October 26, 2008
By ROY APPLETON / The Dallas Morning News
"Is this Stoney?" says the smiling man, crossing the threshold to hug
his guest. "Hey, brother."
"I bet you didn't expect the gray," says Stoney Burns.
"I got it, too," replies Ernest McMillan, leading the ponytailed
visitor into his East Dallas apartment and back to the past.
Living now less than a mile apart, they hadn't seen each other since
those restless times. Not since the days of war in Vietnam, protests
and assassinations, culture clashes and civil-rights struggles, of
Black Power, Flower Power and women's liberation. When something not
exactly clear was happening.
Tightly ruled, custom-numbed Dallas – still stung by the tragedy of
Nov. 22, 1963 – was relatively tame for a big city in the '60s. A
vigilant police force helped see to that.
But as the peace and justice movements gained momentum elsewhere,
they found voices here as well.
As in Ernie McMillan, passionate foe of prejudice and war.
And Stoney Burns, one playfully aggressive, seriously stimulated
On separate paths, they would rouse and rattle in ways their hometown
had never seen.
"Dallas was just outraged by Stoney," said David Richards, one of his
attorneys. "He represented everything they perceived to be evil."
While Mr. McMillan set a tempo for activism to come.
"We owe a priceless debt to him," said the Rev. Zan Holmes, a
longtime Dallas pastor and social activist. "He stood up and spoke
up. He called attention to the problems and became our inspiration."
The center of action
"Seems like there was a lot more life. This is depressing," says Mr.
McMillan, soaking up some South Dallas sights and sounds near Martin
Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards.
He has returned to a center of the action back when he led the local
front of the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"We've got Freedom Fashions, not freedom and justice," he says,
driving through a land long waiting to bloom.
Mr. McMillan sees stability along Meadow Street and talks of Charles
Hunter and his Hope Presbyterian Church, home now to a service agency
for girls. "We had a lot of mass meetings, community meetings here."
Blocks away, at the corner of Pine Street and Malcolm X, he parks
outside an abandoned building, the long-ago home of an OK
Supermarket. "Looks a lot smaller than it did then," he chuckles.
He talks of his group's protests against and boycott of the
white-owned grocery chain, says it stocked inferior products at bloated prices.
"We would have people marching around the building with signs," Mr.
McMillan says. "People would get off the bus and join us."
He doesn't talk much about the night of July 1, 1968, when he and an
associate, Matthew Johnson, led a group into the store and left
behind $211 worth of destruction – "to send them a message," he says.
Within two months, the two black men had been arrested, tried, and
dealt 10-year prison terms by an all-white jury. The charge:
destroying private property worth more than $50.
The store owner's son testified that he saw Mr. McMillan drop a
gallon bottle of milk and Mr. Johnson smash bottles of grape juice
and a watermelon. Jurors heard a defense attorney liken them to the
American patriots who dumped English tea in Boston harbor. They also
heard a prosecutor call the pair "revolutionists" helping rush
civilization "to hell at a hundred miles an hour."
The rush was on Mr. McMillan, said Don Stafford, a retired Dallas
assistant police chief, at the time a police lieutenant in South
Dallas. "He was a thorn in their side, and they needed to get rid of him."
And they did, says Dr. Hunter, now visitation pastor at Oak Cliff
Presbyterian Church. "They were cutting the head off what they
thought was the beast."
For the budding Ernest McMillan, a 1963 honors graduate of Dallas'
Booker T. Washington High School, war and racism were the beasts.
After withdrawing from Morehouse College in Atlanta, he registered
voters and demonstrated in the South before bringing his passion and
training back to North Texas in 1965. After briefly enrolling and
protesting at Arlington State College (now the University of Texas at
Arlington), he established a Dallas chapter of SNCC as the group's
militancy was intensifying.
"It was the way I was raised, to not abide injustice, to not be quiet
in the face of wrongdoing," said the son of a family steeped in
ministry, medicine and teaching, reared near the Dallas Freedman's Cemetery.
