[I am happy to share with you an interview done of me by Brian Jones, a graduate student at the City College of New York, who, toward the end of completing a Ph.D. thesis focusing on the Tuskegee Institute movement (during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras (1965-1968), asked me to sit for this purpose and to relate anecdotes from this period to him. — Michael Wright]
|ARRIVING IN TUSKEGEE|
|A BIT OF DEEP BACKGROUND ON THE WRIGHT FAMILY FROM 1683|
|"MOVEMENT ATMOSPHERICS:" THE SOUTH IN 1965|
|DOMESTIC SOUTHERN REGIONAL POLITICS — 1966|
|WORKING WITH SNCC|
|THE ROLE OF DEAN BERT PHILLIPS IN 1967 AND 1968|
|TUSKEGEE'S ACCOMMODATIONIST HISTORY: WASHINGTON'S LEGACY|
|ORGANIZING THE STUDENTS AND COMMUNITY FOLK TO TAKE ON THE TUSKEGEE ELITES|
|28 STUDENTS SHOT, 4 KILLED, IN ONE NIGHT IN SOUTH CAROLINA; A PIVOTAL EVENT|
|OPPOSITION TO THE VIETNAM WAR & DRAFT: CHASING STATE DEPARTMENT AWAY|
|THE APRIL '68 REBELLION AND THE DEATH OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.|
Brian: We are recording. Just to confirm orally, at least for now, that you saw the consent form and you do consent and you're going to send me the document in the mail.
Michael: That's correct. I agree with the terms of the consent form.
Brian: Thank you so much. What do you want me to call you? Do you want me to call you Dr. Wright, or Oshoosi?
Michael: Dr. Wright is fine or Dr. Michael Oshoosi Wright. But for the purpose of this interview, Michael is fine.
Brian: Okay. All right. Thanks again. I really appreciate you taking the time to be interviewed about this. I guess, if it's okay with you, I'd like to just start at the beginning, about how you came to be a student at Tuskegee?
Michael: Sure. I was raised predominately in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an African-American community, for the most part. I went to regular schools — public schools there and, at the time that I grew up in the 1950's, Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) had a great reputation among African-Americans nationwide. And I'd heard about the school, of course. I'd heard about Booker T. Washington and his legacy. Thus when I was looking for a place to go to college, it was one of the places I considered.
I spent the summer of 1965 working in a warehouse and also attending the Univ ersity of Pennsylvania as a pre-freshman youngster but I got accepted to Tuskegee and I was exceedingly happy; mainly to be able to get away from Philadelphia and the northeast, USA. I was seventeen years old so you can imagine how burning was my desire to see some place new and different. As I said, I knew about the reputation of Tuskegee, but I didn't know how beautiful the place was until I got there. When I applied they gave me a little student loan and financial aid, and I went. That's what happened.
Brian: Okay. What was it like when you got there? What was it like socially, culturally, intellectually? What did you find as a freshman?
Michael: Well, my first impression was formed, literally, in the getting there. I took the train with a guy who was from New Jersey and after arriving in Atlanta, Ga., we then took a little train, I'll never forget it, called the Louisville & Nashville Line, or something lthat, which eventually stopped at a place called Chehaw. Chehaw had one like building in the entire place — the train station itself. It's in the middle of a huge cotton field. I had never seen cotton before and didn't know what it was. And we also could not understand the thick southern drawl of the conductor who was trying to explain to us what it (the cotton) was.
Nor could would we understand, as we traveled there, where the bathroom on the train was given his accent. It took ten minutes to clear that up. I just couldn't understand the man. When we got to Chehaw there was no ladder nor platform. We literally had to jump off the train.
One woman, who also wanted to get off, saw that and said she wasn't going to get off until they came with a ladder or something because the level from the ground was very high. It's about four or five feet off the ground. I jumped onto the ground in the middle of this cotton field and there was one taxi- driver there. He was willing to take me and my friend to Tuskegee for fifty cents. I think that's what it cost.
We got there and as I got into the town, again, I was struck with how quaint it was but also how literally beautiful Tuskegee is. It's about five thousand acres of rolling hills and lawns and buildings — stately old buildings — and everything. I found it to be beautiful. As I began to get oriented and to meet other students in the incoming class and what not, it was an amazing amount of fun and exciting to meet African-Americans from all over the country but, obviously, mostly from the South.
The first afternoon, at the only restaurant near the campus, I got hazed by some of the football players; maybe it was, I think, the second day there. I didn't know what to expect.
On the third morning there I saw students — "pledging." (Joining a fraternity or a sorority). I didn't know what that was either. I thought they had all lost their minds and it made me second-guess being at Tuskegee. I woke up that morning and all I saw were incredible antics going on all over the place and, with me being from the slums of north Philly, I knew nothing about fraternities and sororities or anything like that. Eventually, I got with the program. But then, after a couple days more, I saw a group of nursing students, all females, picketing the nursing building. I went to find out why.
It turned out that one of their students had been dismissed from school from violating her curfew, staying out past twelve midnight. I thought that that was really harsh so I joined the picket line with the nurses the second day I was there. I was the only guy on the picket line but it made perfect sense to me. And I was all in favor of nurses being able to stay out after curfew. (laughter) So I did that. Then the next day, there were athletes picketing and raising Cane about not getting their financial aid and I was supportive of them too. With all of this going on, later that day, I joined the little campus newspaper: the "Campus Digest."
From there, all within the first week, I began to meet all kinds of characters — including people who worked for SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I met, just briefly, Sammy Younge Jr. But I came to know his brother, Stevie, a little bit better because Sammy was about three years older than me, but Stevie was my age. He, too, was coming into college there. It was a great social experience and you can just imagine all of this was just a lot of fun for a seventeen year-old like me. I already had some political consciousness when I got there that sort of leaned me in the direction of working in the Movement (the Civil Rights movement) as opposed to joining a fraternity or something like that.
Brian: Right. Is that because your family had been involved in politics?
Michael: Not electoral or partisan politics so much, but in terms of Movement politics, my family ... you could say they were involved, historically.
I'm one of the few African-Americans that you'll meet who can trace his or her ancestry back to the 1680's in this country; in Maryland. Our people formed the first free African-American community in the United States. It's called Wetipquin, Maryland; there today — and it was founded in 1683. They were pretty much freed then; and only occasionally worked as indentured servants. And they were brought into the Maryland — Virginia area very, very, early; long before there was a "United States."
As a result, we had a certain consciousness that ran through the family lineage. You know, social responsibility and some pride in being "colored" or "negro." We didn't use the term "black" back then and I prefer not to even use any of those terms now. I prefer "African-American." In any event, we had that kind of legacy. In fact, one of my elder ancestors, Stephen Wright, in the 1780?s, most likely fought in the Revolutionary War against the Americans.
I don't know if you're aware of this but seventy-five percent of the African- Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War fought for the British. These ancestors fought for them — the British — basically because they promised freedom for slaves and land for Freemen. Yes, they would get land and they would get their freedom. Thus a lot of African-Americans took them up on that and they fought for the Brits. They were called "Loyalists."
And, well before the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, whose farm (and I have been there)
— the farm where she was a slave — is only nine miles from our property. Our families, the Wrights and the Duttons, and about six, or maybe eight, other surname families, were all a part of an extended family and clan of mainly Freemen. They, collectively, had quite a bit of property in that area; meaning probably (and I'm estimating this) a couple of thousand acres among them all. Harriet Tubman, most likely, escaped to our property, finding her way out of the Bucktown area by first going south for nine miles and crossing a narrow stretch of the Nanticoke river! This was the short distance from where she was to our lands.
Michael: Certainly, I'm sure, she used the property to organize escapes in her subsequent visits back down into Maryland and Virginia. So there's a long tradition of people in that area supporting the liberation of slaves. Our local "watermen" (or "oystermen") built boats, and they had many boats. In fact, my last name "Wright" comes from the term "boatwright" or "shipwright." That's what they did in this area. They took slaves out. Half of the African- Americans in the area were slaves and the other half were not. They would take slaves out of the eastern shore of Maryland and up the Chesapeake Bay in the bottoms of their boats. And they would get them off the boats and into what people now understand to be the Underground Railroad. There were a variety of ways for getting people out, and our folks participated in those as well.
By the time I was being raised?I was born in the late 40's even early in the 50's, my mother, Sarah E. Wright, in particular, was highly political and she was one of the earliest members of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York city in 1959. She was very close to Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. But I lived with my aunt and uncle in north Philly (Philadelphia) for the most part. That's where I was mainly raised. My mother was quite a cosmopolitan and educated, political person. Part of my education, a large part of it, derived from her and her associates and, especially, from her husband, Mr. Joe Kaye. That's part of the influence.
A lot of it (my awareness) was from just growing up in north Philly. I was aware of what was going on in the emerging Civil Rights movement. As a matter of fact, my first picket line was picketing Woolworth's — a national chain of department stores — headquartered in Harlem in order to support the student sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. I think it was 125th and Seventh Avenue (or somewhere around there). I was thirteen years old and I was on that picket line. It was also Angela Davis' first picket line experience too (she, being a teenage student in the northeast at the time). That was in 1960. As I said, we had quite a sense of social-political responsibility going back 300 years and I just inherited and continued that.
Brian: Wow. So when you got to college, it was your turn. Was there an organized group that you gravitated to, be it SNCC or TIAL?
Michael: That's exactly right. I was not in TIAL, per se; it was the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League. It was a Tuskegee student organization , formed a year before I arrived there, that supported the Civil Rights Movement and its members participated in it. They also had issues with the administration of the school; as all students often had issues with the Board of Trustees of the college. Most TIAL members worked locally with SNCC. SNCC was not a membership organization per se. One either worked for it or with it; where working for SNCC loosely meant that, somehow, you got a little honorarium or stipend, and that you actually were on the staff as a "field secretary."
Most people who were "SNCC workers" were actually working with SNCC; meaning that you weren't getting paid. You just lived basically from hand-to-mouth. And you often lived collectively in freedom houses and maybe, at most, you got a $5 or $10 a week stipend to work in the Movement. Usually, you sort of lived off the land, as the saying goes, but this implied that you just got community support. People supported you with food or a place to stay and you did the organizing work. SNCC people and TIAL people were in Macon County, Alabama, which is where Tuskegee is. It's in the very heart of Alabama.
That's who I connected with within a few weeks of being there. Then, I think in that first semester, I formed an organization called the African American Association. No, no. It was called the African Heritage Association. I created that along with some culturally-minded students who were connected with the African students who were there to celebrate our African heritage.
We also had issues with the administration there about everything: from bad food to compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), and from compulsory chapel (or "vespers" as they called it). A lot of things we just didn't want to ... We thought that we would do better if we were organized. That association actually continued for many years at Tuskegee. And as far as the question you're raising, yes, it was mainly SNCC that I tended to work with because it had a presence in the Black Belt area of Alabama.
Brian: What were some of the first activities you did with them? I know that their purview extended? to all over. People, from what I'm reading and hearing from folks, were going to Lowndes County, were going all over. Were you active in those campaigns and active in the town of Tuskegee? What was the extent of your activities with SNCC?
Michael: Probably through the end of 1965 I was mainly acting and operating and surviving as a student at Tuskegee Institute. I was learning to get around Macon County and SNCC — my buddies in SNCC who were all 18, 19, 20 — they were teaching me how to drive. Especially in SNCC you'd have to be able to drive any car you got into on a moment's notice; that was just part of the requirement of being a SNCC worker. So I had to learn how to drive because your life depended on being able to be mobile and to evade being shot at. Some of those things? I had to learn the lay-of-the-land.
I heard about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization but I didn't go to Lowndes County at that time. It was still '65 and I was mainly within Macon County. Near the end of 1965, I had met Jim Forman, who was then the Executive Director of SNCC. I had agreed with him to, basically, drop out of school and start work for SNCC. It was just a matter of time. Eventually I ended up working in Lowndes County, with the SNCC project there, but that was not until the late spring and summer of 1967.
But, back to early 1966, as it turns out that Sammy Younge Jr, who was technically enrolled in Tuskegee that same semester, but he never really attended classes. He was organizing in Alabama and and in January of 1966, I happened to be there in a meeting with him, at a SNCC "freedom house" on Green Street in Tuskegee, the night he was killed. I think it was January 3rd, but I'm not sure. He offered me a ride back to the campus because I had walked there with another organizer guy named Scott B. Smith. It was dark walking back through the short cut in woods and all that type of stuff so I was happy to accept his offer of a ride. But he was going to go to town first. He had some reason he needed to go there. And since someone else offered me a ride who was going to go directly back so I went with them.
I think I got back to the campus dormitory around 11:30 or midnight or something like that and went to my room and went to sleep. I woke up at about 5:30 a.m. or so to go to the bathroom. And then a guy who was a student there told me, he said: "Your boy just got killed." I said, "Which boy, who you mean?" He said, "Sammy." I was shocked, saying: "No you can't...(mean that); I just saw Sammy four or five hours ago." He said, "No, he just got killed."
