NAACP in High School
Howard University and NAG
Tenant Organizing in DC
March on Washington
DC Students for Civil Rights
NAG and SNCC
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
SNCC in 1966
Becoming SNCC Chairman
Chair of SNCC
The Movement and Race Relations
Different Times, Different Dynamics
Failures of the Movement
Overall Impact of the Movement
Significance of Atlantic City Challenge
Direct Action and Grassroots People
Kennedy and Johnson
Assasinations of Malcom and King
How did you get involved in the Movement, and what did you do?
I was born and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I guess I got involved
in the Movement in high school. Somewhere in the late '50s, I started
reading about the Civil Rights Movement and hearing about it on the
radio. I remember as a kid hearing about Orville Faubus. I remember
hearing about Emmet Till. I remember hearing about Eisenhower and
whether he was going to use the federal power of the Presidency to help
the Civil Rights Movement. And I say at this
point, because that was kind of the way I was hearing
it I didn't have any great understanding or analysis of
There were two Black newspapers. One was the Cleveland Post, and
the other was the Pittsburgh Courier, which was actually a bigger
paper that came over from Pittsburgh. I knew who Roy Wilkins was and the
NAACP and some of the talk about this integration and why it was
important. I grew up in a family which was very interested in what was
called "civic" stuff at the time. My father was a postal clerk who,
because of the Hatch Act, could never really become active politically,
so he joined different social organizations and church groups that had
forums to discuss politics, and he always had the radio news on. A lot
of times he would go over to the globe and he'd show me where different
things were happening around the world. So for a kid, I was always kind
of interested in that. My mother got active in Democratic Party
politics. She ran for Precinct Committee Person and won.
Was this in, what do they call
it The Huff neighborhood?
No, it was a little further out. A little past Huff. It was toward
Glenville area. Kind of between Huff and Glenville on the East side, not
too far from University Circle but it was still a predominantly Black
My family was what I would call a working class family, but it was like
upwardly mobile. I always knew that I was going to go to college, that I
was being groomed for so-called grander things. My parents had me join
this group called "Jack and Jills of America," which was a very elite
club at that time for kids whose parents were professionals or usually
light skinned and had the right connections, not the
kids but the parents. It was a way for the kids to meet each other, and
it was so successful that they even formed another group called "Tots
and Teens" for the people who couldn't get into Jack and Jills. There
was actually a recent book that came out about the "Jack and Jills" not
too long ago, about a year ago.
So there were people around the house who came and talked politics. My
uncle was a Republican in the '50s. There were still things like liberal
Republicans, and he and my dad who was a
Democrat would argue and discuss politics every Sunday
afternoon, and they had a good time just arguing and eating dinner. I
would listen to them, and so I would hear a lot of stuff.
NAACP in High School
I became a joiner of everything. I mean, at school I was in the French
Club, the German Club, the Political Science Society, the World Affairs
Council and all of that. And I got more involved in things of the time,
and the group in Cleveland that was probably the most important for me
at that time was the NAACP they had a high school
chapter, and I got involved in it.
In 1960, when the Sit-In Movement began at the dime stores, we did
sympathy pickets in Cleveland at the Woolworth and Kress stores. I mean
we could go and shop there, so it wasn't the same as in the South, but
we wanted to say we were aware. And it was the first idea of putting
some pressure on the stores, even though it wasn't an official boycott.
I mean, we weren't withholding anything, but it was more openly being
aware of what was happening in the South.
The other main group I was active with was set up by a
large, Cleveland always considered itself the liberal
part of Ohio, and it kind of looked toward New York, and
there was a group called the Council on Human Relations, and they had a
youth chapter I joined. One of the things we did is we discussed some of
the issues of the day, and so I remember going out to different schools
and talking about integration and segregation and the importance of all
Howard University and NAG
So in the fall of '60, I went to college, Howard University. And so I
say all that prologue in order to say that I was already thinking about
the Movement. I wasn't part of the real Movement that was happening in
the South, but I was aware of it. And it was at Howard that I actually
met people for the first time who were directly involved in the Civil
What were you studying at Howard?
It was called Government. It was technically Political Science. Actually
I didn't graduate in '64 even though I had senior hours. I didn't have
enough. So I returned in '75, and by that time they had changed the
program. It was called Political Science then. But in some ways though,
I learned more from the Movement than I think I ever put into it, in
some ways, and I think it's true for [other Movement veterans] I talk
At that time there was the Presidential election between Kennedy and
Nixon, and I got to see both Nixon and Kennedy. Kennedy and his wife
came to Howard after the second debate and gave a talk, and then I saw
Nixon at a rally in Washington.
But what I think was impressive was that some of the Freedom Riders
would come to Howard, and it was more like a kind of rest and recreation
and just recuperation, a chance to get out of the South for a quick
minute. But I got a chance to meet these students, and I guess I was
amazed that first they were both my age, and in some
cases even a little younger, and second was that they
were actually doing stuff, making history.
I grew up in a family to believe that you basically spend all your life
preparing to do stuff, which would basically end up being a kind of
noblesse oblige, after you become a professional and put out your
shingle. By this time you're married, have kids, and you're a so-called
responsible member of the community, so you put back. And that was the
trajectory that I'd always been brought up with, and so when I saw these
young people who were basically, in a phrase of the
time, putting their bodies on the line, that it was very, very
attractive in terms of not just who they were, but it was also a whole
counterpoint to the other way of being active in my life. And so I got
involved with a group called NAG on Howard campus in 1960.
That was the Non-Violent Action Group?
Right. And it was the local SNCC affiliate in DC. And then through NAG,
I got involved in a whole bunch of other things. One of the things that
was good about NAG was we were "off campus," which probably in the long
run was a boon. If we had ever got accepted and recognized at Howard
University there would have been all these university regulations and
stipulations we would have had to follow.
And it also meant that we had members from, not very
many, but we had some people from Georgetown. We had
some people from American University, and I think those were the two
main other colleges, but it was 90% Howard folks. It was inter-racial.
We did food and clothing drives for the South. We did direct action,
mostly in northern Virginia, because at that time the movie theaters
were still segregated. And so we went down and sat in the movie
That would be like Alexandria, Fairfax?
Yeah, Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church. Those are the three that come
to mind. And then we did more in Maryland actually, because we were
surrounded on three sides by Maryland. And all those things we did in
concert with CORE, Congress of Racial
Equality, which at that time was led by a guy named
Julius Hobson. And Hobson was like a very kind of charismatic, somewhat
inflammatory leader, but he never had quite enough tropps. He had soe,
but he never had enough, so he was always wanting the SNCC kids, or the
NAG kids to join in on some of his ideas.
That was the US-40 Project? [Before Interstate I-95 was built, US-40 was
the main highway linking Baltimore and Philadelphia-New York City.
Diplomats traveling between the UN and DC used US-40.]
Well, that was one of them. At the time Route 40 was where African
diplomats were being discriminated against, so CORE led a whole campaign
to integrate the eating and hotel establishments around Route 40.
This was an international issue, and one of the students at Howard at
the time was a guy named Alfonso [Huku?], and his brother was [Taman
Boya?], who was the Labor Minister in Kenya and actually was seen as the
would-be successor to Jomo Kenyatta. It turned out that didn't quite
happen, but he was seen as that. And the USAID was very interested in
him, and so Alfonse came up with this idea that we should all wear
Dashikis as if we were Africans, and go up on Route 40 and demonstrate,
which is what we did. A few people got arrested, but it just raised so
much hell that the State Department just came in and basically worked
out some type of out-of-court settlement type of arrangement with these
folks. They couldn't just let the Africans come in yet still segregate
against the African-Americans. When it came down to it, they couldn't
usually tell who was who or the differences.
So that was one thing we did. Also, Baltimore city itself was segregated
at that time, and so the first time I ever got arrested was in April of
1961 when CORE asked us to come over and help them desegregate some of
the establishments, and so I got arrested at a Chinese place called the
White Rice Inn in downtown Baltimore. The guy was really upset. He
didn't want an incident, didn't want the press. He tried to say, "I'm a
colored man too." And he happened to have a place called the Brown Rice
Inn on the other side of town, and he said he would call his Brown Rice
Inn, and we could all get free meals if we would just go over there and
eat. We said it wasn't really about the meal, so we ended up sitting in
his store and getting arrested.
You were arrested for violating a segregation ordinance?
It was called a Public Accommodations Act of, I guess, Maryland. I'm not
quite sure now, but essentially proprietors had the right to serve who
they wanted to. And it was a custom that they didn't serve Blacks in
certain areas or that Blacks and whites shouldn't mix. That's probably
the more accurate way of saying that. So the downtown was seen as the
area for the white folks. This Chinese guy was just basically following
the codes of the time. The way it was set up is that if you walked in,
you could sit down, but if he didn't want you to be there, he read the
Public Accommodations Act which said that he had the right to serve or
not serve whoever he wanted, and if we didn't leave then he could call
the police and have us arrested.
[We also participated in the demonstrations in Cambridge Maryland to
support the] Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee, which actually was
an affiliate of SNCC. [At that time] the eastern shore of Maryland was
really like Mississippi. We went over there in '64, the summer of '63
but mostly early '64, and did demonstrations there. That was the night
that Rap Brown gave his famous speech.
"Violence is as American as apple pie?"
Yes. And also we got tear gassed and some people got arrested. All this
was basically happening during this time while I was technically a
student at Howard [1960-64].
Tenant Organizing in DC
The tenant organizing was actually in DC. What happened was that some of
us [in NAG] began to get interested in community organizing, and there
was an organization that asked a bunch of us if we wanted to learn some
of the elements of community organizing. So we all went. And then of
course at a certain point, it was time to put into practice what you're
Actually, Stokely [Kwame Ture] and a
few other people began to do housing organizing and started some
projects which actually got written up in the New Republic in I
guess 1963 I think it was, or maybe '62.
So we began a project of, at that
time, NAG, to do rent strikes. It was really wild,
because it required getting unity in the building, finding a place to
bank money, not giving it to the landlord but having it there for
repairs to show quote "good faith" to the court. So it was a lot of
education, but I remember having to do it all during the day. I'd be
running to class, and I'd have to run out into the community and back
and forth and stuff like that.
