Chude Pam Parker Allen Miriam Glickman Ron Bridgeforth (April only) Bruce Hartford Cathy Cade Marion Kwan Betty Garman (March only) Eugene Turitz
If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. (If you add a comment, please indicate where in the transcript it should be inserted.)
Jews Individuals vs Organization Members Women White as Allies North & South A Chinese Woman in Mississippi Class A Jewish Woman From Indiana Choices White Privilege Attraction & Repulsion Allies & Internal Politics "Allies" or "Accomplices?" White Fragility Allies & Roles
Cathy: How did being Jewish affect your experience in the Civil Rights Movement? And does anybody have a copy of Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement that I could borrow?
Miriam: Yeah, but that was by Deborah Schultz. And she did not do a good job. She took my quotes and put them exactly correct, not even a comma wrong, and then misinterpreted what I'd said.
Cathy: OK, well, you might want us to discuss that.
Miriam: I'd rather never look at her book again. [Laughter]
Cathy: Then give me her book! I don't know. Anyway, it's something I need more clarity, more information about, and I just got an email from the SNCC [list] referring to Deborah Schultz book.
Chude: You can go on the website, and there is one discussion we had once about being Jewish (Jews, Religion, & the Movement. It won't be enough, but I mean —
Cathy: It's a start.
Betty: I can also send you a link. I belong to SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. We have a Baltimore chapter, and they just did a webinar which I didn't participate in; it was just this past week. It was about anti-Semitism and racial justice. It might not be exactly how Jewish background affected going South, but this is very pertinent to the conversation that's happening nationally today about where do Jewish people sit? Are they white? Have they completely assimilated? Or is there still a Jewish identity that informs? And of course, I think there are different points of view. If you're on their national list, then you get notices about these webinars, and you can listen. Even if you sign up and don't get a chance to listen, you get the transcript.
Miriam: OK, so I counted heads [here today]. One, two, three, are from Jewish background.
Bruce: Half the whites in this group.
Marion: There are so many. We all knew that when we were in the South that there's a huge group of Jewish representation throughout the [Movement in the] South, and you can't ignore that. I think that's really important.
Chude: Well, I think I'd broaden it also to — given that non of our African-American members were able to attend this session — in terms of the Southern Freedom Movement, we were all allies. Now there may be distinctions coming from Jewish backgrounds and from those of us, especially those of us who came from very devout Christian backgrounds, and so that could fit into it, but the broader question of how we struggled against how we took our stands against racism in the '60s to now, you know, we were allies of a Black-led movement. And some of us came as Jews, and some of us came as Christians, and some of us came as —
[To Miriam] I mean, I remember, you didn't have that identity back then, that is what you said once, right? That you didn't really identify yourself as going down as Jewish, right? That's not why you went, but you can clarify that.
Miriam: I would correct that. I would clarify that. And remember Ron tells that great story that's in the — I think the discussion from the all-day one, right? About going South and discovering — not knowing anything about Jews. And isn't that the one about the horns [about young kids having been taught that Jews have horns on their head under their hair]? They wanted to know where —
Bruce: No, I think that was my story. [Laughter]
Miriam: Oh that's your story! The horns. But I mean, he didn't know anything as an African-American coming from L.A, he didn't know anything about Jews or anti-Semitism. So people going South, they would've been at times dealing with anti-Semitism as well as dealing with racism. I think, right?
Marion: And for me, the interesting thing about all of this is that I came out of the South not having one Jewish Freedom Fighter say anything about, "I'm Jewish, and that's why I'm here." I hadn't heard any of that. To me, everyone's white. That's all I know, because there was no mention nor need there be, but for some reason, it wasn't brought up. And so all I thought was, 'Oh yeah, they're all whites and Blacks, and then there's me [as Chinese], but they're all whites.'
But since then, I've learned a lot. Yeah, this person, yeah, he was Jewish. Yeah, this law student who was down here, yeah, he's Jewish too. Oh. So what else is there about it? There must be something important, significant. And I did talk to a lot of people later, after the Movement was over, but that was somehow not talked about.
Bruce: I think that's very significant, and I think what you just described was probably pretty much the same across the whole Southern Freedom Movement from what I could see. Most of the Jews who went South to be part of the Freedom Movement did not, to themselves, think that they were doing it explicitly out of their religion. I was probably more of an outlier in that I probably had a more explicit Jewish reason for going than almost any of the other Jews, because most of the Jews I knew in the Freedom Movement saw themselves going and participating in the Movement as a rebellion against the kind of assimilationist Judaism that they had grown up with. Which was very "don't rock the boat," which was very "keep quiet, fit in, and become a doctor. And if you can't become a doctor, at least become a lawyer." And "don't even be very Jewish. Be American!"
And I think that for a lot of Jews that was the kind of religious training they were getting in the Reform and Conservative synagogues that most of them came out of. It was a very assimilationist Judaism. But I had a different experience — I didn't have any of that experience. I came from a Commie family. I had never been in a synagogue in my life. Literally. And so I came out of being influenced by the Holocaust, and rage and fury over the Holocaust, and then opposing the local Nazis in Los Angeles, and that's how I got into the Movement.
I think that most of the Jews that I knew in the South saw what they were doing as a rebellion, not just against the kind of Judaism that had been inflicted on them but against their parents, or at least against their family.
Gene: It's like we're talking about — to me — very different things. I mean I had hardly any thought about being Jewish. When we were in jail in Jackson, we were segregated. Black people on one side of the building, and we were on the other where we were kept. And one day, a rabbi of Jackson came to visit us, and he says, "Who are my children?" And we almost kicked him out. I mean, we were not interested. Nobody, none of the white people. And I don't know how many — I couldn't tell you how many Jews there were. I mean, I see the figures now, and I couldn't have told you that. I had almost no conception of who was Jewish and who was not Jewish. It wasn't the way I functioned in the world, at all.
Chude: But do you think the fact that you were picked on as a Jew, when you were younger with the Roman Catholic priest, encouraging people to beat you up, gave you empathy?
Gene: Maybe, but by the time I was going South, I certainly saw the struggle as being more class struggle than a religious one. I do believe that growing up in certain communities that your sense of righteousness maybe grew. I did grow up with a notion about what the Second World War was about. I did grow up with a notion that there was anti-Semitism. And I went to Brandeis which is a 90% Jewish college, maybe more, I don't know, but I remember even after college not being able to say — having these arguments with my father about whether I was Jewish or not. And he made the statement, which I think is absolutely right, which was, "You don't get to decide. They'll decide for you." And so it wasn't up to me to say I'm Jewish or not.
Bruce: A friend of mine, just yesterday we were talking a little bit about that, and he said, "Well, you'll know whether you're Jewish or not when the pogroms and the persecutions start by which direction you are running."
Gene: So I personally, like right now, Cathy you brought up today the certain sense of this stuff that's going on about anti-Semitism. I'm infuriated that this conversation is being defined by the people that I consider anti-Semites.
[Referring to charges of anti-Semitism against people who criticize Israel or support Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) activities against Israel — accusations made by Republican and Democratic Party Israel-supporters.]
Cathy: I'm not clear —
Gene: I'm talking about the people in Congress. So what's her name? [Rep. Rashida] Tlaib is being accused of being an anti-Semite. The people who are accusing her, many of them are [themselves] anti-Semites. They're conservative — To me, anti-Semitism comes out of Christianity.
Bruce: All right, get down! [Laughter]
Gene: That's my sense.
Bruce: Now we're talking!
Gene: That's my sense of where anti-Semitism comes from.
Marion: Yeah, the Old Testament and New one.
Gene: Exactly. And that even when I would hear Black people accused of being anti-Semites, it's not because of their race; it's because of their religion, those people who are that way. And I think people should be clear about that.
And I think when you have Arabs, Palestinians being attacked as anti-Semites — The whole notion of the Jewish people is something I don't agree with. I think it's not a valid notion. There is no Jewish people. There is a state of Israel, and those people in the state of Israel have a commitment to their country, as anybody might. But the Jewish people in the United States, who are they? Just like you were saying, you couldn't pick out who the Jewish people are and what they believe. And so I get offended by the notion that there is a Jewish people that you can define as having any position on anything, because amongst the Jewish people, there are people who are Communists; there are people who are Catholics; there are people who are Socialists; there are people who are reactionary. I mean, you can go the whole realm. I've known people who have Jews in their background or are themselves Jewish who represent all those different positions. And so I find it a very difficult discussion in terms of "the Jewish people."
Bruce: I disagree. Jews are a distinct group of people with a common cultural background and are so seen by almost everyone. It doesn't matter that amongst themselves there are a wide range of contending religious and political views. If you require that to be considered a "people" everyone has to agree on politics, religion, liberal vs reactionary, and so on, then there would be no "peoples" as such. By that definition there wouldn't be Latinos, or Afro-Americans, or Creoles, as distinct groups. There wouldn't be a Palestinian people either. But in real life, we all know that there are distinct peoples that can be thought of, and referred to, as a group.
Miriam: When I was in SNCC, I didn't know who was Jewish and who wasn't. I had no clue until maybe 40 years later at a reunion when it turned out that half the people that I met, who were white who were there, were Jewish. There was a reunion, and I couldn't be in any group of six or seven people, and there weren't Jewish [kids] there. So I didn't realize it at the time, of who was and who wasn't Jewish. But, I think my being Jewish made a huge difference in my desire to go and do that.
I had also been at Brandeis, and it turned out that there were a huge number — not a huge number, a huge percent of Brandeis women that went down, more than I would think any other college that I knew about. Anyway, I attribute this part in my Jewishness, that I grew up in the era after the Holocaust, and that "never again," and "if not me, who? If not now, when?" And just being different growing up. I mean, now I check the box that says white on all those forms. But I didn't feel part of the white community growing up. I was Jewish. That was different. So I think the reason I was there at all was hugely because of my Jewish background. I did belong to a Reconstructionist Conservative temple.
Gene: As a child?
Betty: In New York?
Miriam: No, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Bruce: Oy gevalt, as we would say.
Miriam: Yeah, I'll buy that. I had fasted on Yom Kippur starting when I was 12, although it wasn't required until you were 13. But I stopped fasting when I hit my freshman year at Brandeis, which I had gone to because it was a Jewish school. The trappings of the religion I left behind, but the moral authority of the religion I took with me.
Marion: So were you aware when you chose to be in the Movement, at the time, you were aware that you were Jewish and you were doing it because of your moral stand?
Miriam: I didn't probably think of it that way. I didn't say to myself, 'I'm going because I'm Jewish.' I'm going because I want to do something to make the world a better place, and the way I can be more effective is to be part of a movement that's trying to do that. I was equally interested in prison reform, in care for the mentally ill, but there was nothing happening that I could contribute to. That's how I — I said, 'Ah, the movement. I can make more of a difference than as one person.' Which was true.
Betty: I just had a couple of questions. I mean, I was raised in a very conservative Catholic/Lutheran family. I mean, I didn't know very much about Judaism or Jewish people or anything, but I did meet and become friends with a lot of Jewish people through the Movement. And even prior to that, out here in California, the two men I was partners with were both Jewish, one being Joe Schwartz who actually went to Hattiesburg a year later after I left, but his family was a Communist family. And so the question that I wrote down here was: How many white folks who went South were Jewish? Or Communist? Or both? And I don't know that we know that. I mean, I don't know if Jewish Women Going South really gets in — I know she did a lot of interviews, and she quoted people, but I don't know that she looked at a bigger picture of — So anyway, that's a question that I have.
