Jean Wiley was a student/teacher-activist and SNCC staff member in Maryland and Alabama from 1960-1967.]
Kennedy & Johnson
Wiley: When I was growing up, there was a term called "Racemen" and "Racewomen" and that's what you wanted to be. You aspired to be a Raceman or Racewoman.
It meant that you were constantly and consciously doing things that furthered the race. That your personal success had to take a back step. In a way, it was probably a little like the Talented Tenth except that the Talented Tenth meant the intellectuals. This was across class and income lines. So you grew up knowing who the Racemen and Women were, in a city as big as Baltimore.
I should mention I grew up in a family where my father and his two brothers tried for years to join the union. The only union available to workers was the Steelworkers. Bethlehem Steel, when steel was a big company in Baltimore. That was the only union that finally broke and began to open. Remember, the other unions stayed close. So in the sense of economic mobility, and that's inconceivable to younger people today that he couldn't get into other unions. My father was very bitter about it, and finally stopped, I mean there's only so long, but 15 years is a long time to try to break in.
Hartford: But by getting in the union, he could have gotten a job at Bethlehem?
Wiley: Or any place else. There's a large painters' union, a large carpenters' union. So the large institutional contracts went to union members. They had that sewn up.
Hartford: How and why did you get involved in the Civil Rights movement?
Wiley: I was a student at Morgan State College (now Morgan University) in Baltimore when the sit-ins broke out in 1960. They seemed like the perfect thing to do, so Morgan, like Howard and all the other border- state Black colleges, apparently, jumped right in.
Baltimore was completely segregated, as was Washington. The sit-ins struck me, I remember when I heard about them, they struck me as the perfect answer to an impatience that I'd been in the student council, both in high school and in college, and most of those conversations were political, and it just struck me as the perfect answer to the impatience that everybody was feeling coming out of, especially coming out of the Supreme Court decision and then Little Rock. So, it was clear to us that it was going to go state by state, school by school. So it seemed like a really good idea and it was something that you could do spontaneously. So I jumped in then. We were picketing not just the five and dimes, but also the department stores and the theaters.
Hartford: Because of segregation or because of jobs?
Wiley: This was because, as I recall, it was because, to open up facilities, lunch counters, restaurants. We were college students, we weren't as I recall now, we weren't thinking at that moment, it quickly came to that, but we weren't thinking at that moment, about jobs. It was opening facilities I mean, everything was segregated in Baltimore. So it was the answer, for me, personally, it was the answer to, "You can't." I grew up hearing, "You can't. You can't do this. You can't go to the symphony. You can't go to the library. You can't go to the swimming pool. You can't go to that park, no." It became, "Oh, but I can do something about this." I don't have to wait for the legal route, which is moving too slowly anyway. So in Baltimore, they started with the downtown area and the theaters, and especially one theater. It was just at the edge of the campus. The neighborhood around the campus was entirely white. This theater was the closest theater to, well, I mean, the Black theaters were nowhere near, and the white theaters, of course, we couldn't go to anyway, downtown.
Hartford: Couldn't go at all? There wouldn't be like a balcony or something?
Wiley: The first time I heard of balconies was when I went to the Deep South. In Baltimore, you couldn't go. There was this one theater, what was it? The North something. Northridge, North something. Anyway, it was on the edge of campus, totally Black school, right. Of course, that was a key target and that was the target where people could go, could join the picket line between classes, it was that close.
I got arrested in Baltimore for sitting in. One of the stories that I really love is that I was in jail when the Howard group sent word that they were on their way, en masse. Suddenly, the mayor woke up and thought, "Oh, we're not having this. Clear all the jails out. Just get them out. Forget procedure, just get them out of there." And we got out. That was a real big, oh, boy, there's real, real power in numbers.
Wiley: Then I went on to graduate school, choosing University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, which was a hotbed of activity. I guess most any school I would have chosen, but I had a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, so I could go anywhere I wanted. And by the way, I'm the first college graduate in my family and, therefore, the first to ever go to graduate school.
