Unveiling the Veiled Prophet

7, December 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: In order to bring a plurality of voices to our storytelling, the Missouri History Museum frequently asks guest writers to contribute to History Happens Here. The views and opinions expressed by guest contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missouri History Museum, its affiliates, or its employees.
Black-and-white photo of the Black Veiled Prophet leading ACTION protestGeorge "Judge" Johnson leads an ACTION protest as the Black Veiled Prophet, December 21, 1970. Photo by Ted Dargan. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

ACTION—a nonviolent, direct-action protest organization made entirely of interracial volunteer members—began protesting the white-only Veiled Prophet (VP) organization in 1967. These demonstrations were part of a strategy to enhance ACTION’s ongoing protest for fair employment—ACTION members did not protest the VP so they could be part of it. In fact, ACTION viewed the VP as a racist organization and advocated that it should be abolished so St. Louis could begin freeing itself from institutional racism and become a prosperous city for all.  

Two years before ACTION’s VP protests began, the group launched a protest campaign to demand “More and Better-Paying Jobs for Black Males, the family chief bread winner.” The campaign targeted large local businesses, including Southwestern Bell (now AT&T), Laclede Gas (now Spire), Union Electric (now AmerenUE), McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, (now Boeing), and McDonald Construction (the general contractor that built the Gateway Arch). ACTION wanted to generate good-paying jobs for black males, specifically 4,080 jobs spread across all of the targeted companies, a number that reflected the 10 percent of St. Louis’s population made up of African Americans at that time. When ACTION’s demands weren’t met within the allotted time span, the public demonstrations against each individual company began.

Targeting the VP Organization

In 1967, ACTION discovered that all the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the companies it had charged with practicing discriminatory employment were also active members of the white-only VP organization. If a CEO belonged to such an organization, then how likely was it that same CEO would be fair to a black male? According to ACTION, this racist social connection was the glue that reinforced these CEOs’ practices of not hiring African American males into decent-paying jobs. After ACTION began to expose their VP connections, the negative public association caused some of these CEOs to begin hiring black males in higher-paying positions. 

Color photo of pages following the Veiled Prophet and VP Queen in 1963Pages follow the Veiled Prophet and VP Queen at the 1963 Veiled Prophet Ball. Photo by Ralph D'Oench. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Over the course of ACTION’s seven-year protest against the VP, many VP debutantes became interested in ACTION’s charges that the organization was racist, sexist, and elitist. The young women were particularly concerned about the sexism argument, and some of their wealthy young male counterparts were somewhat concerned about the racism charge. However, the biggest shock to both groups was when ACTION stated that the debutantes were being auctioned off to other wealthy young potential VP males of an elitist class.

Many of the young VP participants—and even some of the older ones—expressed, in confidence, that they weren’t happy about being part of this questionable festivity. Some of these individuals expressed a willingness to support ACTION’s protests against an organization they also saw as outdated.

The Year of Action

In 1972, after much discussion among ACTION leadership and active membership, it was decided that it was possible to unveil the Veiled Prophet and that this would be the goal that year. As an integrated organization, ACTION called upon its white members for the task. An all-white surreptitious protest team was selected and briefed, with each volunteer understanding they would likely be arrested.

Leading up to the 1972 Veiled Prophet Ball, some invitees made available six authentic VP invitations for ACTION to use. Then, on December 22, ACTION’s picket line was in place across the street from the entrance to Kiel Auditorium (now the Peabody Opera House), as it had been for the past seven years on the night of the ball. Attendees filing into the auditorium once again laughed as ACTION members chanted about how they would “unveil the white Veiled Prophet”—unknown to them, the unveiling was about to take place.  

Scanned page from "Why You Must Raise Hell" showing planning of the VP unveilingThis page from Why You Must Raise Hell shows five ACTION members, including Gena Scott and Jane Sauer, planning the 1972 VP unveiling. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Gena Scott and Jane Sauer, two white members of ACTION, executed the unveiling. After entering the auditorium with the other debutantes, Scott and Sauer, dressed in their white formal evening gowns, proceeded upstairs to the balcony area where they collaborated for a while to establish a plan. Sauer then went to the opposite end of the auditorium from where the women had entered and began dropping from the balcony countless ACTION leaflets denouncing the VP event.

While Sauer was providing a distraction, Scott spotted a backstage cable and began climbing down it to the first floor. The cable broke with Scott only partway down, causing her to fall to the floor, but she quickly regained her composure and worked her way behind the stage curtains toward where the Veiled Prophet was sitting. Scott then snatched his veiled headgear and threw it out in front of the stage, where it lay on the floor.

The shocked audience expressed a loud “whoa.” Scott continued to stand behind the now-unveiled Veiled Prophet and reported that he, too, was shaken up. The Bengal Lancers, soldier-like guards standing to either side, were also stunned. After about a minute or so of the Veiled Prophet sitting exposed for all to see, one of the Lancers finally broke rank, walked out to pick up the headpiece, and restored it to the Veiled Prophet’s head.

Scanned page from "Why You Must Raise Hell" showing St. Louis Journalism Review article on the VP unveilingThis page from Why You Must Raise Hell shows a copy of the January 1973 St. Louis Journalism Review article about the VP unveiling annotated by Percy Green II. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

After the Unveiling

Unsurprisingly, Scott and Sauer were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. Meanwhile, ACTION notified the city’s newspapers that the Veiled Prophet was Tom K. Smith Jr., a vice president of Monsanto Corporation. Both the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat—the biggest papers in town—refused to reveal Smith’s identity. Only the St. Louis Journalism Review, a biweekly publication, was willing to print Smith’s name.

Prior to the scheduled court date, the charges against both ACTION protesters were dropped. ACTION argued the charges were dropped because the protesters were going to demand to face their accusers, which meant Tom K. Smith would have had to appear in court, a humiliation neither he nor the VP organization seemed willing to face.

—Percy Green II, former chairperson of ACTION

Membership appeal