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Ernest McMillan Continues His Life Long Fight

He joined the civil rights movement in the '50s. Now he's found his next big project: environmental justice in Dallas.
Owen Jones
It’s March 23, and Ernest McMillan is in an empty church gym in Far East Dallas. It’s barely big enough for a good half-court game, mostly a place to store mismatched stacks of chairs. How many times has Ernest been in a room like this? Hundreds? It has to be in the thousands now, after almost 60 years. These are the places where the hard work of community organizing happens, and even though it is a relatively new battleground for Ernest—environmental justice—he knows how to do that. So he’s here, even when most people wouldn’t be.

When would you have stopped? When you came home from Georgia and Alabama in the ’60s with post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms because you half-expected to disappear every day for two years, to wind up at the end of a rope or buried in an earthen dam? When you couldn’t leave your mother’s house, couldn’t even get out of bed, for three months? When you were forced to run to Canada, then France, then various African countries, then Cincinnati, of all places? When you lost three years of your life to prison, all over a broken bottle of milk, just because you wanted something better for your people?

Even now, at “nearly three-quarters of a century,” as he puts it, Ernest has not stopped. His hair, once a storm cloud hovering above his head, has retreated to a horizon closer to his ears, but his face is mostly unlined and he’s trim in a gray t-shirt and black cargo pants. He still has the same energy. He has set up a carafe of coffee on one table and a box of doughnuts on another, and between them are copies of the agenda for this morning’s meeting of the Dallas Environmental Justice Network and a neat stack of handouts that explain the four roles of social change—helper, advocate, change agent, rebel.

But maybe Ernest should give the people who show up this morning—young activists like Temeckia Derrough from Joppa—a copy of his story instead. Because he has played all those roles at some point over the past six decades. He’s seen how things have changed and how they haven’t, and that’s why he is still putting in the work.

Helper, advocate, change agent, rebel: McMillan has played every role in the fight for social change during his six decades of involvement, beginning with “stand-ins” at segregated theaters in downtown Dallas in the 1950s.

“He is a very skilled facilitator of conversation,” says Bill Holston, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. “How Ernest calls people to dialogue and collaboration are skills he learned the hard way in the hardest days of civil rights activism. I respect him completely. We are fortunate that he has not hung up his activist label. We need him more than ever.”

When would you have stopped? When you found out they replaced heaven?

When Ernest finally came back to Dallas, in 2007, after almost 30 years away, he wanted to live in his old neighborhood. But it was gone, mostly, and what was left was no longer affordable. The former freedman’s town in what used to be called North Dallas, where his grandfather built one of the first black hospitals in the city, where his grandparents lived in a big house on State Street, long ago disappeared into Uptown.

“One of the first gentrified neighborhoods in Dallas,” Ernest says, smiling but not really happily. It’s a couple of months before the Environmental Justice Network meeting, and he’s at the corner of a long table in another room with stacks of mismatched chairs. This one is on the top floor of the Sammons Center for the Arts, where Cara Mía Theatre is headquartered. He has worked for the company since 2016.

“It’s kind of painful because I have to drive through there every day.” He lives, begrudgingly, in an apartment complex off of Garland Road now, and his commute to work at Cara Mía cuts right through the vibrant community that had everything you could want within a 1-mile radius: theaters, libraries, businesses, hotels, nightclubs, and every class of people, from working class to intellectuals.

Growing up in the 1950s, Ernest was nurtured by the energy and spirit of his neighborhood, and he was protected by its borders. It wasn’t until he was 12 or 13 that he learned it was different outside, that he couldn’t drink from certain water fountains, try on certain clothes, attend shows at certain theaters, just be himself in certain places.

“You weren’t separate from the world anymore,” he says of his first forays into other parts of Dallas. The world that he was no longer separate from tended to pound away at his humanity every chance it could, whether it was Negro Achievement Day at the State Fair or the hundreds of tinier slights a young man like Ernest would have to endure on a daily basis.

