Image: Original caption: Wyatt Tee Walker, Executive Director of SCLC, meets with other civil rights activists after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. April, 1968. Copyright: Flip Schulke/ Corbis.
Wyatt Tee Walker (born 1929) is a minister and civil rights activist. In 1953 he became pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. He was president of the local NAACP chapter and state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1959 he organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Public Schools, a protest against Virginia's efforts to block school integration. He served as the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1960 to 1964; he also served as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s chief of staff. He is credited by Taylor Branch with being the architect of the Birmingham campaign of the early 1960s. After leaving the SCLC, he became vice president and later president of the Negro Heritage Library, a publishing venture devoted to getting African American history into school curricula. He was appointed Special Assistant on Urban Affairs to the governor of New York in 1965. From 1967 until his retirement in 2004, he served as senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. He was active in the anti-apartheid movement with the American Committee on Africa.
Image: Original caption: Wyatt Tee Walker, Executive Director of SCLC, meets with other civil rights activists after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. April, 1968. Copyright: Flip Schulke/ Corbis.
Walker discusses how advances in communication technology along with the Second World War has helped black Americans to realize the problems in their communities and has pushed them to become involved in the civil rights movement. Walker provides his opinion that once the South overcomes segregation and racism, it will be a great place for black people to live. He describes his views of Abraham Lincoln as a historic figure, current movements to desegregate public schools, and his involvement with the creation of an encyclopedia of African American life and culture. Walker discusses the role of leadership in the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s position as a centralized leader. Walker also describes demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama and how he and other leaders prevented an explosion of violence among black protesters.
Mr. WARREN: This is the first tape of a conversation with Mr. Wyatt T. Walker, March 18, Atlanta, Georgia. All right, sir.
Mr. WALKER: Why don’t you get me primed with a question?
RPW: All right, a question like this – to many people it is astonishing that the leadership, by and large of the Negro movement has come from the South or has come from people living in the South at that time. How do you explain this? Do you have any theories about it?
WW: Well, I don’t know whether it’s altogether geographical or no. I think there’s a large degree of coincidence involved here, I think – and I’m sure everybody else has said, that the nonviolent thrust of the Negro community in the South that we have seen, say in the last decade, has been a part of the history of the world – the rise of the nations in Africa toward independence I think there’s something about this moment of history which has caught this present generation.
RPW: You said it’s a moment in history – one thing, the rise of the African states.
WW: Yes – now, I just the Negro in the South – I think one of the biggest contributing factors to it is that we have come into a day of instantaneous communication – that one of the things that kept the Negro community in the deep South insulated against even knowing something better to want was the fact that he didn’t have the information – there’s an old expression, you can’t miss what you never had. So this day of instantaneous reporting events has given the Negro a chance to connect himself up with the whole stream of history in a sense. I think another contributing factor is that in a very real way the minds of Negroes have been unlocked in a sense. For instance, I think the white Southern races uses a lot of sophisticated arguments as to why the Negro is inferior and why there ought to be separate facilities – separate education facilities which are not at all the real reasons. I think the more insidious reason is that he has wanted to keep the Negro ignorant. You can’t lay open a man’s mind to the truth of the humanities, to the trend of civilization of the Western World in the last 500 years – you can’t bait his mind in thinking of Aristotle and Plato and Diogenes without him wanting something better in life. Maybe what I’m saying in short would be that to keep a man a slave you’ve got to keep him ignorant. Unslave his mind and you unslave inevitably his person.
RPW: As Douglas put it.
WW: Yes. I think as you’re making an analysis of Negro leadership, I think the people who hold the titular responsibilities, whether they have come by them out of design or by accidents in history, they are all people with finely tooled minds who have a sharp sensitivity to the humanities. They are generally literate and well-read men who do their own thinking. I think if you could make just a spot survey or spot check of the people with whom you talk, that this is the general stripe of people you talk with.
RPW: That’s true. This raises a question – in 1935 would such a leadership have been available among Negroes?
WW: Well, I personally doubt it. It’s difficult to second-guess history. I do not think it was possible in 1935, because a lot of what has been produced has come about out of the response to what World War II produced. You had a new temper developing on Negro boys during World War II – got to see the world in a sense. And they had made an investment in making the world safe for democracy – et cetera – all of the slogans we had. And they came back with certain questioning in their minds. They had been overseas and had freedoms that they never even conjectured in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana, and then in their own minds say what if I fought and ran the risk of dying for all of America then I ought to have some share of it here. This shift in the South had a lot to do with it, from an agrarian economy to an urban industrial economy has had a lot to do with the groundswell of discontent of the Negro community. The Negro was leaving the Deep South in droves, going to other large industrial cities in the North during the war. This is another ancillary force I think.
