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.[
Heather Booth was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1945. She is Jewish and part of the Jewish culture is to struggle for freedom, the Passover story which is an essential part of history of people struggling for freedom and against slavery.]
We would like to start by asking you to tell us some general information about your family background. When and where were you born?
I was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1945. My father was in the army at a medical base in World War II. He was a physician.
Next, we would like you to tell us your story of what you experienced during the Civil Rights Movement. We are eager to hear about your Civil Rights experience. First we would like to ask you what movements you were involved in?
The first flyer I ever handed out was against death penalty. I must have been 13 or 14 years old, fairly young at that point. Then in 1960, I joined CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) in support of people who were protesting Woolworths, which wouldn't seat blacks at the counters in the South. From there, I connected to SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and headed up the Friends of SNCC chapter on my campus at the University of Chicago.
I went South to Mississippi in '64, and stayed with SNCC until about '68 when whites were no longer welcome in the organization. I was also very active in the emerging student movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. There was a youth culture developing. Half the college-aged population for the first time in history was at college, away from home. A whole new culture developed with that a sociological change. There were a number of issues about what rights do students have, or do the universities make decisions about how students operate, like what hours they could come back to the dorm at night.
That also then led to the student part of an anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam, which was raging at that time. It was part of anti-colonial movements especially in Africa and around the world. I became very active in that, as well as an anti-apartheid effort in those years. My first arrest was at an anti-apartheid effort, in 1965. There was a consortium of 10 U.S. banks that bailed out the South African apartheid regime that would collapse otherwise, so there were demonstrations at those banks.
And, by 1968, there was an emerging women's movement developing. I became active and helped to set up a women's liberation union in Chicago and was very active on a number of other issues related to it. Then in 1970, it really burst forth an entire women's movement in the country with massive demonstrations. It was August 26th, there were demonstrations called the "women's strike" and the theme was "Don't iron while the strike is hot" a little play on words.
From the women's movement, I then connected with those doing community organizing after I graduated from college. In 1966 Dr. King came to Chicago and said the way to civil rights was through labor rights. You may remember that he was killed while supporting the workers in a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. He really believed that you needed union rights. I joined a combined union, civil rights worker organizing drive for hospital workers in Chicago and I was part of that staff. One movement led to another. I have been active in support of immigration laws reform, LGBT rights, and the Occupy efforts. My view is all of these are part of a broader movement for social justice, for democracy and greater freedom in this society.
When you were younger were there any circumstances in your past that impacted your decision to get involved in Civil Rights?
Definitely. I grew up in a very loving home with, what I believe to be, very good values believing in the Golden Rule, that you should treat others with decency and respect as you would wish to be treated. My parents really believed in the ideals of the country being a democracy and with justice. I'm Jewish and part of the Jewish culture is to struggle for freedom. The Passover story is an essential part of the history of people struggling for freedom and against slavery. That was part of the culture and background that I grew up in.
When you were participating in any movement did you experience any backlash of violence?
Yes, from many of the movements. Even when I was handing out my first flyer on the death penalty, someone spit on me. It was pretty shocking. I was a young teenager and it was scary to me.
Then in the Civil Rights Movement, there was certainly violence threatened. Three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and Ben Chaney, were murdered near Philadelphia, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964, and that was a cautionary tale to all of us. When they were searching for those three bodies, they found eight other bodies of black men whose hands were bound and feet were chopped off and some thrown in the Tallahatchie River. This kind of terror was part of the life that Black people faced in some parts of this country when they were standing up for their rights. Those cases were never investigated, by the way.
And just very recently, there was a move to start to perhaps investigate these 60 year-old cases. I was active in the right of women to choose whether or when to have a child and so became active in the pro-choice movement. We would be at events and people would be picketing with my picture on a sign and my home number and it was threatening. I've acted on other issues, to try to think of ways to create peace in the Middle East, and the two state solution. There were threats, not life threats but intimidation, by portions of community that didn't want to see this solution. So many of these major issues have faced a backlash and a fight against them. In general, I think, the country moves towards greater democracy and inclusion — and we have prevailed — but only when people organized.
So in your movement did blacks and whites get along and work together?
You know, overwhelmingly, they did. The symbol of SNCC was black hands and white hands clasped together. The name of CORE was the Congress of Racial Equality, the equal partnership. Our lives depended on each other so there was a great deal of protection, personal caring and organizational support and inspiration taken from each other. Over time, we were in close corners especially under threats and violence so there were tensions that you would take out on each other and as well as on the broader society. Those tensions sometimes appeared within the movement itself between men and women, between younger and older, between different tactics, and between blacks and whites. That culminated to some extent in 1967, when whites were thrown out of SNCC.
