For six days in April 1964 — while the U.S. Congress debated what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act — protesters from President Lyndon Johnson’s old home district held up city business by staging what was called a “read-in” or “speak-in.” The mood in Austin that year was tense, sometimes hopeful, but not violent. (Austin American Statesman)
On May 28, 1964, Lester Palmer was Mayor of Austin and the City Council had an agenda with every indication of a city preparing for the future: five proposed annexation ordinances, a resolution related to gas line construction, recommendations for the condemnation and destruction of properties and proposed ordinances creating new easements.
The next day, May 29th, Caritas of Austin opened its doors for the first time downtown inside St. David’s Episcopal Church. A 34-year-old Father Richard McCabe had a vision for an organization to serve people living in the margins. One of the organization’s first community services was a pro bono medical clinic operated by 48 local physicians.
And in November that year James and Annetta White opened the Broken Spoke, then a mile south of the Austin city limits, under a massive live oak, and beside what would eventually become South Lamar Boulevard. All these years, the Broken Spoke has served up, in the words of White’s well-worn opening speech, “. . . cold beer, good whiskey, the best chicken fried steak in town . . . and good country music.” Today the original rustic, barn-style building, surrounded by sleek, high-rise apartment buildings, still sits on South Lamar, a tribute and remembrance to an Austin that has almost vanished.
While the Austin of 1964 is barely visible in our urban landscape, I see today the same hope for the future that was evident in the historical context of Caritas of Austin’s organizational birth. Fifty four years later, we continue to struggle with inequity and racism. It is particularly evident in the disproportionate number of African American men experiencing homelessness. Just as leaders of the past grappled with diversity, equity and inclusion; Caritas of Austin’s leaders do the same today. We are changing our leadership culture to one of inclusion that is well positioned to lead Caritas to engage the stubborn inequities that continue to plague our community.
Like all of Austin, our organization has evolved, and in this evolution, Father McCabe’s founding intentions are clear. He set us on a foundation of broad community support which we continue to expand today. Fifty four years later, his vision continues… a vision of respect, equity, commitment, excellence, and innovation.
Many of you have loyally supported our work and been a part of Caritas of Austin’s evolution. I cannot thank you enough for the tender loving care you have given this organization all these years. You are the reason we continue to serve Austin today. Others of you are new to Austin and just learning about our effective work. I invite you to join us in building the foundational components of wellbeing: a place to call home, nutritious food, education, and a job.
Whether a new or old friend, will you join us in celebrating Caritas of Austin’s 54th birthday by giving $54 to recognize our 54 years? Together we can end homelessness and continue the vision and work of our fearless founder. Your support for Caritas of Austin has never been more critical than it is today.
Today’s Austin reflects the Austin of 1964. Let us use the joy and pain of the past to propel us into a commitment to make the Austin of our future more vibrant for ALL.