RPW: What about the notion that we are encountering sometimes that the Negro is just discovering his identity – that this is part of this whole movement?
WW: Well, I think it’s a very critical part, because I’ve seen in my own lifetime – I’m not an old man, as you know – I have been as a child – I can remember being aware of an internal color discrimination in the Negro community, and being a Mulatto I guess I was sensitized to it because I had brothers and sisters who – I don’t know why – gave to being light skinned some special value.
RPW: You mean some of your brothers and sisters did feel this way?
WW: Oh, yes, they felt – I know two sisters particularly, and one brother in particular, who felt that being a light-skinned Negro assigned to them some special values. I think fortunately for me I rebelled against this – maybe this was my inquiring mind, but I wasn’t aware of it at an early age and I rebelled against it, and I thought people were people on the basis of their intrinsic worth – the fact that they were humans. And I think this could have been one of the things that made me get the issue of humanity square in my own mind. I had seen that change sharply in the last fifteen or twenty years. I have known dark-skinned people in whose presence I would be afraid to say the word “black” – seriously or humorously.
RPW: You mean now or in the past?
WW: No – in the past – fifteen years ago. Now I feel no reluctance whatsoever. In fact it’s a part of the built-in humor of the movement that we kid each other about it – calling each other half-white Negroes and black Negroes. In affectionate terms, you know.
RPW: Some weeks ago I was having an interview with a quite distinguished lawyer who is a Negro, and he was saying to me that it’s a real problem for him, living in a world of white symbolisms – the symbolism of white and black, dark and light, as values symbols, through English poetry or French poetry or American fiction and God knows what, and in casual conversation. He said bitterly – I find myself schooling myself to invert these symbolisms that are hidden in all literature and in common speech.
WW: I think this is symptomatic in the Muslim movement, you know.
RPW: This man is not a Muslim.
WW: No – I know – he may not be, but I – this is the other extreme, that within this movement they are exalting black, which is the reverse of exalting white. And I can certainly sympathize with this lawyer because I know when I am watching television I – and reading stories, and in some of our expressions, I – maybe my antenna is out, you know, to pick up these little value assignments on the basis of color, you know – we talk about a little white lie, but a terrible lie is a black lie. I saw a television story about a good horse and a bad horse, and the good horse was white and the black horse was bad, you know. And it’s so skillfully woven into the whole fabric of our value judgments that I think sometimes it almost happens to us unconsciously.
RPW: Now let’s think of this – in this connection – these oppositions, light and dark, run through all sorts of things in our society – in our literature. Well, it also is found in Africa. This makes a change. Now, you have African tribal dances which pre-date –
WW: I would qualify what I have said earlier by saying that you must understand, I’m sure – perhaps you do – that this is the normal emotional response for the American Negro because of the frame of reference in which he has been forced to move. Though it may not be when you trace it to its historical origin one – something that grows out of race or color prejudice, but because of the box in which the Negro has been moved and this is his immediate interpretation of it.
RPW: He interprets it that way, though the symbolism was made, as some anthropologists say, antedate any contact with white European culture. In the Chinese theater literally a face is darkened to denote a villain and whitened for a hero.
WW: Yes – well, I think this goes back even to Platonic dualism. It’s reflected in the New Testament writings of Paul – he talks about the children of light and the children of darkness –
RPW: There we are –
WW: and we can even go back to the business of day and night – and with the primitive mind, not really quite grasping what makes night and what makes day, and of course the night was unknown to him and of course beasts of prey and all of the dangers of jungle life, I guess – this – it seems to me that this would probably be the origins of this.
RPW: Then we have a very strange situation, don’t we, of a social – the conditioned attitude toward natural symbols.
WW: I think one has been superimposed on the other. We have taken the natural symbols and then, as the structure of race and color concepts developed, we superimposed this on nature symbols that were already available.
RPW: There we are. Now what reaction is appropriate, then, for say a cultivated Negro or a not cultivated Negro facing these symbolisms? What’s reasonable and logical?
