Wright discusses the civil rights movement in Nashville and how it is different from movements in the North and the “deep” South. He discusses the involvement of students and faculty at Fisk University with the civil rights movement, and he recalls that faculty members attended the March on Washington in 1963. He explains his views on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington. Wright laments the lack of knowledge about the history of the civil rights movement among young black men and women. Wright also gives some information about the development of his own views and philosophies by describing the role of his grandmother, a former slave, in his early life.
Dr. Stephen J. Wright (1910-1996) was the son of a physician in Dillon, South Carolina. He received his doctoral degree from New York University in 1942. He served as president of Fisk University from 1957 through 1966. He was the second African American to serve in this position at Fisk University. He also served as an expert witness in many desegregation cases, including Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Following his retirement from Fisk in 1966, Wright was elected president of the United Negro College Fund.
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.]
DR. STEPHEN WRIGHT
Q: You were about to say that the diversity in Negro leadership began at one time?
A: I think it can be dated, with the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915. He was the last of the Negro leaders in the sense of a towering figure, who lifted the hopes for the great majority of Negroes in the United States. Before he died, however, he was being challenged for that leadership vigorously by DuBois, as you doubtless know the story. And since his death there has not been in my judgment any single person but a whole multiplicity of people who led in little ways, some in big ways, but no one speaks for the whole group.
Q: There’s no official figure in other words?
A: That’s right.
Q: Can you leave this question for the moment, Dr. Wright, we hear the phrase the New Negro, I’m not talking about the one of Langston Hughes, that’s about 20 years ago, I mean the now current “New Negro”. This question gets very peculiar answers some time. What is the origin of this, not phrase, but the phenomenon behind the phrase?
A: I realize that there is a great deal of disagreement as to whether there is a New Negro, I’m on record, however, as saying that there is one.
Q: I read it.
A: And I believe that there are many new things about the policies, the aspirations, the methods, the sense of success deriving from the efforts thus far, which in effect, has created a New Negro, a Negro dissatisfied in much deeper ways, and I should say more volatile ways, more willing to do something about it.
Q: How would you define this, could you give us more of a profile?
A: I think first of all, he tends to be young, he tends to be the product of a great deal of background, of effort, he has the belief that he can change the pattern that characterized the Negro for a hundred years.
Q: He’s changed the conception of himself ________
A: He has a very marked change of self. As you doubtless know, if you go back far enough, it’s hard to find Negroes who were really self-confident, who believed that they could succeed, that they could create the kind of climate, in which they could achieve, who felt that they could do something about the ________, and I think there is a very deep feeling among Negroes, particularly, the younger ________. They can change, and that they are willing to undergo such efforts, hardships, that may be involved.
Q: How much of this penetrates to the mass of Negroes, _______ how deep does it penetrate the mass of people? It varies no doubt from one part of the country to the other.
A: Really does, but I think that it has to penetrate the masses of Negroes. They’re not as philosophical about it, but I think that the March on Washington is one dramatic example of ________ I’m sure you know, were not the elite. I have seen over the southern ________ over the past five, ten years, many ________ are not _______ become the background of the ________ This has been proved in the court cases, ________ never ________ (Inaudible) And it seems ________ people who were there, who were interested, who were the leaders, in addition to being ________.
Q: Let’s take the other side of that for a moment. There is opposition to a degree anyway to integration movement or civil rights movement, from certain vested interests among Negroes. ________ business organization in St. Louis -- integration set back the business 20 years. Things like that. And there’s various other ________, and even the withdrawal to a degree from civil rights movement, of the prosperous ________ to a degree. Is this changing?
A: I think it is. And I think it is for the very reason ________ it’s gonna be almost impossible for Negroes who have a vested interest in segregation, to maintain their position, because they’re gonna be ostracized in the process. I think it’s also a myth that such integration has occurred ________ this is not true. One example. The Negro insurance company is better off now than it’s ever before. It’s better, I think, because very many more Negroes are able to buy insurance than were ever able to buy before. Buy great amounts than ever before. The Negro who own businesses by virtue of the improved economic ________ serve more. ________
Q: In the last few years in Nashville, has there been a change ________ withdrawn Negro.
A: I better put it this way. There is involvement by the most successful Negroes, on the basis of any criterion I know, than there has been at any time for which I have personal ________. And this seems particularly true over the past four years. I’m sure you have learned through your interviews here, in Nashville, of the involvement of the ________
One afternoon, we had 27 people in jail, and within an hour, one physician raised $5000 bond for ________ people. I remember ________ Negroes posted bond of $25,000.00
Q: That’s on the record.
A: That’s on the record, and this money came, in large measure, from Negroes who had the money. Put it up for security.
Q: In some cities the doctors have been notably uninvolved. They are deeply involved here. I was wondering why the difference?
A: Nashville is a little bit different in a lot of ways. Educationally, as you may know. And many of the doctors are connected ________ very high, their involvement in many activities. I can speak with too much authority with respect to other communities and doctors per se.
Q: In general, it’s said by word of mouth and people I talk to, and in print, that academic discussion ________ withdrawal from civil rights movement ________
A: I think this is more true in the state-supported ________ for obvious reasons. The ________ is one thing. Perhaps the dominant thing. Fear of reprisals with respect to appropriations -- a very real threat. Fear of reprisals with the actual loss of position, a second thing. I think it would be incorrect to say that this is characteristic of the person in education, that is not subject ________ The public school teacher obviously has to walk the ________
Q: What actually I was really thinking about, is not the person who is subject to ________, or being terrorized, I was thinking of something a little bit ________ a refusal to be involved on some -- yearning for respectability. Some yearning, for, you know, keeping your hand ________ to the world.
A: I don’t think this is true among the Negro people that I know personally.
Q: A lot of white people, though.
