[This transcript has been edited to delete extraneous material for improved flow. Speakers were allowed to edit and expand their comments for clarity and completeness. As indicated by [brackets] some clarifications and explanatory annotations have also been added.]
Peter de Lissovoy: the Movement and Me
Jennifer Lawson: I Had to Do Something
Claire O'Connor: An Activist Life
Rick Tuttle: Something Wrong – Try to Fix It
Bruce Hartford: A "Four Nevers" Jew
The Local Folk We Worked With
White Freedom Workers ~ Jail Stories
Africa and the Insularity of Americans
Minneapolis, Police and George Floyd
Organizing and Organizers
More on Organizing & Protesting
Different Times, Different Answers
Being Pushed Back
The Battle Goes On
The Movement Did Not Fail
War & Militarism
Right & Wrong
The Climate Change Movement
Civil Rights Acts & Concept of "Rights"
Achieving Real Change
The Meaning of "Freedom Rider"
Economic Inequality, & the Assasinations
Coaltion Building & Leaders
[BEGIN SESSION #1]
All right. Well, let me start. The first thing we want to do is briefly introduce ourselves. Basically, just name, states, and years where you worked and I'll call on each person. So, I'm Bruce Hartford. I was two years with CORE in California, and then two years on the SCLC field staff in Alabama, Selma and Crenshaw Counties, and then Mississippi, Grenada, Mississippi.
Yeah. First, thank you, Bruce, for doing this and all the other things you've done of this nature. And I'm Rick Tuttle, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, in Georgia, in the summer of 1963.
First, I want to thank you for putting me in the group with you, so you'll make sure we obey the rules. I have to obey the rules, so you will correct me if I'm out of line, right? That's the deal. And also, keep aware of my timing. I don't want to take up too much time. Okay, Claire O'Connor, I'm from Minnesota. Freedom rider, 1961, and then Batesville, Panola County, Mississippi for 18 months, starting in '64 and into '65.
And I'm Jennifer Lawson, currently living in Washington, DC. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and therefore was ripe to join Martin Luther King and others for in 1963, with what became known as the Children's March or Children's Crusades. I went to Tuskegee [Institute, now University] and that was a perfect place to get involved with SNCC. Voter registration work throughout the Black Belt of Alabama — 1964 in Jackson with SNCC, then 1965, in Alabama with SNCC all the way through to 1968.
Yes. I was with SNCC with Charles Sherrod in Southwest Georgia from '63 to '65. And during that time, I was on the campaign staff of Attorney C.B. King, who ran for Congress in '64. He was the first African American to run for Congress since reconstruction, and maybe you could say he started it all that's going on in Georgia now.
Okay. So now we're going to each of us give five minutes or so on the topic of "Us." How the freedom movement affected us, and so forth. Who wants to go first?
Okay. I was last, so now I'll be first as they say. Well, how did it affect us? How did it affect us? Because that's the idea.
Well, I've never had any problem knowing how I was going to vote, because I would just ask my friends in Southwest Georgia, how to vote, how they were voting. So, I was for Biden early on, and my, of course, my friends up here in New Hampshire where I live, were all trying to get me to vote for Bernie [Sanders].
But I wasn't surprised, really, when [Joe] Biden was the guy. Well, I think that for us white kids, we were living with the Black community, we understood the Black experience to a tiny degree. We had a window on it. So that would obviously change our life and our view of the country. And of course it makes the present day very understandable to us.
I had a somewhat unusual background, I think, because by the time I joined SNCC when I was 21, I'd been to Africa twice. And the second time I was there, I quit school to go to join SNCC, but I'd already quit once before to go to Africa. I spent about a year and a half there. Earlier, I'd been in West Africa when Nkrumah became president of the Ghana. And I was in Tanganyika when it became Tanzania, and I spent most of my time in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] working on a newspaper there. And I also belonged to the youth wing of ZANU [Zimbabwe African National Union], which was Mugabe's party. And so I was pretty up on the freedom movements in Africa and the changes that were occurring.
So, when I heard about SNCC, I came back to college for a few months and then I heard about SNCC and it gave me a chance to quit again. And so I really had a pretty good notion of what the score was in the south and why SNCC was starting there. Of course, I didn't know all the fine print, so to speak. But would soon learn from Sherrod, and Prathia Hall, and people like that.
And of course, like the rest of you, we had a chance to meet some really extraordinary people, some exemplary people, and really amazing people that you're never going to meet again in your life. That kind of people, Charles Sherrod, for one, and Attorney C.B. King and all he did in that part of the country. My good friend, Randy Battle, who went from the chain gang in Georgia to becoming a roving SNCC worker all over the country and a good friend of John Lewis.
And while the people who took care of us as the community and fed us. In my case, Deacon Wooden and his wife fed us several times a week and what an extraordinary guy he was. He wasn't in the movement because he wasn't nonviolent and couldn't see it that way. But he certainly supported the movement and the kids, and he was an interesting guy. He was an expert tool and die man, and during the depression never lost his job at a small machine shop in Albany, Georgia. And he used to have poor whites come to the back of his house through the alley and ask him for bread and food, and he would provide them every night. So we met some wonderful people and that set us up in a way for appreciating life all the more, I think.
Okay, that's enough for me.
Thank you. Who wants to go next? All right, I'm going to pick the big smile. Go ahead, Jennifer.
Okay. It was really great hearing Peter talk about his experience and there are some things that are very much in common. But I think the movement really changed me personally in a very dramatic way. In the sense that I was a very shy person, very insecure person. But that I felt so strongly about working against injustice, that I just felt that I had to do something and that I should participate. And that it led me to joining the movement, then led me to accept my personality and accept my shyness, but to also realize that I could make a difference, that I could contribute beyond that. That I didn't have to say things or make a speech or something, but that I could get involved and help people. And I really enjoyed that so much.
And also, like Peter, it put me in the circumstance of meeting people that I otherwise would never have met in my life. I came from a working class family in Birmingham. But going and working in the rural south, I mean, there were times when I stayed with families there and they fed me and took care of me. And that these were families who were sharecroppers and were in danger of being evicted. And I just reveled in learning to appreciate their generosity, their humanity, their intelligence.
It made me realize that, even though I was a student at Tuskegee, a Tuskegee education meant nothing in comparison to what life had taught some of the people that I was meeting. And that it opened me up to appreciate that there are great stories, great life experiences from which one can learn and that they are all around us. And that left me open to experiences that I had also in places like Africa.
I too, I lived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, working on a SNCC-related project from 1970 to 1972. After SNCC and after my civil rights experience, I have felt that I could go anywhere in the world and really appreciate people in a way that most people would shy away from, be afraid of. But it has made me feel that this world is an incredible place and there are fabulous people out here to connect to.
I don't want to be the people that everybody remembers. So Rick's going to be the people that everybody remembers. So, I came from an activist family. I was born actually in Boston. And my father was a union organizer, and my mother, a musician, which also made me meet musician and also activist people. And so I grew up in that environment and learned a lot. One of the things that I think that I could say that my parents really provided for me and grounded for me is the act of figuring it out, why is this happening like this? And also, they were activists — "How can we change that?"
Now, as a child, I didn't have a lot of power as far as all that was concerned. But as I matured and went to the University of Minnesota, we moved to Twin Cities sometime in there. And I went to the University of Minnesota and that was the time when I could see what activism meant. How you look at a problem and you don't just say, "Oh, gee, that's awful."
There was a lot of pressure, there was a lot of pressure on me and on each other to say, "What can we do about it?" And so, that's when my activism actually started. Although my parents made a real point for us to always live in integrated neighborhoods. So we always went to integrated schools. So although, we kind of escaped it anywhere in Boston, or then in the Twin Cities, in Saint Paul, I grew up.
And so, when I decided to go on the Freedom Rides, and the reason I got invited to go on a Freedom Ride was because of friends that my mother had who were activists. And one of their children had become an organizer for CORE, and he was organizing people for the Freedom Ride.
And I didn't know this until fairly recently, actually, that CORE's original intent, original strategy, when it was agreed that people could be invited from the North andthat that would be a positive, invited from the North to join the Freedom Ride was that, that they would leave in place or the CORE would help organize the community to forward the message about what the Freedom Rider was.
And of course, then a person, and there were six of us who left from the Twin Cities. Then those people then became the link. And so to help keep that in the air, to get it on the news, to get it in newspapers, to have meetings, fundraisers, all that kind of stuff. The people who were not on the bus, but were left in the Twin Cities were then responsible for doing that. And they actually did a very good job.
It wasn't until later that we learned that the only other group that went from someplace in California, where they left in place that organizing committee or community, or whatever you want to call it. Throughout the Freedom Rides, everybody in the Twin Cities had had a lot of opportunity to understand it so that when I returned, when we all returned all six of us, then there was a lot of attention and we did a lot of speaking and all that kind of stuff. I mean, as a 18, 19 year old, was a very daunting task.
Then when I got the opportunity to go back [to the South] — when I was in the Freedom Rides, you get on the bus, you go in the bus station, you get arrested, you go to jail. You get out of jail, you go home. And so what I completely missed were the people. The people who had organized this, and also the young students who were from Mississippi, who were on the Freedom Rides themselves and had, as we all know, risked everything. I mean, the risks that they tolerated was way beyond any risk that I tolerated.
And so when I went home, I then returned to activism in the university. And then when the call came out for people to go south again to work on voter registration, I decided that I would do that for the summer. And then was absolutely, really, really, lucky when the jackpot that there was a place for me to remain there for about 15 months. And so the thing that I learned, particularly from the Freedom Rides, is how to confront danger.
And I know that nothing changes nothing. I mean, it's still true, after all these many years, I've tested this out. Nothing changes without the people changing it. I don't care about leaders. I don't care about the press. I don't care about any of that, or even Zoom meetings. Nothing changes without the community pressure and that the presence, and the longevity of it, and the toughness of it.
And so I realized that when I was on the Freedom Rides, I was missing the [Black] community. I didn't know how the community was responding and all that kind of stuff. And where that toughness about the community fit in. So when I went back [to the South], that's when I learned I think probably my most valuable lesson is, the courage, the inventiveness, the persistence, the community, the acceptance, accepted. And that is still my most valuable takeaway, is that, to know that the people together and what that means, and also what that means in Mississippi and in Minnesota.
Although things are pretty bad here. I never had to deal with that day to day. I never had to be afraid of losing my job or my home or anything because of my involvement in the movement. And to be part of a community, we lived in Batesville, with Panola County, we lived in the county seat. But we did a lot of traveling, Panola County is a fairly big county, and got to see a lot of communities, some big, some small, facing the dangers and using their persistence and commitment to the movement.
And so that to me, still is my biggest takeaway and I never ever forget the people. I can name them for you. So, I guess that's my comment.
Well, thank you. Again, I'm Rick Tuttle, and I'll begin with my involvement and then say some words about impact. And in terms of my own involvement, I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I noticed Joy [Shaw], who's our [Zoom meeting] coordinator has a Connecticut area code. And I went to a small college in Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University.
And at the time I was there, most of us, almost all of us, lived in fraternities. And so I was involved early in a battle within the Alpha Chi Rho Fraternity, most of whose chapters were in the south. I'm 81 years old, this is all in the late 1950s, very early '60s. A battle over eliminating a clause that was "christian-only," and also a hidden clause that was "white-only." And we eventually fired our national. We broke from them and it wasn't that it took any great courage in the middle of a liberal arts college in the middle of the Connecticut River Valley to fight that fight. But a young guy like me, I learned something about the vocabulary of civil rights.
And the same battles were going on at some other colleges around the country. William Sloane Coffin, who was a Freedom Rider, one of the organizers on the East Coast, was a chaplain at Williams and had a cross burned, it was a well known story at the time, before he went down to Yale.[In the 20th Century, burning a wooden cross in proximity to a Black community or in front of someone's home was an intimidation tactic of the Ku Klux Klan. It was intended — and understood — as a warning of imminent violence if the community or individual persisted in doing whatever it was that the KKK objected to — such as advocating an end to segregation or trying to register to vote.]
And the Freedom Rides began, and Claire O'Connor, I owe you something because that was a model of activism, the genius of the Freedom Rides.
