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Activist from lunch counter protest photo dies at 84

John Hunter Gray worked closely with Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Joan Trumpauer, John Salter, Anne Moody
Civil rights activists, from left, John Salter, Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody, stage a sit-in demonstration at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 28, 1963.Fred Blackwell / Jackson Daily News via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — A community organizer shown in an iconic photograph while challenging racial segregation at a Mississippi lunch counter in the 1960s has died at his home in Pocatello, Idaho.

Known by his birth name John Salter Jr. when he worked at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi, he later changed his name to John Hunter Gray to honor the Native American part of his ancestry. He sometimes went by the nickname Hunter Bear Gray.

Relatives say he was 84 when he died Monday after an illness.

Salter was a sociology teacher and NAACP youth adviser in Mississippi in the early 1960s, working closely with Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

In May 1963, Salter joined black and white Tougaloo students during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth’s store in downtown Jackson. A mob of young white people doused them with sugar, mustard and ketchup and attacked Salter with brass knuckles and broken glass.

The taunting crowd and the peaceful protesters were captured in a black-and-white photograph that gained international attention.

“I was burned with cigarettes, hit and had pepper thrown in my eyes,” Salter, by then known as Gray, wrote in an article published in The Guardian in 2015. “The women weren’t struck, but had their hair pulled. All the while the air was filled with obscenities, the n-word — it was a lavish display of unbridled hatred.”

The two young women in the photo with Salter were an African-American student named Anne Moody, who later wrote a memoir called “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” and who died in 2015; and a white Tougaloo student named Joan Trumpauer, who is now named Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Salter taught young people they could take action to challenge injustice.

“I think he inspired a lot of students to realize what we could do to make the world better,” Mulholland said.

Like many civil rights activists in the 1960s, Salter was monitored by people working for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded spy agency that sought to preserve segregation. Mulholland was also watched by the commission.

“It was an absolute given,” she said.

Salter grew up in Arizona and worked as a labor union organizer in the U.S. Southwest before moving to Mississippi, said one of his sons, John Salter of Lincoln, Nebraska.

After working in Mississippi, the elder Salter worked on voting rights in North Carolina, taught in Iowa, did human rights work for Native Americans in New York and Chicago and taught American Indian studies in North Dakota.

“He never considered himself a career professor,” his son said Thursday. “His real love was the stuff he did outside the classroom.”

John Salter said his father lived by a favorite phrase from the Industrial Workers of the World labor union: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Michael O’Brien interviewed John Salter Jr. for his book “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired.”

“John was a true ‘radical’ in the very best sense of that word,” O’Brien said in a statement Thursday. “He was a fierce advocate for those without a voice, or perhaps better stated, for those who had not yet discovered their voice. ... John’s charismatic blend of political activism and can-do philosophy empowered thousands to begin advocating for their rights and their freedoms.

“In my mind, he was a ‘great soul’ who felt deeply the suffering of others and who turned that empathy into action,” O’Brien said.

Gray is survived by two sons and two daughters. His wife of more than 50 years, Eldri Salter, died in 2015. A memorial service will be organized later.