It turns out that Sammy had gone into town and decided that he wanted to use the bathroom at a service station. There was a white bathroom and a colored one and the proprietor had just demanded that he use the colored one. They had words and then he had an altercation and the guy ended up chasing Sammy away with a gun and he ran on a bus for protection but the bus driver put him off. Then he ran and he got a golf club — well, they say he got a golf club — from his car trunk. The guy shot him through the head. And then all hell broke loose.
Sammy was a dedicated civil rights worker and he had called the meeting that night because he was in a verbal altercation with a voter registrar about their inordinate delays in registering black voters to vote. The meeting was about what we were going to do about that confrontation the next day but Sammy didn't make it to the next day; he was killed that night. That's when the rest of, basically, the national leadership of SNCC came to Tuskegee to protest his death and to participate in his funeral. At that point I never went back to class for a couple of years. Then I started working with SNCC doing voter registration work right there in Macon County and also desegregation activities with SNCC in Alabama.
If we heard about any place that was still segregated in terms of accommodations and whatever, we made it our business to go there with two or three people, sometimes by ourselves, and we'd just demand service all over the Black Belt. We just would not tolerate anything that was racially segregated. Every week we were finding some place to desegregate, but the main work was actually voter registration work because I was dedicated to registering many voters in Alabama and in building these county freedom organizations to run African-Americans for local political offices.
That's what movement in Lowndes County was about. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was just one of many. There was the Greene County Freedom Organization and the Dallas County Freedom Organization, and the Macon County Freedom Organization. That was in line with what SNCC was doing. We were really stepping up voter registration work. That was my actual first practical work with SNCC; starting in January, 1966.
Brian: Can you talk a little bit about the role of Tuskegee students in general in SNCC? I think most people don't know the extent to which Tuskegee students — and how many Tuskegee students — got involved in these things, and the extent to which times you're able to use the resources of the university for some of these activities. Can you talk a little bit about the role of Tuskegee students in general in SNCC?
Michael: Sure. Tuskegee is sitting in the middle of the ?Black Belt? area It's right on Highway 80. That highway goes from Dallas, Texas, all the way up through to Savannah,
Georgia. And I called it the "Arc of Terror" because, that is — among other things — the highway that the Selma-to-Montgomery march took place on in?65. (There was also planned by TIAL students a simultaneous march from Tuskegee to Montgomery — converging on Montgomery, Alabama from the other direction. Viola Liuzzo, a white activist from Detroit, was killed on that highway too. And other cities, towns, in which other workers were killed, were on that highway and, as I said, it went through Columbus in Georgia, all the way over to Savannah.
Actually. Tuskegee sits in the middle of the Black Belt. It was in the geographical sense — ground zero for the Civil Rights movement. I think a great deal of everything of importance in the southern Civil Rights movement took place within a hundred miles north and south of that long highway. It include — for about 1,500 miles — north and south of it, a two-hundred mile swath of African-American human ity; the biggest concentrations of African- Americans in the country. It cut across the middle of Alabama, which is where Tuskegee sits.
Tuskegee is, generally, socially conservative and, I suppose, officially not known for a lot of Civil Rights activity. But there was some. There was, for example, the Gomillion vs Lightfoot legal case that litigators fought to outlaw gerrymandered voting districts there and to eliminate racist voter registration rolls and practices. As a result, the African-Americans there were eventually able to elect at least one black person to the city council. Because of its location, civil rights workers from SNCC and, to a much lesser extent, also from the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were always in Tuskegee, and going back and forth through Tuskegee; using the area as a place for rest and rehabilitation and socialization.
We would use the Student Government office to print things, the mimeograph machines and to eat. Students would give us their meal cards if they weren't using them and we could eat. It was sort of a base area to have some support. And it was almost entirely African-American. The Klu Klux Klan (house) was on one street... The street that divided where white people in Tuskegee lived in the town from African-Americans, on the other. That was the street I lived on (Fonville street) and where, in late 1967, I opened a SNCC office. That office, about two and a half years earlier, had once been a TIAL office.
Where we were was, by 1966, pretty safe. The Klu Klux Klan stopped marching through Tuskegee?s campus yearly in the 1940s? (when Tuskegee got an ROTC!) I guess they figured it was better not to provoke African-Americans like that anymore. We were in a pretty safe area, but it was mostly conservative. Its African-American leadership was entirely in the hands of the Establishment. After that we would use Tuskegee as a base to have meetings and "liberate" its practical resources. Intellectual discussions, you know, big current events, teach-ins and things like that also occurred. Tuskegee was quite an active place. As I mentioned, we had our own local issues at Tuskegee that we were always in battle with the college's administration about them.
Michael: One local issue after the other.
Brian: It seems like all of those issues, including the campus issues, really heated up after Sammy's murder.
Michael: Yes, because Sammy's murder was not only a personal tragedy but it was also because he was the first SNCC worker to get killed who was actually an enrollled student. Many people in SNCC had been students. SNCC's real core was the group of students at Howard University called "NAG"; I mean the acronym was NAG, N-A-G. the Nonviolent Action Group is what I think it was spelled out to be. That included Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) and Courtland Cox, Jean Wiley and Charlie Cobb, and Stanley Wise and many others. I think Ralph Featherstone, who was later killed in Maryland, was a NAG member. Many of them were active in the Washington, DC, area and they would come to the south in the summers to participate in voter registration drives and desegregation drives from 1961 onward.
SNCC also had a student-centered based in Atlanta — around Atlanta University — that included people like Julian Bond. Oh, I forgot to mention Marion Barry, of course, in that DC group. There were another groups of SNCC students, or people who would become SNCC functionaries, based in Nashville, around Fisk University (for example, like, John Lewis, a former national chairman of SNCC). Thus, the major black colleges had SNCC activists in them and they were very brave and very active. Tuskegee was one of them.
It's just human nature for people to sort of click with people from similar backgrounds. A lot of times the role of Tuskegee, even Alabama SNCC as a whole, and the SNCC workers in Alabama to some extent, were not known in subsequent history quite as well as those from the Washington, DC, based groups. But we were quite active especially in the whole second half period of SNCC, (from '65 through '69), i.e., in its "Black Power" movement period.
I can assure you that Alabama during that period was probably the most active base for SNCC operations, because of the county "freedom organizations" — political movements — that SNCC organized and that invented and first utilized the Black Panther as an icon and symbol of resistance. (Later, the press started calling these freedoms organizations "black panther parties"). But from 1965 onward, it was mainly in Alabama?from Green county all the way over to Macon county (where Tuskegee is) that was the main area for SNCC organizing in the country.
Brian: Can you talk about how things changed or heated up on and off campus after Sammy was murdered?
Michael: Well, after Sammy was murdered I wasn't on campus that much. I think by that time I'd gotten a room somewhere in the town. I was quite mobile, moving all over Macon County and, by that point, all over the "black belt" counties in the area. As a matter of fact, I was told by administrators, in April of 1966, to leave Tuskegee anyway. Then they threatened to throw me out if I didn't leave and what have you because they were tired of my activism on the campus. We were protesting, as I said, all sorts of things: essentially bad food, compulsory ROTC, and we were opposed to the Vietnam war.
While I had been, in my first semester, formally a member of the ROTC (it was compulsory military service) I quit that in December, 1965. And then I didn't even go back there to give them their uniforms or anything. Most of the deans down there were pretty tired of me, frankly, from the beginning.
When I was asked to leave I think my mother actually had Langston Hughes to write a letter to try to get me back in college. I can't say all the things that they were debating about on campus, but I can tell you there was a Judicial Council there. In other words, students who were charged with infractions of campus policies were hauled up before that Star Chamber operation. I was also helping to defend students (but more of that when we get to the matters of 1967 and '68). I think I even then began to advocate for people who were unjustly treated. There was no due process. If you were called up before that committee, you were on your way out of there.
Anyway, like I said, there were many local things, but by that point I was not only working with SNCC in Macon County, but I had actually moved to Atlanta. I started working on the Julian Bond campaign to become elected as a Georgia state assemblyman. I met Julian in January, 1966. And I traveled with him, very briefly, on a little tour in Alabama where he'd go to visit and speak at black colleges during his campaign in Georgia. By then SNCC had come out against the Vietnam war so we were doing a lot of anti-war agitation, anti- draft actions as well...more than anything else, anti-draft stuff. Those are some of the impressions that I remember from that period of time.
By the spring and early summer of '66 I was living in the freedom house, the SNCC freedom house in Atlanta on Houston street, with about 15 other people. H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) lived there with us then. Yeah, he was then also the SNCC project director in Greene County, Alabama, for a long time but he was with us for a while. Again, we were doing ... probably working on Julian's campaign as much as anything else through the summer of '66. I was also doing anti-draft work with SNCC's "Atlanta Project" at that time.
Then I ... oh, yeah. We were operating a SNCC office in Philadelphia, Pa., which was a small office...and its members were set-up in Phila. by some agents provocateurs and charged with plotting to blow up the Liberty Bell and other kinds of preposterous stuff like that. So there was a full-court press, a political attack against SNCC in Philadelphia, and, since I was from Philly (actually visiting family members back there, in the late summer of '66, I got involved in the defense of these SNCC people that were being charged with these felonies. I was working with Jim Forman then.
We converged on Philly to build a defense and it quite successful. It put me, even in my own home town, in a state of heightened awareness; it really opened my eyes to how entrenched was the racism in Philadelphia. We were fighting a police commissioner (he was a deputy commissioner then) named Frank Rizzo, who later became notorious as a persecutor of the Black Panther Party in Philly that, in the 1970's, had Mumia Abu Jamal as a member. But they were children when we were there in '66. I think they became active in about '72 or '73.
We dubbed him, Rizzo, the "Cisco Kid" and we fought him tooth and nail. We got the SNCC people, basically, out of going to prison. I went back to Atlanta in the end of August just in time for all of kinds of riots going on. I was arrested, not in a riot, but when driving a SNCC car with some other people. Police followed us and arrested me and charged me and a few other people with felonies: distributing insurrectionary papers, inciting to riot, and so on and so forth. That was my first time going to jail, going there with SNCC workers in September of '66.
I'm getting, I think, away from the question that you asked about Tuskegee.
Brian: No, that's all right. You know what, let me ask you a question. While you're traveling around and living in these freedom houses and arrested for putting out literature... it does raise a question for me which is, what were you all reading at this time? What was the content of the discussions going on in SNCC? Were there authors or books that were very influential? What were some of the ideas that were moving around in those circles?
Michael: SNCC had a deep bench when it came to intellectual-activists. No other groups, not SCLC, nor, eventually the Panthers (i.e., Black Panther Party for Self-Defense based in Oakland, Ca.), nobody could compare to the type of African-American intellectuals SNCC had brought together. We were, of course, well-read in James Baldwin's work, Calvin Herndon had one seminal book, I think, on sex and race in America, Malcolm X's speeches, as well as European intellectuals like Camus and Sartre, who were also very popular.
Nkrumah was an inspiration as well. And then, by '66, an English edition of Franz Fanon's book "The Wretched of the Earth" had come out and it was a big seller. Grove Press put it out. We were reading and trying to understand it. It was a fairly sophisticated read for us...but it was part of our conscious development to try to read and understand Fanon and what might be the applicability (or lack of it) of his ideas to our Movement.
Let me see. Of course, we read a lot of black history. You know, at that time Du Bois, Basil Davidson, John Hope Franklin. They were important. We had to do it on our own because Tuskegee was so backwards, believe it or not, in 1966 there was only one "Negro history" class in the entire college. And the students had to fight tooth-and-nail for that. That's one of the struggles we had in '65 was to get Tuskegee to concede that there should be one Negro history class on the whole damn campus. That's how backwards they were. We were, of course, like I said, saying not only do we need a class like that, we need several of them. We're going to be reading these African American historians and also white ones, like Dr. Herbert Aptheker, would have been popular for people, as well as Genovese, from Rutgers University in New Jersey; both long- established Marxists.
There were just lots of influences we used to try to sum up the world. Of course, Kwame Nkrumah had just published "Neocolonialism (The Final Stage of Imperialism). That was a big read for everybody and it was also internationalist book
SNCC — especially under the influence of James Forman, had become internationlist minded. We considered ourselves to be internationalists, generally, as well as Pan-Africanists specifically (and some of us, like me, and Jim Forman, were also becoming schooled Marxists).
I can't think of any other books off the top of my head but there was quite a robust intellectual life, discussions, and debates in SNCC.
Brian: Right now you're talking about '66 and '67. At some point did you come back to the campus in '67?
Michael: I did, yeah, I'll get to that in a sec. One thing that I think it's important to mention in '66: Not only was SNCC organizing in the black belt counties of Alabama — the "freedom organizations" — but SNCC also was reacting to a change in its internal politics so that it became much more of a black nationalist organization The prevailing view of African-Americans in the movement, whether they were in college or working full time for SNCC, was the white folk who had come into the south to work with SNCC in the Mississippi freedom Movement — to build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in '64and they basically did, frankly, a heroic job in what they were doing. But the Mississippi project was not a particularly successful one in terms of getting the Democratic Party in the United States to recognize the MFDP and to de- legitimize the Dixiecrats (i.e., the white "Democrats") and white-power in Mississippi. That did not happen until 1968.
