Nelson begins with a discussion about The American Society of African Culture (AMSAC), at a three-day conference at Howard University under the title “Southern Africa in Transition.” He discussed his trips to Africa in which he explored the possibilities of using non-violence against the rulers of South Africa. Nelson opines that it is “inherent in man” to overcome the use of force and find a more peaceful solution. Warren and Nelson discuss the work of Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, as well as work by Gunnar Myrdal. Nelson explains that the “Negroes’ dilemma” is to want identification within society (white and black), and at the same time find unity within “lines of race and common suffering.”
William Stuart Nelson
William Stuart Nelson (1895-1977) was an expert on nonviolence, a civil rights activist, and university president. Nelson was born in Paris, Kentucky. Nelson served in the United States Army in World War I. Following the war he studied at the University of Paris and the University of Berlin before earning his BD at Yale University in 1924. In 1925 he became a professor of religion at Howard University. In 1931 he became the first African American president of Shaw University. Nelson would finish his academic career at Howard as Vice President of Special Projects in 1967. During the civil rights movement he spoke at the Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change in 1959, and at the 1962 Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He participated in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Following his death in 1977 his wife, Blanche Wright Nelson, published an essay about Nelson’s life in the Journal of Religious Thought, “A Tribute to My Husband.”
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.]
Transcript of Taped Conversation
with DR. WILLIAM STUART NELSON of
March 3, 1964 – Tape #1
MR. WARREN: This is a conversation with Dr. William Stuart Nelson of HowardUniversity, March 3rd, Tape 1.
DR. NELSON: You might be interested to know the genesis of this trip to Africa.
MR. WARREN: I should be interested, yes.
DR. NELSON: In April of 1963, The American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) held a three-day conference at Howard University under the title “Southern Africa in Transition.” Its aim was to focus wide attention on the very complex and difficult problems faced by the people struggling for freedom in this area. It hoped to promote an understanding of the desires and plans for a southern Africa in which all the people might share equally in the responsibilities and the privileges of self-government.
At this conference I met Ndabaningi Sithole, National Chairman of the Zimbabwe African Peoples National Union, who had come to the conference from Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, where he was in exile from Southern Rhodesia. You have doubtless noticed that Mr. Sithole is in the current news occasioned by the coming to power in Southern Rhodesia recently of the racist Ian Douglas Smith. Mr. Sithole’s view of non-violence, publicly expressed in Washington, was that it is useful only against one who has a conscience. Otherwise, one is warranted in using violence. Following a discussion between us, in which basic differences of views on non-violence were apparent, Mr. Sithole suggested that I come to Dar es Salaam for a discussion with him and his colleagues there.
I did go to Dar es Salaam in August of last year to find that Mr. Sithole had returned to Southern Rhodesia only to be placed under arrest. Strangely enough, however, upon my arrival in Southern Rhodesia I met Mr. Sithole in Salisbury at the home of Dr. Paul Geren, the American Consul General to the Federation of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. That evening Dr. Geren’s guests engaged in a long after-dinner discussion of the pros and cons of non-violence.
Upon leaving Salisbury, I noticed in the press the report of a plea by Mr. Sithole that Africans array themselves on the side of non-violence. Since returning home, I have heard that a friend of mine of many years, who lingered in Salisbury after I left, has described Mr. Sithole as promoting vigorously the principles of non-violence in the Federation of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasland.
My trip to African had as its purpose, not simply to meet Mr. Sithole and his friends but to explore generally the temper among Africans as to the possibilities of using non-violence to overcome their disabilities at the hands of the rulers of South Africa, the Portuguese possessions, and Southern Rhodesia. In my visits to eleven countries I was able to talk with such leaders as Mr. Nyerere, Mr. Kaunda and Mr. Nkruma, all heads or prospective heads of states, and a large number of African cabinet members, educators, and others concerning their attitudes and that of their followers toward the best way to meet the threats from the enemies of the freedom of Africans. From these talks I concluded that there is not much sentiment in favor of non-violence in Africa under the present circumstances. This I can understand from what I saw in Johannesburg and heard in Southern Rhodesia. On all this I hope to have more to say in time.
MR. WARREN: On the question of non-violence, may I read you a little passage from Dr. Kenneth Clark on the subject of Dr. King, one that you may have encountered already: “On the surface, King’s philosophy appears to reflect health and stability, while black nationalists portray pathology and instability. A deep analysis, however, might reveal that there is also an unrealistic, if not pathological, basis in King’s doctrine -- the natural reactions to injustice, oppression, humiliation, bitterness and resentment. The form which such bitterness takes need not be overtly violent, but the corrosion of the spirit seems inevitable. It would seem, therefore, that any demand that the victims of oppression be required to love those who oppress then places an additional, an intolerable burden upon them.” That passage I’ve found of interest. How do you respond to it?
DR. NELSON: Surely the demand that we love our enemy does place a heavy burden upon the best of men. The fact is that most great moral and religious insights place unwelcome demands upon us. But this is the price of getting rid of the brute in us and of exorcising it in others. It is important, of course, to know what we mean by love in the religious sense. In the simplest terms it means, at least for me, making the welfare of another person as important to one as his own welfare. If this is difficult it is also the loftiest insight of our heritage. Furthermore, it is testimony to the belief that even in the brutish man there is, deep down in him, something better. The secret of making the world better is to evoke that something. If love is the means, as I believe it is, surely to call its use unrealistic, if not pathological, is to condemn the race to an endless round of tit for tat, of violence in answer to violence. On the other hand, the doctrine which Martin Luther King preaches is that of the most persuasive and enduring of prophets and seers -- of the spokesmen in the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads; of Buddha, Jesus, Tolstoy, Gandhi.
MR. WARREN: In other words (may I interrupt a second), by Dr. Clarke’s rendering, you are dealing with this other part where the aggression and resentment is short-circuited and you get effects on the personality to bear. But you are saying, just to be sure I understand you, I’ll say it back: Another aspect of man’s nature which can be actually developed by this discipline. Is that it?
DR. NELSON: I am saying that inherent in man is the possibility of rising above the beast which is surely in him. We are all both human and animal. You and I could engage here and now in a brawl and a fight if we permitted ourselves to, if our personal histories had been different from what they are. At the same time, however deeply one may have offended the other, we could embrace each other, sacrifice for each other, give our lives for each other. This means, then, that at least one of us must have appealed to what he believed was good in the other in the hope that the other would somehow respond, and that the offense would never be repeated. I am saying that there is this possibility in us as well as the manifestations of the brute.
MR. WARREN: Then you don’t believe that a man without a potential conscience exists, except in the case of pathological cases, is that it?
DR. NELSON: I believe we are warranted in acting as if that explanation were undeniably true.