And then at a later stage, we got involved in welfare rights organizing.
Washington had this thing called the "Man in the House" rule. If the
Welfare Department could prove that there was a man, they could actually
kick single women off of welfare. And they would basically break in to
people's houses, look under their beds, see are there any shoes? Men's
shoes? Or any men's clothes?
California had that law too.
Yeah, I think it was kind of almost national in some ways. So we did a
lot of that as well. It was a full-time community organizing.
In '62, something was formed on campus called Project Awareness. And
this was formed by a guy named Tom Kahn, a white guy who was a student
at Howard. He was in the League for Industrial Democracy. He was a very
close friend of Bayard Rustin, and he also worked very closely with
Norman Hill who was at CORE.
The goal of Project Awareness was really to stimulate awareness both at
Howard and in terms of the broader DC. So we brought people like Bayard
Rustin to speak. We brought Malcolm X, which Howard University officials
were totally freaked out about. We brought Herbert Aptheker. The idea of
bringing a Communist to a campus which was getting 90% of its money from
the federal government, It was a perfect example why it
was great in the long run we were not a campus organization. It put us
beyond Howard, and it put us in Washington and the broader issues of the
Civil Rights Movement. James Baldwin came down. So it was like almost
being very much a center of the Movement, because all these very heady
ideas are coming down. Key figures were coming down. We were involving
students. We were in the community, etc, etc.
Of course in those days, Baldwin was considered a dangerous radical by
society at large.
In '63, when Fire the Next Time [came out] he was close to the
March on Washington
So the other thing I did in '63, which was important
while I was still there, was the March on Washington.
They set up a Washington office, which was led by Cleveland Robinson and
of course Bayard was in and out.
Bayard, in some ways, was almost like a mentor to a lot of the SNCC
people who were in NAG. We all fell under his influence, and so he
wanted us to basically work, the ones who were staying
around for the summer, to really work in DC to pull out
in the neighborhoods, so that what was coming would not be seen as an
invading army but that there would be a large local grouping. So we
began to go to a lot of the churches that had participated in the food
and clothing drives. So that's what I did the summer of '63, the
organizing for the March on Washington and laying the groundwork for
How successful was that in terms of getting Washingtonians [to
I think for the time period it was relatively successful. At the same
time, I would say it was not as successful as we had hoped. I mean, on
one hand, we were full-time organizers. On the other hand, we were
students, and so we were somewhat limited by where we
could, our base was mostly parts of NorthWest Washington
[where the Howard campus is located]. So there were parts of the
NorthEast we never got into, parts of SouthEast Washington we didn't get
into. And I say those areas in particular because they had a heavy Black
Anacostia Flats and places like that.
Yeah, we never really got there. But through the churches network we
were able to make more contact of sorts. Occasionally we went out
to I remember a couple of times going to the SouthEast
and speaking in a church, it was like in and out, literally. Where we
had our real base was in the NorthWest and also a little bit where the
NorthEast and NorthWest come together, but just in that little area.
The March was a great day in many ways. I got to actually lead a
contingent, one of the first contingents, down the walkway. It had Lena
Horne and Harry Belafonte in it.
I was up on the stand, on the stairs behind the stage, and I remember I
had to go to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I could hear Mahalia Jackson
singing. I said, "I've got to come out here, even if I piss in my
pants." I mean, she just sounded so great.
And then of course we heard some of the ruckus about John Lewis' speech,
so we were there as kind of a support for John. And we also were there
as a support for Bayard, because there had been a thrust to get Bayard
to speak, which wasn't like automatic.
When they first came out with the speaker's list, he wasn't on it. And
it was really, like I say, we were like his mentees in
some ways and very active, but we had had our own direct
action in the Civil Rights Movement by '63, so there were a fair number
of SNCC people there. We were pushing [for him to speak], because it was
important also in terms of the politics of it.
I was talking yesterday with some of the "Long Walk to Freedom"
[exhibit] people, and I said, "Well, how does this thing about jobs and
freedom get in here? You never had this jobs thing before." I mean, you
had NAACP saying, "We're going to be free in '63" which was their
slogan. We had the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We had the
Southern Freedom Movement. But nobody was talking about jobs. So it was
Phil Randolph and Rustin who began to put in this thing around jobs, and
they also said that the jobs had to come before freedom, which was also
a little struggle. [People said] this is a freedom movement, freedom
should be the main thing, why jobs and freedom?
So it was a big struggle internally about that, and of course to the
degree that we had any influence, we tried to lobby [for including jobs]
and Bayard was, in some ways, our key person for that. We were probably,
at the time, more excited about Bayard's speech than Martin Luther
King's speech. I mean I remember Dr. King speaking, and I had heard him
before, so I knew he was going to get up there and make you feel like
you were sitting at the throne of heaven. I was expecting that, but I
was more looking at the content of what Bayard was going to say. So in
some ways, when he got to speak and was able to get a good response
that, at least at the moment, that was
more significant than King's speech to me, given some of the prelude of
that in terms of the March on Washington.
Was the opposition to him speaking because of his sexual orientation or
because of his affiliation with left groups?
Hard to say, because by and large, people even then would not
necessarily say, "We don't want that fag up there speaking." So people
would say, "This is too radical" or "We're not ready to do this yet" or
"Yes, of course we're for jobs and for the economics, but this is what
is the bottom line of the Movement which is freedom and blah, blah,
blah." That is the tendency of how it got openly argued. That's not to
say that in different quarters, some of which I was not privy to, is
that I'm sure people said, "We don't want to elevate this gay guy." But
the thing about Bayard was that he was also a clear leftie. I mean, not
just in terms of the Socialist Party, but also in terms of the
Right. He was active in all those peace organizations.
Peace stuff. And so even if he hadn't been gay, he was still
persona-non-grata. Recently there have been a couple of plays
about Bayard. I remember having a big argument, a friendly argument,
with Brian Freeman, who used to be with the Mime Troupe who did this
play, "Civil Sex" about Bayard Rustin. And he was all excited because
Bayard was in the Civil Rights Movement and he was gay. And I said, "He
was not just in the Civil Rights Movement. He was an outsider in the
Civil Rights Movement at the same time he was an outsider in terms of
his personal lifestyle." It was a double-whammy that made him so
unacceptable in a lot of ways.
I know that Dr. King was always under enormous pressure to disavow him
and to hide the connection [between them] and to kind of sneak him in
and out of meetings and stuff.
Yeah, because J. Edgar [Hoover, head of the FBI] was running around
DC Students for Civil Rights
So that was the March on Washington. I guess the other major thing I
did, which was a year later, or late '63, early '64 was that we formed
something called the DC Students for Civil Rights, which was an attempt
to organize students at other campuses to basically support, be local
support in DC for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [that outlawed
College age or high school?
College. Well, mostly college, but there were a couple of high school
groups, mostly from Silver Spring. There was a group that worked very
closely with us from Silver Spring.
And we actually had an area down by the Washington Monument. I can't
remember what that's called, the park down there. And we had rallies and
speak-outs and stuff like that, and then people went to lobby their
Congress people, because a lot of these students were from other parts
of the country. And so it was an attempt to put some local pressure in
terms of that.
NAG and SNCC
There's a lot written about SNCC, but most of it is either about the
early sit-in days and then the move into organizing, predominantly in
Mississippi. With maybe a little discussion about Southwest Georgia or
Selma. But you said that NAG was an affiliate of SNCC. Could you talk
some about, were there many college affiliates of SNCC?
And what did they do? And how did they relate with SNCC? Because that
part is almost never talked about or written about.
We keep talking about wanting to do a history of NAG, because in some
ways it was unique. It produced the last three leaders of SNCC. It had
both international as well as some of the clearer political left ties
and stuff like that, which made it not unique totally but very unusual
for a lot of the Civil Rights stuff.
And NAG wasn't actually a college affiliate. To be honest with you, I
can't remember the SNCC Constitution. I mean, there were things which
you're familiar with called "Friends of SNCC," and then there were some
affiliates. Like the Cambridge group was an
affiliate, Gloria Richardson's [organization]. And NAG
was an affiliate at the level of a community it was a DC
chapter of SNCC.
And I guess how I always say this, to distinguish it both from CORE and
the Black Panthers, is that SNCC by and large didn't see its philosophy
as building a lot of SNCC chapters. It was really into local organizing.
It was more important what people were doing, and how they were doing
it, than what it was called. So there was never any effort to get Gloria
Richardson to say, "This is Cambridge SNCC." So there was never a
Washington, DC SNCC in that sense. But we worked closely with SNCC. I
can't say whether Gloria was officially on the staff or the Coordinating
Committee of SNCC. I think she was, but I can't say that for sure. Even
like when we formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which was a
SNCC formation, it wasn't called SNCC. They said, "Lowndes County
Freedom Organization.? But I'm not quite sure in terms of the SNCC
Constitution, how affiliates would fit in. I can't say.
So NAG was like a movement that SNCC was working with in the same way
they worked with Lowndes County or southwest Georgia or Albany or
I'm not sure. I don't know for sure if there was a little local movement
in DC, and the SNCC people built upon that like in Cambridge; or whether
the SNCC people actually formed NAG. The first people, when I got there
in 1960, even before I joined, there was a guy named Bill Mahoney, who
was like one of the leaders in DC and there was a woman named Jean
Bell Jeannie Bell who was I think they
were partners and so on. And people like Jan [Triggs?] would come
through and other folks. But we considered Bill as part of SNCC, and he
was there before I was, so that's why I'm saying I don't know how NAG
was actually formed. That's the part that, I guess if we sit down and do
this book or some long article, somebody would know that. I mean,
there's people like Courtland Cox, Ed Brown (Rap's older brother). In
fact, we used to call him the old fart. Stokely. I was part of the new
breed of NAG.
The Young Turks.
The Young Turks, yeah.
Well, in 1960-61, you had at the college campuses all across the South
And then starting in '62, '63, the focus of SNCC was encouraging people
to become organizers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Southwest Georgia,
Alabama. But what is never talked about is what happened to those campus
groups. Did they die? Did they continue?
