Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
At the time ofthe Civil Rights movement, Bruce Hartford was a young man still under the influence of his parents. He had recently read books about the Holocaust, and, as he is Jewish, became very upset with the people who had both allowed it to happen and who had done it. As a result of this, Mr. Hartford joined CORE after he learned that the American Nazi Party was attacking their picket lines.]
Could you briefly explain your family history, specifically any that pertains to the civil rights movement?
My parents were union organizers in the 1930's working for the Congress of the Industrial Organizations, the CIO. They worked in unions that opposed segregation and supported integration. I grew up in a family in which our family friends were of many different races. Growing up in Los Angeles, we had black friends, we had Latino friends, and of course we had white friends. And we were Jewish. That was the culture in which I grew up and that fed into me becoming an activist in the southern freedom movement.
So did your family support being in the movement?
That's a good question. My mother and father thought the civil rights movement was great, and they totally supported it, but they didn't want me doing it. They wanted me to go to college, and get a degree, and become a professional. Then, once I was economically secure, you know, as a doctor or a lawyer, then I could support the civil rights movement. So, their position was quite contradictory, at least I thought so. We had lots of arguments about that.
What circumstances for you personally affected your decision to get involved in the movement?
Essentially, at that time I was about 18 or 19, as a Jew, I was very strongly affected by reading about the Holocaust in the Second World War. I was quite angry about that. I was angry at the people who allowed the Holocaust to happen as well as the Germans who did it. I learned that the American Nazi Party was attacking the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picket lines. CORE was having protests against housing discrimination in the Los Angeles area. My feeling was if the Nazis were against CORE then I am going to go support CORE and that's how I got involved.
Could you describe your personal goals of the civil rights movement?
Like make lots of money? [laughing]. Nobody made any money. We didn't think of it in that way, we didn't see it in terms of personal goals. We saw it in terms of a general cause.
Let me put it this way, I don't know if they still do this, but when I was in grade school, every morning we would start the day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." So I grew up assuming that was the rule. That was the way things were supposed to be. If it wasn't supposed to be that way, why did we have to say this thing everyday?
When I discovered that it wasn't the case — "liberty and justice for all" — that if you were not white you did not have liberty and you did not have justice, I assumed that it was my job to fix that. I was supposed to go out and do something about that. Why otherwise would they be making me say this every day? I was trying to make changes so that America could be what America claimed to be, because I thought that was what my duty as a citizen was. Now I don't know if that counts as a personal goal. The concept of a personal goal in relationship to a social justice movement is difficult.
We read about Crenshaw County [AL] in your interview. You stated it was a century away from, "with liberty and justice for all." Now we touched base on this, but could you explain what you saw that made you say that?
Well, this was in 1965. If you go back a century that would be 1865, which is at the end of the Civil War. Slavery had just been fomally abolished, but the culture and the laws and the customs were still those of the slavery era in which blacks essentially have no rights. All the power was on the part of whites. Blacks were heavily exploited in terms of economic justice. Essentially, Crenshaw County had very little change from that when I arrived there in that 1965.
Actually, I may have also said that about Grenada County in Mississippi, they were both the same. There were hardly any blacks registered to vote and those who wanted to register were denied. All blacks basically lived in abject poverty. Blacks were completely exploited and had no legal recourse. If a black complained about abuse by a white person the black person would be arrested on a trumped up charge, or beaten by the Klan, or some other retribution would be enacted against them. Black women could be raped by white men, and there would be no sanction against that. So, the century of progress in race relations that had occurred in most parts of the United States, from 1865 to 1965, simply did not apply to Crenshaw in Alabama or Grenada in Mississippi. And that's not unique for those counties, that would be basically the same in all the Deep South counties.
In the rural Deep South counties throughout the region, that was essentially the situation. There was a guy, a friend of mine, Charlie Cobb, who was working in Sunflower County, Mississippi. A sheriff stopped him from doing something, handing out a leaflet I believe, some simple thing that we take for granted that everybody has the right to do. And Charlie said " ell, this is my Constitutional right to do this." The sheriff said, "Well that law hasn't come down here yet." Meaning that, in his opinion as sheriff, the US Constitution did not apply in his county where race was involved.