MR. WARREN: In Mississippi I encountered every stripe of opinion, of course, on this matter. Here’s a place of crisis and where physical violence is always a possibility, every day it’s a possibility. At the riot in Jackson -- at Jackson College a few weeks ago, in the street there, there was a great chance of a real blow-up which was headed off, partially at least through the efforts of Mr. Evers who went among the students and got them back, tried to quiet them and get them off the street. (I didn’t see this; this was all reported to me.) Now, some of the younger people I’ve talked to deplored this effort to break the -- to get the crowd off the street. They said that all right, we can have a crisis, we need one, in violence, and maybe the guard -- the nationalized guard, and then we have a showdown. This will be awfully unpleasant but it’s a Machiavellian tactics but the only thing that will break the deadlock. From that extreme position on up to the position you have outlined, all sorts of scalings down, this line when up against a point of real physical violence. The assumption there is no conscience in the Jackson College, you know. But here’s something that puzzled me a great deal. Mr. Evers, in his conversation, had said: “Bloodshed solves nothing. Birmingham with its disastrous phase, and things of that sort, do you see that allowed non-violence/aligned with non-violence? Five days later, on the 17th of February in Nashville, he made a speech advocating non-selective reprisals. He said, “Reporter, write this down: ‘If a church is bombed with children, we shall bomb a church with children. If a Negro is shot, we will shoot a white man -- not selectively, just a white man, children either way is easiest.” This is very puzzling, to see this man change his whole view in five days, and I’ve written and asked him if he could somehow clarify what happened in his mind during that period. I haven’t yet heard from him. But it’s a very strange fact, this sudden shift, some deep emotional shift during that five days.
DR. NELSON: Mr. Warren, that isn’t at all strange to me. Men are plunged into this struggle not on the basis of long thinking and profound convictions. They are gathered up in a movement which up to this point has succeeded pretty well. They sense that there is something good in it. Immediately, however, when it fails to work, when the one against whom it is directed responds brutally, they lose faith in its workability and turn to what society on the whole has always turned to: reprisal. I am not surprised at all. The wonder is that more do not so act in the beginning, considering the history of the racial struggle.
MR. WARREN: That’s the wonder.
DR. NELSON: That is the wonder; that is the miracle.
MR. WARREN: Mrs. Richardson had a comment on this episode (by the way, I wanted to report that I had real admiration, you see for Mr. Evers. This is not, you know -- I’m trying to define --
DR. NELSON: Oh, I understand perfectly.
MR. WARREN: About rapport I felt, at least. Anyway, Mrs. Richardson said, “No, this is a mistake to get them back on the campus and leave them.” She said, “You have to go in,” she said, “Go in, talk with them, get the violence out of the kids who are about ready to go wild. Pray, sing, and say now we’re going right back on a non-violent basis, so that the people would not think they were afraid and also they would not be bottled or feel frustrated. So go back, and this time we’re going in an hour later or two hours later, and we’ll march out again, and this time with non-violence as a program. She said if you let it cool off for weeks and days, something happens inside. It festers. This is her analysis of that situation.
DR. NELSON: Yes, I think something like that is right. A person has to be brought along by stages. Even so, when the particular episode is over, he may still take the road of reprisal. On the other hand, in the process there are going to be some converts or at least a modification of the views of these participants toward life, as to how best to get wrongs removed. They will have seen some minor miracles, you know, if they have got deeply involved in the movement.
MR. WARREN: Dr. Clark goes on (I may have the quotation here, in another -- it’s not here) that many white people admire Dr. King because he lulls them into the fond hope that the Negro will not resent that this is a way of perpetuating the notion of the Uncle Tom equally Negro, among whites, and this accounts, in part, at least, for the admiration that many white people feel for Dr. King. How much sense does that make to you?
DR. NELSON: I would not be surprised if many white people choose him over some leader who is on the edge of force and whose temper and language are generally violent. On the contrary I would say that a far greater number -- and comparisons are always dangerous where the facts are not available -- I would say that many people, most, perhaps, have responded to Dr. King because they sense something deep and good and workable in what he has done. After all, a majority of the people profess to be religious to at least have some religious background. It is difficult to get completely away from such a background. They respond instinctively in respect, even perhaps in admiration, to acts of restraint and sacrifice coupled with evident courage. They see something in this behavior and faith which transcends their own capabilities. They get a view of the best in man. They see in King what their religion has taught them is right but what they have been unable to express in their own lives, and what they rarely see in the behavior of most men, even most leaders.
MR. WARREN: Dr. Clark says or strong implies, that this movement which has worked in the South, you see, he admits, to some extent, would not work in the North. I presume because the religious background of the Negro in the North is less immediate than is the South, that the religious basis in the South is not in the North, and an appeal to non-violence on his terms would be therefore weaker in the North.
DR. NELSON: I believe myself that the non-violent movement as practiced in the South would face greater difficulties in the North. I can think of no better way to describe the difference between the religious background of the Negro in the South as against that in the North than that it is, as you suggest, more “immediate.” It needs to be remembered that genuine non-violence is religious in essence. There is no question but that in the great urban centers of the North religion faces greater competition than in the South. There is, of course, no necessary conflict between urban sophistication and religion. On the contrary, urban sophistication profits by religion provided the religion is also sophisticated. It takes, however, a lot of this kind of religion to go around in the big cities. For many years Northern ministers have complained that newcomers from the South “stray away from God.”
But quite apart from religion, Northern Negroes generally differ from Southern Negroes. Their taste for freedom has been sharpened. Fear no longer haunts them as in the South. Court decisions against them are not so consistently made in advance. They can better afford the risks of direct action. Non-violence, under these circumstances, faces greater difficulties. I hasten to say, however, that this should certainly not discourage efforts to develop strong non-violent movements in the North. To permit this to happen is to admit the defeat of the movement’s success in America.
MR. WARREN: There are so many things you have started there, I hesitate to take just one, but I’m going to take one that’s implied in how we started this topic a moment ago. In relation to this comparison of North and South, how do you account for the fact that suddenly, in a matter of just a few years, the leadership of the Negro movement’s been largely southern?
DR. NELSON: First, the race problem is more acute in the South. Second, Martin Luther King happened to be in the South. Why Mrs. Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat, and Dr. King happened to live in the same city is one of the mysteries which men cannot explain. Dr. King makes an extraordinary picture -- of religious parentage, born and brought to early manhood in the South --
MR. WARREN: His winters at Atlanta ---
DR. NELSON: Yes, at Morehouse College, where he first read Thoreau. It was in the North, however, that he read deeply in philosophy and religion, that he was stirred to broaden his knowledge of Gandhi by reading everything that he could find out about him. He returned to the South; his house was bombed; a crowd threatening violence gathered outside. He brought to bear on that situation the religious insight and power born of this total experience. This, in my judgment, was an extraordinary linking of events.
MR. WARREN: But he is one among many of these leaders. I mean there are dozens and dozens in Survey and he autographed an article on this subject, this question arises: Did they start calling you names, this massive percentage of the new leadership which is from the South? There are varying --there are various interpretations of this.