The SNCC cadre was hardly the first or last to oppose racism and
discrimination in Dallas. The Progressive Voters League began
organizing black voters in the 1930s. Protesters challenged
segregation at the State Fair of Texas in 1955. Freedom rallies in
1961 called for boycotts of department stores and movie theaters.
Demonstrators picketed the whites-only Piccadilly Cafeteria in 1964
and marched for civil rights in 1965. It took a lawsuit and the
courts to establish the current city election system. The fight for
Dallas school desegregation lasted almost 50 years.
The efforts and influence of Felton Alexander, Juanita Craft, Richard
Dockery, Kathlyn Gilliam, Elsie Faye Heggins, J.B. Jackson Jr., Al
Lipscomb, Maceo Smith, the Revs. Peter Johnson and S.M. Wright and
other local black leaders have long been recognized.
But few local black leaders had a radical, confrontational edge in
the late '60s, Dr. Hunter and others say. "There was definitely a
sense that you stay in your place. You've got yours," he said.
That wasn't a concern for Mr. McMillan and his group of 30 or so. He,
Matthew Johnson, Edward Harris, Michael Dodd, Fred Bell and the
others would organize, mobilize and speak out with a fervor jolting
to some. Beholden to none.
And working outside the system, they drew the system's attention.
Mr. McMillan tells of traffic stops and searches. He smiles about the
police officer seen going through his trash, and the one found
eavesdropping in his back yard.
"They were trying to disrupt us, keep us off balance," he said,
recalling how his guys joined in, following officers and recording
The young agitators were hassled – "no doubt about it," said Mr.
Stafford, the former police officer. "If you were against the
establishment, you were going to get harassed."
No, police just tried to "keep the peace" and contain troublemakers,
said Paul McCaghren, a patrol captain in 1968 and later the
department's intelligence director.
"We didn't want any problems, and we were really sensitive because of
President Kennedy being assassinated" here, he said.
In time, Mr. McMillan was gone and his group fractured. Three weeks
after his grocery conviction, he was indicted for draft evasion.
Authorities said he refused to take the induction oath, an allegation
Freed after posting bond, he traveled to Connecticut in June 1969 to
address a church group. While he was there, his attorney told him
that he could be arrested for leaving North Texas. He fled, was
captured in Cincinnati in late 1971, and was returned to Dallas and
sentenced to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to
violating terms of his release.
The draft charge was dismissed. An appeal of the supermarket
conviction was rejected. And Mr. McMillan spent three years and two
weeks behind bars.
Dallas didn't have the riots, firebombings and mass arrests. Not a
single tank in the streets. Still, the late '60s were an eventful
time in the city.
Residents in 1968 began loosening the business community's grip at
City Hall. The Dallas Citizens Council had selected and successfully
backed City Council candidates for years. But voters changed the city
charter, adding two new council seats. Months later, George Allen
would fill one of them, representing South Dallas, as the first
elected black council member.
In 1968, marchers in South Dallas, including Mr. McMillan, supported
the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. Downtown,
Ruth Jefferson, Mr. McMillan and other protesters occupied the state
welfare office demanding better benefits; others picketed the
selective service center.
Dallas police opened neighborhood police centers to promote racial
harmony, and the city's Block Partnership program began connecting
poor families and churches. A human relations commission would convene in 1969.
Groups such as the Dallas Committee for a Peaceful Solution in
Vietnam, sponsor of Saturday vigils at Dealey Plaza, kept speaking
out against the war. City leaders and police braced for rioting after
Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968.
"We were expecting trouble. We had a lot of people on the street, and
we didn't want them to get a jump," Mr. McCaghren recalled.
A log of police activity during those times records heightened alerts
throughout the city, anonymous calls about suspicious behavior and
unfounded threats to bomb Love Field and City Hall. It also tells of
two lighted beer bottles containing kerosene that were thrown at a
white-owned convenience store in South Dallas: "One started a small
fire. ... Both fell about 20 feet short of the building."
Concerned about decorum downtown, the City Council in 1967 restricted
gatherings at Stone Place, the walkway between Main and Elm streets –
home now to restaurants, then a hangout for street preachers and
those hippie types.