WW: Well, I would hope that I could be considered cultivated, but I don’t think any Negro, no matter how much he’s cultivated, ever really becomes emancipated, no matter how much my mind has been opened, no matter how much academically I recognize the fallacy of race, so much has been done to my emotional pattern by what we call the system – the segregation and discrimination – that I never really am free of it, and so you get sometimes in fleeting moments the reverse response, you know – discrimination the other way. For instance, I think Negroes like myself have developed almost a mental catalog of the tone of voices of how a white face speaks to them which in another circumstance when a Negro speaks it would get no response whatsoever. But everything that a white person says is interpreted by the nuance of the tone of voice, or maybe the hang of the head, or the depth of tone or the sharpness of the tongue, you know – things that in the ordinary, normal ethnic frame of reference would have no meaning, takes on tremendous and deep and sharp meaning.
RPW: In other words, you are documenting the remark made by more than one Negro, that to be a Negro is to have a touch of the paranoid.
WW: Oh, yes, I think we have almost a total ambivalence, even in this moment of history for the Negro, when he really accepts his identity more than he ever has before, there is still a retention of this ambivalence, which has many roads by which it has come. Some of it came out of survival, some of it came out of hatred for the white man – just the pure job of saying one thing that you knew he wanted to hear and really meaning something else, you know –
RPW: Even the folklore – even Uncle Remus.
WW: Yes – poking fun of the master without the master ever really understanding what he was saying. This runs through the idiomatic expression of the Negro and the Negro spirituals – and the Negro religion, even.
RPW: What about this question, then, of the relation of white men to the Negro movement? We have very violent statements here and there. Baldwin says the white liberal is an affliction, or others have said, we will have no more connection with the white sympathizer, the white liberal – he has no place – he’s a curse. This is carrying – this is a logical extension of that attitude, isn’t it?
WW: Ah, yes – it is.
RPW: What is the role – what role can, say, the white man take toward –
WW: Well of course I understand in the American non-violent tradition, as it is symbolized in the model understandably so – I do agree with Adam Powell, one person whom I know has said this again and again, that the day has come when the white person has no role to play in the policy decisions of the Negro movement. But I do not go all the way with him to say that we do not need white allies. No maybe I am a middle of the road on this point of view. I say that there are some decisions that the Negro will have to make tactically and strategy-wise as far as the direction that his movement is going to take, and there are certain kinds of decisions in which I don’t think a white man’s attitude can have any impact whatsoever, and they ought to be left alone to the Negro community. But if he wants to help with our revolution, he must come and join with us. I think we have passed the – we have come through the stage of the Southern white liberal of fifteen years ago. I have an expression I use about the – we are afflicted with outworn white liberals – or worn out white liberals – who fifteen years ago what they were saying could have cost them their life, but they’re saying the same things now that they were saying fifteen years ago, and as James Russell Lowell has said, time makes ancient good uncouth. We are at a different moment in history.
RPW: Is it possible that the Negro movement could have success without a white consensus, though, in its favor?
WW: Yes, I do think so.
RPW: Without the white consensus?
RPW: How would you explain that?
WW: Well, I know this is a minority opinion, but I sincerely believe it, that the Negro has just enough pivotal position in the economy of our nation – the free enterprise system – and just enough visible identity, that generally in a united effort, we could produce so creative a crisis that the consensus in a sense might be forced – not a consensus of comsent, but a consensus of – prodded by practicality.
RPW: In other words, a rising political and economic forces?
WW: Yes. Strategically used and applied. Now, this, coupled with I would say the guilt burden that the white community must bear – that they do bear - particularly within the frame of reference of, shall we say, white Christianity or white religious life.
RPW: You mean you’re coupling the question of guilt burden – which in another way of saying potentiality of consensus –
WW: Yes, I suppose so.
RPW: Turning it upside down – so in other words –
WW: But you may not emotionally want to be ready to accept it, but you recognize intellectually that this is the proper thing.
RPW: But guilt in the guts, though – if you have a feeling of guilt you already have an awareness of the moral issue and a desire for another attitude in yourself. Is guilt the feeling for desire for another attitude in yourself?
WW: Well, I had not defined it as closely as that. For instance, this is the feeling that I was trying to get at, or that I am referring to – when a white person says I know what the right thing is to do, but I just don’t have the power to do it.
RPW: It’s an old story – to any complexion.
