Vernon Jordan discusses his early life attending a segregated high school in Atlanta. During his high school years he met a man named Paul Lawrence who came to speak with students about the National Services Scholarship Fund. After meeting Mr. Lawrence, Jordan became interested in attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, but he was unable to take the college entrance exam and was not accepted to this school. Jordan went on to attend DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was the only black student in a class of 400. He describes his struggles at DePauw and realizing that his southern segregated education had been inadequate in preparing him for college. Jordan received his degree and attended Howard University Law School. Jordan also discusses some philosophical topics such as African American identity, the role of black spirituals in American culture, the effects of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, and the role of Lincoln in the emancipation of the slaves. Jordan describes what he feels are the goals of the civil rights movement.
Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
Vernon E. Jordan (born 1935) is a lawyer, civil rights activist, and political advisor. After he earned his law degree at Howard University in 1960, Jordan returned to Atlanta to join the office of Donald L. Hollowell, a civil rights activist. A suit brought by the firm resulted in the admission of African Americans Charlayne Hunter (now Charlayne Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton E. Holmes to the University of Georgia. Jordan worked as the Georgia field director for the NAACP, then for the Southern Regional Council, directing its Voter Education Project from 1964 to 1968. He led the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981. He was known for creating links between the Nixon and Carter administrations and the African American community. In 2001 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, which is awarded annually by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an African American.
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 VERNON JORDAN TAPE #1
(Top of original document page blacked out – )
VJ: Well, to begin with I guess, I was a senior in high school at ________ High School in Atlanta, an overcrowded, segregated high school, and there was one who was considered a pretty smart boy, voted the most intellectual in his class, active in everything – the student newspaper, athletics, and all of the scholastic activities around the school – and also was one who through the years had no idea or no thoughts, I guess due to conditions and circumstances, of ever attending an integrated school, north or south. It was in the – oh, about the first of November or December –
RPW: What year was this, now?
VJ: This was in 1952 – the school year 1952-53, when a man who was on leave from Howard University came to the high school, representing the National Services Scholarship Fund for Negro students. His mission was to interest allegedly promising or scholarly Negro students, in attending integrated schools in the north. My teachers, my principal, my counselors in high school felt that I ought to talk to this man, Mr. Paul Lawrence.
RPW: Just hold it now – I have to make a check on voice, just to be sure we’re doing all right. Yes, just go ahead – that’s fine. Mr. Lawrence, was it?
VJ: Mr. Lawrence – on leave from Howard University, as, I understand it, came and spent a good bit of time explaining to us what was involved in an integrated school, what we might expect, and generally trying to generate enthusiasm on the part of myself and other – my classmates. I became intensely interested – I guess it was to some extent – it gratified my ego – it substantiated some feelings of superiority, I guess, over my fellow students. This in a sense to me is a young high school senior, made me – convinced me that – helped me to believe that I was as smart as my grades or my teachers might have thought I was. Mr. Lawrence recommended to me a list of schools, specifically, Yale or Dartmouth College and DePaul University. I was primarily interested in Dartmouth, I had seen stories and pictures of its winter carnival, I had talked to its – members of its alumni in Atlanta, president of the local alumni association, and he said, we have ten boys in Atlanta who have applied for admission to Dartmouth, and we have a little scholarship money, and we’d be happy to give you this scholarship money, be it ever so limited, because we feel that if you, as a Negro, could get exposed to a Dartmouth education, that you might be able to return south and be of some benefit to your people. Now, as I reflect on what Mr. Fortuna, who was an officer of the Citizens Southern National Bank of Atlanta – I’m not really sure what he meant by “come back and help your people” – I’m not so sure that today, having finished school, law school and college, that I might not resent his statement to come back and help your people.
RPW: Do you think he knew what he meant?
VJ: I’m not certain. I’ not sure if he meant to come back and help your people to clean my house better or to take care of my children better or in a better fashion, or whether he meant to come back and make democracy really live in the south.
RPW: He probably couldn’t know, could he? He could know on reflection – he was not thinking about making you a better yard man. He could not mean that.
VJ: No, but he – he kind of acted as if he felt that if I had gone to Dartmouth I would come back and I could be an exceptional school principal or a good school teacher. I was never sure that he envisioned my leaving Dartmouth College, going to the Harvard Law School, coming back, becoming –
RPW: But you are a lawyer.
VJ: Well, yes. Well, not so much that, but I’m never sure that even with a Dartmouth degree and a Harvard diploma that he would have appreciated my being a junior law partner or a law clerk to the general counsel of the ________ Bank. I feel certain that what he meant by my helping my people would be to come back and assume some position or some role of leadership in the Negro community, wherein I would have assumed a kind of Booker Washington role in the Atlanta community. Do you want to stop this for a while – a moment? (interruption) Surely – I get the ice and stuff and the waters can help themselves. I’m just not really certain what the man meant, but he did say to me that of the ten boys, you’re the only Negro, and we have some notion that if you get up there because of your essential mission, that you might do better scholastically than your white counterparts or classmates would do. He pointed out also that the scholastic record of white graduates of the high schools in Atlanta at Dartmouth was not very good, and of course, now in retrospect, I would attribute this to a quality of southern education as compared with the general qualifications and college preparedness of the average Dartmouth student. I think that he was addressing himself more to that than some sloth for this on the part of the high school students – white high school students in Atlanta. At any rate, I never went to Dartmouth although this was my great dream. I even now have to hope that should my wife and I be blessed with a son, that somehow or other I can instill in him some notion about Dartmouth. I have never quite gotten over the notion of not having gone to Dartmouth, but during the time of my application, my counselors in high school – it seems I was the first Negro in my school to apply to take the college board entrance exam, and there was some misunderstanding of the procedures. I remember quite vividly, my parents, in conjunction with other parents whose children had applied to schools like Sarah Lawrence and other schools in the East, requiring the college board entrance exam, trying to find out why their children could not be admitted to the exam to be given at Emory University on the next day, March 14th – I remember that quite well. I remember my displeasure, my hurt, my sorrow at not being able to take the exam, at that time being filled with some notion – having no notion that the college board entrance exam would be extremely difficult for me, and that I would not make a score to qualify me for entrance at Dartmouth. At any rate, I did not get to go to Dartmouth, Dartmouth being a school which had chosen all the members of its freshman class ________ April first. I did, however get accepted at DePauw University, a small Midwestern school in Green Castle, Indiana.
RPW: Let me interrupt – you did not take the examination at all?
VJ: I did not take the college board entrance exam at all. That’s right.
RPW: It was not a refusal on the grounds of your examination – it was just that you had not –
VJ: I had not complied with the conditions precedent, and the condition precedent was to take the college entrance exam, and I had not done that.
RPW: Yes, that’s what killed it.
VJ: That’s right. I did, however, fly to DePauw and was accepted, and felt that – well, I always had the impression that if I didn’t go to DePauw that the school would go to pot, - and by “go to pot” I mean that had not I gone to that campus that the school just couldn’t have done without me. This impression you get from the tremendous response that you get from organizations campus-wise and even city-wise in Green Castle, Indiana. The two banks – the First Citizens Bank, as I remember – I’ not certain about the title – I’m certain about Central National Bank, because that’s where I ultimately opened up my checking account – but even the banks in town wrote you to say that we understand that you are a prospective DePauw student – we welcome you to Green Castle, and we welcome you to come in and be a part of not only the school but our bank and the town.
RPW: Let’s check this now, just a moment, may we? (pause)
VJ: I received a – letters of invitation from every Greek letter fraternity on the DePauw campus – fraternities were given the list of prospective students, without regard to race. They wrote me inviting me up for dances, assured me that if I would come up for the weekend that I could have a date. Ironically, there were no Negro co-eds on the DePauw campus, and I know that had I shows up on the DePauw campus that there would have been great consternation. ________ railroad station or at the bus station that this fellow Vernon Jordan turned out to be Negro, and it would have created some problems for the fraternity inviting me. However, I did not go, but I did go – I did not go for the fraternity weekend, but I did go to DePauw to attend the educational guidance clinic which was sponsored by the admissions department in cooperation with the psychology department and other departments in the school. Well, I along with – oh, maybe 60 other prospective college students, spent a week finding out what college was all about, taking the examinations that one usually takes as a part of the college orientation program. It was there that I became quite disconcerned that here Vernon Jordan, third in his class, a young man who felt that he had been everywhere, seen everything and knew everybody, all of a sudden I found out that on the basis of my tests that I couldn’t read, and I was reading less than 200 words a minute and my counselor at the guidance clinic suggested that I would probably do very well at a state-supported school, but he wasn’t sure as to how well I would do in a private school, and suggested that, though while I was accepted, that I might even consider going to a state school or that I probably would do all right at DePauw if I took a reading course. So I returned home and took a reading course at Atlanta University. It was at that time that I experience some little problem with my parents, and having indicated to them that I wanted to go to DePauw, and I indicated this to them, in spite of the fact that I had been told that – at DePauw, that my social life would be somewhat limited, that there were no Negro girls, the dating of white girls was taboo; I had also been told that I would have to go forty miles to Indianapolis to get my hair cut because Negroes weren’t permitted to get their hair cuts in downtown Green Castle. I did not know at the time that the most popular barber in Green Castle was a Negro, who ultimately would not cut my hair because I was Negro. And he told me this in the presence of – well, while he was cutting a white student’s hair.
RPW: He told you this – the barber told you this?
VJ: The barber told me this after I went to DePauw and my hair got long and I sought out a barber. And an upper classmate of mine, a Negro, and I went into Barney’s Barber Shop – or Bernie’s Barber Shop, as I remember, and there sat a white boy in a chair, a Negro barber, had come from a segregated society where Negroes had always cut my hair, so this was commonplace with me. I said to him, I came in to see if I can get a haircut, and Bernie said to me, well, I’m sorry, but – in effect he said I don’t cut colored folks’ hair. This to me was a kind of –
RPW: Did he own the shop, or was he an employee?
VJ: He owned the shop – it was a shop that he had inherited from his father. He had been cutting hair in Green Castle twenty years before I got there, and Bernie said to me, no, I can’t cut your hair, and – I can’t cut your hair. He said this in effect, because you’re colored. And my first reaction was to push Bernie through the window. I didn’t push Bernie through the window, I just said thank you and left with a great sense of embarrassment and hurt. It was just something I never experienced before, a Negro telling me, while he’s cutting a white man’s hair, that he can’t cut my hair because I’m Negro. This was a pretty bad experience. At any rate, I suffered through that and –
RPW: Do you think he suffered through it?
