Turner discusses the reasons she decided to leave teaching and devote herself fully to CORE (Congress on Racial Equality). She states that events in Birmingham had a profound effect on her decision. Turner describes the role of the "white committed" in the civil rights movement. She explains her views on why blacks in Cleveland are not as organized as they are in some southern cities. Turner states that the situation in Cleveland is just as precarious as the South, but Cleveland looks better on the surface. Turner also explains that her parents and the parents and grandparents of other civil rights workers helped to propel the civil rights movement forward. She describes the struggle between African Americans and other minorities, such as Italians, in Cleveland. She mentions school integration and her belief that it is as important to look at the quality of education as it is to look at integration. David Cohen, a white CORE worker who teaches at history at Cleveland's Case Institute of Technology, joins the interview late in the conversation. He describes the poverty experienced by many blacks in Cleveland and explains that social, economic, and legislative changes are needed to fulfill the goals of the civil rights movement.
David Cohen joins the interview late in the conversation.
Photograph of the young Ruth Turner courtesy of Ruth Turner Perot.
Photograph from the 2008 Vanderbilt conference courtesy Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.
Audio courtesy of the University of Kentucky.
Ruth Turner Perot is co-founder and executive director/CEO of Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc., established in 1997 to work to eliminate health disparities and assist communities of color in attaining optimal health. She also served from 2008 to 2013 as managing director of the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved, founded in 2008 to help ensure that communities of color and other underserved populations benefit from health information technology initiatives and advances.
Since 2001 Ms. Perot has championed the collection and reporting of racial, ethnic and primary language data. She has also provided leadership since 2000 as co-founder of Out of Many, One, a national multicultural advocacy coalition. In addition, Perot currently leads SHIRE’s D.C. campaign to combat childhood obesity and promote wellness in the District of Columbia. She also led SHIRE’s activities in support of the DC Health Benefit Exchange, enrolling uninsured individuals under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act.
Perot played a key leadership role in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as executive secretary of Cleveland CORE from 1963 to 1966. She was an influential member of Core’s National Action Council and provided key staff support for the formulation of Core’s education and community development policies. Perot is a recipient of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust’s Healthcare Hero Award and Families USA’s Consumer Advocate of the Year Award.
Image courtesy of Ruth Turner Perot.
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.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN RUTH TURNER CLEVELAND MAY 7 TAPE #1
Mr. WARREN: Miss Turner, where were you born? – just to get a little biography on this first.
Miss TURNER: I was born in Chicago, Illinois.
RPW: And I understand you were educated partly in Berlin – is that right?
RT: That’s correct. After completing my undergraduate training at Oberlin College I spent one year at the Free University of West Berlin
RPW: And you are a German teacher by profession – is that right?
RT: That’s right.
RPW: Had you studied German at Oberlin?
RT: Yes, I had. I was a German major at Oberlin.
RPW: Yes. (test tape) How did you happen to go to Germany?
RT: Well, I received a German Government grant from the German Government upon graduation from Oberlin.
RPW: Just for the purpose of studying?
RT: For the purpose of studying, yes.
RPW: Then you came here to Cleveland to teach in the public schools?
RT: Well, not directly. I spent one year after returning from Germany at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I received a Master of Arts in Teaching.
RPW: And then out here?
RT: And then out here.
RPW: Tell me about how you came to leave teaching and to devote yourself fully to the work of CORE. Was this a long process or a sudden decision? How did it come about?
RT: Well, I was the chairman of the chapter here in Cleveland from November 1962 to June 1963. The events in Birmingham brought about the rather sudden decision. I felt after what occurred there that I could no longer continue teaching German at a time like this, and, again, looking for ways in which to work in the civil rights movement on a full-time basis.
RPW: But you had been, you said connected with CORE for some time before that.
RT: Yes, I had been. I was chairman here in Cleveland, and I was also working with CORE in Boston.
RPW: How long back does that fact go in connection with CORE?
RT: In connection with CORE as an organization goes back really to the year in Boston, when I became involved. But I had been involved in civil rights organizations – oh, ever since being a teenager.
RPW: People I have talked to about the Cleveland situation and some in Cleveland are very pessimistic about the immediate future here. Do you want to talk about the local situation a bit? It seems highly polarized now.
RT: Yes. I think it is very unfortunate. We have a polarized community here by virtue of the fact that a vacuum has been created in the white community through apathy, and that vacuum has been filled by people who would rather prevent the civil rights movement from achieving its goals by people in leadership positions such as the president of the board of education, our mayor, who would rather scream Communism than address themselves to the real grievances that lie behind the protests now. In view of the fact that they are the ones who have taken leadership and have organized around the principle of keeping down the movement and totally misunderstanding the movement, we have reached a point where I am afraid the community is rather polarized. The outlook, then, for the immediate future looks a little bleak. However, for the long range future this may be a different story.
RPW: There is considerable white support within a certain segment, isn’t there - the clergy here?
RT: Yes, there is considerable white support. The clergy has come out very strongly in favor of the goals of the freedom movement. There is also considerable support in suburban communities. * But our major problem is
That the white community in Cleveland has seen only one way to express themselves, and that is to – well, misunderstanding the goals of the movement and has received no leadership to help them understand the goals of the movement.
RPW: Now, in some cities you find at least an uncommitted body of opinion that is more or less willing to approach matters privately if not with high idealism. A kind of moderate or frankly liberal sentiment which is
* “Shaker Heights integrated” handwritten in margin
malleable. But in those cities frequently you don’t find any committed body of leadership in the church or in other organizations. Now, here you have the reverse situation, don’t you? How do you account for that?
RT: Well, it is a bit strange. I don’t know if you would consider it the reverse of that. We still have a large mass of uncommitted people, but
RPW: Who are not polarized?
RT: Who have the – I think we do have a large number of people who are not polarized or, given a second chance to re-think their position, would pull away from the polarization that has already taken place. I again feel it is the function of the leadership in a white community. The only voices that have spoken out up to this point have been the voices which would help to polarize the community. I do not give up the white community for lost, however, because I feel that if other leaderships spoke out that many of those who found themselves on the other side of the fence could also find their way back over.
RPW: What is the role of the white liberal in the freedom movement? What is his function – position?
RT: We have had quite a bit of discussion about whether the people who are really involved in our movement are liberals. We think that perhaps another name is more appropriate.
RPW: All right. You want to save the nasty word for other people – is that it?
RT: We would call them the white committed, and we feel that their role as it has been exhibited in Cleveland is a very strong supportive role. And there are many instances of very strong leadership role in their own communities. There is a definite role for the white committed person, the person who is willing, as the Reverend Bruce was, to lay down his life for the cause in which he believed. There certainly is a role for that person.
RPW: You were present at that event, weren’t you?
RT: Yes, I was. I didn’t see it, but I was at the scene at the time.
RPW: I understand that you did a great deal to try to quiet the mob sense after the event and the attack on the driver of the bulldozer.
RT: Yes, well, that occurred around 3:30 or 4 when the construction had stopped and the policemen were attempting to send the mob home, and we knew they were angry – they were justifiably angry – they had been provoked considerably by the actions of the police that day. And yet we felt there was no cause to be served at that point by exploding there in the community. We attempted to quiet them and to send them home.
RPW: In the attack on the bulldozer driver – that occurred immediately, didn’t it?
RT: Yes, it did, and – it was not a mass attack. There was one young man who went – who became hysterical after seeing Reverend run over.
RPW: Only one person was involved in the attack?
RT: That’s right – in a bodily attack. There were sticks and stones thrown at the police too, but in terms of actually attacking the driver there was only one person involved in that.
RPW: That wasn’t the way the press reported it – in some places, anyway.
RT: No, it wasn’t. Time Magazine carried a deliberate distortion of that.
RPW: I saw the Time report. You saw it with your own eyes, didn’t you?
RT: Yes – I didn’t see this with my own eyes – this was reported to me by eyewitnesses. There was one person who attacked the driver – a young man who went berserk after seeing – temporarily at least – after seeing the death of the Reverend
RPW: Did any sticks or stones find their way to the driver?