I was finishing up my master's when the Mississippi Freedom Summer started being planned and tons and tons of volunteers went down from the Ann Arbor campus. I kept watching the bulletins and going to the meetings and the leaflets and stuff, and I was struck by the fact I still am struck by the fact that all the information said you had to have so much money. Money for any medical expenses you might need. Money for lawyers if you got arrested. Money for this, money for that. I was penniless. I had gone there on a full scholarship, that's all I had. I hadn't started working. So I got this ingenious notion that I would go South, but I didn't know where I was going to go South.
Wiley: I got offered a position at Tuskegee as did a number of people. The new dean came to the campus to recruit new teachers. This was while I was at Ann Arbor, that spring he came recruiting. So by the time I got my degree in Literature and Language in '64, May '64, I knew that I was going to be going South. I thought that I would hook up with the Mississippi Freedom Summer. And I never did.
I never looked at a map. I just knew Alabama was next door to Mississippi. I had no idea how challenging teaching would be my first time around. Well, how challenging it is. So I never got to Mississippi that summer, but there was so much activity in Alabama that I could immediately hook into that I didn't feel, there wasn't time, actually to feel that I was being deprived of something. So I got to see Alabama, which was very different, I've always been told, than Mississippi. I was in Selma and, mostly Selma and Montgomery, because that's where the student base was.
Then we started organizing in Macon County, which is where Tuskegee is. Started organizing students. Sammy Young was one of my students. Then, of course, I began meeting people as they would come out of Alabama and out of Atlanta and southwest Georgia on to Mississippi. My house became it was my first time ever to have a place of my own and it became like a way station. You know, you need to spend the night at Jean's house and then keep going eastward. That's how.
For me, it was not only the organizing and the, you know, constant terror and tension, but it was also the fact that I was teaching at a school that in the history is going to look very progressive, but it really wasn't. It wasn't this school that I had thought actually, most of the Black colleges in the Deep South are very conservative. So I was constantly battling administrators and, you know, heads of department and everything. My dean, you know, I got along wonderfully well, but he was battling, you know, on his own. So it was just tremendously
Hartford: Battling that you should not be so active or that the things you taught were too radical?
Wiley: Yeah, but they were nuts kinds of things. Like, the first time I realized that there's big trouble was because I ordered a book - this was my very first class and I ordered Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for my students. And the bookstore didn't have it; it said it would order it. I kept waiting around. And it suddenly occurred, it didn't suddenly, it just gradually occurred to me that they weren't going to order the book. And I couldn't quite believe it, but nobody was telling me no. They were just saying, we'll get around to it.
Hartford: Because of those early passages where the protagonist is attending
Wiley: Yes. Tuskegee. Yeah. So my first long trip was to leave Tuskegee and drive to Atlanta, where I'd never been in my whole life, and get the books and bring them back to the campus. So it was even before most of the radicalism had begun. It was just ordering a book and it was unheard of that I wouldn't have my own reading list in addition to whatever the department might want. I had my own, that's what my understanding had always been.
Hartford: It's no surprise. You remember Selma University? After the big Movement there, the people had sent down just thousands of books and they had just built a whole beautiful new library that had no books in it. The shelves were totally well, not totally, but, like, they had like five percent of the shelves filled. So after things died down in Selma, they had these thousands and thousands of book. So the Movement said, "Well, we'll donate them to Selma University," and Selma University refused to take them out of fear.
Wiley: Yeah, yeah. I had forgotten that, but yes, they did. Same kind of thing. I think had I, you know, I would have gotten away with Baldwin. Well, I did get away with Baldwin, but they didn't want to have another fight on their hands. I would have gotten away with some Black book, but I think it was because of those passages about Tuskegee that they just weren't going to have it.
Hartford: Maybe more than just that?
Wiley: I think there was a lot more, but I think that Tuskegee had Tuskegee used to call itself the Oasis of the South. It really thought that it was that in, you know, surrounded by this hostile territory. You've got the largest, or one of the largest, VA hospitals right there on the campus, as well as this school with an incredible history and tradition and practically everybody has come through there in the progressive and the Black worlds, but they didn't want their students actually to be taught. They could have picked it up somewhere else and read it, but they didn't want that book taught in the English department. English departments are notoriously the most conservative on any campus, which I didn't know. Including Berkeley.
Hartford: What would you say were the successes of the Civil Rights movement, particularly the Southern Civil Rights movement? If any.
