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We're going to talk next about a man who played a little-noticed role in the history of civil rights. He became a business leader then a behind-the-scenes political leader at a critical time in the American South. He did that despite his humble beginnings.

Historian Suzanne E. Smith has traced the career of A.G. Gaston.

Ms. SUZANNE SMITH (Historian): His first business was selling rides on a tree swing in his grandparents' backyard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: What was the admission fee for that?

Ms. SMITH: A button. His friends would bring buttons.

INSKEEP: Suzanne E. Smith says the young man was finding ways to get ahead in a world where his opportunity was extremely limited. Limited because A.G. Gaston was black, and this was Alabama around 1900. Gaston is the latest subject in our series American Lives.

This week, we're exploring lives that link business and politics. To get ahead in business, A.G. Gaston set out for Alabama's most important commercial center.

Ms. SMITH: He eventually moved out of the small town of Demopolis, Alabama as a relatively young boy with his mother to move to Birmingham, Alabama.

INSKEEP: Let's remember: this was a time when Birmingham was growing as industrial center, right?

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: It was a becoming a producer of steel eventually and many other things over the years.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Ms. SMITH: And he eventually gets his first job when he's a young adult at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, a mining company in Birmingham. But while he's on the job, he notices that one of the biggest needs in the black community is a fine funeral when you die. And he decides he's going to start his own burial society.

INSKEEP: A burial society, meaning you're going to pay now whatever small amount per week or per month and when you die, whenever that's going to be, you're going to be taken care of.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. It was 25 cents a week and you were guaranteed a fine burial at your death. Well, what happens, in the first three weeks of his business, someone dies that joined his burial society.

INSKEEP: Oh, and his hasn't built up the cash reserves yet.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, right. He's got $10 in premiums and the funeral cost $100. So, he almost completely falls apart at the beginning but he decides to go to a funeral director in Birmingham and bargain with him to pay in installments. He goes to the local minister and explains his mistake. And at the funeral, the minister says from now on, everyone in this town's going to pay for this society because Gaston's got a vision.

And that's how he starts his fortune.

INSKEEP: As we went through the 20th century and get closer to the civil rights era, did black funeral directors, in addition to being business men, also become community leaders and political leaders?

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely, and A.G. Gaston is a great example of this. He, in the mid-1950s, he goes to a car dealership and says I have a $100,000 order to buy hearses from you but you have no negro salesmen on your force, and until you do I'm going to take my business elsewhere. He goes to the local bank and says I'm going to take my millions of dollars out of your bank unless you get rid of those segregated water fountains in the lobby.

INSKEEP: And he actually had millions of dollars in the bank.

Ms. SMITH: Yes, he did. He was a multimillionaire by the middle of the 20th century. He had his insurance company, his funeral home business, Smith and Gaston, which had 13 branches in the state of Alabama, but he eventually opened his own savings and loan, his own business college, his own motel, the Gaston motel.

INSKEEP: Now, this is interesting because you have described a guy who is about making money, about succeeding, he's done it to a phenomenal degree for an African-American in the mid-20th century...

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...and you say that he was also very interested in advancing African-Americans economically. What happened, though, in Birmingham, Alabama in the mid-1950s when a guy named Martin Luther King came to town?

Ms. SMITH: What happens is that he is this incredible leader in the black community, in the business community, and he's politically somewhat conservative. He's not confrontational, he's not considered a radical, and yet he provides the behind-the-scenes support and financial support to the movement that he doesn't always agree with.

And when Martin Luther King comes to town, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference comes to Birmingham for the Birmingham campaign in 1963, Gaston welcomes them and allows them to stay at the Gaston Motel, but he's also not agreeing, again, with their strategies. He's negotiating with the white business leaders of Birmingham to try to get them to come to the table with the radicals but he doesn't want a lot of protest.

And the day that Martin Luther King got arrested, where he ultimately writes the letter from the Birmingham jail, that day they were in the Gaston Motel and A.G. Gaston turned to King and said don't go out and break that injunction against marching. I don't want you to get arrested.

INSKEEP: Well, King went out of that hotel room, got arrested, it was a national news story, of course, a national embarrassment for segregationists. What did Gaston do then?

Ms. SMITH: King gets arrested several times in the Birmingham campaign and then Gaston eventually bails him out.

INSKEEP: It wasn't a little amount of money either, was it?

Ms. SMITH: No, it was $160,000. And it was in the end a smart move, because it did calm the waters, as Gaston hoped, and within a few weeks, the negotiations reached an agreement. The Birmingham campaign ended within a week or so after they had made that shift.

INSKEEP: You point that some of the more radical civil rights leaders actually called him an Uncle Tom. What was his response to that?

Ms. SMITH: He said that if wanting to spare children and save lives, bring peace was Uncle Tom-ism, then I wanted to be a super Uncle Tom. He really believed that there was a way that negotiation could operate that didn't involve confrontation.

INSKEEP: We heard yesterday about Robert Morris, a business man who was deeply involved in the Revolutionary War and who made an amount of money doing so, supplying the troops with gunpowder and so forth, but was also a little more conservative and tried to go slower than other people did toward declaring independence.

We ended up discussing the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. I wonder if that's a fair way to describe the conflict in A.G. Gaston's life and the civil rights movement.

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely, because I think he understood that there was a way that the black community could empower itself economically but it involved a lot of careful maneuvering with the white power structure in the city and it was not, as I would say, noticed, I think, as much by historians because in general entrepreneurship has not been recorded enough in civil rights history.

INSKEEP: How has black entrepreneurship changed from that era of segregation when if you were going to be an entrepreneur, there was a limited number of industries and a limited number of customers?

Ms. SMITH: It's challenged. I think when you look at all of the enterprises that A.G. Gaston began - his motel closed down after integration, he was very sad about that. His insurance company he sold off to his employees in 1987. It went into receivership a few years ago. The one business that still exists is the funeral home, Smith and Gaston Funeral Home, which is interesting in terms of what we're discussing, that there are certain areas where I think entrepreneurs still have a clear consumer base of African-American buyers.

But a lot of black entrepreneurs are really fighting today to maintain their competitiveness. And I think if Gaston were alive today, he'd be somewhat sad about that. Until his death, he wanted to believe that African-Americans would maintain a certain loyalty to black entrepreneurs.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Suzanne E. Smith is the author of the book, "To Serve the Living," about the surprising role of African-American funeral directors.

We're exploring more American lives this week, lives that link business and politics. And tomorrow we'll talk about a millionaire trial lawyer who went to jail.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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