Also in your interview you spoke of your friend Jonathon Daniels, and we give our sincerest condolences, but if you feel comfortable could you go into a little bit more detail about what happened that day?
Well, I wasn't there the day he was killed, but I can tell you what I heard about it, although I wasn't an eye-witness. Jonathon, and a number of others, both black and white, had been arrested for a protest. They had picketed or some other nonviolent, completely legal protest, but they had been arrested for it. They had been held in jail for some time, although I forget how long. But eventually they were released. They had gotten out of jail. I don't know if you understand this, but the punishment in jail is really horrible. Some of them saw a small grocery store and they wanted to get some soda pop or some candy to take the taste of jail out of their mouths. So they walk towards the grocery store. A guy named Tom Coleman, he had some connection with the store, was hooked up with the KKK. He saw them coming and he stepped out with a shotgun and shot Jonathon Daniels. He shot a Catholic priest, and other people were wounded. He just opened fire on them, because he had such hate for blacks, for whites who supported blacks, and for integration. He just murdered them in cold blood. Then he was tried by an all-white jury and they acquitted him.
How did you feel about white supremacists and did you ever want the movement to take a step in a violent direction, or did you want it to stay as peaceful as possible?
Well, that's a really good question. I hated them, I just absolutely hated them.
But I supported nonviolence. Not because I loved them, I didn't. I hated them. But nonviolence was the only tactic that had any chance of succeeding. I understood that if we used violence they would win. So long as we remained nonviolent, we had a chance to win. I wasn't sure that we would win, but we had a chance. With violence we would have no chance. Because I was so opposed to them, my feeling was, I will do whatever is necessary to defeat them, and that means holding to nonviolence, which is what we did.
So you feel that the Non-Violent Action Committee was an effective organization?
Well, yes. Now N-VAC was only in L.A., but most of the freedom movement organizations used nonviolence as a tactic, and yes, it was a very effective.
Who were the leaders that you associated the Civil rights movement with, and were they all effective in your opinion?
Well, obviously, with the word "movement," the implication of that is of many, many people involved in some issue. When you have many, many people you also have many different leaders. Martin Luther King is the most famous. You also have Rosa Parks, Jim Bevel, James Farmer, James Forman, Diane Nash, Gloria Richardson, Fannie Lou Hamer. I mean I could list a hundred leaders. The thing about leaders is, when you boil them down, they turn out to be people, and people do good things, and sometimes people make mistakes. Some people can be effective, but it doesn't mean they're gods. Sometimes they're not effective.
By and large in the freedom movement they were effective in that we ultimately got what it was that we were fighting for, which was to end segregation, to win voting rights for non-white people. By the way, that includes not just blacks but Latinos, Asians, and American Indians. We won those, the two main goals of the civil rights movement — ending segregation and winning voting rights. That's what we won, so I would say by that measure, the leaders were effective as was the rank and file of the movement like myself.
What were your thoughts on the LAPD brutality and the mob of white teenagers that attacked you and others while you were protesting?
Well I was pretty unhappy. The LAPD attitude at that time was they saw themselves as an occupying army to keep Blacks and Latinos suppressed. I felt that was completely unjust and that their violence was outrageous. Their injustice was outrageous and notorious and everybody knew about it. As for the white teenagers that came to attack us that night, of course I was angry at them. Nobody likes getting pelted with eggs and taunted and insulted. Inevitably that's going to make you angry, but more than that I was just amazed, just shocked that they had no idea how much danger they were in. We were nonviolent, but the black community was not. Actually most of what we were doing that night was protecting them from the crowd of angry blacks who wanted to come in and beat the crap out of them.
During the Hale County elections in Alabama, you stated that white voter registration topped 110%, how in your opinion was this possible?
