Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Avon Rollins grew up in Tennessee and began working in the SNCC movement. He also started a number of different movements with his mentor Marion Barry. The communities varied from Students With Equal Treatment to developments for African-American communities.]
What circumstances and events in your past impacted your decision to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
It really started with Emmett Till in 1954. Emmett Till was a black young man who went to Money, Mississippi and he either looked at or spoke to a white woman and they killed him. They beat him and left him for days and he died. When they found his body, they sent it back to Chicago. His mother had a good chance to open the casket for thousands of people to see Emmett Till and what they had done to him. His head was swollen, I guess, to the size of a watermelon. They tore up his eyes with an axe hammer, It was devastating. If Emmett Till had been alive today, he would be about my age.
My civics teacher in high school saw I was really disturbed about that, so she said "Why don't you write about your feelings?" I wrote a paper called 'America.' Are you really America to me? America, are you really the land of the free and the home of the brave?" The paper went out and was talked about, how we sat in the back of the bus and we have to go through the back doors, They pick our mothers up, put paper on the back seat of the car like we were some kind of animal. They take us to their homes to do their cooking, to do their washing. They hurt our children. The question was, America, are you really America to me and people of color? Then I went on to talk about sins, war, freedom and democracy. They come back home, no freedom, no votes, no jobs, certainly not a democracy. So America, are you really America to me? But the paper concluded by saying, America will, one day, America, you will be America to me. The democratic system, attitudes to be free, at last you will be America to me.
When I became a young adult in the 60's, I met my mentor Marion Barry, who led the Nashville City Movement in Nashville, Tennessee. Through him, I got involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And Marion, after he became a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, we started a number of organizations at the University of Tennessee. One was called Students With Equal Treatment, that was affiliated with SNCC. I started this organization called the Knoxville Civic Improvement Committee, which was also affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; an organization called Black Committee of Knoxville; and a committee for the development of the African-American community. All of those became our organizations of the Knoxville area industrialization center.
Tell us about the origins of your involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Well, I've been involved in the Civil Rights Movement since 1960. My dad was up in here in Tennessee, in Knoxville, and Nashville. I participated in terms of the sit-in movement and also the opening up of theaters here in Knoxville and in local hospitals. It was very interesting. The church-related hospitals prior to 1963 or '64, were closed to African-Americans. Even if you got hit by an automobile in front of a Baptist Hospital, or a Presbyterian Hospital, or here in Knoxville at a Catholic Hospital. At the Catholic Hospital, demonstrating there, one day a Catholic woman got a hold of my tie and she began to choke me through a door with my tie. People assumed that it was a joke til they got closer they found that my color was changing. This woman was choking me and I was carrying a sign about "We're all brothers in Christ."
But to open up those things in Knoxville, and then on a national level, I became a member of the executive Committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which caused me to travel to other spots in the South. As a matter of fact, I was in the executive committee in New York City in 1963 with Lorraine Handsberry who was a great writer, her son, and others who were supporters of SNCC. Then we get this phone call from Virginia, from one of the local pastors, and he talked about what they were doing to African-Americans, how they pushed you down the steps.
My intention was to stop off in Danville for a couple days, then go back to Knoxville, Tennessee. But I went to Danville, and Danville became a big hot spot in the Civil Rights Movement. There was more brutality than Birmingham or Selma or some of the other places. Danville was generally a textile town really run by a few, but they had all kinds of submachine guns to defend the status quo. The police brutalized people, and, as a matter of fact, I ended up getting put in jail, which brought a whole lot of other SNCC people into Danville including SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
SNCC was the grand board of the Civil Rights Movement. You go to any place on the globe, you find that the SNCC person helps, the SNCC leadership is there. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership followed us, which involved the national press and a lot of the clergy, but it was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was the grand board of the movement.
So we stayed in Danville for almost a year and then went to Atlanta, and then some other place. You probably heard about it, in Southern Alabama in 1965. I was there also in the movement in Birmingham, Alabama. And then in 1964 in Mississippi. People came from all across the country to penetrate Mississippi. They brought about, really, the 1964 Civil Rights Act but the summer situation in 1964 were very, very interesting times.
What were the goals a/the movement that you participated in?
We made tremendous strides in terms of social justice in this country. You can go to a movie at night, you can go to the hospital of your choice, you can go to the hotel of your choice, you can go to the restroom of your choice.
But if you don't have resources, those doors are still closed to you. They don't need the firefighters to turn the hose on you to keep you away, they don't need the dogs put on you by the police department. But at the same end, if you don't have good credit or cash money, you still cannot enter those facilities. And that's the thing that has not changed since 1960. You look at the income of African-American families in the 1960 census, you'll find that African-Americans families make less than 60% of what they're accounted for. That means on average, for everyone dollar that a white family makes, a black family makes less than sixty cents. And now, you look at the 2010 census, you find that that has not changed.
So I guess the great disparity between the African-American family and the white family in terms of how you educate your children, how you take care of your family's health insurance, your recreation, and educational opportunities, there's so many other opportunities. But the economic equation has not changed very much. So in terms of our goals, who really achieved the goals?
Parenting, equality? The answer to that is no, because African- Americans are trying to graduate from high school, the health concerns that they have, even the longevity of life. We have not reached equality in America. And the other question is, back then, would I have anticipated 50, 60 years later that we'd be still dealing with these issues? And the answer to that, if I could go back to 1960 I would have never thought that 50 years later we'd still be dealing with some of these same kind of issues of equality. Now the people are protesting the Trayvon Martin murder; still young people are being murdered because of the color of their skin. So we still have these issues that we have to deal with in America.
Did you experience any form of white backlash in any movements you had taken part in?