Many of the white SNCC workers in Mississippi went back to their respective cities, but a few remained active in the south, organizing, for example, in the Southern Student's Organizing Committee (SSOC) — a SNCC counterpart. SNCC itself recognized that that (the "Mississippi Freedom Summer" project) was a particular and time-limited project. And it was not a particular goal of SNCC to maintain a high percentage of white activists when we needed those activists to go back into white communities and to agitate against white supremacy in their own communities. This, which was a very important thing to do, was not particularly easy for many of them. Many of them felt ostracized and betrayed by SNCC's growing black nationalist orientation. (And, thus, many of them left and became "Hippies").
But it was important for SNCC to develop that orientation because on the agenda was the "Black Power Movement." It hadn't developed yet, at that point, but it was nascent. Then there was a "March Against Fear" in Mississippi, in June, 1967, led by James Meredith. Starting from Memphis, Tenn., it headed straight through Mississippi, generally, and through SNCC's specific organizing areas in Mississippi, around Greenville, Miss., particularly. He got shot within a couple days of leading that. Now, you have a big issue.
And then SCLC got involved in supporting that march. Carmichael and King were both vying, essentially, for publicity and influence as leaders of that march in Mississippi. I didn't go to that it in Mississippi, because I was working with SNCC (and TICEP) that summer1967 — in Lowndes County.
If I'm not mistaken, I might have my year wrong, that march was...I think, had to have been in '67. I know that from '66 onward, all the way from Mississippi straight through Georgia and South Carolina, there were SNCC projects. I would go with people to these various places and meet SNCC workers and spend a few days, or a week or two, here and there. I wanted to fill that in. You'll have to do some fact-checking for me about the Meredith march, but now that I'm thinking about it I think it must have been in June, '67. (it was actually, 1966)
In any event, in response to your question, I was working with SNCC during all of '66. I got arrested in Atlanta in September and was charged with the political felonies that I mentioned but I got out of jail on bail in November of '66. I wasn't supposed to leave the state but I wasn't going to stay in Georgia in the face of those felonies... that a couple of them were 5 to 20 year felonies and I went to Alabama the next day after finally making bail, on my way to Canada. I ended up pulling-up in Chicago and connecting with a SNCC organizing project in that city; on the south-side. I decided to stay there and worked with SNCC in Chicago from November of '66 through about the middle of '67. That was a fascinating experience for me because at that point the Chicago SNCC office and project was the only actual functional urban organizing project that SNCC had left.
There was another one going on in Atlanta called The Atlanta Project and they were able to continue somewhat, but the main project at that point was in "Chicago SNCC." For example, we were running alderman for the aldermanic district (4th Ward) in the south side of Chicago. Of course, on "the Black Power ticket"; can you imagine that? We had to fight the Daley machine about that. A lot of oppression, police raids, pogroms, and what not occurred. I was involved in all of that in Chicago. And I also was able to raise a little bit of money, a few thousand dollars from donors in Chicago, to go back to the South, which I took back to Alabama in June of '67 or maybe even May, or something like that.
I eventually opened up a SNCC office in Tuskegee and I also used that money tofrom time-to-time support the SNCC office in Dallas County (i.e., in Selma) all the way through most of '67, and actually the first half of '68. That's how I got back to and what I did in getting back to Alabama after six month hiatus in Chicago's SNCC office.
But, at first, though not a student, I had to live from hand-to-mouth anyway. I slept on chairs and in the newspaper offices. And different people would let us, not just me... all SNCC workers, live and function. And we would function like this. any way you could. Somebody let you have a couch somewhere, that was home for that week. Or you could sleep in a car. Anything, whatever it took if t you were dedicated. You had to live with the support of people who appreciated what you were doing politically, though they themselves may not have been able to be activists. That's how I lived.
Then, in the summer of '67, I definitely was able to improve my ability to survive because I got a job as a tutor in a program in Tuskegee that put us in the 12 surrounding counties. We basically had a little program to support many of us who were SNCC workers. Johnny Jackson, Wendy Paris: All of us were able to get between 30 and 40 dollars a week or something, I forgot what it was. It was a very small amount but that went a long way. We were basically doing SNCC organizing and getting a little stipend to do it from this anti- poverty tutorial program.
Brian: Is this TICEP?
Michael: Yeah, TICEP, Tuskegee Institute Community Education Program. What we did was not only ... We did SNCC organizing when we weren't on TICEP time, especially in the evenings, but during TICEP time we organized a group called the Southeast Alabama Self-Help Association, or SEASHA. I'm the one who actually gave that organization its name. We had a contest within TICEP and I came up with that name — SEASHA. It was basically a farmer's cooperative. That organization still exists to this day.
Michael: That's to support black farmers in the Black Belt. Again, we were innovative. Nowadays all these young activists, they have non-profits all over the place but we didn't have that then. We did what we had to do to survive and to organize the freedom organizations and to run candidates for office and whatnot. As a matter of fact, even in that summer, I was ... Was it summer of '66? One of those summers, it was probably the summer of '67it could have been then that I was running around trying to get a black sheriff elected in Macon county. His name was Lucius Amerson; he got elected. He's the first black sheriff elected in the Black Belt since Reconstruction. I think that's in '67. (They made a movie about him, starring Jim Brown, called "Tic, Tic, Tic" in the 70's).
Brian: Yeah, I think it was.
Michael: To me and my associates sometimes it could be very dangerous...because outside of Tuskegee you were in rural AlabamaBlack belt or not. Even in Macon County, in some areas, the Klan and the white supremacists were hoping to pick you off, if they could catch you alone or go after your car or chase you and what have you. I remember working to get that guy elected. Two years later we in SNCC and the movement, we hated this guy — Amerson.
He was pretty backwards, to be polite about it, but he was willing to run for sheriff and that was something. So, anyway, we supported him. I almost got killed a couple times doing voter registration work to get people to get to the polls to elect him. Later he became my nemesis, and I, his. Literally, he was the architect of my demise up to and including as far as ... Let's put it this way, my best information and opinion (because I don't literally have the physical documents) that I was given to believe by people I trusted in the Tuskegee area who claimed to have seen documents in an important school office (at Tuskegee) is that he was one of the architects of the plan to do away with me (i.e., purportedly, some deputy sheriff was supposed to hit me with a car one night on a road; more vulnerable then because I had started to have to walk more from place-to-place, having no car of my own). Now, from his point of view, there may have been good reason because I (we) gave that man fits. But this is, alas, not necessarily a reliable account because I, personally, never saw anything written which was dedicated to my early demise.
But, I ended up having to leave Alabama in June of '68 in any event because a white physician in Tuskegee who treated me for an ailment notified me in a brief conversation with me in his office that he thought there was a plan to get rid of me afoot in that town by that point if they, even after two months, couldn't chase me out. So that experience, which I did have, perhaps corroborates the same essential things reported to me about three years on the occasion of me going back down there in the summer of 1971.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. Can you got back to the end of '66 because that's when the verdict came down that Sammy's killer was found not guilty and the student body really erupted. Were you there?
Michael: No, I wasn't. See that's ... I'm glad you're helping to verify the dates. That's when I was
in Chicago. I worked in the Chicago SNCC office in November to about June of '67. I was aware of what happened, I heard about it, nothing surprised me when the white supremacist will always move for a change of the venue in cases of murderers of African-Americans, you know, especially by police they will ... That's standard operating procedure and that's what happened there. They moved the venue out of Macon County to Lee County and they got that result — the white man was acquitted. (And) I was aware of that having occurred.
Brian: Can we go back to TICEP? That was controversial. Rather the fact that activists were using it for off campus... Dean Bert Philips resigned over (hiring you and Wendy Paris) this, didn't he?
Michael: That might have been a factor in his resignation, but not the main reason. Complicated guy. He was very progressive and I really loved Bert. He supported me to the bitter end — even though I caused the poor man so much in terms of doing things that politically embarrassed him but he was very progressive. I have a lot of good things to say about Bert. One of them is that he did, he headed TICEP and he had to get written permission from bureaucrats in Washington to even hire me and to hire Wendy Paris because there was great resistance among even some of the Negros that worked for him, they were part of Tuskegee Establishment; the black petit bourgeoisie of Tuskegee. They didn't want us one bit. They had no need for SNCC generally, as a matter of fact, and they really didn't like us. But Bert was progressive enough to find a way to get us hired.
It was controversial. He also did all kinds of other progressive things and he tolerated our organizing on the campus against the Establishment. He tolerated a lot of that. He tried to accommodate a lot of that. He became really despised by the black petit bourgeoisie and the "plantocracy" of Tuskegee (embodied in the person of Luther Foster, Tuskegee's president). There was quite an established, entrenched, and quite backward petty bourgeoisie there. (All dependent on Tuskegee's government contracts, dole-outs and the big VA Hospital located there. Bert alienated them on many levels.
Even when... I keep thinking of an example, like this: I had a little garage out there on Fonville street (a few doors from the SNCC office that I opened) in Alabama. The sheriff's department and I did not get along. But the black Police Department of Tuskegee; they really liked me. You've got to understand something about the social dynamics of small southern towns. They would drive by my place every night to check on me a couple times to make sure nobody was hanging around, loitering, gon'na burn my place down (with me in it) or anything like that. That's the local town police I'm talking about. They were in class and jurisdictional competition with Amerson's deputy sheriffs.
In February, '68, a bunch of white para-militaries in South Carolina, shot 28 African-American students for trying to desegregate a bowling alley in Orangeburg. So I took five people up thereI mean four people with me — to go over there and see what we could do to help black students at South Carolina State College. They had ... 28 had been shot that night and then four got killed. When I came back from that, the roof of my little "bungalow" was completely gone. I walked in the door and looked at the sky. One of Tuskegee's finest petit bourgeois landlords had seen to that.
All my little stuff (my personalty) was in a couple cardboard boxes and so somebody was trying to give me a message that I had no place to stay. Bert Phillips actually let me stay with him and his wife, Judy. And on many nights in a given week he forced them to allow me to stay in the hotel there at Dorothy Hall. I was paying rent, I just had enough money to pay whatever it was... $5 or $10 a night or something to stay there.
The same guy who took the roof off my house, who owned that little bungalow, was also the manager of that hotel. He was fighting like mad to get...you know...they were doing everything they could do to get me out of that county. Bert, he was supportive. He's very progressive.
In any event, the answer to your question is correct. By allowing us to work for TICEP, but basically doing SNCC organizing, he got a lot of heat for that.
Brian: Can you talk a little bit more about this, what you're calling a petit- bourgeois Establishment? You're saying represented by Luther Foster. Can you just talk a little bit more about this establishment and the way that you see it in the town and on the campus?
Michael: Well it's legendary. What else could happen. Tuskegee would pride itself, as a matter of fact the school song goes: "Tuskegee pride of the swift growing South...(etc.)" It was the embodiment of a vision started by Booker T. Washington in the 1880's to build a 'colored' proprietary petty bourgeoisie. To train under-trained and under-educated African Americans throughout the south in trades and professions.
The African-Americans from that time (the 1870's) onward were mainly shuttled into teaching... the only profession they could really participate in. African-Americans from Maryland all the way through Texas were very big on education. 144 African American colleges opened up. The mission at Tuskegee was to not only create...produce educators but also dentists and veterinarians and tailors and bankers and other people who had trades and professions. Naturally they would create a quasi-middle class or middle class that provided the social leadership at these black colleges, including Tuskegee.
Tuskegee was a little different than some of the others because, probably second only to Howard university, Tuskegee was wed at the hip with the American Department of War (Defense) and the American State Department and supported by philanthropists from the Carnegies and Rockefellers and all that. Tuskegee was their pride as well. That was reflected in the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee. They had all these very wealthy corporate white elites and they only had one black person on the whole damn board, other than the president. (Mr. A.G. Gaston of Birmingham, Alabama). About 15 very wealthy and influential white people from the economic aristocracy or the economic ruling class and the political ruling class in the country ran the place.
They were, their jobs and their mortgages and their livelihood depended on not alienating their benefactors in the government and in private industry. They got Veterans Administration Hospital, which was difficult negotiations with the former president of Tuskegee, was Robert Russo Moton, in exchange for suppressing black military revolts against racism in the US military in France during World War I. Robert Russo Moton endeared himself to what would become the Department of Defense, I guess it was the War Department then.
In any event he, part of his reward, was for suppressing the legitimate grievances of African-American soldiers in World War I, and even when they returned home they faced race riots and all like this. The Department of Defense, or its precursor, agreed to build a Veterans Administration hospital in Tuskegee. (Of course for negro soldiers, only). Tuskegee established its economic infrastructure and this supported its own the black petit bourgeoisie.
They were very much status-quo; big accommodationists to southern reality. They were following, as best they could, the Booker T Washington political vision of minimal political activism, or only indirect political activism (like their yearly chronicling the thousands of lynchings that happened in the first 50 years of its existence in the South). Rather they preferred to focus on, if you will, economic development and the development of a proprietary petit-bourgeoisie. Which they did very well but they did that, to some extent, at the expense of African-Americans because the apolitical line that they had, left us in a very difficult position.
You can't have any economic development in a politically hostile environment. It also disguised their periodic little backroom dealings, those little accommodations with the racists of Alabama that they had to make in order to carry on. But, in time, they got their degrees and skills from Tuskegee even if their trades were 20 years or more outdated, even if their businesses were under-capitalized, and even if they had to work in racist or segregated environments. And from the point-of-view of Tuskegee's well-off benefactors it, at least, it kept the negro masses, from their point of view, somewhat pacified.