WW: Yes, and I don’t – that – to me that has not yet approached consensus.
RPW: Well when action means consensus, but the potentiality of consensus lies, say, in the recognition of a responsibility.
WW: Yes, I could buy that, as the expression goes. We started down one lane once that I’m trying to recall, and I know I hadn’t quite exhausted my
picking ideas about it.
RPW: Let’s go back.
WW: I believe it had to do with – I think it began with a question as to whether this – whether Negro – oh, yes, it had to do with the Negro accepting his own identity, and I wanted – I remembered in my mind, I wanted to say a few more words about that, because I think this is half of the battle, for the Negro to accept himself as he is. Now, maybe my philosophy or attitude about this is a little structured because I’ve talked about it a good bit on the public platform, but this business of this internal colored discrimination, as I say, was very sharp fifteen or twenty years ago when I was a youngster, and I was very aware of it, and as I indicated, I have seen sharp disappearance, you know. You do not find Negroes today who are light-skinned who assign to themselves any special value, and you do not find the counterpart, the sharp sensitivity of Negroes who are dark-skinned. In fact, it has gone a little – it depends on the
a little bit the other way. There’s a little more pride taking – being taken now in a Negro being a visible Negro, you know – you know, if you’re on the borderline, like some of us Mulattoes are – you feel a little bit embarrassed – kind of like we’ve been cheated, you know, in his movement of the rise of the nations in Africa and the respectability of being black and having kinky hair – you know. I think it’s healthy even though the pendulum has gone the other way, because I think the natural response is going to be, it will even out. But I think more than anything else, this has given to the Negro – this is what the non-violent movement has given the Negro – a basic belief in his own personal worth, that no matter who he is, there is a means now by which he can make his witness for what he believes, without cursing and swearing and clubbing and shooting – you know, using any of the traditional violent means when one wants to react against oppression. He has found identity not alone for himself, but he has found identity with the group – the Negro has a new solidarity. This is true not only of one Negro with a hundred other Negroes, but it’s also true of Negroes South and North. I think Birmingham meant this more than anything else. There were many Negroes in the North who kind of felt sorry for those your Negroes down South, but then didn’t really feel a bond. But the bond has been forged now as never before.
RPW: In fact, there was by all reports of sociologists and other observers, a great withdrawal on the part of Northern Negroes from Southern Negroes as they came North.
WW: Yes – they wanted to cut off, not only from the stark circumstances that they had left, but they also wanted to cut themselves off from their historical of having been slaves. I think this is reflected in another way in the middle class Negro, who begins to develop enough economic security that he wants to cut himself off from the Negro community, he finds himself unacceptable to the white community, and so his frustration is lost in – as I think Dr. King describes it – conspicuous consumption – completely devoid of any spiritual or moral values, you know. And it has been a kind of entrapment that he was wandered into. I think it has been reflected in the early days – maybe even now in our present revolution – that a lot of the goals the movement has been directed toward have been in a sense middle class goals – they are middle class goals and not so much things that affect the simple and plain people of the land. But more and more the center of the movement, the focus of the movement, is shifting, particularly in economic terms, to matters of employment, those things which are going to be the day by day flesh and blood considerations of the people of the land.
RPW: Moving away from civil rights as such, toward the economic substructure – the psychological substructure – is that it?
WW: Yes. From civil rights to human rights – the right to be free from the fear of want, and hunger, and free from the fear of not having shelter, free from the fear of ignorance.
RPW: Coming back a second to the matter of identity, we know along back – at least as far back as DuBoise [Du Bois] – talk about the split in the Negro soul, the division of impulses sometimes for some people, an almost irreconcilable division of impulse, one toward an extreme form – Africa, toward the mystique noire as we have it now, or Negritude, or the notion of the Negro culture as separate from and antithetic to and resisting of the white western European Judeo-Christian culture – all this withdrawal was an extreme form that becomes a kind of black shovinism [chauvinism?] of the Black Muslims, for instance. On the other hand, the impulse to enter into, to absorb and be absorbed by and integrate with this other western European cultural tradition, and perhaps lose the whole – even lose blood identity in this absorption. Does this split – is this for you a split of impulse?
WW: No, I think this present movement that we have is going to lead toward a synthesis of the two. I don’t –
RPW: Excuse me – Dr. King this morning was saying that he recognizes this as a real problem – there are very sharp divisions of feeling on this question, you see, and many ways of discussing it. I do hope you will discuss it now.