It was clearly interstate. I mean, the states-rights argument had some viability — we all became states' righters during the Trump administration. We all understood that, at the time [1960s], there were huge arguments over states' rights, an ongoing argument, federal system.[Referring to the long-standing dispute over the right of states to implement policies and laws in opposition to those favored by the federal government, and in particular the federal judiciary. Supreme Court rulings and Interstate Commerce Commission regulations prohibited enforcing state-segregation laws against people traveling between different states. Since the Freedom Riders bought tickets for travel across state lines, southern courts had no legal grounds for enforcing state segregation laws against them which is why they were arrested for common crimes like disturbing the peace or failing to obey an officer. Charges that would not stand when appealed to federal court.]
The Freedom Rides brought out the ugliness, the beatings, what you folks went through. And I missed getting on the Freedom Ride, I wanted to go, but the ride pulled out of New Haven and New York before I could join, and I said to myself, I'd want to be involved.
I wound up in California, UCLA, in graduate school in history. Early 1963, John Poppy of Look Magazine wrote an article about the late Sam Block, and Charles McLaughlin, and Willie Peacock, and Bob Moses, trying to register voters in the South. And a function of the earlier battle was our fraternity. Wesleyan had very few Black students. Not all of them, but they were handful, but most of that handful were in our fraternity. And I was a scholarship boy and we were working our way through [college]. And so our crew, the dishwashing crew, the waiters, essentially Ernie Don, Lenny Moore, Frank Stewart, [inaudible 00:22:52].
I translated what Poppy was writing about. About not being deprived of the right to vote and saying to myself, "Are you kidding?" Lenny Moore, Ernie Don, men I admired, Frank Stewart, this is a young man. I looked up to these guys. They would have to go through all that. It's outrageous. And we can do better than that.
The other thing I'll say, I come from a family, my dad at age 36, joined the Marine Corps to fight for his country in 1944. My grandmother's grandfather, at age 36, enlisted for Lincoln and fought at Fort Wagner, and on the next assault wave right after, the "Glory" Division the Massachusetts 40th, this mowed down. So I come from a family where if there's something wrong, you try to make it better and try to redeem the promise of this country and I believe it, I'm just not saying it now, it's how I felt then.
Anyway, in terms of the other part of the question, the remaining minute or so, I'll just put it this way. Being involved in Greenwood, Mississippi, in '63 and I became involved with the whole incidents involving Mrs. Hamer and Lawrence Guyot and what was happening in Winona and taking direction from Willie Peacock on that [referring to the Winona atrocity of 1963].
And then later, SNCC moved me over to Georgia. I wound up with Hosea Williams and spent some time in jail in Chatham County, which is Savannah, and so and so forth. All part of all that. I think I learned something about being an ally, and how to take direction, and I'll leave it at that.
Bruce, I'll turn it back over to you.
All right. Okay. Thank you. So that leaves me.
So, when I was a teenager, I was very deeply affected by the Holocaust — by reading about it. I grew up in LA, and there were Holocaust survivors there who I encountered from time to time, and it had a profound effect on me. So when I would meet other Jews my age, when young Jews get together, the first thing they always asked [back then] was, "Well, what kind of Jew are you?" Are you Orthodox? Reform? Conservative?" This or that or the other. Well, my parents were commies, and I couldn't say that. Not in the '50s. So I told the other kids, I was a "Four-nevers-Jew," and boy that didn't make any sense to them. So I would explain, I was a "Four Nevers Jew" — Never forget, never forgive, never again, and never stand by when others are oppressed."
Well, with that mindset, inevitably, I ended up in the Freedom Movement, first CORE in Los Angeles for two years, and then in the South with SCLC. I think I can honestly — the freedom movement set the course of my entire life. It set — there's this Jewish concept of "Tikkun Olam," which the literal translation is "Hhealing the world". For me it meant fighting for justice. The freedom movement fixated my life on Tikkun Olam. I am so glad and so thankful for that.
Because of that, I feel I've built a life that was far more fulfilled and satisfying than a life built on career or power or money, which is basically the way most people in this country are shaped. That's what you are supposed to do. All right.
Like everyone, I made mistakes that I regret. There were paths that I wish I had had a chance to take, but overall, I have to say that I really take great pride and satisfaction in how I have lived my life — a Tikkun Olam Freedom Movement kind of life.
The other thing I'll say is that I never did well in school. Not at grade school and not college neither. The Freedom Movement was my education. Everything I really learned about the world, politics, people, race, class, power, psychology, economics, what it means to be alive, was through the Freedom Movement and the political work that I did later. Because for me, the Freedom Movement never ended.
In February of 1967, I'd been Grenada, Mississippi for nine months. And I was totally burned out. I was down to 130 pounds, couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. And I knew, all right, my time in the South is now over, so I left the South. But I continued on with political work. And to this day, I'm still doing political work. I currently work with a political group called Indivisible, opposing the Trump/Republican agenda.
So the Movement was my education. Even when I went to college. When I was at UCLA. What I learned, I learned through Bruin CORE, the UCLA CORE chapter. And if we're going to look at negative lessons, later on, I was at San Francisco State and I learned negative lessons from SDS, of which I was a big part.
The other thing I'll say is that — I think it was Claire who talked about this. The movement taught me about myself. It taught me self-confidence. If I could get people in rural Crenshaw County, Alabama down to the courthouse to defy segregation and try to register to vote, if I could defy and survive the Klan, if I could endure jail, then I could do whatever I set my mind to. And for the rest of my life — I did.
I never graduated from college. I never got a degree. But I ended up making a decent living. I never got rich, but I didn't care about that. I made enough to live on, so I didn't care that I didn't make a lot of money. Because for me, the richness of my life was a lifetime of fighting for social justice and human dignity. And I owe that life to the Freedom Movement.
So now we go to free discussion. Comments, thoughts, extensions on anything anybody wants to say.
Yeah, I want to give credit to Jennifer. It was Jennifer that talked about on a personal level and individual level. Thanks to Jennifer.
There are a lot of similarities, a lot of things that we have in common and a lot of lessons, it seems, that we all took from it, in that respect. One of the commonalities that struck me was how much we talked about the — Our appreciation of the people that we met along the way, particularly, the people in the rural communities or in the communities with whom we work.
Yeah. Yeah. I don't think I'll ever forget any one of them. I remember every single one. I don't remember the names, necessarily, but I remember everyone and every one of them was memorable. There's a woman, she's — I can't remember her name, but her father, in Panola County, was one of those heroic leaders, one of those World War II vets, who came home and found that they weren't getting what they were promised and started the fight and started the movement. His daughter was running for state, for a county office in the most recent election, the same one that Trump was running in. It carries on, it goes on.
No, it definitely goes on. One of the people, where I've worked in Lowndes County, there's one that who— She was a kid then, a young girl, who was around. And that she now, recently, about a year ago, she got one of the MacArthur so-called Genius Awards for her work in environmental justice. Her name is Catherine Flowers. And that she's working in rural areas around the world, around the country to look at then how people don't have basic things, like decent drinking water or proper sewage and how that affects the health of people.
I'm picking up on this idea of community and — I wound up, as I said, at my earlier comments in the Chatham County jail, that's in Savannah. Hosea Williams was there and so and so forth. At that time, I was commonly referred to as the "white guy" or the "white boy," That was around 1963. And probably, each person here has had that experience.
By the way, it's a privilege to be with you folks and the others in the larger group. What everyone has in common, I know here, and probably everyone put themselves in harm's way in order to do the right thing and for social justice, racial justice.
In any event, back to the community concept. I was in custody for about a month and a half, a complex bail case that was being used, a kind of preventative detention scheme called peace bonds, being used in Georgia and other parts of the south. July, August into September of '63, the —
Generically, on the point that both Ms. Lawson and Ms. O'Connor are making, I learned something about community, because I was surprised — I was in the white cellblock.[Like everything else in the South, jails were segregated with separate cells for whites and Blacks. White civil rights workers were often placed in cells with white prisoners, many of whom were extremely racist and some were KKK members.]
And I was surprised I wasn't beaten up, pushed around, raped. I was prepared emotionally for that, and so on, and so forth. It could be pretty rough. Story after story of whites getting singled out, and so on, and so forth.
As I learned, at the end, the reason that I was left alone is there was a cohort of young men, they were called — their term, not mine — "Bridge," B-R-I-D-G-E, "Bridge Boys." I don't know the origin of the term. And these are African American young men who could bring cigarettes, coffee [into the jail]. They were in custody. They could run out and get things, come back. They had easy time. There's easy-time and hard-time.
What happened, one of them was a man named Popeye. He was well-known to be the best Welterweight boxer. Savannah, you think of as a tourist town, it's a port city also. We're talking — there's serious fisticuffs, et cetera, he can be engaged — He was well-known as the best fighter in Eastern Georgia. Well-known for that.
Apparently, what would happen is, these white guys would be coming in on drunk driving, petty theft, whatever it was. Or more serious stuff. In custody, [the Bridge Boys] would take them aside and say, "You touch Tuttle, Rick Tuttle. You touch him. You may not like what he's doing here. We're going to beat a heck out of you guys". They probably didn't use the word heck.
And now, if you think about that for a minute, they're risking easy-time for the state penitentiary. They're talking hard-time and they were willing to do that for me. Never has the phrase, and this comes through a little bit in the echoes of what each of you ladies is saying, to some degree we were under the protection, the arc of the Black community. Where I'm from, that's a powerful story. I'll drop it at that.
That reminded me, when I was in Selma, I got arrested one time. I got arrested a lot of times, but one time Sheriff Clark put me in a cell with a young white guy, a husky white guy. Clark told him to beat me up, which he did. I mean, he started wailing on me, and so forth, and so on. I had all that nonviolent training, curl up in the ball, and it actually worked. I mean, yeah, I was bruised and hurt, but I wasn't damaged.
And then, a strange thing happened. It turns out that beating someone up is actually very hard physical labor, and you get tired. He wore himself out. Then he sat down and we started to talk, because we're two guys in jail and ain't nothing else going on. And it was really one of the most interesting conversations I ever had.
I mean, he knew who I was. In fact, he was saying, "Well, are you doing —" I said, "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah". He said, "Did you go to the March in Camden?" Which is in Wilcox County, the next county down. I said, "Yeah". He says, "Did you see me there?" And I said, "What?" He says, "Yeah I'm a member of Jim Clark's posse. And I was there, too". What was unsaid — but clear — was he was one of the people tear-gassing and beating the crap out of us marchers from his horse. And I said, "Well, what were you doing down in Wilcox?" He says, "Oh, when Sheriff Clark says, you got to go, you got to go."
And then we got off into this mental mindset that he had, which was like a form of feudalism. A kind of feudal heirarchy. I asked, "What are you in here for?" Well, he gave this long story — burglary, this, that, and the other thing. Totally made no sense at all. But what it boiled down to was he had annoyed Jim Clark, and Jim Clark had found something to throw him into jail. And I said, "Well, what did your lawyer say?" "Lawyer? Lawyer?" He'd been in there seven days and had not been able to call a lawyer. And he thought that was normal. He thought this is the way life is.
The feudal lord — No not the feudal lord. Sheriff Clark was more like the feudal baliff, the overseer for the lord. Threw him — I said, "When are you going to get out?" He says, "Oh, eventually, he'll stop being mad at me and he'll let me go". And to him, this was the normal way of life.
I don't know. I mean, that was kind of strange. While I didn't like the being beaten up part, talking to this guy — I mean, there's no way I was going to change his attitudes on race, but it that kind of feudal, subservient to authority mentality that to this day helps me understand what's going on with white Trump voters, particularly in the South.
Peter, you want to say something?
I'll just say, I also am really pleased to meet everybody. We have so much in common and I admire all you guys, way you live your lives and what you learned there and everything. There's so many echos and points that we can ricochet off each other. I think it's just amazing. One comes into my mind and gets shoved out by the next one.
You guys are talking about your jail experience. I'll just add one. They were a little bit quirky and unusual, particularly Bruce's. But in '63 we had marches. And on that occasion, I wound up in jail with John Perdue and — you lnpw [Albany Police Chief] Pritchett in Southwest Georgia would send everybody to the jails, all around Southwest Georgia. So they never [ran out of jail space] they had plenty of real estate for that.