... And with that they had to be brought kicking and screaming into the Movement even though they were physically and geographically right in the middle of it.
Brian: This is really interesting because I'm curious to know if you remember the way students viewed this issue at the time, because based on what I'm reading there's different viewpoints. Some students, then and now, like Gwen Patton, see Booker T. Washington as a precursor of them. Almost as a black militant who was for Black Power.
Michael: I know. Listen, Booker T Washington did some amazing things. I would not belittle, generally speaking, his vision. I think it would be arrogant for any African-American, especially one raised in the North, to do that because his work was very important and very meaningful and very dangerous. In fact, people don't even realize, and I think Gwen, who is very class conscience, about this ... Booker T. Washington actually supported labor union organizing in Alabama in the 1890s. That was really extraordinary, okay, but' very much 'under the table.' He wasn't known for that. I'm somewhat empathetic to his ver sion of incipient black power in this sense; but in this sense only.
If you can imagine the entire history of Tuskegee from 1883 through the time of his death which was 1915, the repression of black people in the South was increasing. It wasn't decreasing. After the failure of Reconstruction in 1877, only six years later, part of the payoff was these white industrialists and philanthropists who helped to pay for Tuskegee, that is to pay for the buildings and to pay for land it was on was basically guilt money in my view. But it was useful, though, because there was reality; southern Dixie reality. There were over four million African-Americans who were under-educated ex- slaves coming out of the Civil War. We're only talking about 18 years after the Civil War; less than 13 years after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The South was very, very dangerous and as Tuskegee developed it was becoming even more dangerous. Washington and his cohorts did, I guess, what they could do to carve out an island of sanity and development for African-Americans. As I said, they even kept a log of all the lynchings that were going on that went from 1895 through 1925 (or something like that) to document in order to advocate for anti-lynching legislation at the federal level. They were "race conscious" and class conscious. But, such as the case was in the South, they were arguably dealing and wheeling, in effect, as best they could.
That is why I think the debates about whether or not accommodationism a la Booker T. Washington versus militant resistance ethic of W.E.B. Du Bois school of social activism ...that debate can be waged quite superficially. I choose not to do that. I think it's important to recognize that Tuskegee was and is a great place to help African-Americans as best they could under the very, very difficult circumstances. It was impoverished and yet the students built Tuskegee with literally their bare hands. They developed a great reputation all over the United States. Booker T. Washington was the biggest hero, probably second only to Garvey, ultimately.
He was quite a hero to African-Americans and an inspiration all over the country. There are pictures that you will find in the archives there of graduation day. I encourage you to go look at the old pictures from the teens and 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. People from all over Alabama, black people, and even from Georgia, would take wagons, horse drawn wagons, take them a week to get there just to attend a graduation as Tuskegee. When they said the pride of the swift growing South, they really meant it. I have to speak somewhat empathetically about Booker T. Washington's view, the development of a black petitbourgeoisie, and educating African-Americans and so we can't minimize that.
Brian: You know what's interesting...
Michael: On the other hand ...
Brian: Okay, go ahead.
Michael: On the other hand, the school of thought of militant resistance to the political disenfranchisement of African-Americans as symbolized in Du Bois' philosophy, was, I think, ultimately proved to be the more correct view, if you will. If I was forced, and I would be forced, if you will, to take sides, I think Du Bois had an edge here.
I'm trained as a lawyer (as well as a psychologist) and I kind of know how the system operates. There is no such thing as economic viability in a hostile political environment. Legislatures can wipe away your debt, or...I mean,... wipe away your wealth with the passage of legislation and by the signing of a piece of paper. If you can't vote, you have no control over the laws in the area that you're trying to succeed in economically. If you can't sit in courts. If you can't bring lawsuits to enforce your contracts or secure your property. If everything is in civil society is arrayed against you, you're not going to get very far in any economic development. It will always be marginal and you can't protect it; you can't protect anythingincluding your children, your wife or your husband.
Ultimately, Du Bois went to Atlanta, I think in 1895, to Atlanta University. And the whole 15 years he was there he refused to ride in a segregated trolley car. He, during that period of time, helped to initiate the Niagara movement to later become the NAACP, in which he was a board member. He was right, you can't have this accomodationist philosophy and hope to sustain social and economic development that even some elements of the white Establishment is all in favor of helping you to promote. It's not going to be very viable, it can never be defended. Then there's the question of dignity. The 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were passed and immediately nullified by the growing "Black Codes" (racist laws) throughout the "Dixie-cratic" south. They' re two lines here, but they say there are three sides to every story. I think there are at least three to this one.
True, Tuskegee students inherited that tradition of self-help and social Black Power. But left to its own devices, it was highly naive. And anyone, like the black petit-bourgeoisie at Tuskegee, that would defend it, would be defending it naively (and also for their own personal opportunities and their own self- aggrandizement and for sustaining their lifestyle which ... The lifestyle of middle class black folk in Tuskegee was luxurious compared to lifestyles of poor farmers: share croppers, tenant farmers, and poor working class people right there in the town; not to mention in the county outside of Tuskegee which that very black petit-bourgeoisie, by the way, also sought to exploit. You remember the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment?
Michael: All right. Who do you think was running that at Tuskegee? Some of the black middle class professionals and doctors at Tuskegee. Who were they exploiting? The poor black farmers and share croppers and tenant farmers all around that town and that county! They were backwards.
Even when that story broke in 1972, Tuskegee and its lawyers made it look like the culpable the parties were with the Department of Public Health under government agencies. Their (Tuskegee's) lawyers, who had a massive conflict of interest in my opinion... their lawyers basically shielded Tuskegee's culpable and complicit petit-bourgeoisie itself, Tuskegee Institute — now university — from liability for their complicity in carrying that out. Their lawyer actually represented the poor plaintiffs. If ever there was a con flict of interest, that was it in my view. But then that's the South...and they were able to pull that off.
Anyway, those are some of the class dynamics. The kids of this middle class, like Sammy Younge Jr., however, were quite militant. They wanted the full social empowerment of African-Americans.
You've heard of the R&B band the Commodores? I guess they're mainly a funk band with a Soul and Country style. You could tell, if you listen to their music, especially listen to Lionel Richie, who wasn't the lead member of the band by any means though he later became probably the most known, and Tom Joiner, the famous deejay and media host. All of them were very middle class Tuskegee youths who, to this day, had and have great social and political consciousness. I admire them greatly for their social consciousness, that they try to bring it to some of their R&B releases and whatnot.
For example, check out their album "Heroes" by The Commodores. It wasn't a big seller, but it was a tribute to the civil rights workers and their ideals and the Tom Joiners of Tuskegee, to this day, you can tell when you listen to them. They are very progressive-minded. They were the kids of the black middle class that I speak of and their militant — or at least progressive — consciousness was formed in that period. They're among my heroes.
Yes, they were the children of this entrenched black middle class there. The dynamics of this was very eloquently drawn out by Jim Forman in his book, Sammy Younge, Jr. He really talked about those intra-class dynamics of Tuskegee. Anyway, maybe I've ranted too long.
Brian: No, no. no. I wanted to ask you about that because I remember, when we first spoke on the phone, when I told you I was at Tuskegee while we were talking, you said, "Brian, you're on sacred ground." I think it's interesting because I have noticed this pattern, that even the students who are the school's biggest critics, who were part of these protest movements on campus, retained this intense loyalty to the campus.
Michael: Yeah. That solidarity there, I mean, Du Bois said it. He said the American Negro is conservative in all matters except race. (laughter) It is our African tradition culturally to be conservative. Well, we were put in a position, being slaves in a society, where on the question on everything racial, which brings us through damn near everything in our lives, we had to become militant and only being bought off on a class basis could suppress that. That's where some of the dynamics arose. Tuskegee is "sacred ground" because our southern people were heroes in resisting white supremacy with everything that they had to work with.
People have very good reason to be proud of this Tuskegee tradition, what its mission was. Like you said, Gwen is an example of someone I think maybe overstating it, that is "an admirer" of Booker T. Washington. I think you just have to remind Gwen to go back and read Du Bois, okay? Wait a minute. (laughter) This is more retrospective revisionist idealization of the black petit-bourgeoisie and what Booker T. Washington represented. But there is a certain reality there in her perspective too. There is a lot to be said for what they stood for and what they tried to accomplish and what they did accomplish, in regard to their attitudes and, especially, in respect of their intellects.
Let me give you an example. When I was at Tuskegee, Tuskegee made it its business to recruit poor students. I think at least half the class had to be poor black students from Alabama. Whether they're from Birmingham or little counties around Alabama, they meant to educate poor, black kids who would, otherwise, not have had an opportunity to get a good quality education (or any education). They were dedicated to it, even these backwards, middle class folk, hadeven if sub-rasa — their own race pride. You follow what I'm saying? True, they had a black middle class way of looking at it, but I don't doubt their sincerity — ever.
I saw many a youngster at Tuskegee who might not have been able to register for the next semester of school because he simply didn't have the money. Now, if you were a troublemaker like me, then this might not apply, (laughter). But if you were a regular student and you wanted to get an education, those black people who were the teachers and administrators at Tuskegee, or the chaplains or whatever, they will find a way to get you some money to go to school. I never knew any student, back in those days, at Tuskegee that had to drop out of school because they could not come up with the tuition or money to live in their dorm. They would find a way for them to do it. I deeply respect that, even though we had our big-picture political differences.
That's why I think it would be arrogant for those of us who were socialized in the north to take for granted how abjectly oppressive and dangerous the Booker T. Washington project really was. Gwen, in that sense, may ... again, she may be overstating a little bit, but there's good reason to be proud of Tuskegee, Washington, and also proud of the militants who went there... I told you, Claude McKay got kicked out of Tuskegee. Ralph Ellison, he was not kicked out, you know. But after writing Invisible Man...oh, my God ...he could never go back there. The president of the alumni association was a great supporter of mine in the '60s. He himself had been kicked out of Tuskegee for leading a student revolt there in the 1940s.
Brian: What's his name?
Michael: Mr. Woodson. James Woodson (nephew of the famed historian Carter G. Woodson). I think he passed away not long ago. He was a hell of a great person, and he was a part of the Tuskegee social establishment. Again, his power base was the alumni association. Thank God he had a power base. A very, very progressive guy. Dr. Stanley Smith was a professor there back in the days of the Gomillion vs. Lightfoot case. He was able to run for city council and was the first black person on the city council in Tuskegee. He was very progressive.
I keep talking about understanding the South. The South is just tricky in terms of people's social consciousness, they have a lot of race pride, as it were. You can't underestimate that. Yeah, they sometimes bow their heads, scratch their heads, shuffle their feet and all that, and "yes-sah"ing this and that, and trying to get along with white folk or even trying to out-slick white people.
For example, Ralph Abernathy (of SCLC fame) come out with support of Nixon in 1968, and I said: "Leave it to somebody from rural Alabama to come up with something like that. Ain't no way in hell Richard Nixon had the slightest interest in...or congruence with the interests of the African-Americans, but Ralph Abernathy (and SCLC's) knowing that his racist "Southern strategy" was going to work to get him elected president...that Nixon was putting in place...they tried to make accommodations with backward racists like him. And he wasn't even the worst; basically (and naively) 'going to outslick white people' was just a southern way of trying to hedge one's bets.
But, I'm sorry. It's naive. You cannot "outslick" white supremacy. It has to be confronted. It didn't mean that they didn't try, but what they were doing in daytime, what they would turn around and do at night was the opposite side of politics and they were, again, quite militant in their own right and their own minds. Even in terms of armed militancy, you could not take anything away from our brothers and sisters throughout Dixie in terms of putting up with and defying physical and militant intimidation by white people. They did not take that lying down. They had a lot of white folk who died, one way or another, by the hands of black people, okay? They would never, of course, publicize that. Sometimes they wouldn't even know what happened.
I guess that I give our brothers and sisters in the South the greatest of accolades for how they maintained a militant posture, as much as they could under the circumstances. Now, what I learned too, you can ask Gwen about this because she has a very good take on this, Alabama was not Mississippi.
Alabama had an industrial base and Mississippi didn't. When you look at labor organizing, in Alabama it was always a little more militant, and especially in Birmingham, got a lot more militant after the union organizing drives of the 1930's. The Communist Party was instrumental in organizing, inside the CIO, to bring black proletarians into the union movement, especially in a place like Birmingham with its steel and coal industry.
I organized in Birmingham in the summer of, I think '71, or something like that, probably '71, at the United States Steel plant there, and also a place called American Cast Iron and Pipe Company (ACIPCO). I got to be aware about the militant labor organizing of not only black workers, but in league with white workers in the labor movement in the South. When I was even in Tuskegee, not only ... Like I said, Tuskegee is a base, but I went all over the Black Belt before the end and the time I was there.
I met great, great militant African-American men and women who were old people to me then. I was in my late teens and early 20's. I mean these people were in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and so they were old to me. They had been organizing share-croppers, they organized with black workers and tenant farmers in the South from in the 1920s. They had militant marches on Montgomery, Alabama in 1927 and 1928 of black and white sharecroppers together; going up against the government of Alabama.
