Forman begins by describing his youth and his educational background, and he discusses when African Americans generally become conscious of their racial identity. He describes students involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as rejecting the consumer-oriented values of American society even as he acknowledges that many African American students embrace these values. Forman discusses the backgrounds and motivations of participants in the civil rights movement, and he describes SNCC's organizational goals and the role that SNCC plays in the movement. Forman considers whether African American activists are at war with American society, discusses why more violence has not broken out among African Americans, and opines as to African Americans' responsibilities in the civil rights movement. He discusses the effects of mass action, in-fighting among civil rights leaders and groups, and non-violence as a method of protest. He also discusses the integration of public schools, the role of white people in the civil rights movement, and what social actions should follow the movement. Forman closes by considering whether the southern white mob represents the will of the majority of southerners.
James Forman (1928-2005) was a civil rights activist. A native of Chicago, Forman spent much of his early life on a farm in Mississippi. After attending junior college, joining the army, and attending the University of Southern California, Forman completed his undergraduate degree at Chicago's Roosevelt University. In the late 1950s Forman worked as a reporter for the Chicago Defender, taught in Chicago schools, and studied French at Middlebury College, before a subcommittee of the Chicago branch of the Congress of Racial Equality invited Forman to work with dispossessed tenant farmers in Tennessee. From 1961 until 1966 Forman served as the executive secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in which capacity he set up a research department and print shop and then moved the office to Jackson, Mississippi during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. A sometimes-critic of Martin Luther King, Jr., Forman served briefly as the minister of foreign affairs of the Black Panther Party following his resignation from SNCC, and he voiced calls for African Americans to receive reparations for their years of enslavement. Later, Forman earned a master's degree from Cornell and a doctorate from the Union Institute, and he served as president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee in Washington.
Image: James Forman, a leader with SNCC, attends a strategy meeting with other civil rights leaders during the Selma-Montgomery Civil Rights Marches, March 1, 1965. Copyright: Flip Schulke/Corbis.
TAPE 1 Searchable TextCollapse
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site. Time stamps are included in the retyped transcripts to aid in this process.]
[00:00:00] RPW: This is the first tape of a conversation with James Forman, June 4 – proceed. Mr. Forman, do you mind giving us a little autobiographical sketch?
Mr. FORMAN: Well, no. The name is James Forman – F-O-R-M-A-N. I was born in Chicago October 4, 1928. I spent about the first seven years of my life in the northern part of Mississippi, in a county called Marshall County – it’s in the northern part of Mississippi.
[00:00:37] RPW: How does it relate to Oxford or Clarksdale?
JF: It’s only about thirty miles from Oxford, and about forty-five – it’s about seventy-five miles from Clarksdale. The mail came through a little town called Moscow, Tennessee. Marshall County is adjoining Fayette County in Tennessee. I went to grammar school in Chicago, went to high school there, graduated in 1947, spent four years in the army, attended school – the University of Southern California, graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago, had a scholarship to attend Boston University, where I majored in African affairs, and assisted in the Government Department; left graduate school, spent a year working on a novel while I was working with the Illinois Institute in Juvenile Research, came a school teacher in the city of Chicago, worked in Fayette County on a vote drive, started a student nonviolent coordinating committee in September of 1961 as the executive secretary when it decided to put on a full time staff of some sixteen people. I have been working with the student nonviolent coordinating committee since 1961.
[00:02:06] RPW: Why did you leave Mississippi when you were a boy?
JF: Well, because my mother remarried and then she came to Chicago.
[00:02:17] RPW: Were in the Korean War?
JF: Well, I was in the army for one year during the first part of the Korean War. I was due to get out in ’50, then when the war started they extended the time for one year.
[00:02:30] RPW:Did you see active service abroad?
JF: No, I was in California at the time, although I was stationed overseas in Okinawa during 1949-1950.
[00:02:42] RPW: How did your involvement with the civil rights movement start?
JF: Well, I’m not trying to give you any histrionics, but I think, you know, it sort of started when I was born. I was always conscious of the fact that I was a Negro and that things had to change and that in order for them to change people had to work to make them change. And I’m not saying that as a baby certainly I had this kind of consciousness. But, you know, I was not twenty-five or twenty-six years old when it became obvious to me that I was a Negro.
[00:03:19] RPW: It is for some, though.
JF: Well, that’s very true. So they say.
[00:03:24] RPW: Over night.
JF: Well, I question that. I don’t think that -
[00:03:28] RPW: Or at least for a direct active involvement it comes about -
JF: Well, I question that. I don’t that that people make over night decisions, frankly, you know – walking in the orchard which your father, I guess like John Stuart Mill and suddenly you decide this is the idea, you know. I mean I think that things have more historical context than that. Well, you know, it’s not for me to say. I mean, people say that, so if that’s what they say, O.K. But I just don’t accept it, and I think that if they probed a little bit deeper within themselves that they would find other strands.
[00:04:08] RPW: Let’s cut to something about – well, quotes the young Negro close quotes, you know. Could you give a kind of a profile of this person, this character or sub-type that you might distinguish?
JF: Well, it’s very difficult to do. I mean, first I have to -
[00:04:36] RPW: Of course it’s difficult to do. It’s also a stupid question.
JF: Yes, that’s right – of getting into the conversation. The reason I say it’s difficult to do because, you know, people are always typing individuals and I have just never been of that school, perhaps due to my own instability to give such typings, to give such generalizations. But I that one can certainly say of those people that I know best, those young people within the student nonviolent coordinating committee, which I call SNCC – I spell it out for the typist – S-N-I-C-K – is the so-called nickname – that there is, you know, an awareness among some of them that social change has to come and that it can only come by people who are being full time and most of their spare time in order to make it come about. At the same time I think that, you know, there exists within this country many young people both black and white, or certainly many young Negroes that are motivated by traditional American values, a desire to make a lot of money, a desire to be socially mobile and have a home, two cars, pay partial payment on traveling abroad, you know, and then pay for the rest later on. But at the same time you have people who are rejecting these values, and certainly this is characteristic of people who work for us because money is not important. We don’t make any money, and the important thing is, you know, working for social change.
[00:06:25] RPW: I have just been reading a mimeograph or typescript of a dissertation by a young man named Rose on the American Negro student. He is impressed by the large amount – the large number, the large percentage of Negro students who don’t involve themselves – do follow the standard American middle class aspirations.
JF: Why is he impressed by them? In what sense is he impressed?
[00:06:55] RPW: Well, he says the number is great.
JF: Well, that’s very true. There’s no question about it, I mean, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
[00:07:02] RPW: I don’t either. I’m not raising that question.
JF: You know, we have a society which has these values and Negroes are a part of this society and they’re going to accept these values just as many whites do or as most whites do. And – but that’s not relevant to social change, because you don’t have to have a whole mass of people who believe in certain things. You just have to have people who are dedicated to working for social change and spreading the message. Now, the fact of the matter is, however, that – and I’m – you certainly haven’t said he made this assertion – but I would
[00:09:56] RPW: Do you see what I’m getting at? The two kinds of motivations or poles of activity?
JF: Yes, well, I don’t – see, I can’t really judge this, but I don’t think that there are many people who are involved in the movement simply as an emotional – as an outlet for their emotional frustrations solely. Now, there’s no question about it that – myself I am personally frustrated and that involves my emotions about the racial scene, and that there are certainly emotional drives operating in me. At the same time, there is a sort of intellectual and idealistic commitment. And I don’t think that the two are – the three are inseparable. On the other hand, you know, we’re not just like the herd of beings that are just moving forward purely on emotionalism without some type of rationale which would involve their intellect and what we are doing – about what we’re doing.