DR. NELSON: I do not find great difficulty in understand the springing up so swiftly of many Negro leaders of the non-violent movement in the South. First, the problem of racial injustice is massive there. It is everywhere and in the most irritating forms. Negro ministers, increasingly well trained, have a large following. Some twenty-four hours after Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for failing to give up her seat to a white passenger, Negro leaders assembled in a church to plan their protests and most of them were ministers. When the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, four of the six officers were ministers. The church was the center of a weekly assembly which proved a crucial factor in the sustaining of morale. Many such people in the North who would respond have their religious roots in the South. Life in the Northern cities is different, more sophisticated on the whole, more “worldly,” as one says. Thus, in Montgomery, it could be expected that the kind of message Dr. King brought would find a greater response. The pattern of events, then, is logical. The extraordinary and fortunate combination was the presence in this Southern city of a Southern-born man, deeply religious, highly trained in philosophy and theology, who could translate this knowledge into fervent terms that people would understand and feel deeply. Right beside him and close behind him there appeared numerous other leaders who had similar orientation, if not always quite so deep. That is the miracle, if we choose to use that word loosely.
MR. WARREN: I was talking with Ralph Ellison about this point and Ralph is a -- born in Oklahoma but educated in the South, in Alabama, Tuskegee, and knows the South very well. His line of thought ran something like this: It’s parallel to the notion that you hear sometimes of the benefit the marginal psychological benefit of segregation in annealing a character, in toughening character, which in some of the surveys has been a frequent response made by leaders, southern leaders or southern-born leaders. And it’s said by Mr. Farmer, among others, you know what he said is segregation toughen me. He said it not only made me doubt . . . but it gave me the will to use them. And Ralph takes the view that part of this, one element in the development of southern leadership was what you were saying, I guess, and I wanted to tell it in different terms, was the pressure of immediate segregation itself, it toughened a body of leaders, gave them the will to resist, to deal with. Where the more vague humiliations and more vague repressions in the North tended to beat off. The issue is not joined clearly. And that actually that segregation had proved a kind of breeding ground in the last generation, for leadership.
DR. NELSON: That, I think, is true. At the same time the almost totally repressive aspect of segregation in the South has also robbed certain Negroes of the power to resist, either overtly or subjectively. I was born in Kentucky ---
MR. WARREN: Yes, I know you were.
DR. NELSON: But I spent nine adult years in other parts of the South, including the Deep South. One great disappointment was to discover the extent to which many Negroes were not deeply troubled by what they had to suffer.
MR. WARREN: Do you think, that one of the problems has been the fact that the Negro accepted the white evaluation of the Negro in some deep way?
DR. NELSON: Often.
MR. WARREN: Often.
DR. NELSON: But, remember, we are dealing with centuries of repression and denigration. My second observation is that for many Negroes from slave times onward, repression has bred the deepest resentment, to which the slave insurrections and the enormous number of slave runaways testify. The numbers in these classes have grown. Beneath outward, deferential deportment there is often boiling resentment.
DR. WARREN: I don’t know how I could generalize about this, but in my conversations I begin to see a pattern something of this sort: A mother or a father, so far most often a father in the background, who, though the father may have been, say, poor and illiterate or semi-literate, would say to the son: “Look, don’t believe what they say about you.” Some image of the father would give the boy, that would toughen him to self-respect and refuse the white man’s stereotype of the Negro. I don’t know how far to push this, but this is certainly the tale told by more than one person I’ve talked to, which is that there’s a man in the background, sometimes a mother, but usually it’s a father who says this.
DR. NELSON: To this I would say that there is always in the Negro the possibility of deepest self-respect provided there is the evocator [evacuator]. If, however, there is none -- there is no mother, father, teacher, or minister who can make him believe in himself -- he can easily yield to the old temptation of the accepting the conventional low estimate. It is different when there comes along a friend or a prophet and says: “Move out of this. Be a man.”
MR. WARREN: Who gives the person a new sense of identity, a new sense of his role, is that the * * *
DR. NELSON: It is the one who enables him to identify himself with something other than that with which he has been habitually identified.
MR. WARREN: The white man’s view of him.
DR. NELSON: Precisely. He is a laborer and a full adult and he is habitually called “boy.” He has never been called by his last name by a white man in his life. It requires a major operation to alter a person’s view of himself once he has been subjected all of his years to this kind of degrading view of himself. Now when a Martin Luther King or a Shuttlesworth or a James Farmer comes along and says: “God made you a man; Jesus Christ died for you; you are a free American; you fought for your country; get out of this, “ or something like that -- it makes a difference. He feels like the two women in the South whose home was shot into because they attended an education meeting on voter registration. One of them you recall said: “Yes, I’m gonna vote. I ain’t affeared any mo”; and the other: “Yes, bless Jesus, I’m gonna vote.”
MR. WARREN: And to resist the resentment may lead the way to random violence or criminality or psychic disorder, the resentment gets short-circuited and is not constructive, in that case, is that it?
DR. NELSON: There is in every individual something of the brute. I’m saying the brute in . . .
MR. WARREN: I understand.
DR. NELSON: I mean the kind of brute that is in all of us when we “get mad” and swear or slap or shout. If there is no appeal to the other side of us, this side will take over because it’s deep and strong in us and is there every minute and hour of the day. If there is nothing to evoke the finer side of us, which is also always there, this uglier side will prevail.
MR. WARREN: . . . . . . I have a slight acquaintance with, who’s a Negro, made a remark to me that the new movement is a shift from a matriarchal society among Negroes, to a patriarchal society among Negroes, that “the father has returned,” as he put it. I don’t know how he would argue this, there’s some probability of specificity to it, anyway, I should think.
DR. NELSON: I believe myself that the imbalance represented by the past matriarchal influence upon Negro life is being arrested. When the home was the greatest positive center of influence upon the new generation, the mother was the natural center of power, especially when the man was gone or when there had never been one -- in the home. Now the family is more stable; the man is more often there. More important, however, is the fact that the Negro man is gaining in education, position, power, and thus in respect. His image in the child’s mind is increasingly more powerful and positive than in the past. At the same time, the mother remains a potent factor, for the Negro elite is still comparatively small. Among the masses, family life is still too unstable, a fact which places the burden of child raising upon the mother (and, incidentally, upon the grandmother) and thus increases the maternal influence. The mother still plays an important role in holding the Negro society together even if it is not as great relatively as in the past.
MR. WARREN: And this goes back into the slave situation where the father might be sold off or the mother sold off, with child, so that the continuity was necessarily with the mother.
DR. NELSON: Often the child knew no father.
MR. WARREN: Often knew no –
DR. NELSON: Often knew no father. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are classic instance of this. But the mother was there.
MR. WARREN: I’m certain you have read Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” Do you remember the figure of -- Dilsey in there? That figure of this Negro woman who is the repository of both toughness and human charity for black and white all around her, is now sometimes being attacked as simply the white man’s fantasy. Faulkner wants to feel . . . . . what a nice mammy Dilsey was, rather than seeing her as a figure of moral force and this moral center of the whole book. This swing is now taking place. Some Negroes attack Dilsey, so this is just Aunt Jemima sort of figure, that kind of tone about it. Do you have a reaction to that situation in Faulkner’s book, or have you read it recently enough to -- . . . . . impression?