RT: Not to my knowledge, although I think most of the sticks and stones were thrown at the policeman.
RPW: Could you see a situation where this explosive violence which you helped to stem could serve a useful purpose?
RT: Well, this is the whole purpose of the nonviolent demonstration and protest action. We try to channel the justifiably intense feeling of people who have gone through and lived under this system – tried to channel them in ways which will be creative and will bring about constructive changes.
RPW:I noticed again from Time Magazine that Mr. Elie – Lolis Elie in New Orleans, with whom I have had conversations about this – two long ones in fact – now says if violence comes this summer he would take no steps to curb it in New Orleans.
RT: Well, I think there’s a point at which the curbing can no longer be done. I feel that it is primarily the drive of law enforcement agencies to curb violence. This is a heavy responsibility for citizens. I feel that we should take those steps that we can, but I’m also realist enough to know that if wide scale mob violence breaks out, that I would no longer be in a position to curb it, and I think this violence has to be seen as an expression of such tremendous discontent and an expression of tremendous frustration that has built up over a long period of time. No one person can stop it. I think it’s too much to ask that one person attempt to stop it.
RPW: The other day I was talking with Mr. Stringfellow, whom you may or may not know or know about – he’s white – a white man – very much interested in and committed to the freedom movement. He says, in predicting violence in Harlem this summer, that the white man is willing to accept it, to put his hands down and take the brickbat or the knife or whatever it is. He takes a totally – I say what about the cops then, what should they do? What should the cops do in that case?
RT: Well, unfortunately, the policemen, if they behave in other places like they do here, are also unfortunate tools of a power structure which has failed to understand the dynamics of the protests, and consequently, not understanding anything about the people with whom they deal, have not been able to deal with the situation in any kind of constructive way. That’s why police brutality takes place, and of course police brutality breeds more violence. I feel that clearly at some point the policemen ought to step in to prevent loss of life and limb, but they should not be there to prevent one side of loss of life and limb as has been the case. An example here is that at Murray Hill, where a mob rioted out of control – white mob, I’m happy to say – the police made no attempt whatsoever to curb them – permitted them to riot, refused to take horses there because they said it would incite the mob to more violence. And yet with a smaller number of people, they did use their horses, they charged the crowd and again did what they said they couldn’t do elsewhere.
RPW: Tell me this – what is the ethnic situation aside from the Negro-white collisions that have occurred here? There is some talk that there are other ethnic complications involved in these collisions besides the Negro – white, that the Italian section is involved, that the Poles are involved. Can you give me a breakdown on that?
RT: Well, this is quite true, that we have in Cleveland ethnic pockets in the city of Cleveland which jealously guard their own traditions and their own way of doing things. Often this way of doing things runs counter to the mood and the progress of the entire community, and this of course complicates the situations. But I don’t think it can be said that these people are responsible for the kind of violence that takes place. I think white ordinary Americans who don’t belong to ethnic groups will respond the same way if challenged.
RPW: If challenged, but the challenge now is primarily to say the Polish pockets and the Italian pockets?
RT: Through the education issue the challenge –
RPW: Through the education issue.
RT: - the challenge has been primarily at these ethnic pockets. That’s correct.
RPW: Is this an unfortunate experience do you think that has to be dealt with, or would there be ways to avoid this collision with these special highly homogeneous groups?
RT: There would be ways of colliding only with them. If the commitment of the school board at this point was to city-wide integration and to implementing those plans to bring it about, I don’t think that these ethnic groups would feel as though they were selected or isolated, that this would be something that would involve the west side as well.
RPW: They feel that they are isolated and must protect themselves. They’re being discriminated against too, is that right?
RT: I guess that’s their feeling, yes. I think there’s a real strong in-group out-group feeling there.
RPW: What do you think of the theory that some sociologists present that as an ethnic minority achieves equality, the tendency is not to bleed off into the surrounding society but to come back together?
RT: I’m not a real student of sociology, although I am acquainted with that theory. That may be true. It has worked in certain instances with the Jewish community. I think it ahs worked here in Cleveland with certain elements of the –
RPW: … observation here?
RT: - the Polish community – yes.
RPW: Would that work with the Negro, do you think?
RT: We’ve never had an opportunity to find out –
RPW: No. You must have some supposition about it though.
RT: Yes, well, my supposition is that it may very well be true that if all the barriers were lifted, that Negroes, after having the experience of equal opportunity, would still choose to live together.
RPW: There would be no – nothing to prove?
RT: No, that’s right. But I think that the protest here is that – in the fact that equal opportunity is very much restricted by the – by denying them opportunity – the opportunity to break out of the ghetto. That’s been obvious. Because when Negroes are consolidated in the ghetto they are more easily exploited, they are more easily mistreated and overlooked by the powers that be. And this is why inferior education, housing and employment opportunities are realities in the ghetto situation.
RPW: What’s the Negro vote like in Cleveland? How much registration is there here?
RT: There’s more registration than actual voting, and there’s not enough registration. That’s one of our programs for the summer, to register more voters and to begin to make our political power felt.
RPW: What is the ratio, roughly, of population to registration here? That is, potential registration population and actual registration – what is the ratio?
RT: I wouldn’t be qualified to answer that with any real certainty. I know that there certainly aren’t the numbers registered that could be. And this is what our job is, to make sure that that full potential is realized. I couldn’t say.
RPW: How much trouble do you have with Negro apathy? What about voting? Two, about civil rights in general.
RT: The apathy toward civil rights is being broken down. I think from the very fact that we had a 92 percent effective boycott – school boycott here in Cleveland on April the 20th, points up that the Negro community can be brought out of apathy and is in fact less apathetic than the white community. Now, in terms of translating that kind of involvement on the civil rights issue into a political issue – that’s going to take – the newest organization – that’s going to take a new approach to the community. We have to help them to translate into the political arena. But I feel that the problem of apathy in the community is not – doesn’t reside so much in the Negro community as it resides in the white community.
RPW: In general let’s say that’s true. But there is a – the tale you hear everywhere from Negroes when they’re speaking in a sort of unbuttoned way – that apathy is a great problem.
RT: Certainly it is – surely it is. But I –
RPW: … reasons for their apathy.
RT: That’s right. It’s quite understandable to me that a person who has to worry, as most of the people here in have to worry, about where the next meal and where the next rent payment is coming from, have little time left over to concern themselves with the rights of other men. I think this is a matter of economic deprivation. And some of that we will not be able to overcome. The society has created it. But at the same time, I’m encouraged by the fact that we can communicate with 92 percent of the Negro parents to get them to keep their children out of school. This shows to me that the apathy can be broken down, and we’re going to do it.
RPW: Isn’t it strange to you, as it is to me offhand, that Tennessee – Memphis, say – the capital of the Mississippi delta – the cotton country – has a very highly organized Negro vote that’s very effective as a bargaining basis,
and Cleveland does not have. How would you account for that?
RT: I would account for that in the following way: I think that the entire Negro community in Memphis was forced to learn the brutal facts of segregation through civil rights demonstrations long before the entire community of Cleveland was. Cleveland has always been known as a citadel of tokenism. It has always been the place where people thought they were doing all right, and unless you have concrete evidence to the contrary, you’d like to believe that. Now, we have given them concrete evidence to the contrary in the last few months. In the last few months there has been a lot more awareness in the Negro community that police brutality does in fact exist. They see it on television – you know, they know it individually, but now the whole community has a chance to be reminded of it. Now, the fact that we now have a movement here in Cleveland, at least the beginnings of it, is going to make a difference in terms of our political organization.
RPW: Was there ever a kind of Negro vote here which could be delivered to one political party?
RT: Surely – surely. That’s in the pattern. In fact, it’s the pattern in most northern cities, that the Negro was organized politically all right, but he’s organized by the machine, and the machine delivered the votes and no one ever challenged that. And we’re challenging that. We’re asking the community now to act as an independent body and use their vote.
RPW: Wasn’t that machine an education in the use of the vote?
RT: I beg your pardon?