[00:11:00] RPW: I remember Gilbert Moses talking about this in Jackson, Mississippi, saying his first shock to find among Freedom Riders and other people who came in, a type that he associated with street corner hoodlumism, you see – the drifters. Then he went on to say this first shock passes, or this was their way to become people.
JF: Yes, well, that’s true too, but you know, in the first place, I’m not sure of the context in which he said this, and I think it’s maybe necessary then to stand -
[00:11:39] RPW: He’s not saying all – he’s saying some.
JF: Yes, but even I’m going to take to the some – you know, it’s probably necessary to understand the frame of references from which he speaks, because I don’t think that, you know, that it’s accurate just to call people street corner types, you know. I think that they’re human beings who may not had the so-called formal education, the so-called grasp of intellectual ideas, the so-called world view that some of us may have. And yet they know that within their own social circumstances or within the context of their environment, that there are certain things which are not right and they therefore feel that these things have to be challenged. And do participate in the movement. And that’s very good, because racial prejudice doesn’t just affect so-called Negro but it affects all people in a sense, and if you’re going to have any kind of profound changes you must get people whom some would call in the lower classes involved, you see.
[00:12:58] RPW: This reminds me of something that Adam Clayton Powell said, there are two distinct Negro movements now at the same time. The one in the South is primarily middle and upper class, the protest of people of some education or a great deal of education, claiming their rights, the rights appropriate to what they feel their talents to be. In the North, a mass movement based on the claustrophobia of a ghetto culture.
JF: Well, I just don’t think that he understands – if that’s his statement. (talking together) what’s going on in the South, I mean, because the movement in the South is not basically a middle class movement. It is based now – there’s no question about it, on the other hand, that in 1960, when the movement first started, it was led by students who might be considered as middle class students or aspiring to be in the middle class. But it didn’t take it very long to become a mass movement involving very poor people, and I could cite numerous examples of the people who have even participated in demonstrations certainly could not be considered middle class. As a matter of fact, the – I would say that so-called middle and upper class individuals in the South are not involved in the movement, and sometimes even act as a hindrance.
[00:14:45] RPW: What about the leadership of SNICK, say, itself? The persons I know who are in SNICK, the ones I’m acquainted with, are all persons of a high degree of intellectual attainment.
JF: Well, that’s very true. And I think that SNICK is the one movement in this country that has within its spheres of activity room for intellectuals, and I think, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the main strengths of our organization in that we are capable of absorbing the energies of many people of intellectual attainments, but who at the same time are not snobbish, you see. I think that there’s a difference between being middle class and having intellectual attainment, you see. The two are not synonymous, and that if people recognize – and the reason – and actions even indicate that they are not synonymous, because the people who come despite their educational attainment have to first of all recognize that we are a bunch of equals and that they must work on the same level as, say, a guy with maybe a high school education that’s working for us, and there a few who don’t even have that. And there’s a commitment to work with people. We’re not working in the major cities – we’re working in the very poor areas of this country, and so that whatever your intellectual attainment is, then you have to begin working with the masses of people, and I think that there is a characteristic that’s different of the so-called typical middle class individual.
[00:16:41] RPW: Do you find this – some of the people who actually, say field workers in voter registration in Mississippi or some of those places now, who are people of intellectual training and attainments, have – and I’m not offering this as criticism – but have a romantic view, a romantic feeling for the purity of experience of the cotton field hand, the deprived and ignorant – this romantic feeling for the purity of experience, Wordsworthian view of that world?
JF: Yes, well -
[00:17:22] RPW: Do you find that sometimes?
JF: No, I don’t find that. I obviously don’t – well, not obviously, but I don’t understand all of the implications of your statement, I mean, in terms of the Wordsworthian -
[00:17:33] RPW: That was a question.
JF: Yes, your question, rather – because we both come from different backgrounds in a sense, and I don’t – I have not yet attained that literary level one might say. But the fact of the matter is, though, I do understand it sufficient enough to know that there’s sometimes a romantic attachment to poor people, but I don’t think that that is the case, you know. And I hope that you understand my ambivalence, I mean, I’m trying to be as concise and perhaps (talking together) and try to clarify your question and also my reaction.
[00:18:14] RPW: I could offer you some examples to the contrary.
JF: All right.
[00:18:17] RPW: Among people you know and what they talk about, you see.
JF: All right, why don’t you do that?
[00:18:20] RPW: I haven’t the tapes with me, you know, to play them back to you, but you know, I mean – I think it’s fine, you see, but it’s one of the things one always enters when you have people who different intellectual experience and intellectual attainment assessing each other. Now, this conversation was a kind of romantic admiration for this purity of experience.
JF: That may very well be the case. But I don’t – you know, I – you know, I haven’t talked to everybody within the organization and certainly haven’t talked to them, you know, for two or three hours at length, but I don’t think – now I would – certainly am subject to error on this point, and this is just an impression – I’m reacting impressionistic – but I don’t just think that there’s this romantic conception of the purity of experience. I think what people may be saying, on the other hand, is that working in some of the Deep South areas, that the issues are somewhat clear-cut. Now, I don’t think that this has anything to do with the romantic conception of the purity of the experience, and I think that, for instance, in Greenwood, Mississippi, it’s quite obvious who the opposition is. It’s a different situation from, say, the west side of New York when you’re trying to get in a Princeton Plan. I mean, where is the opposition? It become ambivalence because some Negroes may even present a plan which is counter to that; in Greenwood, Mississippi, it becomes quite obvious that, you know, people can’t register to vote, that -
[00:20:09] RPW: Shotguns are clear-cut.
JF: That’s right. And I think that’s entirely different from conceptualizing it as a romantic conception of the purity of the situation. I may be wrong.
[00:20:23] RPW: Changing the topic a little bit, what do you conceive to be the specific function of SNCC as contrasted with the other civil rights organizations?
JF: Well, I think that -
[00:20:40] RPW: What vacuum does this fill?
JF: Yes, I’m saying. The first vacuum was that it decided to go into the small towns and into the underprivileged areas of the Deep South. And it took the movement out of the big cities into these rural areas. That’s number one. That can be substantiated, now. All everybody’s talking about Mississippi – of course all those who are talking about Mississippi are not going to be in Mississippi, you know. But even there, civil rights organizations or some of the people in civil rights organizations were vocal about going into the state of Mississippi to talk about voter registration. Secondly, as SNICK would feel a need among some students to feel a certain unity that had some type of Southern base in a sense. That is, in 1960 when the sit-in movement started -
[00:21:44] RPW: In Greensboro?
JF: In Greensboro – two months later a conference was called at Raleigh, North Carolina, the students themselves voted -
[00:21:53] RPW: Excuse me, was that under the auspices of the SCLC?
JF: SCLC, called the first conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, Miss Ella Baker was on our executive committee, was very instrumental in having that conference – SCLC I understand paid for the conference. But the students themselves voted that they would have a temporary coordinating committee which would not be a part of any other organization.
[00:22:19] RPW: Now, you’ve retained an office that you had at that time, didn’t you?
JF: No, I became an officer in 1961. It was a year and three months later – almost a year and six months later.
[00:22:28] RPW: Well, how did you enter the organization – that is, what way did you come into the organization?
