Shawn vestal the barber, the exchange student and spokane’s “haircut uproar” the spokesman-review

Humiliated, Johnson left. He filed a complaint with local NAACP officials in what would become one of the city’s most important civil-rights cases – in which the barber argued unyieldingly, and unsuccessfully, that his rights were being abused if he was forced to serve African-American clients. The case, and the entire evolution of anti-discrimination law in the 1960s, parallels in many ways a case the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing right now: Whether an Colorado bakery can be required to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The bakers’ attorneys argue that certain discriminatory behavior – refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple – is protected because a wedding cake is a specific, commissioned, creative product.


By the lights of this argument, bakers would be required under anti-discrimination laws to sell a gay couple a pre-made cake, but should not be compelled to create a new cake, with its implicit message of support.

The case of Jangaba “Gus” Johnson followed similar lines. Johnson argued that a barbershop was a “public accommodation,” open to all, and therefore required to serve everyone under the law. But Wheeler’s attorney distinguished between two types of activity: A basic retail transaction, such as selling a can of corn, upon which, he argued, we all can agree there can be no discrimination, and certain services that are more personal or intimate. Forcing Wheeler to cut the hair of African-American clients, he argued, was akin to slavery itself.

The effort to draw such distinctions reached bizarre proportions when the bakers’ case was heard before the Supreme Court in December. Attorneys for the bakers argued that making a cake on commission was a creative act that expressed a message. Their free speech and religious rights should not be infringed by being coerced into “speaking” in favor of gay marriage by making a cake.

When he arrived at Gonzaga in 1963, Johnson was 22, an accomplished student and the son of the cultural minister of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Spokane, meanwhile, was a mostly white city with a lot of formal and informal segregation in public places such as bars and restaurants, social clubs, the housing market – everywhere.

Johnson would later say that he was accustomed to barbers in Liberia, a majority black nation founded as a repatriation colony for freed slaves and African-Americans born out of slavery, who would cut everyone’s hair. He expected the same here. When he entered the barbershop, according to several accounts, one barber was already cutting another client’s hair, with another waiting. He told Johnson to wait for the owner, Wheeler, to return.

Johnson left, and reported what happened to the NAACP. Carl Maxey, Spokane’s legendary civil rights attorney, took up his case, and filed a complaint with the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. Maxey argued that a barbershop was a place of “public resort and accommodation,” and therefore could not discriminate under state law, according to the biography “Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life,” by Jim Kershner, a longtime Spokesman-Review reporter.

Efforts to track down Johnson and several other students involved in the picketing were unsuccessful in recent weeks. This account is based on the books by Kershner and Mack, as well as news accounts from The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle. Some of the accounts referred to the case as the “Haircut Uproar.”

“In addition to the NAACP, Spokane now had a more radicalized citizenry of younger whites aroused to defend black civil rights,” Mack wrote, adding “This act of civil disobedience became Spokane’s first major organized interracial and intergenerational civil rights demonstration.” ‘What would I

Rep. Alfred O. Adams, a Spokane Republican, complained that Wheeler had been “framed” – reflecting the apparent belief among some that Wheeler had been entrapped by crafty leftists out to erode his constitutional rights. Adams said most Washingtonians wouldn’t support any situation “which takes away from majority groups their civil rights under the guise of protecting civil rights of minority groups.”

The discriminator-as-victim argument reached an absurd, audacious pitch in the legal arguments crafted by Wheeler’s attorney, Michael Hemovich. After refusing to stop discriminating, the barber was hauled before the Washington State Board Against Discrimination in November 1963. Hemovich argued that forcing Wheeler to cut the hair of black customers amounted to “involuntary servitude” and violated the 13th Amendment.

Hemovich acknowledged the state had a legitimate interest in outlawing discrimination at many types of businesses, but that “acts of service” were different. Forced acts of service, he said, were “as degrading and demoralizing as a state of absolute slavery.”

The board quickly ruled in Johnson’s favor, and ordered Wheeler to stop discriminating and post signs indicating everyone was welcome at his shop. He refused, appealing to Superior Court. There, Judge William H. Williams also ruled against him.

One such case was Sellers v. Philip’s Barber Shop, a New Jersey state Supreme Court case from 1966 that defined barbershops as public accommodations and rejected arguments that the barber provided a particularly “personal service” different from other public accommodations.

The Washington justices also cited Heart of Atlanta v. United States, in which a Georgia hotel owner argued that his constitutional rights were being violated if he could not refuse to rent rooms to black people. The hotel owners’ attorneys also made the “involuntary servitude” argument, as well as the claim that forcing anti-discrimination law on the business owner was an unconstitutional “taking” of his property.

A Seattle case also served as a precedent. In Browning v. Slenderella Systems of Seattle, an African-American woman successfully challenged a “reducing” salon’s refusal to serve her. The state Supreme Court ruled in Ola Brown’s favor in 1959, but the involuntary servitude argument was undertaken with great vigor by Justice Joseph Mallery, who cited the 13th Amendment and said that forcing Slenderella to accept black clients was akin to “destroying our most precious heritage.”

“Negroes should be familiar with (the 13th) amendment,” he wrote. “Since its passage, they have not been compelled to serve any man against their will. When a white woman is compelled against her will to give a negress a Swedish massage, that too is involuntary servitude.”

There are significant differences with the case now before the Supreme Court, particularly the argument that a wedding cake is protected speech under the First Amendment. It may be that the argument will succeed where others have not. More than one observer has predicted that the court and its conservative majority will side with the bakers in this case on religious freedom grounds.