I don't know, because they didn't necessarily become SNCC chapters. I
mean, for example, like the Black Panthers tried to organize a lot of
the Black student unions into the Black Panther Party. When I think
about places like North Carolina A&T, where [Izelle Blower?] and the
folks who began I don't know quite what happened to that
core grouping. And even people like in Nashville, where Marion Barry was
and Diane Nassh
And Bernard and
Right, Bernard Lafayette. I don't quite remember them becoming a SNCC. I
mean, Bernard Lafayette went into SCLC. And Diane went more into SNCC.
But SNCC was a Coordinating Committee which was formed to coordinate the
local groups. This was a little bit before my time, so that's why I
can't talk about it intelligently. At some level, those Coordinating
Committees I guess must have become a SNCC. Probably Mrs. Baker, other
folks, helping that. My guess is, in some ways, the key part of where
this might have gelled a little bit was when Foremen, and I think Jane
Stempbridge came in and put a little organizational structure into it
from the SNCC standpoint. Otherwise, it would have probably stayed a
bunch of loose Coordinating Committees, and then it would have been
easier to find the answer to your question, because they still would
have been operating in their local areas.
During the summers, some of the [Howard] people would go south into
different parts: Mississippi, Georgia, southwest Georgia. And in '61, I
actually went to Tennessee during the summer. I was interested in going
to Tennessee, because my mother's family is from Tennessee. They're from
the Memphis side, and even though most of the Movement was on the other
side of the state over at Fisk [in Nashville], which is the more eastern
part of the state. Memphis is actually pretty close to Mississippi.
Fayette County is right next to Memphis. [Fayette County was the
location of a voter registration, fair elections project.]
Exactly. And so I had been to Memphis as a kid. In fact, I went six
times between one and six. So it's like I had existed in this whole
segregated realm, and I was too young to understand any of it. So I was
eager to go back as an adult to kind of see, besides
just seeing cousins and family, in particular the small
towns outside of Memphis, that's where my family was from, but we had
some cousins in Memphis itself, was to get a sense of
what they were doing in terms of the Movement at that stage.
So there was a couple of ministers who were leading it
wasn't so much SNCC. I mean they were glad to have somebody who had some
contact with some of the SNCC people. I knew Diane Nash and people in
Nashville. But it was pretty much relatively local, and I was still a
young pup. I was still kind of getting my ears wet and getting grounded.
It was being in the South, and I had family there. I was an outsider,
but I didn't feel overly outside, because I had a lot of people who had
stores, houses and places like that and being part of a church where
there were some demonstrations that were happening.
The other thing I did in '64, where I had a little time, is I did some
work on the MFDP challenge [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the
Democratic convention in Atlantic City, NJ]. And in that case, I did
that both in terms of Washington, but I also did go down to Mississippi
a couple of times. I worked mostly in the Second Congressional District.
That's the Delta District.
Right. The Delta District. That's where Stokely was, and again, that was
coming into where a lot of the NAG folks were. People were worried that
the people who registered to vote, their information would disappear, so
we had to have back-ups. This was before we had computer back-ups. We
had back-ups so that we would have our own copy of the registration to
take to the Atlantic City Convention. And so they needed people to go
back between Washington and Mississippi to do that. And so that was one
of the things I did in the summer of '64 also.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
In late '64, like November or December, I had always
been somewhat of a member of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. I
had always seen myself as a child of the North. And to me, by '64, it
was clear that the Movement was going to go to the North. And I even had
a little quote that got quoted a lot that said that "One of the results
of the Civil Rights Movement was going to be to make Birmingham look
like Chicago and that Atlanta would look like New York."
There would still be major problems, but there wouldn't be the problems
of public accommodations any longer. And so we have to learn how to work
in the areas of America, the United
States, that were seen as the normality, not Mississippi
which was seen as an anomaly. In other words, we have to work in the
Bostons, the Philadelphias, the Chicagos, the Clevelands and so on,
because that's where the Movement was going to go, and that's where the
thrust of the Movement was.
So I was interested in trying to figure out how to bring the energy of
the Civil Rights Movement to the North and also in a more urban
situation, particularly since a lot of my stuff had been in DC. SDS had
set up these Economic Research in Action (ERAP) project groups. SNCC was
not very theoretical in a lot of ways, so I used to like to read the SDS
theoretical things and then try to figure out how the action of SNCC
corresponded to the theory of SDS or vice versa.
Yeah, SDS did do a lot of position papers.
Right. And so a couple of people who I had heard about through these
position papers were Tom Hayden and Carl Whitman. I met Hayden at a
conference that Bob Moses and some other people had set up in '63 and
met them in early '64 up in Ann Arbor at a conference. And I ran into
him at a party in New York in somewhere around November of '64, and this
was after the MFDP Challenge, after the Summer Project. There was kind
of a disorientation in the Movement, given what had happened. We were
gearing up in Washington to do another Challenge in January of '65, that
we weren't really excited about it in the sense of it having much chance
of success after what happened in Atlantic City.
So I was anxious to do something different, and then Tom Hayden talked to
me. Actually, he got me drunk and talked about the possibilities of a
statewide movement in New Jersey focusing out of Newark and all the
problems in Newark and blah, blah, blah. I got very interested. So in
December of '64, I moved to Newark and started doing work there with
SDS. It was community organizing in the South Ward and later the Central
Ward, and it was working primarily, I thought it was
going to be an inter-racial thing, and it turned out to be almost
entirely Black, so they really needed Black organizers. And so I ended
up working the next three years to a great degree in Newark and was
there for the Newark Rebellion in '67, which in some ways raised the
visibility of radical politics in the North.
SNCC in 1966
Then when Stokely had become SNCC Chairman in '66, I kind of got active
in SNCC again, and I traveled with Stokely to several places around the
country as part of his entourage. He had people he could trust and knew
and who also could be somewhat articulate.
I went to Milwaukee with him. I went to Seattle with him. I went to Bard
College with him and Cleve Sellers, and it got me back into the SNCC
framework, because I had been working mostly in SDS.
So with the combination of Black Power, the Movement moving to the
North, the Rebellion in Newark, and I had basically negotiated with the
SDS people to have both a SNCC and SDS project. When we moved it to the
Central Ward, it was more of a SNCC project, because it was more geared
around the philosophy of Black Power. We were working with people like
[Amiri] Baraka and essentially the grouping that would end up in 1970
electing the first Black mayor of Newark, Ken
Gibson, and they needed more of a Black face. And the
Black Power ideology of SNCC just really fit into that.
Becoming SNCC Chairman
It also kind of elevated my position in some ways, or my persona, and so
it had some significant impact, I think, in why I became head of SNCC in
1968. So from '68 to '69 I was head of SNCC.
How did that came about?
Well, four things. One is a lot of people were leaving SNCC by '68, and
so SNCC was a smaller organization. I mean, it still had critical mass,
but it was a much smaller organization, so I think there was a feeling
of looking for something different. From '67 to '68, Rap had been Chair
of SNCC, and he had spent most of his time in jail, which in terms of
the actual infrastructure of the organization had been totally
And so there's an attempt to try to come up with the idea of a new
leadership that was not going to go out and be Mr. Bad Black Power and
get arrested every five minutes and spend most of their time getting the
Chair out of jail. So we came up with a different structure having a
Program Secretary as the head of SNCC, and having Deputy Chairs who
would be the spokespeople and go around and do the Rap/Stokely thing.
The idea was "Well, if Rap follows Stokely, who's going to follow Rap?"
Well, Rap was so bad we can't have just one person. We'll have four or
One, two, three many Raps.
Exactly. And so they would go around giving the speeches, doing the
talking, but you'd have somebody in Atlanta as the head of the
organization basically doing more of the program work and try to build
the organization back together. I say, both because of
the more of the northern direction of the Movement, the fact that Newark
was seen as a place where SNCC had been put on the map because of the
Rebellion, and because of our community organizing work
for the project, I had that persona. I think the other thing that was
important is that by that time there were two major political factions
in SNCC in some ways. Well, two major ones. One was led by Foreman and
the other was led by Stokeley Carmichael. And I think it was seen that I
was a good compromise candidate because I had come up in the SNCC group,
and was close Stokely and yet I had more of the politics of Foreman.
What would you say was the difference politically between the two
Well, I think it would be wrong to pretend that there was no personality
thing, there were two very strong personalities. And I
think the politics also went along with the personal differences.
Foreman was into building organization and felt that what was key was to
build a Marxist organization which would basically make alliances with
groups around the country and basically be the basis of a future
revolutionary party. Stokely felt personalities were key, and leaders
were key, and so he wanted to increase the momentum. It included SNCC,
but it also included some of the revolutionary [groups like] the
Panthers as well, so that was the direction that he wanted to go in.
I've never seen it really written about anywhere. In '67 and then when I
became Chair in '68 was when that debate came out. And there was really
a debate about what makes history, is it organizations that make
history? Or is it key leaders? Stokely argued basically that leaders
were the most important thing. He said that [Kwame] Nkrumah
[independence movement leader and first president of Ghana] and a whole
bunch of other important [African leaders] would go from organization to
organization. They weren't stuck in one organization.
Foreman of course argued the reverse. And [in '67] they needed
candidates for a Chair. Stokely put up Rap, and Foreman put up Fay
Bellamy. And of course Rap won the election and became Chair. I always
wondered what would have happened if Fay had won. So by '68 the
situation was much more dire in terms of SNCC, and '68 of course was the
year all this shit was happening too, around the world not to mention
Yeah, it was a busy year.
So in some ways, there was a need to maintain the militancy but not to
have it be just one person, and to also have more of a program thrust in
terms of trying to figure out what it is that we actually want to do. As
opposed to just running our mouths, usually for the white press, which
was not the traditional organizing style of SNCC. I would say that's
kind of loosely how I got to be Chair of SNCC.
Chairman of SNCC
I was Chair of SNCC from '68 to '69, and I guess the things that we
tried to do in that year, I mean, some things we did do,
and some things we tried to do, was basically to try to
develop this idea of independent political action. From the context of
working with grassroots community organizations who were political,
basically Black, and to begin to develop essentially what SNCC had seen
itself doing, like affiliates around the country who were similar
organizations, working around those kind of political principles. And
from that, would in some ways be the basis for whatever kind of
revolutionary party would come out of that time period.