So were the specific movements you were involved in overall successful?
The progress of the movements was stunning. If you just take Mississippi, first of all. This kind of officially sanctioned terror, where the sheriff would release three young men into the hands of the Klan, at a seemly sanctioned lynching, no longer exists.
In Mississippi, there are a greater percent of African-American elected officials than any other state in the country. The system made extraordinary progress. It's also true that there is an enormous way to go. You see by the execution of Troy Davis that the death penalty is still a problem disproportionally affecting African-Americans. There is a new Jim Crow in the criminal justice system, unequal education, and unequal employment. There is an enormous way to go. There has also been enormous progress because people organized.
So you believe that there is still racism in America, and do you think there is a need for more Civil Rights Movements today?
Definitely, I think there needs to be ongoing organizing for justice and equality and freedom. They take different forms. They take the form of, as we saw with the Troy Davis fight route, unequal justice. It can take the form of fights for jobs, as well as the disproportionate impact of unemployment of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color. Discrimination still persists in so many areas today (housing, education, health care and more).
Do you think that the leaders that you associated with in the Civil Rights Movement were effective and that they helped you become a leader yourself?
When you say "leaders," there are several ways to look at that. One of the wonderful things about SNCC was that it was really based on the people themselves who are the leaders. There was a wonderful person who helped in the formation of SNCC. Her name was Ella Baker. I don't know if you studied about her. A book about her is called Ella. She was a person who, when the sit-ins started, encouraged young people to form their own organizations for the Civil Rights Movement. One of her phrases was "Strong people don't need strong leaders." Though she respected leaders, and leaders matter, what she really respected was part of the SNCC ethic: Everyday people telling the stories of their lives, standing up for what they believe in, joining with their neighbors can be an overwhelming force and that's really where our power comes from.
That's my first comment about leadership. The second is some of the leaders who were the more publicly recognized and inspiring were extraordinary. Last night I was on a panel with Julian Bond, who was a communications director and one of the founders of SNCC, and more recently was the past president of NAACP. He is a true hero and lives his values. There were inspiring leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a sharecropper. She spoke at the Democratic Convention in 1968 arguing that the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi should not be seated, and instead the integrated delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party should be seated. She changed the face of politics. Or, we all changed it, with her as one of the great, truly inspiring, courageous leaders.
It's also true that some of the people that were so called leaders weren't leaders. There were people who then moved off for personal gain or personal profit. The strain and pressure of the movement made some people lose their vision and sort of get out of whack. Overall, I would say the leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was extraordinarily dedicated, willing to die for the movement, willing to live for the movement, was an unbelievable gift to not only the movement but to America, and reinvigorated the very idea of democracy itself.
At the time, how did you feel about the President, the national leadership, and his regard for the civil rights action? How did you feel about what he was doing?
The president, it is a question of which president. In 1960, President Kennedy actually did not want to make his mark on civil rights. He initially hoped that he would make his mark on foreign policy. And some of this was covered in the book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. He was moved to address civil rights because of the rising movement in the country.
After [Kennedy's] assassination, LBJ (President Lyndon B. Johnson) was a remarkable civil rights champion in ways that very few people could have anticipated with him coming out of a very racially divided Texas. He ended up being a great leader for civil rights signing and fighting for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Act and using his political skill to get these Acts through Congress.
It is also true that Hoover, the head of the FBI, was investigating the Civil Rights Movement and was hostile to it. Investigating Dr. King. Hoover used threats that they held over the head of some of the civil rights leaders. He tried to discredit Bayard Rustin, who was an advisor to King, because he was a homosexual. Hoover tried to use Rustin's relationship with King to undermine King's credibility. So, there was also national leadership threatening the movement. What's remarkable is that the civil rights leadership still stood up.
Did you ever question your role? Did you ever wonder, is what I'm doing? Or was it you just knew what you wanted to do and you stood up for it?
You know, the moral vision of what we wanted to do was always clear and I never questioned that.
I never questioned, should people be treated equally? Is the sacrifice worth the gain in organizing younger souls, even when it's difficult? I've always sustained the belief and experience and knowledge. I've often been confused is this what we need to do? Is it going to work? Will we lose? Will we win? Is this the right approach? Am I good enough? Do I know enough? I was terribly insecure about what any particular path might be. In organizing you often don't exactly know how it will turn out. But what I really did have great faith in was the overall value of the cause and the belief that the people together will figure out a way to move forward.