JF: Yes, O.K. But I – I want to go back to your question in terms of the specific – the different functions because I think this is a question that people are always asking, and I think one has to look at this historically. And when these students got together and formed this committee, it was basically a Southern-oriented organization composed primarily of Negro students, students who had been involved. And this was the specific function and even now it’s serving a distinctive function in that the primary focus of the organization is not so much in building the organization itself as trying to develop leadership not only in students but also in some of these communities. And the mere fact that we have in Mississippi, for instance, split what is obviously – support ninety percent of the called for budget – most workers in there – trying to create an impression of unity on the part of the civil rights organizations working within Mississippi to the exclusion many times of any kind of projection of the student nonviolent coordinating committee. And I think that it’s because we feel that ultimately a strong organization within the state of Mississippi will be the best for the people in the state, and we think that this is true across the South, you know, to develop local leadership. And I think that that’s a distinctive role – a role which is not in theory, which we can point to instance after instance after instance where we have carried that out. And of course the converse is not necessarily true. Now, as far as myself – the way I got involved in the student nonviolent coordinating committee because I first of all felt that young Negroes in this country, and expressively young Negroes who had had Southern experience, would have to return South and to lend their technical skills to the development of movements in these areas. And this experience became quite vivid to me when I was involved in the Fayette County situation where people had been put out of their land living in tents.
[00:25:10] RPW: In Tennessee?
JF: That’s right. And I was discussing with many people in the summer of ’61 the absolute necessity for developing this type of young people’s organization, and I met a lot of people who had been involved in SNICK and it was in the fall when SNICK decided to put on a staff. Prior to that time – well, when they decided to put on a staff, that I was called and asked to come and work within the framework of this staff. I guess people knew of my commitment and my interest and of my work, and perhaps felt that I could make some kind contribution and of course I decided that I should do this because, one, it was the kind of thing that intellectually I was committed to doing, and the kind of thing that I knew was absolutely necessary – absolutely necessary for social change in this country.
[00:26:09] RPW: What had you been doing just the year before you came to SNICK?
JF: I had been working in the Fayette County situation from September, 1960 to August of ’61, was involved in food and clothing drives in the North, sending food there to break the boycott, to which to me was very important because if the boycott had succeeded in Fayette County, then it would have been extremely difficult to talk about voter registration drives in Mississippi.
[00:26:39] RPW: How did you get into that – the Fayette County operation?
JF: Well, you know, I could write you a history of my life. Well, I got involved because I had just come back fromMiddlebury French summer school and some friends of mine in Chicago had started organizing to send some food down – some friends that had been involved at the Congress of Racial Equality in Chicago – asked me to help them to do public relations work for the campaign, and I agreed to do that.
[00:27:16] RPW: Earlier, when you were a graduate student at Boston University, what did you plan to do? Go into academic life or into political life or what? What was it all leading to?
JF: Well, it was all up for grabs, you know. Really, I have never been able to clearly state at any one point in my life that I’m going to be this or I’m going to be that. Or that this is what I want to do. I’ve been ambivalent about many things, you know, and the ambivalence revolved I think basically around the whole question of whatever it is that I do, how can this best integrate with the conception of doing something for the Negro in the United States.
[00:28:09] RPW: You say you were writing a novel at one time.
JF: That’s right.
[00:28:13] RPW: How did you write your novel to this question of doing for the Negro in the United States?
JF: Because I was writing a novel about the absolute necessities of this kind of a movement, so that there was – it was perhaps a bad novel – it’s never been published. But one of the – some of the themes running through it was the daily frustrations in a Northern city – you know that a lot of people of encounter, and one of the characters involved tries to break through this frustration around developing a nonviolent movement, which was obviously an expression of something that I wanted to do.
[00:28:58] RPW: We were talking earlier at lunch about Ralph Ellison, and you said – if I can crudely paraphrase you now – that you had never understood what was meant by a person saying I want to be primarily a writer or an artist. Is that clear?
JF: That’s right. Not only that – or a tennis player or a golf player, you know, and then after that I want to be a Negro, or I am – or – you know, people stating positively an artist first of all, or I am a tennis player first of all, or I am an architect first of all. Then after that I am a Negro.
[00:29:44] RPW: And after that a human.
*handwritten note at top of page - unintelligible
JF: Yes – yes. I just don’t understand it. I really have never understood what people meant, and I’m not, you know – I’m critical of the position and – but in being critical I am sophisticated enough to know that I should understand the frame of reference that other people are talking about. But this has never been clearly explained to me.
[00:30:11] RPW: Maybe it’s not a frame of reference, but it may be a compulsion.
JF: Yes, I think that – you see, I think that there’s a lot of – it seems to me what little bit I know about the artistic field, you know, it’s sometimes sophisticated and to say, you know, that a person is striving to be an artist – art for art’s sake, you know – but I’ve never understood that term. I mean, even in school, and unquestionably some of this may be my own naiveté, but I have never understood what is art for art’s sake. What does that mean, you see.
[00:30:48] RPW: Well, some of the greatest artists would deny that, of course. Tolstoy, for instance. This is the end of Tape #1 of the conversation with Mr. James Forman. Proceed on Tape #2.
(end of tape)Collapse
TAPE 2 Searchable TextCollapse
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site. Time stamps are included in the retyped transcripts to aid in this process.]
[00:00:01] RPW: This is Tape #2 of the conversation with James Forman – proceed. When I was talking the other day with Mr. Malcolm X, he referred, not in these words but to unselective reprisals as similar to a war, say between the Negro movement and society at large. Any war, any kind of reprisal is justified. This leads to a question, not of that gross absolute sort but of construction of the role of the Negro movement in relation to general society, as an in movement or an out movement – outside society working – or inside society as a reformist movement. Or is that distinction relevant?
Mr. FORMAN: Well, I don’t – I’m not sure about the relevance because I don’t understand necessarily the terms. I think I have – let me state what I think that you mean by this so we can communicate so that I can -
[00:01:34] RPW: Let me interrupt with this – he says it’s a war – Negro against society, so anything goes in a war. You bomb a city, you don’t care who gets hurt. It’s the ethics of war – lack of ethics of war instead of the ethics of a reformist movement in a society. He accepts society as the mood that you yourself are in.
JF: Well, I don’t think that the protest movement currently in the United States is depicted by a lot of people as any type of war because basically most of the people are seeking reforms within the structure of American society – you know. In fact, many Negroes in protest movements are very apologetic, you know, for the society. Now, whether or not it ought to be a war or something is I think what Malcolm X is perhaps projecting. But I don’t think that in reality one can say that the Negro is at war with the society in the sense that many people don’t conceive of anything like that. On the other hand, I can understand certain phrases and – let me just say something here that I am not one to readily respond to what other people have said, because first of all I don’t – sometimes know what they mean, and that’s the point I want to make in terms of this artist. Now, I would not want it to go on record that I’m saying that I’m opposed to Ellison because Ellison has aid – is supposed to have said that he considers himself as an artist and then as a Negro. If that is his position then I say that I don’t understand what people mean by what’s an artist. The same is true in terms of Malcolm X, for instance. I can see within a certain framework where the Negro is at war with the society, but I don’t agree with the conclusions that are drawn from this statement. In other words, what I am saying is that the values of the society are basically racist values that continually suppress the dignity of the Negro, and this puts the Negro at odds, which may be a less potent word as war. It puts him at odds with the society and he must struggle to change the society, to change the values and structures of society that make him this way in a sense. Now, I don’t agree, on the other hand, because one is at odds with the society that therefore anything that goes in order to change it. But again, as I said, - now, I’m interpreting for Malcolm X, you see, and this may not be what Malcolm X has in mind, and I would like to clearly state unequivocally that I’m not one generally given to reacting to what other people say – I don’t care who he is.
[00:05:01] RPW: Yes, but I wasn’t trying to put a particular interpretation on Malcolm X. We can take as a starting point what you think. I don’t think Ralph Ellison ever said that he was an artist first and a Negro later. He’s saying he aspires to being an artist – But he sees that as different from using literature as a device of protest. I think that’s all he meant to say. Did you read the various statements, or did you participate in the statements on the question of the outbreak of hoodlumism over the weekend on the ferry and the subways? Did you give a statement on that?