That was one of the areas where I had some differences with Foreman,
because Foreman really wanted it to be a Marxist/Leninist party. He
wanted it to kind of do it from the top down in the sense that anybody
could come in, but they had to agree to this.
Accept discipline from the top down.
Yeah. The top down. And I was always opposed to that in the sense
that, my idea was that people would basically discipline
themselves based on if they had something to do with how it was set up.
Then you would have the basis, if necessary, to kick them out if it came
down to it, because they had violated their own principles not something
that they had nothing to do with.
Also a lot of the groups that we wanted were groups where they had
organized themselves. And so a lot of what I did was traveling around
trying to build affiliates with and close working relationships [with
those groups]. In some cases we made certain people Deputy Chair as a
political way of kind of tying that together. Off the top of my head, I
remember several of the groups that we worked with, one was a group up
in New Haven, Connecticut. The [Hale? Yale?] Parents Association up in
the hill district. Another one was with the Black Liberators, a group in
St. Louis, led by a guy who later became known as Reverend Charles
Cohen. It was a group very much like the Panthers. They used to go
around, monitor the police. They had Black leather jackets on.
In fact, I got arrested, not on
purpose, in September of '68 making a speech in St.
Louis. Given the nature of the times, the police arrested all of us
right after the rally. And I was in the workhouse, the county workhouse,
for about a week. I had the feeling of what Mafioso chiefs in prison
must feel like. The prisoners, they gave us everything. They thought we
were the biggest thing. We were in the paper. [Attorney] Bill Kunstler
came out and defended us and eventually got us off. And the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch actually apologized for the city of St. Louis over-
reacting. They had essentially dusted off an old labor law, a law
against labor unions. It was called unlawful assembly. That's what we
were charged with, and they hadn't used that since the 1930s.
In Florida we tried to make ties ties with this group called [JOMO?],
which is now called the African People's Socialist Party today. At that
time, a guy named Joe Waller [led it], who's now [Omali Ishatella?] and
has slightly different politics. And we had a SNCC chapter in New
Orleans, which had a tie to a family, a Black family, that had been
active since the 30s. And I remember making a couple of trips to Texas
also, Dallas and Houston, to try to begin to make inroads there. But the
strategy in general was to work with some of the groups that had come
out of the War on Poverty or had been local groups before the War on
Poverty but were basically doing political organizing in Black
communities around the country and wanted to do more. We actually had an
L.A. chapter of SNCC, and so one of our Deputy Chairmen was a guy named
Ron Wilkins from L.A., and he had been part of a Slausons street gang
So I'm just trying to give you an idea of what we were trying to do. We
did some stuff also in Brooklyn SNCC. We started a chapter of Brooklyn
SNCC, and we also, for the first
time, realized a concept that Jim Foreman developed, or
he said he developed. It was a called a 10-10-10 concept. Brooklyn is a
huge place, and so what we did is we tried to get one contact in each of
the key neighborhoods of Brooklyn where we knew people. I mean, there
were certain areas which were all white, which we weren't going to do
obviously, but in the Black areas and neighborhoods. And the idea is
that each contact gets 10 more contacts, and then they get 10 more
contacts, and so a guy named Irving Davis was the Brooklyn SNCC
That actually was used in the CIO days.
Oh, I'm sure.
With the auto workers and the steel workers. A lot of unions used that
strategy when they were first organizing.
Oh, it makes sense. It's a good strategy. And Foreman, I remember, tried
to give it to the Panthers, and he was always very upset that the
Panthers never quite appreciated it. So we did that in Brooklyn SNCC.
Other things we did which were useful is that we had a group in SNCC
called the, of course this was during the anti-war
movement, and we called it NBAWADU,
National Black Anti-War Anti-Draft Unit. And it was led by Johnny Wilson
who was one of the Deputy Chairmen of SNCC, but he also became later on
a Washington DC City Councilperson. And in some ways, that was our arm
in terms of the anti-war movement, particularly the Black anti-war
movement. And we worked very closely with a guy named Conrad [Lim?], who
was a lawyer to basically give counseling in terms of to get people out
of the draft, for conscientious objection, or other things.
The other thing that came out of that which has some degree of
historical notice was the Black Women's Association, which was [led by]
Fran Beale, which later became the Third World Women's Alliance. But
that was the first time that we began to look at the real question of
Black women as being oppressed by racism, by capitalism, but also by
gender. And that was somewhat new.
We actually did a couple of changes during that time period. We changed
the name of SNCC, and SNCC officially became the Student National
Coordinating Committee. We wanted to keep the SNCC and still call it
SNCC, but given the nature of the time and how people were feeling about
the whole violence, non-violence [question] is that while we were not
pro-violence, we were also not necessarily anti-violence. And we weren't
non-violent in the sense that even SNCC had been in the early 60s. So as
part of that, we were basically the Student National Coordinating
And the last two things I guess I was going to say is that we also
opened up membership of SNCC to basically people of
color, it happened officially in '69 and
so we had a few Latinos, Puerto Ricans, which we had developed
particularly in New York, a relationship with some of the Puerto Rican
organizations, some Mexicans, and I think maybe one or two Asians who
were part of the group also. [Yuri Kutchiama?]'s daughter had worked in
the SNCC office for years, and so we said, "Why can't she be a member of
SNCC? She's doing all this stuff." But it was also part of the Third
World movement ideology that was developing at that time period, and so
that was key.
Another thing we did is, in a national sense, we developed ties with the
Chicano movement which was particularly important. That was when I went
out to New Mexico and actually managed to get myself arrested out there
again with Reis Tijirina and developed a good working relationship with
him and his brother in northern New Mexico. So that was a little bit of
what I was doing in that year. We also developed relationships with
parts of the white anti-war movement, specifically SDS. And so we had a
lot of contact with Bernadine Dorhn, Mark Rudd and those folks.
Or at least one faction of SDS.
Well, when we first started it was called the Revolutionary Youth
Movements. They later divided up into Revolutionary Youth Movement I,
which was Weathermen and II which was Mike Klonski and some other folks.
But when it started, we had ties with both of them and in some ways
maintained throughout, for the most part, ties with both of them. And we
also began the development of what I would personally spend more time
with in '69 and '70, which was the Venceremos Brigade, which was our
ties with Cuba. And even when I was Chair, head of this organization, we
sent people to North Korea, Vietnam, and more specifically Cuba. We also
had a Scan-SNCC chapter. I always forget about that.
A Scandinavian chapter. It was called Scan-SNCC, and they historically
raised money for SNCC. And then we had some contacts in France, actually
Richard Wright's daughter had been very close to SNCC. Her name was
Julia. And I'm not quite sure if her last name was Wright. That's the
thing I'm not quite sure about. I haven't thought about her for years.
Beautiful young lady. And so she, in terms of Paris, if we needed
contacts in Paris, we contacted her.
And we also kept up the International Affairs office with the UN. We had
developed some international ties, particularly with the Algerians and
some of the African countries. So that was kind of the main role I did
during '68-'69. I guess, those are the things I was going to say that I
thought were what I would call more of the accomplishments.
The things that were the weaknesses, one that I tried to
do, that was really very hard and turned out to be
impossible was we never could develop a national press.
One of the things we were seeing was the success of the Panther
newspaper, the Black Panther, how it helped build the
organization, it was their voice. As we were getting smaller and
couldn't send people to a whole lot of places, we felt the need to have
a newspaper or some degree of propaganda to do that. We never could get
a press. We were trying to get what then was called a web press.
I thought you had a press on Raymond Street?
Well, it wasn't I was told by people who knew more about
it than I did that it wasn't the kind [of press] that could put out a
real newspaper, and that's what we needed. It was a newsletter
press, and we wanted more of a newspaper press. And so the
inability to do that was the inability to project ourselves more, which
also would have helped us in the fundraising department also.
Another negative was that our relationship deteriorated to zero with the
Black Panther Party. And what had been seen as an
alliance, at one time [seen] by us as a
merger, deteriorated and didn't happen and went kaput.
We also lost one of our key people, which was Stokely. Stokely left
SNCC, and in fact he was separated from SNCC. And given his history in
SNCC, this was, I think, real unfortunate. We really couldn't stop the
attrition of the people from the organization. Part of it was that
people felt that there were other things to do in their lives. They were
no longer in the South where, if you're in the South in
a small town in project houses with almost nothing else to do but
that, once you're in a city and there are other
distractions and so on, the discipline becomes much more lax.
And yes, it's like you've been in the closet, literally, the closets for
so long that it's hard to want to stay there. So people started going.
There were some people we had to actually fire, because there were
people who were literally I won't say names
here but people who actually were in the organization
from the old "Freedom-high" days who did everything from drugs to
destroy cars. And the less resources we had became less and less because
of the activities of certain people, and so we had to make some changes
there, so that wasn't always the happy part of it.
You were the last Chair of SNCC. How did it end?
Well, to be honest with you, I don't totally know. I mean, what happened
was we had a meeting. Each of the [Junior? annual?] Coordinating
Committees got smaller and smaller. 1966 was the one where Stokely
became Chair. 1967 was when Rap became Chair. 1968 was when I became
In 1969 we met in New York City in the Village, in a little church
either on West 9th or West 8th, I can't say. It's a well-known church
that a lot of peace stuff goes on at. I didn't want to be Chair anymore,
and there was nobody who wanted to step up in that position. There were
some of the usual struggles, inner organizational struggles, and what
was agreed upon was to have a revolutionary - what was it called? It was
like a committee. It had a fancy name. Revolutionary not
High Command. Revolutionary Steering Committee or something like that,
which Rap was the nominal Chair of. It had an office on 9th Avenue in
Manhattan, but it didn't have any real organizational life outside of
New York City. There was a guy named Muhammad [Hant?], who was very
active in it and some other people, and then it just kind of fizzled
I had said that I wanted to do more work around the international thing,
and it was basically we were trying to form a Venceremos Brigade with
people from the different key movements. So we had people from the White
Peace Movement, the Latino Movement.