VJ: I don’t – no, I don’t think that Bernie, God rest his soul, suffered through that at all. I think that Bernie felt that he had to do this to placate his white clientele. Bernie was the best – at that time, the white boys at DePauw were wearing crew cuts – crew cuts were very popular – Bernie was the best barber in town. A vast majority of the students went to Bernie for their haircuts, but also, the better – more businessmen in Green Castle went to Bernie. The students told Bernie it didn’t make any difference whose hair he cut – just give him a good crew cut. Bernie felt some fidelity or loyalty to these students, and he just refused to cut Negroes’ hair. The bulk of his business was student business because Bernie closed his shop in the summer, when students were away from town and away from the campus, and would only go to his shop upon request of the local businessmen in town who depended upon Bernie as they had depended upon his father to cut their hair. All this I told to my parents, and then one day I went home from a part time job during the summer and found a note on my bed where my mother says to me, very sweetly, Vernon, we love you and we want you to go to college where you want to go to college, but we kind of feel like if you went to Howard University, a predominantly Negro school in Washington, D.C., that academically, economically and socially you might be happier. But you go where you want to go. And I took them at their word and chose to go to DePauw.
RPW: What were their reasons for trying to steer you from DePauw?
VJ: Well, I think that here were Negro parents, both from rural communities in Georgia, both of whom had grandparents who were slaves, who to some extent conditioned to the southern way of life. And were never quite accustomed, or could never quite adjust to the thought of their boy being even in Green Castle, Indiana, the only Negro in a class of 400 students, and they felt that their boy, their baby, their prize, would be happier and would have less frustrations if he went to a predominantly Negro institution. They just felt that he would get along better, and that they would have less problems and fewer problems with him and he’d have less problems and few problems with his peers, or if he went to an all Negro school. I shall never forget my father, who on an occasion when I had brought a white boy from North Carolina home with me – and I forget Bob’s first name, but Bob drove home with me and another white boy from Dublin, Georgia, and he couldn’t get a bus out that night so he spent the night with me, and he slept in one twin bed, and my brother was away at school, and I slept in another. And in the middle of the night, my father got up out of bed and came in the room and turned on the light, and stood there with tears in his eyes, put the light out and went back to bed and said to my mother that, you know, this democracy thing is really here, and it’s right here in my house. There in one bed is my own son, and in the other bed is a white boy from South Carolina, with a sharp southern accent, who says yes sir, and no sir, and who eats grits with the same enjoyment as my boy, who likes biscuits and who likes sausage, and says to me, a colored man, yes sir, and no sir, and says to my wife, yes ma’am, and no ma’am. This for my father was a traumatic experience – something –
RPW: Could you analyze the experience? Looking back on it?
VJ: Well, I think that here again you have to look at this man’s background. He was one of seventeen children –
RPW: Your father?
VJ: My father, yes. From one of the worst counties in this state, Jasper County, Georgia – that’s at Monticello. He had heard stories of people being lynched – I’m not so sure that he had not seen the results of brutalities there in Jasper County, who left home with a circus because he worked from sun-up to sun-down, his daddy got all of the money, who was a boy – a family of seventeen children – saw the entire family divide a watermelon which the mama and the papa took one half and the seventeen children divided the other half – a boy who never knew that the chicken had anything but feet or necks until such time that he got enough money to buy his own chicken, and he left home with a great sense of disillusionment and disappointment and really in a sense out of rebelliousness to the system under which is father found accommodating and a way of life in Jasper County, Georgia. I think that somewhere during that night, after having had dinner and conversations with this white boy from South Carolina, who seems to have been a good friend of his son –
RPW: I gather he was a decent, well mannered white boy –
VJ: Very well mannered, a boy who was not completely void of prejudices – I’m not so sure that I could have gone to his house and spent the night, and I’m sure that this to some extent bothered him, that here is this Negro boy from Georgia, who can extend to me these courtesies but I’m not so sure that I would receive the warmth and kindredness of – I’m not so sure that this warmth would be extended to him in my household. I think that Bob felt that – I’m not very certain that I could even approach my parents with the idea of bringing a Negro home – I’m not even sure that he told his folks that he had spent the night with Vernon Jordan, a colored boy who was in school with him up there. I can’t say this with any certainty – this is just a kind of feeling that I have. At any rate, against the mild objections of my parents I went on to Green Castle. My parents took me to school, along with my younger brother – we all drove to Green Castle, and we did everything that the brochure says, from go to the tent on the other side of church on the DePauw campus – we were assigned housing – my parents stayed with the local Methodist minister, Elmer Harvey, who was very charming and very gracious. And I think that this in and of itself was a real experience for my parents – my father who was a government employee in mail service, my mother, who paid my tuition by making food tasty and pretty as a cateress. And had always been in a domestic role. This I think for them was a real experience – certainly it was unique and different. But they took me and they left me, and I shall never forget my dad just standing out in front of old ________ College, saying goodbye, saying to me, son, you know everybody is looking for you to do well, and he said I expect more of you than they do, and I feel like you’re going to do all right, and I’m glad you’re here. And I think that after they got to the DePauw campus, after they experienced the friendliness, the warmth of the campus, and the open kindredness of the people, that they were satisfied that their boy had made a good choice, and that they had reared him right, they had reared him to do the right thing, to think pretty much the right thing, to conduct himself like a gentleman, and they were reasonably certain that he would do all right in this atmosphere. And I think they left – they came to Green Castle that weekend curious and concerned and to some extent worried, but I think they left satisfied that their boy, though in a situation totally foreign to him, a situation where he was the only Negro in his class, one of five Negroes in a student body of 5,000, one who would have to live with two white boys whom he had never seen before – I think they left, going back down Highway 41, confident that all would be well, and that their boy would do all right. They also left confident that, though there might be some small financial strain or something, that their boy – that they could pay his bills, and they did – they did it – they paid them in advance – the tuition was never late – and he never had to be concerned as to whether or not his funds were forthcoming. His only job was to get his lessons. I started off sort of a little behind – I took reading for four semesters – I shall never forget in a speech course – and I took speech – speech was recommended to me through my faculty adviser because I had won several oratorical contests in high school, so I took sort of an advanced speech course – and I was really at a loss because in this speech course my classmates talked about plays that they had done, books that they had read, and I was somewhat at a loss because during the whole time I was in high school I never really read a full novel, and my first novel was The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy – I’m not sure that’s a good book for anybody to get started on – it’s full of pessimism and – but that was my first novel. And I think that early in that speech class I realized that my segregated education had been inadequate, and not only my segregated education but my southern education was somewhat inadequate for me to cope with the academic problems that I faced at a school that’s as good as DePauw.
RPW: Have you thought about what the graduate of Peoria High School would feel in certain colleges?
VJ: No, I haven’t really –
RPW: The same thing, isn’t it?
VJ: I suspect that at a school like DePauw that he would feel as – almost as insecure as I was – especially if he was the average student. I’m not so sure what a student who was in the upper ten percent of his class would have felt.
RPW: I don’t know if Peoria has any point – I don’t know what it’s like, but I pulled it out of a million places.
VJ: Sure. I think there were some students – DePauw is very selective – highly selective, as a matter of fact –
RPW: End of the first tape of Mr. Jordan – resume on tape #2.
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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 VERNON JORDAN TAPE #2
RPW: This is tape #2 of a conversation with Mr. Vernon Jordan, Atlanta, March 17 – resume.
VJ: Well, I guess as the DePauw story goes, I stayed there four years, - active in everything from being head waiter for two years or two and a half years at Longden Hall, to losing the presidency of the student body by – I don’t know – 6 to 20 votes – I was on the Student Senate there for three years – very active in the local fraternity that was acceptable to those who didn’t want to be Greeks – those who the Greeks didn’t want – a Negro – I was quite active in the Men’s Hall Association – I participated in – I worked as an orientation counselor, I won oratorical contests – as a matter of fact, I was the first winner of the Indiana Interstate Oratorical Contest with DePauw since Senator Andrew Beveridge – I always thought quite a bit of that, having these polished orators from DePauw – not from DePauw from Wabash College and from Notre Dame – I was quite – it was quite satisfying, and I went on to place third in the Interstate Oratorical Contest at Northwestern in 1955. And I won at DePauw the local Margaret Noble Lee extemporaneous speaking contest in my freshman year, and I generally had the reputation around the campus of being a big man on campus, an orator, I was active in athletics, intramural athletics – I played some basketball – I was involved in everything, and in the decision-making aspects of the student-faculty administration life, having served on the faculty administrative council while there – I did all of this in the background of Negro students who had traditionally come to DePauw, most of whom were Phi Beta Kappa – they were all extremely able students. I was not an able student, I was pretty much the average student, but who had a knack for extracurricular activities – spent a good bit of time in extracurricular activities, and tried to dispel to some extent the notion at DePauw that all of the Negro students were Phi Beta Kappa. I shall never forget the Phi Beta Kappa Chapel in my senior year, when people looked around and the professor called off the names in alphabetical order, when he got to the J’s and the name of Vernon Jordan was not called – even some professors who expressed their disappointment that I had not made Phi Beta Kappa. They should not have been disappointed. Rather, they should have been pleased that I had not with my segregated southern education flunked out of school. My experiences at DePauw were sobering, were enlightening – I guess one of my memorable experiences at DePauw was that as a thespian, having had the lead role in a play called “Backwater”, having made the dramatic honorary Deux-a-deux – that is, a sort of college thespian – this was another breakthrough in a sense at DePauw, because most people had a stereotyped notion that the Negroes were all – those who came to DePauw were extremely brilliant, they were not at all a part of the campus activity, but were guys who generally studied and got their lessons. I made very excellent friends at DePauw – I went around with a bunch of guys who were pretty much – much smarter than I, but I always had something to contribute. My parents were quite pleased with DePauw and my stay there. After DePauw of course I left and went because of my interest in civil rights – went to the Howard University Law School, where I received my LL.B. degree in 1960.
RPW: At that point you decided to be active in civil rights questions or to pursue a private career – had you made up your mind on that point at that time?
VJ: Well, I was always torn – first I was torn between the ministry and the law, and I gave up on the ministry a long time ago – feeling myself quite unfit to preach the Gospel, as it were, feeling that my basic interest was people, more specifically Negroes.
RPW: Are you still a believer?
VJ: Oh, I am a believer now. The problem is whether or not I am a practitioner of that which I believe. But – well, I am a practitioner – it left a question – I guess this would depend largely upon who’s doing the evaluating. But I did apply to seminary in Drew University, I think, and had some hopes that I would come to seminary – some people in DePauw thought that I should have gone into the ministry, but I did go to law school. And I went to law school out of some sense of mission. I went to the Howard Law School in particular because of its national reputation in civil rights, because of its professor there – Professor Jim Nebert, who initiated the – he’s now president of the university – who gave the first course in civil rights and who taught me constitutional law, which is one of the great privileges of my life. And after law school, I had considered staying in Washington in a government job or being to Indianapolis where I felt that I would have a better opportunity in politics, but I married an Atlanta girl and I wanted to come home, and I came home out of some sense of mission, feeling that I had come back home, back south, I could do something about the problem.