DR. NELSON: One who has read The Sound and the Fury can never forget Dilsey. Whoever has lived in the Deep South would recognize Dilsey, the matriarch in her own family and potentially a dominant figure in any family, despite her servant status. This would be a family where weakness predominates as in the case of Faulkner’s Compson family. Of course, Dilsey knew her role as a Negro servant, what to say, when and how to say it in order to dominate and not to offend to dominate and still play the servant’s role, the Negro’s role. She was living testimony to the strength possible in the untutored Negro servant in the presence of the moral disintegration of Southern aristocracy. Dilsey not only revealed strength of character but the capacity as well for philosophic insight. The story reveals, also the humiliating role which a decaying society can force upon some who serve it.
MR. WARREN: Sure, it has to be, you can’t prove these things in themselves, can we? Let me switch the topic a little bit. Let me read you a quotation. This is from Rose, you know. Arnold Rose, Myrdal’s?/Vidal’s collaborator? It’s Negro history, a teacher of Negro history and the Negro history movement: “The whole tendency of the Negro history of the Negro movement, not as history but as propaganda, is to encourage the average Negro to escape reality, the actually achievements and the actual failures of the present. Although the movement consciously tends to build race pride, it may also cause Negroes, unconsciously, to recognize that group pride is built partly on delusion and therefore in the end may result in devaluation of themselves or being forced to resort to some self-deception.” Now we can’t assess it, I’m sure, statistically. It is a question of whether there is a germ of truth in this apprehension.
DR. NELSON: The answer to this question must be mixed. Any human group which is placed unfairly on the defensive is driven to make the most of every fact in its favor and, at times, to explain weaknesses in terms of social situations from which there is no escape. This has happened in a measure in the Negro community, not that there is an absence also of a high degree of self-criticism within the group. When one considers the defensive position in which Negroes are placed, it is remarkable the measure of objectivity one finds in the historical and sociological studies of Negroes by such Negro writers as Woodson, Logan, Wesley, Franklin, Frazier, and others. These are men of the highest scholarly training and ability and with a high sense of responsibility to their craft. We might be reminded, in passing, that most efforts to write group or national histories by members of these groups are subject to the criticism that the writers have presented an unduly favorable interpretation of their material. The tragedy of social injustice is that it arrays groups of men against one another and robs them of objectivity in assessing themselves and those opposing them. The great need is a sense of community, a wider brotherhood which permits and even encourages objectivity. The fact, of course, is that in American men are greatly mixed in matters of economic status, religion, and race. Certainly Negroes are greatly mixed. There is, then, all the more reason for a sense of community.
MR. WARREN: What is the figure? 75% at least of the Americans that are -- at least of the Americans in quotes, Negroes, only a small – have something else, anyway.
DR. NELSON: Negroes, of course, do constitute what may be called a community drawn together in part by racial heritage but also by common suffering because of segregation, contempt, deprivation -- economic, political, social -- and also, fortunately, by unusual achievement in spite of handicaps.
MR. WARREN: And find the Negro history. There’s so much of achievement, Negro achievement.
DR. NELSON: What Negroes want and should want without denying their racial heritage, is to escape the stereotype or, to be more positive, to be considered on their merits. This is made difficult, of course, by the need to unite against a part of the larger society which is united against us. This is the Negroes’ dilemma -- to want identification with the larger society but at the same time to be driven to unity along lines of race and common suffering.
MR. WARREN: I suppose one part of the significance of that is that the attacks by the hate literature, such as The Thunderbolt I saw yesterday, of the National (?) Nashville States Rights Party, devoted largely to attacking the notion that the Negro had a history. The fact that this group feels it necessary to attack that fact or to attack who are Negro heroes are . . . . . . I read yesterday . . . . . . one article that I read yesterday . . . . . . say the irony.
Well, this -- the other side of the coin is to pressure, to affirm this. Now Rose’s point, I suppose, ultimately directed at some sort of race chauvinism that may come out of this . . . . . .
DR. NELSON: Which is a danger. Any kind of chauvinism is bad, and a danger. That, of course, is the choice which every oppressed minority faces. This explains so much of the perpetuation of group hatreds in the history of the human race.
MR. WARREN: The Southern -- the Southerners have been faced with it; they have created -- they have lived in a history since 1865, which has been partly to fulfill the need for identity and for achievement. The myth of the Old South insofar as there is a myth, and it’s a big myth, there’s really a big myth there, all right, fulfills the same need for the Southerner, that in this way that Negro History Week forms for the Negro. Does that make sense?
DR. NELSON: It is a great pity that men often try to break their bonds by increasing them. The South cannot free itself by the perpetuation of a myth. As to Negro History Week -- I would say that it is not analogous to the Southerners’ effort to defend the “myth” of their past. Negro History Week, as I have known and participated in it, has tried to emphasize the positive aspects of the Negro’s life and, I believe, on the whole without exaggeration. A Negro History Week would not, of course, be necessary if Negroes were being fairly judged. They must take some step to correct the erroneous accounts daily given of their past and of their abilities.
MR. WARREN: The white Southerner . . .
DR. NELSON: The white Southerner, yes. He ahs done himself a great disservice by identifying himself as a Southerner when he should have been trying to break that bond and become an American, a citizen of the world, and to become emancipated.
MR. WARREN: That -- let’s pursue that a moment, this speculation. We say that the Negro has suffered from a loss of a sense of identity. He’s had to accept the white man’s version of himself, has not been able to affirm his identity as a man and as a Negro man, these two things in one package. So his liability has been the loss of a cultural continuity, the loss of identity. Take the ordinary white Southerner, now, confronted by the situation as of this moment, or earlier, is it possible that part of his resistance to change is based on a fear of a loss of cultural identity? Loss of his identity as quote Southerner, and in a mistaken way he has tied the segregation to this whole notion of identity, his identity in a symbolic way rather than in a literal way. He feels that he must defend segregation in order to be himself; in sum to defend his culture, to defend his identity in a culture, but if you could distinguish these elements for any rational man, he would say what was I thinking about there? There is a deep need for identity, a deep need for cultural continuity is somehow staked on segregation, for many Southerners.
DR. NELSON: Yes, and that is very sad.
MR. WARREN: Does this make sense to you?
DR. NELSON: Yes. I think it’s true and I think it’s one of the saddest facts in American history -- that a great and potentially a much greater part of our country, has lost its opportunity to break away from the weakness of its past and assert its strengths. What sadder commentary can be made on a people than that it has become united around the most uncomplimentary aspect of itself?
MR. WARREN: I suppose you are answering before I asked the question. I was going to read a passage from Dr. Du Bois on the question of a split in the Negro’s psyche on this very matter. I’m sure you know his arguments so I won’t read the passages, but for the record here: “The division on this basis, the pull toward identity as Negro, the pull toward the African mystique, even the pull toward a cultural continuity to be elaborated and . . . . . . as Negro, this over against the pull to enter Western European, American culture, to enter that society and perhaps be lost in that society with the personal heritage and the racial heritage, cultural and biological, lost and absorbed, gone.” What sense this split – or as he puts it, in the soul? That, I gather, doesn’t make much, or isn’t a question for you there . . . . . . against what you say, or am I misinterpreting what you said?