A: Well, I think that’s a different situation which I’ll comment on later. But ________ in the March on Washington. There were three or four of our faculty there. Our faculty here, for instance, which was published in all the papers. This is only one faculty. There were any numbers of teachers who have walked the picket line, some from the state colleges, that I know, as a matter of fact, and I can’t think of a single college community, where there has been a sit-in or demonstration where the Negro teacher, particularly the college teacher, has not been involved, and this has been true even in some of the state colleges in the south. Now for a member of a white faculty, I think the problem is a little bit different. Different at least in this respect. There is a prestige quality where Negro is concerned, associated with his involvement. There is approbation from the group of which he is a part, that goes to him. I think that I’m, I think I’m right, in assuming that there very well may be, disapprobation for white people, who get deeply involved, because this is not a cause, that has either social or ________ rewards for its involvement of white people, in the southern ________. I think that it is likely to be looked upon as a little odd. There are some who are courageous enough to do it, and I’m not ________, but this is still not going to move him forward in his profession, and it may have a very dangerous, whether these dangers are the kind that are direct or not. I wonder if I’m clear?
Q: Yes, I think you’ve cleared it up. Mr. ________ seems to be
A: He’s a very unusual person. I’ve heard Mr. ________ speak on two different occasions. He’s eloquent, courageous, and I think, in most of the instances that I’ve heard him speak, he’s been correct. But you can’t find a dozen ________ in the southern region who ________.
Q: That leaves this notion. James Baldwin writes in his last book, this is almost a quote -- the southern mob ________ of those best qualified to speak the truth, that is, those who are actually involved in the civil rights struggle in the south. The southern mob is not an expression of the will of the white majority ________ moral vacuum. How do you find that notion?
A: I’m not sure I understand perfectly.
Q: The southern mob, the people, who punch the pickets, and who get around to Little Rock, and New Orleans, and do not express the will of the southern white majority. The mob exists, in a moral vacuum. That’s
A: Yes, I’d rather say it differently. That’s -- from The Fire Next Time -- I don’t think that the mob actually expresses the values of the majority of the south. I couldn’t believe that. But I think there is not a sufficient amount of indignation against that mob, and that the mob is permitted to succeed because there isn’t enough by way of, let me put it this way. There aren’t a sufficient number of people who are willing to stand and be counted with respect to their views. And I think they in a sense, ________ for example, ________ I think she illustrates it clearly and ________ as anyone could. How much ________ This means of course, that there is no restraint upon, or too little restraint upon, the expression of the worst elements in the southern region. It’s only when the expression of that mob, gets to obviously bad points, that the power structure moves in.
In 1957, when integration came to the Nashville public schools, Casper was in this community, and he engaged in a series of the most vitriolic, rabble rousing kinds of activities, you could conceive. Very little condemnation ________. One newspaper in this community condemned ________ one denied. When one of the schools was bombed, the leaders of the city of Nashville, were mobilized over night, and there’s ________
Q: He was jailed.
A: He was jailed and subsequently convicted. But that school need not have been bombed. I doubt very much now, whether a Casper or anyone might ________ come into this community at this particular time, and move around with the favor and silence which characterized that when he first came.
Q: Now tell me this. On the sit-ins and the boycott. Little later. Is it true, that ________ one ________ I’ve heard -- as long as the sit-ins was entirely ________, as long as there was no friction, as long as there were no locking of arms, or locking of doorways, as long as there were no possibility implied of resistance, actual contact, nobody cared. As soon as the mob began to gather, the real friction began, then the authorities would begin to act. Is that roughly the story?
A: I don’t think that is exactly it.
Q: Would you mind telling
A: My version of it?
Q: Your version of it, yes.
A: I think is more nearly the fact. As far as I’m aware, those who were doing the picketing, never entered into any kind of violence at any time. I could be misinformed, but I believe that I am. But I think that when the size of the picketing began to interfere with business, because there was also feared that there might be violence, that the authorities moved in. Of course, I don’t think that there ever needed to be such violence as did occur in the city of Nashville, because I don’t think that the police were seriously inclined to protect the students, from the reprisals of those who resented their picketing.
Q: ________ I know there was a lot of picketing and so forth, I should know, ________ police force on ________
A: That I don’t know.
Q: ________ in action. Some police try to do an honest, job, and others actually encourage.
A: I would be greatly surprised if that had not been the case. Because the Nashville police, basically, I think is a very decent police force, and if there weren’t those who were very much interested in doing their duty, and as offices, to prevail on peace, I should be very much surprised. But when an order came to arrest these students, I don’t think that the police officer had any alternative. It was a direct order.
Q: He had no choice there. I’m thinking of protecting the students from assault by the crowd, the white crowd.
A: Now some did make an effort to do this, and some did not.
Q: That’s the point I’m getting at.
A: That’s right.
Q: In the attitude of the actual police force. The question of where they
A: Incidentally I issued a statement that followed the first mass arrests of students, and I was disturbed in that statement, that there had not been ________ of the police. I’ll have to show you a copy of that statement.
Q: I’d like to have a copy of that statement, I have seen it, but I haven’t got a copy of it. I had a newspaper report, I’d seen a newspaper ________. The question behind all of this, I suppose, is what point is the threat of violence, evoke remedial action upon the white community? At what point, will they step in and move towards the ________. Now in Jackson, Miss., now some of the people there, there were white people involved, in the civil rights movement, some who were not involved, ________ in town, and some of the Negroes have said this, that no one can solve this, short of the big ________ committee.
A: I don’t believe that.
Q: ________ you have to have a ________ collision, before there can be a resolution.
A: I think this stems solely from the failure on the part of the group and the authorities to exercise their responsibility as elected officers of all the people. There hasn’t been a single incident of which I have any knowledge, over these past four or five years, in which a person in power has said, there isn’t gonna be any violence in this community. It’s going to be the responsibility of the police force of this community to ________ where any violence occurs. And the moment the authorities have spoken ________ the violence has disappeared.
Q: That’s true. But is it true of Jackson, Miss.?
A: And if it is not true in Jackson, Miss., then my first point holds. That this is a responsibility which revolves upon the officers of the community, the leaders of the community, and if they want to use the power to keep ________, then they will. I don’t care if it’s Jackson, Miss., or any other town. I think this is the point.
Q: You mean, the threat of violence against the demonstrators,
A: Is frequently used as a method of control,
Q: It is indeed.