RPW: Let me ask you a question at this point – what do you think of a person who in your position decides to follow some private mission, some private star, who wants to be a writer, a painter, a lawyer, a doctor – who sets himself off from public profession of the racial cause?
VJ: I think this is very – very well of this, and I think this for the reason that I think that oftentimes Negroes can make a greater contribution by becoming specialists in certain fields, and thereby become respected as an expert on farming, as an expert on some technical field, and I think that oftentimes, because of his expertise in a particular area, that he can draw people as a matter of respect for his knowledge in a particular area, and I think – I spoke once – and I’ll never forget it – in Rochdale, Indiana, during the time I was in school, to a men’s Presbyterian club, and I said to these men that all of you for the most part are interested in agriculture, and it might be well that rather than ask me to come here as a Negro to talk about and to relate my feelings about race relations, that you need to find a Negro farmer in Indiana who is trained in agriculture, who can really be of more benefit to you in what you are basically interested in, and come here and talk to you about farming, and I’m not so sure that a Negro going to Rochdale, Indiana, as an expert in farming, would not have been more helpful in having these people to respect a Negro on the basis of some thing other than his color, that his expertise in the area of farming would have been the criterion, rather than some other superfluous matter such as color or what have you.
RPW: There is a lot of pressure on talented and energetic young Negroes to go into something that involves race relations rather than to follow some preference of personal talent. This is happening all the time. One thing, the pressure is used from white people – what do you make out of this – on the part of the Negro – does this make sense?
VJ: I think this is partly true. I think that the white people, when they see able Negroes, want to direct them into the area of betterment of their race. They think they ought to teach or work –
RPW: Like Mr. Fortuna. – You’re back to Mr. Fortuna.
VJ: That’s right – that’s right. To take this education and become creative and making things better. Now, I’m not sure that I subscribe to this, because, number one, I think that every man must determine his own destiny, and I don’t think that anybody can do this for him. If a Negro wants to choose the road of Metropolitan Opera, I think that he should do this unqualifiedly and unrestricted.
RPW: You don’t think less of Ralph Ellison, then, for not being an organizer in Mississippi?
VJ: Precisely. Precisely. And I think that Leontine Price, who comes from Mississippi, has done far more for race relations from the stage, of the opera, all over the world, than she could have ever possibly have done as a voter registration worker in Mississippi. There might be persons who would disagree with that. One of the great tragedies comes out of a highly volatile racial change situation where I saw a little girl whom I thought had an excellent voice, and excellent potential, but she chose to demonstrate and to make her witness by really putting her body – offering her body as a sacrifice for freedom. I’m not so sure that that young lady should not have left the black belt county from which she came, and gone on to some person who could have cultivated her voice, and I’m not sure that her singing from the concert stages of the country or the world, that she might not have been able to do more for the cause than by staying where she was, doing – demonstrating and doing things like voter registration.
RPW: A few young Negroes whom I have known have suffered greatly over this point, though.
VJ: Oh, yes. I think that this is a great dilemma, really, for young Negroes who feel a sense of obligation, first to the race or to the cause, and they subjugate this obligation to their own personal desires, and I think that this takes tremendous courage and fortitude. And I think that to some extent that they are caught up in the tempo of the times, and certainly caught up therein they are not necessarily the best judges of what they are to do. And then who can say, in any given situation, what any person ought to do. And this becomes really an individual decision, and I’m not sure that these individuals decisions are necessarily based on rationale. I think the movement is largely an emotional one, and some people feel that in order to have a – peace of mind or a sense of obligation that they must forget about their personal ambitions.
RPW: Let’s take that as a starting point to something else – do you know what DuBois pointed out many years ago, which is sometimes called the split in the Negro soul or the split in the Negro psyche – that two basic pulls, according to at least this diagnosis for the Negro in America. On the one hand, the pull for whoever the Negro is toward the African tradition – whatever that is, toward the American Negro tradition – that tradition which might be distinguished from the other, toward some sense of black blood, toward some sense of a mere biological continuities – all of these things on this side which lead to an extreme present-day statement to Black Muslim attitudes, as one manifestation of – not the only one, there are many variants – on the other hand, the impulse toward integration with, absorbing in – absorption of the Western European neo-Christian, American democratic world, at the price, perhaps, of total absorption, total loss of identity, of personal identity, of racial identity, of blood identity. Now, these are extreme positions, but for some people – for some Negroes – this tension is very acute and very real and a very real problem. Do you feel this is a problem?
VJ: Well, let me say that I think that the Negro –
RPW: Let’s talk about you – not the Negro – this hypothetical character –
VJ: Well, for me it’s not a problem. It’s not a problem because I personally can never lose my cultural identity. I still get a great joy and love to hear the Negro spirituals, and I think that during the Revolution the Negro spiritual means more to me now than it ever has, because I think that for example the spiritual “’Tis the Old Ship of Zion – Get on Board” is as applicable now as it was prior to emancipation, because I think that Negro leaders now as the Negro tenor did in slavery, is crying out to Negroes that ‘tis the old ship of freedom – and the old ship of Zion was a sort of a symbolism.
RPW: Now, where is the ship of freedom going? Let’s put it this way – this is a crying out about leaving something – leaving what? Leaving the Negro condition to move toward freedom. Now, what does the freedom mean? This means the loss of a Negro identity, to merge into a culture and a blood stream which is different – or does it mean something else? The ship of freedom – freedom is now – is a word. What does it mean, in terms of the analysis of feeling?
VJ: Well, I think it means that – I don’t think – well, to me it does not mean that you cast off your cultural identity, but it does mean that you take advantage of all of the rights and privileges that are yours as a citizen, that if the buses become desegregated or if the buses are not desegregated, that you exercise this right, and you exercise this as a matter of right that you have under the Constitution. But this is not to say that upon exercising that right, that while sitting next to the white man on the bus, this does not mean that you need feel any inhibitions about humming to yourself or thinking about the Negro spiritual.
RPW: I don’t want to nag this question, but this morning I was talking with Mr. Young. Now, to him this problem is a very acute problem, you see, the question – this cultural – well, spiritual division. He says it’s a very acute problem. He says it’s so acute that he doesn’t have a real way to formulate the problem to himself yet. Now, this is – over and over again this has been – very different response from different people, you see – it’s very hard to sort this out – for me to sort it out. To some people it’s very, very acute; to some people it is resolved like the bus as you resolve it, you see. Now, I have no moral to this story – this is very acute to some people. Now, Richard Wright, for instance, is divorcing from the Negroes situation in America and divorcing from American civilization, and goes to France and feels Africa is the answer – you will find the great truth in Africa – in identification with Africa. We know what happened there. He was an honest man, he wrote the Disastrous Encounter – which I won’t read to you now, but I have it here. But – oh, this is a – Jews will say the same thing. Some Jews will say, well, an acute problem, you see, of a loss of identity if they are absorbed into total integration with the American Gentile culture. Some feel – who are not Orthodox – feel this; others who feel – move into it. Now, open it – let’s say that – one question, do you see a parallel between that situation – which you don’t feel very acutely anyway – and the southerner, who also belongs to a southern culture, a defensive southern culture, who is defending the identity over against the great modern industrial finance capitalistic set-up. He’s also trying to join it, too, but – also he has a problem there. Do you see a parallel there?
VJ: Yes, but I think that, like myself, that the average white southerner will retain – although he would take on certain aspects of the capitalistic, the on-going market society – I think he would take on some characteristics to this, and I think he has taken on these characteristics, to survive economically in this country. But I think that he will still maintain his uniqueness as a southerner – that of courage, that of being a gentleman –
RPW: That’s segregation to some people.
VJ: Well, I’m not – he’s not going to be able to maintain this –
RPW: He thinks that this is a part of his identity, though.
VJ: I think this is a myth, and I think that –
RPW: He doesn’t think so – at this point, now – this is his behavior – he thinks that to be himself he must maintain this system in the same way.
VJ: Well, I think that also that as a national impulse reaches a point that you have to recognize now this black man as a person, as a citizen, as an individual, that as to this, that he will feel some gentleman-like responsibility, and it will be a matter ultimately of his ability to live up to this gentleman-like stand, and I think to lose this prestige to being a gentleman – to lose that would mean more to him than to lose the segregated system – if I make myself clear.
RPW: Yes, I see what you are driving at.
VJ: What I’m saying is that I think that though he’s not going to like it, and though he’s going to say let’s integrate the school by three rather than by three hundred, that even about the three that he’s going to be a gentleman, and try to operate a bad plan in good faith.
RPW: You mean after he’s crossed a certain line.
VJ: After he has come so far. And he’s going to have to come to a point, I think. But now, back to your point about Negroes being caught up in a crisis, of being completely emerged into the white culture – for me, it’s no problem because right here in my own house, when I entertain inter-racial parties, there’s no question, I suppose, that these people know that they’re in Vernon Jordan’s house, and not only is Vernon Jordan a good fellow but somehow it comes out that he’s a Negro, he doesn’t play the records that he’s not accustomed to playing – by that I mean he’s not playing Mozart and Beethoven exclusively because he has white guests, but he’s playing the Blues by Ray Charles, not because – not to please his guests but because this is a part of him – he likes this.
RPW: I went to a meeting where Dr. King spoke a couple of weeks ago in Bridgeport. The music was – there was some of the white high school girls’ choir with guitars played the spirituals. Then they had a – clearly a very accomplished trained and talented Negro singer – a man – singing the most ghastly songs I have ever heard in my life –
VJ: And I suspect that he should have been in the reverse –
RPW: Yes. It was embarrassing, I thought.
VJ: Yes. This is my personal opinion, and I’m not so sure that the Negro would not have been happier singing “Go Down, Moses”.
RPW: I wish I were sure – as you seem to be – but I’m not sure and I don’t know about it –
VJ: No – because I think it largely depends upon who he’s trying to please.
RPW: Yes – that’s exactly the point. Himself – who’s responsible for this – this is ghastly – it’s obscene – the language of these songs – this is something unbelievably awful. You couldn’t believe how awful it was – it’s not playing – it’s not Mozart, it’s not – it’s terrible, terrible – it’s sort of Tin Pan Alley gospel freedom – unbelievable – you want to vomit. And this man of talent is singing this stuff to five thousand people.
VJ: And I think that Negroes can never – ought never get away – and I believe this – I believe that even that Negro who is for all practical purposes completely immerged into the white culture, I still believe that though he refrains from giving vent to his appreciation of the rhythm of the Negro spiritual –
RPW: Why should he refrain?
VJ: Well, I think that many do because they’re trying to please, but –
RPW: Please whom?