DR. NELSON: I want to defend everything of good that I can possibly find in my group or racial past. This, I think, every man has a right to do.
MR. WARREN: Yes, I know.
DR. NELSON: Not that he should try to inflate his ego . . .
MR. WARREN: I understand.
DR. NELSON: Yet he has the right, even the obligation, to look for the best in his past without, of course, ignoring or defending the indefensible should that exist also. He has the obligation also to make use of that past in the present insofar as it is relevant, and to encourage society as a whole to make use of it.
MR. WARREN: You mean it’s part of the human story, then.
DR. NELSON: It becomes a part of mankind. No human group can pretend to have had past virtues in isolation. And, most certainly, such a group should want any distinctive virtues it possesses to become a part, an increasing part, of human history.
MR. WARREN: For some Negroes and for some whites, the problem is really acute, though with some southern whites it’s acute, how they keep their identity and remain southerners without repudiating something of value, impiously repudiating something, how can they still act, then, freely, or be American or take other values in their local prejudices?
END OF TAPE #1Collapse
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.]
MR. WARREN: Dr. Nelson, how do you regard the Civil War and the moral issue?
DR. NELSON: Well, that’s so broad.
MR. WRREN: It’s broad, isn’t it?
DR. NELSON: It’s very broad.
MR. WARREN: Let me, then, I’ll read you a quotation as a key, as a starter out some way. And this is from Frederick Douglass. “The war began in the interests of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, the North was fighting to keep it in the Union. The South, fighting to get beyond the limits of the Constitution and the North fighting for the old guarantees; both sides in spiting/fighting the Negro, both insulting him.
DR. NELSON: Douglass, in one sense, goes to the heart of the matter. There was evil on both sides – an evil with which the entire Nation had lived far too long, with the Negro as the perpetual sufferer. Here was the opportunity to resolve the issue on moral grounds: that of the rightness or wrongness of slavery. Unfortunately, the Nation did not possess the capacity to do this. The issue was shifted, therefore, to a political level -- the preservation of the Union. The tragic commentary on the times is that men saw no solution to this problem but war, which is to be explained in the fact that economic, political, and racial issues obscured the moral issue. Historically, in such situations the recourse has been to war. This war, however, should never have been fought. Even a hundred years ago the moral issue involved in slavery was so clear that a nation professing democratic and Christian principles was placed in a morally indefensible position in permitting it. Moreover, the negotiations which preceded the war were characterized by a brinkmanship which at that time had the most unpredictable and tragic consequences. Finally after a century, we are seeing how ghastly the costs are for the failure of men to solve their differences short of violence. We have yet to learn that the ends we reap are dictated by the means we use.
MR. WARREN: Let me ask then, Dr. Nelson, why was the Lincoln monument chosen as the spot for the March on Washington, to reach its climax?
DR. NELSON: Of all the figures in American history Lincoln, for the Negro, represents that single individual who did most to free him, not simply from slavery, but in a larger way. The fact of the Emancipation Proclamation alone would draw Negroes to the Lincoln Memorial. It is said that Lincoln performed this act solely to save the Union. It is true that as President he was bound to find political justification for such an act. On the other hand his unequivocal hatred of slavery, as expressed frequently, certainly suggests that his heart approved profoundly of what his hand did in signing the Emancipation Proclamation. This Negroes have always sense. Lincoln, moreover, as a human being, appeals not only to Negroes, but to any group that is struggling against vast odds. In India I found that Lincoln is held in esteem alongside that nation’s greatest heroes. In a public hall I have seen two pictures hanging side by side -- one of Gandhi, the other of Lincoln. Lincoln finds a high place there both in books and in the daily press.
MR. WARREN: Now would those Indians know that Lincoln was a racist, a thorough-going racist? For instance, this quote is a well-known quotation from Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is Frederick Douglass. It’s the same sort of thing he said after the Emancipation Proclamation: “I will say that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races.” And he goes on and develops that it’s a very common place thing he’s quoting from Lincoln. But this has some bearing on the question. Now some part of history and the developments of history must enter at this point.
DR. NELSON: Indian scholars in American history would know this quotation from Lincoln. Others, probably not, except as they may have seen it quoted in the American press. You doubtless saw in newspapers recently an advertisement paid for by the Citizens’ Council of America in which this passage was quoted.
MR. WARREN: I just got long, long after I had just raised this question for our purposes, a little different. I may say Lincoln’s a hero of mine, by the way, so I’m not . . . . . .
DR. NELSON: I quite understand. I think this is a proper question and I am not surprised that you asked it.
MR. WARREN: Well naturally, you would - - -
DR. NELSON: I think The Washington Post gave the proper answer. It said editorially that the advertisement both dishonored the memory of Lincoln and did injustice to the Negro. The Post reminded us also that Lincoln challenged Judge Douglass and his friends to adhere to the Declaration of Independence or amend it to read that all men are created equal except Negroes.
MR. WARREN: Did they have something like this?
DR. NELSON: Yes. I would add that a single quotation read only for one set of implications cannot prevail over the major persistent trends of a man’s life. Your question also suggests an extension of his line of thought which I have followed during a good number of years of my life. It is very difficult to recall any of our heroes who did not have weaknesses born of the times in which they lived or of their own personal histories in those times. They must be judged by their highest insights, by their supreme achievements, and not by the errors resulting from their times and environment. Remember the Kentucky in which Lincoln was born or even the Illinois in which he spent adult years. The constitution of Illinois at that time forbade a Negro to migrate into or vote or hold office in that State. Incidentally, it should be remembered that Lincoln called for the right to vote of some Negroes. The myopic view expressed by Lincoln concerning Negroes can be forgiven, moreover, in the light of the moral majesty he revealed in his other views toward Negroes and toward men in general. It is the Citizens’ Councils that we should condemn which, a hundred years after the Negroes’ emancipation, would sully the name of the emancipator in order to justify their own archaic obsessions. It may be recalled also, since it was a quotation from Douglass which started this line of thought, that during his debates with Stephen Douglas, all too frequently forgotten, Lincoln stoutly asserted that Frederick Douglass was his (Lincoln’s) equal and that of anyone else in the right to earn from the sweat of his brow. Douglass, moreover, following Lincoln’s assignation, remarked that in honoring Lincoln Negroes were fastening to themselves as imperishable and immortal name and fame.
MR. WARREN: Is there a question of a difference in a hundred years, what was -- as one historian, an eminent -- one, said to me about Lincoln: “Why in ‘61, it would be impossible to find a man, a white man, on the American continent and probably in Europe, who was not a racist.
DR. NELSON: That is certainly relevant.
MR. WARREN: But this was an assumption that was so readily made then, that with the world has changed with a hundred years of scientific investigation and a hundred years of other things.
DR. NELSON: So we have two time spans to consider in making a judgment of Lincoln -- his own time span and his growth within it and, in addition, the century in which he spoke and acted and the one in which we live today.
MR. WARREN: With the benefit of science and other researches in between.