JF: No, I didn’t give a statement on it. I have some personal opinions about it. I think – I read some of the reports that were in the newspapers. The only opinion that I read about it happened to have been an editorial in the New York Times – I think it was Sunday morning or Monday. I think that the editorial did not go far enough, that it did not go far enough in the sense that one has to understand the milieu, the structural situation which allowed these people to be placed. And the thing that surprises me is not that we have one or two incidents of outbreaks of violence on the part of the Negroes, but that there is not more of this, because the frustration which is produced by the society in which we live makes me from an objective point of view again wonder what it is that people do to contain this, you see. And I don’t have any answers. I have a few suggestions. But it’s an interesting subject as to why the Negro has not reacted in a more violent fashion, why he has not been more destructive. And
*(handwritten note in margin – unintelligible)
one of the answers of course is that within the group the Negro culture itself, there are many destructive tendencies, you see, which are just simply reactions to the frustrations produced by the society.
[00:07:16] RPW: The white man and society have an obligation that is clear, it seems. These things are the result of a defect in society. Meanwhile, there are two other questions. What kinds of containment is possible, and 2) What kind of responsibility from the Negro society as distinguished from over-all society is desirable. What kind of responsibility is there?
JF: Well, first of all I think that – it’s my feeling that the Negroes even in slavery effectively controlled or effectively attempted – well, attempted to control some of the frustrations and some of the anger. I think that you have the Negro church has been an outlet to some of the frustrations. I think that even within the civil rights movement itself, that the posture of nonviolence has helped to control some of the anger and the frustrations. And that goes back to this old problem of, you know, why there hasn’t been more. So that I don’t think that the Negroes themselves can be indicted, one, for acts of violence that have been committed on the part of Negroes – I’m referring now to an article or a letter that I read in the Times this morning, where someone said that, you know, you don’t blame all the Italians for the Mafia and so forth, you know. I think that the basic responsibility that all Negroes have and all Americans is to hurry up and changes the conditions that first of all make it necessary for me to be giving you the kind of interview that I’m giving and for you to have this kind of interview. There are other things which we could be discussing, I believe, but the nature of our existence is that the racial problem is paramount and so now we’re talking about it. But I much would prefer not to be talking about it. So I’m not just talking about removing the conditions that produce somebody that would strike out on the subway – let’s remove the conditions that make it necessary for me to be even discussing the problem – you see. In other words, let’s get rid of the racialism in the society.
[00:09:45] RPW: What about the question of a white slum boy who goes berserk?
JF: Well, I think that here again that I’m not – I’m not saying that it’s necessarily race, but I would say that we have to remove from the society which is going to be a very long process, those conditions that don’t produce the good life for anybody – you see. I mean, I think that there are many things fundamental to the society – our whole parole system, our whole prison system – things which are not racial necessarily but do take racial forms. I don’t think that our prison system is at all rehabilitative. Nowhere in the United States. There may be one or two isolated spots. I that the whole question of what is an adequate welfare program – these are problems – these are the larger problems to which we should be addressing ourselves, which I should be devoting my energies to, if I may be so presumptuous. But because I’m so caught up in this racial thing that the whole question of allocation of energy makes it – and interest – makes it impossible for me to be devoting my time to these other problems.
[00:11:09] RPW: But they do intersect in a very crucial way, don’t they?
JF: There’s no question about it – I mean, and you’re absolutely right that there is a great deal of interlocking in these areas.
[00:11:21] RPW: When you say crash program or Marshall Plan for the Negro, you have to revise that – or do you, and say the crash program – Marshall Plan for all underprivileged people?
JF: I think that that’s the most desirable thing. But then on the other hand I am not opposed to saying a crash program or Marshall Plan for Negroes because I think that if the Negro is to ever present legitimately his demands before the society, that he has to take an interest group point of view. But at the same time, you know, people articulating this I am sure are aware of, you know, the implications for all people in a sense, and the necessity to deal with these interlocking problems.
[00:12:19] RPW: Adam Clayton Powell said to me the other day that all the civil rights organization leaders were dead – don’t bother with them – they’re not significant, any more. They only touch matters now that the most, while the real Negro heartbeat is elsewhere – the eighteen million, you see.
JF: I don’t think that that’s true. I don’t think that – you know – and he probably would exclude us from that category – maybe – I don’t know. But on the other hand, I think that the civil rights movement certainly touches more than nine hundred thousand people. I think the March on Washington is just one disproof of that particular assertion. I think that the fact that you have the Congress now debating certain issues in the national forum – so far as I am concerned is a vindication of the efforts over the last four years of students and other people to force the nation to come to grips with this problem. Let’s remember that prior to 1960 there was concern among many people, you know – I’m not at all stating that, but it was certainly not the kind of concern that is now being expressed, and I could cite that, you see, and I think that this was because people have consistently hammered away in the public forum, through the channels of propaganda and communications that we have, and have raised the whole dialogue to a great level of consciousness. It’s not something now that you just hide and you don’t talk, you know.
[00:14:19] RPW: What effect did Birmingham have on this, if any?
JF: I think that Birmingham intensified this kind of a dialogue, and I think that Birmingham, considered in the context of other movements, further intensified it, such as Nashville in the summer of ‘63, Greenwood, Mississippi, where the dogs first came out in 1963 – and I happen to have been over there. Cambridge, Maryland – a lot of these things exploded in the summer of ’63 culminating in the March and forced a great deal of issues. But here again, you have to understand the antecedents, you see. I’m not saying that the world began in 1960 when the students signed in at Greensboro, because there were many, many portents and many, many things that made all of this possible. But I do think that one of the significant characteristics of the student movement is that it created a bombshell in American society through going to jail, through forcing public opinion to grapple with this, and even has produced what a lot of people now are talking about the movement in the North. You know, I was raised in the North. I’m not – and I think I know this nation just about as well as most people, and I certainly know that in Chicago prior to the Montgomery bus boycott, that among Negroes there was a lot of divisiveness, there was a lot of feeling that Negroes can’t get together, you see. And I think one of the grandest things about the March – the Montgomery bus boycott was that it was a little spark of Negro somewhere in this land uniting on a mass level. I’m not talking about on the tearoom level or at the conference table. But forcing it in the area of public opinion. And the great glory of the student movement was that it began to force nationally and internationally the issues surrounding racial segregation and has resulted in many good things.
[00:16:29] RPW: Several people, including Louis Lomax, have commented on the fact that after the victory in Montgomery, a year later or so, when the SCLC had a convention there, it was to be a mass meeting at the end of the convention. Not a single church in Birmingham had any facilities for that – the SCLC mass meeting – I mean, Montgomery.
JF: I don’t know about that, so I guess I can’t comment.
[00:17:00] RPW: It’s a strange fact about mass support or some leadership division you see.
JF: I don’t think that’s true, you know. I mean, I really don’t think that that statement is true. I don’t know. But – I mean, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is made up primarily of Negro ministers, and I – Ralph Abernathy was there a year after the bus boycott, so I just don’t believe that.
[00:17:24] RPW: Well maybe a year and a half. He had left. Anyway, the church, including the church that Reverend Abernathy had been pastor of – no church with any facilities to the mass meeting, the last night. This – Lomax is my authority for this.
JF: I just don’t believe that. I mean, frankly. And I – the reason that I don’t believe it, first of all, you say – when you say no church – now, if you say that maybe three churches or four churches didn’t want a mass meeting, then I -
[00:17:58] RPW: Wouldn’t allow it in their facilities – in that church.
JF: Well then when you say no church in Birmingham – I cannot accept that.
[00:18:04] RPW: Montgomery.
JF: Montgomery – no church in Montgomery, because the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is made from Negro ministers, and that’s a distinct contribution that it has made and it has galvanized some of the Baptist Negro preachers, you know.
[00:18:19] RPW: What do you think in general of Lomax’ rapportage on the movement?