WW: Yes. Now, I feel as Dr. King does, that it is a problem, and maybe I’m going out on a limb by giving my own personal conjecture.
RPW: Please do.
WW: I do not think that Negroes in the foreseeable future is going to lose his ethnic identity, if that’s the proper way to describe it. I think for three to four to five and maybe six generations there is going to be a visible Negro community. But I think the temper of history in the world, particularly with the rise of the African and Asian nations, is such that the color factor is going to recede in its importance. Now, as I notice, as perhaps – I don’t think it’s an undue optimism. And so I see here as a synthesis between the two, that color will become an incidental means of identification, and the Negro will find his place in America in a very real sense as the Jew has, as the Irish, as the labor movement – that the tide of history of our times is going to demand so much for human rights that the Negro will in a sense integrate himself into this new stream of history in such a way that he will not be lost visibly but yet the stereotypes and the discrimination and the artificial obstacles that hampered him in his first one hundred years of emancipation will recede almost into insignificance.
RPW: That is, you envisage a pluralistic society in American rather than a unified society in that sense?
WW: I think what we’re going to see in America is what the world is like in miniature in one place. It’s going to be a kind of United Nations, because even with the restrictions being imposed on new people coming from other countries – I think we’re still going to have them come – some way is going to be found – the technological advances of this nation, the agricultural skills, our reputation and our bent as builders – we get more out of the land, we have the largest leisure class, you know – it’s going to be a Mecca toward which people who have an opportunity are going to find their way. And I think you’re going to have more of a melting pot in America. I envision something like maybe a larger Hawaii, or a larger Jamaica – something like that. And I think this is my hope for American, that it will become like Jamaica. I was in Jamaica last year, and you could clearly distinguish Orientals and people of English stock or European stock I should say, some Americans, West Indians and Negroes – but everybody had the concept, not that they were Jewish or English or Chinese or Oriental or that they were Negro, but that they were Jamaicans.
RPW: What about the notion that we encounter that the Negro, the American Negro is more like the old white American than like anybody else – the old white Southerner or the old white Yankee?
WW: Well, I don’t think it’s entirely true. I think we have to start with the basic premise that the Negro is an American. There is very little – I think that we have been able to retain from our so-called African or jungle heritage other than the blood lineage which we naturally have to trace. By and large, if you take the Negro, nine-tenths of him is a product of American culture. And then because we have existed as a subculture in American society, we have become imitators of what we have seen, and in many instances we are, as George Kelsey said, an exaggerated American.
RPW: That’s the same idea, you see – one aspect of it.
WW: So in this wise you see in the Negro merely a misery or an imitation of what he ahs seen in the rest of Americans, who out of the circumstances of history have had privileged positions and our values and ideas reflect it, so in this wise I think it’s true.
RPW: Have you read Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust?
RPW: Do you remember that very ambiguous section about the Southern Negro and the Southern white and the theory of homogeneity, that they would represent somehow against an outside world? What sort of sense does that make to you, or how do you interpret it?
WW: Well, I don’t think it’s – I think here you have a reflection of the provincialism of a geographical provincialism that still pervades to this day in the South. For instance, the South feels it stands against the rest of the nation politically and maybe in a real sense economically. I think this is to a large degree the same kind of thinking which causes us to have this Southern bloc in Congress. I don’t think in practical terms it really works out like this. As I recall, vaguely, they were saying that the Utopia of the South would be that the Negroes would go along their slow course to whatever their goals were, and the white people would go along their course to whatever their goals were, and in one Southern homogeneous setting the two would exist separately but side by side.
RPW: That isn’t apparently what Faulkner meant – a formal segregation. He meant something else, whatever –
WW: Except it was voluntary.
RPW: Not voluntary segregation – not segregation at all. In Faulkner’s work segregation is not the point. Excuse me – I must change the tape. This is the end of Tape #1 of the conversation with Mr. Walker. See Tape #2.
Mr. WARREN: This is Tape #2 of the interview with Reverend Wyatt T. Walker – proceed. We were talking about Faulkner and homogeneity, and if this meant some vision of reconciliation after the present conflict, then some special relationship based on a common history, how would you respond to that notion?