But the second time I was in jail was a pretty unusual situation also. It was after the civil rights bill had been passed [in 1964]. One thing we did in Albany in Southwest Georgia was to go out and test it out in various ways. And the night the civil rights bill was passed, we went out to eat and so forth. We really were just met with a lot of icy receptions [from whites], but no big trouble in Albany, which was a little bit, quite a bit more — not tolerant — but [more] well organized a place than the rural counties around there.
The other time I went to jail at summer was a week or two later, we were out at a Black nightclub, a Black roadhouse, and it was called the Cabin In The Pines. It was owned by a Black guy, but the sheriff was [financially] behind it. It was a huge place. It could just hold a thousand people in that club. I remember hearing Bobby Blue Bland play one night in that club.
Anyway, I was there. We were all dancing and having a good time. All of a sudden the cops showed up and arrested me for being in a Black club.[In other words, arrested for violating a segregation law. But all those laws had been overturned by the federal Civil Rights Act which had just been passed.]
It was kind of a reverse. Well, I went to jail for a week that time, it was in the Albany City Jail that time and their, the, the guys in that group, their take on me was — They had a different kind of take on me. I remember there was a guy in there for stealing mattresses. There was a guy in there for stealing dogs. I forget who all else. But these guys took a take on me and they decided I was just ignorant, that I was just an ignorant fool. They considered me to be somebody that needed to be schooled. Like Bruce said, there was no, no really educating these people or talking to them exactly. But they decided to educate me and tell me how foolish I was to be in a Black club and how I would naturally I was in jail for that.
Anyway, Rick, go ahead.
Well, thank you. What you and Bruce are both saying brings [inaudible 00:45:29] memories. My first, they round me up and tack me into jail. Complicated story [inaudible 00:45:43] for the moment, but I go to sleep and then there's this flashlight light in my eyes. And I hear a voice saying, "Hey, bubba", meaning me. "Hey, bubba. I'm not in the Klan". I'm not enunciating quite right. It was a menace to it. I'm not in the Klan. I'm going to drop into a Southern accent. "Hey, bubba, I'm not in the Klan. I decided a certain point enough already, I let him know I was awake, so I awakened. And he said, "But my brother is". He was one tough looking guy and everything else. They hold me in solitary for a bit. And then, moved me into the white cellblock.
Now, right across from us is a graded screen. And on the other side, were 20 or 25 African-American young men, who are all in on the same type of thing, peace bond charges, civil rights workers from Savannah, Georgia. Upstairs, were the young ladies in the movement. This is all, the [movement led by] Hosea Williams. There been a big split with the NAACP. I'm not here to beat up on the NAACP, even historically. I'm just saying there was a big split. But Hosea Williams, Chatham County Crusade for Voters, was associated with Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
I had been sent down by Casey [Hayden] and Dinky Romilly from the Atlanta office, having come in from Mississippi. (I saw Dinky [in one of the other discussion groups today]). I've stayed in touch with her around this earlier, along with Bruce Gordon, who was African-American and [inaduble 00:47:47] to lend SNCC's support to this SCLC, to this Chatham County effort.
Bruce [Gordon] was also in custody. He was on the other side of the gate. About my age, I was 23 at the time, Bruce was in his early 20s, served of the military and come out and been a theater arts major. Anyway, we're there and we decide — I can communicate with them. There were plenty of chances for me to get roughed up by white guys, there were all kinds of showers and facilities and stuff. But these fellows were across away from me. We basically set up what later would be called freedom school. Wasn't my idea. It was Bruce's idea or the cohort. And so, someone taught math. I taught some history. Someone else taught this or that.
Now, what was interesting. And then, I'll stop my point. But back to that particular jail guard and another fellow, they began to watch us and listen to us. In other words, we're not criminals. We're who we are. If you want to put it this way, we have — I'm going to use the term, we have "citizenship." We're "stakeholders" in this country. We're trying to — You may not agree with us, but we're trying to make things better. Now, we weren't putting that in their face, we were simply behaving. And so, the math lessons, the geography lessons, the history lessons were going on.
One other thing I'll say, where I sense the shift — They watch us, but we watch them. You watch the people who are your guards, and you get to know each other day after day, the shifts and so on. And I was pretty familiar with corrections officers because in Plattsburgh, Northern New York, that's near Dannemora [state maximum-security prison]. And a lot of people I knew, [their] second job was to work at the prison. And so, that's some field for their colleagues, albeit a different part of the country.
But the important thing, where I sense this shift, addition to that, was the March on Washington. I could hear it on the radio upstairs. The radio was turned up. I think it's where the bridge points were, the trustee. And the different speeches and so on and so forth. I couldn't really hear it, but I knew what was going on. I'm not sure of this, but it's always been my view that upon that occasion, it was the shift. And my answer to the question of why is pretty simple, they realize we might win.
The ending of Rick's story there is so fascinating, and that I would love — We don't have to do it now, but I would love to hear more about what you felt with that shift and how you felt that it played out there. That's a fascinating story.
Let me just pick up on a point that Jennifer made earlier. What we have in common is that we've both lived Dar es Salaam, among other things. But, Jennifer, you said that after the civil rights experience, after the movement experience, you felt you were, you could relate to anyone in the world. I think one of the problems that United States has, it's really, the United States is like a juvenile delinquent, really. And it's got a long way to go to grow up. And one problem is that, the white people in this country are so insular. They really have no idea what's in the outer world. So that is a big problem there, and once you have been in the South in this country, in the Civil Rights Movement and dealing with that, or in East Africa, you wake up and everything is in perspective.
You realize, my gosh, it's a huge world out there, and it's a complete different take that you have on being a person on this planet. You're no longer just a little American with your little point of view. You have a take that — And I think for the white kids who were in the South, too, that was part of it too. After an experience like that you realize how complex this country is, and how far it has to go to catch up with itself.
And I'd just like to say that it was not only, and still isn't, only just white kids who are insular and not realizing. I think that so many of us, I think that it speaks to the quality — the very poor quality — of education we receive in this country. And you know I'm 75, and so when I was growing up in Alabama, the news was so distorted and so limited. So it was communist China, and all of that kind of nonsense. So we were stunted. I think we as a whole, generations of people have been stunted with our education and that we grew up thinking that, "Oh, the French, oh they are terrible." And all of these other people, it didn't matter what color. I mean, it was all of the people outside the borders of the United States were terrible. And we were so lucky to be Americans, so —
By the way, I am constantly being distracted by the weather that's going on outside. So if you see me suddenly turn my head, it's some huge gust that's gone by.
In your — Where are you again? Minneapolis?
Minneapolis, I'm in Minneapolis. Yeah.
Where you have such mild winters, right?
"Mild winter?" Who are you even listening to? Mild? But actually we have been, I remember having a conversation with a friend years and years ago and she was very proud of the fact that they didn't turn their heat on until October, the first week of October. And I haven't had heat yet. And this is not the first year that this has happened. I still haven't got the heat on. I don't need it. So we are warming. I mean, that's my measure of how we're warming up, global warming. We are definitely warming.
Minneapolis is famous because of George Floyd now.
Yeah, we got lots going on here and we're having a vote [on reforming the police department]. I mean, because of [the slogan] "Defund the police." And so the city council, they like to take credit for this, but of course we all know it's the people that do things, not city council. But anyway, they have brought the "defund the police" [issue] to vote on November 4th, our next voting opportunity. And it looks like it's going to fail. It looks like we're going to go on with the same police. a
So really, I'm looking forward to the SNCC talk, which is on Friday, early afternoon with Keith Ellison, who is our Attorney General. And we have thank him for the guilty decision on [police-officer Derek] Chauvin [for murdering George Floyd]. And [Ellison's] a really, really good guy, [I] vote for him all the time. And he's going to be in this conversation along with James Forman Jr., who is the one who wrote the book Locking Up Our Own. There's lots to be said drawn from that book and his research on that. And then Keith Ellison, Keith Ellison's Experience, and I'm so looking forward to it.
However, I have a meeting planned during, so I'm going to have to leave at halfway it through. And I just, you know this is what I've been just waiting for these answers, but I don't know.
So I'm going to use my awesome facilitator-powers to point out that our topic for this session is The Freedom Movement of the Sixties and we were imacted by it. So I'll throw out a question here. At least three of us, or, well actually I think all of us, first began in the early years of the Movement when basically we were protestors. In CORE, the goal was to be a dedicated nonviolent protestor and put your body on the line — Freedom Rides, sit-ins, and so on. That was also true for SNCC's first couple of years.
Then SNCC turned more towards organizing communities to achieve a fair share of political power. CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC, did the same. So instead of being a protestor, the goal was to be an effective organizer. Organizing was what movement people did. And even in SCLC, by the time I arrived in Selma in early 1965, during the whole Selma Voting Rights campaign of 1965, [organizing] was at least part of their goal in addition to getting new voting rights legislation enacted.
I agreed with SNCC. I mean, that's why I was there. But I had been a CORE and N-VAC protester, I had no idea how to be an organizer. Then, after three or four months in Selma, I was by then an "experienced veteran," so SCLC made me project director for the Crenshaw County as part of their summer SCOPE project. And not only did I have to be an organizer, I had to a lead organizer.
The truth is though, and the question I'm throwing out to get your thoughts on, is did it mean to be an organizer in a rural southern county in the mid-1960s? Because, to be honest, if I look through my whole southern Freedom Movement experience, I don't think I hardly ever organized anyone to do much of anything.
What I was — In Crenshaw I was mainly a staff person for the local leaders. The local Black leaders, Havard Richburg and Mr. Cobb in Crenshaw. Later, in Hale County I helped do field work for an election campaign for a Black candidate for sheriff in the May '66 primary. Then I worked as field staff in Marengo and Hale for Albert Turner, SCLC's state director. "Bruce, go do this, Bruce, do that, meet with these people here, get people down to the courthouse to register to vote, go canvas door to door and say this, that, and the other thing." And that's what I did. What I'm saying is, the local leaders and folk like Turner, they were the real organizers. I and the summer volunteers were their field staff.
The second thing I think I did, was that I survived. I was an example that you could stand up against the Klan, against segregation, against Jim Crow, against the whole Southern way of lifek — and survive.
And I think the third thing that I did is that, when we think about the agencies of oppression of Jim Crow segregation in the South, we naturally think of the police, the jails, the Klan, the bombings, the burnings, the lynchings, the police beatings, and all that stuff. But there was another agency of oppression, which we don't think about very much. And that was isolation. You know, they have that TV thing, "What happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." I don't know about Vegas, but I do know that in towns like Luverne, Alabama, and Grenada, Mississippi, what happened in those towns stayed in those towns. Until outside civil rights workers, both Black and white came in and provided links to the outside world so that people felt if something happened to them, it would be heard, it would be noticed, it would make a difference.
But is that organizing?
So except for one thing I organized in Grenada the last three months I was in the South, I don't think I ever organized anything. I think I did staff work. I survived as an example. I provided a link to the outside world. So I'm curious what others of you think in terms of organizing and your freedom work?
That is a good question. I would say sometimes there had to be something to organize around. And I know when Cordell Reagon and Charles Sherrod came to Albany in 1960, they started right off with voter registration and the voter registration drives there. And out in Tyrrell County and Baker County, [that] went on a pace. But in the middle of my time in Southwest Georgia, all of a sudden, and this was after a period of extreme doldrums, the winter of 1963, 1964. In 1963, 1964 SNCC ran out of money, there was nothing going on. And I just lived in the town and got a job on an all-Black construction group, that was owned by Frank Holley, whose grandfather founded Albany State College.
And by the spring of 1964, I was working on this working construction there and sitting in the pool room, and then Attorney C.B. [King] came, announced he decided to run for Congress. So between March or so of 1963 and November, we had something to organize around — his campaign. And we organized in Albany. We went different ones of us with C.B, went all around to all the different little counties down there in the Second District and going down to the Florida border there, and people then had a, could be persuaded, they had a reason to register to vote. And of course at that time C.B. had quite a job because he had to actually persuade people that he wasn't completely insane for, it's hard to remember at that time, but people, a lot of people in the Black community just regarded it as a completely quixotic idea.