Again, even in the 1940s, there was a "SNYC" organization in Alabama and Mississippi in 1940s. What is SNCC? It meant the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But in 1940's the "SNCC" then was Southern Negro Youth Congress, "SNYC." It was SNYC! okay? They did exactly what we were doing in the 1960's, even thoughonly twenty years later — we did not know much about them; except what Jim Forman taught us about southern history. Some people in SNCC's leadership, like Jim, were great histor-ians, so we were constantly were getting political education so we can to find out about them and the Southern Cooperative Movement and what have you. Then there were black militant defense organizations throughout the South, in the Masonic lodges, and the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana and so on.
I think that if people hear this or read what I'm saying, they need to take a deeper look at the history of the Movement in the South, its relationship to the economics of the South and to the white supremacist terrorism, and also Southern ... the soulful Christianity of the South. You cannot understand the Civil Rights Movement without understanding it was basically a Christian liberation theology movement rooted in great class consciousness.
Brian: Let's get back to 1967 and how you came into conflict with the administration. What did you do in the fall of 1967? After the TICEP gig tutoring that summer, what happed in the fall?
Michael: Well, first of all, I drove and tutored for TICEP in the day time and did SNCC organizing at night during that summer). But I was able to enroll at Tuskegee for the second time or the third time. I mean, I went through the enrollment process (mainly to get a meal card for the campus cafeteria). I didn't get a place to stay until early '68...that's when I first got that little garage to live in that I told you about. So, since I was now based in the town of Tuskegee, naturally, the next thing I did was to organize a campus chapter of SNCC. (So that's why I opened up a little one-room SNCC office in town.
But in order to do that I wanted to make sure we had a progressive person as a Student Government Association president. I ran the campaign of a guy named Warren Hamilton, and if he's still living today, he's a lawyer in Philadelphia now. I organized his campaign and, naturally, we won. (laughter) We organized it so he would win.
Michael: ...a very progressive brother and the administration was uncomfortable with that, but Bert Phillips decided to work with us and start to get progressive reforms around the campus. For example, up until then students that stay at campus were not allowed to rent rooms in the hotel, but Phillips said, "No. This hotel and everything on this campus belong to these students." We were not allowed to go on other parts of the campus without suffering harassment by the campus police, but he said, "No. This entire 5,200 acres is open to all students. They can go where they want and have a picnic or have a rally; whatever they want to do."
We worked around certain campus reforms. And we were definitely ratcheting up the anti-war, anti-draft movement. I led demonstrations there against the ROTC and against the draft, because it was a pipeline into the military. At that point, we were definitely anti-war, for the simple reason that African- Americans represented from '65 to about ... the Tet Offensive (1968), African- Americans represented 25% of the combat fatalities in Vietnam, and Latinos represented another 25%. We had racially-based reasons for being opposed to that war, and we were joining in with international movements to oppose it.
That's what went on pretty much, I think, from September through December, even January of '68. I don't remember other things at the moment, but I do know that in that highly-charged atmosphere we were trying to get more Black Studies ... people will commonly call it Black Studies classes, get legitimization for a campus chapter and whatnot. Then, in February of '68, African-American students at South Carolina State in Orangeburg protested a segregated bowling alley in that town. By '68 anything that was segregated was fair game. We couldn't wait to find something segregated — to desegregate it. Sometimes there were confrontations. I was in them many times. People... they'd call the police in. They'd try to pull us out of the establishments.
Anyway, these students in South Carolina marched, then they went back to their campus and had a rally on the campus. The governor of South Carolina has a bodyguard contingent of 500 armed, white men ... what do you call them? Death squads, basically, called the Special Law Enforcement Division, SLED. The SLED contingent of what amounted to what they call like SWAT teams now. They showed up and they shot 28 students in one night on a hillside. They killed four, and the four that they killed were all tall African-American young men, ...trying to kill Cleve Sellers, who was tall, and organized there. He was SNCC's National Project Director and he was an organizer of the movement at South Carolina State. They were trying to kill him, but they didn't know who he was, so they killed all the tall black men they could find.
Of course, we hit the ceiling with that, so I got a guy, went in his car, and I took four people with me over there to try to lend some support to the students at South Carolina State; to investigate what happened, so on and so forth. It took us a day and a half to get there. I mean, to get the car and then end up getting over there, by which point the place was like a ghost town. We stayed at Cleve Sellers' parents own motel in a nearby town and we stayed there overnight; froze to death. Can you imagine four guys trying to sleep in one bed to keep warm? (laughter) It was so cold in that damn place. Theyhis parents — gave us a room, but there was no heat to go with it.(Cleve had gotten shot and did not know we were there).
Brian: Right. Were you the only students to show up to help out, or did people come from other campuses as well?
Michael: As far as we know. I mean, we're SNCC. We're going to be there. So we were there, like I said, inside of 36 hours.
Brian: Wow. Oh, so the students coming from Tuskegee were the SNCC delegation?
Michael: We all worked together, but I was actually was probably the only one that could legitimately be called a SNCC worker per se, okay? Because at one point I had actually been paid by SNCC as a staff person for a brief period of time, but my identification was working with SNCC, in one project or another, pretty much full-time for about three years. The other four were people that were sort of my cronies. Whenever SNCC did anything, they did it. They were students who were SNCC sympathizers. I guess that's the word I'm looking for.
Brian: They were from Tuskegee?
Michael: They were Tuskegee students. Warren Hamilton was literally from Savannah (but we had to drop him off in that town on the way there because he got too nervous), Phil Frasier was from New York, and Gene Adams was from Tuskegee. They were from different places, but they were basically Tuskegee students. I was kind of the leader of this and I organized them and went up there; went to the funeral home to talk to the funeral directors. Well, at least two of the bodies were there and we were trying to approach the director to try to organize an inquest and what not and comfort because I remember meeting one of the families of one of the young men who was being... Well, they were preparing his body for the funeral.
Anyway, so we stayed there for a couple of days, then we came back. There's nothing we could do. The place was a ghost town. At the motel, not Cleve Sellers' family's motel but at the Howard Johnson's or whatever they had in Orangeburg, the official big motel, I tell you the truth, I've never seen anything like this in my life. We went there and every car in the parking lot — this huge parking lot — every car was a state police car, except for two which were big, black limousines. I said, "Well, there you go. There's the South Carolina Establishment. It's all right here." That SLED organization is a death squad. They're still in existence. Matter of fact, when — who's this guy? — Roof, who shot nine black churchgoers two weeks ago?
Brian: Yeah, Dylann Roof.
Michael: Yeah. They were talking about assigning the investigation of that to whom? SLED, of all organizations. Anyway, that is what happened. We came back. Oh, we were angry as we could be and we carried out a demonstration at Tuskegee. We stopped all the traffic on the highway to pass out literature to explain what happened with these students in South Carolina. We were explaining that this could happen here at Tuskegee The state highway ran right through the middle of Tuskegee. Then that caused another confrontation between me and the sheriff (Amerson), because he wanted to clear the highway and I wouldn't let him do it, basically. Again, just one more antagonism in a growing list. When we were finishing the demonstration, the traffic started again, but we had made our point.
At that point, we decided that we had to create an atmosphere at Tuskegee, an educational opportunity that would support African-American identity. We were using the term black, so ultimately we demanded "a Black University"; meaning that we wanted courses that related to the history of African- Americans. We wanted social science courses which were incisive and that correct analysis of American society will be taught. We wanted things that will be of interest to African-American students, whether they were political or not. For example, we wanted a school of "Black Fine Arts."
We had none at Tuskegee. Well, we had a little...I would say... a Music Department but it only had a few classes ... Can you imagine a black university that practically had no music department. The engineering students had demands, we include them in our coalition. The athletes had demands, so we included their demands in our coalition as well. We wanted Tuskegee to go on record with certain policy positions on matters of social interest at that time, political interests.
So we were formulating this reformation of the college, and we were modest. We weren't trying to destroy the college in any way. They could have avoided the entire problem they had with me and us if they had simply opened up, turned over one of the buildings and called it an experimental college. "You guys could teach whatever you want to teach and we'll give you one college unit credit for any experimental class you want," we basically would have been happy.
Michael: The consciousness development that we wanted would have been legitimized. We were not trying to destroy Tuskegee or stop 3,000 people from completing their college degrees and going on with their lives. What's the point of that? If they didn't have the component we were talking about, then we were willing to raise hell for them to add that to the curriculum.
Brian: Let me ask you a question. Is that coalition that you referred to, like the activists, the athletes, the engineers, is that what "Unity" was, the Unity Movement?
Michael: That was our version of "Unity." Now, a lot of people used the term "unity." There were some militants from Ohio State that came down and they ... In the end they didn't really contribute anything; but just solidarity. They were called Unity, too, so when you read Jim Forman's book there's a referral to Unity, but that's their organization. I think we got that idea of just calling our Tuskegee Institute organization "Unity," and we meant it. I mean, even our tactics, if we couldn't get a building to hold a rally, we didn't need a building to hold a rally! We would find the biggest assembly of Tuskegee students at the moment and then we would go there and we'd declare that to be the meeting. That's how (and why) we had meetings all over the place.
We never had a meeting that had fewer than 100 people, because we would just find out where it was. (laughter) I mean, they could have been having a concert, after the concert, we declared it a meeting. Or certain people would open the churches and whatnot and we would have rallies and meetings.
Tuskegee, by the way, was busy doing its thing. They invited people from the State Department down there to justify the war in Vietnam, because we had created a lot of heat, anti-war heat. Tuskegee was very sensitive to that because Tuskegee has a very cozy relationship with the State Department and Department of Defense, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and (indeed it's a CIA front) and like that. Tuskegee had that relationship, and not to mention the ROTC. They were providing these black officers for the Air Force and the Army.
Brian: Let me just ask you one question, where do we see evidence of that relationship besides ROTC and the Veterans Hospital? Were there other departments that were getting a lot of funding from the DoD or from ...?
Michael: Uh-huh (affirmative), very good question. I am not sure. I'm not sure what the profile of grants should look like, to be honest with you, so I can't answer that factually. I can say that it would not surprise me one little bit that the Board of Trustees of Tuskegee was involved in making deals like that, meaning that if you support the war, or you go on record as supporting the Johnson administration's political line, keep these militants in check, we'll be happy with you and some Department of Health, Education and Welfare, somebody's going to find a way to get a grant to you to modernize this building or that building or ...
Brian: Right. Got you.
Michael: ... dormitories. That's the way that the Board of Trustees have operated, which is why they ultimately became a target for us because we were not going to have any real lasting social change with the curriculum or Tuskegee's policy platform until we dealt with the board of trustees, which we'll talk about I guess in a little while, but ...
Brian: Sure. You were talking about the State Department coming on campus.
Michael: Yeah. They came down to justify the war. Well, listen, that was a mistake. We cooked up a real greeting for them. Me and basically the guys I took to South Carolina. We not only had demonstrations about that, but when the State Department came in fact a few days after that, we had three or four dozen eggs at the big meeting that they were having in a large auditorium. I made a speech about supporting our brothers and sisters in Vietnam and we didn't like these policies, this draft and this war, and we resented them being down here to justify it, so we started throwing all kinds of eggs at them and dis rupted the whole thing. It was complete mayhem, and that was the end of that convention.
Again, I was charged, they wanted to throw us out of school and whatnot, but we were able to intervene in that little campus judicial policy in such a way... so that if they wanted to play me out and to get me declared persona non grata, an injunction, they would have had to expose that judicial process they had, to the light of day, and they didn't want to do that, and so I managed to stay formally enrolled, even after that.
Brian: Did you enroll that fall, or did you enroll that winter?
Michael: Okay, I definitely was enrolled that fall, and I think that I enrolled that winter as well. Of the six semesters that I could have enrolled, I was enrolled in three of them, again, as a formal act of active enrollment. Actually, I took classes and when I did I was a pretty good student. When I finally got kicked out, actually I believe I had a 4.0 GPA, but that's because my history teacher paid me to stay away. (laughter) He said, "I'll give you an "A" if you didn't come to class." I said, That's the deal. (laughter).
Anyway, I was in class just a little bit, but mainly we were organizing, still going ... Don't forget all this time we're doing SNCC work off campus, but on campus we were basically formulating what would become this "Unity" platform. It took the month of March to do that. Okay, March, but we were meeting in the little theater there, which was, what do you call it? The drama club had the Little Theater and we were meeting there maybe three, four nights a week, planning how to "greet" the Board of Trustees, when they came down which scheduled for the first week of April. It was really me, I think, who came up with the idea, but it was easily endorsed by my cohorts. That was then that we were going to demand meetings with them.
We were not going to tolerate a faulty administration telling us everything of importance that we were concerned about was something they couldn't do anything about because the Board of Trustees had to agree to it and so forth. We said, "Well, that's fine and good." But (we said to ourselves) when they come here, we were coming to meet with them. We're going to give them a program of demands and we were going to impress upon them that we really mean business or there won't be any business as usual at Tuskegee anymore ...until they make these concessions.