A: A method of reprisal, and to argue, as some of the governors of the deep south do argue, that there is going to be violence, if this occurs, is merely an invitation to it. The moment the governor says, that I am going to maintain law and order, so long as any demonstration are conducted peacefully, you aren’t going to have any violence. And I don’t believe for one moment, that it is necessary in this country, to have bloodshed to establish the right to ________, this I do not believe. Our minds can go back, 20 years ago, when the trains were segregated, and almost everything that you can think of, was segregated, and so many of the people who thought they, or pretend that they would ________, that none of the things which have now occurred, could occur, but they have, and nobody pays any attention to it. I eat a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, I remember when it was impossible for you to walk with ________ into the white ________ in Atlanta, to send a telegram or to buy a newspaper. If someone wanted to know, couldn’t you move a little faster, or ________, I can remember ________.
Q: There’s a man I know in Nashville, old citizen here, said to me, ________, if this situation were not being exploited for personal reasons or for political reasons, by certain people, it would resolve itself in no time, in Nashville. He went on to say that after the violence was over, and the tensions were over, that ________ white and Negro, was when it’s over.
A: I don’t believe any of these problems solves themselves.
Q: Nothing solves itself.
A: I think that social change occurs, because people make it change, and the beautiful about a democracy, is that it provides the means, I think, by which it can be done, without revolution ________. But it doesn’t happen unless someone puts pressure somewhere. The pressure can be political, by means of the vote. It can be economic, it can be because of law, it can be sometimes, not sometimes, but particularly in these times, by demonstrations, but change is response to pressure, however it is conceived. And the more intelligent the pressure is applied, the more widespread or the more effectively it is applied, the greater is likely to be the response to it. And every single one of the, I shouldn’t say every single one, because in something, when the pressure was anticipated, and changes were effected. But in a sense, even the anticipation of pressure, is the use of pressure.
Q: Sure. As a matter of non-violence, can pressure be applied, I attended the conference of nonviolence at Howard University last November, and I was struck by the temper among a great many people there, refuting the approach associated with Martin Luther King. Talk of the brinkmanship of violence, disruption of social organization like ________ things like that; ________ strikes, paralyzing the community; or even violence short of legal. As ________ to be pursued. And the prediction freely made by many people, that if the civil rights bill is not passed, the ________ back on the streets. Farmer said -- if you take a ________. . But it was a very strong ________ far far in the direction of not nonviolence actions. This was a big body. ________ makes the difference. But this opinion is strongly ________ and one I encounter in other places. Louisiana.
A: Mr. Warren: I believe myself, that in every activity of this kind, that you apply no more pressure than is necessary. ________ _______ ________ in a sense. You don’t use a cannon til ________. I’m a great believer in exhausting reasonable procedures, before any kind of drastic pressure, takes place, or is applied. I think if we look at, or examine, every breakthrough that I can recall, there’s been a variety of differences in the amount of pressure that was needed to be applied. I have no illusion but that the great ________ in Mississippi, Alabama, sections of Georgia and Louisiana, are going to be difficult. That it’s going to take a longer time, it’s gonna take a greater variety of pressure, but I have no doubts about the outcome, and I think all of them can be done short of, violence. You doubtless know that there has been a voter education project in the southern region.
Q: Yes, I’m acquainted with that.
A: That it has begun to make a difference, already, in a number of communities. The going is roughest in Louisiana, and I would suggest that if you have the time, that you talk to Wiley ________, the director of that
Q: I haven’t talked with him yet, I talked with people like ________ Moore, and Robert Moses, and people working ________
A: That’s right. But the ________ perspectives, I think you would greatly benefit from ________
Q: Well, he’s on my list, and I will try to see him.
A: Don’t miss him. He’s the ________ of the Southern Negro Council.
Q: Yes, and of course, they’ve been very helpful.
A: Well, they’re as knowledgeable as any group that you can find, and you will find the ________ of ________ Council, in my opinion, a factual group, a sober group, a knowledgeable group, and you can find, I suspect, more authenticated information from an office like this, than you can find anywhere.
Q: Let me try a quotation from Dr. Kenneth Clark on you.
A: I know Ken.
Q: I don’t know him yet, I hope to soon. This is in relation to Dr. King. You may know this passage. Since you can’t read my writing.
A: I might be able to.
Q: On the surface, but I should like to have you comment, on Dr. Kenneth Clark’s remarks on Dr. King’s philosophy. What you said before
A: I hope I can say it as I said before, but in essence it will be the same. I was saying that on the same point of the psychology of the human being, that I had to respect Dr. Clark’s position because it is not in the nature of man, or in the interest of man, to put it that way, to be unresponsive to mistreatment. On the other hand, I very deeply believe that the human spirit can be inspired to reach very great heights. And I think a man has to decide for himself, where his value really lies. If the cause for which he works is big enough, then whether the thing that happens to him as he strives to achieve that cause, means damage to him, he forgets. I also said that what King is preaching is absolutely consistent with the whole idea of the Christian ethic, and that if you commit yourself to Christianity, you are indeed committed to love your enemy. And if you cannot do this, which is difficult to do, and no one has ever denied that it is difficult to do, you’re not a Christian, in the things that Christ taught, ________, I guess I’d better say ________.
Q: Let me ask another question in connection with that. If you grant it on Christian belief and Christian ethics, that’s one thing. But is there a possibility of granting nonviolence on psychological grounds, as different from the Christian doctrine?
A: I think so, I think it can. Don’t actually know, but I think it can. Just said a moment ago, I think for example, adversity can have different effects upon people. It strengthens, it toughens, in crucible fashion, some men. It destroys others. Some fulfill themselves, through their adoption of nonviolence as a philosophy and a way of life. I’ve seen young people, who for example, come to believe in this, undergo all kinds of things. And those that I’ve had a chance to talk with them in depth, I think are better people, by virtue of this. Here I can speak with some degree of authority as a layman, in terms of what I have seen. I may not have had psychological insights of sufficient depth, in the neurotic effects on people. But some of the young people have developed poise, they have decided for the first time in their lives, that something worthwhile is worth sacrificing for, and sacrificing in personal terms, for. Is that clear?
Q: Very clear. Do you distinguish this sort of justification, the Christian on the one hand, then the psychological justification for the nonviolence, from the tactical use of nonviolence?