VJ: I’m not sure. But I think that there is a desire to be accepted on a common basis with their white peers. What I’m saying is, I think that even that Negro, who fails to vocalize or to evidence an appreciation, say, for the Negro spiritual – I really think that he’s kind of unhappy not really being true to himself. It’s just like the hillbilly who becomes president of the Chase-Manhattan National Bank because he was smart – I think he will always like hillbilly music – this is not to say that he would not begin to like Bach and Beethoven and what have you, but this is to say that he would never lose appreciation.
RPW: I’m not trying to say – just to make myself clear – that this man, this singer, should not do any music in the world –
VJ: That he would like to do.
RPW: - that he would like to do.
VJ: Yes. And this is not to say that he would do the spiritual better, either.
RPW: No, it’s not to say that. ________ It’s a question of some defect of judgment that entered in here at the wrong level.
VJ: And I really think that ultimately it becomes a personal decision as to what A or B wants to do. Now, I think that in the revolution there has been a revival by Negroes of an interest in basic African music, which to the Twentieth Century Negro is to some extent foreign, but I think there’s an effort now to re-identify the wearing of the hair au natural, so to speak – there’s an effort to re-identify – and I’m not sure that this is not to some extent unrealistic, because oftentimes I think that history proves this – the Negro has to some extent rejected his African brother and his African heritage.
RPW: He had no choice for a long time, did he – the American Negro – he had no possibility of connecting with it, did he?
VJ: That’s right.
RPW: He was snatched away from it.
VJ: And he was snatched away from it, and he was taken from his basic modus operandi and he was given this new Messiah called Jesus, he was given this new religion, he was given this completely new way of life, and there was no return to the tribal kind of African existence.
RPW: Well, was there one tribe – there were many tribes in many actual physical types and many psychological types, weren’t there?
VJ: I’m sure there were.
RPW: So we don’t have a thing called The Africa.
VJ: That’s right – that’s right.
RPW: There may be not such a thing called The America – you have distinct and very competitive and even ________ competitive cultures scattered – very different physical types, scattered over America.
VJ: And I think that the Negro spiritual is a very basic part of American culture – just as much as Stephen Foster. It’s a very basic part of it, I think.
RPW: : Now, on the question of the African relationship, there are some historians and some sociologists now who say that in the discovery of Africa, the American Negro has a great asset and a great risk. He takes on the burden of the advantage – let’s put it that way. It’s a double thing. That – This is the end of Tape #2 of conversation with Mr. Vernon Jordan – resume on Tape #3.
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TAPE 3 Searchable TextCollapse
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN VERNON JORDAN TAPE #3
RPW: This is Tape #3 of interview with Mr. Vernon Jordan, Atlanta, Georgia, March 17th. You were talking about Richard Wright and his disillusion with Africa as belonging to a certain historical – how was that?
VJ: Yes – well, I think that the bitterness and the rejection that Mr. Wright expresses must be weighed as against the time that it was written. I’m not certain that if Mr. Wright were writing in 1964, that he would have expressed the same sentiments. As you have just indicated, that the generations change as much as five years – five years of a time span can cause great changes. I experienced this myself to some degree. I finished college in 1957 and in 1960 the sit-ins broke out. In 1957 – ’55, ’56, ’57 – I was going forty miles to get my hair cut, and maybe rather than do that I should have done what the sit-inners did in 1960. But –
RPW: And last week in Indiana – or Illinois – I forget which.
VJ: That’s right. Now, my problem is – I was of a different generation. Between ’57 and ’60 things had built up to such an intensity that now you have Negroes demonstrating. I also feel certain that if I had been a student in 1960 – a college student – that I too would have been involved, and I would have been amongst the first group from my particular school.
RPW: Let me ask – interrupt and ask you something – reading the papers the other day I discovered the sit-in demonstrators and other demonstrators – this barber shop somewhere over the Ohio River – were mostly white college students. Would any white college students in DePauw several years ago have demonstrated on this matter of your hair cut?
VJ: Absolutely not. I think that there were those when I was there who were concerned, who thought it was a pretty terrible idea, but at the time that their hair was long, that they needed a crew cut to go to the dance or to take their favorite girl out, that this was not an issue. The issue was whether or not or how fast I could get a haircut. There was, however, a professor, Dr. Correll, the physics department, who very quietly, without any fanfare had his wife to cut his hair and he cut his boy’s hair, and this was in a sense a silent protest against a situation in Green Castle. And he never communicated publicly to the students or to Negroes on the campus.
RPW: Well now what’s happened – this was not many years – only six or seven years – what’s happened? Now you have hundreds of college students demonstrating in front of a barber shop in some town – Ohio or Indiana – I forget which town it is – about the fact of segregated haircuts. What’s happened now –
VJ: Well, I think, number one, the ridiculousness of it has been dramatized.
RPW: How was it dramatized?
VJ: I think that the sit-ins, beginning February 1, 1960, wherein four boys sit in Greensburg, North Carolina, and for the first time white people begin to think that here are Negroes whose money is green, who pays the same price for a bar of soap in the ten cent store – ribbon for the little girl’s hair, or the comb or what have you. And here they are spending the same amount of money, for the same articles, and merely because of the intensity of the blackness in their skin, they cannot sit down to eat a hot dog, rather – I think the ridiculousness of it was dramatized with the beginning of the sit-ins, and if you really think about it, I think that many white people in the south and – certainly in the north – after the sit-ins began to think just how ridiculous it is.
RPW: Well, now, a long time ago in the ‘80’s, a Charleston newspaper – I forget the name of the paper – said the same thing about the possibility of segregation. This nonsense goes on, this paper said – we’ll even have two Bibles to kiss in court or two waiting rooms in railroad stations. This is all very recent, this sort of segregation. It’s not an old story – it’s a fairly new story – a 75 year old story.
VJ: Well – ‘cause I’m not sure – I‘m not so sure that the Charleston paper was not right – if things had continued on.
RPW: They couldn’t believe it was going to happen – that segregation was going to happen – outburst of segregation – the modern southern version of segregation – they couldn’t believe it was going to happen. This is too preposterous to believe, they said. But it happened in five years –
VJ: And I believe that what has happened since 1960 is some sort of realization of the prophecy of the Charleston paper in the ‘80’s.
RPW: That’s right. This is a very funny thing, though, how you have two generations who can condition a whole social system with the minority doing the conditioning. Nobody in the Civil War generation could conceive of modern segregation. Now, they had their vices, but that wasn’t one of their vices.
VJ: Well, maybe the real tragedy stems from the Hayes-Tillman Compromise of 1876, when the deal was that the federal troops would withdraw, and here they left, and –
RPW: Well, now, let’s go to that – that’s an interesting question. What would have been a decent, reasonable, far-reaching reconstruction? Let’s assume we start in 1865, and forget Lincoln’s death one way or the other – say, just suppose good and wise men had run the reconstruction. What could have been done?
VJ: Well, that’s hard to say.
RPW: It’s hard to say, but there are some theories about it.
VJ: Well, number one, I guess I must profess some ignorance as to the theories. Certainly – I forget exactly what Lincoln’s theory was, but I get the notion that it wasn’t quite adequate – and certainly Johnson was a total incompetent to deal with the situation, and –
RPW: Lincoln would have been impeached, probably within a year.
VJ: That’s right. I also think that probably Charles and Thaddeus Stevens are to some extent alienated many of the moderate people by their very radical positions, but I think you have to take notes of the fact that their radical positions culminated in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. I would hesitate to speculate on what the proper course of reconstruction would have been. I’m not certain that the Negroes getting extraordinary positions in government – though incompetent was the answer, certainly –
RPW: Let me read you what Muirdahl (Myrdal) said would have been a reasonable though impossible reconstruction policy. One, federal remuneration for all slaves after the war – to pay them for emancipated – to pay the property value as some, you know, price for all emancipated slaves – the Muirdahl (Myrdal) theory – that’s one. Two, expropriation of plantation lands as far as necessary, but full federal payment for the land to the southern planter – to the Confederate planter. Three, distribution of land to any who needed it, Negro or white, on a long range mortgage basis – not as gift, but a very long range mortgage basis –
VJ: Kind of an FHA loan –
RPW: Yes – a very indefinite thing, but carried by society – but a payment required, so there’s no gift – a payment required – backed by a twenty year mortgage.
VJ: Thirty year mortgage?
RPW: Thirty – I’ve got a twenty-year – I’ve been wronged –
VJ: No, you just paid more down, you see.
RPW: Four, supervision of freedmen and property, plus vocational training and other training as, you know – some sort of skill. Five, national taxation to pay costs – figure that being done. Six, encouragement of Negroes for migration to the West – this vast amount of free land – federal land – which was being given away to railroads – that was mighty fine land – millions of dollars were taken off that land with some kind of – you know – not just thrown to the Far West, but – you know – build communities – and so forth – you see that line. Just off-hand and emotionally, how would you respond to such a –
VJ: Well, I’ll tell you, the first one – that of compensating the slaveholders for their slaves, I think is sort of an indirect sanction to pay them after the emancipation for those persons whom they held enslaved.
RPW: This is one thing – this is one of the several things I’m getting at. Do you feel an immediate moral revulsion, an emotional revulsion to that idea? To this ________ proposes?
VJ: Oh, yes. I think, as you’re saying, too, that this was really right but you lost the war but we’ll pay you for this. I’m not sure that you can compensate a man for doing something that is legally and morally and by all standards wrong.
RPW: Not legally –
VJ: Well, legally it was not – not legally – you’re right. Of course, you’ve got the Dred Scot decision and what have you. But –
RPW: You have the American Constitution too. Not only the Dred Scot decision.
VJ: Well, you’ve got grandfather clauses and what have you – the idea of compensating the slave owners – this is one of Lincoln’s theories – that they ought to be compensated, as I remember vaguely. This nauseates me.
RPW: And probably it nauseated the Yankees on several counts – one, money; two, and less importantly – moral revulsion.
VJ: Well, of course, on the other hand, I’m not so sure that money in and of itself would have appeased the Southern plantation owner who was accustomed to services, and serfdom.
RPW: How many plantation owners were there – how many – the figure is very small of people who had over five slaves – we are dealing with a very small ________ size.
VJ: Even so, if we were only dealing with one man, it seems to me that –
RPW: It’s morally wrong.
VJ: - it does not justify paying a man for slaves. Because I think now this substantiates Dred Scott, that this man is not –
RPW: Let me ask you another kind of question, then. Suppose, by doing this one might have avoided reconstruction, segregation, and all the difficulties and degradations that have gone on for a hundred years sine. Suppose that this – by having a settlement which a learned Swede proposes – too late – of expropriated land paid for, remuneration for emancipated slaves, and a general educational system as far as literacy and supervised education in terms of land handling and other educations for the Negro and white – all this is one package – and western migration – and also I should have added, if I were called on, northern migration and training in perhaps industries, you see, to head off some of the European immigrants – exploited very brutally. I think this – trying to protect the immigration from the south. Let’s take it as a possibility. Now, does that – would the moral nausea have been too great a price to pay for peace in 1890, and a reasonably integrated society?
