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John Salter Jr., activist from lunch counter protest photo, dies in Pocatello

January 13, 2019

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.

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 also sometimes went by the name Hunter Bear Gray.

Relatives say he was 84 when he died Monday of natural causes.

Salter moved to Pocatello in 1997 after retiring. He was attracted to the Pocatello area due to family ties, according to his son, also named John Salter.

“He had an affinity for the West,” said his son, who resides in Lincoln, Nebraska. “And we have some family history in (the Pocatello) area going back to the fur trades in the 1800s. So he had a sort of soft spot for this area of Pocatello and Eastern Idaho, and he felt called to come back to this area after he retired and sort of make this his last stop.”

However, Salter still wrote articles, traveled for speaking engagements and worked on social justice endeavors around the country.

“But really, this was sort of a home base,” his son said of Pocatello.

According to the younger John Salter, the move to Southeast Idaho signified a sort of scaling back of his father’s relentless life of teaching and activism, though he was still involved in many worthwhile causes.

Salter grew up in Arizona and worked as a labor union organizer in the Southwest before moving to Mississippi, his son said. In Mississippi, the elder Salter was a sociology teacher and NAACP youth adviser. After leaving, he worked on voting rights in North Carolina, taught in Iowa, did human rights work for Native Americans in New York state and Chicago, and taught American Indian studies in North Dakota.

“If he felt like he’d done what he needed to do in a given place, he’d look for new challenges, new dragons to fight, and keep moving,” his son said. “I think he was sort of happy to get to Pocatello and say, ‘OK, this is where we belong now.’ He never wanted to move away from here.”

The younger Salter said the international attention his father’s death has received is “bittersweet.”

“Dad didn’t ask for recognition,” he said. “I think he would be kind of humbled and greatly gratified by the attention that has come in after he passed. I wish we could bring him back just long enough to see the mark he made on so many people.”

The iconic photograph which Salter is most well known for was taken in May 1963, when Salter joined black and white Tougaloo students during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth’s retail store in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. A mob of young white people doused Salter and the other peaceful protesters with sugar, mustard and ketchup and attacked 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,’’ Salter 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 Salter 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.

The younger John Salter said his father had always been a source of immense pride for the family.

“He was an automatic topic for our papers in school,” he said. “And when my kids got to high school history class and got their textbook, they opened it up and that picture was there. And it just means so much to them. So the pride continues through generations.”

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.”

Salter leaves another son and two daughters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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