Wiley: I think there were many, but you kind of have to have been there before. You know, when I talk to my son and his friends about it, it's like I'm talking in the 15th century. There were enormous ones, but what amazes me is that the movement could have existed at all given the level of terror and resistance. That's what strikes me most when I think back about it. How, despite that, that you could begin to open up. We weren't talking revolution. Then. (Laughs) I would begin to talk revolution, but it wasn't then.
The freedom of movement, that's what people don't understand, it's the freedom of movement. Not to be able to walk into the main library of any place. Not to be able to go to the museum, except on days when they might let a couple of Black people in and might not. Public accommodations never did it for me, having grown up in the border states. It was movement.
You were literally imprisoned in a system, and it wasn't I mean, the Black community in many ways was thriving, but it couldn't provide everything that the society does, and as soon as you left it, you were in hostile territory. First of all, you couldn't leave, mostly. I mean, you couldn't go into other neighborhoods. So the freedom of movement and, therefore, the freedom of intellectual pursuit. What's happening beyond your own community and your own country was an enormous thing.
Wiley: Another thing that stands, really comes to my mind a lot, is the Freedom Rides. I guess that's again because it was motion. I think people ought to study the Freedom Rides more than they do because it's inconceivable now, especially to young people, that you couldn't hop on a bus and go wherever the hell you want to go, and sit wherever you wanted to sit without fear of safety. You couldn't, and it's really striking that when that Supreme Court decision came down, it didn't have to be limited to schools. It didn't have to be limited to state by state. "Oh, okay, we'll send troops to Little Rock and maybe we'll send," actually, they did send troops to Virginia. You know, they could have opened it all up, but they didn't, so you had to try the buses.
First of all, you had to test it and then you had to test it stop by stop by stop. Later on, years later, 20 years later, I would interview Bernice Regan and I asked her the same question, how she got involved in the movement, and she said she was a college student and they decided to test the train station because, okay, if you're going to open the buses, maybe the train stations will be open, but they weren't. They got arrested and that's how that Albany movement began by testing Freedom Rides again, but this time, on the train.
The other reason that I think the Freedom Rides are important, even though I didn't go on them, is because they radicalized a lot of people with those buses ending in jail and in Parchman prison at that, for people going into Mississippi, but for Bernice and her group of students, they were going to jail in Albany. So they radicalized an enormous number of people in a way that nothing else could have. I was struck, too, by what, I realized that I had never heard somebody else talk about the Freedom Rides the way they are in my mind, but when Bob Bob Moses said that it was the Freedom Rides that literally moved the movement to the deepest of the Deep South and I thought, you know, that's it exactly because the sit-ins were mostly in the border-states.
Hartford: What other successes?
Wiley: People it opened up minds. That was a lot of what the organizing did, but I think that the demonstrations did, too. So that you start questioning "the why." Why things are this way. Why they have to stay this way. Segregation forever, you're told, and you're told you better damn well believe it, too. The organizing and the brilliant idea, I think, of the freedom schools, began to show people that in numbers, they can make a real difference, and where power was and why it was. So you had more of something to go on than it's white folks who are doing it this way. You had more of a critique of what the society's like and where the real power is and what's Washington doing.
Hartford: And that there were alternatives and choices. It wasn't just, "this is the way nature is?"
Wiley: "Right. This is the way God made it. Right.
Wiley: There's lots of things. I think COFO was a success. There are things I'm jumping over, but I think COFO was a huge just to get from Sunflower County to Atlantic City and to Washington.
Hartford: By COFO you mean the MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] challenge?
Wiley: Yeah. That's was COFO, Confederated Organizations. You know, SCLC, all of them.
Wiley: So the physical movement itself was enormous and then you have the movement of people like Miss Devine and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of those other people making that leap. It's a huge leap from a plantation to challenging the halls of Congress. So I think there were a lot of successes, I should probably make a list, but there were a lot. There are things that I know because I was there. I don't think there are things that people are aware of. So, in my view, the Southern movement was a success. It didn't go far enough, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't a success.
Hartford: I think in some ways the evidence of its success is the fact that people, particularly young people today, have no idea of what it was like. That what is now the norm was our success.
Wiley: Yeah, yeah. I think about that when I get depressed.
Hartford: It's true. The whole Jim Crow system, the whole forced inferiority all of that is just inconceivable today.