How did you deal with feelings of despair when you were unsuccessful in a movement? Did you get discouraged. Or would you just keep on going?
You know there's a phrase from an Italian activist named Antonio Gramsci that he wrote when he was jailed by the Fascists (National Fascist Party) in World War II, and the phrase is, "Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of will." I think that that is the attitude I often bring, which is in my mind, will this work? What will we do? The odds are so great, can we really make progress? Will we be crushed once again? It is so unfair. Then in my will we say, "But we are going to give it our best shot." Often when people continue their struggle, the forces of progress do triumph. But it's not often easy and it is often not a straight line.
So you shared with us several philosophies and things that were specific to movements you were part of. Do you have any sayings yourself that motivate you?
I have many things that motivate me. I do believe in treating people with decency and fairness, that people should be able to live with dignity. I do believe in the "Golden Rule," guidelines. I believe you can, should act, in the world to treat others as you wish to be treated. Also there are structural and institutional changes that need to be made, so even being a wonderful individual person, treating your neighbor well, recycling, being a nice person, it's really not enough. We have to address the broader social and institutional and power relations of equality and justice. There are many things that inspire and motivate me, seeing in organizing we have changed the world, as well as the joy to take in the next generation and even now, with our grandchildren and seeing them and how precious and wonderful they are, and wanting to leave a better world for them.
What were some specific gains or benefits for blacks in society in general that you saw during the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, I certainly saw allowing for voting rights and equal accommodations and transportation rights. There's been a massive change in terms of legal acts and a massive change in terms of self-confidence and awareness of both African Americans and other Americans and other people around the world about what is a fair world of people of different races in a society. There really has been an enormous consciousness change.
There is growing wish for inclusiveness, especially with the younger generation. There is rising black middle-class, rising numbers in college graduation since the 1960s. But at the same time there are so many barriers by race, by economics, by class so that the darkest, poorest people in the country are likely to become second and third and more generations living in poverty. For them, there is not much hope and not much opportunity, so that struggles needs to continue to change it. And in many areas we are even going backward, with increasing inequality.
Now in 1966, did you experience the split in the Civil Rights Movement?
I don't remember a specific split in '66, but there were always tensions. What was a rising tension was that after several years of progress, the rate of progress seemed to slow down and the awareness of the problems just loomed so large. Where the expectations for the movement grew, there was a new militant movement the Black Panthers developed. Stokely Carmichael who had been the head of SNCC then initiated the argument for "Black Power."
There were conflicts between young and old leadership. It became much greater after Dr. King was killed, and Malcolm X was killed, and Bobby Kennedy was killed. There was a feeling that everything was coming to an end in a violent and militant time. In some ways, the war we were fighting in Vietnam was coming home and we were fighting among ourselves. If murder and violence was the way out, some said let's bring out the guns. But others said it's still a path of peaceful civil disobedience and respecting the law and breaking it when we needed to but not flaunting it.
So, there were different approaches that developed. Tensions arose around these and other issues. There was a wish by many of the Black people in the movement to run their own organization. Whites sometimes were not sensitive to the need for self-determination by Blacks in the organizations. This led to whites being put out of SNCC. So those were some splits that I am aware of.
So, Malcolm X versus Dr. King, passive versus more violent, which method do you agree with more?
First of all, to minimize either of them by saying Malcolm X, "more violent," King "more passive," I don't think it recognizes the great power that each of them had. You know, Malcolm X inspired the people who had nothing. He himself had been in jail. With the disproportionate percentages of African Americans that were in jail, often Malcolm X's inspiration led many to lead a straight and narrow path in life and move into the black Muslims. Malcolm gave many people courage to see different ways the community could become more self-reliant.
It's also true that before the very last years of his life, he made some changes in his views. But he believed that there was such violence in the black community, that there needed to be some threat of violence in response. But, as far as we know, he never took part in any violent acts after he was out of jail. His language was militant in calling to action. His saying, "The chickens come home to roost" after Kennedy had been killed. It wasn't calling for Kennedy's death but it was saying how the insanity of a violent, white community is when it kills its own.
He was militant, but I don't know that he was violent. By the end of his life, he had approached a multi-racial view of the world and had gone to Mecca. He saw people of all races and shades who shared a common religion and view of humanity and he much more had that view at the point he was killed.