And we'd be out there in some of these counties, at night, in a little church, under a kerosene lamp and maybe half a dozen or 10 people would show up to hear his talk, and they'd never registered to vote before, but now they — so I don't think I could organize anybody either, but we did have a real reason to do something to organize around at that point.
And I believe a lot of voters, a lot of people registered to vote as a result of his campaign that summer, even though he didn't win, he still made a big advancement in people's consciousness of what the possibilities were. And he knew that's what he was doing. He knew he was involved with an educational, in a educational endeavor, an organizing endeavor.
I think I started, I would say that I first started just as a protestor. And when I was in high school and we left to go and join Martin Luther, you know when Martin Luther King was in jail. And so we were marching, at the behest of SCLC, in downtown Birmingham. I would consider that protesting.
However, I would consider it my first, my introduction to organizing too, in the sense that there were a group of us, we were just friends at high school. And what we talked about what was happening and we talked out how our parents had said, "Do not go anywhere near downtown Birmingham." How the principal of the school had said, "There are demonstrations taking place. We are not going to be involved in that. And if anybody from this school even thinks of it, you will be expelled from school."
And we were seniors of, high school seniors. And so this was the time we were getting ready for graduation. And the only way that I could afford to go to college was through a scholarship that I had won, and so all of this was at risk in a sense. But we then would meet and talk with each other about what we felt was right to do and what we felt we should do. So I feel that those meetings, that was my sort of initiation into the process of organizing. Because we were then saying, "Well, yeah, we should do this. And I think that if we talked to Gwen, she might join us. And what about talking to this other person? You think Susie would too?" And so we were organizing, we as a smaller core group were beginning to identify who among us might also be of like mind and might join us.
And so we did, and we ended up going down, we got arrested and that was, that later they, the principal said we were expelled, but he reinstated us. And so that all worked out fine.
My next effort that I would say was true organizing, was when I went to Wilcox. Yes, I would say real organizing was Wilcox County [AL]. And then from there to Lowndes County. And we had a clear of objective, we were attempting to register people to vote with the idea that these were the — We had the knowledge through the work that Jack Minnis as the SNCC researcher had done. We had the information that these were Black Belt counties and that they could be called Black Belt because of the color of the soil, they are the fertile soil, but also the people and that they were majority Black. And that even though they were majority Black, there were very few registered voters in many of these counties and people had been prevented from registering to vote. So I felt that I did have a clear objective which was to register as many people to vote as possible. In some of the places it was just that goal of getting people registered to vote. I felt that was what I was doing in Wilcox and also in Macon County where Tuskegee is located.
And I had — Lowndes County was different for me because now we had a clearer objective with the idea that if we can get enough people registered, they could actually become the authority of the county. And so that was a clear goal and it was a driving kind of goal to me, to go out and really try to organize. And so I would think with, of course, with all of the guidance and with long lengthy conversations with Stokley and Courtland [Cox] and Ralph Featherstone, and so many others, we'd come up with strategies of how, if we could get, do this and get people to a meeting at this particular church on a Thursday night, then that would lead to this action on Sunday, which could lead to — So now we were really, to me, organizing, and that to me was the work of organizing.
It was the legwork of going out, knocking on doors, working, going into the fields and talking to people. But it wasn't just the canvasing. It was the canvasing and working towards a goal. And that's what I considered organizing. And that was invaluable to me later in terms of a professional career, because it, I felt I had the, an understanding of how you get a team of people working together towards a goal, and you can get things done. So invaluable.
I think that's a really good point, Bruce. I'm glad you brought it up. And as people are talking here, I get to reflect on my own ideas about it.
When I went on the Freedom Ride, I knew very clearly, and again I have to credit my background and my parents for alerting me to the fact that I was going South to be a grunt. I was just there. I mean as far as the Freedom Ride, there wasn't any organizing. The organizing had all been done and was to be done later. But when I went back to Panola County, first of all, the people in, since the World War II vets were the ones who started the movement. I mean, we all know that. And so the vets who were responsible for the movement at Panola County had in Panola County had been very —
In Panola County had been very, very active. And they had constructed a movement already before any of us got there. They needed help. They weren't getting any further along in the voter registration. Things that had to be taken on that they couldn't take on. But I also knew that I was just there to help. And so I was — first of all, if I had gone out and talked to people on their porches, it would've been incredibly dangerous and maybe even a death threat for them. So the white women were pretty much kept busy with other things. And I did a lot of kind of secretarial stuff. And I worked and I loved that opportunity. And so I got to — ever since the very beginning, I've been very curious and anxious about the whole organizing thing, because I am so certain it comes from the people.
I know that tool, the biggest tool you have is organizing those people. And so I worked with the teens, but not in any kind of a conscious way that I'm going to organize the teens. Of course, you're part of a team and you know, what's going. But I did work almost exclusively with teens. And what worked out is that we organized. And the teens then were responsible for, in Batesville anyway, a big, significant demonstration. And we were all arrested. It was quite an experience. And so I went and I became involved. I mean, my father was a union organizer. I mean, organizing was something — I knew the word. And I knew that it was something that I wanted to acquire better skills.
And obviously going to the meetings, being in the churches, being among others who did know how to organize and who knew how to organize in that setting was absolutely invaluable. And when I went home, actually the reason I decided to go home was actually Stokely said, "You need to go home. You all in Panola County need to go home and organize at home." So since Stokely told me to do that, I did that. And I went home and then organized around in Minneapolis, in North Minneapolis. I wasn't the only one. There were groups doing that. And you could earn more or less a living by doing that. So I did. I was very interested in that. Now that was organizing that I could actually get into. And I worked with street kids and welfare moms and organizing them to make things better in their own life.
When I went to Canada I lived in Canada for several years, I became acquainted with Paulo Freire's "Politics of the Oppressed" concept. And I got really, really excited about that form of organizing. Now, it's interesting that it was brought, transported from South America to Canada, and I never tripped over it anywhere in the U.S. And I've since found out why that is. I just wasn't walking in the right places.
But I became really, really committed to Politics of the Oppressed and have been using those techniques. And I am so happy that I learned them because I felt like I got the introduction in Mississippi. And I got the opportunity to cross that threshold and actually become involved in actual organizing. And then in Canada, then using those skills with the First Nations people in Canada. So it was a really, really great adventure. And now I'm using it with peoples here too. So it's very, very useful. And I think it's going to get the revolution. But that's my belief. We're going to have our revolution. And it's all because of Paulo Freire in Brazil.
My son. I was just going to say that my son is at the University of Texas and he's a professor of education there. And that's all he talks about is Paulo Freire, Claire. So in the Southwest, they base much of their educational reform movements on his writings.
But Bruce, relating to your point that you never organized anything, but what you did was form a link and you protested, it could have been that — don't you think it could have been that to some extent, in that you organized when somebody told you to organize?
But I relate to that because that was exactly how I'd characterize my experience too. And I wonder though if that isn't what we were supposed to be doing then. Because there's a — I think we sometimes have an illusion of this particular period, there's just a period that, say the sixties were what happened after the forties and fifties and what went before everything since.
And I know in Southwest Georgia, there were terrific organizations in place. When we went to jail, there was an excellent civil rights attorney, C.B. King, to get us right out or eventually to get us out. And the local to people had been organizing even in the counties for many years. So perhaps it wasn't really our place to do that. And it was a time when it was very important that the whole consciousness of the country get raised to whatever degree that was possible. And it did happen a little bit. So possibly we played a role that we were supposed to do. You know?
I think that's true. I will say this, when I said I didn't ever organize anything, that's not strictly true. It took me 18 months in the South before I actually tried to organize something. But the last few months, I was in the South I was in Grenada Mississippi, I organized a welfare rights group to fight the Mississippi welfare system. A group of local women to fight for their welfare rights. Actually that group existed for three or four years after I left. But it took me 18 months to get to the place where I could do something like that.
Let me go back a step first. Ms. Lawson, I'm inspired by your comments in this last episode, particularly because I was saying Ms. O'Connor, Claire O'Connor —
I'm going to go to first names. I'm from Connecticut. So out here in the west coast [crosstalk] everyone's hugging each other. I shake hands with people I've known for five or 10 years. Anyway, I'll work on this. I'm an ongoing project. So anyway, thank you.
To Jennifer's comment, I had said earlier of Claire's, the Freedom Rides, and then this John Poppy article I read about SNCC and registration and Mississippi and so on and so forth. In fact, what you all did in Birmingham was the immediate trigger.
Because when that happened, I said to myself, having been primed by the Freedom Rides, where I said half an hour ago or an hour ago, I missed it. The bus pulled out before my roommate and I could catch up with Reverend William Sloan Coffin and those folks, because we would've wanted to be part of that.
And then for a variety of reasons, lost touch with it. The rides dwindled, there was some here, life went on. But when Birmingham happened and you folks became involved and made a witness, fire hoses and all the rest, I looked in the mirror and I basically said of myself, "I'm single. I don't owe anyone any money. I'm eagerly looking not to have a friend, a special relationship, but no immediate takers. And I have a job lined up, a teaching assistantship at UCLA lined up for the fall, I can do this."
And then I went to the period I mentioned, came back out. And Bruce, we may have known each other because of Russ Ellis, because we worked with CORE out here, the fair housing fight. I think that's why I knew you contemporarily or knew about you.
Also the Non-Violent Action Committee [crosstalk]. Yeah.
But in any event, out of it we had a group called the Student Coordinating Committee. And Russ Ellis, who was chair of CORE, co-chair of CORE, a leader in that, Bob Singleton, a Freedom Rider. Again, that's a CORE operation in the early sixties at that time. Our battle was twofold. The fair housing fight, the "No on 14" fight, which was to prevent the overturn of the Rumford Act, big operation, deep involvement. And support for the Southern civil rights movement. And so I saw myself both from my own experience and that experience adopting what I always have thought of as a kind of SNCC ethos when it comes to organizing.
So the last 15 or 20 years, just addressing this whole issue, I have found where I can be of value is being helpful. In other words, my wife chairs the Culver City, California human relations committee. I'm the guy that went out and distributed the leaflets yesterday. And the day before. Ran the — Claire, you were talking about what you were doing in Panola. I'm the one who fed the paper into the printing. But she's busy organizing it. And then another friend, there's some fight over saving Pacifica Radio. And a friend of mine is all involved in that and so on and so forth.
I'm the one who, give me 50 phone calls to make, and then I'll make another 50.
And it brings me back to the well known, somebody used his name, Jim Forman, not Farmer, but Forman, Jim Forman of SNCC, where there's that moment in the Atlanta office where — this is a well known story where there's a mailer to get out. Everyone jumps in to do the mailer. And I've had in my lifetime plenty of times of sitting at the head of the table. But that SNCC ethos, being helpful, being an ally, being a worker and creating some of those links between the idea of the policy and trying to build something, that's a part of myself I'm pleased with. And I got it from the SNCC experience and the ethos of SNCC.
Excuse me. I want to pick up on that. I think one of the things that CORE and even more SNCC, did or brought into the movement that I really resonated with was the whole concept of non-egotistical leadership. That leadership in so many organizations, SCLC being one of them, leadership was a function of your rank, your position, minister, chairman, president, whatever. And it was a function of oratory or pushing yourself forward. You know, "Look at me, I'm the leader." And there were quite a — not including King, but immediately under King, some of the other leaders there were of this "look at me" kind of leader. But SNCC and CORE had leadership by example, a concept of leadership was you achieved something by getting other people to take leadership.
And that in CORE and SNCC and N-VAC which is this group I worked with in L.A, status did not come from being the center of attention or because you could impose your ideas on other people. Status was based on what you endured and what you actually achieved. And it was a very big shock to me — and not in good way, more like a jumping into ice water unpleasant shock — that when I left the southern movement and came into the north and started working with the anti-war movement and SDS where leadership and status had nothing to do with what you endured or what you actually achieved. It had all to do with how eloquent or bombastic you were, or how manipulative you were, and basically what your class background was. Because if you were a SDSer from Harvard, you were much more important than a SDSer from little, 'ol San Francisco State. Anyway, don't get me started down that track.
