Do you feel that progress has been made?
In some areas, however, to me much more has to be done. That is; white people have to be taught that people from other ethnicities and religions are not threatening to them, but can and should be our allies and friends. That there is no difference between white and Black, Baptist and Jew, white and Iranian.....we are all people...and we should work towards understanding and peace....not invasion and war.
In about '73 or '74 I was riding on them rural roads [in the deep south]. And they have little service stations and shit, and I still was afraid at night to go in and get me a cup of coffee, I still had a little chill or fear from the old days. You know, I couldn't shake that stuff.
I heard that George Wallace got shot and I had to go to Lowndes County, from Tuskegee that day. So I'm riding along. I'm going down to Lowndes County, man, the place where the first Black Panther Party was started. I'm going to interview Sheriff Hewlett. I mean, to get in your car and realize that you're going to interview the sheriff of Lowndes County and he is one of the few Black sheriffs in Alabama. In fact, most of the people I was interviewing in the Lowndes county courthouse were Black. Okay?
I had a blowout down there, and the white Highway patrol pulls over, and he says, "Sir, can I help you?" And the first thing I said, "I can get it done. I can get it done. Don't worry about it." I could not move myself from the fact that a common courtesy could happen to me, a courtesy that we would not think nothing about today. It happened to me then, and all I could see was myself hanging from some goddamn branch somewhere. And it was so funny, because he asked me where I was going, and I told him I was going to interview Sheriff Hewlett. And about two hours later after I got my tire fixed, and arrived at Hewlett's office, he came in to check in with the county sheriff. Same guy.
When I was going around the country interviewing people I would ask them "What were you doing in '64? What are you doing now?" And they were all still involved in civil rights activity and social justice causes. If you take and put them all down on a list, you can probably find the people easy who were the ones who sold out the biggest and ran away from the Movement. But Movement people are still doing it, still carrying the struggle and vision. So there must be something about this vision that we had that we are still interested in pursuing it. Only now we realize it ain't going to happen in our lifetimes in most cases.
The movement also brought the vote and full citizenship to African- Americans in the South. That has significantly changed how people live and how they are treated by their local governments. Southern Blacks now have at least some say in the laws that govern them.
Overt, explicit racism has also been made illegal in business practice. For example, before the Movement there were clauses in real estate contracts requiring that the person buying a house would never, sell it to a Black or Latino or Jewish person. Before the Movement a business could legally say they would not serve Black or Latino customers or hire anyone who was not white. Now those kinds of explicit written-down-on- paper racism are illegal. And instead, it is now illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of race.
Discrimination still exists, of course, particularly in economic areas, but now they have to hide and disguise it.
The laws were made, because of the Movement. The obvious example is in Mississippi. When the 1965 Voting Rights Acts was passed, we were able to get great numbers of people registered to vote. That changed the politics in Mississippi. Actually, politics started changing in 1964 when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party went to Atlantic City to challenge the regular party for their seats. That had never been done before by Mississippians. Now, as far as politics, you have more Black elected officials in the state of Mississippi than you have anywhere in the country, and you have good and bad and in between.
The schools were integrated in the state of Mississippi and Alabama where Wallace stood in the door and those schools were integrated. And the University of Mississippi was integrated where Paul Johnson stood in the door like the Governor of Alabama. But in a lot of public places, like the swimming pools and places like that, the cities closed them rather than have Blacks and whites swimming together. One hotel closed. It still stands there empty doing nothing on the Capitol Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of integrating, they closed, and it's just sitting there, an eyesore now. In many different ways, progress was made. But we lost some things too. The Black schools were reduced to middle schools or something like that. They would have had Black superintendents of the schools. We lost a lot of that.
People were unable to register to vote. The movement gave them an opportunity to do that. Not only to register to vote, but to run for public office.
I think that a lot of discrimination today is subtle. It's not as flagrant as it was back in the Fifties and Sixties and Forties.
I think that the Civil Rights movement not only helped Black people and minorities, it helped a lot of other groups. I think the Civil Rights movement helped women, because that brought about the women's movement, I think that the Civil Rights movement helped the gay community, because that brought about a movement around that. There's just been a lot of different things that have happened since the Sixties that I attribute to the Civil Rights movement.
The freedom of movement, that's what people don't understand, it's the freedom of movement. Not to be able to walk into the main library of any place. Not to be able to go to the museum, except on days when they might let a couple of Black people in and might not.
Public accommodations never did it for me, having grown up in the border states. It was movement. You were literally imprisoned in a system. The Black community in many ways was thriving, but it couldn't provide everything that the society does, and as soon as you left it, you were in hostile territory. First of all, you couldn't leave, mostly. I mean, you couldn't go into other neighborhoods. So the freedom of movement and, therefore, the freedom of intellectual pursuit.
Another thing that stands, really comes to my mind a lot, is the Freedom Rides. I guess that's again because it was motion. I think people ought to study the Freedom Rides more than they do because it's inconceivable now, especially to young people, that you couldn't hop on a bus and go wherever the hell you want to go, and sit wherever you wanted to sit without fear of safety. And as Bob Moses saw it, it was the Freedom Rides that literally moved the movement to the deepest of the Deep South because most of the sit-ins were in the border states.
And the Movement opened up minds. That was a lot of what the organizing did, but I think that the demonstrations did, too. So that you start questioning, you know, the "Why." Why things are this way. Why they have to stay this way. Segregation forever, you're told, and you're told you better damn well believe it, too. The organizing and the brilliant idea, I think, of the Freedom Schools, began to show people that in numbers they can make a real difference, and where power was and why it was. So you had more of something to go on than it's "white folks" who are doing it this way. You had more of a critique of what the society's like and where the real power is and what's Washington doing.
I think COFO was a success. I think COFO was huge just to get from Sunflower County to Atlantic City and to Washington for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to seating of the all- white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention. You have the movement of people like Miss Devine and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of those other people making that leap. It's a huge leap from a plantation to challenging the halls of Congress. So I think there were a lot of them, I should probably make a list, but there were a lot. There are things that I know because I was there. I don't think there are things that people are aware of.
The other thing, I should mention is that I grew up in a family where my father and his two brothers tried for years to join the union. The only union available to workers was the Steelworkers because Bethlehem Steel was a big industry in Baltimore. That was the only union that finally broke and began to open. It's inconceivable to younger people today that my father couldn't get into the union.
So, in my view, the Southern movement was a success. It didn't go far enough, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't a success.