Hartford: On the flip side, were there failures and, if so, what were they?
Wiley: Well, we didn't finish. There was a solid movement base in the South. The organizations were under enormous pressure to move to the North, that's why King when to Cicero. Enormous pressure. Some of us like myself really just had to get out of the South, at least for a breather. I was pretty sure I wasn't gonna return to the South. But I didn't know that the movement wasn't gonna keep doing what it was doing, and really nestle in for the long haul.
By then, there were huge questions about the economics of oppression and so forth, and those had always been discussions, but that's where I thought the movement in the South would be heading. Very few people did stay for the long haul. While I understand it, I think, I thought then and I think now, that that was a mistake, because I think we could have had a really good base for continued organizing, continued critiquing of the society, a place to be.
Hartford: There's still economic discrimination. There's still rich and poor that has a big racial aspect to it There's all kinds of class and race disparities, but there isn't this, "you're not even a human being anymore," in the sense that there was then.
Hartford: It's just not conceivable, which is why Black people are moving back to the South. There's a net inflow instead of a net outflow.
Kennedy & Johnson
Hartford: Talk about the role of the president, Kennedy and Johnson, in relationship to the Civil Rights movement.
Wiley: Well, you know, I was so naive, especially about Kennedy. I wasn't fully aware of the kinds of games that Kennedy was playing. I got caught up, as everybody around me got caught up, in he's young, he's bright, he's not a racist, he's gonna do something. Enormous amount of optimism about Kennedy. I didn't really know until maybe my senior year when I started looking at the judgeships and, you know, what's this all about. He's saying one thing and he's appointing these judges in the Deep South. That's around '62 when the violence is taking place with the Civil Rights workers in Mississippi and he's appointing
Hartford: Carswell and people like that.
Wiley: Right, right. Then, of course, he's assassinated and I'm in Ann Arbor at that point. By then, nobody in the White House would have satisfied me at all. Certainly Johnson didn't in any way. I was looking forward to my graduation from graduate school and I found out that they invited Johnson to speak. So I was on the train going back to Baltimore when the others were gathering for graduation because I just wasn't going to sit through Johnson. It was my personal protest.
Wiley: Because by the time I'm now on my way to the South as a young teacher and an activist, everything coming from Washington is, at best, suspect. At worst (laughs), but at best, it's suspect. I simply didn't believe that Johnson, probably because of his pronounced Southern drawl. (Laughs) It's like, I just could not believe that he was going to be any better and probably a lot worse than his predecessors, all of them. By then, I had had no contact with the FBI, ever. So I didn't really know the worst of it, but I knew by then that nothing was going to happen unless you pushed it.
Hartford: What about non-violence. Talk about non-violence in relationship to the movement.
Wiley: That's kind of a hard one for me. I was always ambivalent about it. I was very ambivalent about it. Even today when I read Martin's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and other things, but I think it's the letter that strikes me most, it's pathological.
Hartford: Pathological in what way?
Wiley: It's one thing to be non-violent because you have to, but maybe it's in several of his writings, but it's somewhere that he talks about turning the other cheek and he talks about, we will love you anyway. That was the one that kept getting to me. And that stuck in me because I had never heard of any Black person anywhere who had anything even approaching love for white people. That was a totally foreign concept. Love.
Now it's one thing to like, it's one thing to work with, but this love thing and I will love you while you're whipping me, you know, and brutalizing it really does sound pathological to me. I was aware of that when it was happening, when he was saying it, and so was everybody else around me. But on the other hand, there was something very noble about it and I liked the nobility of it.
Then when I get to the South, and by the way, I'd never been to the Deep South and nobody in my family, except for my father and uncles when they were in the service and they moved them from Southern base to Southern base, nobody in my family had been to the Deep South. It was not easy going to the Deep South because, well, because people had been saying, you know, Baltimore is hell, Philadelphia is hell, Wilmington is hell, New York is hell. Why do you need to go down there to do something meaningful? Good question, but I thought something noble was taking part down there. I knew something noble was, and I had to get down there to see it for myself. Once I get there and I'm really in the midst now of the terror, that's when I really don't understand it.
Hartford: Didn't understand non-violence?