WW: I have said this at different times, and I think I have heard the other who have worked with us in the revolution – in our revolution say so – that we believe that the South is going to be a better place to live in for Negroes and whites than perhaps the North. Even though we are passing through a period which is very tenuous and in a sense very costly emotionally to both whites and Negroes, because of the sharp social changes being demanded and forced, but when, after a period of reconciliation, that because of the – and maybe this is – if I’m following your guess at what Faulkner meant – if his projection was that Negroes and whites would live together in a warmer relationship than they would say where else because of their common bond, I think this is generally true. This is what I think. I think so because – well, a kind of sentimentality of the South and the case with which relationship are – have been built, the fact that white children were reared by Negro wet mothers, that perhaps both of us were refined in the cauldrons of the Civil War and Reconstruction and then the non-violent – that maybe because of that, out of our common geographical history – this is what I was saying poorly before – I just misinterpreted it, as I recall, what Faulkner said about this idea of homogeneity – I was going the other way and trying to interpret your guess at it – I could agree very strongly that I think there will be a unique relationship – the Negroes and the whites in the South will enjoy after the reconciliation of the revolution than is presently or can be hoped for to be enjoyed by Negroes and whites in the North. I think the level of interpersonal relationships is closer than it could ever be in the North.
RPW: You referred to reconstruction – do you remember Muirdahl’s [Myrdal’s] sketch of what would have been his recommendation for policy –
WW: You mean the swift change?
RPW: No, after the Civil War. He gave a five or six point policy that he thought would have saved us the last hundred years of race troubles. The policy runs like this – first, for compensation to Southern slaveholders for emancipating slaves. Two, expropriation of plantations as needed, but payment for the land taken. Three, the sale of land to landless freedmen and landless whites – sell, not gift – over a long period of time, with education and some supervision during this period – transition – and other details too. Do you feel any emotional reaction to the fact that a payment was proposed to the slaveholders for the emancipated slaves?
WW: No, I wouldn’t have any at all, because I guess I’m enough businessman and practical headed enough as a student of history to know that the Negro slave represented dollars and cents to an economy which was being crippled by the dissolution of slavery. Now, I suppose it would be federally subsidized –
RPW: Yes, that’s what – U.S. government tax money.
WW: But I would have no emotional response whatsoever, and I don’t know just why other than what I said.
RPW: Now, many people – many Negroes do have a violent response to that – people you know – some people you know.
WW: It wouldn’t bother me at all.
RPW: They just say no, this is compounding a sin. And actually have a violent emotional response immediately.
WW: How do they say it’s compounding a sin?
RPW: By paying the man who –
WW: As small as the investment might have been – maybe he didn’t pay anything for the slaves – but at least he had a sense of housing, as poorly as it was, and fed them, and his whole economic venture depended upon the exploitation of free labor. I mean, there were some dollar and cents involved, whether it was right or wrong, and as I say at this point I’m a pragmatist.
RPW: Well, you answered my question.
WW: Yes, and further than that, if I may push the point, though this may – I don’t know whether this would have been the panacea, but I think this would have been far better than what they did do.
RPW: Well, now, we can’t – I don’t think it would have been possible. You couldn’t have expected the Northern taxpayer to say we’re going to put two billion dollars in compensating Southern slaveholders we were fighting last week. That’s not probable – not likely. But we have to take the big if it could have been done and it would have had some –
WW: I think it would have probably wrangled a hundred years to get that answered in some form.
RPW: We’ve had a hundred years anyway, though. On the matter of history, let me ask you, Mr. Walker, what your estimate of and feeling about Lincoln –
WW: To me, Lincoln was – I guess I could say, from where I stand, the greatest president we had. And I am aware of some of his earlier statements on the slave question, but I am convinced as I read different works and different historians’ assessment of him, and within the context of what doing away with the slave system meant to the nation – you know, it could have been that this nation might have gone down the drain, and I think Abraham Lincoln took a dangerous risk solely – almost solely on a moral principle. Now, I – a lot of people don’t agree with me on this. They say he was forced to do it – I don’t think he was forced.
RPW: he was a racist, apparently. You have, even after –
WW: He was a racist in a day when it was perfectly acceptable and Christian to be a racist.
RPW: That’s the point I’m getting at. Now, you are taking the view of a reader of history who realizes that things change and the context changes. There are many people who think these things are absolute, and reject Lincoln because of these elements in his career.
WW: I think you would have to say he was a racist in terms that perhaps he accommodated slavery intellectually, but not a racist –
RPW: He segregation – he said so.
