John Salter Jr., activist from lunch counter protest photo, dies at 84

FILE - In this May 28, 1963 file photo, a group of whites pour sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of Tougaloo College student demonstrators at a sit-in demonstration at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss. Seated at the counter, from left, are Tougaloo College professor John Salter,and students Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody. John Salter, who also used the name John Hunter Gray, died Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 at his home in Pocatello, Idaho. Relatives say he was 84 when he died Monday after an illness. (Fred Blackwell/The Clarion-Ledger via AP, File)
Fred Blackwell/The Clarion-Ledger via AP/File 1963
Seated at the counter, from left, are Tougaloo College professor John Salter, and students Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody had sugar, ketchup, and mustard poured over their heads at a sit-in demonstration at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss. — A community organizer shown in an iconic photograph while challenging racial segregation at a Mississippi lunch counter in the 1960s has died at his home in Pocatello, Idaho.

Known by his birth name John Salter Jr. when he worked at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi, he later changed his name to John Hunter Gray to honor the Native American part of his ancestry. He sometimes went by the nickname Hunter Bear Gray.

Relatives say he was 84 when he died Monday after an illness.


Mr. Gray was a sociology teacher and NAACP youth adviser in Mississippi in the early 1960s, working closely with Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

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In May 1963, Mr. Gray joined black and white Tougaloo students during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth’s store in downtown Jackson. A mob of young white people doused them with sugar, mustard, and ketchup and attacked Mr. Salter with brass knuckles and broken glass.

The taunting crowd and the peaceful protesters were captured in a black-and-white photograph that gained international attention.

‘‘I was burned with cigarettes, hit, and had pepper thrown in my eyes,’’ Mr. Gray wrote in an article published in The Guardian in 2015. ‘‘The women weren’t struck but had their hair pulled. All the while the air was filled with obscenities, the n-word — it was a lavish display of unbridled hatred.’’

The two young women in the photo were Anne Moody, an African-American student who wrote a memoir called ‘‘Coming of Age in Mississippi’’ and who died in 2015; and Joan Trumpauer, a white Tougaloo student who now lives in Alexandria, Va. She said Wednesday that Mr. Gray taught young people they could take action to challenge injustice.


‘‘I think he inspired a lot of students to realize what we could do to make the world better,’’ she said.

Like many civil rights activists in the 1960s, Mr. Gray was monitored by people working for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded spy agency that sought to preserve segregation.

Mr. Gray grew up in Arizona and worked as a labor union organizer in the Southwest before moving to Mississippi, said one of his sons, John Salter of Lincoln, Neb.

After working in Mississippi, Mr. Gray worked on voting rights in North Carolina, taught in Iowa, did human rights work for Native Americans in New York and Chicago, and taught American Indian studies in North Dakota.

‘‘He never considered himself a career professor,’’ his son said Thursday. ‘‘His real love was the stuff he did outside the classroom.’’


John Salter Jr. said his father lived by a favorite phrase from the Industrial Workers of the World labor union: ‘‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’’

Michael O’Brien interviewed John Salter Jr. for his book ‘‘We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired.’’

‘‘John was a true ‘radical’ in the very best sense of that word,’’ O’Brien said in a statement Thursday. ‘‘He was a fierce advocate for those without a voice, or perhaps better stated, for those who had not yet discovered their voice.”

Mr. Gray leaves another son and two daughters.