So the peace people and others began gathering at Lee Park, near the
counterculture's Oak Lawn center of gravity, for music, rallies, the
high life and perhaps a dip in Turtle Creek.
Their looks and outlooks drew scorn from the mainstream, including
the city's two daily newspapers' editorial pages. Their "pot parties"
and illicit economy made news, as in this January 1968 report in The
Dallas Morning News:
"Police raided a hippie pad in North Dallas shortly before midnight
Saturday, rounded up 13 booted and unbarbered boys and girls," and
"enough marijuana to make 140 cigarettes worth $1 apiece."
Other stories told of stiff prison sentences for drug convictions,
such as a Dallas man's 50-year term for selling $3 worth of marijuana.
And the News tried to help readers with a series of articles – "Drug
Peril in Big D" – "outlining the problem in all its startling aspects."
To 'tell the truth'
"Free Ernie." A poster in Ernest McMillan's apartment delivers those
words with a drawing of his smiling, bearded face.
"I believe I took the photograph that this was taken from," says
Stoney Burns, eyeing the memento as the reunion takes another turn.
He also splashed the drawing across the cover of Dallas Notes for his
newspaper's Sept. 18, 1968, issue. An accompanying story, headlined
"SNCC Members Shafted," told of the OK Supermarket convictions.
It wasn't the first or last article about Ernest McMillan or the
courts to appear in what brings Mr. Burns local celebrity and notoriety.
Launched in March 1967 to "tell the truth" about Southern Methodist
University, Notes from the Underground would mushroom into Dallas
Notes. And for almost four years, the biweekly paper's alternative
news and ever-evolving staff would tear into those swirling times
with a clear bias against war, intolerance and hypocrisy.
"Notes is the boss, the only fearless, wide awake, red-hot newspaper
in town," crowed an early advertisement for a publication that would
peak with street sales of about 12,000 copies per issue.
The paper's anti-war stories included "profit and loss" statements
listing area companies' war contracts and names of the local dead.
Its reports on politics and dissent often had an editorial ring.
"Elections Don't Mean [expletive]," headlined an elections issue.
"Our Power is in the Streets."
Notes also covered the area music scene and printed reviews, letters,
cartoons, short stories and poetry. It kept tabs on the local drug
trade, from arrests to user-friendly how-to's. And with a spicing of
four-letter words and porcine portrayals, it wrote about the men in
blue. Such as those who showed up at Stone Place on May 20, 1967:
"Over a hundred Dallas hippies tried to have a love-in last
Saturday," Mr. Burns wrote in his first bylined story.
"Unfortunately, about twenty paranoid cops had a hate-in and, baby,
they had the guns."
That article "plunged Dallas into the sixties," wrote James McEnteer
in his book Fighting Words: Independent Journalists in Texas.
A graduate of Hillcrest High School and the University of Arizona,
Mr. Burns – then known by his given name, Brent Stein – joined the
newspaper while working for his father's Dallas printing company and
advising an SMU fraternity.
Introductions to marijuana and LSD had engaged him. He offered to
help improve the paper's graphics. And while photographing a peace
vigil at Dealey Plaza, the obscene taunts of American Nazi Party
members moved him.
"I didn't like seeing people abused like that," he recalled, wiping a
watery eye. "I definitely wasn't an activist until then."
He wrote for the paper as Stoney Burns, the name he goes by today. "I
had a straight job and didn't want my customers to know," he said.
His battles with police began when he was removed from downtown for
selling the paper. SMU banned it in October 1967. He became editor
two months later. And as Notes turned up the heat, so did authorities.
An October 1968 cover story about Dallas' pornographic-movie industry
featured a photograph with bared breasts.
Twice the next month, police raided Mr. Burns' communal home and
Notes office at 3117 Live Oak St. (now a vacant lot), arresting him
and others while hauling away newspapers, typewriters, cameras,
telephones – everything used to produce the paper. With rented
equipment, the staff kept publishing.
"That was the ploy used to shut down his newspaper," said lawyer
David Richards, who sued the police chief and others on Mr. Burns' behalf.