VJ: Well, I think that this is purely speculative –
RPW: It’s all speculative – I’m talking about your emotions about this rat her than anything else.
VJ: I would still have great problems.
RPW: Even if you had peace by 1890 and a reasonable integration, in the south – at least a humane relationship and a public education system that would work for Negroes and whites – you would still have an emotional problem about accepting this?
VJ: I still have some – the emotional problem stems from the fact that I don’t think that to pay for it would have done – reaped the thing that you are talking about by 1890.
RPW: Now listen – this isn’t my question, sir – my question is, let’s assume that his proposal would have been effective – of course, it wouldn’t have been possible to begin with – you can’t turn a Thaddeus Stevens loose in the world and have a settlement like this. Or Sumner. So we can say it wasn’t possible. But it’s not impossible to assume that this was possible – let’s assume it had worked. You see, by 1890 or 1900 you’d have had a reasonably balance society with some –
VJ: I’d still have a problem with it. I’d still have a problem with it – yes.
RPW: You’d still have an emotional problem there?
VJ: I think so – yes.
RPW: Emotional resistance to it?
VJ: That’s right. I’d like to think about that a little more, but –
RPW: Well, this question I think – you can turn it around in many ways, and the emotional resistance is – would strike many a Yankee the same way – he could reverse propositions like this and find emotional resistances in Mississippi of a parallel order – it’s a rational solution of things – do you see what I’m getting at? That is, we all have emotional resistance, whether it’s right or wrong, to –
VJ: I think it boils down to really asking the emotional question, is it peace at any price - kind of question.
RPW: What is the price we’d have paid – we being all of us. Let’s assume that Muirdahl’s (Myrdal’s) program would have worked – we couldn’t accept it and it couldn’t work – by 1900 we’d have been over the hump. Is that too big a price to pay?
VJ: I guess maybe not, if you operate on the assumption that it’s going to work – that’s the assumption – but even so, I still have a great deal of problem with that.
RPW: You’d rather have it the way it is now and no compensation for slaves or expropriated land?
VJ: I expect so.
RPW: You’d rather have it the way it is?
VJ: I expect so, and that’s a kind of a ________ of a thing to say.
RPW: Let’s be honest.
VJ: I expect so.
RPW: Now, look – let’s turn the thing around – if you were to take somebody to Mississippi right now, to pull down the temple, you would do anything to maintain the ________ as purely an emotional attitude – it’s totally irrational – to maintain segregation. It’s against his interests – he knows that. It’s against his interests – it’s against his ________ and his moral interests. He feels the moral ________ yet he is committed to it and some people - __________.
VJ: Why don’t you ask me that again – why don’t you rephrase it.
RPW: All right. Now, you ________ and I must praise you as an honest man - ________ if I gave you a chance – and you would rather have the actual settlement as it occurred – the reconstruction – which meant no compensation for the emancipated slaves to the southern slave owner, with all the troubles that we have had then to now – and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow too – than to have had Muirdahl’s (Myrdal’s) proposal, having it put in practice, with compensation for slavery, compensation for expropriated land and all the other things that we talked about – but you ________ the compensation - ________ moral nausea.
VJ: This is my great problem – and maybe if I could get over it I would have less problem with it. But as you say, I just have a real problem. Because I think that there is some justification in the compensation for what happened, and I don’t think that this can ever be justified on any basis.
RPW: Is the question whether slavery is a moral good the real question here or not? Because slavery is morally indefensible and that’s the real question.
VJ: I think that there is no defense for slavery – there’s no excuse – there’s no reason for it to be.
RPW: I’d like to explain my reason for asking the question. Several years ago a play of Euripides was playing in a New York theater, and an eminent theater critic wrote, The Greeks are vastly over-rated as playwrights – in fact, they held slaves. What about Greek slavery – let’s jump way back – or Egyptian slavery – how do we feel about their slavery – does this make Plato a fraud or Socrates a fake?
VJ: I think their real value to society, in terms of their real value to society – no. But I think that even so, it does not justify slavery in any stage of civilization.
RPW: How could – justification is a strange thing here – what – knocked slavery out? Of course, when we’re talking about slavery we’re not talking about the slavery of the Negroes – we’re talking about slavery of anybody –
VJ: Yes – well, I think that historically the thing that caused the dissipation of slavery as that it was economically unfeasible.
RPW: What made it economically unfeasible?
VJ: Well, the machines –
VJ: Sure – that’s what I was about to get to – here you are, with a bunch of people who, because of their ignorance and their inability to do only that which – they have to do that which they are told – they are robots, in a sense –
RPW: That is, a slave is a human machine –
VJ: Sure – that’s right. Now, when you get something that can do what that machine was doing, then the system – and I think that slavery even in America,, prior to the invention of the cotton gin for example, had a ________ effect on slavery – certainly – as you were getting –
RPW: If they had just invented a cotton picker instead of the cotton gin –
VJ: Things might have been different – things might be a little different – that’s right. And I think that automation, the advances in technology and what have you, make the civil rights crisis extremely crucial at this very point.
RPW: What I am driving at is this – I was horsing around – just how a moral question is always in historical perspective – this condition by historical perspective – do you see what I’m getting at there? I don’t have any bill or goods to sell about this – it’s just something that’s awfully hard to say the Greeks shouldn’t have held slaves – they were bad.
VJ: Well, this is what you get – you talk about justification – this is where you get into –
RPW: Just – I don’t know what to say about this – here is the whole problem – historical perspective – let’s take something else. If I read you a – this little passage – this is sort of a nasty way of doing things, really – reading you a passage – let’s talk about that – but I don’t have any other way to gauge such questions – I have some beautiful quotes from Lincoln, as you probably know. I will say that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black race. And I won’t go on with the rest ________ An interesting one is given after the Emancipation Proclamation to a group of free Negroes who called on the White House to thank Mr. Lincoln, the president. How does this affect you?
VJ: Well, no more than I believe about Lincoln that Lincoln was not necessarily a great advocate, as was indicated in your statement, of Negro equality and Negro rights. I think that Lincoln primarily acted to save the Union, and this was his real value. Now, to me, as a Negro a hundred years later, I’m not interested in the whys and the wherefores of what Lincoln did, because you see the only thing that I can see a hundred years later is that Lincoln signed the freedom paper – his name is on it – and in so far as I am concerned this is his only value.
RPW: A symbolic thing and not a personal value, then.
VJ: That’s right. He put his name on the paper, and this to me is a great triumph.
RPW: What do you think of Robert E. Lee – let’s just sort of throw these things around a little bit – what about Robert E. Lee in this connection?
VJ: Well, I think Robert E. Lee has a reputation, and as I think about him, of being a southern gentleman. He took the feet –
RPW: He was an emancipationist. He had slaves and he emancipated them very soon because he didn’t think it was – he thought slavery was an evil.
VJ: By the same token, he was loyal to his native Virginia.
RPW: His loyalty to what – now here’s a good – his loyalty to what? What is the nature of this loyalty? He’s a thorough emancipationist – he ________ slavery – much more than Lincoln did – he horsed around for years and years about it – Lee just said it cost me money but – I can’t participate in this. Grant held slaves until after the Civil War.
VJ: Yes – I’m not sure that Lee could have fought against the people from the south, even though – what I am trying to say is that the cause of the south for Lee might have been greater than the cause of Lee. I just don’t know, I just see Robert E. Lee as he’s depicted pretty much in the southern high school history books –
RPW: Let’s forget those.
VJ: Well – the only significance that I can attach to Lee is that after defeat he was a gentleman, and as you indicated he was an emancipationist and he freed the slaves – he did this kind of thing.
RPW: What was he loyal to – can we – I doubt that anybody knows necessarily, but what was he being loyal to – and how would you evaluate this loyalty?
VJ: Well, I think it’s really kind of a regional loyalty – that the south was more important to him that the Union, and maybe for some reason or other he did not see slavery as the key issue in the Civil War, as Lincoln did. And this is not to say that I know what he envisioned as the key issue, but if you move from the premise that it was – that he, you know, did not believe in slavery, then he saw something more important in the Civil War. He felt that – maybe it was economic where the south was concerned, or something like that. I’m just not certain.
RPW: I don’t know that anybody is certain. I guess my point behind all this is that the world has changed very decisively, hasn’t it? Issues seem clearer to us now than they did. It’s time we judged the past in terms of our present vision of issues.
VJ: Well, I think now the – I think that the past must look at Lee acting in 1965 –
RPW: What would he do now – in 1965?
VJ: I suspect that Lee in 1964 would be a Terry Sanford of North Carolina.
RPW: Do you think so?
RPW: I think he would probably belong to the Southern Regional Council.
VJ: That’s right. And I think that this largely depends on whether Lee was a politician –
RPW: ________ a politician.
VJ: - or whether or not he was a successful lawyer, as a part of a big firm, or a successful businessman. But I think that you are absolutely right, that Lee very probably would have been on the board or the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council. Had he lived – assuming that he was living now – but I think that you have to look at Lee in his time.
RPW: It’s a very hard thing to do imaginatively, isn’t it, without reading these things and making them sort of labels for our time, projected backward, and then – the reason I’m hammering at this is – in a rather unpleasant way, I guess, is because these things seem to have some reference to the way we behave now.
This is the end of Tape #3 of conversation with Vernon Jordan – see Tape #4.
TAPE 4 Searchable TextCollapse
ROBERT PENN WARREN VERNON JORDAN TAPE #4
RPW: This is Tape #4 of conversation with Mr. Vernon Jordan, continue – Let’s turn to another topic – some weeks ago I was talking to a lawyer, successful, prominent lawyer, who is a Negro, who said to me, Suddenly I find myself spending a lot of energy inverting symbolisms in the society around me. When I find anything that’s white or bright equal in value, I’m turning this around and to myself. Living in a white culture, where the symbolic values are white and bright and light equal good, and dark and black – these things equal the opposites – I find myself defensively turning these around to – in my own mind – all these hidden symbolisms. How do you respond to that – his condition – how do you feel about his condition?
VJ: I think that this is a problem that many Negroes are having – rejection of – and I guess what he means to some extent is a white man’s standard.
RPW: White equaling good – a symbol.
VJ: For me, I don’t have that problem, because –
RPW: White has white robes.