Well, of course we saw some backlash, but in terms of white, it wasn't all blacks. I mean it wasn't a total African-American movement. A number of whites were hurt, brutalized, and punished in relation to the Civil Rights Movement.
Did you have any specific leaders that were appointed to the group that you were a part of?
One of them was Ruby Doris Smith. She died at an early age, I believe in 1966. But she was a tremendous warrior and a very dear friend of mine that I admired very deeply. I admired her great dedication, because so many women were moving forward. If you just look at a lot of the pictures of the Civil Rights Movement, you'll see so many women who participated. They say a lot of men fell back because they did not believe in nonviolence. But even when the movement turned violent they still didn't participate. Ruby Doris Smith was a great person.
I'll tell you of my short stint with Marion Barry. Marion became the mayor of Washington DC at least twice, and he's on city council in DC. Marion has done tremendous good in terms of the Civil Rights Movement as well as opening up opportunities for African Americans in the DC area. Another was C.T. Vivian. C.T. Vivian was with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a very interesting person.
See back in the 1960s, we could not stay in hotels, so we had to end up staying in peoples' homes. And it was interesting. Dr. King loved to arm wrestle with me. That's a funny thing with a 13 year age difference. Back then, I was in my 20s and Dr. King was in his 30s, and he could never beat me at a kitchen table. But we would go somewhere in public and I would never let myself win, because I refused to let people see him beaten in public. Dr. King was a very interesting person and a very keen listener. I always knew to shut up, when he'd cross his legs and lean forward.
Malcolm X was another person that I met, and a most unusual man. And the way I told the difference between the two was that Dr. King loved to eat. With all my time spent with Malcolm X, I never saw him eat anything, but he was an excessive coffee drinker. Then there was H.Y. Brown who became the chairman of SNCC and John Lewis who was another chairman of SNCC who now is a US Congressman.
Who did you think was the most effective leader in the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, there's a big difference in terms of leadership and who the most effective leader was as an individual or who ran an organization that had the largest effect on the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was probably the symbolic leader of the Civil Rights Movement. If I could choose anyone, it'd be him. He was just the symbolic leader.
But again, organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were a large force in Civil Rights. They went into communities and organized them, tried to raise the standards of education. They held voter registration drives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, all over. When SNCC was formed in 1960, it was a coordinating body in terms of coordinating youth organizations across the whole country. A meeting was called for their purpose and they [were asked to] became a contingent of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But students told them that that was not something that we wanted. Out of that, Marion Barry was selected as the chairman of SNCC. But I'll say again that surely Dr. King was the symbolic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and then under that you've got John Lewis, Chuck McDew, who was the second chair under SNCC, and John Lewis was the third, and Malcolm X.
In the specific movement you were in, were there whites fighting for black equality as well?
Oh, yeah, absolutely! There was one named Robert Zellner. You can look him up; he played quite a big role. There were actually a number of whites who were killed. There were whites that were beaten in the Freedom Rides, the ones who helped participate in the sit-ins, and many more. But the point was that there were blacks and whites fighting together. The whites equally put themselves on the line in order to make America a better place for all of us.
How did you feel about the President's regard for Civil Rights action?
Well, it was lax, particularly with the Kennedys, even after marching in Washington. President John Kennedy was really against the march, but the direction of the march changed over the course of us organizing it. We started talking about doing radical things: tying ourselves to the White House and filling up the telephone system so the White House couldn't function. But how would that change? You know? I don't know if things would have changed had Kennedy taken his second term. I mean, things changed when Johnson became president. Because of the grieving of the nation over President Kennedy, Johnson was able to push legislation and get signatures.
Did you experience the split in the Civil Rights Movement around 1966?
Well, what happened with SNCC was they elected John Lewis the chairman of SNCC one night, and then later on that night they elected Stokely Carmichael. A lot was done with Stokely's leadership. I feel that people misinterpreted him. He told whites to go back to their neighborhoods and organize and gather as many supporters as they could so that blacks and whites could join forces. Some people took that the wrong way. Bob Zellner left and went to a different organization, and many followed.
This new direction for SNCC led the organization to rethink their name and consider changing it. I guess in '66 with that different approach, the fundraising for SNCC dried up, and it caused SNCC to disappear in '66 or '67 as an effective organization in the Civil Rights Movement. So, at that point, we joined up with the Black Panthers on the West Coast and I stayed for about six months or so. Stokely stayed maybe a year. The interesting thing was that Dr. King never criticized the Black Power movement. When Dr. King was assassinated, I remember Carmichael crying so uncontrollably. He was so impacted, I mean we all were. He had such profound views about freedom and nonviolence.
Why did the Civil Rights Movement end?
It has not ended. You must look at some socio-economic data, because the Civil Rights Movement is not over. We have not reached clear equality in this country between African Americans and our white counterparts. So the struggle continues every single day in order to bring about just equality among our two races.
The reason I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement was the writing of a paper. "Are we really America?" was the main question asked in it. There are still blacks who come back after the war and can't find jobs, there's nothing really to hope for. The struggle of surviving in America has not changed for them. In other words, real freedom hasn't reached the masses of African Americans like most say that it has. I'm not saying it isn't true that there are quite a few African Americans that have done extremely well. Take Marion Barry, who was working on his chemistry degree. Had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement, he would have never made it to Washington DC. If the Civil Rights Movement had not happened, I myself would be teaching mathematics somewhere. It opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. But when I go down south, development is still quite low. These people who had such poor placement were not able to take advantage of this great change that has happened.
Rollins is a Director and CEO at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Avon Rollins has been described in 12 books about the Civil Rights Movement for all of the hard work he committed to the Movement. He is also the president of Rollins & Associates, Inc., a management firm specializing in economic development and labor relations. He is also on the board of the East Tennessee Cancer Society.]
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