DR. NELSON: Quite so. Let us take the view toward war then and now. It could well be that if we had lived then, we would have given no thought to avoiding the Civil War on the basis of our view on war itself. Today, you would find many people whose concept of war is such that they would exhaust every possible resource, on grounds of conscience, to discover means of solving justly any internal conflict short of war.
MR. WARREN: The world -- I’m getting to this point now: Do you feel that the world actually changed its moral climate, at least America has, on this question, say, in a hundred years the moral climate has changed?
DR. NELSON: Yes, I do.
MR. WARREN: It is discernible progress.
DR. NELSON: Unquestionably.
MR. WARREN: In the whole temper of society.
DR. NELSON: Yes. Wherever slavery is reported to exist in any form today, Americans generally are profoundly unhappy about it. A hundred years ago, or a little more, it was in our bosom and was defended at the cost of more than a half million lives. But now and for some time there has been a rapidly growing conviction in America that violence is futile as a solution to society’s problems. In respect to war, even General Eisenhower and General MacArthur have expressed themselves to this effect, not to speak of increasing numbers of American writers of international standing. Most Americans would welcome as they would few other gifts a substitute for the carnage of war or any form of violence as a solution to social conflict. Tension between the North and the South is great today and the South cries out bitterly against a so-called invasion. My judgment, however, is that a war between the States is just about unthinkable. There may be violence, yes, but a conflagration such as the Civil War is most improbable.
MR. WARREN: This point is an important point in a way because there are people, both Negro and white, who refuse to see or don’t see any change in the moral climate. Now not long ago I was talking with a very, very able lawyer in New Orleans (I won’t tell you just where he is), and he burst out -- he said, “It’s against my desires, but I must say that I have a feeling that the white man is beyond redemption, that not to become a black Muslim,’” he said, “I’m even reading their literature now -- a feeling that there’s no hope for . . . . . to my --question. I’m asking, moral climate, he burst out with this. This man’s a thoughtful man, an educated man, a very able lawyer –
DR. NELSON: A Negro?
MR. WARREN: A Negro. He burst out with this. This is not always the answer one gets.
DR. NELSON: No.
MR. WARREN: That there is a change in the moral climate.
DR. NELSON: There is a change, but even so you are going to get persons who hold the views of a hundred years ago.
MR. WARREN: Sure.
DR. NELSON: Oh, yes.
MR. WARREN: Let me ask a question about the Reconstruction. This again is looking back and playing with history, or -- or -- have you ever played this game of trying to set up what would have been the reasonable reconstruction policy in the South? Because we’re into a reconstruction right now, of a sort.
DR. NELSON: I cannot say that I have played very much at that game. My approach, of course, would be to apply to the Reconstruction period an overall philosophy.
MR. WARREN: Well, I would ask the overall philosophy, too, if we could turn into that, if you choose.
DR. NELSON: It begins with the simple assumption that all men are brothers and thus the sons of a common Father; that the law of brotherhood requires that each of us consider the welfare of his brother as important to him as his own welfare and that man’s wellbeing in this world is inevitable bound up in this moral law.
MR. WARREN: . . . . . laid down a program that he thought would have worked. It ran something like this: “Federal remuneration for freeing of slaves, after the war of Reconstruction, paid slaveholders; two, expropriation of plantation lands, but with their full federal payment, both for slaves and for land, southern land; distribution of land to any who would work it, Negro or white, on a long-range mortgage basis, not a gift, but minimum payments. Supervision of the freed men and the property for a period for educational purposes. Universal taxation of the country to pay these costs; encouragement of Negroes in westward expansion, who remain as far as possible in the South on government lands and in the North.” Does that seem to make practical sense? Even if it wasn’t possible?
DR. NELSON: There is much that is good in this proposal. It reflects, I believe, the spirit which would have characterized Lincoln’s approach had he lived. As you recall, he declared himself again bloody work – killing and hanging -- once the war was over. He wanted resentments extinguished and harmony re-established. I believe he would not have permitted the excesses of Radical Republicanism and even more the lawlessness of the Ku Klux Klan. He would rightly have required allegiance to laws and proclamations respecting slavery, and in the event of recalcitrance would have acted with the determination he showed in meeting the challenge of the rebellion. To all this I might add the duty which existed of guaranteeing ex-slaves during Reconstruction immediate access to opportunities to contribute their full share as American citizens to the life of the Nation. This would have meant full share as American citizens to the life of the Nation. This would have meant full access in education at all levels for such persons as qualified and every right of citizenship, such as voting. It would have meant the preservation, rather than the early demise, of the Freedmen’s Bureau with its high promise in the area of education. The great national sin has been the failure of the Nation to employ the means justified by the Constitution to guarantee Negros their full rights as citizens. This is a failure for which the American people have paid dearly. Even today, a hundred years after Emancipation, we agonize and limp toward the belated realization of justice for all.
The great difficulty in following the above course during Reconstruction is that the American people, North and South, had permitted and profited by slavery for two hundred and fifty years. Slavery had been abolished in the midst of a terrible war with scarcely an American family escaping some dreadful loss. The land reeked with hate, and until this day we suffer the effects of it all. As I try to answer your question, I begin to wonder, therefore, whether it might not be more profitable today to bend our energies to applying to our times the lessons of the slave and post-Emancipation periods. What kind of nation are we going to bequeath to the generations beginning a hundred years from now? Will those who live in 2064 condemn or pity us for our prejudices and hatreds, for fastening on them the problems which those of 1864 fastened on us?
MR. WARREN: At least . . . . . . is attacking the notion of Reconstruction as punitive; he’s trying to make a reconstruction of society for peace rather than reconstruction as a punitive measure, that he wants to pay and make it work.
DR. NELSON: I would agree with the assumption that Reconstruction should not have been punitive. That is one of the reasons the loss of Lincoln was so fearful. He would doubtless have approached the future on the basis of reconciliation. What would have happened, one doesn’t know, of course.
MR. WARREN: He might have been shot by somebody else down here on the other side.
DR. NELSON: He could have been.
MR. WARREN: A radical Republican could have shot him then, some fanatic.
DR. NELSON: Even so. But had he lived, there are those of us who believe he would have played the role of reconciler. Nor, I believe, would his role as reconciler have led him to sacrifice the demands of justice dictated by the post-Emancipation events. But I speak as a layman, unlike the expert historian, and without a mastery of all the facts with which that period was crowded.
MR. WARREN: But it’s the laymen who lead into action in these matters though; it’s not historians.
DR. NELSON: And mostly profitably laymen who are guided, first, by a general moral philosophy and, second, by a grasp of the soundest expert analysis of the relevant facts that are available.
MR. WARREN: One more question on this general line before we break for our lunch. James Baldwin says (this is a very close paraphrase): The southern mob does not represent the will of the southern majority, but takes action in a moral vacuum. It fills a moral vacuum. Do you have any feeling about that notion?
DR. NELSON: I agree. Great numbers of Southern people cannot be described as a mob in spirit. Their sin is one of moral inertia, the failure to create a climate inhospitable to the mob. They cannot escape, therefore reproach for their lack of action, their silence. The Southern religious community is especially vulnerable to criticism.