Wiley: Non-violence. That's when I'm not getting it. So I'm tremendously relieved when I hear I don't recall reading it, but I hear people going back and forth. When I'm in Tuskegee, they're going back and forth to Atlanta and Southwest Georgia, back and forth to Mississippi. So I know that people are arming. Families are armed. As it turned out, I never met a single Black family in the Deep South that didn't have arms, and the women knew how to use them. Everybody, I was the only one around who didn't have a clue about a gun. (Laughs) I still don't, by the way.
That was comforting. I found the fact that the Deacons for Justice were organizing, I thought that was very comforting. It was a noble idea, but with the massive violence that this country wreaks on everybody in the world, no. I would never say that I'm non-violent now, though I would never take a weapon on a demonstration. I can't say it, even though I'm not going to do violence to anybody, I don't intend to do any violence, it still doesn't sit well with me.
While I wasn't altogether with the non-violent part, I was together with the beloved community part. Somehow they weren't the same, as far as I was concerned. So while I might not be philosophically non-violent, I could work toward beloved community. I could do that. I could reach out knowing that another hand was going to be reaching out, too. So I always made that distinction.
Hartford: But you did participate in non-violent direct action demonstrations.
Wiley: Yeah, and I would do it again, I think. I wanted to be a part of the movement, so I would have done whatever. I wanted to be part of the movement and if the movement said that we need this, then this is what I was willing to do.
Hartford: Talk about Black Power.
Wiley: I understood it. Very well. In the Southern context in those rural counties, it made absolute sense to go for a power base. It was really what we were trying to do anyway, we just didn't call it that. Get people registered, get the numbers in so that they can start changing the sheriff and the county government. Like in the case of Greenwood where you have people sitting on that county board saying, we won't take the free food. Families are starving on the plantations and they refuse to take it.
So you know, you have got to change that. That is power. So it made absolute sense to me. , As I'm on my way out of the South, I'm now seeing it, really seeing it, in the North. It's an interesting, very split perspective that I have about it. I was struck how one, the vehemence with which it was attacked, since it did make sense to me. So I did have to wonder, well, what did people think we were trying to do if that wasn't it? I was stunned by the vehemence, by the attacks, overnight it seemed to me. From "quote friends of the movement." I was also struck by how much of the older leadership of the movement hurried to denounce it.
I was also struck by the fact that we weren't, we couldn't quite define it in a way that captured what we were talking about, in the context that we were talking about it in, without succumbing. I wanted to defend it in a way that people would you bring people along, you know, how we used to say in the South, you bring people along in their understanding. I was struck by how you couldn't do that on that term Black Power. So much else was happening, too. And yet I refuse to say that it was a mistake.
I wish that we'd been talking about power back in '62, you know, and bringing people along with us in that thinking. When I worked in Lowndes County, and Lowndes County comes immediately after the Mississippi Freedom Summer where people, where the organizers feel, okay, we're not going to make a lot of mistakes that we made in Mississippi, we're not going to make in Alabama.
Hartford: Make new ones.
Wiley: Make new ones, right. (Laughs) That's life.
Wiley: I left the South in the fall of '66. Heading to Washington, but made a stop in New York, actually I went there to meet somebody for lunch and I didn't leave New York for, until two years later, because New York was another hotbed. I was getting attracted to all these hotbeds. I was ready to leave the South, I mean, I knew I was leaving the South. I found the South excruciatingly intense. I very much needed a break.
Hartford: When you were in New York, were you also doing Civil Rights movement work?
Wiley: I got to New York for lunch. I went to New York and I remember that I met Dinky [Romilly] for lunch and a couple of other people. Maybe Betita [Martinez] was there, I don't remember. A colleague of mine, who had left, had only taught at Tuskegee one year and she and I had become very close, Leslie Shareover, and she was back in New York, she was from New York. I got immediately involved in that very tense Local Control of schools situation, and was drafted to teach in the freedom schools that were being set up in the various neighborhoods. That was in '66. I got there in September and they were quickly organizing them to open.