Bruce: Well, at various times I've tried to find research about this because this keeps coming up. And if you're talking about whites who were summer volunteers with SNCC and CORE in '64 and '65 in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida and then the SCOPE project in six states in '65, my impression is that probably a quarter to a bit under half of the whites were Jewish. With the Mississippi Freedom Summer of '64 having the highest percentage — perhaps as high as 40-45% — and the SCOPE project the lowest, perhaps a quarter to a third. I think, though, if you looked at the percentage of whites who were SNCC or CORE field secretaries (as opposed to summer volunteers) the percentage of Jews would be higher — possibly half or more — while the percentage of whites on SCLC field staff who were Jews would be much lower. You probably also had a high proportion of white civil rights activists coming from deeply religious Christian background.
Jews at that time made up what? 3% or 4% of the total population? So there was clearly something there that does define a group of people that in some way, were different from other whites. But the Jews mostly came from cultural Jewish backgrounds, rather than deeply religious backgrounds. Their parents might (or might not) have been deeply religious, and the civil rights activist Jews might've been forced to go to synagogue as kids, but I don't think many of them saw themselves as practicing Jews. Whereas, the Christian religious activists tended more to be quite clearly religious.
Betty: Yeah, yeah. Like YCS, Young Christian Students and others.
Bruce: Bob Zellner, Harry Boyd —
Betty: Sure, sure.
Bruce: And you, Chude, you came out of a religiously Christian frame — And Marion too. Both came out of a seriously religious background. Whereas, the Jews came out of more of a culture.
Gene: See, I would ask also if there's the link with people in the Labor Movement. I mean, I don't think traditionally a lot of people thought of Jews being in the Labor Movement, yet certainly in unions like teaching and social work for many years. But the Communists, a lot of Jews who went into Alabama to organize were Jewish. So to me, one of the differences was I felt like the people who went to the South were people who believed in movements. You know, believed that by joining together you did things rather than as individuals you did things. However you learned that, I'm not sure.
Gene: But for me, going to the South or joining in the Movement was changing my frame of reference as I got out of college, for how you do something. For me, it was being a musician. How do you write music? How do you promote yourself? And there's something going on in the world that made me feel that that wasn't the way I wanted to be. I wasn't interested in myself as an individual. I got more interested in that there was something to deal with in the world and that you didn't do that by yourself. You joined together.
And I think the people who successfully managed to go South and remain there were people who were willing to be part of an organization and to do things in an organized way. I think individualists had a very difficult time, and I would say that overall. And I don't know whether you learn that better in Judaism than you do in Christianity or not, or where you learn that. But certainly there are people of all kinds who learn to work together with other people and people who don't.
We're trying to deal with a woman now who is a Quaker. She's a Quaker minister, and she does all these socially wonderful things, and she does them in ways that many of us feel are racist. And how do you break that down? Because when you start talking to her about it, she has all these defenses. 'Well, you know, I've gone to all these workshops, and I have this very broad view.' And yet, she still can be racist or her activities can.
Cathy: In what sense?
Gene: She has no respect for people of color. You know, when they present ideas to her, she always has to knock them down. She can't give acknowledgement to a person of color who is an artist who is struggling, even though she's not an artist, a woman who's an artist who is Black who's been asserting herself and becomes a painter, because she's too assertive. She doesn't see. She can't see the way she works in the community. So there are these conflicts that I don't understand, and they don't work, because I think of Quakers as being very broad-based in their notion of humanity. And here's an individual who can't.
So I would say in the Movement, I felt like most of the people were people who, even where I didn't necessarily like them individually, they were willing to work together and do things. I felt like, 'Wow, this is something you had to have a special way.' And I don't know where that came from. I'm not sure. I think our friend Venetia Ponds was trying to figure that out through her oral history thing.
Marion: I don't know how all this is going to fit in, but everything that the three of you, who say that you're Jewish — when you say Jewish, I can easily turn it around and say, 'You're speaking just like a Chinese.' For me, it took me awhile to figure out that the reason why I went to Mississippi could've been religious, but that really was the last thing that I would've said, even though it was because of the church that got me there. But I would never have thought about that, that was the most important part of me. And the reason why I think it's so deep. And my friends get mad at me when people ask me, when I go out to speak, and they're saying, 'What made you go?' And I said I was in my early 20s, and I was bored. And my friends are so angry at me. 'Marion, you were not just bored. You chose to go, and everybody else around you didn't choose to go.'
Cathy: That's right.
Marion: And so I had to really start thinking, really deeply. I can't just say I'm bored now, because I think that was a lot of it, being in my early 20s. But I had to really look at myself. Like I'm always curious about my Jewish friends who couldn't really get into it, and I couldn't get really into it. And then I realized it has something to do for me with being subjected to something that's unfair. It is my own psyche that's saying, 'You're a girl; you're not important; you don't exist; you were born and raised in Chinatown; it's a reservation; it's a forced boundary that you have to live in.' And nobody talked about it, but I felt it, right? Since I was born.
And so I think a lot has to do with, for me, and I'm picking this up with some of you in this room, that it is so deeply psychic in terms of how we grew up, that it becomes a part of my moralistic compass, that I have to be on one side or the other. And it's nothing that I can talk about; it's just how I felt. That I'm not going to go that way — no way. You know? I've got to do something about it.
And the most glaring was there was something happening in Mississippi. Nobody talked about there was something happening in Chinatown, because there was. But nationwide, something was happening in Mississippi. And I ended up there, because it's a human tragedy that I understood. And I wanted to see what that was all about, beyond the confines of Chinatown. And when you were talking, all of you, you know, 'I'm a Commie,' or 'I want to assimilate,' I was all of that. But I couldn't get away with it, because I can't come across as Jewish. But you have to look at me and say, 'OK, whether you like it or not, they're going to see you as a foreigner.' And I have to react according to that. So I had that to deal with. But going back to the Jewish thing, it's just all whites as far as I know. And I learned so much, the more I hear things like this, the more I realize that we're all coming from the same place. It's a very human place.
Bruce: See, I think you're raising something really important which is — we're talking about Jews who went South or something. Even if you limit it to our generation, the number of Jews who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, North or South, is infinitesimally tiny; point something percent. So we can't talk about —
Betty: Compared to what?
Bruce: Compared to anything. You know, I often read, 'Jews did all this in the Civil Rights Movement.' One percent or one-tenth of one percent of Jews did something in the Civil Rights Movement. The other 99.9% of Jews didn't do squat. But see, here's the thing, you could also then say, 'only an infinitesimal percentage of white Christians did squat in the Civil Rights Movement.' And that number for Christian is, as a proportion, as a relationship, much smaller than for the Jews.
So it seems to me that what brought any whites into the Civil Rights Movement was — we were the rebels. We were the troublemakers. I'm going to call my memoir, "Troublemaker." We were the ones who didn't accept the situation that we were put in, we resented it; we rebelled against it; we felt outside of it. And for some reason, statistically, the proportion of Jews who felt rebellious against society was higher than the proportion of white Christians who felt rebellious about the environment and the society they found themselves in. But we're still talking about some tiny tiny portion.
And let's be honest here, the percentage of Blacks who were active in SNCC and CORE or who went down to register to vote when it was a dangerous act of courage was always small too. So we're dealing here with very small numbers. I'll just say for me, I think probably the key thing is that we were the people who rebelled against and rejected the dominant situation.
Betty: I was just going to say that in terms of the Black community certainly, the base or the broad numbers of Black people who participated in some way, was partly because of their location, because it was their communities who were organizing and fighting for the right to vote, and so people had opportunities to take the risks that you had to take if you were going to demand your rights. So there was something.
Bruce: Yes, but even look at that. Selma, in terms of the breadth of participation by the Black community in the Movement, was probably one of the highest of any local communities. And because of the federal court order with the Appearance Book, there's an actual record of how many Black folk went down to try and register when it was dangerous. And it was less than 10% of the adult Black population in Dallas County.
Betty: Interesting. But you're talking about 10% of the Black population, but you're talking about point-zero-zero of the white Northern Christian or the white Jewish population. And certainly, as in the case of Bob Zellner, the white Southern Christians, it was point-zero-zero-zero. I don't know. But I thought of two things while we were talking. One, Marion when you were talking, I thought about Tamio Wakayama and Ed Nakawatase and Betita [Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez]. Why did they — ?
Marion: I don't know these people. I've never heard of them.
Betty: Oh, OK. So Tamio and Ed were SNCC Field Secretaries, and they were Japanese. And so they left — And I don't know enough about their background to know, but they both came South. They picked up and moved. And Betita too. Well, Betita had been in New York working for Simon & Schuster. First, she had worked for the U.N., and then she worked for Simon & Schuster. She put The Movement book together, so she saw the images and all of that. And then she came South in the Summer of '64. I think she went back to New York [and edited Letters from Mississippi].
Anyway, the point is why were they — as non-white, non-Black people — what was it that compelled them forward so that they got involved? Now I know Tamio had a concentration-camp story. I don't know most of his story, and he recently passed away. And I don't know if his story is written. Is there stuff written? And Ed Nakawatase, I think he's still living. He worked for American Friends Service Committee in Pennsylvania for a long time. But that's a question. What attracted non-white, non-Black people?
Bruce: Maria Varela would be another.
Betty: Maria Varela. But she had one — well actually, Betita and Maria Varela had one white parent. Maria had a Colombian father, I guess. And Betita had a Mexican father.
Chude: Well, and in '64, the summer, Karl Se-Keung "Imiola" Young was ethnic Chinese from Hawaii. He was on our project. He was also from our college. And he [now] has a name I can't pronounce that he eventually took, from Hawaiian. But I was just looking. I just wrote down the ones from Carleton, because oddly enough, Carleton supposedly had the highest percentage of people that went in summer of '64. It's a small school, but there were seven of us. I mean, it's an odd statistic that I don't know where I heard it from. [Laughter]
Betty: But you had an active Friends of SNCC chapter at Carleton.
Miriam: Wait. I want to find out about that. How many students did Carleton have?
Miriam: OK, Brandeis had 1200. And there were way more than that.
Chude: That summer?
Miriam: Oh goodness, yes.
Chude: Well, I don't know who told me that, but I will stop saying it. OK? [Laughter]
Cathy: Well, one of the reasons that there were the seven [from Carleton] was that you and I went to Spelman as exchange students.
Chude: Well, and Marsha. There were three of us who were exchange students [from 1962-1964].
Betty: So that was the connection for you.
Cathy: And we brought Frank Smith and the Freedom Singers to Carleton.
Chude: Well, anyway, there were seven of us. One was Jewish, five were white, and then one was Chinese-Hawaiian.
Gene: So you don't consider Jews white.
Chude: Just because we're having this discussion here. But no, Debbie, was always — I always knew Debbie was Jewish. Definitely. She always thought I was very interesting with my little cross, and the only reason she gave me any time of day is because she had known somebody Jewish who had gone to the same school I had. No, we would laugh about these things. But anyway, the point being that so, of the group that went down [South] at least, one of seven was Jewish, and except for Karl of course, we were all either white or Jewish-white. And interestingly enough, mostly female. You know, two men and five women.
Cathy: And I want to add at this point that I was white and not Jewish, but I wasn't Christian either. I was a Unitarian, and being a Unitarian was very much a part of how I got in the Movement.
Marion: I think it's Christian.
Cathy: It's not Christian. Well, for many of us it's not Christian. There may be some who do claim that. So, you know, there were things in 1957 that happened in Memphis, Tennessee at our Unitarian church, interracial things, that were the beginnings of me ending up in Mississippi. So just to add a little.