VJ: Yes – sure. I think it requires some sort of decision-making on the part of the individual Negro concerned, and I think it’s a part of a value system, that he sets up himself, despite whatever – valuation is placed by the use of that particular symbol on what it means in the white community. For me, it’s a matter of individual choice, and I don’t attach any significance to a particular thing because it’s characteristically white or characteristically Negro. If it concerns my self-interest or the self-interest of my wife and daughter –
RPW: You don’t find that the symbolisms of the blaze of light equalizing truth offensive – you don’t find the white robes of God offensive – these are the white – and values somehow being equated in a whole symbolism in the society in which you live?
VJ: It doesn’t bother me.
RPW: It doesn’t bother you?
RPW: It does some people to the point of – almost – you know – of physical stress.
VJ: I think it does. It doesn’t bother me because I feel secure enough to feel I can determine my own values, in terms of not what they mean to my peers or to my neighbors or to – but what they mean to me. And those persons whom I must necessarily immediately relate – my wife, my daughter, my mother, my father, or my in-laws –
RPW: Or your white friends?
VJ: That’s right. If these values have meaning for me, and there might even be some conflict here with my wife –
RPW: You actually don’t – you wipe out the symbolic structures around you entirely and say what it means to me in literal terms?
VJ: That’s right – for me. Now, I think that there are some people who are not so disposed – and I think that many Negroes have problems with this. I’ve been exposed to the white culture and it’s level best, and it’s a result of my college days –
RPW: Sure – the red shirts ________ that’s full of it – the Bible – the King James version is full of it.
VJ: But I did not take on these things as being sacrosanct, because they were white. I compared the two cultures, compared the two systems of values necessarily, and arrived at my own –
RPW: That is, you went behind the symbolism to your personal realities?
VJ: That’s right – and evaluated them on the basis of that which is most advantageous, and that which mostly pleases me, and this to me is the most important thing. If I’m pleased and happy, then to hell with what John Doe thinks.
RPW: The fact that truth is given a white robe or a blaze of white – this doesn’t strike you as anything –
VJ: Well, it’s not going to be repulsive to me. But this is to say also it doesn’t mean I’m going to like it or love it. It depends upon how in a given set of circumstances – or what in a given set of circumstances this means to me – maybe that’s talking in circles.
RPW: No, it’s not. I think it’s not talking in circles at all. In this connection there’s – I don’t want to talk as an anthropologist, by the way, but you have some strange facts. The same symbolism of white equaling truth or good, and dark equaling, you know –
VJ: Bad and dirty.
RPW: - untrue and bad – are African symbolisms, too. It’s a strange anthropological fact. There are some dances – I won’t go into all this – there are some dances where you have a struggle between virtue and vice – these are native dances – traditional dances – virtue is white plumed headdress, white robe – there’s no make-up, you see – the faces of both, you see, are the natural, untinted faces – yet the vice or evil is clothed in black – these are traditional tribal dances going back before European contact. The Chinese the same way – although they paint their faces white for this traditional dance.
VJ: Yes – maybe this follows through in our own culture. We drape things in black with death, but we marry in white as a sense of purity. But I don’t associate the lady in the wedding gown in white with – necessarily with any value of the white man.
RPW: Now, what I’m getting at – you don’t – some do. What I’m getting at is this – we have a strange situation where a regular contrast between the Negro and the white man in America, has led to a whole kind of symbolisms which is no problem to the African and no problem to the Chinese – no problem for the Malay. We have enough traditional stuff as far as the anthropology I read to carry over, where day and night are carried – without reference to complexions. Yet this is said to have become a real issue for many American people –
VJ: I think one manifestation of that is that – the old blue blood or blue vein notions that used to exist in the Negro community, that the light skinned Negroes are better than the dark skinned Negroes. I think that this is a manifestation to some extent of what you’re talking about. But to me this is tommyrot, that – I guess the indication is that if you are light – and certainly this is biologically true, that somewhere or other there is some white blood or white ancestry. But this to me means nothing. The only significance that I would attach to it is that there is some white blood somewhere, or some white ancestry, and – what does this determine for me? It determines nothing except that there is some white ancestry somewhere.
RPW: Let me – I’ll just make a statement here – a revolution aims at the liquidation of a regime or a class – there’s always been somebody who had his head chopped off, literally or figuratively – at least the liquidation of the power of the that regime. It does not have to set itself with a mutual way of life, a modus vivendi, after victory. The revolution looks forward to a crucial confrontation - ________ but the Negro movement must look forward to a settlement, not liquidation. Therefore, there must be new techniques and new objectives for this to be a revolution. Does this make any sense? Let me go back over it now.
VJ: Well, let me say this here – as I see the revolution, the revolution is a revolution fought, number one, not to take over, but it is a revolution –
RPW: That’s one difference. No liquidation, in other words.
VJ: That’s right. But it’s a revolution wherein you assume or that you take unto yourself, not anything superior, or not anything less than what is already given, but you assume some equal stature or equal recognition or equal opportunity or equal chance. This is not to say that you’re going to hog the show, but this is to say that if two apples are being passed out, that you’re going to get your two apples right alongside the next fellow, and that because you are Negro that you necessarily are limited to a half apple. And I think that this is what the revolution is about, is that a half a loaf, or ninety-nine of the hundred percent is not enough – that you’ve got to have all of it, in terms of your equal share, or in terms of your share. And what goes on, in the opportunities and in the privileges – and also with this, the rights and privileges, that you also share in the responsibilities.
RPW: ________ This does not conform to any previous social movement so far as I can make out – there’s no parallel in anything in history – I’m inclined to believe – I don’t want to be dogmatic about this – this is new. Now you may say this is therefore not a revolution, that is a word. If I follow you right, this is not at all like any revolutionary event that ever occurred before – it does not aim for liquidation of a class or a group of people – only for a chance of idea – is that right?
VJ: A change of idea and a change of status, from one of number 2 to an equal place, and moving into this you do not usurp anything that the people who already have these rights have.
RPW: In other words, this might be represented as the first democratic revolution to the world?
VJ: Yes – I’m not sure that I’m in a position to substantiate this – but I do think that the most important thing about this revolution is that it is not a revolution geared to liquidate, as you used, and it’s not a revolution that builds street barricades, and it’s not a revolution that’s fought with arms, but it’s a revolution I think that operates on a very human level whereby you try to get people to do things on the basis that people are people.
RPW: Well, going back, then – this would seem to be the first democratic revolution that’s ever existed under this definition, where it’s not aiming to liquidate a class or regime, but merely to reinterpret the light of a whole society.
VJ: That’s right – overthrow is a good word. There are some people in the society who say they’re trying to overthrow us. But I think that this thing is a matter of presently the white man being in the driver’s seat and saying gee and haw – pulling both reins – but here is a Negro who is saying let me too get up there in the driver’s seat and let me have some of the say about which way this horse is going to gee or which way he’s going to haw.
RPW: That is, the white man you’re talking about misinterprets the whole movement then, is that right? He doesn’t understand the nature of it?
VJ: That’s right. I think this is partly true, especially in this – he doesn’t understand that when a Negro gains this right of first-class citizenship, he doesn’t understand that when the Negro gains this, that he does not lose anything.
RPW: Right. There’s the formula right there – he doesn’t lose anything.
VJ: He doesn’t lose anything, because you can’t lose that which you in a sense don’t have a right to exclusively.
RPW: That is, he does not conceive or the nature of this revolution – he thinks it’s the same as the previous revolutions – if we called it a revolution – what did we call it?
VJ: This revolution is not a coup –
RPW: It’s not a power prayer – put it that way.
VJ: That’s right – that’s right.
RPW: Undoubtedly I think we must submit this, for some Negroes it is.
VJ: But I think that even those Negroes – this is a myth, it seems to me –
RPW: For most people outside the actual social process, I think – yes – but for some it is clearly – everybody
VJ: Yes, and there is some vindictiveness involved in this, but I think that –
RPW: Vindictiveness, you say – some people would say in identifying revolutions of the past, they would say there are two dynamic forces in a revolution – hope and hate. You can’t have a revolution until you have a hope for change – some guarantee of success – until you beat them down you can only have a servile revolt, which would lead nowhere. A revolution means a dynamic hope for a chance that is envisionable, plus a hate. Now, here is –
VJ: I think you have to address yourself to hate of what? I think it –
RPW: Good – go ahead.
VJ: I think it has to be hate of what – whether it’s a hate of the system or whether it’s a hate of the people who perpetuate the system.
RPW: All right – now we have a distinction which has never been made before in any revolution – this is the first time. Always before it has been of the perpetuators and not of the thing perpetuated.
VJ: Yes. And I think that this revolution, if you’re going to use the word hate – hate here must be used as hating the – not the perpetuators, but that which is perpetuated – the system itself. Because I think that to hate those people in power, those people who perpetuate it, would lead to the overthrow or the liquidation – necessarily.
RPW: Well, you are now talking like Dr. King.
VJ: I don’t mind talking like Dr. King.
RPW: I’m not saying that as an affront to you at all – I’m just saying you are.
VJ: But now of course, I think you also ought to understand that personally I’m not out to redeem the soul of America either.
RPW: Well, wouldn’t you just in passing perhaps, with your left hand –
VJ: Well, I think that – you see, I take the position that when I exercise my constitutional rights, I don’t care how the man sitting at the table next to me feels about it, or whether my presence there changes his heart or not. I don’t give a damn if he regurgitates or if he gets up and leaves, or if he turns over his glass or spills his coffee on the waitress – that’s his problem.
RPW: Wouldn’t you have a slight preference in that matter?
VJ: Well, there’s nothing like eating your meals sort of in some quietude or some tranquil situation. But by the same token, if this man is uneasy, if he gets ants in his pants – that’s his problem. And it only becomes my problem at such time that he comes and stands over me or disturbs me in the peaceful or tranquil enjoyment of my meal. Now – by that I mean, my presence there is not geared to redeem him – it’s not geared to redeem him – to love me or to think well of me. But I also feel that if I sit next to him in a classroom long enough, or that if I sit next to him on an airplane long enough, that somewhere along the way he’s going to come to the same realization that my classmates came to who had to live with me. Without their consent. That this guy – he’s just another guy – that he has – basically he does many of the same things that we do, but he doesn’t like asparagus and I don’t like Brussels sprouts.
RPW: Well, how different are you from Dr. King, then?
VJ: Well, I think that Dr. King’s philosophy is such that through this creative buffering – I think he calls it – that you reach out and you make this man love you – it’s because of the – and I’m not – I’ve never been quite sure what he means about love, because when he talks about this love, he says that I can assure you that you can’t like everybody. Well, I agree with him on that – a lot of folks I don’t like – a lot of folks I don’t want to live next to – a lot of folks I don’t want in my house for dinner or collecting my bills or for anything else. So I have no quarrel with that. But this business of redeeming the soul – and I guess this is through some sort of spiritual revelation as to the goodness and to some sort of perfect situation where the Negro is concerned – I’m not interested in that. When I send my child to school or when I go to school or when I use a public conveyance or when I pay my taxes, I just don’t want anybody to disturb me in the free exercise of my constitutional rights. Now, how he feels as he sees me exercising my rights – that’s his problem.