RPW: Wasn’t that political machine that delivered the Negro vote an education in voting – in the powers of the ballot?
RT: No, not really, because it was not used in an independent way. It was – the machine in a sense was used by certain individuals to give individual benefits. It has not been used as the voice of the community or of the entire community. In other words …There’s another problem here that we have to consider too, and that is the machine in the north has been misleading because it’s dominated by Negroes. In other words, it was easier to be fooled by thinking that these people were actually delivering the vote for the Negro community when it was not. Just to explain again what I mean by misleading, even thought he machine here is white dominated, the Negro community could have been and was easily fooled by the fact that the Negro still seemed to be in prominence. We had Negro councilmen, we had Negro judges, and consequently it looked as though the Negro vote was being delivered for Negro purposes when in fact it’s the same kind of maneuvering that went on in the south, one step removed. In other words, I think it’s going to require a good deal more organization in the north to break down the pattern than it did in the south where the racial lines are so much more obvious.
RPW: Do you know anything about the relation of the father of Martin Luther King, Jr. to this whole question of power?
RT: No, I don’t.
RPW: I wondered if you did. And I don’t know what I know. I know – Dr. King says his father stood in an intermediate position in the historical development, you see. The way he would put it, it was a stage in his development. That leads to the matter of say, development. How would you describe the stages of development in the Negro life vis-à-vis white life, white society, since the Civil War? Do you see clearly defined stages? Or is it more of the same, more of the same?
RT: No, it’s not more of the same. I think we have now a generation which is markedly different from the generation which preceded it. You know, that’s like talking about my father. He was a hard worker, but he struggled to raise a family of five, and in fact was so engaged in the struggle of survival that he could not give his attention to the problems which he felt very deeply and met every day, and yet in an organized way couldn’t do anything about. He was not free to do so. But he made it possible for me – gave me the equipment and made sure that I had the equipment to begin to do something about these problems. And I think this is true of many of us in this generation. There is a certain backlog of security which our parents did not have by virtue of their parents really having to struggle which enables us – a certain backlog of security and self confidence, let me say, that enables us to tackle the problem in a much more general way than our parents were able to do so. *
RPW: In the 1930’s there was great provocation, poverty and distress and oppressions for the Negro, plus the crisis of the depression. Why no freedom movement then? Why did it wait thirty years or thirty-five years?
RT: Well, I don’t know. I’m a great believer that the history is created by the times and the individuals who live in those times. I feel that one of the reasons may be – this is just speculation – is that the entire country was in something of a similar situation in the ‘30’s, that it wasn’t quite so easy to distinguish between the suffering of blacks and the suffering of whites as expressed in the labor movement. I don’t know. It’s just a possibility. Of course, the blacks have always suffered independently, and much more so than anyone else.
RPW: Where was the leadership in the ‘30’s – the Negro leadership?
RT: I believe it was channeled pretty much in the labor movement, and therefore was not fighting a black battle per se. It was fighting a labor battle, which in a sense was distracted from the strength of the Negro community.
RPW: But the Negroes were even farther outside the labor movement then than they are now.
RT: Right. But they were making some kind of gains. The CIO was forming in the beginning – well, in the ‘30’s – that’s not true in the ‘40’s - I
* “PARENT”handwritten in margin beside this section
guess it’s more true – actually, I should let Dave answer that because he’s a student of history and I’m not.
RPW: What I’m getting at is this, Miss Turner – I’m going to leave the question of process – the sense of historical process. Now, some people, if asked about Freedom Now, will say – now. All will say in the past – will always say – it was only active – we didn’t happen thirty years ago or forty years ago.
RT: No, it’s not a matter of action.
RPW : It’s not a matter of action?
RT: No, it’s not. The real combination of the factors, though, I can’t spell out. I really haven’t given enough attention to it. But I don’t believe it was an accident.
RPW: Let me try this as one factor. Thirty years ago there was little educated leadership among the Negroes.
RT: That’s true. That’s sort of what I hit on when I said that my father was not able – was not in a position to remove himself from his own struggle for survival and think in terms of the general struggle. He didn’t have the equipment.
RPW: You must be aware that if I should say that to many Negroes they would be very angry.
RT: I imagine so. But I think it’s (talking together) I think it’s a realistic appraisal, though.
RPW: They would be angry because it seems to imply that process means time, you see, and Freedom Now is outside of time – now. Do you see what I’m getting at?
RPW: How do you interpret Freedom Now in the light of your previous basis for process?
RT: Hmm. Shut it off a minute …
RPW: About Freedom Now, Miss Turner –
RT: Yes. Well Freedom Now – and this is perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences for someone who is committed to it – is to a certain extent relative. I would say it is less relative now than it would have been twenty years ago. Freedom Now probably was a slogan of many people in the ‘30’s, and yet there were certain conditions – certain factors – which prohibited that from becoming a reality and we might just talk about them again – some of the relevant ones at least. I have pointed to the idea that self-confidence seems to be the mark of the present leadership, an intense pride in being black which was not the case twenty years ago, and I think it is very correctly assessed to be the result of an African and Asian revolution.
RPW: Let me take a point there and go off on a side track. Speaking of pride in being black. DuBoise [Du Bois] and other Negro writers have talked about the psychic split of the Negro in America, the pull toward the Mystique Noir, the pull toward Africanism, the pull toward even the American Negro tradition, as opposed to their Christian white less European tradition, a real split. Do you feel this split – impulse?
RPW: You do?
RT: I do.
RPW: How do you deal with it?
RT: It doesn’t represent any problem in me, because I think that by drawing on both traditions I think I have broadened the horizons for me. I am an American, and therefore of course share in the Judeo-Christian Western civilization, but I am also aware of the fact that I share in another civilization, which I think broadens me and broadens other people in the movement. We have the – we have – you know, the strength of belonging to two communities, and they complement each other.
RPW: What about these Italians down the street? That you were deploring a few minutes ago?
RT: I wasn’t really deploring them. I feel that – (change tape)
(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.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN RUTH TURNER May 7 TAPE #2
Mr. Warren: This is Tape #2 of a conversation with Miss Turner at CORE, Cleveland, Ohio, May 7 – continue. Where were we?
RT: I think we were talking about Africa.
RPW: Did I ask you about the Italians down the street, and the Poles?
RT: Yes, well, in a sense I feel sorry for them. I feel that they are belonging to two not very different cultures but different – somewhat different – and have not broadened their experience. They have interpreted their belonging to an Italian – well, to an Italian community and something that does not help them understand the broadening implications of – that could mean. I think that – I feel as though our experience was broadened by belonging to more than one.
RPW: Theirs was not?
RT: And I don’t believe theirs is. I think they interpret that belonging in terms of Americanism, which has unfortunately not seen the creative value of belonging to lots of different, you know, in-groups. I think that Americanism has attempted to in a sense make American any other kind of identification, or at least to interpret Americanism, or interpret this kind of belonging through American traditions, and it has not been broadening.
RPW: I gather you believe in a fairly pluralistic society where you have a variety of heritages and attitudes – enriching society – is that it?
RT: Yes, I do believe in a pluralistic society. I believe in the kind of society where a man can feel proud of being an Italian and American at the same time and do not see those in any way contradictory. I see for the Negro community that a Negro should be able to be proud to come from African tradition, to have developed a certain tradition of his own here, and at the same time take part in a more American tradition, at the same time, and not to feel – in fact, to feel broadened by that belonging.
RPW: Suppose he feels that over a period of time – time unspecified – his racial identity disappears entirely – then what should he feel? What would you think of it? What would you feel? To be absorbed in an American blood stream?
RT: Well, unfortunately, the melting pot has had a pretty homogeneous and uninteresting flavor to me. If it could be a true melting pot, where the contributions of various groups are acknowledged as such, and that various groups are permitted to make the contribution that they can make and it is accepted as such, then it could be something of value. But unfortunately it has become a grey mass of mediocrity and I reject the melting pot idea if it means that everybody has to come down to the same standard. If losing ones racial identify means becoming a part of a grey homogeneous mixture, then I say it’s not worth it.
