Gwendolyn Iles-Foster

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.

[When Gwen Foster was about 20, she and several other people from the Atlanta Univeristy Center formed a group and wrote an Appeal for Human Rights. They had it published leading to several meetings and sit-ins.]

See Atlanta Sit-ins for background & more information.
See also Atlanta Movement for web links.

How did you get started in the Civil Rights movement?

Well, its kind of a cute story. What happened was, some of the girls and guys at Morehouse and all of the schools in the Atlanta University Center got together and created an An Appeal for Human Rights and had it published as a full page in the newspaper. The follow up to that was a meeting. In that meeting, we would discuss and go downtown to stage sit-ins. I went to that meeting and the presidents of the universities came in and, of course, didn't want us to go. They said we'd get hurt and all of those things.

Martin Luther King Jr., was back in Atlanta from Montgomery to be assistant minister at the church where his father was. They brought him over to talk us out of going and he told us how dangerous it was. He was just out of the Montgomery bus boycott. Of course, we didn't agree, so we formed a group, and he went with us. We were determined that first day that as many of us as possible would go to jail for what we believed in. There was only one place that actually had us hauled off — Rich's Department Store in downtown Atlanta. By the end of the day the jails were full, and what they hadn't anticipated was that we decided that we were not going to accept bail. So, we were in jail for about two weeks, and that got me started in the movement.

How old were when you were doing this?

Oh, I was 19 or 20.

Were you afraid of being in jailor being hurt?

Well, no. We were too foolish to think about that. As you might know, when you're young, you don't think you're gonna die doing anything or even get hurt. The other part of it was that most of us who were at the school had been sheltered, and things had been kept at a distance. I think it was probably the death of the young men in Mississippi that kind of struck my generation. I was in high school [when Emmett Till was killed] and to think that somebody could kill somebody my age ... We were really kinda upset and not thinking clearly, so we just decided to do it, and then didn't really think about any downside.

How many times were you jailed?

I was in jail probably every other weekend after that initial sit-in, and the reason was that I became chairman of the movement in the Atlanta University Center, and we did a lot of things. We did a lot of picketing.

The First Bread Basket was in Atlanta. It was done for jobs actually, but we picketed the bread company because they wouldn't give supervisory jobs to blacks. The man who used the ax panels to get us out of his chicken restaurant became Governor of the state of Georgia [Lester Maddox]. Another time we were picketing the federal building downtown. That was my first encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. As we picketed, they came and brought bus loads of men, and they picketed around us. They did a lot of little nasty things like shooting tin at our eyes, and one of them spit on my face and harassed us. I was a little bit afraid that day, more than any other time that we were demonstrating.

You said you were the chair of the committee for the human rights?

I'm gonna refer you to a book. And it'll give you a lot of information about what happened at Spelman during that time. It's called Undaunted by the Fight, by Dr. Harry Lefever.

Do you remember some of the goals of your organization?

The main goal of the movement at that time, though unwritten, was to just harass the system into equal rights. One of the big things about what we were doing was that we were backed by some people in the community that were moneyed and who were also leaders. So, as we did things they would go into negotiation with the big powers to help alleviate the situation. It was a two-prong attack; one of them was an act of demonstration and the other was negotiation and lawsuits

Could you tell us more about the picketing that the Ku Klux Klan did around you guys?

Well, we were picketing the building. We didn't know they were coming. They were in their full regalia and believe me, they are not starch white like you see on T.v. and various movies. They were really shoddy looking and nasty and dirty. That was probably my most fearful time because I didn't know what to expect from them, and I suppose if it hadn't been downtown, it would have been much worse than it was. Lots of them were there, and they were doing little things to harass us. But we had been taught in our meetings that we were not to respond to any violence. We were committed to nonviolence.