A: Oh yes, yes I do. The tactical use of nonviolence, has victories as its objectives. At least I think so. And those who advocate it as a tactic, may do it without reference either to Christian or ________or to the personal values to be derived from it. It becomes an instrument, in the same way that voting
Q: Or violence might
A: Or violence, exactly, might be an instrument. And I have the feeling that this is a part of the use to which it is being put. I don’t, I’m not objecting to that, I’m recognizing it as a fact.
Q: No, there’s no objection to it. As Dr. Abernathy said in conversation with several people, one asked him a question, and he said -- well, I think that we, we Negroes in the south, are really nonviolent on the grounds of the Christian ethic and -- he gave a slow grin and said -- besides, the white folks have more guns.
A: Very direct.
Q: This leads to another point, about Dr. King. Several people, including again Dr. Clark, have said that Dr. King is admired by the white population, because he’s lulled them into a false sense of security. This is a paraphrase, it’s not a quote. They like to think of the Negro as nonviolent, it lulls their fears. He thinks, well, it’s gonna be alright after all. There won’t be much trouble. How much of that do you think is true?
A: I don’t see how any white person could be lulled into a sense of complacency by this.
Q: I don’t either, but I
A: King is a master at the metaphor, he is gifted in my own judgment with the ability to the clear conscience. He’s also gifted with the ability to create an issue in the community, and bring it to a point where resolutions almost have to take place, and if I were a southern white segregationist, I would be more afraid of King, for one thing, than almost any type of Negro leader.
Q: Do you think that it’s actually been a shock to the conscience of white people, from King? How much do you think this is an important point?
A: I, it’s difficult to say. Probably shock is too strong a term. But I think he has sensitized the conscience of many Americans, who, white Americans, who had never been confronted personally with what is involved, and I think that a part of the response that King generates in white people, derives from this. I think it is difficult for a white Christian, I’m speaking of one reasonably well educated, to completely reject the logic of King.
Q: You’re saying then, by extension, that there’s a fundamental split in the soul of the white man on this issue, that can be appealed to, he knows somewhere that if submitted to the notion of justice in terms of political instrument, like the Declaration of Independence, ________ commit him in Christian terms, in so far as he has lived with that heritage, to something which segregate violates. And he’s living in ________ of a split.
A: I think this is correct, and I think that what King does, is to make untenable the reservation which he has, with respect to the full application of his Christian belief and his democratic belief.
Q: Tell me something else, speaking of splits, I encountered this notion when I was reading DuBois many many years ago -- the split in the Negro psyche, has many formulations, but I’ll paraphrase it as best as I can, from DuBois to others: on the one hand, the pull toward the Negro tradition, ________ Africa, standing behind the American Negro, the pull toward a cultural identity in terms of Negroness, ________ for the exclusive, based on the sense of race; whatever race means. Or in contemporary terms, Africa seems to be reorganized in national states, and tends ________ Negro culture or cultures, the sense of Negritude, these things -- always the one pull on one side. Or Black Muslim belief, still on that side. On the other hand, the impulse is to move into the western tradition, the western culture, of the western living, in Europe and America, and in the end by integration, perhaps to lose the Negro identity entirely. Absorbed into a cultural and biological ________ with the identity gone. These two impulses. Now does the problem, in your observation, or in your thinking, to some it is a fundamental problem, to some it’s no problem at all. How do you feel about it?
A: This is a matter of interest to you. I think I read almost everything that Dr. DuBois wrote, until he became a very old man. He’s a graduate of Fisk University. I think the most universal urge of American Negroes, is to become identified completely with the total culture, the total aspiration, the total values, of this country. You’re not so much aware of that as you are, until, you visit an African country as I have, there’ve been in the history of Negroes in this country, of course, splits that would go in other directions. But if you talk to almost any sample of Negroes, of whatever level, all across the board, I think without any doubt, this is what you will find, to be the dominant motif, the dominant mystique -- and that the exception ___the other multiple aspirations.
Q: Now here is something else. It may be a verbal difficulty, though apparently to some people, it’s not merely verbal. Does this desire to participate in the American and western European cultural tradition to the fullest extent. What does this mean about the sense of Negro identify, and even in the new sense of personal image, as a Negro, see what I’m getting at?
A: Yes. Now
Q: How do you put these things together?
A: This is a little more difficult and more subtle question / I’m by no means sure that the subculture, is going to survive or that there is any really, how would I put it to you, strong feeling on the part of the great majority of the people, to see to it that it survives. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. When I grew up as a boy, there was a great deal more emphasis upon being a Negro than there is now. I remember in school, we sang almost every day and so frequently, ________, this Lift Every Voice and Sing, James Weldon Johnson. A great deal of emphasis upon the history of Negroes, the heroes of the struggle. I can talk to typical college students here at Fisk University right now, and very many of them have no knowledge or very little knowledge of who the people were, who have been responsible for moving the group ahead, as it has been moved. And unless something concrete and systemic is done, there’s gonna be less of this carried forward. I talked to four of our youngsters who went to Scandinavia last summer, and one of the things we thought that they should be conversant with, the history ________ who some of the dominant writers are, who, what the differences are between the Urban League, N.A.A.C.P., and CORE, what have you, who the people were, who were the antecedents of these people. You would have been surprised at how little they knew about this. Now that doesn’t mean, though, let me just add one other thing, and I’m really raising ________ to the extent, I think, that the barriers, the walls of segregation now, are kept tight, and there is an ingrown, ________ to the extent that this is done, will be there a continuation of this sense of identity, the Negroness, as you said, but as these walls
Q: Continue on, with the pressure of segregation.
A: That’s right, but as these pressures weaken, there is going to be, in my opinion, less and less and less of this. Now that doesn’t mean, that to the extent, well this is a ________ of everybody you mentioned. This is the condition I have about it.
Q: Well, how does that relate, and I certainly don’t have any notion about it, to the idea which is very current now, that the “New Negro”, that the cutting edge of the civil rights movement among Negroes, is based on any new conceptions of the self as Negro, identity, as the Negro identity, as opposed to the old notion of the white stereotype, of the Negro?
