The Early Days of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission

The current controversy over the proposed restructuring of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission harkens back to the difficulties it experienced during the earliest days of its existence.  In fact, much argument over the Davenport Human Relations Commission’s purpose and powers preceded its establishment under Mayor Ray O’Brien in July 1962. The first reading of the proposed ordinance in May of that year brought “emotion-packed” protest from several clergymen and other members of the community who felt that the city should model the Commission on the one in Des Moines, which had the ability impose penalties upon employers who discriminated on the basis of race, color, or creed. [1] 

Two years later, in May of 1964, four members of the Human Relations Commission resigned in succession. These were Charles Toney, president of the Catholic Interracial Council, Harry S. Roberts, Henry Vargas, president of the Davenport chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Lawrence Satin,”considered the only remaining member of a minority group on the commission” as a Jewish man. [2]  Toney and Vargas cited the City Council’s failure to strengthen the Commission and accept a fair housing ordinance proposal as reasons for their departure. Vargas said, “…if the council is not going to make use of the commission, I see little reason for its existence.” Harry S. Roberts was “…dissatisfied because the existing commission is virtually powerless, with little more than persuasion at its command.” [3]

The feeling that the city was not supportive of its citizens’ efforts to promote civil rights persisted through a change in administration. In September of 1966, HRC chairman Rev. Jack Wolter delivered a list of eight recommendations to Mayor John Jebens and aldermen for improving race relations in Davenport. One of these was to “hire a full-time professional person” because “…as the commission is organized it has neither the power nor time to act on problems it knows exist.” In response to Jebens’ statement that this would mean “creating a job to give someone a free ride at taxpayers expense,” the members of the HRC said “…the director would take various forms of constructive action, such as education, to better race relations and should not be limited to checking complaints.” [4]

In an interview with the Sunday Times-Democrat on December 24, 1967 commissioner Paul Ives expressed hope for progress if the city could provide more funding and if the HRC “…had a paid executive director who could organize and lead commission programs,” particularly in the area of community education. [5]  A binder of HRC materials from 1966-68 held by the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center include a “position analysis,” or job description, for an Executive Director. 

Ives reported another departure from the Commission over the question of a local fair housing ordinance, that of the Rabbi Milton Rosenfeld. In a document included in the RSSCC’s collection, Rosenfeld also expressed frustration that “no action has been taken by the Mayor” to fill the eight vacancies on the Commission, and that the idea of hiring a full-time Director to work with a full Commission “received no encouragement from the Administration…” [6]

A more detailed account of the activities and struggles of the Davenport Human Relations Commission between 1966-68 may be assembled from the ordinance drafts, program proposals, correspondence, agendas, meeting minutes, reports, press releases, newspaper clippings, and other documents included in the Davenport Civil Rights Commission collection, along with reporting in the local newspapers from that period.  Both sources are available to researchers here at the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library.

(posted by Katie)


[1] Daily Times, May 3, 1969, p. 9.

[2]  Morning Democrat, May 29, 1964, p. 3.

[3] Daily Times, May 13, 1964.

[4] Times-Democrat, Sept. 7, 1966, p. 37.

[5] Sunday Times-Democrat, Dec. 24, 1967, p. 3A.

[6] “Reasons for the resignation of Rabbi Milton D. Rosenfeld from the Davenport Human Relations Commission,” “Committee Reports,”1966-1968 binder, Davenport Civil Rights Commission Historical Materials, RSSCC Acc# 2005-13.

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