I saw one man take the point of his umbrella and stand up on a boy's foot. He had a tear falling out of his eye, but he never moved. There were little stories like that all through the movement, where people were hurt, but we were dedicated. Dr. King told us all the time that we couldn't win with violence and it wasn't the right way to go, so a lot of the kids couldn't participate because they couldn't hold their tempers. We would have them do other things rather than demonstrate.

So if someone had a bad temper, they weren't allowed to participate?

Oh yeah. There were people that couldn't go because, we knew their tempers weren't in line with what we were trying to do.

What would they do if they had bad tempers? How would they help the movement?

Well, the back-up people would make signs and different things like that, man the office, answer telephone calls, or answer correspondence. In fact some of them helped form SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were communicating with other people in the movement at other places, and they would take care of things like that. They would transport us in the cars to get to the places where we were going to demonstrate. There were other ways they could participate, but we didn't want them on the front lines where they couldn't control themselves.

That makes sense. Do you remember any of the other leaders from the other student groups?

There were lots of guys and gals that went on to other things, even though it was not pointedly in the movement. There were ancillary things. I've dedicated my life to helping other people overcome different kinds of things because of my participation in the movement. It really gave you a sense of in that you felt like you were really helping the situation. I know that when I decided to go into the movement, I wrote a letter to my father, who is here in Louisiana, principal of a school. I asked him for his wisdom and he wrote me a beautiful letter. I didn't have sense enough to keep it. He told me, that my generation had to carve out their own way just as his generation had done, and whatever I endeavored to do he would back me up. I kind of went crazy after that.

Another part of the movement that you don't hear much about. I had a girlfriend, a white girlfriend, who was a visiting student at Spelman. We were sitting in the office one night and we cooked up this scheme about the Henry Grady Hotel that was kind of a monument to segregation. What we decided to do was send her down and get some reservations, five of them, in fact. They gave them to her, and the next morning she took her little case and went down to the Henry Grady Hotel. They showed her up to her room, and five minutes later two more of us went in, who were black, of course. It was three guys and me and Anna-Jo. When we went in, of course, they told us they didn't serve us, so the two guys went back outside. They gave the key for the other kids to come in with picket signs. They went straight to the lawyer's office to file a suit, and I went in, along with another guy, and when they turned me down, I took my pillow out of my suitcase and stretched out on the sofa in the lounge.

You know what happened after that? They hauled me off to jail again. But anyway, we had set the situation up, so legally they could not squirm from under the fact that they had allowed our friend to go in because she was white and had denied the four of us. So, legally that started the accommodations legislation because the lawsuit brought it up as a larger issue. That hotel closed, but, with the accommodations legislation, all of the other hotels opened up and no longer practiced segregation.

Was the lie-in one of the quickest protests you had done?

Yes. But every weekend, just about, we would pick out a section o# town to go, like Krystal Hamburgers, those places were segregated. I remember we went in there one Saturday and they wouldn't serve us. They turned on all the heat in the building, locked all the doors, and left us in there. The only thing I could do, we didn't have cell phones, of course, was write "Help" on the windows where they had fogged up. Finally somebody found a policeman, and he came and took care of the situation. But ironically, a few months later, after things had started settling down, we went into that same Krystal Hamburger shop and they agreed to serve us! But none of us had any money. We didn't even have any money to buy a doughnut! I guess that was one of the funny spots in the things that happened during that time.

A lot of the kids that were in the movement with us went on to do other larger parts. We had some friends, of course, that went to Mississippi to do voter registration after they got involved in the movement, and some of them took off from school for a semester or a year in order to do the rides through the South and to do voter registration projects. Those kinds of things had even a deeper meaning, longer term than the sit-ins and the lie-ins and those kinds of things.

So during all these movements, how did the whites and blacks get along?

The people, the whites that came down to participate in the movement, they were of a certain kind, so we got along well. I remember, they used to have a SNCC conference, and they had one in Atlanta. The first one actually was in Atlanta at the Gammon Theological Seminary building. They were there for a whole weekend, and it was nice. There weren't any fights or anything like that. I think on both sides you had people who were focused in a different direction. Violence and treating people mean wasn't a part of what we were doing.