RPW: Tell me this – suppose we had all matters of constitutional rights clearly defined and clearly settled so there’s no friction on that level – the civil rights, the constitutional rights – what remains?
VJ: Well, I think if you had this thing clear –
RPW: All clearly settled.
VJ: And you had the behavior of folk as a result of this clarity controlled –
RPW: Controlled by what?
VJ: By the law itself, by the operation of the law – to say that when this man comes to register to vote, that you cannot impose upon him arbitrary standards because he’s black, that when you get these kind of things dissipated, that somehow or other as this Negro operates freely in this situation, that even the most prejudiced white man will come to see, as he sees him operating freely – and this has been his problem – he’s always seen him operate under given set of circumstances and can only appreciate him for him acting under this given set of circumstances, dictated by custom, mores and uses – but when he sees him acting as a free agent, and at that time he will come to, I believe, ultimately, some appreciation of this person, not as a black man but as an individual.
RPW: That is, you are putting your faith, then, in a legal framework which allows the human free play after that.
VJ: That’s right, that’s right. And once you get this free play, once you get this intercourse, once you find that when you sit next to this man that he reads a newspaper, that he’s tired on the bus going home, that he’s anxious to get home to his wife and a warm bowl of stew just like you are – that you find here similarities, you find here a similarity of hope to some extent, a similarity of despair, and these are common bonds –
RPW: This is the human communion you put your trust in – once the legal framework is settled.
VJ: That’s right. But now, until such time that the bus driver knows that it’s illegal for him to crack me across my head, or that he does not have the sanction of the state to hit me across my head because I sit on the front seat, then we can never reach this point of human communion, because he always sees me in a servile or – well, a different situation. He cannot see me as I really am. He seems me in a condition imposed upon me by circumstances.
RPW: What happened in Germany – and I don’t know the answer to this –
VJ: I hope you don’t expect me to tell you –
RPW: - in the late ‘20’s, about the Jews, where total legal protection and apparently full participation in a society, for all practical standards –
VJ: I think that you have to look at the leadership there – a man who – take this certain group of people and exploited them because of their religious difference.
RPW: That was a small matter, though, wasn’t it – something else was involved – religion was just something that was – a difference, in other words – not a religious difference.
VJ: Yes – here were some people different, and if I attached them on the basis of that difference, then I can ride the crest of power.
RPW: Let me ask the question – shifting around a little bit – when James Baldwin writes that the Southern Mob, that is, the street gang, or the cops in Jackson, act the way they act, they do not represent the will of the Southern majority. Does that make sense?
VJ: Well, it makes sense in that I believe the vast majority of southerners, white southerners for some reason or other would be reluctant to be identified with this lunatic fringe, and I also believe this, that you got on the one extreme maybe twenty percent of the people who are totally opposed to it, on the other side this – other twenty percent –
RPW: Opposed to the mob, you mean.
VJ: Opposed to the mob and the tactics of the mob, this kind of thing – and who also believe in the complete equality and freedom of the Negroes. And then you have the other twenty percent that composes a mob. But then you have a sixty percent who will go pretty much the way that the populace goes, so long as it does not involve them, having to make a personal witness, a testimony. And this is why I think leadership is so very important.
RPW: There’s no leadership in the South now except for the segregationists, is there – no real leadership. There’s some – a little spotty – but there’s no fundamental ________ is there?
VJ: Because I think that the real fundamental leadership is silent and the people –
VJ: That’s right. And their silence makes them ineffective, and once a guy like Chuck Morgan in Birmingham, who vocalizes – and this takes an awful lot of courage, and ultimately it resulted in Chuck’s having to leave Birmingham – and it takes a great deal of courage, because what the man is face with, or what he thinks he’s faced with, is a very bread and butter matter. He’s a lawyer who must necessarily depend upon white clients for business, and this business depends upon his house mortgage – or his house mortgage and the grocery bill depend upon the business – then he’s got considerations – and maybe if you can dispel these fears you can get more people to act.
RPW: One historian said to me sometime back – fear is the curse of the South – that is, the fear of the white man for the white man.
VJ: How do you want me to respond to that?
RPW: Whatever you say – want to respond.
VJ: I think that the white man is afraid, not only of his white brother but of himself. He’s not sure how he’s going to act in a given set of circumstances. And then the laws, the customs and the usage is – of the community, make him feel compelled to act in a certain vein, because as Reisman says, we all like to belong. And nobody wants – everybody wants the pleasure of his brothers and of his peers.
RPW: You just said a big thing there – and let’s stop at that point. He’s not afraid of his neighbor but he’s afraid of himself.
VJ: I think this is -
RPW: I think it’s right, too – it’s a big thing.
(end of tape)Collapse
TAPE 5 Searchable TextCollapse
ROBERT PENN WARREN VERNON JORDAN TAPE #5
RPW: Resuming the conversation with Vernon Jordan – this will be Tape #5 – We were talking earlier with Mr. Jordan about divisions of policy and temperament in Negro leadership. Shall we pick up where we left off this morning before we turn on tape?
VJ: Well, I think that one problem of leadership that we are experiencing, not only in the south but nationwide – I guess it’s peculiar to the south – and that is that historically white people in power, political or what have you, have been accustomed to calling on two or three Negroes in a given community –
RPW: That was the old ________ Hartsville, wasn’t it?
VJ: That’s right – I was just about to get to that –
RPW: Who were these Negro leaders who were called on as ritual leaders in Atlanta – who were they?
VJ: I don’t think that you can ever exclude an old man that I revere, whom I love and have a great deal of admiration for, as a practicing lawyer, that’s present Judge H.E. Walden – he has just been elevated to ad hoc judge of the recorders and traffic officers of Atlanta. The colonel has always been an active democrat, a real politician. And I think that during the four terms, as I remember, the Hartsville administration, that he could go an Atlanta or ________ Cochran ________ Street YMCA or even Dr. Clement at Atlanta University, or Mr. Milton at the bank, the president of the Citizens Trust Company – these men, who have considerable influence in the Negro community in Atlanta –
RPW: Wasn’t ________ Mr. King Senior –
VJ: Very much a part of that same –
RPW: - part of that same –
VJ: Very much a part of it, and I personally feel that he would still be, but for the stature and place in the sun that his boy has in the area of civil rights. But I think that Hartsfield’s modus operandi was to call these selected Negro leaders, who pretty much controlled what happened in the Negro community – they could keep John Doe quiet, if John Doe was talking out of line –
RPW: Could they – was this a vote delivery that was involved here?
VJ: Whatever the vote delivery here – but it’s always been my opinion that the Negro leaders delivered the vote, but never delivered much in return to the Negro voters by way of compensation.
RPW: You mean, it wasn’t a bribed vote, it was a vote in terms of what seemed to be mutual interests – is that it?
VJ: That’s right – you take a relatively moderate stand – in other words, that you don’t cry nigger, nigger – or with Hartsfield it was a Negro policeman who were limited in their arrests to Negroes, but in 1948 – I forget the year now – the mere appointment of Negro policemen or the advocation of Negro policemen, was a major advance to some extent. Now, I think that Mayor Hartsfield could not very well operate as mayor of Atlanta in 1964, because he would be certainly disillusioned – once he called the traditional Negro leaders for delivery on a particular project, i.e., demonstrations, that he would find that they do not – they cannot control –
RPW: Well, didn’t Mayor ________ find that out?
VJ: He found that out – he found out that he could not, no more, operate like Hartsfield. He found out, even prior to his election, though he had the backing of the traditional Negro leaders, that there were some young ________ in the Negro community here who, number one, rebelled and repudiated in the established Negro leadership, and in a few weeks were able to deliver to another candidate ten thousand votes or more that were traditionally – but for the rebellion and repudiation – have gone right along with the traditional or established Negro leadership.
RPW: Now, what happened to the splintering of the present day Negro leadership in Atlanta and elsewhere? There’s a problem of control and unity in the Negro leadership.
VJ: Well, I think that, as in most situations, the young people, as they become more exposed to education and educational opportunities, as they become more aware of what’s going on in their society, and as they attempt to project themselves, to project their ideas, - I think it’s kind of a natural – there’s a natural repudiation on the part of the whole people who have been in power for so long, that they think that the young folk ought to wait their turn –
RPW: You were talking this morning of your participation in the summit conference in Atlanta last year, before the disturbance in the city ________ and you diagnosed for me the ________ splits in the summit group – would you do that again please?
VJ: Yes. I think that basically in the Atlanta summit leadership conference, that there are three basic groups. We have the direct actionist – those people who feel that demonstrations per se are necessary, not only to dramatize the situation but to shake the so-called power structure out of its apathy and out of its intransigence and out of its adamancy with regard to the status quo. I think also that there is a second group, the moderates, who believe in selective direct action, who believe in concerted direct action at a particular target at some time that negotiation with that particular target or with the people who control that particular target has failed. I think also that these moderates believe in, prior to an onslaught of demonstrations or direct action, they believe in taking the approach of discussing first that the problem is, what the people involved – a sort of sustained process in negotiation or what have you – and that at such time as that has failed, then I think they would take the position that negotiations are the only way to solve the issue.
RPW: Let me ask a question here – the second group – the moderates – are they moving in terms of limited objectives each time – is that the idea?
VJ: Yes – I think they take the position that –
RPW: Despite the limited objective – is that it?
VJ: That’s right – that none of these situations are all or nothing, that you might have to make a concession here, but this concession here is necessary so that you might be able to move onto another front necessarily, that you cannot in your petition ask for everything, necessarily, but that you – that it’s important that you concentrate on a target until such time as you have completed this, and then you move to B. Now third, I think the third group, which would be the established leadership, puts some faith in the conference table. Everything can be worked out – and I think that they use the term worked out because over the years things have been worked out – generally been worked out, not necessarily to the disadvantage of the Negro, but oftentimes they have – get themselves to maintain things as they – on the status quo basis. I think that the magic of the whole thing is to find some formula whereby you give vent to each of the procedures, of the three groups. I think maybe there’s room for all of these things to operate, but I think that you have to assess it, like a quarterback assesses moving his team toward the goal line – Roy Wilkins made some reference to this in his speech to the annual dinner of the Southern Regional Council – there are times when it’s appropriate for the quarterback to do a quarterback sneak, and other times when he needs to kick on third down. But it does not mean necessarily that he will field goal from his own two yard line.
RPW: Who are the people and which organizations are identified in the Southern Conference with these three positions – how do you align them – or the persons up – or organization up – in front of these three positions?