There's also the thing about North versus South. They were then, and probably in a way they still are, different universes. People in the North don't hear you when you talk about people in the South. One thing that used to drive people nuts when I was in New York was that I would get annoyed and I would say, because of all the criticisms about the Southern movement, and these are among Black people now I'm talking about because what also is happening is the nationalist movement is solidifying in New York as it is in other large Northern cities. I would sit for hours, and finally I would blurt out, you know, you people can't organize your own apartment building. Forget the block. You can't organize your own apartment building. Maybe your own floor you can't organize, or you won't organize. How dare you critique an experience you know nothing about.
Hartford: They were probably jealous.
Wiley: Very much so. Very much so. Also, while I'm on the North, it was that double perception of the hostility in the North, and especially in New York. So very different from the gentler welcoming of the South.
Hartford: You mean the general free floating hostility to everybody.
Wiley: To everybody.
Hartford: As opposed to urban hostility against rural or something like that. You mean just general New York attitude.
Wiley: Right. That I'm literally in an entirely different universe when I go to New York, because I'm in the North. I would later learn it was happening all over, including out here. I wasn't prepared for that.
Hartford: What were you going to say about the generational
One big issue that I've been thinking about over the years, is this split in the generations that I first saw in the South. It really became apparent from my vantage point in the North. I'm a newcomer to New York. I've never lived there before, just visited. The way I see people who were, that I had differences with, but I felt they were heroes of the movement. Like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph. People like that. Martin. I just, I couldn't get it. I couldn't get that, and that made me furious.
Wiley: Oh. I just find it so striking that this, I think, is a tragedy. That so little of, there was so little cross-fertilization between the generations. This past Saturday, a week ago, I went to meet people from the Federation of Southern Co-ops. The person who spoke the longest and the most eloquently was Mr. Chestnut from Selma. I remember him very well, but I'm getting confused when I'm listening to him. This is just this Saturday, because he is so clear in a way that you don't usually hear people being clear. But then, I'm also I'm listening to him and I'm shaking my head and I'm saying, oh, God, it's good to hear this. But I'm thinking, we used to struggle with Chestnut. Chestnut was, oh, my God, Mr. Chestnut used to drive us all nuts.
Hartford: So was Mrs. Boynton sometimes.
Wiley: That's right, Mrs. Boynton, that's the name I was trying to remember. Afterward I went up, I realize now that I need to start doing that, I went up and I introduced myself and I told him we had met many, many years ago. He was very gracious and kept saying, "Please come down. We have these activities. I wish you'd come down."
I was struck by how, with the most notable exception of Ella Baker, which is why I love her so dearly, it's just crystallizing in my mind, and the special relationships that Bob had with Amzie Moore and other people in Mississippi. They were key people in various ways. That was rare. We should have been listening more instead of arguing. There was something to be learned and I know, I guess I should speak for me instead of the "we," I was really impatient with all of that and all of them. The only person and maybe it was because she was a women, but she listened and that was Ella. Even if she didn't agree, she listened and told you why she wasn't agreeing or what was wrong, what was weird in the analysis that you had just formulated.
So you saw that, I saw that really strikingly in New York around the whole Black Power, because how could you be now fighting A. Philip Randolph who called the first march on Washington? I mean, you know, we're not talking, like, the enemy. He had achieved an enormous amount. You know, he is listed as the most dangerous Black man in America in, what? The 1920's? Give me a break.
Hartford: By J. Edgar Hoover.
Wiley: Right, and I feel so sad about that. We should have been talking with each other and enriching each other and instead, we were constantly on opposite ends. I think that's a real tragedy for the movement. I don't know whether it happened in the white left, but I'm sure it did. I don't remember wanting to go to no elderly but I think that is such a tragedy and it hits me now, I guess, because now I'm an elder. The fact that people today could just start out on their own and decide, based on my age that I'm totally irrelevant, it's like, what a waste.
Hartford: Talk about what it all meant to you. The Southern Freedom Movement. How did it affect you? What did it mean to you?
Wiley: There's no aspect of my life that wasn't affected. I can't imagin who I would be. It wasn't an episode, it was a way of life and a way of viewing life and living life. Living my beliefs. It affects everything. I mean, from my being a parent, to my view of the larger world. It's like I am not impressed with anything that is official in this government. I'm not impressed with the institutions. I'm not impressed with I'm an outsider, essentially. It made me see that I will remain an outsider and that's okay.
Copyright © 2002
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Jean Wiley.
Last Modified: October 5, 2002.