It didn’t keep him away. He didn’t come from a family like that. His mother, Eva, had been active in electoral politics, he says, since she was a teenager, and his uncle A.C. helped found the Dallas Progressive Voters League. Following their example, Ernest entered this new world fully, joining the NAACP Youth Council, under the leadership of legendary civil rights activist Juanita Craft, and participating in what the group called “stand-ins” at places like the segregated Majestic Theatre.

On Sunday afternoons, after church, boys would come in their suits and ties, girls in their nice dresses and patent leather shoes, and they would line up in front of the window of the Majestic’s ticket booth. They had access only to the balcony, so if they tried to buy a ticket downstairs, where the whites were sitting, they would be denied. So they made the policy fight itself. “We—very orderly—would go to the ticket counter, ask for a ticket, we would be politely refused, we would go back to the end of the line, and keep it going for two or three hours every Sunday,” Ernest says. “And this was going on at other places in other ways, too.”

“I am in heaven in a sense,” Ernest says, “meeting people who had witnessed it and could share their lessons and stories.”

But though he had gotten involved, he was on a different path then. Young Ernest dreamed of a career in the military and was a colonel in the ROTC at Booker T. Washington High School.
Then he was invited to participate in a National Science Foundation program at Prairie View A&M University over the summer. There Ernest was challenged to question things, to use science as a way of looking at the world, analyzing it, systematically breaking it down. At Prairie View, he studied the work of scientists like Niels Bohr, a founder of quantum mechanics, and Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who created the first nuclear reactor. He learned energy is indestructible, that matter just changes form.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. Ernest was a good student at Booker T., president of the National Honor Society, but he had grown up in the Methodist church, with a father, Marion, a pastor at St. Luke’s, who had a different view of science. He told his son, for example, not to worry about tornadoes coming at night. Just go to sleep. “And then to realize that tornadoes come at night. Said, ‘Daddy, you lied to me.’ ” He laughs.

When he came back to Dallas, he found a new group of teachers at Booker T.—“young, fiery, articulate, thought-provoking people,” he says—and they challenged him to question things, too, to question everything, to look at history as something that is still being written. And he was about to write his name into it.

When would you have stopped? Would you have even started?

Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, was murdered in his driveway in June 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in August. Ernest enrolled at Morehouse College in September. His roommates were from Birmingham, and they had participated in the marches and fights and demonstrations to end segregation there. They had all gone to jail at some point. “I am in heaven in a sense,” Ernest says, “meeting people who had witnessed it and could share their lessons and stories.”

His new roommates had to hide him out for the entire weekend after John F. Kennedy was killed, since people were coming through the dorm looking for “that nigger from Dallas,” Ernest says. But that was OK, too, since the president’s death brought King to campus. “We didn’t have flyers or social media promotion, but the word was out: King is going to be at the chapel at 7,” he says.

“By the time I got there, the whole place was filled up. They had to raise the windows, so the people on the outside could listen in and peek in, and I was at one of those windows. So those kinds of things were going on then. An electricity was in the air. New ways of approaching history and getting involved in society, being shaken by the murders you could see on television of your president and your leaders like Medgar Evers, and the death of the four girls in the church.”

What finally led him to drop out of school and join the movement was a demonstration going on in downtown Atlanta, a round-the-clock protest against Lester Maddox’s restaurant. Maddox was known for denying black people entrance to his fried-chicken joint by force, sometimes at the end of an ax handle. Protesters were getting arrested, and the organizers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (better known as SNCC, or “snick”), came around Morehouse looking for reinforcements. SNCC’s headquarters was just down the street, at 8½ Raymond, not more than half a mile from his dorm room. Ernest went to check it out.

“That was a big turning point for me,” he says. “I met people like John Lewis and Jim Foreman, Dick Gregory, and I began to just sit at their feet, hearing what they’re saying, watching their action. Going down there and just visiting and seeing what’s happening. It’s like walking into this oasis. This is a response. This is the resistance. This is the movement right here.”