MR. WARREN: Some Negroes and some whites say that we’re actually conniving, by silence, so that we’re morally culpable in the same way as the mob.
DR. NELSON: To the extent that we connive by our silent, we are culpable.
MR. WARREN: You can’t yell all the time.
DR. NELSON: At the same time, in the clash of moral issues one cannot escape condemnation for his silence. One of the great values of the non-violent movement is that it provokes, provides a climate for speech and action on the part of many who otherwise would be silent and inert.
MR. WARREN: I think that’s true to a degree; I’ve seen some of it happen, people who have said that, this hurts me.
DR. NELSON: The virtue of non-violence is that it reaches the otherwise silent but conscience-stricken onlooker. Violence tends to drive him into the camp of the conscienceless perpetrator of injustice.
(BREAK FOR LUNCH)
MR. WARREN: Dr. Nelson, could you say something about the growth of your awareness of the relation of the Negro to American life from your boyhood?
DR. NELSON: Yes.
MR. WARREN: How does the question present itself to you?
DR. NELSON: Born in Paris, Kentucky, I was taken very early by my parents to Paducah, Kentucky, where I finished high school. One of my lingering memories of Paducah is a report then current that a Negro had been lynched on the courthouse ground across from which I worked in a barber shop, shining shoes. I can remember a kinsman of mine, my mother’s father- in-law, who at that time was a great blackface minstrel actor. Annually he came to town with his troupe and, as a small boy, I walked with him at the head of the parade on the day before the night of his performance. I saw the performance, of course, but always from the “peanut” gallery. That was the way of life in Paducah and I can recall no conversations of that period of my life on the problem of segregation in theatres or elsewhere.
Consciousness of the race problem had developed by my high school years. At the sight of color prejudice on one occasion I threatened to have the Emancipation Proclamation published and to sell it. I recall my anger at being made to wait at the public library and my pondering just how I should protest. I recall having to see the class play of the white high school by peeping from an alley, since Negroes were not admitted to the performance. The urgency of seeing this play lay in the fact that my own class was giving East Lynne in the same theatre the following week.
I was deeply concerned at the absence of an organization of Negroes and the need for unity if a solution of the race problem was to be found. I read Kelly Miller’s Race Adjustment at that time and began to make speeches on the race problem.
Sensitiveness to race prejudice and growing resentment followed me through my college years at Howard University and my later professional and graduate study years. While a student at the University of Paris and the Protestant Theological Seminary in Paris, I wrote a small book in French entitled La Race Noire dans la Democratie Americaine. A very favorable review in the daily Petit Parisien pleased me almost more than thebook itself. Two years of study in Germany followed my year in Paris.
Those early years of my life and study abroad gave a definite turn to my thinking on race and, indeed, on human relations. Titles of articles I wrote in the 1920’s and a book in later years suggest the trend of my thinking. The emphasis is on “World Community,” World Understanding,” Interracial and International Understanding,” etc.
Finishing Yale, I served Howard University for seven years as teacher and administrator. Following this I served as President of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, for five years and of Dillard University in New Orleans for four years. I then returned to Howard, where I have remained. These nine years in the South had a very sobering effect upon me. Only history will tell who has suffered most, the whites or Negroes, from the undemocratic, irrational, immoral separatism which the white South has inflicted upon Negroes there and upon itself. To live in the midst of the tragedy is to ask whether pity is really not more appropriate than hate. Of course, neither of these in itself offers much of a remedy.
Since 1940, and especially since 1948 when I returned from a year in India (during which I had the priceless opportunity to converse on more than one occasion with Gandhi), I have studied and experimented quite intensely with the non-violent approach to human problems, including those of race relations. This deep involvement began in the early 1940’s with the March on Washington Movement and has continued until now.
MR. WARREN: You’ve been associated with Dr. King in formulating -- in discussing and formulating these principles, have you not?
DR. NELSON: We have talked on a number of occasions and been associated in meetings of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and elsewhere. We are well acquainted with each other’s views on non-violent principles, and I feel a keen sense of oneness with him concerning them. We have not discussed details of current strategy of non-violent movement. My interest in strategy, of course, is deep, stemming from my participation in the original March on Washington Movement and from my study of strategies followed since that time in other parts of the world.
MR. WARREN: Do you see any difference between the principles of the original March on Washington Movement, as I have read, in the formulation of . . . . . Randolph and the formulations that exist now around the movement, those of yourself and those of Dr. King and Dr. Farmer – Mr. Farmer?
DR. NELSON: The principles of the movement led by Dr. King and that proposed by Mr. Farmer have much in common. In the early 1940’s Mr. Farmer drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, whose movement was approaching a climax at the time. Farmer had only recently finished his theological studies and was certainly under the influence also of the central teachings of the Christian ethic. His proposals, on the practical side, called for no half-way measures. He urged that residential segregation be destroyed rather than being made more tolerable, that discrimination be wiped out rather than made more bearable. He urged that racial brotherhood be translated from an ideal to a fact.
The principles of the first March on Washington Movement, as a few of us worked them out, were also influenced by Gandhi. One of our number, a missionary to India, had been expelled from India by the British government on account of his support of the Gandhi movement there. The original March on Washington Movement, however, never attained appreciable development under the influence of these principles. The Farmer proposals had no influence, as I recall, upon the March on Washington Movement. The Farmer statement is very significant in that it was, I believe, the first major document of our times proposing a radical movement to secure the full rights of American Negroes, based on the non-violent principles of the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings and practices of Mahatma Gandhi. The present non-violent movement has put into action these Christian and Gandhian principles far beyond anything we have known in our country’s history.
MR. WARREN: Do I understand that defining this -- Dr. Fishman, who has studied the effects of non-violence in the Negro movement now on the psychology of participants gives a naturalistic argument for what you approach through ethical and religious ground? Ethical and religious grounds?
DR. NELSON: Dr. Fishman describes his approach as psychological, and simply descriptive, not naturalistic.
MR. WARREN: Would you say he gives support in terms of your investigation?
DR. NELSON: Our approaches are different. Dr. Fishman is attempting to relate social and psychological influences in the attempt to understand both the development and the effect of non-violence. My special interest is in the philosophical and religious foundations of the non-violent ideal buttressed, where possible, of course, by the findings of the social sciences. Dr. Fishman is interested in knowing why people, especially youths, commit themselves to non-violence and the effect of this commitment upon them and upon the opposition. Where the effect is positive he wished to know why. He is as much interested in the people who commit themselves to or oppose the ideal as in the ideal itself. Dr. Fishman is also interested in the effect of a pragmatic or politically expedient use of non-violence without an emotional or spiritual commitment to it. Does it have, under these circumstances, psychological and social advantages? We agree that there are some positive effects of such a use of non-violence. Although Dr. Fishman and I approach the subject from the standpoint of different disciplines, we are both keenly interested in the conclusions reached by each other and we cooperate in investigations of non-violence from every serious standpoint.