It was very easy for white people to get registered, and almost impossible for all but a tiny number of blacks to be registered. Once a white person registered, if they died or if they moved away from the county — and a lot of people moved out of the South in that era because there were no jobs — their names would be kept on the voter registration rolls. When the election rolled around, somehow those dead people voted, and they always voted for the incumbent. This was widely known; it was called the "tombstone vote." So the election would be rigged, and all the voters that were no longer there, somehow their votes always ended up for the incumbent. They just stuffed the ballot box, so as the population dwindled, the number of dead and gone people who were registered stayed the same. So eventually voter registration for whites got over 100%. There were more whites registered than white people in existence in that county. That was true throughout the Deep South, this wasn't unique to Hale County.
You also stated that you witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a Dream" speech. What were your feelings towards this event?
Well, it was a very powerful speech, very moving. There were other powerful speeches that day at the March on Washington. John Lewis's speech, for example.
Dr. King's speech essentially summed up the whole event and put it into context. Prior to the March on Washington, I had been active with CORE, but I had not yet done civil disobedience. I'd not done things that would get me arrested 'cause I was afraid of being arrested. My parents were saying, "Don't get arrested. You'll never get a job, you'll starve to death, you'll never get into a good school, you won't find a good wife. No one wants to marry a jail bird, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah". You know how parents can sometimes be [laughing].
I had been afraid to get arrested. After the March on Washington — in general, not just King's speech, though that was an important component of it — I was so moved by the March on Washington that within a couple of months afterwards I had been arrested half a dozen times from civil disobedience, nonviolent civil disobedience, sitting-in and so forth.
How do you feel the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. impacted the civil rights movement?
Well, it had a devastating effect.
First of all, I do not believe that James Earl Ray acted alone in killing King. I think there was a conspiracy to kill King. I think the conspiracy to kill King was essentially to stop the evolution of the civil rights movement and the direction in which is was going. They succeeded in doing that. The initial goals of the civil rights movement were, as I said, desegregation and winning voting rights. By 1968, both those goals had been achieved, so Dr. King was moving the movement into addressing the issues of economic justice and poverty. I think there were powerful forces in this country who did not want a movement for economic justice, a movement that ended poverty and exploitation. I think that's why they killed him.
I think the other reason they killed him was that he was coming out in opposition to the Vietnam war and there were powerful forces that wanted that war to continue and to expand. The anti-Vietnam War movement was not stopped by King's assassination, it continued, and eventually succeeded in ending the war. But the movement for economic justice essentially died with King. Which is why today, we now are begining to take that issue up again with the Occupy movement after 40 years, 50 years.
During the movement, did you ever fear that what you were doing wasn't going to help, or that you could lose your life because of it?
Those are two different questions. I was always confident that it would help.
There were often times I was afraid that I was going to get killed, or beaten, or maimed. Actually, being maimed was a greater fear to me than being killed. If you're dead, you're dead, but if you're crippled or you're in a wheelchair for the rest of your life or if you're blinded, you have to live with that.
Looking back, how do you feel about the national leadership, and the President's regard for the civil rights movement?
Well, that's a very complicated question. I feel quite negative against President Kennedy. I think Kennedy claimed to be in favor of civil rights, but his actions really were not. He kept trying to stop the movement, to sabotage it, to undercut it. The things that he did for civil rights — the things he's given credit for — were things that the movement forced him to do, kicking and screaming. He was resisting all the way.
Johnson is more complicated. Johnson eventually, I think, became a supporter of the civil rights concept. He actually did some good things. Both Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats. At that time all the white politicians in the South were Democrats, but they were pro-segregation and against civil rights. So Kennedy and Johnson wanted to stay friends with them. This was a real problem they had. Kennedy came down on the side of resisting the civil rights movement in order to appease and remain friendly with the white, southern Democratic segregationists. Eventually Johnson came down on the other side, willing to offend those segregationists to some degree. We, at the moment, felt he should have done more, but we did recognize that he did do things that Kennedy would not.
In your opinion, is there still racism in America today, and do you feel that there is a need for more civil rights activism?