Did any of the whites that helped get harassed, or were they left alone?

Most of them were students who just believed that things were not as they should be. It was not that they had really ever had any experience with black people. Housing was such in this country that they didn't go to school with us; they didn't participate in social activities with us. But somewhere in their families maybe, and some of them were there against their families demands, but they felt that it was important. They weren't all in Atlanta, but throughout the South and a lot of the people that participated like Anna-Jo, that was my friend was from Mercer Island, outside of Seattle. A lot of others came from states in the north and the east.

So during the protests were they treated the same as the rest of the blacks, or were they treated better or worse?

Oh, when they were participating with us, the people were more angry with them than with us. So to a certain extent, a lot of times, we had to protect them.

That's really strange. So is that just because they were helping you?

Well, you know they would just call them names. One of their favorite was "nigger lover," of course. They would just try to do little things and remind them of their superiority and everything. But they were as dedicated to the movement as we were.

Were the police ever really mean to you?

Did they hurt me? Not physically, other than ... I don't know if you've ever been spit on. That was probably my most down time. I was really, really hurt by that, because, first of all they didn't look clean and spitting in someone's face is the lowest form of degradation. That's what I felt at that time, but I kept moving. It was throwing their budget off, because they were having to feed all these kids that were locked up in jail. I know there was eighty some girls alone. So they decided to let us out on our own recognizance, that means that we could just sign our name and walk out.

We went back over to the campuses, and we went to dinner at this high school's restaurant. We kept looking for Martin Luther King Jr. to come in, and of course he never got there. So we went back downtown to find out what had happened to him. They had shifted him to another jail where they were gonna try him on some trumped up charges. So we went to the jail to find out.

He told us to get out of there, he could handle it, and to leave it alone, and to call his wife, and tell her to send the lawyers down.

When Dr. King came back to Atlanta [from Montgomery], he did not have in his mind that he was going to continue in the movement. He came to write, to preach and just be involved in his ministry and we had sort of pulled him back into it. It made me feel kind of bad because we had pulled him. We volunteered, and because he had joined back in with us, his life was going to be more miserable. We had no idea how; that it would be so profound. Most of us never kept any records or any of that sort of thing, so we have to survive on our memory.

Did you ever see an end coming to all the protests and discrimination?

I still can't stand to see any person mistreated because of their race, and a lot of it still exists, you have to understand. A lot of it has gone underground and it's institutionalized, but we have to dedicate ourselves to not let folks get away with it. Many of us have gone on to integrate jobs. It's very difficult and it was difficult when schools were integrated. It was difficult because there were just as many people dedicated to keeping separate as we were to mergeing the cultures.

Yeah, but what is the most recent form of discrimination that you have seen?

There are a lot of subtleties that happen in today's world like the treatment of Barack Obama. I can understand people not agreeing with him, but its ferocious. I mean its dividing our country, and they want to put it on him. They say that he did this; he is the reason we are having so many problems, when that just isn't the truth. Many of us are speaking out through various organizations and in our communities to try and give some support to him as a person as much as his policies. That's the biggest thing right now.

You've got the Rush Limbaughs who are constantly stirring the pot and other people in the news media. Even ministers are on that bandwagon. So, yes, there is a lot of discrimination going on. I know that in jobs, here in the little town that I live, there are very few blacks who are in positions of power. Even when they are, the things that they stand for are fought against, not because they aren't good ideas, but just because of who put the idea out there.

Speaking of the presidents, how did you feel about what the president was doing at the time you were protesting? Do you think he was doing enough?

The person that helped us the most was probably President Kennedy. When he became president, he was not gung-ho on integration, so much as he was political. He finally realized that the voting power of the blacks in the South was especially important so he did intervene where King was concerned. When King went to Alabama and was jailed on some trumped up charges, Kennedy spoke against it. Believe it or not, we have taken credit for his election at that time, because Daddy King, who was M.L's father, put the word out across the South and across the nation to black ministers everywhere about Kennedy's help with his son, and with the movement at that time. You probably know that Kennedy won by less than one vote per precinct so we figured that vote was a black vote that had probably not been cast before.