A: I don’t believe that there’s a great deal of credence to this. I have the feeling that what the Negroes, particularly, young ones now, I’m thinking of, want above everything else, is to be an American citizen, with the opportunity to look with real hope and expectation, to the right to be one in all respects. To live his life, as he sees it, and to have the opportunity to do so. This, to me, is what I see among them. I don’t get this feeling, and I think if you just had the time, it would be wonderful if you talked to some of our young people.
Q: I would like very much to, and I want to, I want to come back, I’ve been seeing a good many college students, and my time got out of hand here, and I would like nothing better than to do that.
A: Because what you are getting from me, is an interpretation of what I think I sense. But I think they would be able to give you what they themselves feel, what they themselves are aspiring to. You can talk to them, and as these pressures today in a particular place, are moved
Q: You mean a social
A: I mean a racial place.
Q: Yes, social and racial.
A: Right. They behave, and their aspirations reach without reference to identity, see, being a Negro doesn’t involve a religion, in the sense that the religion involved among Jews. There is something there that ties them to their religion and the heritage, which I think is deeper than anything that is characterized in Negroes in America, because you can find them identified with almost every religious denomination in this country, and they know more, they know more of their aspirations, they come to the schools to ________ using the same textbooks, and the same newspapers, watch the same television shows, everything that is America, is, has its bearing, its force upon them.
Q: I have talked with several Negroes of high intelligence and education, who said to me, that they have systemically ________ themselves, to abolish the symbolism in the language, and in all life around them, of white values, white as ________ light, and joy, purity, and black as the opposite of these things. Systemic attempt to lift themselves out of this symbolism.
A: If you mean the
END OF TAPE ONE
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.]
Q: Now where were we?
A: Well, you were gonna ask me a new question.
Q: And now I’ve forgotten what it was.
A: Well, we were talking as you may recall, about ________ continuing to be an identity among Negroes.
Q: Yes, my question was this. That over and over again one reads and hears about the cutting edge of the present movement is based on new conception of self, the self as Negro, if that is true, how do we square that with the prospect of the loss of this identity -- the new image of the Negro’s self, as Negroes?
A: Well, in the first place, I don’t believe in a new Negro with an image as Negro. Therefore I have no problem, in reconciling these two views.
Q: But some Negroes do approach this as their own feeling, or as a sociological observation as psychological observation. Some sociologists say this, some ________ say this. Some people talk about themselves. Let me give you individual. When I was at Howard, I told you, in November, a young woman, whose name is Wheeler, really, she’s a Phi Beta Kappa, she’s vital person, fine orator, this young lady, I can’t remember her first name, came on and spoke to 1500 people. Her complexion is, she’s as light as mine, or close to it. I was sitting half way back. She was in the auditorium -- saying I have a great joy, I have a discovery to report to you, I have a great joy. I am black. And she said, look at you and you and you. Your faces are this color -- pointing around, but your hearts are white, your minds are white, you’ve been whitewashed, you’re not black, you don’t have my joy. This brought down the house.
A: This surprises me to some degree.
Q: Swept it like a brush fire.
A: But I believe the daily actions of these people, who responded to that, would support the joy. And you watch every action, the, I think if it were to be, to say it a different way, there is more tendency toward being involved.
Q: You say you’re going to Peru next week?
A: Yes, I am. I’m a member of the Board of Trustees, of the Institute of International Education. And I’m one of the delegates to the Council for High Education of the American Republics, which will be meeting in Peru, from Feb. 23 to Feb. 29 of this year. I’m looking forward to this with a great of enthusiasm. It will be my first opportunity to visit Peru, see something, I hope, of the remainder of the civilization of the Incas. But I mustn’t take this time to be personal.
Q: I want some personal things before we start, I want to come back to matters of personal experience and personal history, in a, but to cut back to the question of the identity as Negro, that is a problem, apparently, to some people, and the thing reported on, as you well know, by psychologists and sociologists. And it’s a key question.
A: Let me make one other comment on it. It’s unreasonable, I think, for children to be born in a culture who are exposed to its every aspects, who have very little, of their own, to become anything other than, a product of that culture. There isn’t enough by way of study devices, techniques, and teaching, resident in the culture in which we are a part, for any long period of time, to maintain the identity of Negroes as Negroes. I’m mindful of the fact that so long as color is a factory in this country, that there will be something which will set people apart, but there will, that will never, I think, be regarded as anything except a barrier, to participation in the culture.
Q: The color is a barrier?
A: That’s right. The culture makes what is striven for, in the example you give, I think, impossible.
Q: I find something abhorring in a way, when I think of the whole world being exactly alike in all ways. Small differences and big differences, yet _______ alike. Difference in all types of personalities. We’re not robots. How can you square this desire for variety of all sorts, with a concept of evening out? Id’ have a world where the variety is there, without the variety being invidious in any way. And personal freedom for personal preferences of all sorts. I suppose, what the people’s personal preferences, you move towards some wiping out of the line anyway.
A: Mr. Warren, this doesn’t bother me, I want to tell you why. In the first place, there are different cultures in the world, that do, as a matter of fact, produce people with very different outlooks on life, and very different senses of values. The children who are reared in those kinds of cultures, are going to inevitably be different from children reared in a culture like the one of which we are a part. That’s one thing. Then there is a concept that John Dewey had, with which I completely concur. And it is that no environment, is identical to any two people.
Q: Even in the same family?
A: Even in the same family. Now there is one other little thing, that is consistent with the thing, I think, that lies at the basis of all of these thing. And that is that to the extent that this world becomes a one world, with instant communication, in the finest means of the term, will differences in the world tend to decrease. So this, in my own view, is a very long way off.
Q: It is a long way off, ________ in my time,
A: And in mine.
Q: In fact, there’s too much variety ________. So I was not concealing an argument for defense of the race, that isn’t my point at all, because
A: No, I certainly didn’t react to it.
Q: I don’t think you did, I just wanted to make that specific. But that’s not the point, because, on that matter, I would have every man’s personal question, how ________ private life, any man’s private life, he can do what he wants to do, _______ business is not mine.
A: This is my own view.
