In the course of human events, the wheels of history turn slowly – but they do turn. Not on their own but with human shoulders on the wheel – the shoulders of men like Cleveland Nisby.
Born July 24, 1919, in Opelousas, the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, La., he moved to Beaumont at the age of 1. When Cleveland Nisby died last week at the age of 92, many of those who knew him and many thousands more who knew of him paused in thanks for his well-spent life – and that our town is a better place today because he lived among us.
After a brief sojourn in the North following service in World War II with the Merchant Marine, Nisby returned to Beaumont and took a job at the refinery where he would labor for the next 42 years. In a 2008 interview with The Examiner, Nisby reflected on those days.
“I went to work for Mobil Oil — it was called Magnolia Refinery in those days — for 45 cents an hour. By the time I left there, I was making $19 an hour,” he said.
One significant development during the early years of his tenure was the unionization of the refinery work force, something that was not accomplished without great sacrifice. Nisby worked tirelessly to help organize the union, a dangerous task for those willing to go up against the company. The danger was compounded for him because he was black.
“It was quietly, very quietly done and no public statements or public approach to anybody,” he recalled. “You would lose your job talking about a union, and there were many who lost their jobs.”
Company resistance to union organizing was firm until President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that corporations obey laws protecting labor unions if they wanted to continue to participate in lucrative government contracts. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower continued that policy, and unions finally came to Texas refineries.
For Nisby, the fight was not over — not by a long shot. The Oil Workers International Union organized Local 23 for white workers and Local 229 for black workers, who quickly found that the seniority system meant they would be permanently disadvantaged in competing for the best jobs.
With a chuckle, Nisby recalled that the two-local system ended when Magnolia Refinery said they would no longer collect dues for two separate unions, so the black and white locals were combined. Despite efforts from within and without to pit the two groups against each other, the workers soon realized that issues of wages, benefits and job safety were what united them.
The quest for social justice was a cause Nisby embraced in the community, as well, working for equality in education as well as the workplace. He became president of the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP in 1960 and pressed Jefferson County to employ blacks at the courthouse. He also pushed for a housing code that would prevent slumlords from collecting extravagant rent from substandard housing.
Nisby knew the key to building on these hard-fought gains would be to have more blacks in positions of power. He ran for a seat on the Jefferson County Commissioners Court in 1974 and again in 1982 and lost both times under a system that required candidates to run countywide for district positions. He challenged that at-large scheme in federal court as the plaintiff in a 1985 lawsuit that ended with a judge ordering the county to redraw its voting boundaries to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He abandoned his plans to run for the seat again and tossed his support behind Ed Moore as a black unity candidate. In the 1986 election, Moore unseated white incumbent Rolfe Christopher.
Nisby is survived by his wife, Dora, who has unselfishly shared him with the community for all these years.
Rep. Joe Deshotel, who represents Beaumont and Port Arthur in the Texas House of Representatives, openly acknowledges his debt to Nisby.“He was a pioneer in going to many areas where African-Americans traditionally weren’t and helping open many, many doors,” said Deshotel. “Mr. Nisby had a lot of inner strength, because there was always a real threat of violence. It wouldn’t be unusual, particularly in the early civil rights movement. Many people lost their lives or put their lives on the line when they took certain actions — it took people of strong character, people like Cleveland Nisby.”
Nisby is also survived by daughters Linda Johnson (Harvey) and Cheryl Caziere, of Carson, Calif.; sons Ronald Nisby (Brenda), Anchorage, Alaska, Claver Kamau-Imani, Houston, and Reginald Nisby (Sharon), Los Angeles, Calif.; sisters Elselena King, Beaumont, Mable Harris, Washington, La., and Annie Mae Mott, Houston; seven grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. One daughter, Betty Dozier, preceded him in death on Nov. 12, 2011. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Cleveland Nisby Scholarship Fund, via Mercy Funeral Home.