RPW: Have you read a recent book by Oscar Handlin called “The ‘?
RT: No, I haven’t.
RPW: He makes the point that the distinction between quality and integration is crucial, that many people in the Negro movement now have failed to make that distinction, have created integration into a shibboleth, forgetting the real issue.
RT: I agree.
RPW: Do you agree with that?
RT: Yes. I feel that those who concentrate on integration and ending segregation have much too narrow a goal, because I feel that the basic issue here is restoring to this country – maybe not restoring, but implementing for the first time economic justice, social justice, political justice. That goes far beyond the bounds of ending segregation per se. *
RPW: Let’s take a case that’s a little different from the way you propose it now. In the New York schools, for certain people like the Reverend Gulamusson, integration is crucial – Negro integration – bus them in- bus them out – stir up dust – that’s the main thing. Without that, he says, let the public schools go to hell. Maybe they’ve served their purpose anyway. He said this, you see. Now, that is an extreme integrationist position. Now, the other position is held by people like those of some standing – Dr. Kenneth Clark and other Negroes who will say that the main thing is not integration, the main thing is equality, because you have to have a period of adaptation given a rough situation like that. So we have the crash program for equality of
* “REGENERATE” handwritten beside this section.
schools, and politics. But don’t make integration, as such, a panacea. That’s something to be worked toward.
RT: Well, let me put it this way –
RPW: How would you put it?
RT: I would say that the goal is certainly quality education for all children. But I don’t think we can overlook the fact that failure to integrate the school systems means that for a Negro child that is not a goal which he can attain. In other words, I think the end toward which we are striving and the end toward which all of our programs here in Cleveland have been directed, is quality education for all. But at the same time we would emphasize very strongly – we would insist, in fact, that integration must be part of that total plan. Integration, however, of a poor school system leaves an integrated poor school system. It does not solve the basic problems of quality education.
RPW: What do you think offhand about the busing system in New York?
RT: I think it’s a means to an end. It cannot be seen as an end in itself.
RPW: Would it achieve its end, given the New York system – the New York situation?
RT: I’m sure the New York situation would be somewhat like ours. I think that busing will achieve the end, and I think here we have to go a bit further. We have to see that the majority group is concerned about the education of its children, and when there’s a minority group which is isolated from the majority they are not going to be concerned about the education of that minority. The goal of integration, the immediate goal, would be to put Negro and white children in the same situation, so that the concern which is not there for moral reasons has to be there for selfish reasons. In other words, they’re going to be concerned about a school system in which their children are located, and that is, you know, one of the reasons why integration has to take place.
RPW: Let’s distinguish two things here. If one is assured, say in Harlem, that there will be this crash half-million dollar program immediately put into effect, with integrated high schools, say, but not integrated grade schools because they can’t – the objection is it can’t be done, say. Would the movement toward integration – integration not as the means but as an end – equality being the – being as a means, taken on right now – not sacrificing any principle, you see – just as a practical matter. How would you feel about that, or would you say integration or death or more schools now?
RT: No, I wouldn’t take that position. I would not say integration or death. I would say, however, that it is too easy to feel that by putting in half a million dollars or half a billion dollars into a segregated school system that you are eliminating the evil of the segregation. I feel that I would rather put much of that money, or begin to make similar plans to put much more money into creating the kind of integrated school system, and that is something of the future. But I think if we put too much attention on improving the quality of education without putting at lest as much if not much more attention on the problem of creating an integrated schools system which will be vastly superior to anything we have now, then we’re going to find ourselves in a continued dilemma.
RPW: You mean separate but equal, you mean?
RT: That’s right – separate but equal.
RPW: Well, suppose that’s not the objective. Suppose on reasonable grounds the practical difficulties are so great that you can’t get the integration now. You can simply try to bleed toward integration, as it were. You can do it at the high school level but you can’t do it as the first to eighth grade.
RT: Well, I would agree. I mean, in a sense you cannot abolish – here for example we’re talking about planning educational parks –
RPW: In Cleveland, you mean?
RT: In Cleveland, yes. We would like to see the creation of educational parks. Well, in the time span between now and the time these educational parks are created, we still have the problem of educating the children where they are. Now, clearly, we’re going to need a crash program, you’re going to need upgraded equality in those schools until the time when we can create that kind of system. I think I would – if that is indeed Mr. Clark’s position I would tend to agree. We have to focus our attention on what the past year is going to be, and that is an integrated school system – we have a plan for that – but in the meantime, we have to upgrade the quality of the schools with which we are now working and in which children now find themselves.
RPW: According to the morning Times, Harlem opinion tends now to veer toward the crash program and play down integration as either and or device.
RT: Who said this?
RPW: The New York Times this morning.
RT: And who is doing this?
RPW: This is simply a news story – I mean, an analysis of the present situation in Harlem. Excuse me just a second. (rest of tape blank)Collapse
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.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN RUTH TURNER MAY 7 TAPE #3
Mr. WARREN: This is Tape #3 of the conversation with Mr. Cohen and Miss Turner – proceed. You were going to say something, Mr. Cohen, about Mr. Farmer and Dr. King on the matter of self-improvement and goal end.
Mr. COHEN: Yes. It seems to me that the appropriate thing for Jim Farmer to have done, was not to have done things that appeared to be blocking off the expression of hostility and resentment that occurred in the Brooklyn chapter of CORE, but rather to develop programs for other chapters of the national office which adequately expressed that same sense of frustration in the ways that Mr. Farmer thought appropriate. Now, quite obviously the World’s Fair demonstration that he and Bayard Rustin led was a hastily put together very expensive operation in which I suspect very few of the people who participated deeply believed. It was an attempt to answer in a pretty pedestrian fashion what the Brooklyn CORE was doing. I suspect that there were other kinds of action projects that the national office could have come up with that would have projected the same sense of hostility and frustration in a way that was acceptable. It seems to me that the response to such hostility has to always be programmatic and it also – it always has to run deep, and it has to hit at problems that people can recognize and channel off the emotions and the feeling that Brunson and Englander and the other people were expressing. And in a sense, the same thing applies to what Martin Luther King was saying about being the best street sweepers and so on. It’s no longer appropriate to talk about being the best street sweeper. What it is appropriate to do is to involve those street sweepers and the taxicab drivers and the post office people and every other person in a movement where by doing things themselves they achieve a kind of involvement and a kind of personal excellence that they have never been able to achieve before. You don’t want to be the best damned street sweeper, but if you can engage yourself in a movement that’s going to open up opportunities for a lot of other people, you’re making a much more – I think a much more profound contribution. We’re not worried about street sweepers, but we are worried about building a movement that’s going to change things. So I think that what King said was just inappropriate.
RPW: Was that ever appropriate – historically speaking? Was that a bad thing from Booker T. Washington to have said back yonder seventy-five years ago?
COHEN: That’s a hard kind of question to answer. People in different historical circumstances respond differently. Obviously very few people in the movement now in their guts could respond possibly to the image that Booker T. Washington projected, because that is not what we feel in our guts now. And we would make a judgment and say well, if Washington was black or if he was a moral man he shouldn’t have said it. But quite plainly there were compelling historical reasons for him to say it. I think it’s much easier for us to confront the contemporary counterparts of Booker T. Washington and say, buddy, you’re just out of step with history, and there are more creative things you can be doing.
RPW: But as a historian you certainly are acquainted with the problem of assessing the motives and significance of people of the past imaginatively, so maybe King is our Booker T. Washington. Would you go that far?
COHEN: Maybe King is – pardon?
RPW: Is our Booker T. Washington. Would you go that far?
COHEN: No. What we were saying while you were changing tapes, King comes from a southern context, and he talks out of a southern context, he talks out of a situation where black people are oppressed and deprived in a way that people who live in the north really can never even understand. And the building of confidence and the building of pride is a much, much deeper problem in the south than it is in the north, and I suspect that when Martin King was talking to that Bridgeport audience in Connecticut, he was really talking to black folk in the south.
RPW: Is it strange that so much leadership has come from the south in the freedom movement? I believe it has come from the south.