They were concessions that we knew they could make without harming any of the operations. It would just harm the reputation of the place of Tuskegee's elite with the political class that runs this country and the economic ruling class. They would be uncomfortable with it, but that's their problem. Anyway, we used the month of March really to plan it, and when they came to Tuskegee, my guess is that it was about April 1st or something. [PHONE RINGS] Could you hold one second?
Brian: So, can I just ask, how many people were involved in the planning?
Michael: I'd say about 20. Yeah, I organized the "Unity" organization. I made sure it was 10 young women, 10 young men. We were, looking back on it, quite progressive in that sense. I didn't indulge in the kind of a, for lack of a better term, a kind of machismo stuff and all of that. I had too much respect for our sisters to tolerate that type of stuff. I had been around so many militant and capable women in SNCC. We had our own issues, in fact but, at least, we were trying to address it. One of the ways that I addressed it was that I mandated that half of the 'special committee' be female and male.
I did not win every vote in things that we did. We actually debated things, but we were unified on the fact that something very militant had to happen in order to get the attention of the Tuskegee Establishment. We planned it, and then probably in the week and a half or so before the trustees arrived, we had to come up with a plan. It was very secretive. I'm amazed that we were able to keep it secret, but its success, from our point of view, depended on secrecy.
They showed up on the campus in their Cadillacs and their limos, or whatever, they came in the town in. And they got their rooms in the guest hotel on the campus. It turns out that the telephone exchange system for not only Tuskegee but part of the county actually ran through the telephone exchange at Tuskegee, was in that hotel. That's important, because when we ended up detaining them in the hotel, we took over the telephone system and that got the attention of ... well...that was another reason to get the attention of the federal authorities. The FBI was in there in a heartbeat. I mean... but they couldn't do anything. They couldn't come in, but they were on the case in terms of investigating what was going on.
In the meantime, we had planned it and we knew how the place operated, so it was pretty easy to fool them. We did not do anything around the hotel. We wanted them to feel quite comfortable and safe there. The night before their first meeting, which we intended to attend (even if we weren't invited) we created diversions on the campus. I had certain girls going to the girls' dormitories, as far away from that hotel as they could, and raise an alarm about men being on the halls and whatever. We knew these country bumpkin-ass campus police they had there, they couldn't wait to go rescue girls in the dormitory. We had them come over and started searching for non-existent men in the girl's dorms in order to keep these cops busy.
While that was going on, we were busy going around the campus, taking all the official vehicles in the campus motor pool and we opened them up, took the rotors out of all of the distributors so that none of the Tuskegee vehicles would work that we knew would be used by their buildings and grounds people to try to reopen the campus. None of the cars would work. Then, at about 4 in the morning, we went around and we put chains on all the doors. Everything was chained (except the cafeteria, the recreation room, and the dorms. They wouldn't discover that until about 7 or 8 in the morning.
Some of the locks we put liquid solder in so that even if they took the locks out, they couldn't open the doors. The engineering building, the engineers wired their doors with 220 volts, because they were engineers. They knew how to do that. Anybody that touched the door at the engineering building would get knocked back about 20, 30 feet. What else did we do? Oh, yeah. We left the cafeteria open, obviously, and we left the recreation room untouched, obviously, because we did not want to alienate "the base." (laughter) We left the hotel completely alone.
They showed up, the president and all, and about an hour after they went to their meeting, we showed up and said, "We have some demands. We need you to change the agenda to include in discussions about these demands." They were shocked, but they weren't fully shocked because, until, we said, "By the way, this hotel is locked and this campus is shut down."
Well, the president was so embarrassed. I mean, they were ready to...he's lucky they didn't lynch him when the deal was over. But they were really upset with him because they were scared to death. I mean, we had, ultimately by the end we had 300 people inside the building and at one point probably 1,500 to 2,000 students outside the building supporting us and the place only got 3,000 students.
We have prepared the literature and there was leaflets, there were teach-ins, and all the students were in... they ... I mean, not all of them, obviously. There were many individuals that were trying to undermine us, but the masses were directly on our side. They created a human shield. I mean, that building was not that big to have 1,500 people surrounding it at every entrance meant that the sheriff couldn't get in there and police couldn't get in there, and so on and so forth.
Brian: This is Dorothy Hall?
Brian: Dorothy Hall?
Michael: Yeah, Dorothy Hall (now called the Kellogg Center), and that was the hotel and the trustees couldn't get out. We went in back and forth with them all day long. Finally, at a certain point, they agreed that on the next day they would put us on the top of the agenda, they would go over our list of demands and will discuss the feasibility of these things and so on and so forth. We said, "Okay." Actually, in good faith, we left and about 4:00 p.m. we unlocked the building. They were free to go if they wanted to go.
They didn't really have any place to go because they're already in the hotel. They had a sense that they were free and that was good. Well, that was an important event, and little did I know but that the fact that we unlocked that door and they were free to go later had legal implications, which I'll deal with later. The reality was that they were free to go and they went out to eat, from what I understood. So I went out to eat too.
Actually, I went to one of my friend's house because she was having a birthday party. She and I were very close (she was my English teacher and girlfriend), I'll put it that way. She was a teacher there, and she had a teacher who was a friend of hers, and her teacher's boyfriend and me, the four of us went out to a little birthday party for her at her apartment. In other words, I'd taken about an hour or hour and a half out of a revolution to go to her place and have a little "party." Now, the party was gingersnaps, apple sauce and ginger ale, okay? We went, turned on the radio and listened to some Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, and that was gon'na be our party (laughter). I said to her, "Well, listen. I got to get back by 6:00 or 7:00 because we just let them (the trustees) out there and I got to monitor things and kind of make decisions and be in charge of what's going on here because we're going to meet them the next morning."
Well, at about five minutes after 5, while we were listening to the radio, I had put on one of those good old Southern soul stations, but an announcement came across the radio that Martin Luther King had just been shot! We were in shock. My girlfriend who, as I said, was a teacher there at Tuskegee, she loved Martin Luther King beyond any level of love, and honestly, I mean love. People loved Martin Luther King, but I mean that was her ultimate hero. For him to be shot, with all of this going on, she was not only fearful that we were all going to get killed, but she was in shock because of his death and it was her birthday. This was ... She had an existential meltdown... as we thought of this.
I said, "Oh, my God. Well, I've got to book. I got to get out of here right now and get back to my people and what we want to do about this," because here we've got this little revolution going on in the campus, but now there's a hell of an event that just went down. Each hour that went by, more cities were... with riots and fires and protests, and white people were ... like black people getting armed. All of the southern towns, I mean, everywhere, every town you drove through, and two days, three days later I do have the occasion to drive though some of them, I never saw so many armed people in my life. We went back and we had a meeting and we have to decide whether or not to continue with our Movement. We decided to do it because we were past the point of no return and we would never be able to get that board compromise like that again.
Brian: Is this the 20 that met, or is this a bigger meeting?
Michael: This was probably not even all 20. I'm meeting with maybe seven or eight ... I mean, it's a practical matter. I think any given time I had seven or eight lieutenants keeping everybody else informed or polling people for what they thought or this, that and the other.
Michael: It wasn't all 20, but it was who we could get together probably 7:00 or 8:00 that evening. The next morning, we went back and we were in the meeting with them at 9 and we told them, "Well, we're here to negotiate on this stuff. By the way, we've locked the doors again and this time we're not going to be opening them until our negotiations are concluded, no matter how long that takes. That could take all day, that could take a few days, but none of us are leaving here." They got upset about that, too. I think some were saying, "We'll never negotiate under coercion." "Okay, fine. We'll sit and talk to each other and look at each other, but ..." We mean it, "Y'all not leaving."
They were getting scared because there are televisions and they were looking at the news, and at that point Washington was burning up. Riots, rebellions are going on in hundreds of cities in the country and they were beginning to fear for their lives. Now, we were also worried. I know I had the sheriff gun ning for us and campus police ... but I mean, the local Tuskegee City Police, they were not a problem to us. They're actually more sympathetic to us than anything else, but I knew I was going to have a problem with the sheriff and the sheriff's deputies. He tried to get in at one point and I ...
Brian: Was this Amerson?
Michael: Amerson, yeah. I confronted him at the door. I got a bunch of people behind me and he had three to four deputies with him. Well, there was no contest. He wasn't coming in and nobody with us was coming out. He got ... Again, he was just pissed off. There was one confrontation I had with him after the next in which he lost. Basically, his will was not acceded to and therefore his hatred was growing by the hour. What he did was he left and went and called Lurleen Wallace on the telephone. She was acting governor of Alabama. She was very sickly at the time, she was dying with cancer, but she was gotten on the phone. He asked her for a State of Emergency, a declaration, and he asked her to activate the National Guard again to come in and free these trustees.
When you consider who we had locked up in there, it was a pretty impressive list: We had a U.S. representative from Ohio. We had the president of Alabama Power and Light Company. We had the president of Phelps Stokes Fund and the March of Dimes. And we had the vice president of General Motors, a vice president of United Auto Workers. We had a vice president of Chase National Bank and we had a general, General Lucius D. Clay and about, I don't know, maybe 8 or 10 or others, I don't remember.
Anyway, they were all worried about dying, okay? We were worried about an escalating confrontation. We had no intention of hurting anybody, no desire to hurt anybody what-
soever, but we were not going to just get shot down like the students at South Carolina or the ones who'd gotten killed earlier in January in Texas. Some of the people that I was associated with were ("reportedly") armed and they weren't going to lay down and get shot. Anyway, yeah, you have a comment or question? I'm sorry.
Brian: Oh, yeah. I wanted to ask, do you know how you learned that it was Amerson who called Lurleen Wallace?
Michael: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That came out within minutes. I mean, because we had informants all over the place.
Brian: Oh, I see.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, we knew and when they were ... it took them 24 hours to mobilize the National Guard. We knew from Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Birmingham, we had people all over State of Alabama calling us. Matter of fact, that's one of the roles Wendy Paris played. When he heard about the rebellion ... remember this thing went over for three days, it wasn't just one day. When he'd heard about it, he got on a plane from New York and flew back into the middle of it and I asked Wendy to handle that part for me.
That was, I asked him to setup a little ad hoc intelligence network find out about the National Guard, have people go by the armories to see if they were mobilizing, what was going on, and when they would make a move and whatnot. He did that. Every hour or so I pretty much knew where the state police were mobilizing and when the National Guard was mobilizing in various National Guard armories in the state, so we pretty much knew where they were. Once they got in convoy, we would have a pretty good idea how much transit was involved between where they were and us.
Brian: Did Wendy call you or did he come and tell you these things in person?
Michael: They don't have cellphones in those days. He probably was on the phone in some adjoining house, which I don't know how he was doing it. He would come and let me know from time to time what was going on. It was getting dark. It was getting dangerous. Anyway, Lurleen Wallace issued the Executive Order that Amerson asked for, and she was sick and she was dying. As far as I know, her last act on earth was to bring the National Guard in on us. You've got to understand, we're not talking about a handful of people. She had over several hundred state police mobilized as well.
Well, the first contingent to be brought in is the National Guard. There were about 4,000 National Guardsmen, okay? They came in to the area, to the ultimately ... I'll explain that later, what happened when they got there, but they were on their way. We knew they were on their way and we had to make decisions as to whether or not to capitulate and release the trustees, hopefully to minimize the bloodshed that looked like was going to ensue, or to keep them as a bargaining chip so that in fact we would have them to bargain with so that we could end the occupation of that building without people getting shot. Because that was one of the debates and, as a matter of fact, personally, I was in favor of keeping them because I thought that we might be better with them and have a formal release of them once we were assured we had somebody that can negotiate with the National Guard's leadership.
Something like that ultimately did happen. They eventually got there maybe 11:00 at night or midnight one night. Bert Phillips and a couple of other faculty members ran out to the gate of the college and got on their knees and ... I mean, listen, they showed up. I'm telling you, there were 4,000 National Guards. Well, they lined all of Montgomery Highway, as far as the eye could see. They had tanks. Tanks! That's why it took them so long to get there. They had half-tracks, APCs, bazookas. I've never seen a bazooka in my life. They had bazookas. They came there ready to annihilate the place and to free the trustees and to arrest or kill us.
We sent out some of our people, to all the dormitories to get the young ladies and the young men to get out of their dorm rooms, to get into the hallways, to get away from the windows. When the guard arrived, we knew they were there. Bert Phillips ran out. Like I said, he got on his knees, literally on his knees, in front of a tank and begged them not to come on the campus, informed them that about half hour ago the trustees had been allowed to go, which was true. It was a very emotional situation. Also, discipline was breaking down inside the building. None of us had had sleep for about four days.
A few of us acquitted ourselves I think fairly well. It was very, very difficult, but many others were becoming undisciplined. They all ate the food up in the hotel. I think someone found some wine or something. I don't remember alcohol being too much of a problem. To carry out a consensus meeting was becoming more and more difficult. Anyway, they voted to let the trustees go, but keep the president, and we did it. Then by the time the National Guard showed up, there was nobody ... we evacuated the building, except for me. I was the last person to leave the building, and that's because the Dean Phillips and a coach named Mr. Lefridge, they begged me to leave the building. They don't ...