JF: Well, here we’re getting into the great area of controversy, which I -
[00:18:32] RPW: Well, we’re go to live in it.
JF: Well, it’s true, but I don’t -
[00:18:38] RPW: That’s where we live.
JF: Yes, that’s right, but the fact that we live in it doesn’t mean that I have to contribute to the building of the house. And so therefore I’m not one to begin to make critical public comments about people who do have something to offer in a sense. I mean, I have told him publicly concerning an article that he wrote about the Negro colleges, that I felt that he could marshal his evidence a little bit better, but, you see, I think that one of the troubles in the civil rights movement now is that there has been a lot of in-fighting – somebody has asked what do you think about that, and then this comes out, and then there’s reaction to this, and that this is debilitating, so that I’m not getting into this question. And again I think that that’s relevant to what I said at first about I’m not prone to comment on certain things of which I don’t have very much of evidence.
[00:19:45] RPW: Well, the question of in-fighting is one thing motivated by power lust – in-fighting on matters of fundamental principles or issues is another thing, isn’t it?
JF: Yes, but the question was what did I think of the rapportage of -
[00:19:58] RPW: That was the question. I’ll give you another kind of question which involves – well, something that’s bound to be critical. Let’s take the matter of Kenneth Clark – Dr. Kenneth Clark on Dr. King. I’ll give you a quote. Dr. King’s philosophy on the surface appears to reflect health and stability, while Black Nationalism betrays pathology and instability. A deeper analysis, however, might reveal that there is also an unrealistic if not pathological basis in King’s doctrine. The natural reaction to injustice is bitterness and resentment. The form which such bitterness takes need not be overly violent but the corrosion of the spirit seems inevitable. It would seem, then, that any demand that the victims of oppression be required to love those who oppress them places additional and probably intolerable psychological burdens upon these victims. How would you react to that?
JF: Well, you know, Dr. Clark is speaking from the point of view of an eminent psychologist, and I don’t agree with his position but maybe for different reasons. One, because I don’t know all of the psychological implications, you see. My position, then, is that it is not necessary for people to love one another, but that what we must do is to change the structures that don’t permit people to get along, you see. I think that a lot of the problems simply rest on structural basis, and that our position is not to go around talking about, you know, we must change the attitude of these people, we must make them love us – and I’m not sure that that’s completely King’s position -
[00:22:21] RPW: That’s not his view -
JF: That’s what I’m saying – I don’t think that that’s, you know, his position. But our position is that we must change the structures, we must change the systems that breed intolerance and that breed segregation, because if you convert one person and you still permit the system to rest there, it’s just going to produce another type of individual.
[00:22:44] RPW: But am I to inter, then, that you regard nonviolence as a tactic rather than as a philosophy?
JF: No, you’re not to infer that.
[00:22:54] RPW: Well, please correct me then. I’m asking you.
JF: Yes, I mean, you know, because I can believe in nonviolence as a way of life and still think that the way that one can change things through nonviolence is by changing the various structures, you see, that breed intolerance or I can believe in it as a technique, and still feel that this is the position. Now, there are many people in the movement who don’t accept nonviolence as a complete way of life. I just happen to accept it, and I don’t think it’s relevant that, you know, that I began to state what are some of my personal beliefs in terms of nonviolence or anything else.
[00:23:38] RPW: Well, why couldn’t we? It’s important.
JF: Well, you know, it’s a matter of degree. I mean, it’s a matter of interpretation. I mean, I think that you can state positions. I don’t mind telling you that I happen to accept nonviolence as a way of life in a sense. But at the same time, I am sophisticated enough to understand that one has to change systems – that breed violence rather than trying to change a particular person who may be violent.
[00:24:07] RPW: What about the effect of the fortitude in the face of violence which has been demonstrated by numbers of Negroes in mob collisions, you see? It’s a moral effect, isn’t it – certainly one of the objectives of the -
JF: It’s important. It produces reactions in the consciousness of people who are not even there in a sense, and it’s one of the things that has advanced the movement to the point where it is. There’s no question about that.
[00:24:48] RPW: Dr. King says, of course, that this sort of criticism that these people have not . What about ACT – that organization. Do you know much about it?
JF: Yes, I know something about it.
[00:25:05] RPW: Would you mind telling me about it?
JF: Well, you should go to the people in ACT to find out about ACT. I mean, I think that – you know – there are very good people who could talk to you about it. But just briefly I can tell you it was primarily formed as a result of a meeting or a series of meetings held with people that were engaged in school boycotts during the month of February, and that the people who were engaged in these school boycotts were not within the traditional civil rights organizations, except Chicago – Larry Landers, the chairman, was the chairman of our Chicago Friends of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
[00:25:54] RPW: As your role was defined, your organization, how do you think we could define their role or their potential role – that is, what vacuum do they fill?
JF: Well, I think that ACT is simply a further manifestation of the deepening roots of the civil rights movement, that it’s inevitable either that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would begin action in the North, or that some other organization would then come to the forefront. Because the boycotts that were being handled were meeting a need that a lot of the traditional organizations in the North just were not fulfilling, you know. There’s no question about that. In fact, the second school boycott here was fought but yet there was great response to the second school boycott, which meant that the boycott was meeting some need. And I think that it has the potential of again further deepening the struggle in the North and offering another alternative or another method of dealing with certain problems in Northern cities. Now, my personal position is that we either needs fifty thousand more organizations of five hundred thousand more people working on the problem, so that I’m not opposed to ACT.
[00:27:28] RPW: Well, I wasn’t considering that you were.
JF: No, I’m just stating this categorically so that you can understand my position.
[00:27:36] RPW: In the matter of the particular schools, the question emerges whether integration is a touchstone in cities like New York and Washington – that question.
JF: Pardon me? I didn’t hear your question.
[00:27:50] RPW: In cities like New York and Washington, where there is a vast majority of public school children are Negro, or at least colored – non-Caucasian – quotes – the question of integration becomes more and more difficult to take as a criterion of school management, it would seem, as opposed to equality – another concept. It may be idealism coincides. What can be done in a city like Washington, D.C. to integrate the schools. What question does that raise theoretically or factually?
JF: Well, I just can’t speak for Washington because I don’t know Washington. And I’m not trying to be evasive. I just don’t know Washington, D.C.
[00:28:40] RPW: They have eighty-five percent of the public school children are nonwhite – how do you integrate?
JF: Eighty-five percent of the public school kids in Washington are nonwhite?
[00:28:49] RPW: Something like that.
JF: Well, I’d think it would be almost the reverse, wouldn’t it? I mean, it’s mostly the white parents who have the kids not in public schools – right?
[00:28:59] RPW: That’s what I said – the nonwhites are -
JF: Oh, yes, I’m sorry – yes. Well, if – you know, if that’s the case, then there’s the whole question of where the boundaries. I think that the whole question of integration in the North also revolves around on how it revolves first of all on housing patterns, secondly revolves on the fact that both the housing zoning and the school districts have basically been drawn in most Northern cities as to perpetuate segregation. And I think that you have to have an open housing law and that you have to have open school districts.
[00:29:38] RPW: Well, even open school districts – what is the effect – you can have open districts but it’s a ratio of public school children is very heavily toward the Negro or at least the nonwhite side. How do you integrate?
JF: Yes, well, now, - if here you see if a parent chooses not to spend the city’s taxes to educate his child but prefers to send that child to a private school where he bears the financial responsibility for the child’s education, and a parent has a right to send his kid anywhere he wants to send him. Now, on the other hand, if the city is going to maintain an educational system, then the city has a responsibility to help provide some form of changes that’s going to be best produce some semblance of democracy in a sense, and if that -
[00:30:36] RPW: But there aren’t enough white children to go around.
JF: Well, if there just aren’t enough to go around – that’s all. I mean, you can’t deal with the impossible. We can’t go out here and create white people – I mean, you know, that’s just impossible.