COHEN: Well, I think we are seeing a change in that. I think that what’s happening now all across the country, on a local level and in national organizations, is that we are beginning to realize in the north that we have in effect passed the first stage, we have just about gone through the first stage of the struggle which you might call the public accommodations stage. We can pass fair housing laws and FEP legislation, and public accommodations laws in the north from now until we’re blue in the face. But until we achieve what Ruth Turner was calling economic and social justice there will be no substance in those laws for the mass of black deprived or, for that matter, for the mass of white deprived. So that our job in the northern part of this movement is to move beyond the stage at which the south still is – the public accommodations stage – and to establish a model for building a movement that is going to achieve basic – the basic social and economic justice that’s going to make legislation meaningful.
RPW: You speak as though the race issue were a rider on a broader concern.
COHEN: No. This – as a matter of fact I think if we weren’t so damned busy doing things here, I’ve been trying to write something about this. No. But it’s ironic that the major side effect of the civil rights struggle in the last – oh, ten years, has not – the major side effect has been the national recognition of poverty as a pressing social concern. The oppression, the deprivation, the black people face in this country they face and have faced as a result of their being black, not of any other social and economic conditions. But the fact of the matter, in 1964 is, is that they face that deprivation and oppression with increasing numbers of white people. It is no longer possible to say to the white plumber, move over, buddy, and give me a job, because a job is his job and in New York there are twenty-seven thousand building trade people unemployed and they will not be re-employed even if the industry moves ahead at top pace. So it’s not that the race issue is a rider on this more fundamental question. The race issue is fundamental and it’s what’s generated in the way in this more fundamental question. We’ll continue moving on the race issue and hoping that through our efforts and the efforts of other people working in the white community, that we’ll be able to achieve the justice that will make it possible to bring this race thing to a fruitful conclusion.
RPW: I must say I have sort of lost the thread here, not meaning to. When you’re actually discussing you seem to make the economic and class question prior to a race solution. Am I misunderstanding you?
COHEN: It’s not a question of priority. You take the goals of the movement up until today. They have been the achievement of equality in a formal sense, in a legalistic sense – fair housing – open occupancy – fair employment, public accommodations, equal schooling. And then you sit back and you think, well, let’s just suppose in Cleveland or New York or any other northern city, that we had this legislation, that we had a desegregated school system – you ask the question, what, then, would we have with respect to schools? This is what we were saying a little while ago. We can desegregate the schools in Cleveland tonight, and tomorrow morning we would have many of the same fundamental problems that we still have. School desegregation cannot be fruitfully implemented unless we effect some very basic changes in our educational system.
RPW: Fair housing?
COHEN: Fair housing cannot be implemented until masses of people have the economic wherewithal to implement it. The same is true of fair employment. Fair employment is not going to get anyone – is not going to get a significant number of people jobs, because jobs are disappearing at a much more rapid rate than they’re being created. So it’s not a question of priority but a question of asking yourself how you fulfill the goals of the civil rights movement, and we have begun to see that you fulfill the goals of the civil rights movement by moving on two levels – the legislative, or the legal, and other levels, such as the social and the economic.
RPW: Miss Turner?
Miss TURNER: You want my comment on that as well?
RT: I keep referring to the statement that Bob Moses made in a treatise – I can’t remember now what it was now, but the statement was that it is our job or the society’s job to prepare itself for the Negro, and I think this is extremely relevant to what Dr. Cohen has been saying, and that is that, you know, until the problem of unemployment is solved, the ending of segregation for the Negro will mean nothing. It will mean absolutely nothing. It will simply mean that we will have integrated unemployment roles. And unfortunately that’s not the kind of solution for which I am working or anyone else for that matter. The same result would be true in education – we’ll end segregation tonight, and tomorrow we’ll have a desegregated poor educational system. And it is poor because it isn’t preparing any children – at least in Cleveland – for the kinds of jobs that are opening up now. Similarly, in housing we will end segregation tonight and find that no Negro can afford to buy the kind of houses that are now available for sale. So, clearly we have to work for more than just desegregation. This isn’t going to solve many of the basic problems.
RPW: Let’s approach the question another way. Let’s say that tomorrow morning we have the economic system functioning beautifully. We have jobs for all. We have FEP laws enforced – on the books and enforced. Have integrated education. What then?
RT: Well, if that’s possible, it seems like we could settle back and live happily and normally again. Except, we have a problem of attitudes to overcome. The problem of working out after the segregation has ended, working out the adjustment of people so that they can really gain from the experience of integration. Unfortunately, the minds of too many Americans are so narrow that they wouldn’t be able to gain that much from being – living next door to a Negro or working next to one. So that’s another area in which we would have to turn our attention. And we’d also have to turn our attention to the problem of overcoming the backlog, overcoming the tremendous gap that has existed over these four hundred years. And that would have to be done by giving priority, giving special preferential treatment to Negroes by equipping them to overcome the problem and the gap that has existed between the white and Negro communities.
RPW: What kind of backlog are we talking about? What kind of difference between the communities are we talking about? Let’s push that a little bit.
RT: We’re talking about the basic economic difference, for example –
RPW: Excuse me – we were going to settle that – we had that settled, you know, tomorrow morning.
RT: Oh, well – all right. You still have a problem of people not being prepared to take the jobs that are open to them. That’s – even if it’s settled tomorrow, you still have the problem of many young people not able to take the jobs now opening because of the fact that they haven’t had the proper educational background. So special training programs, crash programs and what have you would have to be initiated for the drop-outs, for example, for the ladies on ADC, to train them for the jobs that are now open and available.
RPW: We keep getting away from race, though. I’m trying to isolate the race, you see, from the economic context.
RT: I don’t know if we can. I’m sorry, I don’t see how you can.
RPW: Race is – excuse me – you can’t separate the race question from the economic context?
RT: Well, you – I mean, I think that the two are very much intertwined. You’re saying that you’re erasing the conditions, and yet you’ve still got the backlog which comes from all these centuries of Negroes not being treated as equals and consequently considering them – themselves not equals. You’ve got all the business of brainwashing which is – that is, lack of respect of oneself, to overcome. And you’ve got the problem of a white society and white standards and white textbooks, and the fact that the Negro has not been able to see himself as participating in a society to overcome. These are all psychological factors, too, of course. Many problems would not be solved by ending it, you know – psychological problems, sociological problems.
RPW: piece in Commentary some time back?
RPW: He said that there would be no solution of the race question until the absorption of the Negro race. Here’s the quote. The Negro problem can’t be solved in this country in no other way than by assimilation.
RT: I won’t buy that. I refuse to accept it because it seems to me then that we are accepting again the American standard of a melting pot. In other words, in order for me to accept you, you’ve got to be like me. And we have got – as a country, we have got to reach the point where we can accept individuals as they are, and not force them to our own standards. I would reject that theory totally. I do reject it.
RPW: What about – do you feel, as a Negro, the problem of symbolisms in a white culture, values being tied to light, to white, as symbols and darkness carrying the symbolism of less value or evil?
RT: I feel it very strongly. And this is of course one of those psychological things that has to be overcome as the conditions are erased. The fact is that over the centuries – over the centuries here, white lies are not nearly as bad as black ones, and, you know there are just all kinds of symbolisms – black sheep and white sheep, and – yes, it’s clear, and in fact it was possibly done purposefully at some time.
RPW: Purposely? What about those African tribes where you have a dance of good and evils, and the dancer, representing good, wears white headdress and white robe, and the dancer, representing the evil principle, wears black?
RT: Yes, there were also some Asian cultures where white is a sign of mourning, and we don’t read about those in our history books. We don’t hear about them and talk about them in our society.
RPW: Well, suppose we have both kinds. Why is it difficult to say that night is a time of terror and day is a time of, you know – the terrors of the jungle disappear or the cave disappear, and we carry those. That it’s not a put-up job by the nasty white man is symbolism.
RT: That may be, but it’s been very useful for his purposes in view of the fact that the white-black symbolism was made so important in slave times, that – in fact, it was made so important that Negroes tired to bleach their skin to get away from it and straighten their hair.