Gene: Why don't we talk about percentages female? What percentage of volunteers were women?
Betty: Who's written the definitive book on [summer] volunteers.
Bruce: That would be Doug McAdam's book (Freedom Summer. He has those stats.
Woman: I think it was very large.
Gene: That's why I'm curious. I mean, as we talk about these things, what are the different things that lead people to go. We haven't talked about —
Bruce: I think it may have been over 50%, but it wasn't like 60%.
Chude: Gene has now brought up the question also of gender, which I think is very important. I think it's so interesting about the number of women who went and what motivated us in the various ways, because if Bruce is talking about being rebels, we all are rebels at an even more significant level because we're going against the whole status quo of how women should be at that point. Never were you supposed to be on a project with no chaperones. I mean, really.
Cathy: And we became rebels as part of the early Women's Movement. Subsequently.
Gene: So I want to integrate the first idea that I had about this discussion, about essentially the views of racism. And so because it seems to me a lot of the reasons that people went South had to do with their views of racism and whether it was the view that the South represented — as a whole — this racist place in which a Black population was rising [up], and we were going as allies or whatever you wanted to determine we were, to participate in that struggle against what was seen as a racist state. Which I think many people defined the South as being a different kind of racist state than where they were coming from.
Betty: That's true.
Gene: And while, in many ways it was, there are other ways it wasn't. And so how come it was that while we decided we would take on that struggle, which was a very direct confrontation with racism in the South, whereas we didn't think we would take it on in the same way in the North. And I pose it now, because I feel like we're coming again to a point of having to talk about racism very directly, because there's a lot of implied racism in a lot of the issues going on today. And a lot of white people who consider themselves non-racists are on one side, and a lot of the rest of us are on another. And so the question to me has become, how do you raise the issues of racism today in ways that people will understand it. When in the South, we were in very direct confrontation, but we don't seem to approach it in the same way now. And how should we do it? Or what lessons did we learn?
Cathy: Well, before we get into that, I just want to say, back in the '60s, those of us who did come from the South, the whites who were allies who had lived in the South, we didn't think the South was the only place that was racist.
Bruce: And I would follow up and agree with that. If you look at the statistics in McAdams' book and the statistics that were developed out of the SCOPE project a year later, over half of the summer volunteers had had some Civil Rights activity in the North before they went South
Betty: In the North, fighting racism in the North? Or supporting the sit-in students?
Bruce: One or the other, or most likely a combination of both. Thinking about Friends of SNCC, was it really that — ? I mean I know the Friends of SNCC chapters I was familiar with, both up here in the Bay Area and in L.A., yes, they were supposed to only be doing support work for the South, but boy, they sure showed up on the picket lines, the CORE picket lines and the sit-ins and stuff. The majority of summer volunteers had been active in the North. So, bottom line, I don't think it accurate to sum up the northern whites who went South as whites who were unable to see racism in their own back yards or unwilling to confront it — for some, yes, true that. But for many others, not so.
Gene: I don't disagree with that. I mean, I was part of that. We had school integration fights here and the fair-housing stuff, fair-housing was from Proposition 14. But I don't think we saw it in the same way as we saw the fight in the South. And I don't think we tried — In the South we were very clear about who the enemy was or who we were fighting with. Here, I feel like we didn't take it on in the same way.
Chude: I think that's true. Look at me, I didn't even have a clue about it. I didn't know what redlining was. I didn't know that there was discrimination against African-Americans where I grew up. I didn't know there was a Black community across the river up on a hill. That was another state and those kids didn't go to school with us. On our side of the river in Pennsylvania there was one black family in the public school.
And at Carleton, I didn't have a clue. We had just a few — before I went South, just one Black student in my class. And all I knew when I got to know him afterwards was how hard it was for him, like he had to go up to St. Paul to get his hair cut, because there was no place he could. I mean, there were those kinds of things, but there was no discussion, for me at Carleton about racism. In Minnesota, people would refer to it as being racism against Native Americans.
Betty: So when I left SNCC and went North, both to D.C. and Baltimore, I lived in Boston for one year, and I was shocked at how uninterested people were in what the struggle in the South was about. Radical friends of mine who were into factory organizing, which I did as well, but I think that we — and maybe I shouldn't say "we" — the Movement, the political understanding about the structures in the North were not lifted up or made as evident and as clear as we had lifted up the structures in the South.
So today, when we read stuff about white supremacy and we see how completely embedded it is in all of the structures, it is South and North, East, West, whatever. And I love it that we see all these amazing Black scholars who have lifted up all of this information and shown how pervasive white supremacy was and how much the wealth of the country is based on those privileges and those opportunities. Like, The Half Has Never Been Told, which is amazing, or what's Ibram Kendi's book, which I'm forgetting the name of? All of those books which are —
Bruce: The Color of Law is another one. About housing segregation.
Betty: Yeah, that's a really great book. And the first chapter is about San Francisco, and it blows you away to read about San Francisco as an absolutely racist housing landscape in the '40s and the '50s, and you're like, 'Whoa! I thought San Francisco was progressive and liberal!'
So I think the fact that all of this information is now available and out, it does make me wonder why people that I was in community with in the mid-'60s or at least '70s why — one, they were totally uninterested in SNCC or the South,
Betty: [The other thing is] why class — ? I mean, my friends were in the radical socialist movement, and so class was put forward but not race. So anyway, I love it that we have — what we are learning today and how deep and powerful the scholarship and the political organizing is today, to show these impacts.
Cathy: Don't you think there was a sense of competition, of whether considerations of class or race are more important?
Betty: Oh yeah, and there still is. Yeah, I think that that's true. I think that's true. Instead of both/and. Yeah, yeah.
Gene: But that existed back then too.
Cathy: That's what I'm talking about is back then.
Gene: Because I remember bringing that up in, I don't know whether it was on our Mississippi project or something, and people said, 'We're not talking about [class].' I seem to recall saying, 'Why aren't we talking about class more? All of these people are part of the lower — ' And it was like a resistance to talking about that.
Bruce: That was certainly true in the southern projects I worked on in Alabama and Mississippi. We avoided explicitly talking about class. I don't know why others avoided it, but for myself it was out of fear of exposing the Movement to red-baiting. The white power-structure was constantly accusing the Freedom Movement of being Reds, and Communist-led, and Soviet agents, and all that crap. And we all knew we were under constant surveillance and snitches reported (and misreported) everything we did and said. So I was afraid that raising class as an issue and even uttering words like "class," "workers," "exploitation" would be used to attack the Movement and divide it.
Marion: But I think we've graduated. I think it's good that you brought it up, Cathy, that class and race go hand and hand. You know, I think it's easier for us to see that, not as two separate things anymore.
I think the one thing that I think is different now than it was when we were in the Deep South is I think the temperament of the African-American community, because of the higher education they are achieving now, and the more they are in positions of leadership in government and politics, I think I'm seeing a change. I'm seeing that they are challenging the white establishment in more of equal terms rather than lower and higher, and even though the mentality of slavery is still in a lot of people's minds, we're seeing in media so much more and in education, the field of education, that there are leaders there that are going to hopefully turn something around. But I can feel the balance is very different than in the '60s.
Chude: Class, I know. I'm thinking Gene, when you raised class in the South, I'm remembering your 1965 interview. And I'm remembering you raising this question of the landowning African-Americans in your community looking down on the sharecroppers. Looking down on them, saying that if only they'd saved their money and not gone out dancing and drinking. I mean, the implication was that they were squandering their money. Even though, as you said, one of the men you were talking to, he had inherited his land. So that dynamic, that class dynamic, is there. And I didn't understand class when I was in the South, but I sure as hell understood it at Spelman, very quickly, that there were a lot of people at Spelman who had no interest in the poor. They were only interested in getting their fancy car and the this and the that.
Bruce: And not being poor themselves however they had to do that.
Chude: And not being poor. And you get that whole debate that still interests me about when SNCC workers were to come onto the Spelman and Morehouse campuses, and should they or shouldn't they have worn their overalls? And Miss Baker having one position [opposing the coveralls because they would alienate the faculty and students they were trying to obtain support for SNCC from], but very much at the SNCC conference in the spring of '64 I went to that workshop, where they were talking about it, and the SNCC workers saying, "No." You know, how can we recruit people that don't want to identify with the poor? And I mean I heard insults. You know, it's not like everybody who was Black identified with everybody else who was Black.
Cathy: I want to add that I — let's see how to say this. I was very aware of class as well as race in the '60s because I came from an upper middle class and upper class background. And my mother had taught me what class meant for better and worse, that that was her background. So it can happen that way, you know?
Betty: I was aware of class, but I don't think I thought about it when I was in the South. But I was aware of class because in my family, my parents were the first in their family to go to college, so they both came from working class backgrounds, and my father was a scientist, so he got catapulted into the upper middle class probably. I don't really know. But so they were nervous in their new class. They didn't feel that they fit.
And my mother was always denigrating those things about my grandparents that represented their working class background. And I grew up really angry about the way my mother put people who were working class down. And I had a Mexican godmother, and my mother used to call her a "dirty wetback." And I was like, 'Wait, I love her. What's that about?' So that was my race experience before I became active in the Movement or went to college and supported the sit-ins and all of that.
But yeah, there was that tension, of people moving into the middle class whose families had that split and wanted you to be proper and prim, and I rebelled against the proper prim stuff. I didn't want a new dress. I didn't want to have my whatever tied correctly or my hair fixed correctly. I was rebelling against that crap. But there was a lot of class stuff in that.
Cathy: And you're reminding me that if we want to bring the women part into it —
Betty: Definitely, definitely.
Cathy: You know, my family was living in Memphis, because my father got transferred there as an engineer to help make better mechanical cotton pickers. Which meant that Black people had to lose their jobs.
So we're living in Memphis in an upper middle class neighborhood, and a Black woman comes to work for my mother. I can't remember how it was, but she just kind of appeared. And my mother said, 'Yeah, OK.' And this woman named Mary was the head of her family. She led her family. And this blew my mother's mind. And my mother loved it. And my mother passed that on to us, and my younger brothers and sisters would go and visit at Mary's house and stay with Mary's Black family. So they got this whole other experience, starting in the '50s. I couldn't go because I was too old, and it would be too dangerous for the Black family to have me there.
Betty: To have an older white child there? Teenaged white child.
Bruce: Teenaged white girl.
Betty: Yeah, teenaged white girl. Yeah, yeah. I understand.
Gene: See, I find it so hard. I'm trying to think how you figure these things out. How all these different things, which in some cases seem contradictory, play out. Because I think about with a lot of the Jewish people that I grew up with, the class thing was a very funny thing, because it was between being — there was sort of, among the people I knew, a disrespect for business people but a great respect for intellectuals.
Now, I grew up knowing that, and then I learned how traditional that was. Going back years, the height or what was considered for many Jewish people to be the highest form of being Jewish was to be a Talmudic scholar. So to study the Talmud was something you did 24 hours a day, or as many hours you were awake, which meant of course that you couldn't earn any money or earn a living because you were being this scholar all the time and that was the highest representation of being a Jew. But to survive, a scholar had to be married to someone who was in business, where there was money. And so my mother would tell me about her cousin Max who I guess he was supposed to be the scholar, and so the woman he married came from a business family. But he was always totally disrespectful of her, because she was a business person. [Laughter]
Miriam: She was also a female.
Cathy: Was she a business person?
Gene: Well yeah, she came from a business family.