You keep mentioning how there were so many men, but do you feel as though the number of women participants was equal to that of the men? Do you think that the women shared a very important role in the Civil Rights Movement?

Yes, I think many did. There are many women who participated in the movement. We stay in touch through the internet and most of the ones that I am in touch with, in various ways, are still contributing. One of the ways is that we speak to groups on any occasion we can. I don't know about you, but here the schools are desegregating so fast. We are making the students aware of the problems, and getting them involved in the community, and especially in politics. So yes, a lot of us are still active, maybe in a more mundane way, but we still try to contribute in little ways.

So do you think the women played a big part in or some specific important roles in it?

Yes, A lot of women participated. Now, there was a limit. There was a woman by the name of Ruby Doris Smith, who was like my mentor, although we were pretty much the same age. She traveled a lot through the South, heading up parts of the SNCC. But most of the women stayed in one place. They didn't travel like the guys did. The guys would take off and go to another state and help the movement there. They were much more mobile than the women in the movement.

What do you think specifically started the Civil Rights Movement?

There was probably no one thing. I think the Emmit Till murder in Mississippi was a big shock to the people my age. He was 14 and I was 14. The black media started showing pictures and telling the story of all the things that had happened to him. Then there was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was probably the most publicized worldwide. Other things were happening during that time, like people not being allowed to vote. I know right here, when I went to register to vote, if I hadn't been a political science major, I probably wouldn't have passed the test. They were still testing people and making them pay to be able to vote. My father had to be a land-owner in order to be able to take the test. Of course he started voting in the early, '50's, maybe around '48 or '49, but it was only because he pushed, he and some of the ministers here.

People were just fed up. We would go uptown and everything was separate. One place I saw in northern Louisiana had restrooms that said, His, Hers, and Others. The others were for black folks, men and women. You saw these things and they just kept boiling up until they ran over. At that time we were probably fortunate that the movement was nonviolent, because later in the 60's the riots started. That was a group that had not been involved in the movement up to that point. It was very very civilized in these early years and turned violent after King was killed.

So, Malcolm X was a big leader of the violence. What did most people think about his ideas?

Oh, Malcolm was just now coming into his own. It was a long time before Malcolm's theories and thoughts and ideas came into the community. I think there are more people who understand him today than did back then. I met him once and to be real honest, he was a very angry young man. He had come to Clark College to speak to the students and I happened to be walking down the hall when he was on his way in. I stopped him and had a chance to talk with him but I think he was of a different genre. I think the system changed him. I think over time he understood a lot better what was going on in America and how to attack it, but by that time they were angry with him within his own group. Of course I think that his murder was within the group.

What do you think of, comparing Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, what did you think of Martin Luther King's ideas or philosophies?

I agree with Dr. King that not very much can be accomplished with violence. We see that in the wars that we have fought over the last 30 or 40 years. People of reason have to sit down and honestly express themselves and work through the problem. It's not going to happen when you try to force people with violence, because they're going to react with violence, so nothing is accomplished. I think that near the end, Malcolm X had said a lot of things that were inciting. After awhile he began to mellow, and see the difference. I think the difference between them is that Malcolm understood power better than Dr. King did.

So after Martin Luther King was assassinated, how did that change the movement?

I think that people were angry. A large population of people were angered by his death. It was like slaughtering a lamb. A lamb is a peaceful animal and they felt like that shouldn't have happened. I think that's what changed the movement. But at the same time, the people who had been disciples of Dr. King continued on the same path that he had laid out through his oratory; to continue to be peaceful, to press the system, but at the same time avoid violence.

How do you think the media affects what you were doing within the protests?