[00:30:50] RPW: How do you feel about, say, the – you may say you choose not to answer this – I’m not trying to badger you into an answer – but you take a man like the Reverend Galamison who’s children are in private schools. Would that be an issue in your mind at all or not?
JF: Well, I think that, you know, that there are certain questions to be raised in terms of a man active in the public school fight whose children are in the private schools, in a sense. That’s one of the – I mean, I don’t know what his rationales are – I mean, what his rationale happens to be. I’ve never talked to the man, I don’t know him personally. I’ve just seen his name in the paper. But I think that one would have to raise that question because one of the problems in most of these cities is that the people who make the laws for the public schools have their kids in private schools, you know.
[00:31:51] RPW: I don’t criticize him. It doesn’t raise a question in my mind if he does that, you see. I’m not myself – I’d say, all right, he does – period.
JF: Yes, well, it – I said that it raises the question whether or not it’s important to me or not is not significant, but it raises the question in a general form and as – in terms of why should he do it, and the fact that he does is that you ask me the question, you know. So that it raises a question in public form, but in terms of judgmental-wise, then, you know, I reserve that.
[00:32:28] RPW: This is the end of Tape 2 of the conversation with Mr. James Forman. Proceed with Tape 3.
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TAPE 3 Searchable TextCollapse
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site. Time stamps are included in the retyped transcripts to aid in this process.]
[00:00:01] RPW: This is Tape 3 of a conversation with Mr. James Forman – proceed. What about the role of the – quotes – white liberal who, James Baldwin says, is an affliction – role in the Negro movement. Has he a role? Has he a place besides being an affliction?
JF: What do you mean by white liberal? How would you define it?
[00:00:42] : Well, I’d have to ask James Baldwin what he meant.
JF: Yes, but, well – then I think that, you know -
[00:00:49] RPW: The white man, then.
JF: Well, now, there (laughing) – there are white men and there are white men – ([00:00:58] remark by RPW) – well, I don’t know if that’s my responsibility. But, you know, I think that there are whites who work within SNICK who play a very important role, who are respected, and with whom there’s no quarrel that one could have with. On the other hand, I think that there are certain whites, on the other hand, who are prepared to support your movement from afar, who are prepared to wish you well, and then on the other hand, when sometimes the going gets rough, then, you know, he’s ready to pull back or if you move in and around his neighborhood, you know, he’s not prepared to accept that. And let me just say that here again, lacking a definition – a definition publicly and also one privately of what a white liberal is, then I really just can’t make too many comments, because I don’t understand what the term is.
[00:02:12] RPW: You couldn’t find a vaguer term, clearly. But the well meaning, fellow traveling friend, I guess, you would say.
JF: Whatever that means.
[00:02:23] RPW: Whatever that means, yes. Malcolm X says that even the white man who goes to jail with you is doing it for his own reasons.
JF: Well, I think that all of us are doing it for our own reasons, fundamentally. I mean, you know, everybody that – we ought to know enough about psychology to recognize that people have varying personal reason for doing certain things, and many times that’s irrelevant, you know. It’s what’s the social effect of what a person is doing that’s important.
[00:03:02] RPW: Let’s go back to the private school-public school business a moment, and the question of defending the best opportunity for one’s child –as one position – sometimes opposed in the same man’s heart to his interest in public education, like Mr. Galamison – his case – agreed not to criticize. Suppose we have a man who’s opposed to the long range bussing on the same grounds. This man might be the Negro or white.
JF: Well, you know, people – (remark by RPW) – people are entitled to their opinions. The whole question is, will their opinions become the majority opinions.
[00:03:53] RPW: Well, we can leave it at that. That’s always the case. Who wins? If the only question of power is who wins, then we wipe out the question of ethical consideration, don’t we?
JF: Not necessarily. Not necessarily at all. I mean, I would grant the segregationist the right to lead in segregation, but at the same time he has to recognize certain ethical questions or – and certainly others must recognize this, and I don’t think that – and maybe it’s very flippant to say, you know, it’s a question of who wins, and I wouldn’t – I must say that that’s not just the position, who wins, you know, because I think that there are moral considerations or ethical considerations that enter into all decisions in a sense, and it’s not just a question of who has the most might and has the most power and who can then push down throat of somebody else his own position.
[00:04:59] RPW: The point I was pushing at is this – if we grant that the Reverend Galamison, who believes in the public schools system, and fights for it, at the same time puts his child or children in a private school, he’s carrying on two obligations at the same time that don’t happen to match from point to point. Now, the parent, white or Negro, who objects to the bussing because it’s bad for my child – you see, I believe in the public school system but it’s bad for my child – I’m defending my child’s best interest in opposing the bussing, and I believe in integration. That’s parallel to Mr. Galamison isn’t it – ethically parallel, isn’t it?
JF: Well, I don’t think so – and I’m not much of a philosopher, but it seems to me that you have two considerations. I mean, the act of putting one’s child in a private school is a voluntary act. A person has agreed to pay for it. On the other hand, involving the child in a public school, you know, then you’re subjecting the child – I mean, not subjecting, but the whole concept is that in terms of the public school facilities, that integration is a desirable thing, and I don’t think that the two are ethically the same in a sense.
[00:06:24] RPW: Well, integration we’ll say is desirable.
JF: Well, then in addition to that, though. But you see, I’m not sure of the relevance of all this – I really am not, I mean.
[00:06:33] RPW: It becomes relevant for a man to take a position on the question. He has a child, and which side is he on on the bussing problem? Where does the knife edge fall? He may be for integration, but everything has a cost. He says this is too much – I’m going to pay – you know – an hour on the bus, or two, or whatever the time is on the bus. You might say it that way. I’m
and competing here now. I left my child’s good – or what he assumes to be his child’s good. I’m saying this problem exists as an intellectual and moral question which can be debated on high terms and not the good guy’s terms.
JF: Well, very well the case, and I hadn’t thought about it. As a matter of fact, I haven’t given too much consideration to the whole problem of integration in schools in the North in a sense. You see, because I think that fundamentally that all of these measures are simply stopgap measures.
[00:07:37] RPW: Let’s agree on that.
JF: They are basically stopgap measures, and that you really have to – I’m not suggesting that we should do it because it’s a way of forming opinions, but I think that the more fundamental things wrong with the society that have to be corrected before these things can be -
[00:07:57] RPW: Like getting better schools.
JF: Like getting better schools, like eliminating other structures of segregation, like trying to wipe out certain myths, certain ideas, like getting rid of all the Southern Dixiecrats down there who help to perpetuate these myths and so forth.
[00:08:17] RPW: After you had – let’s assume something – civil rights bill with teeth in it – effective – fair employment practice – codes effectively administered or decent housing codes effectively administered – integration of schools, say – then what? What problem lies beyond that? What great problem?
JF: You haven’t mentioned the whole question of voting. You see, because none of these things -
[00:08:47] RPW: Let’s say voting – let’s add voting – let’s include that. Let’s add voting.
JF: Establish the principle of one man, one vote.
[00:08:55] RPW: All right, we’ve got all those things in the bag. Then what? Anything remain to be done?
JF: All right, let’s state them again. We’ve got one man, one vote?
[00:09:02] RPW: One man, one vote; integration of schools and public accommodations; fair employment practice; general civil rights – all these things in force, you see. With good intention and fair efficiency. Then what? What remains?
JF: Well, -
[00:09:22] RPW: As a racial question?