Cathy: Well, she came from a business family, but she wasn't a business person because she was a woman. [Laughter]
Gene: But all I'm saying is that the notion was that you had this business thing which was to support these other people who were supposed to be the scholars. Which was also the role of the woman to support the person who could go sit alongside God, while the women sat upstairs [referring to gender-segregated seating in some synagogues].
So you had these kind of confusing contradictory notions because the scholars were supposed to be, in many ways, presented as very progressive. You know, you could find writings on the way you were supposed to treat women. I mean, when I would raise it, those were always very respectful. And so in the Talmud there are all these things that are supposed to be leading in that direction; whereas in actuality, it's doing the opposite. So I feel that that takes place in all of us in a way. You know, you bring up these things. And like your mother, I mean when you say your godmother is a Mexican whom your mother obviously chose her as the godparent and then denigrates her. How do you explain that? What's the logic? And so I tend to think there may be a lot of ways we are that are also illogical.
Betty: And we'll only know it in hindsight when our kids write about it, right? [Laughter]
Gene: But it's true that at points you make choices, and those choices aren't always as backed up by rationality as one would like to think they are.
Bruce: No, they're backed up by rationalizations. [Laughter]
Gene: When I read that a kid that I didn't like very much as a kid was a Freedom Rider, I thought, 'Wow, if he could be a Freedom Rider, I certainly ought to have been one.' You know? But it was out of a sort of competitiveness from childhood that I felt that way, but yet, I really did believe that.
So how do you take on that fight in those ways? And how do you recognize it in the people that you may be trying to organize? Or people that you're trying to change their minds about how they look at things. You have to figure out the way to point out how just wrong it is that they think that way. You can't logically do it. I mean, I think that's — You express that a lot, I feel like, and I think sometimes that when I hear you [Marion] talk about your Buddhism, that you have an expectation that people should recognize —
Marion: I didn't realize it was Buddhist, but go ahead. [Laughter]
Gene: OK, well maybe it isn't. Maybe I'm projecting that. That you see that in people. I don't always see that in people. I don't always feel like I can have that expectation that people can do this because it's really within them to do it.
Marion: Yeah, I mean it's interesting how we are struggling with our psyches. And I think maybe you're hitting on something that's important, that it's the moment, the spur of the moment, that when you decide you're going to take this road instead of the other road, and who knows?
I didn't know that I was going to end up in Mississippi. I was in a school in Nebraska, a church-related school in Nebraska, and this professor of religion was talking about his experience called the Delta Ministry. And he [had] just came out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I mean, I don't know how many of us who had graduated from that college at that semester, but there were two of us, a classmate and I, and in the spur of the moment, I felt like when he was talking, I felt like I belonged there. And I don't know why.
I mean, it's a moral compass. I kept thinking about myself. It was the right opportunity at that moment, at that split moment that I decided I'm going. And I can't figure it out. It's not rational. It just happened. The opportunity was there, and I just happened to take it. I may not have taken it, and I would've ended up not being here and just meeting here.
Bruce: But only two out of your whole graduating class of what 200 or 300 do you think?
Marion: Yeah, something like that.
Betty: But that's a pretty good percentage given —
Chude: Yeah, but I think that there's two things. One is there's that way in which someone spoke, and in some kind of way it touched your heart. There was some kind of way you were touched.
Marion: And I was open to it.
Chude: Yes, but it's also not rational. I didn't think I was going to go to Mississippi originally from Spelman. I didn't think I was ready to. I mean, I was so overwhelmed with how much I needed to learn. But I was recruited. I was recruited by the person who was going to run the Freedom Schools. And so it was like, 'Oh, if he thinks I'm OK, then I don't need another year of figuring out what it means to be white,' which is what I was learning at Spelman.
So I think that's part of it, is the timing and part of it is the heart thing. I mean, where you go, who touches you, who just opens you up. But just to be cynical too, there's a line that gets said sometimes about how many girls got involved in the Movement because of guys.
Gene: Miriam is grimacing. [Laughter]
Bruce: And blushing. [Laughter]
Betty: Who recruited you, Miriam? [Laughter]
Miriam: I will comment on that after you're finished. [Laughter]
Chude: Well, the thing is, my story is that in the fall of my freshman year at Carleton my best friend's boyfriend invited her to come up to Minneapolis to join him on a demonstration against fallout shelters. He was one of the organizers and had to go up early. She didn't want to go alone, so she asked me to go with her. That was my first demonstration and I wasn't against fallout shelters!
But on the picket line alone, since my friend had gone off with her boyfriend, a very interesting and attractive Carleton upper classman started talking to me. He raised the question that made me a radical. "Do you want to live in a world where only the rich survive or do you want to work for a world where everyone can live?" That was the moment. And when I said I wanted a world where everyone could live, he invited me to come to the next meeting of Carleton's Action Party. You know, I have wondered whether I would have gone if I hadn't been attracted to him! However, once there, I stayed and, in fact, he didn't come back after the winter break.
But the person who recruited me was adorable. You know, I always make that point. I mean, I wonder, 'Would I have gone to Action Party if I hadn't thought that this red-headed man who had talked to me and raised the question that made me a radical? 'Do you want to live in a world where only the rich live? Or do you want to live in a world where everyone has a right to live?' That was the moment. But would I have even been in conversation with him if he'd been a funny looking nerd? I don't know.
So I mean, I think there is that whole complex number of things. I mean, I never saw — the guy didn't come back after the semester break.
Marion: But you were in your 20s, right?
Chude: No. I was 18.
Marion: Eighteen, OK. You know, that period of our lives, we're ready for anything.
Miriam: OK, so when I went South into Mississippi, there was already an attitude that white women were coming down for sex with the Black field secretaries, and I found that very insulting.
Betty: Yes — No, I agree. I agree. That was insulting.
Cathy: For me, there was a part of the truth in it. I mean, my first lover was a Black man who was active in SNCC.
Miriam: But did you go down to find — ?
Cathy: No, but —
Betty: But you were open to having that involvement.
Cathy: I was just really glad when it happened. And it happened some other times after that.
Miriam: But the point is, you did not go to Mississippi and join the Movement in order to find Black men to have sex with —
Bruce: Yeah, that's the canard. That's the myth.
Chude: I hated Carleton. The only interesting people were the radicals. I wasn't a radical. My father had been for Nixon. I loved my father. I was for Nixon. My mother didn't tell us who she voted for, you know, which turned out to be Kennedy. But so, you know, the point being —
Betty: She didn't dare tell your father.
Chude: That's right. She just said it was a secret ballot. But the point is I didn't go [to Carleton as a] radical, but that's who the interesting people were. They were the ones who weren't just interested in getting good marks but were actually interested in what was happening in the country and the world. So that's what got me. If I'd gone to a school where the interesting people were the very religious —
Betty: The right wing or whatever.
Chude: Or even just the devout Christians, I might have gone in a slightly different way, but that's not where they were. The Christians were conservatives at Carleton, except my favorite professor. Bruce: Chude, you said that when you went to Carleton the only interesting people were the radicals. But is that because the only interesting people at Carleton were radicals? Or because radicals were the ones you found interesting? There may have been interesting people who wanted to be car salesmen and business tycoons, and people other than you might have found that interesting and would've thought, 'Oh, the only interesting people in Carleton are the ones who want to be preachers.' Or bankers or something.
Betty: I think he's saying you were attracted to that.
Bruce: Yes. I think you were attracted to people who were rebels or misfits or challenging the dominant paradigm, something like that.
Chude: I think that's true.
Bruce: And I think that would be true in a lot of places.
Chude: And now, looking back on the class that I graduated with, a number of people have done really amazing progressive things in various ways. And one woman who I saw a few years ago, she had ended up taking a group of carpenters down to Nicaragua during the struggles there to build housing. And what she told to me was that she wasn't ready to do that in '64 or '65. I mean, she did it later.
And I've thought about that a lot, because that's another question. People may not be ready at a particular moment. So how we organize, especially Gene around the question of racism, how we do things can make a difference so that when they are ready, what they've carried with them is the best of what we could offer rather than the worst.
Cathy and I have talked at times about the put-downs and the ways in which [accusations of] 'you're a racist, you're a bad person' does nothing to help people take the next step. All it does is —
Betty: Entrench them.
Chude: It happened to us in the Women's Liberation Movement. You'd see it [when someone said] 'White women are racist.' And here's a woman who has no experience with people of color and yet she knows very clearly about sexism, and she's being told, 'You don't count, because you're a racist.' She's going to put up defense mechanisms. She's not gonna open up and say, 'Oh, tell me about this.' So it's a different way of approaching it.
The one thing I'd add there is that a Lakota medicine woman I know, we were once talking, and she said, 'People connect around their pain.' So that means not saying, as we did at the late '60s and early '70s, 'Your oppression is not as bad as other oppression.' 'You're more privileged.' You know, 'You don't count because you've had these advantages.' 'Our oppression is worse.' It's probably not as effective as, 'Being subjected to racism hurts. What in your life have you been subjected to that hurts?' And that's where we connect.
Marion: You know, I think you're talking about validation too. While you were talking, Chude, I was thinking of — Gene, do you remember that moment at Berkeley High where you were not one of the speakers, but you were close by in the front? And during the question and answer period, there was a Black student, female student, who said something, and for some reason, you felt the urge, and you were not in the panel. I could've said something, but I didn't. You jumped in, and you gave her some validation. You said something to her. Do you remember that?
Chude: You're one of my heroes. Right?
Marion: And you were validating her to a point where she was crying. She just fell apart in a very beautiful way. And it changed her. It probably changed her for hopefully in the long term. But that was a beautiful moment. And these are the moments that I think we don't know if it's going to happen, but we were, all of us were on the same page. And we were working together as a team. And somehow it just clicked. And I hope that there were more clicks there throughout that day for a lot of people that we never know.
But I think for me, I tried to come out of there saying to myself, 'The time that I spent in those schools, was I focused on myself? Was I focused on justice? And people's pain?' It's like what Chude was saying. And if I was focused, I did my job, and whatever happens is going to happen. And it's not going to be bad, because I did my best. And I felt like that was a very important moment for me to witness. Or the other times that I've gone with all of you, the times that you and I went the first few times, those were really important to me, because I could feel the energy from the kids and from each other. Cathy and I were doing this for my very first time, and I just felt that energy, and I felt like I did my best for that day.
Cathy: I have a question. What do you mean when you say 'focused on yourself'?
Marion: Gosh, how do I say this? That I was expressing as clear as I could about justice and about fairness and about —
Cathy: But when you say 'focused on yourself,' do you mean focused on your experiences?
Marion: My experiences and how I articulate that. For me, it's very different. I mean, I don't have any public speaking classes. I've never taken anything, and here I am supposed to talk about something that I was not raised to do? And all of a sudden in my 50s and 60s I'm supposed to say things that I don't understand? That has to come from my inner being, and that's really strange for me. So that was a challenge.
Cathy: I just wanted to be clear that you weren't saying focused on yourself like in a — what's the word?
Cathy: Self-aggrandizing way. You mean focused on your thinking and your values.
Marion: Yeah, expressing myself. I mean, it's a wording process —
Chude: I just wanted to say something in summing up. I mean, I go back to the thing about being white allies, and then in Marion here is also a Chinese-American ally. But we're talking about being allies in the Southern Freedom Movement, and I just wanted to be on a positive note. In the sense that, of course, we all experienced the period of separatism and were asked — either nicely or not nicely — to go work in the white communities or other communities but at least to leave the Black struggle.