Racism is a complex concept; it's a complex idea. In the 1960's, there was what we call "overt", or obvious, in-your-face, legal racism. For example, the signs that said "White Only" or "Blacks Can't Come In Here" or "If you're not white, you have to sit at the back of the bus." These were not only clear and in-your-face, but enforced by law. We call that segregation. The civil rights movement ended that.
But what continued is what we called "covert" or hidden racism. For example, in the 1960's, people found jobs through Want Ads in the newspapers, but the advertisements in the newspapers in the 1960's would say, "White Only." They would have a whole section of jobs for colored people, and of course these would be low paying jobs like maid and janitor. The civil rights movement ended that kind of overt discrimination, but the covert discrimination continued. So now a job may be open, and they don't say it's for whites only, but in fact, it's only white people who get hired. This is covert racism.
There is an aspect of racism in terms of public policy, things that directly, materially affect lives. There's also the aspect of racism of prejudice. People saying "I just don't like people of this race, or that race." This kind of prejudice also continues [today], and it's not just white people. There are black people and Latinos who don't like white people. The civil rights movement was not so much concerned with people's personal prejudices. We were concerned with the effects on society. We were concerned with behavior.
Another aspect that was very prevalent in California was residential segregation. In the 1960's there were laws that allowed communities to say, "We refuse to allow any Latino, or Black person, or Jewish person, or Asian person to live in our neighborhood." Apartment owners were allowed to simply say, "No blacks need apply for this apartment." The civil rights movement ended this kind of overt, legal, residential segregation. But what we call defacto, or covert discrimination, still exists. There are still places where if you're Black, Latino, or whatever, you have a hard time buying a house in the neighborhood. That's become less than it used to be, that kind of residential segregation is declining.
But what's not declining is economic segregation. We have a situation in which there is still lingering job discrimination, housing discrimination, and education discrimination. The schools that serve predominantly non-white students tend to have the newer, less experienced teachers, and they are funded lower.
It becomes very complicated. A lot of the issues now related to racism are so tightly entangled with economics that it's hard to completely pull them apart and say this is racism and this is economics. The two are inextricably combined today. That's a very short answer to a very long discussion.
How was your life changed because of your experiences, and do you like the outcomes?
I became a lifelong social activist because of my experiences in the movement, and I've continued that to this day. I'm currently supporting the Occupy movement, and I'm currently engaged in political activity to restore funding to public education here in California. I remained a social justice activist and a political activist all my life. Now if I didn't like doing that, then I wouldn't be doing it. Nobody is ordering me to do this. I'm doing it because I want to do it. I'm happy to continue doing it.
Did you learn any life lessons during this time period?
Yeah, we had lots of slogans. Every movement has slogans. Two of the slogans I liked best were, "Where the broom don't sweep, the dirt don't move." In this case, the dirt is social injustice, discrimination, racism, poverty, exploitation. "Where the broom don't sweep, the dirt don't move" means that if there is some injustice in the world, it's not going to change unless someone starts doing something to make it change. "Where the broom don't sweep, the dirt don't move."
The other slogan I liked is, "If you don't like the history that they're teaching in school, go out and make some of your own." Meaning that even if you're young, you can have a voice in society. You can still go out and take up action to struggle for justice.
"If you don't like the history that they're teaching in school, go out and make some of your own", the implication is that history is made by ordinary people, not presidents and kings and generals. The way we're taught history in school is history presented as the president did this, the general won that battle, the judge did so and so. It's the "great man" approach to history. But, if you look at what really happened, when the president did so it's because the people created a political movement to make him do so. According to history, it was the general who "won" the battle, but it was the soldiers who fought the battle, the general was siting in his office. The judges who made the rulings, like Brown vs. The Board of Education, only made those rulings because courageous people brought the cases. So, the implication behind, "If you don't like the history they're teaching in school, go out and make some of your own," is that ordinary people taking an active part in democracy are what changes history.
Do you have any regrets about being in the civil struggle in the future. rights movement?
Could you talk a little about your book, The Gandhi Ring, like what inspired you to write it, and what did you mean when you said, "It was a metaphor of the southern freedom movement?"