JF: Well, I hoped that that would be the end. I don’t know what would come up, but it seems to me that, you know, men either before that or concurrent with that, one must being to work in some of these other fundamental causes, of poverty and the whole question of reform within the society. I’m not sure that you will – you see, I’m not sure – and maybe this is where I’m pessimistic – that you’re not going to have to have some type of militant action to watch over people’s opinions. Now – I think that – wait just a moment, I think that if you have these things, you see, that then you would have the basis of addressing – you could address yourself to more fundamental problems in the society, and then maybe that would be an absence in the sense of racial segregation – the skepticism obviously grows out of my own experience that people might have, that you’re going to have a lot of perhaps infractions of that kind of a situation. But maybe ultimately – and we’re speaking now obviously in terms of a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, you know. Because I don’t think all this is going to come in my lifetime, you know – I don’t – or my children’s lifetime. I don’t have any kids, but – so that you would have obviously – the outward removal of these things and what you’d have to guard against is the subjective opinions of people creeping out and again expressing racial attitudes. Do you see what I mean?
[00:11:23] RPW: Yes, your militant supervision of opinion – is that the phrase you used?
JF: That’s right. So that they daren’t – so that this opinion does not creep into – opinion does not then form some sort of movement contrary to what is right and is the public will.
[00:11:46] RPW: This is a little off the point, but it crosses my mind – what do you think about leaving Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn unexpurgated on the public school shelves?
JF: I never read it. I don’t know if it’s a good book or not. But a lot of authorities have said it’s a very good book, so that I’d have to reserve judgment until I read it.
[00:12:09] RPW: When I asked Dr. King a question phrased differently, but the same thing, about the phases of the Negro question, you see, the third phase being after the civil rights and such had been put on the books, he said that it corresponds to the third phase of the Gandhian program. He said, to paraphrase, Operation Bootstrap for the Negro, to raise standards.
JF: Well, - you know, I would be in fundamental disagreement with an Operation Bootstraps among Negroes at this level, in that I would think that what you would have to do, that the Operation Bootstrap would have to come as a sort of government sponsored program in a sense. In other words, I don’t think that Negroes ought to even try to assume the responsibility of going around here saying that in Mississippi we’re going to teach every Negro to read or write. That’s a governmental function and the government is the only person capable of doing anything about it.
[00:13:20] RPW: All right, but raising standards is not only a matter of -
JF: Well, what does it mean, then? What do you mean by raising standards? What are you talking about?
[00:13:29] RPW: Well, I guess what applies to all society. The willingness to say we are going to change the level performance within this town, this state, this race, this community.
JF: Yes, but you see – you know – you see, here again, and this is – (talking together) see, this is exactly what I’m trying in terms of watching opinion, you know, because if you had this third phase and then you said, O.K. now, the Negro has got to raise himself up to be accepted in this society, or so that he can be like the other white people, then by definition you still have an opinion that regards him as something different.
[00:14:13] RPW: All right, de facto inferiority has existed in certain whites and certain Negroes. They are underprivileged, and they are simply inferior performers because they lack motivation and lacking training.
JF: That’s right. O.K. So it seems to me that it’s a question of who is going to do the Operation Bootstrap, you know. I mean, is the society going to take a public posture and say, O.K. you know, we’re going to have this crash program as we’ve had in Appalachia, are we going to say that we’re going to go into Mississippi, the government is going to have crash programs to wipe out illiteracy, or is it then going to be that we will all become Urban Leagues, you know, and it’s up to the Negro to do that. That I think is relevant. And I don’t think that you can evade it. And at the point, not only is that relevant but it then becomes the whole question of raising the levels of society also.
[00:15:11] RPW: The point there that Dr. King I’m sure would not preclude any kind of governmental action or governmental subsidy. He would not say don’t do that. He would emphasize the fact of the will of the Negro as a minority to change its level. Not to have it done for it but to participate in the doing.
JF: Yes, well, obviously people - you know, the government can’t do anything for people that people are not prepared to do for itself, but I think maybe we ought to understand some of the background out of which I speak. I mean, I’m in Mississippi now and I’m dealing with people, or we’re dealing with people who are illiterate. People are saying well, you know, if the Negro would scrub his face, if he’d wear clothes, if he’d comb his hair, and maybe if he would use two bottles of Mum, maybe if he would learn to read and write, then O.K. then maybe he would be acceptable to the American white society, you know. And I say that the whole problem of literacy in the state of Mississippi is not the fundamental problem of SNICK or any other civil rights organization, that this is a problem to which the entire society has to address itself and is only capable of doing it because of the resources, you see. And, I mean, obviously the people are going to respond and are responding now to the low classes that we are holding, you see. But don’t – you know, don’t go – don’t let’s not revert back to what I think is sometimes Booker T. Washington philosophy. Let’s pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps because it can’t be done. It just cannot be done.
[00:16:51] RPW: Well, there are ways and ways of helping oneself and your organization is one way.
JF: Of course, of course, and then, you know, I hope we hurry up and go out of business, you know. I really do. And – but at the same time I think that we have to recognize that a lot of the problems we might have a fair employment practice act but then we may not have any jobs, both for Negroes or whites, which leads –
[00:17:14] RPW: something else.
JF: You know, which raises another question, and that question is, I’m not trying to defer all types of planning, but I don’t know what these hypothetical situations really signify because there are a lot of variables. I mean, one, we all may be destroyed in terms of thermonuclear war, you know.
[00:17:37] RPW: That’s something else.
JF: If we can hold everything constant, you know, which, you know, obviously cannot happen in this world, then I think that could really address ourselves to that question. But maybe I’m – you know, I just might give them – postulating certain answers before I can see that the answers are really relevant in a sense, and I don’t see where that kind of analysis is now relevant.
[00:18:06] RPW: It’s relevant in this sense – it indicates differences in basic attitudes among people. For instance, talking about a speech by Dr. King, Wyatt Walker said this fellow speaks of I myself – he – Mr. Walker would make to all Negro gatherings but not to a place where you had the white press, you see. That the Operation Bootstrap or the self-help, self-improvement sort of line which could be that’s Booker T. Washington all over again. We don’t say that in certain communities – certain groups. It should be said behind closed doors, as it were. The Negro college, the Negro school, the all-Negro audience. This is one point of view about that whole question of the obligation of attitude – not the capacity. It’s clearly – clearly a minority group is not going to have the resources to do a crash program for itself. But an attitude toward its own responsibility toward the program.
JF: Yes, but the question now, you know, is who does the program. You see – and then of course you realize, you know, I mean, that’s your moral judgment also.
[00:19:26] RPW: It’s a question I’m raising anyway.
JF: Yes, well, O.K. But at the same time – you see, my position is that, you know, if – I’ve answered this hypothetical problem, in that I feel that at the stage then, you know, the Negro should – his resources should be involved in doing this for people, you see. As a matter of fact, I mean, I think it should – you know, we should begin to do more and more of this as of now. I don’t think that we ought to just wait, you know, until we’ve reached this millennium.
[00:19:58] RPW: The phases (talking together)
JF: That’s right. That’s – again, that’s very true. And not only are they simultaneous but that even now it’s a basic responsibility of this government to institute some of these programs. I mean, we ought to be eliminating poverty not only in Appalachia but in the Delta of Mississippi. We ought to eliminate literacy now – illiteracy in that state. We shouldn’t wait until you think that Negroes have the right to vote because, you know, there’s, you know, a lot of simultaneous relationships as we both indicated.
[00:20:40] RPW: What do you understand by Freedom Now? – the slogan.
JF: I presume you meant Theodore White’s article, who is very apologetic about it as I understand -
[00:20:54] RPW: Which article?
JF: In Life Magazine – where he criticizes Freedom Now?
[00:20:59] RPW: I haven’t read it – no.