I've mentioned it before, the experience Cathy and I had when we organized an event for Jim Foreman in 1990. We vets were just beginning to get together. And he was coming out, and as it turned out, the only people that were free to take Jim to speak at an African American studies class at Berkeley were Cathy and myself. And Cathy and I were like, 'Oh my God!' And we take him, and we sit in the back, and we try to be as invisible as possible, because this is just beginning where we're reconnecting. And the first thing Jim does is introduce us. [Laughter]
Betty: That was Jim. That was totally Jim.
Chude: I mean, the idea was, here we were, like, 'Oh my God. We're white in this room. Oh dear!' And he's like, 'Look! Here are these people!' He didn't use the word "ally," but it's what he was saying. And then we went and had lunch with him,
Betty: Freedom Fighters, yeah.
Chude: Here are these people who came down and worked in the Movement. And I think, again, just in terms of this question about allies and also racism is to give people acknowledgement for what they do and not just jamb them for where they're wrong or bad or weak or whatever. It's really important, because we're talking about a long struggle, and we're talking about wanting to have unity, even if we're working in different groupings and subjects or focuses. We still need that thing of acknowledging.
Gene: But I'm uncomfortable with the word allies —
Betty: I am too. Totally.
Gene: Because I think it's our struggle. I'm not doing this for someone else. I'm doing it because I think our lives depend on it, and that's what I felt in the South as well. I felt that what we were doing, our survival depended on being involved. And not because it was someone else's struggle. It was our struggle. And I felt that up here all the time. And I don't feel connected to those people who feel like they're doing it because they're helping someone else's struggle. If you're not in it for yourself, you're not going to be in it.
Bruce: Such a Jewish concept. [Laughter]
Cathy: I feel like it's "both/and."
Marion: Me too.
Gene: But all I'm saying is I don't feel comfortable just being defined as an ally. I don't feel like I behaved that way. I think, to me, being an ally in that way has a little bit of self-righteousness and the white privilege. 'I'm above all this. I'm really helping you out. I'm your ally.'
Chude: So what word would you use when you talk about being part of a Black-led movement, and you're not Black?
Gene: I can be part of a Black-led movement. I don't need to be part of a white-led movement. I mean, I think that's part of the racist question for white people is, 'Can you take leadership from non-white people?' And I think that those of us who joined SNCC and the — especially SNCC, I felt that much more. Even though there were Blacks in leadership of other groups, I didn't feel it was the same. But in SNCC, I felt like you were really committing to Black leadership.
Betty: And one of the things that we talk about in SURJ is mutual interest, and then the language that's being used by young white people and young Black people is 'accomplices' as opposed to 'allies.'
Cathy: That's a great word!
Betty: If you google 'accomplice or ally,' you'll come up with some of the writing that young people are doing about that, and it is; it goes right back to what Gene just said, that your interest is in seeing this transformative change and getting rid of racism. Otherwise, the country is not going to survive; our communities are not going to survive; and we aren't, because we're going to be infected by these oppressive conditions which means, first they came for the Communists, and then they came for the Jews, and then they're gonna come for you.
So it means, and I don't know if I transposed that, but it means that we're all vulnerable, and that's why I joined the Movement is because I believed. I was a grad student here; we read about social movements through history, and Black people were the only ones who hadn't completely assimilated and capitulated to the system. And I still believe that our hope for today is in the radical Black tradition, and that doesn't mean that every person in the Black community is feeling that same way. But I feel like our hope for today, the transformative hope for the country, is in the people of color communities and especially the Black community.
Marion: Gene, your idea of being allies, for me personally, maybe I don't understand that term, but I like it only in the sense that I see from an Asian-American point of view that the Asians need to be less self-serving and to be more out there partnering with other people who are victims, the same way that Asian-Americans as minorities see themselves. And I feel like personally my purpose, my excitement, my inspiration when I speak to Asian groups is to say we need to be allies. We need to be up there in front of the television, in front of the White House talking about the deportation of Muslims, because we've been deported. What's happening to African-Americans is not right, and we need to be out there. And to me, that's being allies. But maybe it's the wrong term.
Chude: We need to do this [discussion] again with Ron, because the whole reason I use 'ally' is because of Ron saying at one of those panels, 'I just realized these are my allies!'
Chude: All the rest of us were white, and it was like, 'Oh, OK.' I mean, with such exuberance! So let's not make a decision about this alone. Let's have another discussion when Ron can be a part of it and take it on, further.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Bruce: At our last meeting in March, we had a taped discussion about allies, the concept of allies. And part of that was people said, 'Well, you know, Ron talks a lot about allies, and it's too bad he's not at this meeting.' So we said, 'Oh, well we should continue the discussion at the next meeting.'
I remember that Gene, you and Betty had raised something about people don't like the term "allies," and they prefer "accomplices."
Chude: The idea being that allies implies you don't have a self interest in the struggle.
Ron: Why don't you just go to "comrades" and be done with it. [General laughter]
Cathy: Well, there were reasons —
Bruce: I can't imagine what [General laughter]
Ron: I see articles about socialist America and how it's moving. Apparently the Chicago mayor election was about socialism.
Gene: Oh, you read those things too from the DSA? [General laughter]
Ron: No, this is something called — I'll have to look at my phone. It's a newsletter I get which I don't read all the time. They have an interesting article here and there. They are some kind of progressive thing.
Gene: Portside. That was a DSA article. [General laughter]
Ron: What is the DSA?
Gene: Democratic Socialists of America.
Ron: Oh my God. Good, I didn't read it.
Cathy: What if we used the word "supporters?"
Marion: What's wrong with "allies?"
Ron: I picked "allies" because the kids used allies. I got that from them.
Cathy: What kids?
Ron: High school, junior high.
[Referring to students at schools where Freedom Movement veterans have been invited to speak.]
Cathy: When? What years?
Ron: Now. I mean, now.
Ron: I go into Longfellow where Diane works over here in Berkeley. The middle school. They had signs up. 'Be an ally. If you see somebody being picked on or abused, whatever it is, speak up.' And so when I started listening to them, I thought, 'Oh, these folks were our allies.' That was all. That was my epiphany. And I thought that when I talked to kids about it, they might have a better view of what's possible, because we've already done what's possible. That a small group of white supporters, comrades, whatever, can make a huge difference at a strategic moment and place.
Cathy: Well, I'm at a point in my life where I'm very aware of how words are used. And what I get from the word — what we were just saying about allies was back in the '60s. "Allies," for some of us, like for some of us whites, it had the implication that we weren't Black; we weren't really the — we didn't have as much right to make decisions, things like that. We were not being —
Ron: That's still true.
Cathy: That was primary for us, and a lot of us had to kind of get used to it and go along with it. But you know, it wasn't our — it wouldn't have been our first choice. OK, but now — now, I hear you say that the young people, the historical place we're at now is that to be a white person who is supporting the effort as an ally, 'Hey, he's an ally!' So, it depends on the connotation and the historical time it's being used in.
Bruce: So I think you're right.
Ron: I do want to say this. I can be an ally to the Women's Movement, but I don't get to decide [on what the Women's Movement does or doesn't do].
Bruce: It seems to me that connotation over influence, leadership, decision-making power is what we're struggling with here. For me, the connotation of "ally" is not so much who gets to decide in terms of strategy and goals and stuff as who has some self interest in the struggle. So for me the roots of the word "ally" go back — because I'm a history nut — to World War II where the "Allies" were Britain, American and the Soviet Union —
Cathy: I love it!
Bruce: — all of whom were fighting the Nazis and all of whom had a clear self-interest in winning that war. But that didn't imply that one ally had the authority to dictate tactics & strategy to the others — though of course they did discuss, negotiate, and often bitterly dispute with each other.
Marion: Actually, that's what I remember. That's the first word, yeah.
Bruce: But that was a kind of ally in which each nation was clearly sovereign and acting out of their self-interest as they saw it and exercising whatever power they had to influence the other allies. The Soviet Union desperately wanted and needed a second front against Germany but Churchill resisted and opposed it and sabotaged it as long as he could.
Cathy: Right, right.
Bruce: But for us, as allies of a particular social struggle — like a woman's struggle, a Black struggle — there's a connotation of hierarchy in terms of decision making because the women or the African-Americans have far more at risk and are the initiators. But we're still allies, just in a slightly different way from the example of World War II.
Ron: But to say that you don't have skin in the game, I don't find to be correct. The white people who came to Mississippi, whatever they were allied with, it changed their lives.
Bruce: Exactly. I'm saying we did have skin in the game. But that there was (and is) differences in degree — and in knowledge and understanding.
Bruce: And we [whites] were there because we also felt that our adversaries — the Klan and the right wing and the Republicans and the power structure — oppressed us too — to a less immediate degree. So that while we were allies it wasn't exactly in the same way as the countries who fighting against the Nazis.
Ron: But I don't believe that the folks — now y'all went South, but I don't believe that y'all thought beforehand, 'I'm going down there to save ourselves.' Because that's a nexus point. I think y'all really did come as warriors for us. No?
Marion: I think that's true.
Bruce: I think that's true for a lot of people. I didn't feel it was true for me, because I came from a leftist —
Ron: So from a leftist point of view, where were you?
Bruce: I saw it as I was allying myself with the people who were leading the fight against these I hated, those who I felt had been fucking with me and my family all our lives. That the people who were currently leading that fight were Black folks. That their enemies were my enemies and that by supporting their struggle I was —
Ron: You were like the people who went to Spain, huh?
[Referring to volunteers from many nations who went to Spain in the late 1930s to fight alongside the Spanish people against the fascists who were overthrowing a democratically elected government.]
Bruce: Yeah, in a sense. The international brigades obeyed the leadership of the Spanish resistance — but they did have a respected voice, they could, and did, offer their opinions.
But you're right that some — many — of the white volunteers came down to help Black people, not realizing that they themselves had skin in the game. That's true for a lot of the volunteers. I know that the next year, during SCLC's SCOPE Summer Project most of the volunteers in Crenshaw County where I was had that kind of, "I'm here to help poor Black people" kind of approach to life. Although once they got a full taste of Crenshaw County, they swiftly began to see things differently. So I think that among the summer volunteers in the three years there were summer projects, there was probably a very wide range.
Ron: In fact, I was thinking very much — Chude, when you went South, you had maybe some years of preparation, by your experience working at Carleton, certainly being at Spelman in Atlanta, and so you go into Mississippi, and you did have a much wider context for this. I, on the other hand, I just saw Marion Barry once, and he said, "Come." I was like, OK, I'll do it." I was Black and American, that was my context.
Cathy: Yeah, well you'd had your whole life.
Ron: But I didn't have any ideology really, you know? I didn't really understand what was going on. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't tell you what it was until I got to Mississippi.
Miriam: And then you went in to Starkville with a Jewish guy from New York.
Ron: Yes, 18-year-old Steven Frazier.
Miriam: So you were, at that moment — you know, he wasn't just a supporter. You guys were going in as partners into a situation where there was nothing, right?
Ron: But interestingly enough, I was made the Project Director. I'm certain that was because I was Black.
Cathy: Right. At that time, yes.
Ron: Yeah, 'cause it wasn't — He might've had more experience than me, actually, coming out of New York. I don't really know.
Cathy: That's how it was, and that's what I want people to know.
Gene: Did you think at all about that? Then?
Ron: Well, yes. Because they sent Ike Coleman, the guy who came with me from Knoxville, to West Point. Now, he went to another town north of Columbus and became the Project Director. John Buffington was sent to West Point, and he became Project Director there. These are all Black men. Straight out of college. They had been at colleges when they found them. They weren't doing much.