VJ: I think that Jim Foreman, who is executive director of student non-violent coordinating committee, would stand out as the leader of the action group, the first group that I mentioned. He’s joined in that group by the committee on appeal for human rights, who is presently led by a young fellow named Larry Fox, a student at (Mohawk?) College – the committee on appeal for human rights is a continuation of the student coalition of the schools here, that led to the sit-ins of 1960. I don’t think that the committee on appeal has the kind of creative and imaginative leadership that its first leaders had. I think that the students, they suffer some frustration from what their older brothers or their classmates in high school who were a year or two ahead of them did. And they too want to join the crusade, but I think they have not quite realized that the situation in 1964 and 1963 is not as it was in 1960. And I think that your moderate leadership in Atlanta would come from – I think that you would really have to put the SCLC – Southern Christian Leadership Conference – to some extent, though not wholeheartedly, in the group with the direct actionists.
RPW: What about the NAACP, with which you are associated?
VJ: Well, I think NAACP is pretty much the – would have to be classed in the moderate group. They did here advocate the sacrifice – or at least an economic boycott for Easter as an appropriate direct action technique. I think that for all practical purposes that the local branch of the NAACP here, under the leadership of Dr. C. Miles Smith, would have to be classed as a – as moderate in this classification, as would the Urban League. Clarence Coleman, who is a co-chairman of the Southern Conference, and also director of the Southern Region Area – compromising several states in the south in the National Urban League – I think that they too would have to be classed as moderates. Now, I would put the Atlanta Negro Voters’ League, which historically in Atlanta has been a very powerful influence – I think that we would have to class them as a part of the established leadership, led by Colonel Walden, C.E. Scott of the – editor of the Atlanta Daily World, who believe that if you go to the white people, and sit down and talk with them, that these things can be worked out. I think, however, also, that they have come to realize that this is not enough. It takes more than just sitting down and talking to get the kind of results. Now, the one thing I – one area where I think that the southern leadership has failed, and that is that there has been some failure to realize the powerful tension – or certainly if they realize it, to implement this realization, and to – the mobilization of the real political power and political strength of Negroes in this town. You have an all-citizens registration committee, which does registration and voting, but registration and voting in the Negro community has never been a completely total Negro project. Preachers preach about it, people talk about it, and – but it has never been a total – and I’m sure that this is not being achieved in many other communities.
RPW: What about this thing that you mentioned this morning about the split in the summit conference, that Mr. Walker, Gerard Walker, had a memorandum –
VJ: Y. Walker, my friend and one in whom I have –
RPW: - for provocation of a little bloodshed to point things up.
VJ: Yes – Y. Walker, my good friend and one for whom I have the utmost respect for, but one whom I reserve the right to disagree with – in his battle plan had something to the effect that we need to create an incident, and we need to show the policemen to be exactly what they are – bad and mean and evil. And there was something in his plan whereby there was a need to deliberately provoke them into action.
RPW: Provoke the Negro policeman into action against Negroes –
VJ: No, no, no – this is – I’m not sure this does not relate to the Negro policemen –
RPW: They were there – they were a spearhead –
VJ: They were there. I’m not sure why – I haven’t given this any thought – but this was a part of the astuteness of the local police force here, Chief Jenkins – who is the chief of police force here – to thinking that the use of Negro officers would have some disconcerting effect on the demonstrators, that they might not act quite as bad. Whether this proved to be true I am not in a position to say.
RPW: It removes one grievance, though, doesn’t it?
VJ: Well, it’s kind of difficult to raise the issue of police brutality, because I think if by nature the Negro policemen are in sympathy with what the Negro demonstrators are doing, but by the same token they have their responsibility to do their duty, and if, given orders to arrest, they have some responsibility to do just that.
RPW: But no roughing up –
VJ: Of course not. And I doubt seriously if you’d find any real instances of Negro policemen roughing up demonstrators.
RPW: Did you find any instances of white policemen roughing up demonstrators in this last affair?
VJ: There were reported instances. I cannot attest one way or the other as to the accuracy of the instances, because I did not see them. I think that only those persons who were present could attest to that. I can speculate, however, that the very presence of Negroes attacking the systems could engender some sort of retaliatory efforts on the part of white policemen.
RPW: If a memorandum exists to provoke roughing up, isn’t it likely that somebody, ________ Owens, provoking roughing up?
VJ: I beg your pardon?
RPW: Isn’t it likely here that the policy provoking roughing up has been discussed, that you may very well find an individual provoking some roughing up even against himself?
VJ: I think so. He may provoke it as a part of – well, I think it’s deliberate, and I think that this is an error. I think that the protest is enough, that you don’t have to deliberately provoke policemen to do oftentimes things that they might want to do, but would not do by exercising some restraint under normal circumstances, and I think you push them. Now, it needs to be pointed out that – and I think that the demonstrators saw the fallacy of this position, of deliberating provoking the police. And there were indications that they had refrained from so doing.
RPW: How serious – and I mean the word serious here – but how serious is the divergence of view, the fractures, not merely in the Atlanta conference but in Negro leadership in general? How much of a problem is it?
VJ: Well, I don’t see it as a terrible problem because I think that no group or organization has any monopoly on the panacea. I think that each group can show where its particular method or its particular emphasized method has worked in a given situation. I think the problem that the civil rights organization have is that of assessing a particular situation for exactly what it is, and on the basis of that assessment to determine what is the appropriate action that can possibly bring about the quickest possible result, that being desegregation.
RPW: Human nature being what it is, isn’t there bound to be an element of a mere struggle for power too in all these matters?
VJ: I should think that you can never subtract the glow aspect of it, or the struggle for power, or the struggle to take credit for that which has been accomplished. And I’m not sure that this is not healthy.
RPW: It’s awful human anyway.
VJ: That’s right. People are people. And people want credit, oftentimes people want credit when they’re not due it. And I just know what you do about a situation is quite human, and it’s likely to recur again and again.
RPW: There’s one thing – speaking historically – that always, so far as I know, in revolutionary situations – the leader – the single man has emerged, and taken charge. He has dominated the scene. Now, there’s no single man who has emerged to dominate or to control, to be the focus of the Negro movement – using that general term rather than civil rights – the general focus for Negro revolt, resistance, unrest, movement, whatever you choose to call it. The nearest person is Martin Luther King, but he is far from having an undivided support. He’s ________ the whole movement.
VJ: Well, I think there’s no unanimity necessarily, but I think that even those people who would disagree with Dr. King’s method of operating, will acknowledge that he is the titular head of the rights party, so to speak. And I think that the Negro movement has historically had a one person who was a rallying cry. Frederick Douglas in the abolitionist times, or – and in the post Civil War period, he had two people to rise to national prominence – prominence immediately following the turn of the century – DuBois and Booker Washington – where you had conflicting views, and then following DuBois and Washington, certainly there was James Waldon Johnson, who served for a long time as executive secretary of the ATP, and rising in the late ‘30’s was Charlie Huston, who was really the brain trust of the students under the 14th Amendment, and during the war Walter White, who was a rallying cry, and after Walter White, Thurgood Marshall.
RPW: And A. Phillips Randolph.
VJ: A. Phillips Randolph historically, yes, is considered even today I think a – and is in my opinion, the elder statesman of the movement.
RPW: Well, now here’s a ________ of what appears to be a decisive conflict, and the focal leader has not emerged. This may be another difference from all previous such movements. But the resistance to Dr. King is very great in some quarters, as we know – very great.
VJ: That’s right – it’s quite great –
RPW: People are stuck with him because there’s nobody else to take his place – put it that way.
VJ: Of course, in my personal opinion I think that – and I think that history will prove me – will bear me out ultimately – that Roy Wilkins, who is quiet, very efficient, extremely able and capable man, who in NAACP circles and nationally and internationally is respected as an able leader, will probably come out as one of the unsung heroes of the Negroes’ cause. He leads and heads the largest and most powerful civil rights organization – to some extent whose name itself perpetuates a kind of head, but I’m not sure that necessarily Roy is associated as the leader. I wish he were, because I think that he actually is. In my opinion I consider Roy my leader, and I consider Roy more important to civil rights movement in many aspects than Dr. King. You need to understand that I say this because I have an NAACP background and have been working on Mr. Wilkins’ staff. But I am not so blind as to not be able to recognize the real value that Dr. King has played in this movement, and that is of rallying Negroes – I think you have to have a rallying cry – you have to have the cheerleader, the man out front who’s going to get the crowds in, and who’s going to inspire them. I think that it was very appropriate that at the Washington March that Dr. King be last because he was the personification of the emancipated, he was the Moses, he is the Moses for this era.
RPW: What do you think of Bide Ruston as a leader?
VJ: I think Bide Ruston is probably a good thinker and a good organizer, but not a leader in the true sense of the word. He’s the administrator, the man who implements.
RPW: Do you know the story which is fairly common that he was respected and called the great organizer of the March on Washington to close ranks?
VJ: Well, I’m not terribly familiar with that.
RPW: ________and to protect him they said he is Mr. March on Washington, he is the indispensable organizer, and to cover up and to protect him, to prevent a split of the whole program –
VJ: I’m not aware of that.
RPW: This is one of the tales one hears, you know.
VJ: I’m just not aware of it. I understand he’s a very competent man, with very definite ideas.
RPW: Also one of the things one hears is this, that his presence in the boycott – the school boycott – that one of the causes of the split among the various organizations that were supporting the boycott –
VJ: Well, I have some hesitance to express myself on that, because I – this is really the first time I’ve heard this.
RPW: Well, it’s a story one hears, you know, in conversation.
VJ: I am not terribly disturbed at the competition, by the numerous organizations that are now on the scene, because I think that they all have a role to play. I think that the NAACP plays a major role, I think that in the field of guarding and protecting and defending the Negro rights in this country, and will always be.
RPW: Here’s the old – historically speaking - ________ there’s always been this moment of a vast number of organizations supporting the principles operating in a social movement – by and large there’s always been one that achieved – almost always achieved dominance, in order to carry things through to a settlement. Now, the question is whether the Negro movement can proceed without one policy achieving dominance. Of course this may be different again from your previous situations, and history may show things that I don’t know about offhand this way, where you have a multiplicity of forces. This is ________ and there’s no single –
VJ: Yes – that’s why you have so many churches. And they all have their role to play here, and I think that they all satisfy a certain notions and attitudes that people have. It gives people a legitimate place to express –
RPW: There is more like the rise of the rebel ________ Russian revolution, where one thing takes over – one element takes over.
VJ: Well, there is no taking over here, but I think there is a sharing of responsibility more than anything –
RPW: As of the moment.
VJ: - as of the moment. The next two years – I don’t know – heroes are created in strange fashions –
RPW: They certainly are.
VJ: (Both talking together) I’m not sure that going to jail will create the next national hero. Are we at the end?
RPW: End it up.
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