He wanted to join right then, but he was just 18, and SNCC required its field coordinators to be 21. He had to get his parents to more or less sign his life away. But they did, and in January 1964 he went to Dorchester, Georgia, for a two-week training session, meeting people like Ella Baker, the mother of SNCC. He learned about analyzing the system, about how the power structure works, about how nonviolent resistance works and how to protect himself, about basic organizing skills.

Ernest (second from left) with his sister Karen, his dog Sonny, mother Eva, sister Jackie, and father Marion. They were a prominent family in the segregated community that grew in the area where Uptown now is.

“I think the main thing for me was just feeling the confidence and resoluteness of the speakers and leaders,” he says. “Having those people coming in from the rural areas, coming from the field of battle and sharing what they had learned and teaching us. It had my head swimming.”

He spent the next two years in places like Lee County, in the northwest corner of Georgia, known for its lynchings. “I think the reason was because there is so much wooded area, and they could just snatch people and take them from Albany or Columbus or wherever they were snatching people from. But also, when I got there, three or four churches had been burnt to the ground and people had been arrested and mistreated at the polls.”

The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and then Ernest came back to Texas.

When would you have stopped? When the pain was almost too great to bear?

“I went through a three-month period of just recovering who I was,” Ernest says of his first few months back in Dallas, “because I had suffered kind of like a battle fatigue. I just languished, trying to figure out what the hell happened, where am I, that kind of thing.”

Finally, he had regrouped enough to enroll at Arlington State College, and there he found a Confederate flag flying over campus and segregated dorms and “Old South” days where African-American students were expected to walk around barefoot, carrying cotton bags, while white students wore antebellum dresses and Confederate uniforms. And so he had entered another battleground.

This time he was armed with the organizational skills and lessons he had learned with SNCC. Maybe 400 of the school’s 8,000 students were African-American or Latino, he says, but they banded together. They formed a group called the Student Conference on Racial Equality (SCORE) and elected Ernest as its president and spokesman. “We demanded respect for the black culture in our education, a voice to speak out,” he says.

He eventually won the school’s respect, but not until November 1995, when he was honored at UTA’s Centennial Urban Conference for his social activism. But in the mid-1960s, all Ernest got was a suspension and then expulsion from campus after only three semesters. That was fine. “It put me back into the community from which I came,” he says, and that’s where he was supposed to be.

He organized a SNCC chapter in South Dallas in 1967 and became its chairman. His first act was to align with other student groups in opposition to the Vietnam War. They studied the Selective Service Act and quizzed each other on the various loopholes to avoid the draft and how they could use them.

It was slow going at first, but soon enough the Dallas SNCC chapter had enough members and momentum to draw the attention of the local police as well as the FBI and its COINTELPRO effort, which sought to disrupt, destroy, or otherwise neutralize the peace movement, the antiwar movement, the subversive black power movement. SNCC was pretty much all three. “We knew that we were being followed,” Ernest says. “We knew that our phones had been tapped; we knew that our pictures were coming up different places in different cities; and we were being harassed, pulled over.”

Heaven to Hell: Ernest is escorted out of Dallas County Jail in January 1972 for a hearing. He was sentenced to 10 years—for breaking a bottle of milk.

One afternoon, Ernest was pulled over before he even got into his car. “I guess there was a shift change, so the police officer who had been parked behind my car came and said, ‘Here is your ticket for speeding. I got to go.’ So, basically, we were hauled in court, paying fines, always on the defensive side, had to fight back for this, that, and the other.”