So anyway, that was I think one of the things that SNCC — and SNCC was the leader in this, CORE followed it. Really, it inculcated into me is this whole concept of, I don't know what the word is.
Yeah, I don't know that there is a specific term. But what you're speaking of to me brings up thoughts for me of the way in which I felt that another thing that I got from my experience was that I learned, and I learned in a philosophies of being. And that there were people like Jim Lawson, there were the Vincent Harding. I mean, these were people who some of them had definite religious connections, because I think Harding was a Mennonite I believe.
And Gandhi, the philosophy of Gandhi, the whole notion of nonviolence. When we talk about John Lewis, to me, one of the real differences — people sort of say, "Well, John Lewis was very different from Stokely." Yes. Very different from a number of people. Because I feel that John was someone who really believed in his heart the notion of nonviolence and the notion of that we can have a moral superiority if we turn the other cheek. That there is something that we can win by allowing ourselves to be hurt.
But not necessarily a spirit of martyrship, but that there is a real sort of moral higher ground in this. And so there were all of these different ways in which I think different religious thinking from internationally, Buddhism, so many were beginning to come into and a part of what we were talking about and thinking.
I think that's a very good point. Thank you for bringing it up. Thank you. Yeah.
I think one of the things that is not given enough attention is that nonviolence for me was also an organizing technique. In other words, that was the root of the non-egotistical kind of leadership, the leadership by example, the leadership of building up other people. To me, that was directly related to the concepts I was learning about nonviolence.
And that I think that Ella Baker, John Lewis, Jim Forman — at first I thought that the story that was going to be told about Forman was another one of those where when you went to the SNCC office, you most commonly found Forman sweeping. That he would often have a broom in hand and be sweeping the floors and cleaning the office, emptying the garbage. And that was something that definitely, I absorbed that.
And to this day, when I go and work in any place or anything that I then often surprise people by being the one who then at the end of the meeting is cleaning up the room. And people are going, "No, you don't." And it's, "No, this is our work. This is our room. We have had a meeting. We will clean it up." And that's something that I got from Forman.
That's right. And I recall the story of everyone gets the envelopes, licks the envelopes, or wets them. You're absolutely right. In fact, now that you bring it back, I was in the Atlanta office just for a short time, but I do recall him doing just that.
And back to what I was saying earlier about passing out the leaflets for my wife's projects or doing — I probably have — I'm an 81 year old guy. COVID's come along. But before COVID in my seventies and my sixties and everything else, I'm out there phone banking campaigns I care about, walking precincts, doing that sort of thing. Because where it fits in, and Bruce, where it may have fit in your experience, the unspoken part is a type of leadership — and again, I picked this up straight from what you were talking about, Ms. Lawson is you don't lead by saying, "Charge." You lead by saying, "Follow me, follow me."
And you're going out and doing, oh, he'll do it. And he'll do this. And he'll do that. And he'll do this. And I got that. There's absolutely no question in my mind. I got that from the SNCC ethos, the SNCC experience. Both from the time I was there and then when we were allied and doing basically a friends of SNCC & CORE operation in Los Angeles, but keeping very much part of that. I've always been grateful for that.
The other thing I'll say since we're talking about our personal experiences, one thing about that period, it brought out for me the best part of myself. Now I've been fortunate. There are some other times too. But to touch that feeling, to know what that feeling is, to be happy with myself for what I'm doing, attempting to do, as each of us have done, putting ourselves in harm's way for the right reasons, [inaudible] time to do this and that. And I treasure that. I have a hunch that's probably true with each of us. We've had other things in our lives and that's at the very core of my being.
All right. Well, we have about five or six minutes left. So kind of a final thoughts time.
Yeah. My final thought is this has been very interesting. Thank you. Very interesting conversation. We don't know each other. I mean, we do know locations and all. And does anybody know Zev Aelony, if you've been in Georgia? Oh, okay. [crosstalk].
He worked with the Freedom Rides. He was one of the Americus Four. And I saw him as recently — I saw him — Curtis Williams wrote a play about John Perdue, "The Education of a Harvard Guy. — And when it was performed, Zev was down there in Albany. That was about 20 years ago. That was the last time I saw Zev.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was — anyway, thank you. This has been — I mean, thoughts — we were allowed to prepare for this. We were allowed to study and have the answers. Everything I heard was just so new and so enriching. So thank you.
Those were very exciting times. Those were very romantic times. You know?
In both senses of the word.
Yeah. All senses of the word. Yeah. Those were wonderful days.
[END SESSION #1]
[BEGIN SESSION #2]
There were probably different interludes during the movement itself, where you would answer that in different ways. And certainly, decade by decade, we would have answered it in different ways. And now that we're in such astonishing sort of period of history we answer in a different way now. We probably just feel as if we all have a special insight into what's going on. We wish everyone else did too, because of our experience.
So I feel like we accomplished a lot at that time and we did accomplish a lot. I know, John Lewis felt that SNCC accomplished a lot. And I don't think — The changes of consciousness and the way history moves, it's very, very difficult to analyze and you hit plateaus, and then you go backwards. And so I'm sure that our period have been proved to be a very important and useful time in the whole — When you go back in the past 300 years, it'll be a time that is worth knowing.
I mean, there were things going on, when there seemed to be nothing going on in this country that were extremely important. And if the historians could really, somehow get into those periods of time it will be — Maybe they will as time goes on. And the whole changing point of view continues to evolve. Basically, they say the North won the battle and the south won the war, because they won the propaganda war.
And for 100 years, the southern historians wrote the history of the country. So just an example of that, the way President Grant is getting a whole 'nother look than he did at one time, as an example of that. So probably, particularly as African American Studies groups continues to grow and grow and grow in this country, you're going to have a lot of analysis of the later 19th century in the early 20th century. But our period had an effect of bringing up the consciousness of the country, in certain ways. And witnessed that, where the '64 and '65 [civil rights] laws that were passed, whatever they did or didn't accomplish, they still are landmarks. So that's what I'd have to say.
Go ahead, Jennifer, I see you smiling. You have the greatest smile.
Well, thank you. But it gets me in trouble. I see.
Well, it's the same trouble for doing a good job.
But as John Lewis would say, "It's good trouble."
I share Peter's thoughts, that I really do feel that we made a difference that our the work that we did in the Civil Rights Movement, wherever we were and the work that we did afterwards, too, because I hear people like Claire talking about what she did after leaving the southern Civil Rights Movement. And it seems as though, for all of us here, that we probably never really stopped being organizers or activists in our own way. So I do believe that we made an important difference in this country.
I think that, what I never would have my 27 year old person back in the '60s, never could have anticipated was the role that media would play and also the way in which the racism and the fear of change in this country is so entrenched that people are willing to just discard democracy, discard so much in order to preserve what they think is their traditional way of life, when that's a a part of the fantasy that has been fed by, as Peter was saying, some of those southern historians in that respect.
So I never would have thought that we'd be in the place that we're in right now. But I also — And I say that in the terms of the lack of change, and I don't mean it just in terms of racial division, but just the economics of our country. I mean, where we have such a huge division between rich and poor, and that that keeps growing, where we have billionaires who are hiding wealth in of all places, North Dakota. But those are things that I would not have predicted, I could not have.
So I feel that we didn't have sort of far sight, we didn't have great vision glasses that could have helped us to understand what might come and therefore how to work even harder to make those changes to prevent some of these things from happening. I don't think we could have anticipated it. So I'm very proud of what we did and feel that, yes, it made a great difference and important difference.
I noticed when the George Floyd thing had happened, or had been fairly recent, that the thing that went all over the world, that the commentators always referred to the Civil Rights Movement, as "This is the biggest since..." I mean, and at that time, they were compared favorably with us about what this immense worldwide movement, and how much we had done to bring that about once. And I really felt kind of proud.
At the same time, I feel we're going backwards. I mean, there's no dealing with the Texas anti-abortion stuff, and the all the things that are coming.[Referring to the Texas 2021 citizen-vigilante enforced anti-abortion law designed to overturn the Roe v Wade decision now that six Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have made it plain that they will rule as partisan Republicans rather than impartial justices.]
The vote, and manipulating the vote, and however you can do that. There is no way — The voter repression, we know what it's all about, we know what all of that it's about, because we're very familiar with it.
And I also think that racism was created to preserve the wealth of the very wealthy race. There is no such thing as racism, it was created. And it was to divide us, to take away the potential power because there was power — I mean, I didn't know. And we in high school, nobody said those slaves came over here and they rebelled. Oh, my gosh, they rebelled. And so, we were invented, white people were invented, to make sure that that rebellion would be controlled and repressed. And we [white people] were given just a little smidgen of some privilege to make us fulfill that and that that is how racism and the current structure of our society, that's how it came about.
But I feel very kind of disheartened about the fact that we know that they conquered us by dividing us, and that that's still true. I was watching a movie actually about, in Chicago, one of the movies that that was made available to us [during the SNCC 60th Conference], and I was watching it this morning. And I was just so impressed. This is about the bringing together of the Young Lords, the Panthers, all the groups and in Chicago and bringing them together and what power they have.
And yet we are still divided. And there doesn't seem to have been — I mean, we meaning races, that really the issue is class. That's what the real issue is that the classes that are fighting each other for some control in the country. And yet we still have not been able to bring people together. It's still a struggle to bring people together who have been defined, not by us. We didn't define us this way, any of us, defined by the people who have wealth and need to keep us separated and weakened.
So I mean, that's actually a challenge that bothers me a lot. I was once in a meeting that was brought together, there's a big theater company here, and they were going to organize a community advisory committee, and George Floyd was not our first rebellion in this city run by racism. There was another one about police violence.
I mean, you never can keep the story straight. But I'm pretty sure that it's actually was right at the beginning of Black Lives Matter. And the people who then became Black Lives Matter, organized a boycott of the precinct where those police people [inaudible 00:10:59] who had committed such incredible violence, their precinct. And they blockaded the precinct for weeks, and nobody could get in and out.
And you know what all that means in the press, and those good guys and those bad guys. When I was in a meeting of this, they brought together this theater group, and a young woman, we were having a discussion. Now, everybody in that room would have been in favor of barricading the precinct. And she started talking about how — She was African American, how we, non-African American, Euro Americans, took up room in that rebellion, and there was no room for her.
And so we were then isolated into separate groups, and she was expressing her resentment of the European American people who were involved. No, she was just a stupid kid, actually. But I am constantly frustrated by the lack of not solving the problem. But the opportunity to come together and solve that problem and reunite us.
By the way, I'm just absorbing the interesting comments that others have made. Let me go to what I was thinking I was going to say. And I may add a little bit based on what I was just hearing.
I think there's little question in my mind the movement and putting SNCC in the middle of it in terms of my formatting, but it's a little bit broader than just any one organization. I think SNCC is a major catalyst for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act — the Voting Act.
We all know the United States Supreme Court tore asunder the guts of that act out in the preclearance issue, which became a material issue and would have been under the auspices of Mr. Trump's Attorney General, but that's a side comment on that. Having said that, I've long seen those two [laws are] two major strategic victories.
However, in the larger issue of racism, the battle goes on. It takes different forms than it used to, but there are some useful tools that have come out of the passage of the two great civil rights acts. One of the battles that was fought, and SNCC and allies played a role in this, more I learn about it. Was maintaining inside the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which often was called the Public Accommodations Act, also the Fair Employment Practices section of that act. It's the fair employment section of that act, it gives, again, some tools to deal with issues of class, race and poverty and so on and so forth. So that's my overall summary comment.
Now, one other comment to make. I'll put this out there, gently, I haven't completely thought it through nor have I devoted a lot of time to it, but I was conscious of it at the time and I'm still conscious of it now. And that is the establishment was split, on this whole question of the events of, approximately, 1964 until — Here's where I tail off. Until at least After the 1965, maybe up to 68.
The security establishment, for example, over the Central Intelligence Agency was clearly concerned about issues beyond what were commonly called East-West. [They] began to look at it in terms of [the global] North-South. The African countries coming into the United Nations. And the organizing link to that was, of course, the National Student Association. The International Division, [I] later learned, was under the control of the CIA. And that's also where the budget organization came from.