RPW: And some still do.
RT: And some still do. Clearly, it has had an effect. You know, it’s no accident, it seems to me, that Christ is always portrayed as blonde, blue-eyed person in white robes, and that baptism is always taking place with white – I think that to a certain effect this is cultural and can’t be overcome, but in terms of the effect that it has had on the Negro psychology it has to be overcome. At least we have to give him something to balance it with, and we have not done this in this culture. We have not appreciated the beauty of blackness. A tiger or a panther is appreciated for his blackness, but a Negro woman is not – at least not in the wide culture. All of our beauty contests –
RPW: It was in the southern white culture.
RT: Yes, but the sub rosa, and in a very degrading kind of way.
RPW: But still appreciated, as such.
RT: Never openly and never betrayed in newspapers and never on television, and never talked about and never advertised in magazines – no.
RPW: Well, not now. There was no TV in those days, I’m talking about.
RT: There wasn’t in any of the media. It was never praised in any of the media. Beauty contests never considered blackness as a criterion for beauty. Negro girls were not encouraged to in fact participate and are still not encouraged to participate in beauty contests because somehow being black does not mean that you’re a candidate for beauty. *
RPW: Let’s cut back to the Reconstruction for a moment. Let me ask both of you this question. Muirdahl [Myrdal], you know, had a scheme for what would have been the ideal solution for Reconstruction in the south. First the compensation to slaveholders for the emancipation, second expropriation of land for the re-settlement of freedom but payment to the landowners for it. And there are some other items too. Let’s stop on those. How do you react to those?
* “USE” written beside this section. Also, “No 2 for Miss Turner”
RT: Well, they would have been steps in the right direction, but there has to be included in a plan like that some way –
RPW: Let’s stop just a second. Would you object, or do you feel any resistance to the idea of compensation to the slaveholders for the emancipation?
RT: Morally yes, because I feel that they unjustly held slaves in the first place.
RPW: What about the Athenians? Now, do you feel that was an immoral situation? The Athenians held slaves.
RT: I think any time a man that degrades another man to the position of a servant without respecting his human potential and dignity, that it’s an immoral situation.
RPW: Is that unhistorical, Mr. Cohen?
COHEN: No – no, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s unhistorical at all. I think that a lot of your recent questions turn around something that is very important to answer, however. And you ask if all the problems were solved tomorrow, or if they had been solved after Reconstruction, or if they were solved whenever, then would we be happy, then would the problem be solved? Obviously not. Your question about light and darkness – after the legalism, after we have a legal solution to this problem, and after we have the economic and social preconditions that will not make people see Negroes as someone who wants to share their scarcity, we will still have a lot of problems. There will still be a mythology of blackness and that’s not going to disappear very quickly. It seems to me we have to recognize that people and societies move in complicated and often very curious ways, and one of our jobs is to try to anticipate what the most basic levels are in which they move and try and reach some solution there and hope that after we’ve reached that solution we can confront these other rather more subtle problems and see what can be done about them.
RPW: Do you feel a resistance to Muirdahl’s [Myrdal’s] proposal? Suppose you, knowing what you know now, lived in ’65. How would you respond to this proposal of Muirdahl’s [Myrdal’s] to the Reconstruction settlement? Of course that’s not all his proposal – that’s part of it – it’s the beginning.
COHEN: You mean the compensation –
RPW: Compensation and the expropriation of land with compensation for the land.
COHEN: Expropriation of land for the freed Negro?
RPW: But payment to the owner.
COHEN: Well, from the point of view – the abstract point of view, it might well have been a functional scheme. It might have worked. From the moral point of view I think what Ruth said was right, or was correct, rather, that from that sense it’s impossible to condone moral paying someone for taking away something which was never his damned property to begin with. But there’s a further point which I think I was trying to make a few minutes ago, and that is that in a social movement you can’t assume that tomorrow people can be made sinless or can be made so humane that they are no longer human. And part of our job, it seems to me is to make it possible for people to still remain human and be somewhat more humane.
RPW: Let me put the question more sharply. Suppose you had the power, knowing what you know now, and were back there at that time, and could have said – I will have it this way – you will do it this way – you will compensate the slave owners for the freedmen, you will expropriate land for their use but pay the planters for the land. Knowing that you know now about the course of the last hundred years, would you do it or not? Assuming also this would have worked, would have evened our society, would you have done it?
RT: You know, it’s so difficult here in our movement now to plan from one week to the next – (talking together) – no, but I’m just saying, the complexity of the issue is such that you just can’t give an on-the-spot ….*
RPW: I will give the consequences if that had happened, we’d have avoided this massive poverty in the south for a hundred years, and we would have had the integrated school system that began with the Freedmen’s Bureau and all that would have been worked out – we’d have been over the hump a long time back. But the prize would have been to pay the slaveholder for his – quotes – property, and pay the landowner for the expropriated land. It comes out beautifully. Would you still do it or not?
* Unable to read handwritten word beside this section
RT: Well, you see, I would question it would all come out beautifully –
RPW: … That’s the terms of the question.
RT: No, but I want to make this point, because in doing so you would
have in a sense reinforced the slave owners’ attitude about the Negro that he was something that was indeed property and was recognized as property by those who were paying him for the property.
RPW: I didn’t state it that way. I stated it the other way.
RT: I realize that, but I’m still saying that the problem attitude or the problem of basic human respect for another individual would not have been solved by doing this, and if it had not been solved I’m not so sure that we wouldn’t still have many other problems that we –
RPW: I didn’t put the question that way. I put the question in another way. Suppose we got a more or less workable integrated society, that we don’t have now anywhere in this country – would you have paid the price?
RT: You ask me if I would compromise with my ideal for the end result - *
RPW: It’s not a cultural ideal – there are two ideas here in competition, aren’t there?
RT: Yes, there are. Of course you’re asking an idealist of this and
that’s why it’s so hard to answer you.
* “USE” handwritten beside this discussion
RPW: But two different ideas that now compete.
RT: I know it. I really just can’t answer that, because you’re making assumptions that –
RPW: I’m entitled to make assumptions in terms of the game.
RT: All right, but you’re making assumptions means that I can’t answer the question.
RPW: It means you find it too painful to answer the question one way – a real split, isn’t it?
RT: That’s right. I think that’s about the best assessment of it. It’s too painful to answer the question and it’s also – the relevant premises are not – agreed upon.
COHEN: … that poses the same kind of question … A number of our executive committee and a very close friend of both of ours who was killed recently here in Cleveland in the process of a demonstration, and we can go on asking the question from now until the day that we die whether his death was in vain or not in vain, and whether the ideal of the movement was in some sense in concert. But the ideal of preserving his life which I think was very much worth preserving – Ruth wants to say something.
RT: I was saying that we were not in the position to decide one way or the other. That was a matter of fate and we accepted the results of that and interpreted them. I mean, we are not, and we did not put ourselves in a position to decide for Bruce.
COHEN: Well, yes, but – I mean, there’s more to it than that because in a sense we helped to decide what would happen to him, even though – you know, tracing responsibility is a very tenuous business. We did help to decide what happened to him, and that’s what we all felt for – and I think probably still feel to a certain extent.
RPW: That’s isn’t a parallel it seems to me to the question I proposed (talking in background) – How would you respond, Mr. Cohen, if you had the power to put Muirdahl’s [Myrdal’s] program into operation and the certitude that it would bring on a decent integrated society?
COHEN: Well, my response is really the same as Ruth’s, that – perhaps I’m a bit more cynical than she is, I don’t know. Certainly in the abstract if you gave anyone a chance to think about this they would probably say, well, if I had the power in that situation to achieve the Utopia that you say I have the power to achieve –
RPW: At that price.
COHEN: At the price of money, I think probably most people would say, well take your damned money and give me the Utopia. But there’s a point that Ruth is making that that is not the way things happen.
RPW: That’s not the question I’m asking you. I’m asking you what resistance – if you feel resistance how much resistance do you feel to it?