They couldn’t stop him but they kept trying. Finally, at least, they slowed him down. Ernest was leading a protest against a local chain called OK Supermarkets, which had 10 locations in southern Dallas, a food desert then and now. He says they were exploiting the community by selling rotten fruits and vegetables and raising prices on days when food stamps were issued. He and SNCC targeted a store on Oakland Avenue and, during one heated demonstration, Ernest says maybe $200 of produce and other merchandise was destroyed. He was arrested and tried, and though no witness could say they saw him break anything other than a bottle of milk, an all-white jury sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Ernest says the DA was angry and embarrassed. He thought it should have been 20.

While free on bond, Ernest had been traveling around the country for speaking engagements, with the blessing of his prosecutors. But after he left to speak to a meeting of the National Council of Churches in Greenwich, Connecticut, he learned that this trip had not been approved. He was a fugitive. So he decided to remain one, bouncing from country to country for two years. His goal was to make it to Guinea, in Africa, where Stokely Carmichael, a former SNCC member and founder of the Black Panther Party, had immigrated.

He never made it. He was finally arrested in Cincinnati and brought back to Texas in 1971.

When would you have stopped?

At the Retrieve Unit near Houston, his focus changed to prison reform, and he began working with Eddie Bernice Johnson, then a member of the Texas House. She gave him a job as a legislative aide when he was released. But it didn’t really fit. A group called the United League of Mississippi was fighting against the Ku Klux Klan and asked for his help, so he left.

“They were fighting against all kinds of obstacles—for the right to be a man, the right to have a job, the right to have a life,” Ernest says. It was his kind of fight.

But he was arrested again, this time for armed robbery.

“I was there for maybe a year when the sheriff of Indianola County arrested me,” he says. “It was a lie, but they said, look, all we want you to do is leave Mississippi. You can stay here and fight this if you want, but if you leave now we won’t bother you. We will just hold your case and the statute of limitations ends in three years. You can come back after three years.” They knew he was on parole and that merely charging him with a crime would revoke it. “So they kind of held a gun to my head.”

When would you have stopped? When you didn’t have a home to go back to?

In 1980, Ernest was in search of a fresh start. He felt like he couldn’t be himself in Dallas any longer. He’d already lost almost a decade of his life, between exile and imprisonment and the uncertainty that followed, and he didn’t want to lose any more.

He looked at a map, considered New Orleans and Atlanta, and settled on Houston. He knew a few people there, like the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, and it wasn’t too far from his family. And “it had the largest concentration of African-Americans in the South,” he says. The city suited Ernest. He would stay in Houston for the better part of 30 years, making his home in the predominantly black Fifth Ward community northeast of downtown, where he founded a successful nonprofit that mentored young men.

In 2007, Ernest decided it was time to retire. He also decided that he had been away from Dallas long enough. So he came home.

“Life had a different thing coming for me,” he says. He didn’t retire. If anything, he was busier than ever. He worked as a security guard at night (“I had to survive”), leaving his days free to volunteer at the Dallas Peace & Justice Center, travel to Honduras and Cuba on human rights missions, and continue mentoring youth.

It was at one of his mentoring programs where he met David Lozano, the executive artistic director at Cara Mía Theatre. Ernest invited him to talk to the kids about the power of theater, and after that Lozano invited Ernest to help the company with its youth development program.

“He was magic,” Lozano says. “He had a very unique curriculum, and he would bring in literature and essays from around the world for these high school students, and then they would talk about the value of them. So he was already combining art, literature, philosophy, and social justice in his work with these kids. And he always downplays his expertise in this area, but that summer we started seeing some of these kids glowing.”

He didn’t retire. He worked as a security guard at night, leaving his days free to volunteer and continue mentoring youth.

Lozano hired him full time in 2016, creating the role of curator for community action. Ernest’s job is to set up events in conjunction with the theater’s productions: talk backs, panel discussions, youth activities, whatever can extend their reach and continue the conversations they are meant to start. “I really enjoy the things we have around the plays, because the plays are very relevant, down-to-earth, inspirational stories.”