The other hand, there were plenty of people in NSA — I mean, National Student Association not the National Security Agency — who were involved and encouraged to be involved in different ways in terms of what was commonly called the Civil Rights Movement.
And so on the other hand, over on the other side of the security establishment, the FBI until the middle of 1965, was clearly not at all helpful and in fact, very often on the other side, and — I'll come back to this other point.
I'm using the comment I made about the March on Washington giving a sign we might win. Until then, even with the greatness of Birmingham, even with the Freedom Ride, there was a substantial chance that we would not make it because they would come after us with the issue of American communism. They came after these movements in the 1930s. We get hamstrung on that. They find ways to dry up finance and so on and so forth. And through a series of, I think it's Claire's making this point, I hitchhike on other people's ideas, all the time.
But it was the organization and the movement of large numbers of people, sometimes invisible operations, such as a wartime Washington or the extraordinary accomplishment of Birmingham other times in many, many small ways. Plus — And here's what I think the five of us have in common, a willingness to — I'm using a slightly theological language, a willingness to make a witness, to put oneself out there.
And that brings in family members and everyone else. My father was the Education Director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. And in those days, NASA was a very big name in the pantheon. And here's Fred Tuttle's son. I'm Rick Tuttle, and Frederick Tuttle Junior down there, engaging himself in these activities. And it didn't escape the notice of others, that white folks like me, and probably the three others of us here on this, got a lot more attention than African Americans in general, Dr. King being the exception.
So in any event, I'll stop for now. But that last point I put out, namely the split — And the establishment was split at the corporate level, all of a sudden Time Magazine woke up to the idea, "Wait a minute, this segregation business is interfering with the market." All of a sudden, it was like a light bulb went off, it's interfering with market forces. And I remember again, the important thing is that I'm saying it now I remember thinking it at the time. And I was right about that. Just thinking about it. I'll yield my time back to the group.
All right. Okay, this is getting to be a good discussion. Let's see if I can —
[crosstalk 00:19:13] As if the other one wasn't good? [smiling]
[crosstalk 00:19:19] It's all been good.
[crosstalk 00:19:21] I know him quite well, [Bruce is] an enormous tease, by the way. And he uses humor — And when I say weaponize, I mean in the best way. He teases, he's got us scrambling around, I'm trying to — I'm the B minus student trying to impress the professor and [inaudible 00:19:41].
[crosstalk 00:19:41] Oh, okay. Now you've done it [laughing]. Now, I'm going to go into full professor mode. When I was in the movement, when I was young, I saw things in terms of winning and losing. Did we win? Did we lose? But what I learned in the movement was that social justice struggles, human progress, are not like a win lose sports event. Now I see justice struggles, human progress, as a very long, multi-generational journey, with no finish line, only milestones.
And I say that because in the activism I do, I run into people who tell me that the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s "failed." And when they tell me that I understand the anger and the anguish and the fear and the apprehension they're expressing, when they say, "You guys failed, you left us." And I share those feelings. But I don't agree. I don't agree that we failed.
If you go all the way back to the early 50s, to the Moores — Henry and Harriette Moore in Florida, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the students sit-ins [and so on], the initial goals of the freedom movement were ending Jim Crow segregation and establishing voting rights for people of color. And we achieved milestones on both of them.
And I think, we did something else that I think is even more important, a more important milestone, which we didn't really understand at the time because it was slow. We forever changed the culture of America in regards to race. Changed — we didn't end racism, we didn't end all forms of racism. But we did put an end to the mass public acceptance of overt, explicit, legally-enforced racism.
Yesterday, some big time super-duper football coach got his ass fired because he made some comments that actually were about misogyny and homophobia. But those comments would have been so normal [back in our day] that nobody would have noticed them. He couldn't say him now. And he did say them, and he lost his job. [That's a cultural change.]
And that applies to racism, too. There was another guy out here on the left coast, he owned some big basketball team. And he lost his team, because he made some comments that back when we were young everybody — It would have been a mild comment. So we changed the culture and you can see it.
Even the racists today deny that they are racists. They proudly asserted [their racism before the Civil Rights Movement]. They used to be proud of it: "Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever," said [George Wallace and] Strom Thurman. And Jim Clark, he wore this little button. So those things that are, to me, they're signposts showing the cultural change. Let me give you another one. More important, perhaps.
I did some research. And if you do the research, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an average of one acknowledged racial [lynching] every week. Not every month, every week. And the hidden ones that were not acknowledged were even more numerous. Well, yes, there still are occasionally racially murders today. And there are people who threaten it by hanging nooses on the tree and shit like that. But it's big-time news, when that happens, it's headline news. And people get arrested, and people get put in jail. And that is a huge change.
And it's the same thing with police murders. Yeah, they're still going on. This is the issue we're fighting today. But back in our time, no one even counted them. I grew up in L.A. I mean, real L.A not Lala-Land LA. I grew up on the mean streets. And my sense impression back then was the the various police forces of Los Angeles County murdered more Black, Brown and Asian people in a year than all of the police departments in America do today. And I can't prove that statistically, because they didn't take statistics, but that's my belief. Well, that's a change.
So, I know we're in hard times right now. Racism, misogyny, white supremacy, classism, it's all resurging. And in some respects, we're being pushed back, pushed back on freedom road. And that's the way social struggle is, you go forward, you get pushed back. Next time you go further than you did before you were pushed back. The young 'uns today who are picking up the torch from us and carrying on the struggle, they are starting — Even though we've been pushed back, they are starting from a place so far ahead of where we were that it's enormous.
So I disagree with the meme that the movement failed. And I think it's really important that we say that and that we take a stand on that. Because if you sum up everything that we did back in the day, all our organizing, our voter registration, our protests our freedom rides & marches, if we say that was all for naught, if you sum up everything that we endured, the jailings, the beatings, the home burnings, the church bombings, the assassinations, the brutality, if we sum that all up as a failure, then what that tells people, that confirms the folk wisdom, you can't fight City Hall. I'm powerless. I'm just an ordinary person. I have no power. Nothing ever changes.
Well, we're living proof that's not true. But if we don't counter that argument, it becomes a rationale for doing nothing. And in fact, there is a reason our education system and our culture tell us that ordinary people can't do shit. Excuse my French. That a hero is a "man with a gun." That things are changed by only people who have superpowers, or who are saints like Martin Luther King — who I worked for and loved — but he was not a saint. He was an inspiration. But you don't have to be Martin Luther King to make social change.
So I guess what I'm saying is what the most important lesson I learned from the movement is that the revolutionary emotion, the emotion that drives people moves people into action up from below is not anger, it's hope.
The anger is already there. Everybody is angry. Anger without hope leads to self destruction. It leads to drugs and alcohol and beating your children and abusing your spouse and self destruction. Hope is what moves people into political action. So yeah, I guess my thing is, we did have failures. We failed to really address poverty and wealth inequality, for example. That's a huge one. But the movement itself did not fail. Because we achieved milestones that still stands To this day, so that's my speech.[See also The Civil Rights Movement Did Not Fail for futher thoughts on this theme.]
And thank you —
[crosstalk 00:30:09] We agree. We agree and applaud it too.
Yeah, good speech, Professor. Good speech. No, we agree. I think, we do definitely agree. I'm in alignment with you.
I think we did not fail, but that we succeeded on a number of fronts. And I would just throw in some that you didn't mention, which is that I think we really opened people's eyes to the whole question of foreign policy, war, and whether military — I think, before our generation, the thought that if the general said we needed to go to war, we were going to go to war. And that young people were going to be drafted and serve the military, no matter how much it destroyed them. I think that has changed.
And we played a role in that change by standing up and saying, "Hell no, I won't go." So the draft resistors, the women who supported people who were draft resistors, and groups like the American Friends Service Committee, all of these groups brought up the whole issue of, how does change come about? What is the role of pacifism? And what's the role of negotiation and diplomacy in changing something that isn't right within the world?
Is War the only answer? I mean, I think that that was a real part of it. And it was exhibited through even our music. I think that the musicians of our time, whether it was Bob Dylan or whether it was Earth, Wind, and Fire, and all of these different groups, they carry these messages as poetry to the masses too. To many, many people far beyond any places where we would have been speaking.
I think of the role and looking at the lives of women, and the lives of people who were non-binary, who were gay, lesbian, transgender, that there had been in — When I was growing up, the people who were gay or lesbian that was like — You could be lynched by your family practically. And I think that our openness to change, help to change and transform that as well.
So those are just a few of the things that I really think we played a role in creating a level of change that continues, it's like waves to me, that go out. And the change is continuing, I was so inspired, and deeply moved by the number of people that came out with the Black Lives Matter and the post-George Floyd murder, amazing to me. Everywhere in the world. I mean, I would go on to the internet and see four people in Idaho or five people in Indonesia, with their Black Lives Matter signs out. So I think that that was a level of communications and change too, that came from a lot that we did and that will keep going and growing.
Yeah, I think both of you are really touching on — To me, the most important aspect of the movement, which was it's rightness and the moral aspect of it. One of the reasons of the successes in the 60s was that once the country kind of understood what was going on, there was a sense of right and wrong involved.
And to discount that, it's a power analysis and an economic analysis is always interesting, but this playing field we were on was very much of a moral one, just as it was in the Civil War. And Lincoln took a long time to come around to certain of his positions, but he usually hark back to what — He eventually hark to what he thought was right. Some people wanted to take the voting right away from Black soldiers and he said, No, he would be "Roasted in Hell, if I did that. That would be wrong." So we were involved in that aspect of it.
And I think that all the genius of the movement, and it's sort of not the genius so much is one essential aspect of the movement that made a real movement, was that it was happening every place in the country. So I think the powers that be just came to see that they had to evolve a little bit because you couldn't put that genie back in the bottle anymore.
And I think I travel in different circles from Bruce, because I don't ever run into anybody who says, the Civil Rights Movement was a failure. I think Bruce hangs out with a lot of radical guys and young Blacks and stuff like that who are pretty impatient.
But I always put it like this to people in explaining what the Civil Rights Movement meant. Say, "What happened in the 60s, what happened in the 1960s and 1970s?" "Well, there was Woodstock. There was the hippies. There was a love hymns. There was psychedelia. There was LSD. There was a free speech movement. There was SDS, there was the Weathermen, and there was a revolutionaries. There was [the slogan] "Make Love Not War," there was — Everything was goning on.
Out of all those things that were happening, which one survived? Which one does anybody — Every one of those turned out to have — There was only one that was made out of the pure metal. And that was a Civil Rights Movement, I think, because it was all about what is right and wrong.
And you can even say that the opposition that the Civil Rights Movement met, say, among the white southerners was on those same terms, because those people even today have their sense, their tribal sense, of right and wrong and don't want to be a part of — They only want to be in their little corner of the world and have their sense of right or wrong. Well we're talking about a broader sense of right and wrong, the kind of right or wrong that empowers the whole country. And I believe that it was a wonderful confluence of events.
I saw Danny Lyons' movie [SNCC] last night, and at one point, he was talking to Julian [Bond]. And Danny was expressing extreme distaste for Johnson. And Julian disagreed vehemently. He said, "No, no, no, Johnson was a good guy. I've always liked President Johnson." He was a tragic, tragic figure, because of his limited vision and because of the power structure in which he was embedded, he could not understand Vietnam. He could not understand the nationalist movements in the Third World.[In mid-20th Century jargon, the term "Third World" might have three related by somewhat different meanings. In the geo-political sense, it referred to the non-aligned nations that were part of neither the "West" nor the "Communist Bloc." Among insurgent political activists like de Lissovoy, it referred to nations that had recently — or were still struggling to — throw off colonial rule (like Vietnam). In common conversations among young people, it referred to nations whose population was predominantly nonwhite.]
But coming from where he did, where he was a teacher, as a young man teaching Hispanic kids and coming from being a poor guy in the South and so forth, he had a real strong moral compass. And at the same time, he had those political skills. And he was able to persuade some of the really, really, really really recalcitrant characters of those times to just — He just dragged them over the finish line.