That was a really big huge Venceremos Brigade.
Afterwards, it sort of became an annual institution. Karen Wald
Yeah, she was active in that. We were going to have, I think, 900
people: 300 Black people, 300 brown people, and 300 white people was how
we thought at the time. It turned out we had 200 people, and they were
mostly white. And we were totally embarrassed. We then made it a major
priority to go literally all around the country to organize, and so the
second brigade, which was the largest one ever, was 700 people and much
more racially integrated. I mean, there were still probably more white
people than anybody else, but there were a lot of Latinos, Asians,
Native Americans, Blacks.
[It was] even too large in the sense that they [the Cubans] didn't have
the facilities to It was like kicking an army around the
island with 700 people and cooks and people to work with us and all
that, not to mention the vehicles that were needed to do that. So they
said, "Please do smaller ones from then on." But it became a point of
pride for us though, because what happened is that Senator Eastland [of
MIssissippi] stood up in the Congress and denounced the Venceremos
Brigade, said that we were learning guerilla warfare in Cuba. But it was
so unsuccessful that we could only get 200 people to come. So there was
no interest in creating a revolutionary training in the United States,
which, if that were true, why was he denouncing us? But anyway, so we
felt that we had to organize a big one. And so that was kind of what I
did '70-'71 was to work on the Brigade.
Talk about Black Power, because that was integral to what you were
giving about your history.
Well, I guess for me, Black Power was always a little odd, because in
some ways my reputation both in SNCC and NAG had been more of what they
would call an integrationalist. And in fact Stokely and I used to
politically struggle around that, because he always said that I was too
influenced by the white folks, he was talking more about
the students in terms of NAG.
But I guess when Stokely became head of SNCC in '66 and I began to see
the changing political dynamic in the country, and the fact that at the
level of what might be loosely called "peoplehood," that African-
Americans have never really felt secure enough to assert their own power
without necessarily having allies from somebody else. Not that you
shouldn't have allies, I mean you need allies, but that somehow that you
couldn't move without the allies, which was a lot of how the NAACP
worked. And it seemed really important to me with the thrust that was
coming out of the Lowndes County Movement, and even with what we
developed in Newark from my own experience, is that there was a need for
Black people to take power, not to necessarily be like
white people who had been in power before us but that it basically would
be primarily Black power, and we would have our allies.
And Newark was Puerto Ricans, and like I said we opened up SNCC to
Mexicans and Asians and Latinos in general. So it wasn't exclusively
Black, but in some ways Black Power would be the format of that. And in
some ways, I was also influenced by the Black Power Movement in England,
which also included Asians and Indians as well as people from the
Caribbean African Diaspora.
And so Black Power also had a social term, and I was also domestically
influenced by this guy named James Boggs out of Detroit. He had written
this thing called The City is a Black Man's Land and then later
he would write Racism is a Class Struggle. It's one of the
reasons why in the '70s I actually moved to Detroit to work with him
after I left SNCC and stopped doing Brigade work. And just a part of
kind of like who I was is that it just seemed to be a real kind of
fulfillment of bringing strands in my life together and that the Black
Power feeling kind of personified that.
At the same time, what I realized is that there are many definitions of
Black Power, and I saw that particularly when I became head of SNCC.
Floyd McKissock said he was for Black Power, but if you scratched a
little bit, it wasn't exactly the same thing Stokely was saying. Or then
Charles Hamilton, even in the book he wrote with Stokely, had a more
politically structured definition than even Stokely would normally put
out. And then you go out to some of the Black nationalists who talked
about Black Power. And then somebody said, Green Power!
Meaning money power.
Money power for Black people though. So I realized relatively
soon, maybe not at once, but relatively
soon, that Black Power had a lot of definitions. I also
realized that because most of us were basically putting in our demands
to the white press and to the white establishment. They had a tremendous
amount of power particularly in the
media to decide which one they wanted to listen to. Or
more accurately, to also pit us against each other.
You mean they tried to define what Black Power meant.
Right. And what I often saw is that at a level of leadership some people
were talking about Black Power as this and that mainly because it was
their basis to be a leader. I mean, it's like because they're leading
SNCC or they're leading CORE they had to come up with their definition
of Black Power. That was the name of the game, and what everybody's
paying attention to. So they used that so
somebody usually in the white power structure, the white
elite or the white press would pay attention to them. It
was a very weird period in some ways.
Of course you had the Black Nationals, like Reverend [Claig?] in Detroit
or Ron Karenga out in L.A. Very quickly we began to say, "Well, we're
for revolutionary nationalism not this cultural nationalism." And then
particularly after the kind of US/Panther thing that
happened, I didn't really know Bunchie [Carter] but I
did know John Huggins pretty well from New Haven, because I had met him
when he was in New Haven. And who knows what role the police played in
any of this, I'm sure they were playing some role in
this, but it was like we saw what the cultural
nationalists could do. They're talking about power on the basis of
having a little Black bookstore or having a dashiki, running around with
the dashikis and tikis on, but we [in SNCC] were trying to develop real
people power that would actually have some degree of impact in changing
society. And the major force that we saw for revolutionary motion was in
the Black community, and that was more of the definition that we meant
in terms of Black Power. And it also had an international dimension,
because there was Africa. There was the Caribbean, and as part of the
growing Third World concept that was popular in the late '60s and early
What are your thoughts on non-violence?
I was always, during the '60s, a tactical person for non-violence. I was
not like John Lewis or even Martin Luther King, somebody who believed in
the philosophical basis of non-violence, even though that's how the SNCC
Constitution starts off. And my feeling was that you always had the
majority of people in SNCC who agreed on non-violence from a tactical
standpoint, because it worked, or it seemed to work for a very long
And also given, as Bayard Rustin once said, that the coalition of forces
is always like political jujitsu. It is where you basically had to use
the leverage of your opponent, who was always much bigger, much
stronger, who always had easy access to all the forms of violence or
weapons of mass destruction. So non-violence was the only way that we
could put out forward that we were about something different.
[Non-violence was] our weapon was to disarm the ability of the opponent
to use that mass violence. Or, when they did, is show
that, probably the best example was Bull Connor hosing
and sending out dogs on the young demonstrators which people all over
the world saw, and then they could see what violence actually did. So in
that sense, I felt that non-violence was a very workable tactic.
I also agree with Malcolm's line that the people have a right to defend
themselves. In the late '60s, as the Movement became more militant, we
even changed the name of the organization to the Student National
Coordinating Committee to kind of reinforce that. I guess my more recent
thinking is that I think I'm more a champion of philosophical non-
violence than I was then. I mean, just given all the craziness in the
world and how easy it is for people to just run amok and kill each other
I think non-violent philosophy, it doesn't mean there
aren't going to be physical fights or somebody's not going to get killed
here and there, but as the major strategy of a social
change movement, I think non-violence has to be the way to go.
What did the Southern Freedom Movement mean to you? How did it affect
Well, I think I was part of a movement that made differences on a lot of
the things. Whether it was the demonstrations, being in Cambridge,
working on the MFDP Challenge, talking to a lot of people, whether on
the March on Washington, whether in Memphis, or just being a
spokesperson, a the living example of one of the Freedom Riders, or the
Freedom People as they sometimes called us. And we won some real
victories. I mean, I think that I was a part of that.
I think in a broader sense though, what the Movement did for me was that
it changed my life. As I said, it began at Howard when I began to see
people who were not waiting all their life to make change in the world.
And that I didn't have to take their word for it, I could just open the
pages of any newspaper and see what was happening. It was basically
being able to go down and lead people in places like Mississippi or
Memphis or parts of Georgia.
And in the period of 1964 or 1965, seeing what democracy was really all
about, we talked about "let the people decide,"
participatory democracy, and that the ideas that
represented democracy that I had grown up with and talked about or
studied in political science classes were not the essence of what
democracy should be about.
And I guess to me, one of the things that I learned, particularly as a
middle-class oriented light-skinned college kid, is how to deal with
some of my smugness of who I was in the sense that I could learn a lot
from people who didn't have any college education and that if I worked
it a little bit, learning how people spoke, how they
used language, how they understood concepts, I didn't
have to dumb down my language to speak to them and get them to
understand ideas, and you could have really high level discussions with
people and learn something yourself in the process if you worked at it
long enough. And that comes from sitting in people's kitchens, sitting
on the porch, shooting the bull, eating with them. This is why
organizing is so important, because you have to stay there a little bit.
You can't just come in and leave, and do one shot speeches and then go.
At demonstrations and being scared, they were scared and you were
scared, and cheering each other up and walking down to a demonstration.
I remember being in Cambridge Mall with some local folks, and the only
SNCC person who was close to me was Reggie Robinson, and we were
marching down. The National Guard was in front of us. They had their
rifles pointed at us, and we were holding our hands singing "We shall
live in peace. This is Black and white together. We shall live in
peace." And they showed us some tear gas, but just knowing that I was
scared and the others were scared, yet we walked together in the thing.
I think that probably the Southern Movement, but also the Civil
Rights Movement as a whole, was a real learning experience for me in
terms of life direction, in terms of the meaning and practice of
political concepts like democracy, such as freedom, learning to have
talks with people, dealing with my own class chauvinism and being middle
class and being a more kind of educated Black person by the standards of
a lot of the people who I was working with, and just realizing that
there is a lot of good give and take on both sides and that one learns
as much, usually more than frequently one gives, and that it was a very
special part of American history.
The Movement and Race Relations
Do you think that the Movement changed race relations in the U.S?
Sure. I think at a bottom level, it made Negroes, African Americans,
accepted U.S. citizens in the broadest sense of the word. It allowed for
a level of discourse and participation that didn't exist, not just in
the South, which obviously happened, but
also around the country.
I think at the social level, it allowed for Black people and white
people to have personal relationships that had been inconceivable before
the '60s, and it opened the door for certain kinds of jobs and upward
mobility for African Americans that didn't exist. It basically ended,
for the most part, racial apartheid in this country, and so I think
those are tremendous advances.