Q: This is always the basis of human individuality and human liberty. Anything less than that, I’m completely against, interfering with personal preferences, association, marriage, anything else.
A: I feel the same way.
Q: That infringes on basic liberties. This, in Jackson Mississippi, I discovered I can’t ride a taxicab with a Negro, without being pulled out by the police, and fined for my having ridden in the taxicab. That’s not a question of say, ________, it’s an infringement on my personal liberties. My personal liberties.
A: That’s right, you’re absolutely correct.
Q: It’s my liberty that they attacked. Not the Negro man sitting in the cab with me. His liberty is being attacked too, but it’s mine I’m concerned with there.
A: That’s right.
Q: First, you have to defend your own.
Q: And I believe this is the key in the whole business. That the white man is being penalized by the system as well as the black man.
A: This is an inevitable consequence.
Q: An inevitable consequence, and that, I think, is the ________ to go after getting the thing, in a way, the white man is being penalized. Let’s change the subject to something else for a moment. We were talking earlier about social process, you talk about the time element in social process of all kinds. I find that when the time element is mentioned, I sometimes encounter sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, ________ concept of time in the process. This is, I read a quotation from a Negro historian on the question of civil rights, and he ________ this matter of social process. And there’s no absolute or immediate solution ever to social process. An immediate.
A: He’s correct.
Q: I read this to
A: He sounds like a sociologist, though.
Q: Yes, a very brilliant young Negro student, a very brilliant guy -- what do you think of that?
Q: Well, where were we again?
A: I’ll try not to be so ________
Q: That’s not the point at all ________ the young man -- here again, the idea of the social process, historical process and the notion of Freedom Now. How do we put these two things together?
A: I think this is the real problem. There has been so much said and done, with respect to the whole question of rights, as related to Negroes, about being sufficient time, and encouragement to look forward to its ultimate solution, without any real reference to program to get it done, that there is an impatience with anybody who says, that this will take time. It has been associated in my own mind, with an intention to do nothing. I think there isn’t a student of the problem in the world, who doesn’t realize that it is going to take time. But there is one other thing, and I think it’s part of the strategy, and that is, in order to get anything moving, you have got to have a NOW approach to it. But this is a starting situation, and not, in my opinion, engaging in the illusion that what is hoped for is going to occur, next ________. In my opening address for our convocation, this fall, I spoke on the topic that I called, Beyond the March on Washington, in which the very point that I’m making now, was made, and I called the attention of the students, to the fact that the problems that confronted the group as Negroes, were going to take a long time, and a great deal of work on the part of very many people, including them, because certain of the things are not gonna happen in our lifetime.
Q: I wonder what relevance this has? I was acquainted once with some Italian partisans just after the war. Life had become nothing to them, because that was over. Does this have much of a dent, do you think, of the young Negro who’s committed deeply to this, five years from now, ten years from now. His vocation is over. Is there some possibility of some casualties there?
A: Only for those who are making civil rights movement a career. And I don’t think any organization in this area ought to make the perpetuation of the organization, a career, the object of their efforts. It is a thing which the organization seeks to achieve. For the overwhelming majority of these youngsters, I see no real danger, because they will go about their life’s work. I think they will be more sensitive citizens, they will know when a problem is important, I think, a great deal better than they would have known before. They will tend to be more active in the political processes in community efforts to get things done, but I don’t believe that this is going to provide any problem for the overwhelming majority of people.
Q: Yes, but for the few causalities that are bound to occur in any
A: In any battle, any struggle, right.
Q: Do you remember, in your life, or reading about, the opposition to the appoint of Judge Parker to the Supreme Court by Hoover, who, I’ve read into the great watershed case, in organizing Negro political pressure, the first time it was ever effective. It was effective, Judge Parker was not confirmed. The attack on Judge Parker was that, as a southerner, he would not be an impartial judge.
A: I remember the case. I didn’t read about, I remember it.
Q: Well, anyway, subsequent events, apparently proved that he was a very impartial and decent judge.
A: That is absolutely correct.
Q: Now, again, with Black.
A: Has been one of the most able jurists, the Court has ever had.
Q: But there was a vast amount of opposition to him, on the grounds he was from Alabama -- he was a Ku Kluxer.
A: Right. I remember that case.
Q: Now those are stereotypes, on the part of Negroes, on the part of certain white people who have liberal views. Do you think, now, if there were such a case, man from Alabama, man from Mississippi, on the Supreme bench, you’d have this automatic stereotyped response?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think there would be a tendency now to look at the man’s record. Just as I think there is going to be a great deal of Negro support for President Johnson. I certainly intend to vote for him. And not only intend to vote for him, but intend to work for him, within the limits of my little time, make my little financial contribution to the ________. I think that there are many southerners who have demonstrated beyond any question that they can be as impartial and fair as any human being. The thing that I wish for myself, as much as I wish for anything in the world, is to be treated as man, and as an individual, and this I hope for, for other people as well as for myself. I think this is becoming to be, a very real part of the Negro attitude.
Q: There’s been a real advance in destroying then, the Negro’s stereotype of the white man, and the white southerner, even in the present moment of this friction and ________
A: There is no question in my mind, for example, I think that Kefauver, in Tennessee, could have run for any office, had he lived.
Q: Yes, yes. And had the Negro vote.
A: And had a large part of the Negro vote, he would have certainly had the Negro vote in Tennessee. And much of the south.
Q: Well, speaking of stereotypes, we know, we know pretty well, what the white stereotype of the Negro is. How would you describe the Negro stereotype of the white man, forgetting southern white, but just white man in general?
A: That’s too big. Too big. I think the Negro tends, I better say, tended, more accurate way to put it, to divide white people generally into two classes. Southern whites. Northern whites. This is not easy, I might also add, because prejudiced human beings, were northerners and some of the most liberal men I’ve ever encountered were southerners.
I think that the stereotype of a white southerner, was one who not only thought of Negroes as being inferior, but who was prepared to support that, by any way, or means at his disposal. ________ ________ the inner conflict, reflected this as you asked the question of Negroes back in 1955, ’56. ________. I think this was in absolute form. The picture, where the southern white person was concerned. I think he thought secondly that the northerner, while not willing to be that devoted to the segregation principle, was a great deal more liberal person, merely by virtue of the place in which he was born and lived. But that didn’t keep the Negro from having some reservations about the overwhelming majority of white people, irrespective of their place of birth. But there was a vast difference in the degree. This would be ______ my answer ______.