For Dr. King, to minimize him by saying he's passive, misses what an activist he was and how he called people to action. His opponents often thought he was a dangerous militant. J. Edgar Hoover and the top branches of law enforcement were scared of King and tried to undermine him. Dr. King did believe in nonviolent civil disobedience but he also understood that sometimes you have to stand up, even when violence may be the response by the opponents of civil rights.
Now, who did I believe in more? I believed both were remarkable leaders in the movement and it was enhanced by both their leadership and the tension between them. What do you think?
Well, we've been reading some books in class lately and discussing some of these topics. I think I agree with you, that they both made their mark and they helped the movement forward by appealing to different people.
And are you all involved in any movement efforts to build a better community?
The three of us are in 8th grade here in Wisconsin and here in our school, we try to learn about other cultures and be very open to different races.
Were any of you involved in the effort to support public employees in Madison?
One of us was, Thea, and he can tell you about that. Theo, what did you do?
My sister's high school protested and the teachers just let the students walk out or sit-in. Some students chose to sit-in, but some chose to leave the school grounds and not go to school for the rest of the day. I personally know a couple people that went to the Capitol to protest.
That's really great and I encourage all of you not only to study the civil rights history, but to also be part of making that history. There are so many struggles you can be involved with and we need you in those struggles. So, really, take it as a challenge, especially in Wisconsin. It's become a national focus for people trying to build a better society now. To defend nurses and firefighters. I'd encourage you to join the effort. What do you think?
I agree with you. I think it is important that younger kids or our generation get involved in Civil Rights to help improve our country for the future of our lives and our future generations.
Good! I hope that you all continue to engage and take action yourselves.
So, back to the Civil Rights Movement how did the "Black Power" movement impact the work you were involved in?
"Black Power" led to whites being told they should not be in SNCC, so that was a big change. The movement seemed to be fracturing into finer and finer divisions around different tactics and approaches. So Black Power emboldened and strengthened people, but it also fractured people and the organization of SNCC and the unity of a civil rights movement.
What advice would you give to our generation about racial relationships?
It's good to have them! There can be enormous joy in this world and in this life, by coming to value the amazing differences we have, and similarities we have, when there are shared values. The real message I would give is to engage, not just watch, not just study or do a history class report, but ask yourself how are you going to be involved and on what issue? It can be on any issue that has meaning to you, be it the environment, health care, child care, civil rights, labor rights, or whatever is meaningful to you; some effort that is about building a better society. And so, my real encouragement and challenge is to say do not just be a bystander, get involved! There are people now doing these Occupy efforts; go down, talk to them, join them! There are people working on the elections, figure out why they are, what you care about, and find if the candidates reflect your view. Maybe someday, run for office yourselves! There are so many ways to be involved. I would just encourage people to do that.
The Civil Rights Movement, how did that change your life? How did that impact you personally?
Well, it's become a fundamental part of my life. My work now reflects the movement commitments. I've tried other kinds of jobs, but I've decided that what I like is building the movement. I ran the campaign on financial reform to reign in one of the biggest banks on Wall Street, which was the Dodd-Frank Bill. I am now working on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, since was it designed as a guarantee from one generation to the next, to take seniors out of poverty. If people are fortunate, they will become senior citizens. It has nothing to do with the deficits, and there is no reason that there should be any cuts to Social Security. If everyone paid their fair share, we wouldn't have to deal with any problems in the future. So, the movement is my work.
My husband is also involved in the movement. We met at a sit-in, so I found the love of my life through that. Our kids share these values, most of my friends share these values. Actually all of my friends share these values. I take heart that some of the difficulties of this time will pass, because I believe people will still keep organizing.
So, the Civil Rights Movement was definitely very significant in your life?
What were some of the feelings that you felt maybe from yourself or from others?
I'm glad that it was such an important force for change in the country. I think that the lessons of that movement have impacted other movements, and it will continue to impact people working to build a better world. In fact, I understand in early spring there just was a comic book that had been translated into Arabic, about Dr. King and was circulated for many, many years in Egypt and the Middle East. The Civil Rights Movement was a factor in giving confidence to the recent Arab Spring and it has contributed to other movements for change in the world.
What else do you think needs to be changed in the country today?
Oh, so many things! I think that the desperate inequality that's growing needs to change. A small percentage, the top one percent, controls so much of the wealth and power of this country, and they're not using it for the improvement of the country. It's just poisoning the social atmosphere, the wealthiest using that funding to undermine our politics, and undermining our public life! Having the money go to the tax breaks for millionaires' and billionaires' private yachts and planes rather than to fund education and health care and the building of roads and bridges and things people need.