I think there are a lot of good analyses that said that a lot of this
was done, or the Movement that was possible in the '60s, was because the
United States was engaged in the Cold War. For the hearts and minds of
colored people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and were embarrassed
that they had this problem with their own colored people in the United
States, and so that gave us a tremendous amount of leverage that I think
prior generations didn't have or even ones today in some ways don't
have, which I think is true.
Talk about racism in the country as you see it currently.
Well, I think there is obviously still racism in the country, and I
think one of the failures of the period was, in some ways, the
transition of going from the political rights that were being struggled
for to the larger question of what does integration mean in this
country? And what does it mean in both an economic sense and what does
it mean in a social sense? I mean, in some ways, at the racial level,
African Americans are still very much as a group at the bottom in the
21st century, even though the immediate dynamics are very different. And
class is also as important as race in the current dynamic.
I think what we were not able to get clear
enough, though I think it was a major battle and we made
some forward motion on it, was to give people some sense
of what we in SNCC called institutional racism. Racism that was beyond
personal relations, beyond prejudice. And I think why it was so
difficult, I look through stuff and the word "racism"
isn't even used very much before the 1960s.
You mean in general society as opposed to the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, both. There was a term in British English called "racialism,"
which had currency but which in this country we did not use. Here people
talked about prejudice, and they talked about segregation, and
discrimination, but the idea of racism was something that really
didn't catch on until the late '60s. It wasn't even part of our own
propaganda in the early '60s, we didn't talk about racism. We talked
about "race relations," but we didn't talk about it as a system that
goes beyond the actions of individual people that has cultural,
economic, historical aspects that basically repeat themselves time and
They are so much the norm that people don't even question them, and I
think it's in some ways, a new concept,
that was very hard to get over. I think we obviously began that in
certain circles, particularly academic circles and maybe some
intellectual circles, there was some understanding of that broader
In the way you're defining or using the words "racism" and "racist," are
they synonymous with bigotry and prejudice? Or do you have a different
Well, I think there's a relationship to be sure, but the definition that
I usually would adhere to is that racism has something to do with having
power to enforce and use institutions of society to one's advantage to
make that happen. Even there, that's a little murky, to be honest with
you, mainly because things change.
Different Times, Different Dynamics
It's like when you go to a place like Chicago and the dynamic is very
different [compared to the South]. And so you get someone like Martin
Luther King, or even SNCC, who goes to Chicago, and we're used to
fighting against a framework that says, "Stay out. We don't want you."
But [Chicago Mayor] Daly says, "Come in. Join the Democratic Party. Be
part of it." And all of a sudden the motion that we've developed and our
concepts of how to organize, how to work with or to talk to people don't
quite make it.
To me that was part of why it was so important to understand that shift
between the Southern and the Northern dynamic, because in some ways the
Northern dynamic is the one that is seen as the universal one for the
United States. And the Alabamas and the Mississippis were some awful
hick holdovers from slavery, civil rights, and post-Reconstruction and
needed to be dealt with, but that once Negroes became like everybody
else, everything would be "okay." And the problem was, what's "like
everybody else" mean? And that takes a broader analysis.
In that sense, racism has gone through many different forms. I mean, who
would have believed that in the year 2000 and the 1990s that one of the
major proponents for maintaining the structures of institutional racism
is a Black man, Ward Connerly, and that he is able to use the language
of the Movement against itself. And that's what I mean that movements
have to grow, take in new situations, and I think it was difficult. So
much was going on in the '60s, on all fronts, that [it was hard] for us
to keep up with all those different things. Part of the question that
Martin Luther King raised so eloquently, "Where do we go from here?" has
yet to be answered even yet today. And I think people have been groping
with that, how the system of capitalism basically works to disempower
most people and prevent true democracy but still has very much of a
racist edge. Yet, you have Black individuals who are doing quite well,
from the Magic Johnsons to the Michael Jacksons to so on.
Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice.
Or the Colin Powells and so on. So how do you talk about racism in that
context? Yet you go into any community or city in this country, pretty
much in the poorer areas, and you see large areas of Black people who
have not been integrated into the system at all. Even the government's
own statistics show that the Black community, as a
community, is worse off now [in comparison to the white
community] than it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Relatively.
But you have certain Black individuals like [San Francisco Mayor] Willie
Brown, who are doing quite well. And even some of the Movement people
have been unable to really get clear definitions of how you move, how
you form alliances, who is the enemy? And how is that enemy working? And
are there ways to use the momentum of that enemy like we did through
non-violence and the moral power, the moral edge in the '60s, in ways
that would be similar to that kind of strategy? We haven't gotten there.
I was teaching this course at New College just recently, and one of the
things I was trying to tell people is that concepts change and they go
out of fashion, because what they're trying to capture no longer works
in the same way it did when the concept first developed.
I used the concept of the "Third World" for example as one. I talked
about why that was so useful at a certain time in history and then how
it just kind of [fell out of use]. Or why people started calling
themselves "African Americans" as opposed to "Black" people. Or why you
don't hear the term "Chicano" used anymore, yet it was a very major term
in the early '60s because it captured something of what people were
trying to do and also in terms of some of the immediate blocks or
impressions that they were feeling. And sometimes concepts aren't as
current as sometimes the actual reality, and so new concepts have to be
developed by people in motion. That's why you can't just say, "Well,
we're going to name these people Hispanics" for example and then capture
Usually they're a little bit behind the actual working relationships of
class dynamics or race/people dynamics or increasingly, the generation
dynamics. I mean, I find that as a Black man in my early 60s to say that
I'm Black and talk to young Black kids who are in high school or junior
high school who are Black in the Bay Area and think that simply being
Black is going to encapsulate all that is a total delusion. Because
being Black for them in the 1990s and the 21st century has been a
different kind of experience than it is to me. It has to do with class
and generation and stuff like that, sometimes gender also. So concepts
have to, in terms of actual struggle [evolve]. And the problem is that a
lot of times the concepts are used and stay there, they're just put in
books and people refer to them, and they're not being moderated by the
demands of everyday struggle, they tend to get slightly dated in some
ways. One of my favorite quotes from SNCC did you have
hear of "June-bug Jabbo Jones?"
Sure, the great character that John O'Neal of the Free Southern Theatre
Well, it was like this old lady who said, kind of like
June-bug Jabbo Jones, only she's feminine and not June
Bug, she said, "We are between no longer and not yet."
And I think that's where we are on a lot of this stuff. I mean, we see
this stuff with our eyes every day, and the way we describe it
frequently is with old concepts or old language. It's not exactly wrong,
but it's not quite right.
I remember I was in a generational thing, and this young Black woman,
she was about 22. She said, "You know, what you're saying just sounds so
tired." And what I liked about it is she didn't say it was wrong, but
she said it was tired. And because it didn't capture the dynamic of her
life, it didn't energize her or the people she talked to. And so it was
like the old folks talking about the old days, and you know, she nodded
and paid some respect, and it probably happened the way I said it did
and so on, but it wasn't going to get her moving or any of her friends
moving, which means that it's not good enough for the current moment. So
that's why it's so important to be at the crest of the actual organizing
and the struggle, which for a lot of us, including myself, we aren't as
close to as we were back in the '60s and for me even the early '70s
where you could see this stuff gelling all the time.
Failures of the Movement
You've made references to the failures of the Civil Rights Movement, so
talk specifically about them. What were the failures? Or were there
failures? And if so, what were they?
Well, you know, it's easier to look at the failures of specific
organizations than it is a movement as a whole. In terms of a movement
as a whole, the thing I was just talking about, the
whole question of racism and stuff and what does it mean
today? our inability to be clear, not just in definition
but also in terms of direction the people need to take from those
definitions in terms of actual struggle, is a failure in some ways.
I think some failures at the level of inter-racial stuff was that even
in terms of SNCC, we said that white folks should go out and organize
white folks. We gave no direction to a great degree. We didn't have any
clarity of what that actually meant. And there were other white folks
out there, particularly in the right wing, who were organizing white
folks much better than the ones we wanted to. So it was really kind of
sad in some ways looking back on it. It was more of a posture and a
feeling than it was a political strategy at some level.
I think even looking at a lot of the South, is that one of the things
that one could say is that you've had a switch. It's like musical
chairs. The Black folks came into the system of sorts. They become the
Democratic Party of most of the South, except for the very top, you
know, the people who run for the big offices. The whites became
Republicans. They privatized their schools, and so the public schools
now are all Black or mostly Black. The Democratic Party is mostly Black,
and the private power that still runs the South is still white and now
mostly Republican. And that's what's changed. That's not a very positive
I remember I guess it was in 1984 or '88 when Jessie Jackson went
out and organized 8 million, mostly African American, new voters. The
Christian Right went out and organized roughly the same thing, mostly
poor whites, middle class whites, people
Not necessarily in response to Jessie. They were just doing it anyway.
No, in some ways it was in response, because it was basically the other
side of the spectrum, and they ended up voting for Bush and Reagan.
Let's see, we're talking about 1984; '84 was Reagan, and '88 was Bush.
So in some ways, it was in response to the Rainbow Coalition. Not always
directly, but I guess what I'm saying is that our side went out and did
one thing, and the other side did the other thing, and so it's not quite
clear what changed here in terms of lasting change. I mean, one of the
abilities of the Republicans to win and maintain power was basically to
come up with a whole new constituency using Christian Right Wing
ideology and born-agains or whatever to form a base that George Bush, Jr
is now is very much beholden to.
So on one hand, there have been major changes. On the other hand, there
have not been quite as many as we would like to see when you really
scratch the surface enough. I mean, I don't pretend to have the answer
for how to make those changes. I remember traveling in some small towns
in the South, and outside the big cities, it's almost like the Civil
Rights Movement never happened here. But on the other hand, it's like
when we had the 30th anniversary of the Summer Project in Mississippi,
when the State Highway Patrol basically led the old vets. I remember
Mike Miller writing about it. It was like mind blowing. Well, something
did happen here.