Q: I was talking the other day to a very prominent lawyer in a southern city, a Negro, high intelligence and good education, fine education. He’s very active, is an attorney for one of the organizations, with the ________ nonviolence. Identified with that. He said to me, despite everything, I find myself drifting toward the position where no white man seems redeemable. There might be some individuals here and there, but they’re not really ________. He said, I’m almost a Black Muslim, I’m actually reading their literature now.
A: I think it’s nonsense.
Q: He said, I’m forced into it by my experience, in the south, in the last few weeks. It’s against my principles, and against my human values, I’m being forced into it.
A: Well, my own experience is very different. And I don’t want this to sound holier than thou, but I’d like just a second to tell you a little bit about my own background.
Q: I wish you would.
A: I grew up, having been reared in the main, by a grandmother who had been a slave, who had a basic distrust for most white people, I remember one of the things that she told us children on many occasions. Feed all white people with a long spoon. Keep them out of your business. Be polite to them, but stay out of their way, I don’t expect you to bow and scrape. But this is the way our family has to live. And we survived. I went to Hamptom Institute for high school because there wasn’t public schools for Negroes within 150 miles, I finished elementary school.
Q: Where was that?
A: This was in ________ County, North Carolina. And my teachers in that school, in the Academy at the Institute, with a few exceptions, were all white teachers. My first real face to face contact on a day by day basis, with people who were beyond any question, interested in my welfare and teaching, and who did everything they need to do, to inspire me to be a man, to develop a character, to be a good student, and to aspire for a career of service. And they themselves, demonstrated what they were talking about, themselves. I’m sitting here now, in the office of the President of the University, which is a product of that same kind of concern, and I know that almost every one of the major institutions for Negroes and I’m speaking of the private ones, were built by people who believed in them. I worked with them. I worked with them here, interracial faculty, our board is interracial, many of my friends, and this sounds like the old thing, that we hear so much, but I know numbers of white persons as individuals, ________, nothing that has happened in these four years, has shaken my faith. On the contrary, it has confirmed it. And I think that I can document it if it were necessary. The mere fact that so much has been desegregated in the south. There mere fact that the southerners didn’t really put up a fight against the civil rights bill in the House, not a real fight, is in part, an admission that they couldn’t do anything about it, and I think it also represents as one of the men said, ________ that this is a time to look at this problem dispassionately. If I assumed for one moment, that all white people, as he put it, are in this category, I couldn’t say one blessed word, if all white people put me in the same category.
Q: Recently Adam Clayton Powell, talking about the N.A.A.C.P., and Jack Greenberg.
A: No, I worked with Jack Greenberg, in one case, as one of his expert witnesses. And I was one who wrote him a letter and said that he was a superb choice to succeed Thurgood Marshall. I still think so. He’s an able lawyer, and if the N.A.A.C.P. is going to be successful, it’s going to involve people of ________, not in these aspects, but if the aspirations that the Negro minority have, are going to be realized, because the people get concerned, not ________.
Q: In Mississippi I was told by several ________ working with the civil rights movement, Negroes, these are all ________ there’s been real difficulty in getting acceptance of white volunteer workers who came and worked with the Negro group in Mississippi. That they’d had to, be very delicate about this. Several facets flowed into this. One, ________ and another, ordinary envies, jealousies, not of power, but
A: Could be power.
Q: Sometimes power, right. ________ I was thinking beyond that, simply human envy. This man comes, he can go again when he wants to -- I’m stuck. Envy his mobility.
A: I know.
Q: Another thing -- that the attempt of some of these young white college students, or slightly above that age, who have fallen love with the idea of entering into the Negro world. Who appropriate the language, certain attitudes, which are supposedly Negro’s. For instance, the language of jazz, the language of certain exclusive Negro expressions, this has causes a real resistance and a contempt. For these whites, what they are trying to do, move in on us, and ________. A real resistance, and Robert Moses told me, that a man said he’s blow up the table in a conference, right in front two of these people, 15 minutes of blind ________. A real problem.
A: I wonder if I can explain the problem.
Q: I wonder if you can?
A: To the best of my knowledge, no, the movement here hasn’t had a lot of white people in it, but it’s had some. ________ This is a little bit different perhaps in this area, because it’s part of the tradition.
Q: It’s a longer tradition and a longer exposure to this sort of relationship.
A: That’s right. For instance, we’ve had in summer program, ________ 17 white persons ________ right now, from other colleges, and more demands for this than we can supply in numbers. So that our youngsters definitely have not taken ________. I remember one young man I wish I could think of now, who was the most, perhaps the most respected demonstrator among all the ________, because his courage was beyond any ________, and his devotion to the cause was beyond anyone’s ________. He was beaten badly in that Alabama situation. I think this was ________, but this young white boy was seriously beaten. I tried to get him, I said ________, he said --- I made my will. He said, “I’d make out my will before I left here. I know that I am going to run into difficulties. I think I will.” He went. And I didn’t want to ________ or his parents ________.
Q: I suppose the difference between Mississippi, say, and Nashville, is simply a longer exposure, tradition.
A: The differences go deeper than that.
Q: Tell me how.
A: First of all, the educational level is different from ours. You have, well, Tennessee has never been, I don’t think, I’m including two western counties on this, first of all, it’s been a more highly industrialized, more highly metropolitan state. It has had very many more institutions of higher learning. The level of education, I think, has had a lot to do with this. It’s political leaders, and I don’t know whether this is an accident or not, you know more about it than I, has not in the main, built total careers on segregation issues, as has been the case so often in Mississippi politicians. And you cannot preach the hatred, and the segregation in the sense, campaign after campaign after campaign, to semi-literate people, and expect a lot of them not to believe it. They do. Now, there have been very few campaigns in this ________ issue. The last one, that involved the issue, was the gubernatorial, no senatorial campaign, involved Kefauver and ________. And ________ beaten in Memphis, the area from which he comes, this is another, the kind of thing that ________. But the difference I think is serious.