So I've always I've always liked Johnson and I really do think that, even though in SNCC, we always took Martin Luther King with a grain of salt and everything, "Da Lawd" and everything. But still, when he talks about the arc of moral justice bending very slowly, you're talking about, like Bruce was saying, what is what is social movements? You got to talk about in terms of millennia, 1000 years, I think.
And so, we're analyzing things very closely but I'm quite sure that things are in a different place in every respect. Not solely from what we did in the '60s. But a lot of things have been happening and we certainly had a major part in it, the Civil Rights Movement had a major part of that. And those guys from Raleigh, those 12 apostles, or whatever they were that went out all over the southland. Well, they had no idea what kind of effect they were going to have way beyond even their wildest visions, I think.
Claire, Rick, comments?
Oh, I was going to say, nobody's mentioned the Green Revolution. Nobody's mentioned the pending catastrophe. Has anybody watched Greta Thunberg's "Blah, Blah, Blah," speech?[Referring to climate-defense activist Greta Thunberg's speech condeming the lack of action on global warming by world leaders at the Glasgow conference of 2021.]
It's on CNN, it's probably on YouTube. Look at Greta Thunberg, "Blah, Blah, Blah." And it's what she's — I mean, it appeared in the news and there was just this — What's going to happen in Glasgow is going to be just more blah, blah, blah. Well, she gave this long speech, which, in many ways, I found really cute and really funny. And when we're talking about how we have affected what's going on right now, also affected the future.
Because if you sit and listen to Greta Thunberg, you don't feel like you've been at many of these kinds of speeches. I mean, she is obviously basing and I think they, I don't give her — I mean, she's not at Martin Luther King. I mean, I don't want that comparison. But she's not the leader. She's just one of the youth who are propelling this whole thing forward. But I think it's really a real sense of pride to hear that speech and to know that she's one of our children our grandchildren. Look it up, blah, blah, blah.
I'll do that. Rick, thoughts?
Well, yes, thank you. I'm reminded as these comments went on and listening to the concluding part of Jennifer's last remarks that the concept of we have of "rights," whether we based on whether it be gender or transgender, or people who are otherwise abled. And my brother's deaf and was part of the sit-in in [HEW Secretary Joseph] Calafono's office in '77, that help lead to what later became the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so on. But I'm not alone in this, it's not anything original to me, but that grew out of that concept of "rights." That was embedded in the two great civil rights bills, but I have two additional things to say about those bills going a little deeper into them.
Namely, that part of the genius of the coalition which included people of our generation, meaning Jim Forman, John Lewis. A couple of other people, Mr. [Courtland] Cox, others there, several of them were part of the leadership team with Roy Wilkins and James Farmer, Dr. King and a couple other people. The great 1964 civil rights bill wasn't just race, it was religion, national origin. And, as we all know the story — it was portrayed as a poison pill — but then embraced gender and that was a pretty good start.[Referring to the effort by segregationists to kill the Civil Rights Bill by adding womens' rights into it on the incorrect assumption that the overwhelmingly male members of Congress would then reject it the bill.]
One thing I did, one day I happen to have a day. It was about 20 years ago, where I had time on my hands —
— Oh, those good old days.
— Oh, that sounds wonderful.
My first wife, a blessed memory, even our daughter who was keeping us very busy in those years. And it was a summer day. And I went — I'm in Los Angeles, I drove over to the UCLA campus and was sort of drawn to the library of the Law School. And one thing about it, it's open all the time or almost all the time. And I went in, some of you may have done this, and I went to the Law Library, and settled in with the statute books for the 1964 and '65 Civil Rights Act.
And I decided to sit down. I was not in a rush and I was not preparing for a midterm, I was going to sit down and just read these two bills. Now, a point I'd like to make is that as I read it, each of the bills, I almost literally could hear the tramp of marching feet.
I almost literally could hear the songs that were being song, there was a whole wonderful variety of them. If you're not careful around here, I'll break an acapella and sing some of them but we all could join him. I'm not going to do that.
And you could see the language put in because — And the important thing here, and I'll point out when I conclude on this point, at least on this response, that we were all aware of the fact that in these engagements, we were trying to break a 67 votes out of 100 filibuster and a Discharge Petition in the house.
And we were taking, to borrow a term from the British. We were taking our case to the country. And that we did, and there was clergy involved, all sorts of other people involved. And that afternoon remains one of the five or 10, or one of the 10, maybe not five, but one of the eight or 10 or 15 high points of my life just sitting and reading and experiencing that.
And as I think of that I look at you, because I did my bit. We all did. And to make this happen. It did not come [from the] top down. I'm with Miss O'Connor on this. It did not come top down. It came up the other way.
And the other thing I will say because two or three people have mentioned going to East Africa. It helped a lot — Nkrumah in '57, earlier in Kenya in I think it was '53, the African liberation movement, the "negritude" writers in Paris writing about the African experience that helped too because it had this profound split in the American establishment and helped us.
We did not go into partisan warfare. We did not turn into what was once called Yugoslavia. We didn't do that [meaning that the U.S. didn't split into separate hostile warring states].
So the other side — I think who was telling the story of — Bruce, I guess you were [referring to being put in a jail cell with a member of the KKK in Selma]. The guy kept pounding you. But they got tired, man. And you didn't slug back. And at some point — Oh, by the way, I'm not saying these folks liked it. But once we got the Civil Rights Acts passed, they, the other side, did not have a string of dead martyrs lying around the Sunflower County and Tallahatchie County, and Greene County, Alabama and all that he didn't have them —
— and we didn't have our people with nightmares for the rest of their lives about what they did to someone else. The way some GIs do.
Yup, and I'll say that. The second thing I'll say and is the first point is "decency." I don't mean necessarily using nonviolence there are all sorts of — But decent means. And the other thing is to recognize whether it be internal disputes within whatever movement, we're in sectarian splits.
You alluded to this briefly, Bruce, in your comment about SDS. People on the other side of the fights, generally, the adversary at 2:11 in the afternoon here on the West Coast can be the ally at 2:12 in the afternoon, it can happen. And the idea is — borrowing from Reverend Jackson, the idea is to always be looking for what he calls common ground. And you may not find it on one issue, but you may find it on the other. And can go on a bit. I'll stop now, though.
Well, I want to — Excuse me. I have two thoughts, picking up from one from what Claire said, and one from what you said, Rick, in terms of what I learned from the movement.
The first is that the goal of social movement has to be to win real change. Not just to vent, not just to express your emotion. The goal has to be to actually achieve a change. And I say that, because so often I go to these protests today and the young people have been taught that the way you make social change is you go out and you protest, and you vent your rage, and then everything changes. And there's nothing in the middle [that makes the change occur]. So I go back to Margaret Mead, remember her? "Never doubt that a small group of small determined individuals can change the world indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
And I agree with her, except that she left out a really big part. And the part she left out was a small group of people can change the world — if and only if — they win mass support from a large group. They [the mass group] don't have to [all] be activists, but [the activists] have to win mass support, because it's masses of support that change the world. A majority support.
I mean, I think that of all of the movements I've ever been in, Selma was the biggest. In Selma, we never had more than 10 or 11% of the Black population attend a meeting, go down to the courthouse to register to vote, participate in march, do anything. But we had overwhelming mass support of the Black community in terms of political support.
So, if we take Margaret Mead, and we say, "The goal is to win actual change." Then we have to say, "If you make a decision to do something, then you have to commit to doing all the stuff that's necessary to achieve that decision." In other words, you freely chose to end segregation. Well, now you're bound by the necessity of building a mass movement of masses of people to do that. And that sometimes means doing stuff you don't like, and stuff that is hard. So, for me, the link between actually winning, as opposed to just protesting, [is that] winning requires doing all the hard stuff. Not just [hard organizing] work, but [hard] political stuff. That's one lesson.
The [second] lesson I would say is that Claire raised the issue of the media. And another problem I see with doing political work today is everybody feels that if we're going to have a protest, it has to be designed to get media attention. And if the media doesn't come out and cover the protest, the protest was a failure. And that's not what I learned in the freedom movement. In the freedom movement — I think, it was Jennifer, or somebody said — "Yeah, there were all these big marches. But there were lots of little stuff."
Claire said "everywhere, everywhere." Four people in in in East Keester Kansas. I would say — And I was like — A protester was mainly what I did back in the day, I would say that 90% of all of the Freedom Movement protests that occurred in the United States had no media coverage, [none] whatsoever. Not a second on the news, not a word in the paper, didn't even have a reporter.
But the most powerful effect of a protest is not on the people who hear about it through the news because they'll just hear distorted nonsense, with no depth at all. The people who are most affected by a protest are the people who participate in the protest. What changed the people in Crenshaw County and little tiny Luverne, Alabama, is that they sat in, that they went to the courthouse to register to vote. So the lesson that nobody seems to be paying much attention to these days — to my frustration — is that the purpose of protesting is not to win media coverage, the purpose of protesting is to change the consciousness of the people who protest and the people who see the protest.
That's — Claire, go ahead.
Yeah. Since you're jumping off, somebody used to reference before about tagging off or something like that. And I think, it's really exciting. That's what's exciting about this conversation is each one of us is responding to somebody else. Anyway, are you responding to comments, I think — It doesn't matter what you're responding to. I don't need to analyze you.
But I remember talking about the press and whether or not it's in the press, and whether or not it's important, or the press can ignore it and is important. And for me, I think what you're saying is absolutely true, except we haven't really talked about organizing strategies, and there are varied organizing strategies.
And I know that I was invited — Yeah, I guess I was invited to be part of the Freedom Ride. It was because I would bring the attention. A blue-eyed, blonde, little girl, they'll bring the attention of the press. And not just me, of course. Those of us from the North did not need to be part of the Freedom Ride, the people who directly experienced the horror of of the bus rides, and I mean, all of that segregation and horror, they had the power, the knowledge, the wherewithal to win, to protest that and to win, except they didn't. They were being ignored outside of the bus-burning, that first bus burning [Anniston AL]. And then what happened [to the other Freedom Riders] at Birmingham. After that the press didn't pay attention. So we were then a device to get the press and in some organizing strategies, that is an important factor.
I mean, there really are a lot of different strategies. It was something I really kind of cared about because I wanted to be a better organizer or a perfect organizer. And why I became so interested in [Paulo Freier], it was his organizing strategy that was new.
And I've since read — There's lots of books out about various strategies. And they all are responding to some of our tools we have. We have various tools that can be used in different circumstances for whatever resources we have, and whatever our issues are. So I'm backing up from what I said in my first comment about the press.
Well, just briefly, the press spread the word of the Freedom Rides across the country, and that influenced a lot of people. But I still maintain that the deepest influence of the Freedom Rides was on the people of Mississippi and the Black people of Mississippi and Alabama [who heard about the rides as much or more by word of mouth as from the media]. So much so that as a civil rights worker in '65 — what was that? Four years later? I was constantly introduced as a "Freedom Rider." And I kept saying, "But I wasn't on the... I wasn't — "That meant nothing to them, that I hadn't been on one of those buses. I was someone standing up and fighting for freedom. And [therefore] I was a "Freedom Rider," because they had been so profoundly impacted by the Freedom Rides.
And remember, most of these people didn't have a television set. Well, maybe some did. But they heard about the Freedom Rides word of mouth. That's what impressed them.
There's this story, Rita Walker was a young Black woman in Holly Springs [MS]. And when she heard the Freedom Riders were coming — meaning the Freedom Summer volunteers — but to her they were "Freedom Riders," she went up to the bus depot every day to look them until they finally showed up. Hardy Frye tells that story.
You're right, Bruce. They called civil rights workers, "Freedom Riders," I'm meaning the people from the community.
I want to go back to Claire and then coming out of your ride. Because what you did was so important, because with the burning of the bus at Anniston, Alabama the billboards on the South, all across the South in those days, a good many of them had one word on it. That one word began with "N," it was "Never" [meaning never give up segregation]. And everyone understood what that meant.
And for example, in Alabama Miss [Autherine] Lucy had in '56 come and then have been driven out basically by a mob [referring to her attempt to desegregate the Univeristy of Alabama in Tuscaloosa]. The federal government stayed out of it. And the state government would not protect your life. The Deep South had not been cracked, now it took federal marshals and eventually the 101st Airborne to get Mr. James Meredith in '62 [admitted to the University of Mississippi] but the Freedom Rides were before.