Again, they didn't want me to get killed. That's what I'm trying to say because, you understand, we had a lot of sympathy. Not only did I have 1,500 students outside the building, we had a few hundred residents of the poor areas around Tuskegee, you understand what I'm saying? Poor folks who had never set foot on that campus. They were never considered to be a part of that campus; like they were poor working class of folks. They were working in garages or cotton fields or wherever, doing whatever work they were doing. They were poor, and they were the true Black Belt of Tuskegee and they weren't far away. I mean, we're just talking about East Tuskegee and as far away as northern Tuskegee. By that time, they knew about it and they came in to support us as well.
Again, Bert was able to get there and slow the National Guard down and convince them not to go in, because they wanted to search all the dormitories. They wanted to find me. They wanted to find certain other leaders and they determined that they weren't going to leave until they had captured and killed us. Then some of the people that I had working on my side, they went to another part of the campus and started shooting at them (let's say, from what I understand). That's why the National Guard didn't come in the direction of the dormitories, they were drawn away in another direction. In the meantime, we're able to get people more secured in their dormitories.
Then maybe 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00 in the morning, I can't probably remember at this point, they decided to demobilize and they stayed in the area for a while. I know they were there because at that time I could see, because I was leaving the area, what kind of armaments they came there with. Anyway, yeah, the three guys and one young lady, we got a car. We knew that there were arrest warrants and I was concerned that they were going to charge us with kidnapping and false imprisonment, or other felonies and whatnot. We decided to leave to avoid arrest and we went and headed out to Milledgeville, Georgia for about three or four days.
We showed up there. We found a lot of sympathy for us in Milledgeville. The young lady we took with us, her mother and father, were from there. They were teachers and principals and they adopted us as sort of their kids, along with her. They could see that, again, it was important that we were principled in the way we were dealing with the women, because that mattered, ultimately. They could see that she was perfectly comfortable with us. Nobody was exploiting her, abusing her or anything. They adopted us, like they had five kids instead of one, and they protected us for these four days.
Then I was in contact with lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild and we got a couple of Guild lawyers in. They went to Tuskegee and found out that the sheriff was claiming only to want to serve us with injunctions. We said, "Okay, well it's better to go back." I've now gotten 1,500 people kicked out of college. We don't know how many charges there are, who's going to jail and who ain't, or if anybody was harmed or killed. We didn't know what the fate of certain people was.
I decided to go back with the four people that I had. They did serve us with injunctions, but when I went to get served an injunction at the police station they did pull out, what down South they call "hip warrants," which means the sheriff of the county can carry a stale warrant in his hip for years and arrest you on it at any time. They arrested us and charged us with, I think, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, fairly minor misdemeanors. The idea was to do anything that would hold us in jail. They had probable cause for that, to hold us in jail while they worked out the legalities of charging us with felonies.
Brian: Can I ask you a question? I just want to get right the timing of ... You're saying you released the trustees before the National Guard arrived or you released them as the National Guard was arriving?
Michael: They were released about 15 minutes before the Guard showed up at the front gates of the institution.
Brian: Got you. Chester Higgins told me he thought the reason that there wasn't an Orangeburg-style massacre is because of that major general, that the major general told them not to fire.
Michael: Well yeah, but the major general could have said as well, "Shoot them." No. The reason was that Bert Phillips convinced the major general to give that order. All I'm saying is, I'm serious, they had a back and forth that must have lasted 45 minutes out at the front of that school's gate that night.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, Chester's right, in a way, you know what I mean, in terms of who gave the formal order, but it wasn't the beneficence of the general.
Michael: You must understand, it wasn't just the National Guard. It was the state police. They were just as dangerous and ... but it was the context, and the point was that by that point 150 cities were blowing up, were going up in flames. Martin Luther King, hadn't even been buried. Then to add, to make it really surreal, the next morning Lurleen Wallace died. What I'm saying is that the Tuskegee Establishment, after the trustees were let go and Martin Luther King is dead, he had not been buried. Lurleen Wallace was dead. Her body wasn't even cold. They called a five-minute memorial service for MLK.. Can you imagine inviting people to a five-minute memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr.? All right, and they kept to it. I mean, it might have gone for 10 minutes, but they kept people at it and they were so shook up.
The Tuskegee, the Board of Trustees, didn't none of them come because they were figuring out how to carry out probably a castration of Luther Foster (Tuskegee's president at the time), they were that angry with him for bringing them into that ... for allowing them to come into a situation where he was so embarrassed because he had no clue that anything that elaborate could be organized to detain that many prominent people right under his nose. And so he didn't even come out, I don't think. They had five minutes. Do you know, the next day, they had a half hour memorial service for Lurleen Wallace? This is the white ultra-racist wife of George Wallace. She was only a placeholder for him because he couldn't run for governor three times in a row, so he ran her for governor while she was dying, poor thing, and she was dying of cancer. She died that morning.
Anyway, back to your point about the ... I mean, the trustees left. They went to Montgomery. I think they got a hotel in Montgomery, had a business meeting because it was, after all, a formal, legal, business meeting. They had a meeting. They read Foster the riot act over there and they planned to deal with us. Because they kicked 300 students out, we then had the ability to go to court and initiate legal action ourselves, with our lawyers, to attempt to get an injunction, an injunction to require Tuskegee's adminstration to re- admit all of the students and then set up judicial procedures to ... if they want to kick anybody out, they have to go through a due process. They couldn't just send people letters and tell them to go the hell home, but they did that to 300 people.
So we were able, during June, '68, to create a system where they had to have trials and of course the star trial, the star chamber trial was mine. I had been studying a correspondence law course that semester that we're talking about. As matter of fact, going back to September '67, I enrolled in some correspondence law classes from some mail-order school in Ohio. I didn't get very far in the course, but it made me, like to think legally, and I'd been to jail enough to understand the role of law enforcement in political action activity.
I ended up being the student defender, like someone like a public defender, for all the kids that were getting kicked out of Tuskegee through their Judicial Counsel anyway, the disciplinary board. I was the public defender for them all through September of '67 through January '68, well February of '68, including even after that, because that same Council was trying to kick me out. We made a mockery of that procedure and made them set up a procedure and they did. They eventually reduced the number of students that were kicked out from 300 to about 50, including me.
Then, of course, I got to my hearing. It was a big deal. The place was filled. My lawyer said it's better if I acted as my own defense attorney because I could do things that he couldn't do, and the fact I was getting kicked out and probably going to jail in a minute thereafter, it was a foregone conclusion, so he was really prepared for the criminal defense. I used that as a forum to make our case about why we were doing what we were doing. It was sort of when there was "History Will Absolve Me" kind'a speech moment, that Fidel Castro was famous for...
Brian: Is that speech anywhere, do you think?
Michael: Well, no ... Oh, you know what? Probably so, because it was a formal (administrative) legal . There was a transcript and there was a stenographer there. I don't know if Danny Williams, Tuskegee's archivist was able to ever able to get that, but there was a speech We also had a hearing in federal court before federal Judge Johnson, who made us ... he set up a reasonably formal procedure... but the transcripts were there, I know. Anyway, the Tuskegee lawyers were the prosecutors, that is Fred Gray and whatnot and his law firm.
It was an interesting thing. Again, I'm going to comment on the South. I had been a thorn in their side off and on for three years. They forced me out two or three times, but this last time they really meant it. There was a legal persona non grata order against me and all kinds of stuff, injunctions, you know. Yet, even though I was working as the student defender and later defended myself in this show trial, the lawyers working for Tuskegee, attorney Fred Gray's associates who were prosecuting me, every day at 5:00 me and my attorney and those two lawyers would go to ... We had a big old room in Dorothy Hall.
We'd go up there and drink a fifth of Hague & Hague every day after the trial, because it was a foregone conclusion what was going to happen with the trial. (laughter) There was no point in not socializing because what was going to happen was known. The interesting thing was, you know something, those lawyers said, "Michael, after ..." or in effect, "After we kick you out of school and if you get out of jail, we will send you to law school ourselves. We will pay for your legal education if you will only promise to practice in Alabama for three years." Ain't that something?
Brian: This is like their private initiative to me, as individuals?
Michael: This is the way... the back channel stuff works, especially in the South. They were very proud of me, in a way. Do you follow what I'm saying?
Michael: Because we have brought the Tuskegee petit-bourgeoisie, even though that was their client, to their knees. They had never seen anything like this, okay? You must understand, there were a lot of people in Tuskegee who did not like their Negro 1%. Behind the scene, they would do things to support us, but they were also impressed that we can organize stuff and that it was as principled as it was. I mean, we did not do unprincipled things, and it was in the middle of a hellacious, tumultuous time and they recognized that they saw some talent here.
They knew that I was acting like a lawyer, 'maybe this Negro wants to be a lawyer.' They actually said my three years of being kicked off the campus, concurrent with that, that if I agreed to go to the University of Alabama Law School, I think it was in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, that they would pay for it. I'm still telling you ... The next day, they're still trying to prosecute me ... They might have ended-up putting me in jail but, behind the scenes, that's what they offered.
Michael: I was really humbled by that. I mean, I was flattered by it, but I was humbled by it. Again, I just tried it, in my current level of wisdom, whatever that level is, I tried to paint a full picture of the subtleties and the nuances of black resistance in this country. Naturally, they were ... Well, my lawyer was right. He was a guy from National Lawyers Guild, two of them, as a matter of fact. But these two black lawyers who were officially giving me grief were the ones actually who are willing to pay for my legal education.
Later, I declined that opportunity because in the meantime another faction was paying a contract, $5,000 to have me killed. That took precedence over screwing around talking about going to law school in Alabama. Anyway, I left Alabama in June,'68. Last I had, I had worked to get everybody back to school that I could. I had communicated with other kids who couldn't be reinstated to make sure that they got letters of reference or whatever support they needed. I was raising money for some of the people that got kicked out because they had no place to go back to and they couldn't go on the campus dorm rooms and whatnot.
I was getting sick. I was getting a bile burn. Later I found ... I didn't know what it was. I couldn't go to the hospital on the campus because there was order for me not to go anywhere near that campus. I couldn't go to any of the black doctors at Tuskegee because the few that were there was associated with the campus and, besides, I was persona non grata. One day in June, the guys I was telling you about, Mr. Woodson and Stanley, Dr. Stanley Smith, they kept hearing me complain about my stomach. They said, "Well, go down to the white doctor down in town there. He'll examine you."
I went to the town one afternoon and a guy opened the office up and he examined me, saying, "Well son, you don't have an ulcer but you do have a bile burn. If you don't treat this, it will become an ulcer," from accumulated stress in more of what it was. He asked me my name and I told him, I said, "Well, I'm Michael Wright." He said, "Michael, are you the Michael Wright?" I said, "Well, yes." "Oh, boy." "Well (I'm paraphrasing now) that's sort of a horse of a different color. I'm going to give you a prescription. You do this stuff and you go on an ulcer diet but I recommend that you leave here."
I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Just a word. It's not going to be very safe for you here for very long." I asked him a few more things, like how soon. "I don't know... how soon?" He said, "How about...suddenly." I said, "Damn. It's that 'bad?" He said, 'Yes. It was that bad.' You probably, you're not going to make it.' They have a thing in the South they call a "Bourbon Street lynching." Have you ever heard of that term before?
Brian: No. I haven't.
Michael: It comes from Louisiana or New Orleans. That's when all the male town elders in their little smokers, a subcommittee of them will get together and start ponying up the money for a contract to kill you. Then, when the deal goes down, nobody knows what happened and nobody's talking and three days later the dialog becomes like, "What incident?" Okay? (laughter) They have a way of carrying out,... getting rid of people that they want to get rid of. That's what it was. He didn't know when whatever was coming down.
Three or four years later, some people got hold of records. Actually, what they told me, it was in the president's office in Tuskegee, that implicated them in that contract and some of the details that I'm telling you about, I told you about earlier, were told to me at that point, but I never personally saw any documents. But the actual one who really let me know how imminent my demise was this white doctor. I knew that this had a ring of truth because he had some details, but also because I had noticed that in the prior week and a half, maybe it was two weeks that I was in Tuskegee, it was hard for me to get anybody to let me stay with them. I did have a little place to 'crash' here in the area, but it was very undesirable place...(it was a whorehouse...and shall we say, an interesting place to be given the number of cops I saw going in and out of there).
I used to be able to hitchhike, because back in those days people in this country hitchhiked. Two weeks before this occurred, nobody would pick me up. I only ended up with two or three supporters and they ... because all my base, they had left the area. It was going into June and there weren't going to be students there anyway. I was getting more and more isolated and I could feel that the beast breathing its hot breath, on the back of my neck, but I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what was coming down until I was informed, so I left.
About a week after I got to California, the new governor of Alabama who re placed Lurleen Wallace, whose name was Tom Brewer, he got on television. He had himself a news conference. That governor said that Michael Wright and Scott B. Smith (another well-known SNCC worker) and them other "communist agitators," we done run them out of the state. (laughter) And you could call the White Citizen's Council in Mobile, Alabama, they had tapes on the phone... they'd play the tape on the phone for you about them trouble-makers up there in Tuskegee and... we're going to get them and they all need to run.