MR. WARREN: Then Dr. Fishman, as one psychologist, would not agree with Dr. Kenneth Clark, as another psychologist, on this matter of non-violence.
DR. NELSON: Dr. Clark has reached conclusions on which, I believe, Dr. Fishman has not expressed himself, at least publicly. Dr. Clark feels that it is too much to ask Negro masses to grasp so highly sophisticated a doctrine as non-violence. He points out that in 2000 years Europe has not understood Christianity. It is also psychologically unrealistic to ask Negroes who have suffered so much to have imposed upon them the additional burden of philosophical and ethical love. He is not thinking, of course, of person such as Dr. King. Thus Dr. Clark does not oppose non-violence but believes it requires a sophistication beyond that to be expected generally in a suppressed people. Dr. Clark takes the position, moreover, that in spite of attempts at non-violence, the only method of getting rid of violence is for whites either to destroy the Negro or to abandon violence themselves.
MR. WARREN: This is not getting so far afield as it may seem, at first glance. I have in my hand here a clipping from the morning Times, March 2nd, New York Times. The heading is Minister to Defy Fanny Hill Ban. Have you seen this?
DR. NELSON: No, I have not.
MR. WARREN: That Robert William Lenisk will give out books, Fanny Hill, at a time of Bible reading at the Spencer Memorial Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. Perhaps you’d like to glance at the whole thing before I ask you my question about religion and life. I didn’t bring this for the purpose -- I happened to clip it for someone else . . . . . . but I offer it to you, since you mention religion and life.
DR. NELSON: Yes. My definition of religion is that, in its simplest terms, it is the commitment of an individual to what he regards as supreme in the universe -- a supreme person, a supreme power, a supreme principle -- a commitment not simply of the mind and of the spirit, but of the life. All else, for me, that men call religion, is peripheral or, at most, supportive of this commitment.
MR. WARREN: This would lead to action to the social order, of course.
DR. NELSON: Most certainly.
MR. WARREN: I say of course because I gather that from many things you’ve said --
DR. NELSON: Yes. A man’s life ought to be judged as religious not on the basis of the Scriptures he reads, the creed he professes, the prayers he prays, but rather, in the light of its consistency or loyalty to what he regards as the highest, the best, the noblest in the universe.
MR. WARREN: Does the giving out of Fanny Hill at the time of Bible reading in Brooklyn seem to be an appropriate act, in line with the definition of religion?
DR. NELSON: Your question certainly brings the discussion down to a practical level. From a religious perspective an act of this kind must be judged from two standpoints: first, on the basis of its motive; second, in the light of its method. If the purpose of the minister is to educate and thus to provide a sound basis for judging this piece of literature or similar pieces, the motive might be applauded. If the motive is to stage an act, to attract public attention and gain publicity, then the act deserves condemnation. If the motive is judged to be good, the soundness of the method might still be questioned. Although the performance described in the article is not in accord with my personal taste, I am not prepared to say that in relation to this minister and the people he serves, it was not warranted. The question of motive, of course, has religious relevance. The matter of method touches religion if it has grown out of such moral elements as insensitiveness to the tastes, feelings, and traditions of others.
MR. WARREN: Do you think that the selection of Fanny Hill for distribution at the Bible reading of a Sunday morning is an appropriate act or – that’s a trivial act, or worse?
DR. NELSON: I am willing to give this minister credit for sincerity in the absence of acquaintance with him or his reputation. As a minister, he is certainly aware of the history of banning books, a history with periods we should like to forget. His protest, therefore, could well be a matter of conscience and thus have a religious basis. On the other hand, the rarity of banning a book today prompts me on second thought, to feel that a book banned by a New York court, which I would assume not to be squeamish in matters of this sort, might well go unread and that a minister might more profitably give his attention to social ills where the need of cure is less debatable.
MR. WARREN: To change the subject again, or -- do you see any danger in the -- or possible danger in the effect on the -- some of the young people who are now devoting themselves fully to the matter of civil rights? What happens to them, say, five years from now? Seven years from now? Is there a danger of certain psychological and intellectual casualties in this process?
DR. NELSON: There is always a psychological danger to participants in a wholehearted commitment to a movement in which great moral principles are involved; the emotional drains are great. Studies are already beginning to reveal emotional disturbance in some of those who have been deeply involved in the Freedom Movement.
MR. WARREN: I was thinking of some sort of parallelism between the possible fate of some of these young people and the fate of certain young people in the ‘30s, who were deeply involved or deeply committed to matters of social justice of another approach, what’s happened to many of them in my own experience, sometimes a . . . . . . a withdrawal from all social action. We know the pattern of these parties; these dangers exist. I was wondering if here there’s less than there was in that period of something more sustaining.
DR. NELSON: One of the saving elements in the current non-violent movement is that it is built around a conscious moral and spiritual core with a strong intellectual content. This combination tends to give balance and to reduce the incidence of emotional collapse. It is understood, of course, that the depth of commitment to the moral and spiritual core varies greatly from individual to individual.
MR. WARREN: But there was no such core in the general . . . . . . there were various movements for social justice in the ‘30s to carry them -- to carry . . . . . . . over into another period and save them from the disillusionment that followed for many, or most, as a matter of fact.
DR. NELSON: One must have the highest regard for movements for social justice of the ‘30s. Most of them had a religious content -- loyalty to an overriding ideal – even though this religious content was not always explicit. This is the marked difference between these movements of the past and the present one. The present one not only professes spiritual content but aims at spiritual discipline. This, I believe, tends to reduce the incidence of psychological casualties.
MR. WARREN: Tell me something about this split or splits among leadership in the civil rights movement. How serious do you think these rifts are as of this moment?
DR. NELSON: As I read the situation, the differences appear to be less grave at the moment than in the past. The March on Washington of last August was a great visual testimony to this. A broad, common understanding as to purpose and method has been developing gradually, and I believe substantially.
MR. WARREN: Have you followed the New York situation in the last week or two about the school situation, the school boycott and the bus proposal?
DR. NELSON: I have followed this situation at a distance, from The New York Times’ accounts, principally. That there are differences does not surprise me.
MR. WARREN: To an outsider like myself reading the paper, there seems to be a deep and fundamental rift on this boycott question. How deep, how merely fundamental, I don’t know, between the parties that try for a total boycott, and a total bussing system as opposed to people like the CORE and . . . . . . which are different, more studious look at the situation presumably, though I don’t propose to judge between them.
DR. NELSON: The problem is so long-standing and so difficult that any radical solution is bound to produce trauma and deep divergencies of opinion. Further, the approach to a solution naturally differs from group to group, since followers cluster around leaders with different motivations or dispositions and rally about movements which are inclined to sponsor what might be called more or less radical solutions. This can be expected, especially in a great metropolitan area like New York. In most instances, circumstances will dictate a meeting of minds, or at least the reluctant acceptance of a judgment with which one is not in complete agreement. In situations like that obtaining in New York I believe the achievement of substantial unity within the minority group will prove the overring [overriding] consideration.
END OF TAPE #2Collapse