: I started out in a tough northern Arizona town with an Indian father and a white mother. The town was tough, the setting was tough, and the times were tough. And I went on from there.

BATES: That's John Gray talking to Studio One at the University of North Dakota in 1994. His father was a Native American who was adopted by the Salter family as a small child. John Salter Jr. grew up aware of social injustice. He saw it up close with Native Americans and Mexican Americans in his hometown of Flagstaff. He earned two degrees at Arizona State University, worked for several years as a labor organizer in the Southwest, then taught sociology.

Salter and his wife Eldri made the decision to travel south from the Midwest. He taught sociology at Tougaloo, a historically black college in Mississippi. While there, he worked closely with the NAACP's Medgar Evers. In the early '60s, black and white college students sat at lunch counters to protest stores no-Negroes-served policies. When his students were set upon by furious segregationists after they sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Salter joined them.


GRAY: My students were attacked. I felt that the only place for me to be was with my students.

BATES: Salter's son Peter, a newspaper reporter in Lincoln, Neb., says his father appreciated that infamous photo.

PETER SALTER: He used it on the cover of his book because it conveyed worldwide just the brutality and the hatred of Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s.

BATES: John Salter Jr. worked in a number of civil and human rights organizations and taught in several universities around the country. He was a widely popular professor, whether the classes were sociology, social justice or extraterrestrial life. Yes, Professor Salter believed we are not alone. Later in life, after his father retired, Peter Salter says his father changed his name.

GRAY: He felt the need to return the family name to us, and so he changed his name to John Gray.

BATES: John Gray died on Monday at his home in Pocatello, Idaho. At his request, his ashes will be scattered in Arizona later this year. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.