Q: The Memphis paper the other day, he came out with strong editorial supporting the Civil Rights bill. Very strong editorial, after it had been passed in the house. Said it must be passed in the senate now, without delay, or there’ll be very bad trouble. This is a mandate from the people of the United States, and got to be done now. This from the Memphis paper. Some people may say -- well, local politics behind this. Maybe there is. But would this indicate some change?
A: Oh yes, I think perhaps 10 years ago, this would not have been possible. But there’s a great political change going on, in Tennessee now, and Memphis particularly.
Q: You mean the young Negro lawyers active in politics?
A: I mean more than that. Take Tennessee as a whole, for instance. Some 64% of its eligible Negro voters are registered in Tennessee.
Q: As opposed to 3 in Mississippi.
A: I didn’t know it.
Q: 4, maybe, or 5. It’s low.
A: 6, something of that sort. But politicians cannot ignore this, it can make a factor. ________ for instance, ran ________ on the potentiality that lies here and the inevitability of the participation in the ________. Also, I think there is enough statesmanship on the part of editors, in a number of state newspapers, to see that anything else is short sighted politics. Tennessee is going to be a state, as ________ politics. A state where industry can come, with assurance that there is going to be racial peace, and people who as the power structure of the state and the city, who are gonna build good schools, have good relations between the racial groups and the minorities, in other words, it’s a healthy atmosphere, and I think this pays off. For the entire state. There are people now taking notice.
Q: Well, here, nobody is going to Jackson, Miss., to build factories right now.
A: If they do, I think they definitely should be pressured.
Q: They should be locked up. Have you noticed any anti-semitism among Negroes in Nashville?
A: I have not.
Q: It’s true in some places, of course, very spotty, but it’s true in some places. True in Harlem.
A: I can see why it would be ________ in Harlem, but I’ve encountered none. We have had over the ________ highly respected citizens in this community, a Jew for the president of the Council, and I know he’s going to get a substantial number of votes, because he’s highly respected. ________ being Jewish has nothing to do with it.
Q: The same thing. The Jews have been by and large, liberals in their effect on society, and have actual been philanthropists who have given money to civil rights causes, both Negro and white, at the same time, have ________ curious split of intense anti-semitism in some cities, Philadelphia, for example.
A: I can understand Harlem, the landlord is Jewish, and they own a lot of the business in Harlem, and the Negroes hate landlords, I don’t care what color they are, particularly in a situation like New York, with all its problems. I don’t know as much about New York as I know about Nashville, although I’ve been in New York.
Q: I was talking to a very, very bright, brilliant young woman, I guess you’d say, who’s a law student, at law school, and second in her class in the senior year. She’s a Negro. She and I had lunch. Started our conversation by saying, I have great hopes of the arrangement in the south, finding some light here, after this crisis has passed, in relationship to the southern whites. She said -- “I was born and raised on a farm in Virginia, and I’ve lived in several parts of the south, and I’ve been in a lot of southern jails this year.” She feels that we are on the verge of some sort of ________ reasonable community. She said, ________ as far as the great northern cities, where there is no human recognition. Here there’s recognition, even at the point of a gun.
A: I don’t go that far.
Q: After that, there’s a possibility of a human recognition.
A: ________ more spokesman in northern cities, than has been in the southern region. And I’m not sure that I know the reason for it. I know a little bit about the social situation in Chicago, Detroit, and the riots that have occurred there. It remains for me to see, or I have to see, how rapidly the northern sections of the country respond to the problems that it’s made, before I can make a judgment. What is the response of the New York City Board of Education to the de facto segregation.
Q: Please talk about that.
A: What would be the responses to the problem? But that problem, to my mind, is not serious, as the problem which gives rise to it. One of them, is segregation in housing, which is the problem.
Q: Behind the school problem?
A: Behind the school problem, and the other is employment. Or to put it more accurately, unemployment, which throws into the streets, of cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, large numbers as ________ pointed out so well in his book, unemployed and the unemployable Negro. It is going to be difficult for anybody, ________ just what this group is going to be capable of. Because of the frustrated disappointed, bitter group of young people. And I think, though I use the term, responsiveness, there’s got to be a fairer approach to employment opportunity there. There’s got to be, I think, a breakdown of the segregated housing pattern. This is, these are the things that should have been attacked. The de facto segregation with schools, is an academic matter, is you know. I’m not by any means sure that the method of dealing with the problem, is to bus one group from one community to the other.
Q: You can’t do it in Washington, anyway.
A: My feeling is that the job is to build in each of these communities that school that recognizes at the outset, that you’re dealing with a problem, different from, a problem involving educating middle class white children. ________ they’re terribly overcrowded, some of the teachers are bitter, by virtue of the fact that they’re assigned there in the first instance; I’ve seen text book problems that are a disgrace; I’ve seen a lack of guidance in counseling ________ sensitive to the problems of these youngsters. I’ve seen some of the poorest teaching I’ve seen in ________ situation like this. If you start from the assumption, I don’t care what the minority is, that this is a group that is partially deprived, you can’t assign teachers on the same basis, whatever ________, it has to be in terms of enough people to get a job done, if these people are going to be anything but dregs upon the economic system. ________. That’s enough, I’ve talked too long to this point.
Q: ________ ________ method is going to do much good. Some Negroes in the north have told me that they regard ________ as a tactic, a pressure tactic, not as a solution. A way of dramatizing the problem.
A: Yes, but think one of the things that ought to accompany every pressure tactic, is a clear goal. If you disagree with what is now being done, what is the proposal that you are struggling for. You’re going to articulate it. So that everybody understands what the objective is, because how else can you elicit ________ the support of people, ________ who, if they understood it, ________.
Q: Well, some people say that the best tactic, is gaining a great deal of support, ________ related to the realistic view of what should be the objective.
Q: Well, I’m gonna thank you. I must go.
A: I know you’re gonna stay for lunch.
Q: I wish I could stay here for the lunch you offered me.
END OF TAPE TWO
STEPHEN WRIGHT, FEB. 15.