Or John [Hewlett?] finally got elected in Alabama, so there are some
changes. But I mean White Power is still the controlling factor in most
of the South, in fact, pretty much all the South. Even though
Mississippi has more African Americans elected than any other state in
the country, it's still just a poor state. We haven't changed that. And
most of the poor is disproportionately African American. There are poor
whites obviously, and Fannie Lou Hamer
and people knew that back in the '60s.
But so, what has changed and what hasn't? There has been a visible
change, which is quite good. I remember my parents and as a kid, when we
traveled in the South, everybody would carry their little bag of chicken
and stuff, because we knew we couldn't stop anywhere and be welcome. Or
we were afraid what might happen. I might be Emmett Till, walked in a
place and looked at the wrong way at somebody cross-eyed, and I'd be
whatever. We feared that. We don't for the most part fear that now.
There are some exceptions like Jasper Texas and stuff like that, but
that's not the norm.
And there were all those Black church burnings in the South a few years
ago too, but the norm is that there's a great
deal, particularly in the urban areas of the
South, there is a great deal of confidence. Places like
Atlanta see themselves as Chocolate City South, and there's a growing,
developing Black population. They've had Black mayors of New Orleans,
and I guess they finally got one in Selma after what was it? Forty years
or so. And so there are visible changes to be sure, but on the other
hand, a lot of the old power still stands there.
But you said that the power in Mississippi is still White Power.
Well, I wonder if what defines it is its whiteness or that its source of
its power is in economics? When we were active in the Civil Rights
Movement, [Mississippi Senators] Bilbo and Eastland and Stennis and
[Mississippi] Governor Johnson and all of those people based their power
in racist politics, race baiting, the whole segregation system. I'm not
sure that that's true now. It's true that the people who happen to be in
power in Mississippi are mostly white. I'm not sure it's right to call
it "White Power" though because it is no longer explicitly based on
race. Corporate Power might be a more
Well, I would still call it White Power. How to say this? What has
changed, and it's been an important
change, is that I think most people don't think of us as
an exclusively white nation any longer, even in the South. And that's
been a major step forward. The Civil Rights Movement played a major role
Part of what also happened in the Civil Rights Movement which doesn't
get talked a lot about happened in terms of the white involvement in the
Movement, for the first time in terms of mass recognition you had white
people challenging other white people around race relations, race
issues. There had always been individuals who had done that, going back
to John Brown and Anne Braden more recently. You could come up with
names of other people. But in this case [you had a] major movement
including white people who dared to be called "nigger lovers" who were
out there in a mass that created a whole new kind of perspective.
The ability of the Civil Rights Movement, and I think
this is where Martin Luther King's history, his usefulness is to be seen
as part of the American rubric in even having a national holiday now for
him, is that there's an acceptance that African
Americans are a part of the American project for lack of a better word.
On the other level, having said that, and I say that's
an advance, and it came specifically out of the '60s, is
that what you have in most places, and it's not just the South either,
is that the basis of power, of economic power, is still in the hands of
whites. And until there are African Americans who develop economic power
and can enter that elite, I'm not sure that there's a real major
distinction that can be made between White Power and Corporate Power,
because Corporate Power for the most part is White Power.
I mean, there are a few boards where a couple of African Americans are
on them and stuff like that. I guess Colin is on some and so on, but I
mean they operate basically as honorary whites. And more importantly,
they don't have any economic power of their own to bring to it. If they
had some economic power of their own, or as they say,
some chips on the table to put into it, then we can talk
about some multi-racial. It wouldn't be just whites. It would be
And that's why, in some ways, looking at Mike Espy who was from
Mississippi and became the Secretary of Agriculture [during the Clinton
administration], when he tried to do something for the Black farmers in
the South he got bounced. The Black farmers, who could form an economic
base in some ways, are consistently losing more land than they are
gaining land. There are no real avenues of independent Black power,
economic power, or even multi-racial power that I can see. I mean, a
bunch of Black corporate folks and white corporate folks sitting down
and let's form a corporation together. If that's happened, I've totally
missed that, and I don't think I have. So that would make that
combination different to me.
Now what you have had is, in some cases, Atlanta has
probably been the best example of this, where you've had
a bunch of Black mayors who head the political structure from Maynard
Jackson, Andy Young, Campbell, this woman Sharon whatever her name is
now, and they've had some degree [of power] in terms of contracting,
delegations to Africa, the airport, and they're all African Americans.
But it's not quite clear that they own any of this great capitol. But
the white power structure, the economic power structure, has had to
factor them in.
Just like they had to do with Coleman Young in Detroit for years, until
they were able to make Detroit insignificant. Nothing happens now below
Eight Mile and so Detroit becomes a wasteland. And they did somewhat the
same with Tom Bradley in L.A., but of course Tom Bradley didn't really
represent any real Black power as Black Power. He was a Black man in a
high position, and so I guess that's the distinction I make. I mean,
until there is some real Black economic power that sits
down there are only a few cities: Atlanta, Chicago,
parts of Philadelphia where you have some real degree of
concentrated Black economic wealth. I'm scratching my head here trying
to think of some more. Certainly not San Francisco or even Oakland, as
much as we call Oakland Chocolate City West, it's basically been the
political kingdom, the rhetoric, and because of the developing Black
And as Black populations begin to decline overall in relationship to
Latinos or other groups [that power is diminishing]. In Oakland, it's
been absolute. There's actually less Black people in Oakland than there
were 10 years ago. And in San Francisco too.
Overall Impact of the Movement
Did the Civil Rights Movement have an impact on the whole United States
population or just primarily on African Americans?
Well, the total population. Some of the examples I gave in terms of
whites from the last question I think reinforce that.
I mean, there has been some appreciation even in the developing African
American markets. I mean, where big corporations are
putting they have no problem selling goods to the
African Americans, even Tommy Hilfiger, arch racist,
will sell stuff to Black kids and stuff like that. So there's an
awareness that Blacks are a part of the American ethnic, and the fact
that you have all these white kids in the hip-hop shows that at the
level of culture Blacks in sports are still the crux of
a lot of the American Olympic teams and basketball, track, etc. Even
tennis, Venus and Serena and all that.
Most Americans are very prepared and open to accepting levels of Black
excellence [now]. So Michael Jordan, all the Michaels:
Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Michael whoever. And Colin Powell, even
to think that he might even be considered by Republicans to be a
Presidential candidate, that wouldn't have been true 40 years ago.
But I think what's become harder, particularly as suburbanization has
grown is that you have the growth of what are essentially Black suburbs.
And so there's not a lot of racial integration, and so while Americans
abstractly see Blacks as part of the American ethos, in terms of direct
contact, direct relationship, the ability to form
partnerships, I don't mean necessarily social/sexual
ones, but just whether in business, politics, or even
non-profit stuff, has not necessarily grown that drastically. I mean
while there's separation, with Asians and Latinos,
there's somewhat more integration of Latinos in suburbs and Asians in
suburbs than there is African Americans.
So I think at the, who was that cartoonist in The
Yeah, Pfeiffer. I thought he capsulated it very well. He did this great
cartoon some years ago in The Voice where he shows Bill Cosby
coming to town, everybody saying, "Oh Bill, where's Bill? I want to meet
Bill Cosby! Yeah, shake his hand and so on. Oh, Michael Jackson? Hey,
you got tickets to the concert? I want to go! Oh, Jordan's coming to
town? I want to see that game. I want to be there! Mohammed Ali." Black
excellence, people want to be around it.
But the brother on the block? The brother who goes into Queens by
accident? Rodney King? The average Black brother? They want to kill him
if he does something wrong. They don't identify with him at all. Nobody
wants to go out to east Oakland. You want to hang out in east Oakland?
No, nobody in their right mind wants to hang out in east Oakland,
particularly if they're white. So, there's this real dichotomy in the
white mind, and hence in white practice of how they view Blacks. Certain
Blacks are great.
I mean, even South Africa made the Cosby show "colored," so that they
could show it, this was before Mandela, under apartheid.
You mean they said that he was in their racial classification of
Yes. But I mean that's Black excellence. It's the Black norm or the
Black underclass that they aren't prepared to deal with.
Significance of Atlantic City Challenge
In some ways, and I always say it, this goes back to Atlantic City [the
MFDP challgene at the 1964 Democratic convention]. They were prepared to
deal with Aaron Henry, the Black guy who was the honorary delegate that
they selected. But they weren't prepared to accept the Fannie Lou
Hamers, the Lawrence Guyotts. They weren't prepared to accept the
If they can pick who the Black representatives to sit in Atlantic City
will be, along with the white representatives, so that they can keep
this nice integrated concept going, they're cool with it. But to let the
average Black person come in, which was represented by the MFDP
delegation, they weren't ready. And that's why I like that paradigm,
because I think it hasn't changed since 1964. That was the thing that
the Movement split on. Because you had people like Bayard saying, "Take
the compromise." That's where we split off with Bayard back in '64.
Interesting how all those folks went to the right politically. They
supported the Vietnam War and sat down with Lane Kirkland and the real
right wing of the labor movement.
And because they viewed, their ticket was Humphrey, that
Humphrey would become President. Humphrey who represented liberalism,
the liberal left, could not advance unless he was able to come up with
some compromise with these unruly Movement people, Negroes and whites
who were jeopardizing this. He was free to go and become the Vice
President, but the problem is that the Vice President has shit power. So
he had to endure Lyndon Johnson and go along with Lyndon Johnson, which
meant going along with the Vietnam War. So it's why
Well, I think he supported the Vietnam War until late, Humphrey did.
Yeah, exactly. Right. But I'm saying the people who wanted to get into
American power, even to his left, like the Bayards and the so
on, Tom Kahn, one of my mentors from Howard, Project
Awareness, were all in that. And it's why, in some ways,
the people who were rejecting the compromise in 1964 came to '68 in
Chicago much larger and in mass, anti-Vietnam stuff now and basically
railing against Humphrey. And hence, even though he got the nomination,
it destroyed the chance of Democrats to win. So history comes back to
It sure does. I was thinking while you were talking about that, about
the model of Humphrey, who in order to achieve his position had to
control the MFDP delegation. That's the classic model of a labor
union, "Okay, we'll recognize you as a labor union
president, a labor "leader," you'll be highly paid, but the price is
that you have to control those unruly workers on the assembly line. And
yes, you can win some occasional higher pay or better medical benefits
for them, but they can't challenge the speed of the line."