The press at that time was more controlled. There were certain things that they were allowed to express, and certain things they weren't. At that time, they were more prone to just report the news, rather than give a commentary. Today it seems like they try to sway us one way or the other. Back then it was more this is what happened, period, not what we think about it.

Did anything in the media change the protests?

Oh, let me tell you what they did! The first time we went to jail in Atlanta, they sent the information to the home towns of all of the participants. The newspaper in my town had an article about my participation. Then the sheriff called my dad about what his gal was doing in Georgia. He wanted my father to come in and talk with him, and of course he wouldn't do that. My dad told him he could come down to the ghetto and talk to him, because he didn't have anything to contribute. They did little things back in that day to try and spin the die. The generation ahead of us was fighting for something much more basic, like being able to provide good educations for young black kids. Their fight had been at a different level.

Did you ever lose someone close to you, or was someone close to you injured because of the movement?

Yes. My grandfather, he didn't care what it was for, he didn't want me participating because he was afraid for my life. They had experienced and seen a whole lot of things that we didn't, like lynchings. We hadn't seen that, so that's why Emmett Till was so outrageous to us. But my father, and his father, and my mother had seen whole families killed and burned out, and people hanging right off the street when they were passing by. The impression was that the white community would do anything to keep from integrating society, and here we were baldly pushing them to do just that. So a lot of people were afraid. That's why the young people, who didn't have sense enough to be afraid, were so active in the movement.

Do you feel that because of how the whites have treated you for so many years, that you should get something out of it, like you should get more out of the Civil Rights Movement than what you did get?

Oh, no. I've never thought like that. I mean over the last year or two, I've probably gotten more attention about my participation in the movement than ever before. I appreciate it. I enjoy talking to people about it, but I've never looked for anything personal, other than gratification from my experiences.

Do you think that the Civil Rights Movement would have been as successful without the white violence?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. I think it was very successful in terms of accommodations. There was John Lewis. He went on to climb the mountain along with Julian Bond and some of the others, even Jesse Jackson. We all came out of the same movement, and a lot of us went on to climb whatever mountain we wanted to climb. Some of us wanted to do greater things. I wanted to be able to practice my beliefs on a smaller scale where I could actually see reactions from people and see the difference that I could make in other people. But some of us went on to be big ministers. All kinds of big things came out of the movement, but I've never sought anything personal.

Did these successes of the Movement outweigh the failures?

Yes, I think that. Number one you would have to assume that all white people in the system were the same, and believe the same. But some of the people, we pricked their consciences. They didn't realize it hadn't been a part of their little world to think about what the system was doing to another group of people. Those were the easy ones. Then you had the people at the other end of the spectrum, no matter what you said, or did, they just believed that one group of people were superior to the other, period. There were those in the middle who agreed to listen to both sides and they went one way or the other. We still have that same division. Our lines of demarcation separate people that never believe that two races could exist in the same arena. Then there those who it doesn't matter to and those who embrace it.

What were some of the specific protests that you feel had the most benefits and what were some that were not beneficial whatsoever?

Like I said, after the death of King in the late 60s things were not beneficial. The protests in late 60's, early 70's began to hurt the movement some. I think some groups, like the Weathermen. or the Black Panthers claimed to come out of a nonviolent movement, but they didn't. They had a different philosophy on how to bring people together. I think today, if I weren't so old, I'd probably be in the [Occupy] Wall Street movement.

So do you feel that the Civil Rights Movement worked to the extent that you had hoped for?

Do I feel that the student's movement was effective? I think that it was the most effective movement that we've ever had in this country, including women's suffrage.

So you feel that it had more benefit to them?

Yes, and I think it was a benefit to not just blacks but to the whole society. How we appear today has been affected by what happened those many years ago. This country had to make some serious changes in order to be a world leader during this time. The Cold War was at its peak and the face we wanted to show to the rest of the world was what the Appeal for Human Rights said. If you want to be a stalwart in the world, then you're going to have to break down these barriers, and use all of the talent that we have to make America strong. That was basically what we were saying. You can't cut off a whole segment of society and not use what they bring to the table and be successful.