Federal judges in Dallas decided that the state obscenity law used
against the newspaper was unconstitutional. On appeal, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that federal courts had no place in the dispute.
But by then the obscenity law had been rewritten and the charges
against Mr. Burns dismissed.
"We had a great day, sitting on his porch, watching these angry
police officers having to return his stuff," Mr. Richards said.
Mr. Burns was among those arrested at what Notes dubbed the Lee Park
Massacre, a melee involving police and "hundreds of boisterous
youngsters and hippies" (as The Dallas Morning News put it) on April 12, 1970.
Witnesses say a crackdown on swimmers in Turtle Creek started the
ruckus, and officers blamed Mr. Burns for inflaming passions with
obscenities and police death calls, a charge he did and does deny.
"Too bad they didn't kill you," a prosecutor reportedly told him in
court before his conviction for "interfering with a peace officer."
Sentenced to three years in prison, he was cleared on appeal.
Mr. Burns quit the paper in September 1970. It would fold early the next year.
He ran for Dallas County sheriff in 1972, but left the race after
being arrested for possession of marijuana. A jury gave him 10 years
and, at prosecutors' request, one day in prison for the almost
one-tenth of an ounce of pot police found after stopping his van.
That extra day made him ineligible for probation. But after changes
in state law made possession of small amounts of marijuana a
misdemeanor, his sentence was commuted.
Mr. Burns served 19 days and was freed in December 1974 – the same
week as Ernest McMillan.
No more outrage
Mr. Burns returned to the print shop and his music magazine, Buddy,
ditching the dissent but not his humor. He sold the magazine years
ago and now publishes a business advertising booklet.
Never married, 65 and approved for Medicare, he lives near Lower
Greenville Avenue, where his days include music (mostly bluegrass),
some television and friends. The wild, curly black hair of youth is
now a silvery gray, the once-scraggly beard trim and white. His
underwear-only Frederick's of Hollywood parties are long gone, but he
will hit a bar or concert or (as Notes would hail it) "that harmless,
non-addictive herb known as marijuana."
"When I do I always say, 'Why don't I do this more often,' " he says
with a smirk over a soft drink at a neighborhood dive.
Mr. Burns says he hasn't cast a ballot since weighing in for Lyndon
Johnson in 1964 and won't break his streak this year. He attended an
anti-war rally in Dallas before the Iraq invasion but has no interest
in firing up the outrage – or even messing with police.
"I just can't do what I could then. It's just too much trouble," he says.
Back then the rush of change and sense of possibility liberated some,
Notes tried to inform and energize the young, "get Dallas to loosen
up" and have a good time, the editor says.
And to those ends, the experience was an unregrettable success, he
says, shrugging off his part in it all.
"I was young and dumb and thought I was bulletproof. But I wasn't
that much different from a lot of people in the movement. I was just
After prison, Ernest McMillan became an aide to then-state, now U.S.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. He organized a prison-justice project
before moving to Houston, where he founded a program to empower young
Back in Dallas, the 64-year-old grandfather remains an adviser to the
Houston program. He volunteers at his church, Munger Place United
Methodist, the Dallas Peace Center and with Pastors for Peace.
"I'm still evolving, trying to aim my arrow at the mark," he says
during a morning break.
He isn't bitter about his clashes with the law. And he gives his SNCC
days an OK– not a KO.
"We turned on some switches and lights, got some people off their
butts and into voting booths and off their knees praying and into the
City Hall chambers, fighting for justice," he said. "I'm not
regretting it, and I'm not beating my chest about it."
Mr. McMillan barely recognizes the neighborhood of his youth, now
Dallas' upscale Uptown. He sees some advances in southern Dallas but
much room for improvement.
Black families and neighborhoods are more fragmented, he said, but
"there's been no fundamental change from when I was around in 1968."
What's needed are organizations that "can sustain themselves and
carry on the struggle" – groups always drawing in youth, he says.
"I want young people to know they have tremendous power, tremendous
energy, tremendous resources within them, and they just have to flip
the switch on and use it."