Bruce: I think John Buffington though had been a student activist, a sit-in student leader in Arkansas.
Ron: But I think John wasn't much older than me. He became mayor of West Point.
Bruce: Really? He stayed in West Point? Was he the brother of Ruth Buffington who married — [General laughter]
Bill Hanson? Because I'm thinking of the Buffington family, and maybe he was a different Buffington.
Ron: Yeah, he was very charismatic.
Gene: See, I also, I can't make a term that works in all the places. I mean, to me now, or for the last 10 years, the issue of "allies" to me was of, maybe hopefully, but that groups of people who were involved in various issues — it's like I was involved in housing issues, and then there were people involved in women's issues, and not that they necessarily have to be separate issues, but they were organized in that way that they were separate issues. That there were some instances or some situations where you saw that you actually had something in common. You know, women were getting treated a certain way in housing, that didn't make it a housing issue; it was still a women's issue. I was still working on housing. We could be allies in that fight, but it wasn't like I was coming to support just to support women, and I'm not doing anything; I'm doing housing.
Cathy: That word is used in different ways.
Gene: That's what I'm saying. So for me, the allies — and I don't think that the Allies in the Second World War were equal. And so they too — I mean, they had a common — they were organizing — certainly the Soviet Union and the United States didn't have a common ideology to say, 'Oh, we're in this together.' They just wanted both to defeat Hitler, and that's where they would come together. But they were entities. I mean, one of the problems in talking about the volunteers who went to Mississippi is that most of the volunteers went as individuals. They weren't part of an organization.
Ron: They joined an organization.
Gene: They joined an organization.
Cathy: So what did that mean?
Gene: Well, I don't — So when I went [South], it was because — well, first I thought I was going to go for SNCC, and SNCC wasn't having a project in '65, but people I knew in the MFDP said they would like us to come and do work. So I ostensibly went to work with the MFDP.
Now, I don't know. I was working for them. I wouldn't have considered myself an "ally." They had specific things — in a similar way certainly SNCC did too in '64. They wanted to raise — be able to have an impact on the country because of the nature of the people who they were asking to come down. When they got arrested, there would be a [support] network. I mean, so they weren't asking just people to come and say, 'We like you. You do what you do.' But they had a purpose, so they were, in a sense —
Cathy: They had a task? For you to do? A job.
Gene: In a certain way. So to me, the word "ally" is a funny word.
Now, I've had difficulty with these discussions, because the concept is a hard one when you're not organized, to me. Yourself. When you yourself aren't involved in a particular way. I don't see allies in —
Cathy: What is the problem with going as an individual?
Gene: Well, I don't think the purpose of our organizing is to do things as individuals. I think what we do is always to try to build organization. So when I look at things, I try to see them as how you bring people together.
Cathy: So that's a weaker commitment, in your mind? Something like that?
Gene: I don't know. It doesn't really have to do with a commitment; it more has to do with the concept of how you —
Bruce: But I think that assumption is wrong. Doug McAdam wrote the first book about Freedom Summer which had lots of statistics about the volunteers. One of the statistics that I remember was that at least half the volunteers who went to Mississippi in Freedom Summer had been involved in Civil Rights activity in the North and others were from political groups. They may or may not have been formal members of CORE or Friends of SNCC, but they had been involved in things. So it wasn't like they were just individuals suddenly deciding, 'Oh, I'm gonna go do something.' There was an organizational link, at least for a large number of them.
Ron: Including you [to Gene].
Gene: Well, I came through Friends of SNCC.
Ron: You had a link.
Gene: Yes, I did. But I know that one of the frustrating things to me was that when people came back, they weren't organized any longer. They didn't —
Bruce: I don't know about that. Returned Freedom Summer volunteers were at the heart of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that erupted just a couple of months after they returned. In L.A. where I was, a number of the returned volunteers were quite active with CORE and SNCC. What percentage they were of all the volunteers I don't know, but a lot of them did continue to work with civil rights organizations.
Cathy: I want to make sure — I feel strongly that I want it on this tape that I and other white people had the experience of being told that our lives were less important than Black lives. And they used the word "ally" like that. You are an ally. You are not oppressed. And that's just what I want to say. I just want that to be separate from any other point.
Ron: It must've felt that way.
Cathy: It was more than a feeling. It was said.
Ron: Well, within this context of this country, that's just not true. White lives are worth more than Black lives. We know that. By every measure.
Cathy: That's not what I'm saying.
Chude: She's saying within the Movement itself.
Marion: At that time, right?
Chude: What she's saying is that the experience of being treated like a second class citizen within the Freedom Movement.
Cathy: And that was more at the beginning of whites being in the South and volunteering, and then as time went on, my experience was that some of the Black people I knew kind of changed their mind, and they were saying, 'God, you're risking your life too.'
Gene: Was that something that actually got said to you?
Bruce: You're saying "earlier," so this would be Albany as opposed to Mississippi or Louisiana for you?
Cathy: I can't say for sure.
Ron: But as they got to know who you were and made human contact —
Cathy: Right. Exactly.
Ron: They're like, "Oh, she's not white folk. That's Cathy."
Chude: And she didn't run away as soon as things got hard.
Ron: Which is what they thought was going to happen.
Chude: But I want to say the opposite. I would say when I joined, like in Freedom Summer, that I did it both to end the evil of racism — which I did not see as just a Black people's problem — and to help the Black Movement, and in particular to help build leadership amongst the young people in the Freedom Schools, to take that movement forward. So in that sense, it seemed to me it was always more than just the Freedom Movement. But when we came back North, the question became fairly quickly — think partly because of Black Power — what right did you as a white person have to be anti-racist? And that was a very problematic time.
Gene: Could you say that again?
Chude: What right did you have as a white person to lead any kind of anti-racism work? And then it shifted where, of course, if you're white you should be working with white people, and you should be doing this. And so you got these contradictory messages. And so sometimes they got real extreme. The  San Francisco State strike [for Third World studies and admissions] happens, and a women's group is told by the Black leadership, 'Stop meeting as women, because you have to support us.' Right? Now to me, that was not OK.
Ron: Men always say that, c'mon! [General laughter]
Chude: Right on!
But I had the experience, when I first came back [from Freedom Summer] and working with the small group of Black students at Carleton, and when they wanted to do the program, "Is Carleton Racist?" the Black students treated me with respect for what I had to say. But the white students who came to the meeting had no use for me because I was white. So it was a funny contradiction that happened.
And even to today, it's like how much — if you're white — do you get to define what does it mean to try to work against white supremacy? And how much do you follow Black leadership? And I've come to understand — it takes you awhile to understand. Not every Black person's a good person. Hello? But we went through a period in the late '60s, '70s where somehow if you were Black and you were for revolution, that meant somehow you automatically had the right to be a leader. And not what was the content of your politics and the content of your character and your actions.
Cathy: I want to go online as supporting everything that Chude just said. [General laughter]
Gene: See, it's like the conversations around all these things, as I remember them, was so complicated that I mean I think to get through it you had to have a very clear ideological point of view of what you were talking about. I don't think there's necessarily a contradiction between feeling as if white people have to define what racism means to them while at the same time understanding what Black people think racism means to them.
Now, it may be felt in different ways or the same way, but I think that in order to be effective, you have to be able to deal with both. And I think that it probably is true. I mean, I'm spending all this time now trying to figure out, still, how to talk to white people in this community about the kinds of racism they exhibit, which is not what anybody 10 years ago would've called the traditional racism.
Nobody, or very few people, were talking about the economics of racism going back to the Second World War. You know, not talk about slavery but just what redlining meant as an ongoing economic thing. People weren't talking about it then. Now, they are. But how to get white people to enter that conversation and what their responsibility in terms of why they have wealth and Black people don't is a difficult thing to bring up. And to get all these progressives who have been good anti-racists in so many ways in Berkeley to understand their role in that very direct economically-racist going-on, so that all the white people have houses worth a million dollars, and the [Black] South Berkeley community [can no longer live there]. So I think you have to do both. You have to be able to see both.
Marion: I was gonna say, you know, the reason I think it's interesting for us to be discussing the term "ally" is the very fact that we have — none of us had the same reason for going. And we all had different descriptions of it, whether it was because we were from the North, or we're white, or we're Black, or we're something else. But I'm intrigued with the fact that if it's true that two-thirds of the people who went down there had some background or understanding of discrimination or community involvement. If that's true, that wasn't me. And the only connection —
Cathy: What was you?
Marion: My connection is very similar to what Ron said initially about the fact that — you know, I went down there to help out, to help out the Blacks. But then, I thought, when I got there, I was so surprised that sometimes I couldn't tell the difference between the fact that I'm not Black, because of the poverty. And I realized, why did I go down there? And I think the connection was, I was so familiar with being restricted.
Bruce: As a Chinese woman in San Francisco Chinatown.
Marion: Yes, as a Chinese in Chinatown, but [at first] I wasn't aware of that. When I went down there, I realized, "How come I feel so much at home?" There weren't cars parading up and down the streets of Chinatown with rifles. It wasn't that kind of terror, but —
Ron: But you had to stay in your place.
Marion: Exactly. I knew where Broadway Street and Bush Street were. And once I crossed that, I'm in a different world. So I knew how to come in and out of different worlds every day. From Chinatown, I always had to walk from Chinatown to North Beach if I wanted to go swimming at the playground there. And that's what? A half mile? And going to my middle school, Francisco Middle School, I had to walk about a mile.
And it's like, I do this every day; it wasn't a big deal. But you cross different cultures when you go back and forth every day. And then when I lived on Bush Street in downtown, I take the cable car or I walk. If I wanted to walk from there to Galileo [high school], that's at North Point. It would take me an hour to walk there with all my books. And at that time, you don't have backpacks; you just carry these books with you. And I would just go up and down hills to get there, and that's normal for me. But I'd pass through every day, so many different ethnic groups and neighborhoods.
So when I went down South, I felt, 'OK, here's another neighborhood, but why am I feeling so comfortable?' And looking back — I mean, at that time, I wasn't thinking of it, that it was different. I just thought it was just familiar.
Gene: So to me, I think that had a lot to do with the urban experience, because I felt like I, coming from New York City, felt the same way. I mean, where I grew up, there was an area where there were a lot of leftists and a lot of Jewish people, though not all, but you walk two blocks, and you were in an Irish neighborhood, and you went another two blocks, you were in an Italian neighborhood. And you were treated differently.
Now certainly, the gangs define that and even in all Black areas, there would be different gangs. So in Harlem, you had your two blocks, and then there was the next. So I think in urban areas, our sense of place was very defined. And I knew when I was in other neighborhoods I had to be careful. And I could stay; I could go to the subway stop in my neighborhood without any problem, but if I had to go the other direction, I knew I had to be careful. So I think urban areas have that. I've read about Chicago having that same kind of thing, and so I felt the same way when I went to the South. I felt like that people from big cities, in a way, it was a lot easier than people who were from the suburbs, because we grew up with all these — not that we were part of those cultures or had better politics towards them, but we just recognized it more.
Cathy: Marion, you said that you weren't aware that you were feeling comfortable in the Black community. Have you figured out since then why you felt more comfortable in the Black community in the South? Than you did in the Black community in San Francisco?
Marion: Yeah. So when I give talks, I realize it's like sliding into one culture and another. It was so natural, that I realized it had to do with being a minority; it had to do with being restricted, confined.
Cathy: But why did it happen in the South? And it didn't happen in San Francisco?