COHEN: Well, it seems to me that most people, especially people in the movement, would feel a deep resistance to that kind of a massive compromise of their ideals. The reason I suggested the example of Bruce Klentner [Klunder] was that this is precisely what happens in any social movement. You have one foot in society and you have one foot very much outside of it on a purely moral level, and you can’t resolve that kind of situation. It’s like assuming you can resolve any serious moral dilemma. What you do is the best you can.
RPW: Can you solve anything on abstract moral ground – ever? Except your suicide.
COHEN: I don’t think you even solve your suicide on abstract moral grounds, to tell you the truth, but again I think that’s a rather arbitrary way of putting it. You don’t solve anything on abstract moral grounds because this is not an abstract moral world, but your abstract moral grounds have a real vitalizing –
(end of tape)Collapse
TAPE 4 Searchable TextCollapse
ROBERT PENN WARREN RUTH TURNER TAPE #4
RPW: This is Tape #4 of a conversation with Miss Ruth Turner, Cleveland, May 7. Back to Muirdahl [Myrdal] and his plan for an ideal reconstruction of the south after the Civil War, you said you would not accept even a guaranteed success of the plan, the compensation of the slaveholders for the emancipation or to landholders for expropriated land. Is that right?
RT: I said, as I recall it, that it was a painful decision to make, and of course by token of my experience here in the movement, such assurances when delivered by certain people mean little. But given the question as put, I guess I would painfully make the decision to compensate. In other words, there are certain times when I will compromise with an ideal for the sake of another.
RPW: Isn’t this a little bit like saying, I will compromise my ideal for the sake of achieving my ideal?
RT: Um-hm. It’s a real contradiction. In fact, involvement in the movment itself presents many such contradictions.
RPW: Could you explain that, please?
RT: Yes. I believe we talked about it briefly before, the fact that in the recent school demonstrations at the sites, we were put in the position of saying that – well, it’s not an exact parallel now, but there is a compromise in ideal by saying that you’re ready to sacrifice human life for the sake of preserving human life. And that was in a sense what we had said at the outset, and it’s exactly what happened. That is a kind of contradiction which you find yourself, that the immediate sacrifice is going to bring about something that goes beyond the immediate. But in the process you are giving up something valuable.
RPW: Some people I have put this Muirdahl [Myrdal] question to have felt actually insulted by it. Did you feel insulted by it?
RT: No, not insulted by it. I think it raises some very basic questions, the kinds of questions that we grapple with really daily in the movement. Because this is not a cut and dried black and white, it’s a matter of constant adjustment and readjustment, a matter of feeling at home with contradictions. And not too many people do that easily. I don’t.
RPW: Let me change the topic a little bit. Going back to the question of leadership, in all historical situations of mass movements or revolutionary tendencies, there is a kind of tendency to overreaching. Do you see this process now going on in the problem of Negro leadership – an overreaching process in these bids for power or for policy?
RT: In a sense yes. I note in a particular someone like Malcolm X, who, well, actually, not really saying anything so very basically different from what we are – he’s adding the dimension of the use of violence if all else fails, and in a sense of course has an appeal to an audience which is beset with frustrations, as Negroes are.
RPW: You were saying that Malcolm X is an example of the overreaching process.
RT: Well, let me say that the solutions he spells out are attractive solutions. They are solutions to which I respond in moments of real depression. *
RPW: Excuse me. This includes the racial separation as part of the policy – his policy you approve?
RT: No, I’m talking about the solution that he spelled out in Cleveland not too long ago, which was ballots versus bullets, or the ballot or the bullet, making the point that if the ballot didn’t work pretty soon that the bullet would follow.
RPW: Will the bullet work?
RT: Well, let me say that those of us who are involved in organizing a community – at least I feel heavy responsibility to that community and I feel that any time I organize around the bullet phase I’m asking for something that can approach mass extermination and therefore is a much too risky business for me to try to organize anybody around – I think that it is courting disaster.
RPW: This is one of those wild sort of speculative questions – if you could by an act of will without having to watch the consequences – no pain – exterminate all white citizens of the U.S.A., would you do it?
RT: No, I am – I pride myself on being a humanitarian. I would not want to resort to the methods that inhumane people use.
RPW: This wouldn’t be inhumane. They would die like that, without ever knowing it, simultaneously.
RT: Well, you still have human problems left. I don’t think that there is any “like that” solution to the problem of living on earth with people of different kinds of temperaments and what have you.
RPW: Suppose you could get rid of – another hypothetical question – like you stipulated, all be gone like that – quick – with a finger. Would you do it?
RT: No. Because they will have existed, and you can’t wipe the memory or the fact that they had existed out of a lot of people’s minds. You would have to cope with that for the rest of your life, and I think that would present as I think Germany is in the process of discovering, some very basic and real questions and problems to exterminating a people or a group of people doesn’t solve it. It doesn’t solve the basic human problem of man having to live with man, and in fact the very fact that you use that kind of method complicates the problem of living together.
RPW: Do you see Mr. Bronson as an example of the overreach in the power bid or the policy bid?
RT: That Bronson who was involved in the stall-ins? I think – getting back to a point we raised before, any effective and – I hate to use the word responsible because it’s so misused, but any effective leader, any committed and dedicated leader has got to have his foot with the community at the same time he’s making a step ahead of them. And if you are not making and taking pains to keep in touch with the community every step along the way, I think
* Use in Malcolm X section written above this section.
you’re overreaching them.
RPW: What about the kind of touch with the white community. What relation is that – do you really have to that? Is there some problem here too?
RT: You mean in terms of keeping in touch with them? Yes. Clearly there is a problem with that. But the fact is that we do have a community to which we respond and which responds to us. We can’t expect to bring the whole community along at the same time, because we’re all at different levels of awareness and different experience development. So that as long as we are in touch with a community I feel as though we’re still fulfilling our obligations as leaders. If we reach the point where we no longer speak to any or speak for any or with any, then I think we are no longer leaders that I would like to call myself.
RPW: Do you distinguish between two kinds of demonstrations, say those of general dissatisfaction and those with specific targets or objectives?
RT: Yes, I imagine there are different – yes, there are probably those two different kinds of demonstrations.
RPW: Would you say one is legitimate and the other isn’t?
RT: No, I would never make that distinction. I think we’d have to evaluate each demonstration on its own face.
RPW: The random expression of feeling is potentially as useful as the channelized piloted demonstration – is that it?
RT: Let me say in terms of bringing about change, clearly the constructive and targeted and channeled demonstration aims at something, is perhaps more useful. The random demonstration of feeling, however, may convince in those communities where the power structure of the leaders are not convinced, the intensity of the feeling in the general community about these problems.
RPW: What do you think of Abraham Lincoln, Miss Turner?
RT: I believe – I have always wanted to study the history of and the life of Abraham Lincoln because I believe that unfortunately much of that is passed on about him is not true. I in fact have some evidence to that effect, but Lincoln shared in many ways the same prejudices and feelings that his counterparts did.
RPW: If he did, how does that affect your feelings about him and about the March on Washington and the ceremony at his monument?
RT: Well, it means to me that – I take a rather different view of such heroes, so-called. I feel that American history has vastly distorted their position, although I think that he was the man of the time to commit a very important historical act, it’s not really that relevant. How I feel about his personally nevertheless, because I am aware of the distortion that has taken place in the American history books generally, I am sensitive to an overrating of any individual.*
RPW: What do you think of William Lloyd Garrison?
* “Contradiction” handwritten under the last phrase with line drawn to next response.
RT: He’s a man who also performed an important historical function, and I have to evaluate him in terms of the function he performed. I have no
feelings about him as a man except that he did a job and he did it well.
RPW: What view did he take of the Negro after the Civil War, do you know that?
RT: The Negro after the Civil War? I think in terms of what happened during Reconstruction, the fact that many of them attempted at least to begin to take their part in the community, were elected to legislature and some cases –
RPW: I’m sorry – I meant Garrison’s behavior after the Civil War.
RT: Oh, I’m not qualified to comment on that, Mr. Warren.
RPW: What about Robert E. Lee? How do you view him? What kind of an estimate of character would you give us on that?