I originally wanted to write a book about the southern freedom movement, but the problem was that the history kept getting in the way. I thought "I want to write about this person but that person is still alive, so what will they think?" Or this didn't really happen this way, but I needed it to happen this way for the story. It just got too complicated. So I decided that I will create an imaginary situation in the future that is in some ways similar to the situation we faced in the South. I'll write a novel about the same kind of struggle in the future. That way I could write it any way I wanted. I don't have to worry that peoples' feelings are going to get hurt. I don't have to worry about making sure it matched exactly the history, because I'm making it up. So, in that sense, it was a metaphor. It was a "like that" kind of book.
Earlier, you spoke ofthe Vietnam War, what were your experiences as a freelance journalist writing about the Vietnam War?
I don't know quite how to answer that. I wasn't a combat reporter. I did not accompany troops into combat. I was writing about the politics of the war, and I was writing from an anti-war perspective. By the time I was there, there was a lot of resistance amongst the troops. They understood that this war was wrong. They didn't want to be there, and they wanted the war to end. They put out underground newspapers to express that opinion, and I helped them do that. So, I was clearly writing from an advocacy position. My experiences could be a whole long other interview.
Do you feel that the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were in any way connected?
Well, yeah! They were connected in many ways.
For one thing, both were the objects of popular mass social movements. One was to win civil rights, the other to end and oppose the Vietnam War. So, in that way they were similar. It was the same people in both of those movements. The Vietnam War directly affected the situation of poverty and economic justice because the money needed for the War on poverty was diverted to pay for the Vietnam War. The education programs and the self-help programs, and the job training programs, and the rebuilding of the schools and infrastructure programs that were needed to complete the work of the civil rights movement couldn't be done because all of the money was going to the Vietnam War.
Unlike today, where we have an all-volunteer army, Vietnam was fought by soldiers who were drafted against their will. But because of the unfair way that the draft was administered, if you were wealthy, you could avoid the draft. The people who then ended up being drafted were poor whites, poor blacks and poor Latinos. They were the ones who were then doing the dying in the jungle. The wealthier people, who were predominantly white, reaped the economic benefits of the war, in terms of contracts and war industries, and so forth. That was a civil rights issue.
The war in Vietnam, — as all wars are — was portrayed by those who create the wars (the politicians) as, "We're fighting for justice. We're fighting for truth and the American way." In fact, that was a total lie. Meanwhile, back home, there was no justice. There was still injustice. Black and Latino G.I.'s were saying, "Why are we fighting a war that's supposed to be for justice and obviously is not, and yet, when I go home, I experience injustice?" That was a connection. There were a lot of those kinds of connections.
Another connection was that the choice of who got drafted was up to a draft board. Particularly in the South, very often they decided, "Well, so and so is a civil rights activist in the civil rights movement. We'll go draft him and get him out." That was another connection.
You said that when you returned from Asia, you became active in the ILWU, could you explain what that was?
The ILWU is the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Its the union for dockworkers and factory workers on the west coast. The east coast union is called the ILA, the International Longshore Association. There are two different unions, one on each coast.
How would your life be different if you weren't in the civil rights movement?
I don't know, it would be different. How would I know? I would not be a social justice activist. I could say what I would not have been, but beyond that, I haven't the foggiest idea what I would have been. That's like saying, "If you didn't live in Wisconsin, where would you live?" How would you know? It's just not in Wisconsin.
Do you feel that in a way, being a part of the movement defined who you are today?
Oh, absolutely. Yes, it's shaped who I am today. If you go on the civil rights website and you look at the Veterans Roll Call where hundreds of veterans have listed themselves, you read what they write, over and over, they say, "It changed my life and it shaped who I am today." I am who I am today because of the Civil Rights Movement. So, it's not just me, it's lots of people.
After a trip to Asia, Bruce returned to the U.S. and became Chief Shop Steward in a waterfront chemical plant. Due to an industrial accident, he then became a founding member and a long-time national officer of the National Writers Union, which he has since retired from. Now living in San Francisco, he makes his living as a freelance technical writer for Silicon Valley computer firms, and is also the author of the science fiction novel, The Gandhi Ring.]
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