Marion: No, I knew about it, but it was — It's like if you grew up in a certain income, you don't know there are differences until you get out of that area into another income, right?
Cathy: So it was because you had friendships in this — When you were in the South, you had more close connections with people in the South who were from different backgrounds; whereas, before, you were just walking through the neighborhoods in San Francisco. Is that the difference?
Marion: Yeah, I'm close. The people there are close. It's like being raised in one community and going into a different community. And all of a sudden, people are welcoming you. You go into their living rooms.
Cathy: So the people in the different neighborhoods in San Francisco were not close to each other?
Marion: In Chinatown we are. So we know each other. Everybody knows each other.
Chude: But not in —
Marion: Not outside.
Chude: Not Fillmore [a Black neighborhood at that time], not necessarily.
Marion: That's right. That's right. Yeah.
Bruce: But you've said in other — I've heard you speak, and you make the comment that one of the reasons you felt somewhat at home in the Hattiesburg Black community is that you had grown up in the same level of poverty.
Marion: That's right.
Bruce: Palmer's Crossing, which was the Black — it wasn't even part of Hattiesburg then, right?
Marion: Yeah, right, right.
Bruce: So that — whereas, if you're walking from Chinatown to the swimming pool through North Beach, you're going through an Italian working and lower middle class district, which is nowhere near as impoverished as Grant Street in Chinatown.
Marion: That's true. The rest of San Francisco is very different. There's more open space. There's more leisurely — people have more leisure. But you know, I still — yeah, that's what I'm familiar with. The interesting thing though about allies then, going back to allies, there wasn't such a thing. There's no way I can think about Asians being allies at that time. I wasn't even thinking about how I fit in. And people don't even know how to fit me in, so it's such a novelty that I just disappeared. And the same with me. I mean, I just wasn't aware that that was any significance. I just happened to go somewhere, and I came back. It's like taking a trip to Europe, and I just came back. Who cares? But I think going back to the thing, allies now, switching gears a little bit, is that the modern social media is propelling a lot of our Asian young people especially into this ally-ship, and it's phenomenal.
Cathy: Allies to who?
Marion: For Asian-Americans and for young people.
Cathy: No, who do they ally with?
Marion: Ally with organizations, civil rights organizations. There are several. Chinese-Americans being allies with other Asian-Americans on civil rights against any group that are not doing what they believe they are doing.
Cathy: OK, so it's not an ally-ship with a different racial group.
Marion: Yes, it is. It's both. It's both. It used to be the Chinese against Koreans, and especially against the Japanese. And now, we're inclusive, including the Filipinos. They're in; let's all get together. Asian-Pacific alliances, and there are so many organizations.
Cathy: OK, that needs to be said.
Marion: That's important, yes. That's new. Before I only saw myself down in the Deep South. Now I see hundreds and hundreds of organizations throughout the nation. Asians getting together. There is a really amazing one that's called Asian Americans Advancing Justice. There is an Asian-American film industry finally getting recognized for work. And it's all giving recognition — which I'm impressed. Giving recognition as soon as things happen in the Deep South, even today, the Civil Rights Movement or Black Lives Matter. Whatever happens with the Black community, they're in on it, and they're saying, "I oppose. We stand for this."
Chude: So you're confirming what Gene was saying about the difference between being an individual —
Marion: Yes, that's very good.
Chude: — who joins an existing movement called, in this case, the Southern Freedom Movement or SNCC or CORE or whatever, as an individual, because you're not part of an organization, which is how it was for you in the '60s as a Chinese-American. And that was true for most of us who went South, that we did not come as members of an organization. We did come as individuals answering a call that an organization, whether we want to call it COFO or SNCC, called us and asked us, "Will you come and be part of this?" Now Miriam, where do you fit? Because you went down as an individual also, right?
Miriam: I did. In my college, at Brandeis, starting freshman year, we were picketing the Woolworths and Howard Johnsons in Boston that were integrated in the North but segregated in the South.
Ron: What year was that? It was 1960.
Ron: You were at Brandeis? And you were involved in activities?
Miriam: Yeah. A little bit. I found myself so uncomfortable picketing that I stopped picketing.
Cathy: Uncomfortable in what way?
Miriam: I was this nice girl from Indianapolis, Indiana, and we didn't make spectacles of ourselves by holding picket signs in the middle of the sidewalk. But in high school I'd been involved too, because I'd gone to this inner city, very integrated high school, in Indiana in the late 1950s where there were a lot of issues. So high school, college, and then I went down and joined SNCC which wasn't easy to do. It took me two years before they were willing to have a white girl come down.
Cathy: But why? Why did you go? In terms of — I mean, we're talking — you weren't going as part of the northern movement; you were going as an individual, right? And you were asking to join. You were not being recruited.
Miriam: OK, I've talked about this before, but I was looking to make more of an impact and improvement in society than I could make by myself. And the issues of the day that called to me were the integration issues, prison issues, and mental health issues. But nobody was organizing on the last two. They were organizing on integration, right? So that's where I wanted to make more of a difference.
Gene: So would you define that as an "ally?"
Miriam: Myself as an ally? I don't actually think in any way like that at all.
Gene: I agree with you, but that's why I'm curious to know. So what — that's where this discussion is at.
Cathy: When you were in Albany GA, how did you feel about the term "ally?"
Miriam: I never thought of it in that way.
Cathy: What do you mean never thought? You didn't hear the word?
Miriam: I still don't. I still don't think of myself as being an ally. I was there to help achieve the goals of the group which was to end segregation and Jim Crow, get the right to vote, all those things.
Cathy: And what did the word "ally" mean to you then? That you didn't want to use?
Miriam: I never thought about it.
Gene: Did you ever hear the word then?
Cathy: Wait, you didn't hear the word?
Bruce: I never heard the word "ally" much either until recently.
Marion: Me neither.
Bruce: I can't remember. That term as something popular has only been in recent times.
Cathy: No. I disagree.
Marion: I hadn't heard it at that time either.
Miriam: But there's no disagreement about this part. I didn't think of it in that way. I did not think of it.
Cathy: And I feel like when I was in Albany, Georgia, I heard the word "ally," and I was described as an "ally." And it was being "less-than."
Bruce: Was that from [Charles] Sherrod?
Miriam: No, no. We should make this comment for the recording. Cathy and I were there at the same time, the same place.
Cathy: Right. Same jail.
Miriam: Same jail. Same cell. [General laughter]
Gene: I mean, because I don't remember hearing that term at all. I mean, I'm just saying that —
Bruce: But the concept — No, I never heard that term used, but the concepts that we're talking about were very present in that there were Black activists whose attitude was that you white activists are simply here to help us and that you have no right to have an opinion. And we want to make sure that you don't usurp our leadership. And then there were Black leaders and activists who did see whites in the sense of ally the way in which we're talking about it now. But they didn't use that term.
Cathy: OK, it's a problem, because we've used the word "ally" in five different ways.
Bruce: Many of the Black leaders and activists were seeing us as allies in the sense of people who, for their own reasons, had come to participate in a movement that had meaning to them as something deeper than just being there as a missionary or a charity worker or helping the downtrodden in the way of some church person who says, "I will give some alms to the poor."
And then there were those who thought, "Yeah, that's what these white folks are here for. They're just here to give us charity." So there was a range. Black people had a range of opinions.
Bruce: I think another issue is one that Chude raises all the time which is this whole concept that whites had "privilege," and this word is used today, you hear a lot about "white privilege." And I agree with Chude's analysis that what is being put forward is whites having privilege is that we have some of the human rights that everybody should have.
Sometimes though the way in which "privilege" is used is that you're bad because you have this privilege that we don't have. Somehow the fact that you [as a white person] are not shot down by the police as easily as us [as a Black person] is that you then should bear guilt, or a fault for the way the police treat us. And I reject that.
Being able to walk safely on the streets is a human right, and if it's a privilege, it's a privilege everybody should have. And so we shouldn't be giving up our privilege to not be shot by the cops; we should be insisting that everybody have that privilege. But those were some of the issues that I know that I faced in the South, where some of the Black activists said, "Well, you have things that we don't have; therefore, you're guilty for us not having them, and you should feel guilty about that." And I never really responded well to that "you should be guilty" line of approach. Not then, not later.
Cathy: Did you say anything to Black people?
Bruce: Sometimes, if it came up. But remember that in SCLC that kind of thing came up much less frequently than it came up in SNCC, because King and the ministers just wouldn't stand for it. But I could see it happening in CORE and SNCC. It did happen some in SCLC, but not to the level it happened in CORE and SNCC.
Cathy: But how did you stand up to it?
Bruce: Just what I just said.
Cathy: You would say that out loud.
Bruce: I said that the Klan — you know, I'm Jewish. The Klan is my enemy too, and don't you think different. And some agreed, and some didn't.
Gene: It's funny, because I never remember having these discussions in that way. Yet, I'm not saying what you said is not true, you know, that those things would come at you. But always — you know, it was like I think I said this — I learned this listening to that interview I did, where I talk about a meeting where stuff would take place in a meeting, and someone would do that. A white person would stand up. The woman I was married to, Nancy, tried to say something at a meeting and got shouted down by a couple of Black women. "Who are you? Why are you speaking?" And things like that. And then four hours later, being at dinner, and the same person who had shouted her down is sitting having a long conversation with her at the table.
And so I saw a lot of those things as part of the political power games, whatever you play and that takes place, the dynamic, whatever you want to call it, organizational dynamics or how do you assert yourselves in different places? And I certainly saw that around here, and not only black and white but sometimes black and white, but people were jockeying for power in the progressive movement, and there would be different ways of doing it. And you either accepted those things as part of what goes on, or you didn't. I don't know. And you decide on how you're going to fight it, and I don't think there was one way of doing that.
And so the whole discussion of allies, which this comes out of in a way, is similar I think. I think it can be used in a very positive way. I think that on the one hand you can use allies in a very positive way, as how do people join together in a common struggle? And certainly today, white people's conception of their role, even if they're progressives in the racist system, I think is more clear to all of us than it probably was when we went South.
You know, what part the white community? Not just the racist white community of the South? But we had to realize that in California there wasn't fair housing also and that that was a fight that you had to be part of if you were against racism. Or, you know, you had to deal with the courts here too. It wasn't only that those white racists in the South did these things. So you had to realize that to be part of the struggle. Now maybe there were white people who didn't realize that, but I think most of the white people who went to the South had some inkling about that, because, like you say, they had been part of these fights up here as well. It wasn't new. And I mean my response to when that stuff happened at meetings in the South was to leave the meeting. I thought, "Well, if what I have to say isn't important, I'll leave."
Cathy: Would you leave angry?
Gene: I would leave frustrated. In certain cases, other than some of the Black people I knew, would come and say, "What's the problem?" And I would tell them. And they would either say, "Well, maybe we should talk about that." Or not. In some cases, we had very good conversations, and sometimes we didn't. We felt, in Batesville at that time, that we were fortunate in a way, because in '65 that's when a lot of this conflict within SNCC was going on, and Batesville was an all-white project. So we didn't have that, so we could do certain kinds of work.
Cathy: What do you mean an all-white project?
Gene: The volunteers and SNCC people were all white. In Batesville.
Cathy: But they were in a Black community.
Gene: Yeah. In Panola County, It was under the — part of the MFDP. Anyway, the MFDP, we were under their — and that was a conflict too, because while we had been taught and were in the philosophy of SNCC, that local people were to be doing — making all these decisions and doing it, they were asking us to make decisions and do the things. And we had a lot of discussion about that, whether that was our role or not and how to deal with that. And it was a big conflict.