The first play that Ernest got involved with, after joining the company, was Crystal City 1969. The title refers to the town in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley where people were forbidden to speak Spanish in school. Though Crystal City was largely made up of migrants, “a woman or child or student could be paddled if they were heard speaking Spanish,” Ernest says.

“So this created an atmosphere where the students felt challenged to fight against their resisters, so they led a boycott that was successful, and that boycott got their parents engaged, got the whole community engaged, the federal government engaged. It led to the Mexican population getting more active and registering to vote, and they actually threw out the county government and came up with theirs, and it led to the creation of La Raza Unida Party. So that was the first engagement.”

It wasn’t Ernest’s life, not exactly his experience, but it wasn’t far from it. He knew the fight in Crystal City, and he knew how to start a conversation around it. And he found, to his surprise and delight, that he was getting as much as he was giving in his new role, learning to appreciate something he had always discounted. He was more motivated than ever.

“I really felt like trying to organize artists was like trying to herd cats,” he says. “It was just, like, alien to me. But now I am seeing a side I really wished I got more engaged with as a child or young person, because I am seeing the tremendous powers of storytelling, of drama, of music, and spoken word, and how people’s perspectives are challenged. They can lower their guard and begin to reflect and see things from a different viewpoint. I can see some of the transformative powers of the theater.”

It has transformed him. It led him to what might be his last act as an activist, the Dallas Environmental Justice Network.

When would you have stopped? For Ernest McMillan, it might finally be time.

On Valentine’s Day, he organized a bus tour through southern Dallas for the benefit of retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, known for leading the relief efforts in post-Katrina Louisiana, now heading up what he calls the GreenArmy, fighting against pollution. Along with Honoré, the passengers on the bus included members of every relevant environmental group in North Texas, from Downwinders at Risk and the Dallas Sierra Club to smaller organizations like 350 Dallas. It is the network Ernest set up in September.

The idea started in 2017, when Cara Mía staged two productions, The Legend of the Bluebonnet and Where Earth Meets the Sky, that touched on ideas about the earth and how we treat it, about pollution and cooperative farming and sustainability. It was an eye-opening experience for him, just like it had been when he learned at Prairie View that energy is indestructible and matter just changes form.

As he set up events surrounding the plays, he saw that even though the environmental community shared many of the same goals, they didn’t always work together. So Ernest did what he does. He facilitated. It started as a one-time conversation that became something more. And it solidified even more when he ran into his cousin-in-law, Israel Anderson, the retired head of environmental justice for the EPA’s Region 6, at a family event. Anderson told him about what Honoré was doing and that led to an invitation to come to Dallas. The tour went through Highland Hills and Joppa and Sandbranch, marginalized communities dealing with environmental disasters brought on by industry and inattention.

And now we’re here, at the church gym in March. A handful of people eventually show up, a microcosm of the group at large, a mix of community activists and stalwarts like David Griggs of the Sierra Club. The first order of business is to discuss what everyone learned on the tour with Honoré, lessons they can take with them, what needs to happen next. The second is to figure out how to make the network itself sustainable.

Ernest tells the group that after 2019, he probably won’t be around anymore. He’s going to retire, for real this time. Probably. That’s what he thinks now. His daughter, Dafina, lives in New Mexico. “I’ve fallen in love with Albuquerque,” he says, laughing.

They talk about strategies moving forward, maybe putting the network under the guidance of the Dallas Peace & Justice Center. They are all committed to staying involved with each other, to keep it going, whether Ernest is here or not.

“My intuition is telling me—what I’ve seen and heard and talked with people on the tour is that, yes, it seems like a spark of energy that I hope that can be sustained toward this kind of work,” Ernest says. “People from different parts of Dallas coming together, from the north side to the southern sector to West Dallas, coming together and figuring up ways we can combine and be more cooperative with our own—putting our egos in our back pockets and working together for the whole. Being greater than all of the parts. I’m excited about it. I don’t know if I personally can continue.”

Maybe he actually will stop this time. But that’s hard to imagine.

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