And so what you did, and out here — And Bruce, you may know this or heard about it but you probably involved. Is there was a pincer movement developed. You folks coming down from the Midwest, upper Midwest, but also in addition to the ones coming out of Trailway buses out of New York came the buses from Los Angeles and they were headed to two destinations. Houston which was a bitterly segregated city. And a CORE rider badly beaten, Bob Farrell, the council member later was in that ride. Bob and Helen Singleton were on the Mississippi ride.
The idea was to keep coming. Now, eventually, there's a whole story we know about it, about how this thing was handled. But the point is they kept the pressure on and from the point of view of the world, those rides, however imperfectly did get through namely, got to Jackson and went to jail and did time at parchment and refuse to take bail but at least they went through.
The Anniston burning did not stop it, where I thought where I think you — I mean everyone who was involved put themselves in harm's way. I've always felt enormous courage demonstrated by you Claire and others who got on the buses after the burning of the Anniston bus. In John Lewis case he was on, as I recall, on both buses, he went on. And back to something I said an hour or so ago the beauty and the genius of this coming out a CORE was that — It's interesting, they took the state's rights argument out. Clearly interstate. And that was a big deal. And it helped make break a major crack in the edifice of "Never" and it was inspiring to watch.[Supreme Court rulings and Interstate Commerce Commission regulations prohibited enforcing state-segregation laws against people traveling between different states. Freedom Riders strategically bought tickets for travel across state lines so that southern courts would have no legal grounds for enforcing state segregation laws against them. Which is why they were arrested for common crimes like disturbing the peace or failing to obey an officer. Charges that would not stand when appealed to federal court.]
I'm part of discussions, often about how the Freedom Rides standout. And I thank you for that and for me it was — I mean these unending gifts that we've all gotten from being able to participate. And I have this great gift and I really cherish it and I use it in any way I can to get people to understand. And it is given — I mean, when I was in Batesville [MS], one of the leaders, the community leaders, they were all standing around, I'm not even sure why or what the occasion, and he called us all "Freedom Riders." Well, I was a Freedom Rider, I didn't say anything.
And I knew that it had — And again, I'm getting back to strategy. It was the strategy, the well chosen-strategy and the persistence. Picking the strategies, picking the tools that you're going to use and the actions and keeping at it. There were eventually 400 people arrested [on Freedom Rides in MS] and in other places in the country, and on the planes and on the trains. And it had to do with the movement strategy.
And I don't take any credit, everything I got from it was a gift to me. And I learned a whole lot. But still I'm getting back to that strategy thing. That's my flag. That we have various strategies, and we can choose from them. And we can learn. There was a Freedom Ride on Australia. And Joan Trumpauer, who was one of my cellmates in Hinds County [jail], and then — She wasn't a cellmate when we went to Parchman [prison]. But she was part of that freedom ride. And in a way she got it started because somebody contacted her. I mean, there are incredible race issues in Australia, still are. And so in Australia, they had several freedom rides. So it went worldwide. Anyway, thank you. Strategy, strategy, strategy. [inaudible 01:07:15].
And I want to take up just comment about strategy, because we were talking earlier about success and failure. And I, of course, think that we succeeded on so many fronts. I think we were talking about, there were some things that we didn't accomplish, and one of those being the economic justice and addressing economic inequality. And that's where I go to Claire's point, I think we didn't move the needle in the way we would have wanted to, because I don't think we had a common understanding about the objectives when it came to economics. And I don't think we therefore had a strategy. I don't think we had any strategy for making economic change. And I think we were kind of all over the map in terms of what we thought people should have in order to have economic justice.
Can I jump in? It's not my turn. But can I jump in? I actually think I've always sort of wondered about that same question is, why didn't we go to economy? That was absolutely the next step. And the answer I've come up with for myself, and I'll throw it out here. I've no proof. I just think this must be it, that we were just coming out of the era of red-baiting. And they were afraid of allowing that to happen and to attract that. So as soon as we started talking about what really is the issue — the economy. That's my theory. That's my theory. And I see Rick has a —
Let me build on that a little if I may, and also to the issue — To the issue is raised and that is. So assassinations enter into this.
So for example, Let me go to the — There were five of them in less than five years. Medgar Evers —
Malcolm, President Kennedy, Dr. King, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. So in any event. But on Dr. King and his book, "Where Do We Go From Here?". In other words, we passed the two great civil rights bills, now what? I'm perfectly aware of the discussions and the view of Dr. King from about 800 different angles, SNCC's included, or parts of SNCC. But having said all that important thing.
And I want to bring us to Reverend Lawson, who never has lost sight of this. Jim Lawson's worked very closely. Labor Movement working men and women in various causes that are class based. As I say, it's just up the street here. And the joining the garbage workers, sanitation workers in Memphis [referring to the 1968 "I Am a Man" strike in Memphis], it's happened to be a predominantly Black union. I don't know the exact demographics. But that's a general view. This is the American Federation of State, County, [Municiple Employees union] — [Jerry Wurf was] involved in that union. Some of you know the name.
And in addition to that, the Poor People's Campaign, Resurrection City in Washington, which went on — Both of which, after [King] was assassinated in the middle of the [Memphis strike] and after the commitment had been made to [the Poor Peoples Campaign]. But we were operating, without overstating his importance, I'll simply say was a very important figure being murdered. We had all that going on and at the same time, we had a Democrat in the White House, and a Democratic majority of the Congress.
And I'm glad this came up, something I'm where to start looking at. A friend of mine has done a play on part of this. Is to look at just what were our ideas? What was coming up? I was an ally of it, but I was out here [California], we were doing some things to provide some support. And [Resurrection City] got bogged down in the mud.[After Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, the Poor Peoples Campaign organized a cavalcade-journey from Mississippi to Washington to demand an Economic Bill of Rights, in late May they set up an encampment on the National Mall that they called "Resurrection City." Congress and President Johnson were unwilling to enact, or even seriously negotiate, on their issues. Summer rains turned the Mall into a sea of mud, and the encampment was torn by internal dissension. On June 24, over 1,000 massed police evicted the protesters, arresting almost 300 and demolishing their tents and shelters, thereby defeating the Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968.]
And I think I've never done a deep dive into just what happened, and what might have been done because I'll go back to what Peter brought up an hour ago. And that is, you have to have some specific [goals] to organize [around].
Bruce, you're raising the organizing question. It's good to have some specific goals. And I have a good memory. And I'm pretty familiar with the history of this having lived to part of it and read about some of it. I don't recall what goals we had in that period [after passage of the civil rights acts], it was a mass effort. And this all factors into it. Because that was moving straight aiming as a homing pigeon, I mean homing in on, on the issue of poverty.
On the issue of class, but I'm putting the two together, labor, AFSCME — Labor is not a highly paid set of skilled craftsmen, labor union and they did have some goals, but also the Poor People's Campaign. Sometimes we learn from our successes. Sometimes we learn from things that don't go as well. And at the end of the day — everyone agrees privately — when they're all glad to just get out of town. The whole thing [Resurrection City] had turned into — the rains came in Washington and so on and so forth. But it was a valiant effort.
Yeah, I want to pick up on that. That I think it's important to note that we did try and address poverty. There was the Mississippi Freedom labor union, Operation Breadbasket, the Poor People's Corporations, and [various] co-ops, the Scripto Strike —
— Frank Smith's model [referring to Frank's attempt to create a brick-making cooperative for displaced share-croppers in MS] —
— the farm co-ops like the Southwest Alabama farmers Co-Op had Black farmers organized in a dozen counties. The Memphis strike and the Poor People's Campaign which was, as you say, a very valiant effort. But [even with all those disparate efforts] I think Jennifer is right, there was no clear strategy and goal. Were we trying to create socialism? I don't think so. I mean some co-ops, government programs like War On Poverty, all of these things, we didn't have a clear [agreement on] what we were doing.
But even more important than that, is that any effort to raise economic issues and class issues got immediately smashed. I mean, let's tell it like it is. Somebody raised that the power elite were divided over civil rights, racism, and this was absolutely true, a large portion of the economic elite, said, "Look, this segregation stuff is costing us a lot of money, we don't care about Black and white, we care about green."
And even in the South, there were people who said to the Bourbons [plantation owners and others who wanted to maintain poverty to force wages down], "Stop it with these this crap, because we want to bring northern investment in — factories and franchises. And they won't come as long as the Ku Klux Klan is running around crazy like this."
Well, as soon as we raised class issues, the state, the police, the FBI, the economic powers, the political powers, all united to smash us. And I think we were just before our time.
I'll give one final example. One thing that nobody gives enough credit to, is the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which essentially invented the concept of Headstart.
CDGM created what became Headstart — and they were smashed. [But] not because they were doing a good job of educating young children. They were smashed because they had this idea that the people who made decisions should be the poor people who were affected. And they had poor people on the boards. And instead of hiring middle class college graduates with degrees in social welfare work to run everything and get those middle class salaries, they hired actual poor people. And that could not be tolerated [by the power structure]. The whole concept that poor people would be given a little bit of control over their own lives was intolerable to the elite. So I think we should recognize that we failed in that area, but also recognize that we tried.
Briefly, I'm watching the clock, so I'll make this less than a minute. Labor was helpful in some respects, and we benefited from a struggle within the unions. Example — in AFSCME, the UAW, the battle between the left and the far left, between the Socialists International, the Communist International, it was a battle here, going on over the favor of the workers. And so where there was a power base foothold. I'm not disagreeing, Bruce, [with what] what you were saying, but I'm just adding a point in those sectors. If you got something — [if you could] weave coalition's together as Memphis was showing, where you could have made some headway and then the relationships among the different participants, labor partner.
The last thing I'll say is, one thing that happened over the Vietnam thing which was upon us by that period 1968 is that there were tremendous strains on the coalition with labor and movement forces, not just the Civil Rights Movement, but the religious community, the civil rights community and so on. Anyway, I'll stop with that point.
Can I just say one name. Reverend Barber. He's carrying on [referring to the Moral Majority and Poor Peoples Campaigns of 2020 and later].
Yes, he is.
And he's not leaving the economy out of it at all. So just say one name, sorry.
Yeah, I think if we had all of the time in the world — which we don't — to continue this wonderful conversation, I would also love for us to talk more about coalition building, and working across groups. Because I think that that also has been important. And that even though it's not something that we'd necessarily classify as something as a civil rights organization, I very definitely believe that the people for several of the recent democratic gains of — Democratic now with the party affiliation — I think that those came out of big coalition's.
And in many ways those are coalition's that crossed religious lines. There used to be a time when we talk about the relationship between the African American and the Jewish community, and that that all has become so much more complex. As the Jewish community itself became more complex, the Black community became more complex. And I'm sure we'll see it on Netflix in a film that were Orthodox meets, unorthodox meets Tyler Perry or something. That the communities, whether they were the Latino communities, or so many others, that that's the coalition's were essential, and now it's all so much more complex, but I think we shouldn't overlook it.
Wisdom. Ending is wisdom.
When you've mentioned, Claire, Reverend Barber, it also led me to think, though, that one of the things I must say that I really like about the youth movements of today, is that they shun leaders in that sense of the visible people who stand with Al Sharpton, in front of a camera. And that they instead — I mean, if you were to ask me to pick out people standing in a crowd, pick out the leaders of Black Lives Matters. I couldn't do it. I couldn't pick out the leaders of the BYP100. Black Young People 100.
And they are all of these groups then responsible for all of that mass energy that came out after the George Floyd murder. It's astonishing how many they're — You go to the website for Black Lives Matter. They'll tell you explain their position on Defund the Police. I don't see a single photo of a leader there at all. And I think that's very wise in this particular.
Me too. Yeah. And I've got to thank them for that wisdom. They've contributed not having that firm leadership up there. And they have contributed that to all of us to the young people — And yeah, we've done a good job of it. And George Floyd's birthday 46th Birthday is in two days. I got that from email.
Well, we certainly come up with several topics for future discussions.
[END SESSION #2]
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