I ended up leaving Alabama that way, and I stayed away for about three years. When I got back, like I said, I stayed at Tuskegee just a month or so, but I mainly moved up to Birmingham too, because I was with the Black Workers Congress doing labor, organizing at that point and so I did a little organizing in Birmingham, Alabama. I think it was in the summer of '71 or something like that. (I had been teaching in California, but had the summers off). That's the story.
Brian: Wow. What an amazing story. What's the name of the labor organizing group again?
Michael: Yeah. It was called the Black Workers Congress.
Brian: Oh, yeah. Okay. You did end up going to law school, correct?
Michael: Well, yeah. Before we get into contemporary time, there's two things I want to mention because it's important for your knowledge and if someone listens to these anecdotes or read about it.
To understand the importance of that order that Lurleen Wallace signed for the National Guard to come in and shoot us, because not only was it a massive mobilization but there was a contingent of the National Guard group that wasn't with them. Instead, there was a small squad, I think it was as many as twelve Alabama National Guards and Army National Guard based in Tuscaloosa that was actually sent to Memphis, Tennessee. Got it? They were sent to Memphis, Tennessee before we ever took over to Tuskegee at all. Their job was to supervise the assassination of Martin Luther King. (Note:
members of the National Guard of Tennessee and the Memphis Police Department were the main assassination operatives according to attorney Pepper).
DR. KING GETS KILLED IN THE MIDDLE OF ALL OF THIS
Now, here is ... There's proof of this. There's irrefutable proof because an American jury in Memphis, Tennessee found it to be the truth. Well, here's what happened. The FBI under Hoover, Defense Department generals, also right wing generals, the mafia, the Marcello (mob) family in New Orleans and St. Louis financiers, all in a disjointed or multi-layered conspiracy, the same conspiracy that killed both of the Kennedys, the same grouping of people, killed Martin Luther King. They planned it for several weeks and they had a group of green berets who were in the military. They resigned their commis sions in the military. They then de-enlisted from the regular Army and re- enlisted in the Alabama National Guard, as a group.
That group that re-assigned go to Memphis, Tennessee (not even in the same state) to supervise the Memphis Police and the Memphis Police hierarchy, not all the cops, obviously, but those that were involved in the conspiracy. Their job was to actually be the shooters. Martin Luther King was shot by a Memphis Police lieutenant, and his spotter was a sergeant in the Memphis Police. They ran a target practice range for the Memphis Police. They took the normal Memphis Police that would normally guard Martin Luther King when he came there, they took them off duty. They carried out the assassination with these members of the Alabama National Guard supervising... I'm sure that they came out of uniform, but they were supervising the shooting of King.
Now, this is all documented. It's irrefutable that this was the way it went own, because if you read the second version of William Pepper's book "An Act of State" you'll see it all. See, William Pepper Esq. was the family lawyer for Martin Luther King's family and they for years, along with James Bevel, and some others, we're trying to get James Earl Ray a trial. He never really ever had a trial on the claim that he was the sole assassin of King. They knew that wasn't true and they were trying to get a new trial for him. He ended up succumbing to cancer, probably an assassination job itself. They had certain viruses, monkey viruses that would give anybody cancer in a month. They killed Jack Ruby this way. They tried to kill Castro this way, give him an injection of that and two weeks later they form an aggressive form of cancer. (Note: listen to "Dr. Mary's Monkey" episodes on Bonnie Faulkner's showKPFA archives of the "Guns and Butter Show," in 2014).
Anyway, he was dying of cancer and they never got him a trial. They were able to interview a lot of witnesses and they began to get this background. This is what the barrister William Pepper and the Martin Luther King family ultimately did, because the family was not in favor of this at first; but eventually they agreed. They sued the United States government in state court in Tennessee, charging the United States government with the wrongful death of Martin Luther King and complicity in his assassination with the multilayered component that I told you about, in my view probably going up to Lyndon Johnson. And they won a verdict! No one got to the top of the FBI and the top of the military Establishment, and they probably would never have dared doing a thing like this without Johnson's approval.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Barrister Wm. Pepper just released his magnum opus "The Assasination of Martin Luther KIng Jr.," which updates his 50 year quest to lay bare the conspiracy that killed King. He claims that the Tennessee National Guard also has a supervisory assassination team in place to oversee the killers in the Memphis Police Department. In fact, he says, two of them accompanied the Medical Director of the hospital to which King was taken (and two "suits")when he entered the ER Department, ordered the attending physyicians and other allied health workers out, and the proceeded to put a pillow over King's face and smothered him to death (as he had not died on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel as most observers had throught.]
Anyway, that they carried out the assassination. Pepper, the attorney, sued the government. They had a civil trial, and this is in the early '90s, okay? In the early '90s. They have a civil trial and a civil jury found the United States government was guilty of the assassination of Martin Luther King and complicity in all of its parts. Now, I remember when that verdict came down. Do you know, there were only three national networks at that time: ABC, NBC and CBS. They all had evening news. Do you know that neither NBC nor CBS even covered the verdict in that trial? Only Peter Jennings, who was with ABC News anchor, reported it on the ABC Evening News that night, and even then for less than five minutes. This is an American jury that rendered a verdict in the assassination of Martin Luther King. It's official!
Michael: The entire story is well documented in "An Act of State." That's the book. He had to go to England twice to get it published. No American publisher would touch it. Again, if you go to a show on the Internet called "Guns and Butter," okay, with Bonnie Faulkner, she's one of the great conspiracy investigators in the country, a brilliant, brilliant woman. If you go in their archives around December of 2014 and January of 2015, they have two broadcasts in their archives on William Pepper actually speaking about the assassination of Martin Luther King. It gives you bone-chilling details of how it was organized and how it was put up and what its connection to Kennedys' killings were. All I'm saying is that the irony, even George Bush who became the president of United States, George Bush Jr., he was an Alabama National Guard at the same time, but he was in the Air National Guard. I'm thinking of King. I'm speaking as he showed up here.
Brian: George Bush, Jr. wasn't at Tuskegee that day?
Michael: No. If he had joined the Alabama Army National Guard, he would have been, but he joined the Army ... I mean, the Air Force National Guard as a way to avoid the draft, okay?
Brian: Right. Let me ask you, looking back at all of this, what do you feel like is the significance of that series of protests in '67 and '68 in Tuskegee?
Michael: I'm not sure how to generalize about that. We were part of a nationwide, actually worldwide, movement of rebellions. Lots of people did all kinds of radical things. It certainly had all kinds of significance for Tuskegee, I'll tell you that, because 25 years later, my name was notorious at that place. (laughter) They definitely didn't see anything like that before or since, I'll tell you that. What it meant was that African-American students were dead serious about challenging the dominant narrative of white cultural supremacy in this country. It was the highlight of black power, black consciousness.
After that, somebody as backward and conservative as a Southern, you know, James Brown, as backward as you can get somebody ... I mean, politically- speaking. He's a fantastic cultural icon, but he was simply politically stupid. Even he came out, "Well, I'm black and I'm proud." You know what I mean? Then he came out with "Only in America" or "I'm in Love with America" — something to offset that.
You had all kinds of people that were getting on the Black Power bandwagon and legitimizing it. The student movement was critical with that because it was an area where you could have a microcosm of what was going on in the cities, in the city government and the lack of black political representation in the cities and in the school boards for urban America. These black college areas were, especially in the Black South, I mean, here's the idea. We're in big trouble if we can't get a Negro history class at a premier black college at that time in the United States.
That shows you how backward it was, and it wasn't anything radical or revolutionary. You know, John Hope Franklin, whatever the book was on Negro slavery. I mean, that's how backward and scared the African-America petit- bourgeoisie was, in order to maintain their living standards and their base of operation. So it had great implications for them, but our movement as a whole was just one contribution to ...
The '60s was the last best thing to happen to the United States. Everything after that was downhill. It took me into the end of the '70s to realize the '60s was over. It took a while but I officially figured it out after we had enough attacks on racial affirmative action that I realized, "Oh, man. Yeah, the law and order, no crime in the streets rhetoric, backtracking on school bussing," all of that stuff. By the time we got to Ronald Reagan's election, the die was cast, the Movement, that period was over.
We set an example and now you see young black folks taking up the mantle. They've got their lessons to learn and they can only be so sophisticated when they're 20 years old or 21. Besides, they're less sophisticated because the whole country after Reagan has been dumbed down, folks getting stuck on stupid. They had no sense of history in the United States. The American, the average American can't remember what happened last week, let alone have any real historical information.
All digital and cyber communications have made organizing and, certainly, efficacious communication, I think, more difficult, not less. Even to mobilize, if your organization is based on Twitter flash mobs, but yeah, you can get a bunch of people to go someplace, but you're not going to have any Twitter revolution or an email revolution. Anarchistic revolution? A lot of the young African-Americans are now kind of toying with this idea that you can have some leaderless leadership and (so that) 'that way the police won't know who you are"; another hope at denying stuff.
They're doing, I guess, the best that they can do. The reaction in every period, going from '85 to 2005, that 20-year period is the worst period I think in the United States since Reconstruction as far as the interest of African- Americans go. It's a terrible period and that continuity was broken. A lot of the young black militants now, they're trying to make up from some lost ground because their political education went to zero with the advent of the digital world, with the establishment-promoted "gangsta rap" and "thug culcha."
I mean, prior to gangsta rap and other dumb shit coming out of Los Angeles (of course it would obviously come out of Los Angeles because that's where "stuck on stupid" drama always comes from). They got bought off and so they come up with "Niggas with Attitudes" and all the gangsta rap progeny and all the misogyny that went with it. That whole industry is run by people who were not black, but who make $100 for every dollar some rap icon makes. And they set black folk back so damn far. We're barely able to get out of that now. That's how ignorant young Black Americans were made as we entered the millennium; because we're so media-dependent and so easily manipulated by the media.
Our young folks now are with Black Lives Matter, who are Color of Change activists and whatnot. I think that they're doing a fairly admirable job at what they're trying to do. They've got new elements. Their continuity hasn't been broken. They're naive, true, but they have a new hope, clear leadership within some of that, which is new and would have got a thought with ... as the saying goes, water seeks its own level. They've got to experiment and do what they can do to crystallize issues even though a lot of what they're doing is naive and they're subsequently getting bought off and potentially coopted without even knowing it ... (I mean, George Soros gave them $33 million in their first month).
Anyway, all I can say was I was a soldier in the army and I was not a general. Probably I might qualify as a first lieutenant. (laughter) That's about as far as it went with me. I'm proud that, like I said, the contributions we made, a few of us are still conscious and still trying to actually be active and relevant, because I had a background as a revolutionary, as a Marxist and as a liberation theologist. I'm quite a religious person. My religion is an African traditional religion. I practice Yoruba religion within the Santeria-Lucumi version of that. I believe that our liberation is quite consistent with religious precepts, and so I do consider myself a liberation theologist. Not a Catholic Christian version of one, but I am an advocate of a revolutionary socialist perspective within an African traditional religious version of one. (Please see my website, "Oshoosi.com").
Brian: Cool. Well, we are creeping up on the three-hour mark here, so ...
Brian: I don't want to take up any more of your time in this particular phone call, but I hope we can leave it open-ended, maybe as further questions arise in my research I can call you back and maybe we could talk again.
Michael: Well, I would certainly encourage it. I'm flattered that you sought me out, and honestly kudos for the work that you're doing. You and people like you will be the ones to come up with the final opinion on how valuable those are from the standpoint of posterity. I give you all kinds of salutations for taking interest. Nobody else has done that.
Brian: Cool. Well, thank you, Michael.
Michael: All right. You're ...
Brian: Go ahead.
Michael: In the agreement ... Now where did I ...? I notice, I got this address. Oh, you were going to send me an email?
Michael: All right. You said that you would make available a copy of the tape or the transcript or whatever. I would love to have that. When you edit it, I'm sure you'll do an appropriate job of editing or whatever you need to do. I mean, that's one thing. I would love to have a literal transcript or a recording of these three hours. What you do with your thesis, that's totally all up to you.
Brian: Right, right.
Michael: I'm just saying that I totally expect that you'll edit from the material I've given you, then come up with a good product.
Brian: That's what I'm ...
Michael: I want to see it.
Brian: Yeah. That's what I'm going to try to do. I'll definitely stay in touch with you and especially make sure you get a copy of the final thing.
Michael: True. What is your field in graduate school?
Brian: I'm in a Ph.D. program in the field of Urban Education in the City University of New York. They've given me the leeway to do historical research, given that Tuskegee and Booker T. Washington are so foundational in the field of education, especially black education. This protest and the way that it raises issues about the politics of education, about who learns what and why, and the historic role of students in advocating in changing the nature of education in this country, and especially black students, I think comes to the fore in the story.
Michael: Right, right. Well, I could not agree more. When you do have the transcript, I know I went on at length in many answers, so you might drop in focal questions and say even in the middle of my monologue so that it gets broken up.
Brian: Oh, I see.
Michael: You know what I'm saying? Like hey, this is something.
Brian: Sure, sure. I'm happy also to send you just the unvarnished transcript if I got one typed up.
Michael: Well, that's good.
Michael: All right-y. Well, God bless and you take it easy, okay?
Brian: Have a good night. Thank you so much.
Michael: Okay. Bye-bye.
Copyright © Michael Oshoosi Wright. 2016
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