And you can't change the system also.
You can't change the system. And Humphrey came right out of that labor
Direct Action and Grassroots People
So during the day, one of the controversies was direct
action, the sit-ins, the marches, did
they hurt or help the Movement?
Oh, I think they totally helped the Movement. I mean, in my mind, I
don't think there's any debate on this. It literally put the Movement on
the map. It's what made a difference.
If it had just been at the level of say the NAACP doing legal
challenges, it never would have been a mass movement outside of maybe
one or two cases. Like an Emmett Till or somebody getting killed, there
might be a momentary mass reaction to that, but that wouldn't have been
the movement that actually happened. Equally
important, maybe even more important, it
gave ways for people to participate who didn't have to be lawyers or
college educated or experts.
That whole preparation thing. You didn't have to prepare your whole life
to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. You could just join it. Like
we said, "Put your body on the line." You didn't have to be a mental
giant or get A's in political science. That's what also dawned on me.
As a student, I worked as an elevator operator at the U.S. Congress as
one of my part-time jobs and I got to meet, not intimately but have
conversations with Congressmen getting on and off the elevators. We'd
get into little conversations sometimes and so on. I realized that these
were people who were making laws for the country, and I knew more about
state and local government than some of these folks who were elected to
Congress. And that also a lot of the people who were in the Movement who
again didn't have the legal degrees or the connections or so on knew
what was really happening at the grassroots level, what was really
happening out in the street, where the bodies were, both figuratively
and literally, and they were never close to the power.
The Movement opened the way for a whole new kind of participation, and
the fact that it was both, for many years, integrated in terms of Black
and white but also provided a new social vehicle for entirely different
kinds of relationships that were ever allowed in public, in public life.
People didn't have to hide around corners and meet in separate bars or
stuff like that or even go to another country. They could be open about
their politics, meet different people, different movements came
together, the Peace Movement came into the Civil Rights Movement with
their background and their agenda. You had the left groups come in with
their agenda and their politics. You had the young students. You had
white students. You had people like Al Lowenstein and Staughton Lynd and
so on. There was room for a lot of creative fermentation in a way that
there was probably no where else in American society during that time
period. And I think it was precisely that direct involvement which was
symbolized by the marches, the protests, the direct action and also the
culture the freedom songs, the music and stuff like
that, that went with it that made it so accessible to so many people. I
mean, if it had just been a speech. You come and hear somebody give a
Or donate money to a lawsuit.
Exactly. It never would have grown.
Kennedy and Johnson
Do you think the President did everything in his power to better the
situation at the time?
Well, the answer is no, obviously. I mean, what was interesting about
Kennedy was how much was opportunism and how much was he actually
learning? Given Kennedy's background, I mean, they said that it was in
the West Virginia primary in 1960 that John Kennedy really saw some poor
people and had to deal with them for the first time in his life. And it
really, in some ways, had a major impact on him. I think it wasn't until
the thing around the fact that he met with Mrs. King
Called her. That's right. You're right. He didn't even meet with her.
You're right. Called her and then saw what happened and it changed the
election with the Black vote. By the standards of 1960, Nixon was seen
not that much different than Kennedy on a lot of issues, and so it
wasn't like an arch reactionary or arch liberal. It was almost a liberal
and a moderate or something like that. So when he saw the Black vote
really went for him in November of '60 and tipped the scale to a great
degree, it was "This is part of my constituency and what do I do about
Of course he raised a lot of great hopes and I remember the speeches he
[gave], He said that a lot of the laws that allowed for
housing segregation and stuff could just be struck down with a stroke of
a pen. And of course, nothing happened. I think we used to make the
joke, "What happened? Did the President break his hand? Or is his arm
broken or something? What happened that he can't somehow pick up the pen
and do all this?"
Do the stroke, yeah.
Do this great stroke [of a pen] that he so talked about. And of course
we were the more radical and left-wing folks, but I'm sure some of the
more moderates thought about it too, people like Roy Wilkins.
So it was clear that Kennedy was pressured by the early '60s and that he
realized at a certain point, I guess maybe Robert even
more so having to deal with the governors and even the stuff we were
talking about in terms of Montgomery and all that, is
that they were sitting on top of a volcano, and it was one that was not
totally controllable. And even when the March on Washington happened,
Kennedy was not too happy about it and was trying to find all kinds of
ways to not make it happen and then "Well, okay, since it can't be
stopped, how can we manage it in some way?"
So this is not quite doing all he could here. It's interesting because
in some of the galley corrections [I did] for "The Long Walk to Freedom"
[exhibit] there's a little phrase about the Civil Rights Bill of 1964,
it says "It was championed by Kennedy." I said, "Wait a minute, wait a
minute. We can't use that word 'champion.' That was not what happened at
So I think that in some ways the Kennedys were reluctant warriors. On
the other hand, I guess that the Civil Rights Movement would not have
gotten as far as we did if we hadn't had a favorable press in the ways
that we did in the early 1960s. And that's particularly clear in terms
of today's press. And also to a great degree that there was almost a
conscious strategy of trying to pit the state governments, which were
totally reactionary and racist, against the federal government and
particularly the Supreme Court. In other words, to use the federalism of
the country to our advantage, but basically it was like the Civil Rights
leaders looked to the federal government and the federal judiciary to
basically support the Movement. This was more like '62, '63, '64
Well, and '65.
Right, right. In '65 too. But I think it was a conscious strategy,
that's what I'm saying. Since Kennedy and some of the judges he
appointed, though he was very careful in the South not
to irritate the Southern racist parties, the Movement
would not have made some of those victories if it hadn't been from some
degree of help, of support, from the federal government under
Kennedy, both Kennedys, John and Bobby.
And then later Lyndon, who in some ways, at least rhetorically, seemed
to champion the rubrics more than the Kennedys ever
did, I mean, even to the point where he got up in
Congress and said, "We shall overcome." I used to hate Lyndon Johnson.
But there was also under Johnson the poverty program and an opening for
people like Michael Herrington and the folks who were talking about the
Other America and writing about that. All I'm trying to say here
I guess is that there was some degree of percolation that was happening
at the federal government level which one can
see, particularly given that it's not there now, since
it hasn't been there since who knows?
Yeah, probably since Nixon. I mean, there were little glimmers when
Jimmy Carter was in a little bit. So I guess I would say that the
Presidents never did as much as they could do, but I think looking back
on it from today's [perspective], it's useful to see that the federal
government is playing a much more regressive role today than it did in
the 1960s. And to some degree, I don't want to give
strokes to Kennedy or Johnson necessarily, but to say
that it did happen and the Civil Rights Movement did benefit from that.
Assasinations of Malcom and King
What are your thoughts on the assassination of Malcolm X and Martin
Well, without getting into speculation about who did it and why and
whether the government was behind it or the right wing or stuff like
that, I would say it was a great loss. Both for the Movement and the
Black struggle, and in different ways, broader ways, even for America as
In some ways, Malcolm and Martin represented dual sides of the same
coin. I think Malcolm X clearly spoke more to African Americans, and
that was his clear constituency. And he did something important in terms
of developing Black pride and a sense of having some
realistic, as opposed to
illusionary, view of the kind of situation we were in,
both in this country and the world.
And I think Martin was probably the greatest leader of the '60s. I
always like to say that he was the greatest leader of a period of a lot
of great leaders. You know, Caesar Chavez and not just the Black
struggle and so on. I think what made Martin Luther King so important is
that he had a conception of the Movement that had a place for everybody.
And in some ways, nobody's really had that before or since.
I mean, there are some people who would say that if Bobby Kennedy in '68
had become President, maybe that might have happened and all that. But
King represented that. And it's been the weakness of the Black Movement
and the Progressive Movement as a whole in this country, that there has
been nobody else who had that kind of vision. I think vision is the
right word, not concept, he had a vision of that. I mean, that's a real
greatness, and so whoever assassinated him, which at a
certain point it's hard to ever find that out, they
A future movement has to think about trying to develop maybe not just
one leader, I think that was the problem with Martin or
any one leader who is so charismatic, is to develop
leaders who basically have that conception of [including] everybody. It
doesn't mean that everybody immediately is going to follow, they will be
fighting among each other, and they'll probably be fighting against you,
a particular leader. But if your conception of how change has to happen,
how the movement grows, and this is why the non-violent
piece is so important, because it doesn't throw people
out to be offed or done in, in many ways. So it's important that King
I said before that King's rhetorical comment, "Where do we go from
here?" has not been transcended. The image of his leadership at its
best, given J. Edgar Hoover's little
notes, we've been finding some other things about Martin
that would show that he was a human being in some ways. But at its best
it's still the standard that needs to be done. And I would say for my
own organization, SNCC, I don't think anybody ever tried to do that.
Stokely wasn't trying to do that. Certainly Rap wasn't trying to do
that. I don't think John Lewis was really doing that. In some ways, I
think the person in SNCC, who might have come closest was Chuck McDoo.
What about Moses?
I like Bob Moses, but Bob was just too mystical for, I
mean, I would just love it, there'd be five people in the room or maybe
50 people in the room, including Bob Moses, and people would be saying,
'Well, what Bob means is to say is " Or "What Bob is
trying to tell us is this. I think Bob says this." Or "Wow, I think Bob
is trying to really tell us how to do this." But Bob is sitting in the
fucking chair right there. Ask the sucker what he's talking about!
So, I mean that's the problem a lot with Bob Moses, and in some ways it
still is even with the Algebra Project that he's not quite there in a
way that King was. And I don't mean just King's speeches. I mean, I
think what was so great about King also is you could see his heart.
People who know Bob know he has a heart. It's not a question he doesn't
have a heart, but I don't think in terms of the public persona that's
out there it's like this Buddhist guy, Jack Cornfield, talks about. You
have to have a path with heart. And I think that the leadership of the
future has to have a path for progressive movement in this country that
has heart and that shows compassion. It shows passion for everybody,
even though everybody may not, as I say, immediately today be ready to
join in that, but there's a way that people can enter that, and the
movement is open to that.
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