JF: I see. Well, I think that as far as I’m concerned Freedom Now is a slogan, and it’s a slogan that is used in terms of motivating people to come out of their apathetic positions, to grapple with the whole questions of and to recognize the social change is possible. It’s quite obvious that there cannot be, you know, any kind of universal freedom now for any man, you know, I mean, because if you want to get philosophically, where does one’s freedom begin, you know, the freedom is limited the minute that the mother puts a diaper on the baby, you know. So that – but I think that it is an appropriate slogan, and a slogan that has challenged the imagination of the Negro and has presented to the American public a spirit, a driving force, which is characteristic of the Negro movement. The term Freedom Now actually developed in Africa, and it had extreme relevance for people in Ghana, in that it mean the end of colonialism and the beginning of a new independent nation. Gradually we began to adopt the slogan in the United States, just as the whole slogan One Man, One Vote, had its roots in Africa, and we’re beginning more and more to use it in this country. But I think both slogans are extremely relevant. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question as to what Freedom Now means to me, but it’s basically a slogan used as a motivational device.
[00:22:50] RPW: There are some people who confuse the motivation or poetic quality of the slogan, with practical objective.
JF: Well, you know -
[00:23:02] RPW: People differ.
JF: That’s right. People differ.
[00:23:14] RPW: What about the relation of the Negro middle class to the Negro movement. How do you read that?
JF: Well, you know, whatever the Negro middle class is and however we define it, we have to define it as a class, as a caste society within a class structure, you see. And that it’s affected by racial discrimination. On the other hand, you know, if there are any basic disagreements with the Negro middle class it’s a disagreement with all the middle class American life in the sense that – you know, better life for yourself, better life for your kids, the whole question of people suffering is not necessarily relevant to your existence. I think that what is often postulated as middle Negro class or the middle class Negro is in many instances not really middle class in the traditional terms. I think that there are, you know, a lot of Negroes who are fairly well off, but I think that – also the Negro middle class, you know, hampers a lot of racial progress, you know.
[00:24:48] RPW: You said earlier – that’s what I’m getting at.
JF: Yes, it does.
[00:24:50] RPW: It doesn’t feel itself committed? To the Negro movement?
JF: Yes, it feels itself committed to certain advantages for that class. Like for instance in Atlanta, you know, you’ve got a lot of good middle class Negro homes – (talking together) – but at the same time there’s no mass movement on these people to do something for the poor Negro in Buttermilk Bottom, you know.
[00:25:21] RPW: Has there been an increase of identification between the Negro middle class and the Negro masses or a decrease in recent years, or can you estimate that?
JF: Well, I think that the struggle has, you know, forced sort of greater cooperation. I don’t think that there’s been any decrease, but I don’t think that the increase has been such that we need to, you know, wave banners and shout for joy, you know.
[00:25:53] RPW: One theory is that it’s been actually, while theoretically an increase of communication, a feeling, there has been a de facto decrease because it was split between the prosperity of the Negro middle class and the depressed mass had become greater – there’s been actually a widening of the gulf between, say, the depressed Mississippi Negro and the depressed Harlem Negro and the prosperous middle class. Economically the split has become wider. That’s one theory at least.
JF: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I guess that that could statistically be proven. I just don’t happen -
[00:26:35] RPW: It’s been claimed that it can be.
JF: O.K. But even if that – even the fact that that might be statistically proven does not necessarily mitigate the fact that many middle class individuals may have become aware of their social responsibilities and so from that point, that there can be a close alliance. As a matter of fact, I think that what the student movement or protest movement in this country has done is to just raise questions now to the middle class and I guess to the leaders or the rulers of the country in a sense the whole question of poverty. There’s been – a dialogue is being created. I mean, I think that the whole question of the Appalachian program would not have become very significant if there had not been students who went into the Appalachians and began to relate these things, and then began to pressure the administration, and I think we have to do more of this.
[00:27:32] RPW: The Appalachian thing is really a backlash from the Negro movement?
JF: Well, I’m not – I don’t want to claim all of that, but I think it’s relevant. Yes, I think so. I really do.
[00:27:45] RPW: I should think so too, and I guess that it is, but -
JF: But a lot of people have been working down there.
[00:27:57] RPW: In a mass movement there is a number of people in a position of leadership, there’s bound to be, it seems to me, some overreaching in the struggle for control. I don’t mean a struggle necessarily of mere power
but policy. This means more and more promises made, more and more appeals of different sorts made. Have you seen in the present movement this process leading toward centralization of power? Classically it winds up with one man, you see.
JF: Yes, well, (not distinct)
[00:28:41] RPW: You don’t see that?
JF: No, because I think that what’s happening is that there is more and more decentralization. I think that ACT is an example of decentralization of policy making within the Negro movement. I think the SNICK is another example of decentralization of policy making. Even SCLC is a form of decentralization of policy making, and to some extent CORE, and if there’s one organization that one could say that there’s a spreading away from, it would be the NAACIP, which over the years has been sort of a be one organization that was involved in making policy relative to the Negro, and you’ve seen a mushrooming of organizations and protest movements in the last seven or eight years, and that’s good.
[00:29:30] RPW: You remember Mr. Wilkins remark at Alexandria?
JF: Yes, what about that – we do the work and pay the bills and the other organizations make the noise and get the credit? Well, he’s wrong, you know.
[00:29:47] RPW: Wrong how?
JF: Well, if that’s what he said, I mean, then it’s not true, you know, because there are some of us who would feel that we’re doing the load work but certainly not doing much work.
[00:30:02] RPW: He didn’t say no work, he said – we pick up the chips – the tab, the bill, when it’s over. We’re the continuing organization.
JF: Well, that’s not true either, I mean – and he knows that that’s not true.
[00:30:16] RPW: He would say it was true at the time.
JF: Well, it wasn’t true at the time. He knows that.
[00:30:34] RPW: There are so many questions I’d like to get at, but I feel it’s an evidence of the last few seconds, you know, now. James Baldwin says that the Southern mob does not represent the will of the Southern majority.
JF: I think he’s right.
[00:30:57]: You do?
JF: I think the Southern mob is a reflection of the Southern politician and the Southern power structure – the police, you see – I think that the real culprits of the South are not the so-called poor whites that people sometimes like to cast But basically those politicians who control opinion and who decide policy in a given situation, I mean, in their economic counterparts.
[00:31:23] RPW: Do you happen to think, to agree with the theory that the two hung juries in the Beckwith trial were rigged – was a drama arranged beforehand? This is a view that’s in print, you see, and it’s held by a certain number of people in Mississippi, including the sheet passed out by the NAACP, for instance, as a possibility. Mr. Evers said he didn’t believe it, but he said (indistinct).
JF: Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I mean, it very well may have been in that, you know – but I don’t know – I question it.
[00:32:06] RPW: It takes a lot of doing, doesn’t it?
JF: Yes. I would question it. What I think has happened was that the people clearly knew that Beckwith was a killer and then there was some that didn’t want to convict him.
[00:32:18] RPW: If that’s the case, that trial historically is very important then.
JF: It is. No, I think that the climate of Southern opinion is changing. No, I don’t think that there’s any question about that. I was acquitted in a case in Alabama.
[00:32:31] RPW: Where was this, now?
JF: This was in Fort Payne, Alabama, right up in the northeast section, you know.
[00:32:38] RPW: What was the date of this case?
JF: It was a year ago, at the time of the freedom walks.
[00:32:44] RPW: Oh yes, yes. I remember that.
JF: They were important.
[00:32:46] RPW: Yes. Alabama is much more mixed than Mississippi anyway. Much more dissent there.
JF: That’s right. That’s true. And of course both Wallace and Mississippi are trying to suppress all sorts of dissent, you know.
[00:33:03] RPW: Well, you’re a free man now. Let’s knock it off. Thank you very very much.
JF: I hope I helped you.
[00:33:09] RPW: You did. You helped a lot.
JF: Thanks a lot.
[00:33:12] RPW: End of interview – end of interview.
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