Ron: What'd y'all decide?
Gene: I can't exactly remember, but mostly we tried to do the things that the people were asking us to do. I mean, so it was determined that we should work on school integration, so we did it.
Chude: In Batesville, Mississippi?
Gene: Yeah. In '65. Well, the schools had been integrated officially, and of course nobody wanted to send their kids to the white school. And the MFDP wanted people to send their kids to the white school. Now we didn't necessarily think that was the right thing, but we did go out and do that. So we were trying as hard as possible to do what we were being asked to do. But when they said, "You should type up all the leaflets," that became a real — we knew we weren't staying. And if the people who had been doing it weren't going to be — you know, were going to see somebody type a leaflet in five minutes that took them an hour to do, they weren't gonna do it. So that became a little bit hard. I mean, there were things. It was complicated, and I'm sure we all responded somewhat differently.
Cathy: Was there a possibility of having some Black SNCC workers come work with the white workers in Batesville?
Gene: I think in '65, no. I think that that had — You know, that's where Penny Patch and Chris Williams were there. And there was —
Cathy: Because there weren't enough Black SNCC workers to go everywhere.
Gene: At that time. And Panola County was considered to have a fairly active movement, so that was not a place where they felt it was necessary to put someone, a very strong organizer.
[By the summer of 1965 a significant portion of the SNCC staff had been shifted from Mississippi to Alabama.]
Chude: So I have a question for you, Ron. One time when we were speaking, you referred to having to be careful about white people's feelings. And it seems to me we were out in Livermore or one of those places. [General laughter] And I've thought a lot about it, and then of course I've heard about this book now, White Fragility.
And I certainly have heard the thing about — you know, about how if white women were in a meeting with women of color and they get criticized, they start to cry, and they go into the whole boo-hoo-hoo thing. You know, "You're hurting my feelings. I don't feel safe."
Don't you love that line? "I don't feel safe."
And so I'm curious from your perspective of where you come from. I know that from my feeling about the question of people's feelings is that there is a need not to attack people for historical repression and oppression and all those other unfair things that they themselves did nothing about, as if it's a smack. It's one thing to talk about how a situation is and whites starting to understand how the system has worked and that this society has been racist from the get, etc. And I had to learn that, because I did come from essentially a white community, and I didn't know a lot.
But the question is, are there certain things that can't be said to white people? On this concept of white people's feelings? Or rather, that it is important not to take one's entire lifetime of resentment against whites and smack the particular person who's in the room wanting to deal with racism?
Ron: I was probably referring to contemporary conversations. You know life and relationships can be complicated. I have friends who are White who have in critical moments worked tirelessly to help me secure my freedom. Yet during the 2016 election I found their politics antithetical to the best interest of my community and people of color in general. I tied to argue the point with some of them, but they could not see what I saw or perhaps they simply did not value what I valued. In the end we live very different lives.
We all experience privilege to one degree or another; however White privilege is very different from the privilege most people of color can exercise. It is this variance in privilege that serves to separate us along color lines.
Cathy: So this was a white man.
Ron: Oh yes. I'm looking at their politics and saying, "That's the politics of privilege." We're going to pay for your bullshit — and we are.
Chude: But your concept of privilege there, I have no problem with. People that can say whatever they want, and then go off to France because they don't like what's happening. I'm not wishing that everybody in the world has the right to be able go to France when they don't like what's happening.
Ron: Well, my point is though that I'm not having these conversations with them. They've been our friends; we're just not discussing certain things, you know? Unless they say something really stupid to me about racism or like that.
Cathy: Oh, it's like family.
Chude: It's like family.
Ron: Ah, yes.
Gene: But there's a difference in that do I or do you have a responsibility to say something to them? I'm just saying in general. If they were also friends of mine or friends of Chude's —
Cathy: As a white person, do you have a responsibility to another white person.
Gene: See, and that's where — I don't think you have — From my point of view, that is my responsibility. I mean, in other words, so in the groups I'm working with, if a Black person in our group says, you know, "We had this experience with this group of people who happen to be white and is supposed to be an ally of ours," I think it's the white people's responsibility in our group to go talk to them about it. Because otherwise, it puts something on, that I don't think is fair, onto the Black members of the organization.
Ron: There's another part of it. When I started working at this community college, and I got promoted to Assistant Supervisor and finally as Supervisor and finally as Manager, we would have these supervisory meetings with our white Director. Now this Director had been an ex-cop, 20 years a cop, sheriff. He selected me to run that department. He gave me a leg up, let me get up off the floor, working my brains instead of my back. That's a big jump.
There were two Black supervisors, one for the powerhouse, an older guy who carried the whole thing in his head — and me. I was running custodial services. And then there was a maintenance supervisor, a couple of maintenance supervisors, you know, one indoor and one outdoor. And it really became clear to me that he was treating them differently from me. He was treating me differently from them. I make a small mistake, he was chewing me up and down. In fact, the Black supervisor who was in there with me, he said, "What did you do, man?" I said, "I ain't done nothing." So I devised a technique. The day before the staff meetings, I would go into his office and say, "How am I doing, boss?" And he would very calmly tell me to do this or that. No drama, just two men talking about work.
Cathy: Brilliant, brilliant.
Ron: When it came to the meeting, he'd go around the table doing his thing, and he said, "Oh, I've already talked to you." General laughter]
Cathy: I love it! I love it!
Ron: But one day, under some circumstances, in his office, I asked him a question that changed everything. I said, "Why are you treating me different from these other guys?"
Oh man. It didn't matter the fact he was. He just went — His wife worked there part-time in the college. She didn't speak to me for a year. I intimated that he was being racist, and it was done.
It took a long time for that, if it ever healed, that relationship to heal. In fact, he probably retired before it healed. And I learned right then and there, unh-uh, OK. I didn't know what I was saying. I didn't know what — until after the fact, going to tell Diane. You know what I said? And he just said?
And she said, "You did what?!" [General laughter]
"Think about it!" Oh yeah, I guess I did. I mean, I'm walking around there with college degrees. And the other white supervisors, they got nothing. They got an associate's degree. I got a bachelor's degree; I'm working on a master's. In the supervisory thing, he would go through each one of our budgets and read it out to us, and don't violate this. And he's finished with mine, and I say, "Can I see it?" The room went — And he gave it to me, and then at the next meeting, he gave everybody theirs. He said, "Don't. Don't mess up. Don't go over the budget."
But because of that, when we re-wrote our job descriptions, we now had a budget, we moved from supervisor to manager. We moved from a position where we had to fill in for our workers to a position where we no longer did that. And it was just that — give me control of the budget. Your phone will not ring. I did so much stuff there that was important, that changed the culture. I wasn't getting no credit too. I was getting smacked down. And did he think he was racist? No.
So no, that's what I meant about white fragility. I know first hand you can step on some land mines that will change the trajectory of your career if you're not careful. You can't expect people to be who they're not. This country was built on domination of one race over another. And be a little careful about when you challenge that. Don't do that in a dark alley with a cop at night, because he gets scared. If you have seen a cop's hand shake.
Like, "Dude, you got the gun!" I don't know what's in their head, but they will kill you. So we learned early, pay attention to white folks. There are people who have said, you know, when white folks get scared, they're dangerous.
Yeah, they just said, "They're shooting our children in the street." The poor girl is asked me the question. But that's the reality. I mean, at this meeting we had this morning, we talked about two brothers who'd been murdered in Los Angeles; one is a senior at USC and who was known by some of the people in the room this morning, and the other was Nipsey Hussle who was a rapper in L.A. who had taken the money from his earnings and bought land, bought a whole strip mall and started giving people work. He got murdered by two Black men, murdered him.
I mean like, so really, I was having some pain this morning, because these are our children. But you do find yourself facing — They said, well why don't people tell the police? And I read an article lately about when they started stop and frisk, they broke any kind of trust in the Black community. The Black community stopped talking to the police. You can't be an effective policeman unless you get information from the community. It's not working in our favor by not talking to them, but on the other hand, we have to be afraid of them, and we have to be afraid of these predators over here. And that is what our kids are growing up in.
So our reality is a little harder. It's just hard. I learned a lot of things from the younger men this morning. I learn a lot from these young people about the what they face and the nature of their journey. I learned a lot this morning, because I'm looking at a culture. They had to pass out the lyrics to Nipsey Hussle's song they were playing. There's no way I could hear that stuff, that rap. They can hear it. I can't hear it. I got to read it. So yeah, the cultural changes and all of that, and having to go code-switching and all of that stuff. It's just way —
So what can we do to change things? That's really all that's important. I mean, I'm sure Jewish people could tell me a story about how they got here. All the crap their mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers went through to be in this place. Chinese folks can tell the same story. Gay people can tell the same story. The kids now would not believe what was happening in San Francisco in the 1960s. If somebody was gay, they just got jumped. They just got jumped and beat down.
Bruce: By the cops, often.
Ron: Yeah. Or just some Black kids who were doing gay bashing. Didn't have a clue. "Why you picking on those people?" "I don't know." I've gotten really far afield. That's some nice coffee you got there, brother. [General laughter]
Gene: It's special revolutionary coffee, I'll have you know.
Cathy: I wanted to say that when I was at Spelman and first working with SNCC, I got close to some of the SNCC people, and one of them, we got very close and had a lot of affection for each other. And over the years, when we've seen each other, he has felt free and comfortable and willing to explain to me when I'm saying something that's racist or incorrect or obnoxious or whatever, and I have been able to hear it because of our relationship from over the years.
Have you ever experienced that with a white person, Ron? I'm not saying you should; I'm just saying, has it happened? Where you have enough personal affection and connection with a white person that you wanted to and did explain to them what they had just done that —
Cathy: Yeah, so you have had that experience. We used to call that — we'd say, he "called me on it." Isn't that a great expression? I got called on that. And it could be somebody who was angry and mean to you, but often, it was somebody who wasn't angry and mean to you, but they wanted you to understand and correct your behavior.
Ron: I mean, this group is perfect. I don't think there's anybody in here that doesn't feel like they can't say what they've got to say, for fear of hurting somebody else's feelings. I don't. You know? But y'all have been working at this so long. [General laughter]
Marion: The thing that comes up is that word "relationship," and whether any of us has a history of meaningful relationships with a diverse point of view or a person who's different. And I feel like unless our society makes a relationship really intimate and truthful for each other, for one another, for me I don't know of any other way of breaking down stereotypes other than a genuine confrontation or open conversation.
And a perfect example is when my son was in middle school, he was badmouthing and making it hard for him to accept anyone who's gay. And then one day, he said, "Gee, what happened?" He said sort of at home by himself, I mean he's speaking out loud, and he says, "I remember Mark, and I loved him. He died of AIDS. And how come I'm angry at gay people? I don't understand. What happened to me?"
And it just dawned on him. It just was — And you know, I didn't say a whole lot. I was just watching what he was doing and how he was going to come about a conclusion for himself some day. But these are the kind of jewel moments that I think are really important.
I was talking with my husband once, and we talked about whether we made the right decision to have kids, and to have kids in the inner city. And then we chose to live in the Outer Mission, and we chose to bring our kids up in the inner city schools where there's a Spanish bilingual program and a Chinese bilingual program at the same school, and the kids were mixed. Either that, or go someplace else where it's all safe and white or safe and middle class or safe and upper class, not that we'd go to upper class. But we were glad, looking back, we were glad that we did what we did. But those were all risks. We don't know how they're going to come out. It's a risk you take.
[END OF APRIL 2019 TRANSCRIPT]