Inequality is terrible and increasing. Racial injustice is not only the Jim Crow laws, the criminal justice system, employment inequalities. There is a struggle about immigrants, coming to America and now having to live in shadows. We have to come to grips with this and win comprehensive immigration reform. There are so many issues and I do think eventually people will rise up again with organizing and make changes for the better.
Do you think that politics nowadays are more corrupt, they're more for making a career than working for the good of our country? What is your opinion on that?
I think some politicians are just in it for themselves and in it for the money. But I think many politicians are in it because they really want to serve. And those with whom I really disagree may believe they are in it because they really want to serve, but then the question is who are they serving? Who are their supporters, who is giving the money? What is this corrupting system where it takes so much money to run for the highest office, or Congress or Senate? That's one of the reasons I think young people like yourselves should consider getting involved, in elections, even considering running for office yourselves.
Ok. Well, we are interested in sit-ins. Can you tell us some more about your experience with them?
I was organizing in support of the Southern sit-ins in the 1960s, but I was living in the North at that point. So we had demonstrations in support of them. The ways they operated in the South were that people, African American youth, would sit at a lunch counter and not be served because there was segregation. Whites would not serve blacks at the lunch counters. Then they would rotate who would be sitting in so that you could be there all day and keep some seats. There were wade-ins so swimming pools could be integrated. Then there were the bus rides, and the Freedom Riders. The bus systems were integrated. Then there was testing of residential rental systems. Whites would rent, and blacks would own and, move in. So, one idea generated others.
The sit-in I was involved in was a sit-in against the war in Vietnam. My college was ranking students in numeric order by grade point average.If you didn't have a student deferment you went into the draft for the army based on your grade point average. We knew also that grade point averages often reflected race and class. So we felt the university shouldn't cooperate with the Selective Service system. So we came out against the ranking of the students and the Selective Service system. In demonstrating against that, we went into the Administration building and sat down. It was the first sit-in against the war, again simulated by the ideas of the Civil Rights Movement.
A friend of mine was raped at knife point and we had to get a gynecological exam for her. Student health said the gynecological exams were not covered by student health, and she was actually given a lecture on promiscuity. We sat with her, didn't leave, and they called it a sit-in. You can take action even in a simple setting to either stand up, or sit down, or another action to move for justice.
Well, we would like to thank you for your time today!
I would like to thank all of you. I would also like to hear from each of you about becoming active if you haven't been, and if you have been, like Theo with that demonstration. I really think the questions, this whole thing is one thing to as an academic exercise, but it's another to do it to take the question seriously, and say what are some of the issues you see now in your school, in your community, in your state, country, in your world that you care about.
What are the actions you can take? You could see if what happened in the Civil Rights Movement would inspire you to take the first steps to try and build a better world yourselves. I wonder if each of you could comment on that?
Yes actually in our school lately, the teachers and the students have been working a lot to stop bullying. I remember last year several of us put on a skit to promote standing up against bullying. And in school we have lots of policies against it. We try to stop it in our school and even when we're not at school. 50, I think that's important to stand up for other kids even when maybe you don't want to stand there. If you notice and watch something happen you need to take the initiative to do something.
Sounds good! Do any of you others want to say something?
After reading the book "Eyes on the Prize" and listening to your interview and your experiences, it's really opened my eyes and I've realized there are actually quite a few things we could change in our country today and if we do organize a movement, it would help a lot.
I'm really thrilled to hear that! And the third member of your team?
Well before we did this project, we didn't know much about the Civil Rights Movement and like Ethan said, it's really an eye-opener to see all the things we didn't know about.
Well, great! I want to encourage all of you to take this message back to your class, raise it as a question and even as a challenge to them. What will they do to actually make a better world?
By the way, if you want pictures there is a website called "crmvet". Do you know that site, the Civil Rights Movement veterans? It's crmvet.org. If you look up my name, there are a couple of pictures of me but one is with Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi and that might be useful.
Ok. Thank you so much.
Thank you all, I'm so glad you are doing this and I hope you incorporate it into your lives.
Heather Booth's work now reflects her Movement commitments. She has tried other kinds of jobs, but is now working on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, since not only was it designed as a guarantee, but as a guarantee from one generation to the next, to take seniors out of poverty.]
Interviewed and Transcribed by: Emma Baeten, Ethan Burmeister, & Theo Fladland
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013