RT: As I said, I’m not really concerned about my own feelings about a personal man and his personal abilities and qualities. I am concerned about the historical role that he played. Lee’s role was one that I do not respect.
RPW: How do you see his role that you don’t respect?
RT: I think he was a leader in an action which was divisive and destructive. I think that his role as a general of the Confederate Army did not work in the best interests of history, and I have evaluated it as such.
RPW: You’d like a bad man on the right side of history rather than a good man on the wrong side, is that it?
RT: No, I’m not going to say that.
RPW: Well, actually you just said it.
RT: Well, in this particular case –
RPW: Make it general now. Let’s don’t creep out of it.
RT: O.K. I will say that a bad man who performs an important historical function has to be judged on the basis of the function he performed.
RPW: A homicidal maniac in a good cause is more to be admired than a decent idealist who’s backing the wrong horse historically, is that it?
RT: I would say that I’m being not really a historian but not being a novelist or someone concerned with personalities, I would have to look at it in that way.
RPW: Not being concerned with personalities? Well, that means not being concerned with moral values, doesn’t it?
RT: Well, I don’t – you know, you make a distinction here and I’m not going to go along with it, making a distinction between a personality and the role he performs. I think that the personality ahs an effect on the role he performs. In other words, if it had been a bad man who was in Lincoln’s position he couldn’t have performed the role that Lincoln did. The two are very much connected.
RPW: Why couldn’t he have signed a declaration – the emancipation proclamation as a war measure? Many bad men went along with it.
RT: Well, let me put it this way. If a Hitler had been sitting in Lincoln’s seat, Hitler with his own particular and peculiar psychological makeup, even in view of the fact that that was the need of the time, Hitler may not have signed it.
RPW: He might no – no. But let’s assume that he would have. There’s a reasonable and effective war measure.
RT: Then I’d also have to evaluate the other things that Hitler did. I’m not only talking about a man as he exhibits himself in one particular act. I mean, his time on earth is going to be – he’s going to do a lot of things wrong, you see. But I am judging the important acts in terms of their effect on history.
RPW: What about Thomas Jefferson. How do you feel about him? He was a slaveholder.
RT: He was, but he also performed a very important historical function. I think Thomas Jefferson was a wise man. Again, like Lincoln, he shared many of the prejudices and attitudes of his time. I am concerned primarily at this point, though, with his historical function and the effect he had on the process, realizing that he was one of many who shared the same attitudes.
RPW: If he were abandoning moral absolutes and going into matters of historical relativity, aren’t we?
RT: Yes, in a sense we are. Although I’m still not leaving out the role of goodness and badness as it relates to the way a man carries out his historical function.
RPW: Most revolutions – well, all revolutions I guess in the past have been directed toward the liquidation of a class or regime, haven’t they?
RT: Yes, I think that’s right.
RPW: If the Negro revolution is a revolution, what’ s it liquidating?
RT: I think it’s liquidating something quite different, and I think that’s why this is quite different kind of revolution. It’s liquidating injustices. I don’t think those injustices are carried necessarily by a particular class of people in this country. I think, although it is quite true that the wealthy are in control, I don’t think the problems to be solved are in liquidating the wealthy, but I may say the class of people who are now in a position of power. We’re talking more about basic and fundamental changes that have to take place throughout the fabric of our society. That goes beyond class.
RPW: It’s sometimes said that hate and hope are the great motive powers of social change. What about that in relation to the present situation?
RT: Hate and hope? I would say that in the particular movement in which I am involved, hate doesn’t have much function. Hope does. Despair does. If you’re acting on despair with hope – acting on frustration with hope. None of us really have time to hate. It’s too all-consuming. Similarly, we don’t have time to love, not in any intense personal kind of way.
RPW: Do you mean in the ordinary sense of personal affections?
RT: That’s right. Except as they develop through a working relationship. We’re talking about another level here - perhaps, using the Christian phrase – talking about something that really isn’t as intense as hate and love as we usually use those words.
RPW: How far do you follow Dr. King – Martin Luther King’s view of the philosophy of nonviolence?
RT: I’m not a committed pacifist, nor do I adopt nonviolence as a philosophy of life. I will not carry it no matter what. I feel that I – adopt nonviolence presently as a tactical necessary philosophy, but I will not take it as an ultimate and an absolute.
RPW: Do you think Dr. King’s influence in the north is now waning?
RT: I do. I do because I do not feel he addressed himself to the problems, the basic problems that northerners in a sense are in a better position to grapple with than southerners.
RPW: Do you feel King is socially retarded, is that it?
RT: No, I just think he is not politically aware and sensitive.
RPW: Would this fact bring the result the living in a more primitive social order – is that the point?
RT: No, this fact being the result of having to cope with such basic problems as the more important general implications of that problems escape you. Not being able to see the forest for the trees. Also, the certain personality makeup – I don’t think he’s a politician, nor do I think he thinks like one. I think you have to, because we are playing in a sense a game of power, and we have to understand the dimensions and implications of it.*
RPW: What kind of power does a Negro have to negotiate from? Will you explain that to me please?
*But she says …… written in margin. “Use – King section” handwritten at top of this section.
RT: I think he has certain amount of political power to use in a balance of power kind of way. I think he has a great amount of economic power, - the power of withdrawal, for example – not in a sense of building an empire, but withdrawing trade from those agencies that don’t cooperate. He has a great moral power, because the Negro is the only group which is raising the real moral questions of our time.
RPW: Well, now we are back to the element of the struggle which Dr. King places his emphasis on, aren’t we? The moral power is the same as his theory, isn’t it?
RT: Yes, except that I’m looking at it in a different kind of way. I’m not saying that the Negro should be a suffering servant for an American conscience.
RPW: Does King say that?
RT: I feel that he does. I feel that we have to also be aware of the fact that the American conscience has become quite deadened by insensitivity and by luxury in many instances. And we have to be prepared to use other methods to reach the American –
RPW: Where in the world do you find the conscience, in what country or group, of the kind you admire?
RT: Nowhere that I know of. I think perhaps in certain of the socialist countries, like Sweden, there’s something more – something of a better awareness of the general wellbeing; that may be true in England – I don’t know – I haven’t been there. It’s not true in Germany. I don’t know if there’s any place in the world, but I don’t really make my decisions or implement any ideals on the basis of who else does it.
RPW: Some people do, of course. They create a Never-Never land, say it’s some Country X or Y or something. One more question. The tendency of any mass movement or revolutionary movement is to concentrate leadership finally in the man, the one, the leader. Do you see that movement going on now, in the movement toward a concentration of leadership, a concentration of power or the possibility of that?
RT: No. On the contrary, I see a proliferation of power and leadership, and I think that is the real – one of the healthiest signs of this movement, that they are people all over the place who are merging as leaders and I think as long as that’s the case then we have something very creative and positive here. I really would dread to see the day when that power and that leadership is located in one person.
RPW: Take the opposite situation, where it’s totally diffused. Where is that – well, to use a hideous word, responsibility – located?
RT: Well, I think that we can’t have that situation either, and I think every man is a leader, and I think that we have to have leaders in constituencies. I’m saying that we need a lot of constituencies or we need more than one spokesman for a community. Responsibility lies in accountability to a constituency. It lies in having somebody to whom you return with your decision.
RPW: How does responsibility relate to some vision of society?
RT: How does it relate to vision of society?
RPW: A vision of what can be had – your ideal city?
RT: Well, it seems to me that I can best make the example of politics as I’d like to see them. This ideal of responsibility as I just outlined it, accountability to a group of people, it seems to me that many of the problems of our politics today is that the leaders are not responsible and do not feel responsible to anyone beside themselves and their own interest. I would like to see the kind of society where those who are chosen for leadership are responsibility for those who have chosen them and feel responsible to their needs, and I feel that only by doing this do we have anything that approaches a democracy. Only by eliminating that personal selfish motive that creeps into so many leaders do we establish the kind of society that I think I’ll feel happy and secure in.
RPW: This is the end of the conversation with Miss Ruth Turner – end- end - end – no more.
(end of tape)Collapse