So do you feel that the black rights movement was an example for the rest of the movements that Americans would later have?

I would hope that we'd never have to go back to that system. That system is very hard on people. I almost flunked out of school and at one point had to really put it together to get back in line. It takes your emotional energy and it zaps it, not to mention how much time it takes to be involved in things like that. We spent a lot of time just talking together in our meetings about what we hoped to accomplish with each step that we took. If we were going to picket a place, we wanted to be darn sure that we were able to tell why we were picketing and every single person participating had to be ready to answer questions. There's a lot that goes in to it. This is a very special time in our history, make or break time, and I would hate to see them spend their time, doing the things that we did and taking them away from the things that we need to be doing to keep Our society as a whole on its feet.

What do you think about the drastic changes that happened from then to now?

Our country is used to incrementalism, meaning that we don't take rapid change very well. I guess that's worldwide, it's human nature to want to take change a little bit at a time. But today, there's a lot more at risk. We've come 40-50 years without really addressing all that needs to be addressed,

We settled back into the ways that we used to. And so, a lot of what we gained was lost by the wayside. I think that we have progressed in many areas that we would not have been able to progress in if it had not been for the movement.

Do you feel that desegregation should have been faster, like the mixing of schools?

We had thought it would. We had thought that things would move more rapidly than they did and that's because of the impetuosity of youth. We thought that things would close tonight and open differently in the morning. But looking back on it I think that we have moved ahead in so many ways. The opening up of colleges and universities have become more important than at the middle years, but I think it could have been better. It could have been more. I think that the reason that it isn't is because they were not all the same, we don't all think the same way, we don't all believe in the same things. The diversity in America is our greatest value and it's also our greatest failure.

Is there anything that you would have changed of during the protests or movements?

You have to understand that we had very little input from adults. We had a couple of instructors, and I think they suffered because they were viewed as being involved in what we were doing. Of course they were white, other than Dr. King and a few others. We did have a lot of wealthy blacks who contributed behind the scenes. We had lawyers who contributed their time. I don't think at that day and time we could have done more. I think we were at our capacity in terms of what we knew to do. You have to remember that we didn't know much about the system. We had been excluded from the system up until that time. If we would have known we might have been able to do better.

You said black lawyers and people of wealth participated secretly Why do you think it was secret?

Oh, because they could be hurt economically. Banks have had a lot to do with the problems we've had then and now banks and insurance companies. I asked my father once why he didn't have insurance policies so when he died, I'd have a lot of money. I was young at that time, but he said that a black man's life was not worth a plugged nickel. Insurance companies wouldn't sell life insurance policies to a black man. I can tell you right here in this community that people have land and property stolen under the guise of law. If a black person went into a business and was able to make a success of it and they realized the value of what we were doing and wanted to support it, they did.

Is there anything else that you can think of that you would like to add to what you've said?

I can tell you that I had a much brighter outlook for the future of this country, when I was younger. I've seen some things, that if the current generation doesn't take a handle on, is going to push us further back. My dream is that all of the sections of the world come together so we can live together in peace and harmony. I know it has to happen in this country or we're going to tear ourselves asunder. All of the great countries that have been destroyed, have been destroyed from the inside, not because somebody came and bombed them out. I would hate to leave here thinking at some point America would destroy itself from the inside because of hatred and an inability to get along.

So you feel that there's still more change that needs to be done?

Oh yeah. The change is that we need to come together and proceed with the things that are best for the people as a whole, and not an advantage for this group, or an advantage to that group. The closer we can get to a color-blind society, the better off I think it will be for all of the citizens of America, not just the blacks.

I think that's all the questions we can think of It's been very enlightening.

I hope I've been able to shed some light and it sounds like a romanticized era, I have to think back to the fears and the feelings that we had at that time. It is romanticized a lot more now than it was at that time. It touched me and I hope your project comes out like you'd like it to.

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