WW: At one stage of his career, he did.
RPW: After emancipation he said this - straight segregationist statements.
WW: But not a racist within the context or the connotation of what racist means today, I don’t think.
RPW: A hundred years make a difference in general climate anyway. That is, you think there has been – and I gather from what you say, a fundamental change in the whole attitude toward race from the time of Lincoln to our time? A man like Lincoln who has racist attitudes –
WW: I don’t know – I’d have to think about that a little bit as to whether I – you’re asking whether I think the concept of race has changed in the hundred years since Lincoln?
RPW: Yes – whether the notion of inferior races and superior races has been modified.
WW: Oh, yes – yes – I would say that very readily.
RPW: What has modified that notion?
WW: I think to a great degree anthropological studies. I don’t think we have erased all of the emotional loyalty to the concept of race – and you see, prejudice in a sense is a religion of its own, of its own kind, and man’s nature is such that the last things he gives up – I think the last two bastions of change to which he will submit, is that of his religion and that of his personal prejudices. And religion is last. And of course our Anglo-Saxon Protestant concept of race was infused with racism, see. Well, even until recent days, here in the South, you know. There have been so many apologists – still some exist. Billy James Harkness is one, who have a rationale worked out for race within the context of the Christian church. There are some southern white Baptists who feel logically – sincerely believe that when Jesus, within the frame of reference of our Protestant theology, spoke of redemption and salvation, that he never really had the Negro in mind, you know. The Negro was not an entity then, and so Jesus wasn’t talking about us, you know – or them, as he would describe it. And so he has a kind of mental block – almost a psychic trauma, when he sings the hymns of the Christian church and reads the text of the New Testament – he has a block when he has to be confronted with the fact that this may mean black folks too, you see.
RPW: You were saying the clinging to religion and the clinging to prejudice – these things can be symptoms of a clinging to identity, can’t they? Clinging to religion, clinging to prejudice, is a clinging sometimes to identity, isn’t it? closest
WW: That’s right. It’s a subjective vehicle by which we enlarge our identity, we enlarge it through our religious posture –
RPW: Or even know our identities.
WW: Yes – yes.
RPW: Now I’m getting something like this – which is a matter of speculation – and I want to see how you feel about it – the Southern white man is a man in one way in a situation parallel to that of the American Negro. He is a man – he’s been having identity trouble. That is, he is on one hand a Southerner with a special history – a nationalism and with a special body of beliefs and prejudices and sentiments around this fact. On the other hand, he is pulled into the American orbit in many strong ways. Now, to be himself – i.e., to be Southern – the naïve Southerner feels he must cling to a certain number of prejudices and attitudes which have symbolic value for him.
WW: Yes – and to his history.
RPW: And to his history – segregation, for one. Segregation becomes the symbol of identity, to be, i.e., Southern. Now, this I should say is a mistake – is abandoning of history – there are many Southerners who did not – segregation is a very late idea, anyway. If he once sees history in a different light, he sees that to defend segregation does not mean to – necessarily to be Southern – you can be Southern without being a segregationist. But the point I am getting at in asking your view of, do you see a parallel of the sort of – I have mentioned. The Southerner is defending an identity – a cultural identity, which is threatened, and the Negro is seeking an identity which has been weakened. So the Southerner is defending – he’s having a weakened identity too – he’s trying to defend his weakened identity.
WW: Well, I think the difference is that the Negro has in a sense had no identity. It is not a matter of change for him as it is to crystallize an identity.
RPW: Yes, the difference is there. But they are both concerned with identity problems. Does that make sense to you?
WW: Yes, but I think they come out of different roots. And that is where I would see the significant differences. And where the Negro I think would have a lesser problem of adjustment, psychologically and emotionally, than the Southern white.
RPW: All right. The Negro is moving toward – successfully toward identity. The white man in the South is fighting a somewhat losing battle to maintain that identity. A falsely conceived identity.
WW: A falsely conceived identity, and he’s also in a sense being dragged forward by what a – what I would call a new identity with the concept of a total United States or total American – see, which he’s got to keep up with because of automation, industrial advances, the space age and all this. If he’s going to get in the mainstream then he’s got to give up some of this so-called Southern identity.
RPW: He’s got to do it.
WW: And this is the thing that is giving him such a tremendous problem, where you have such sharp variance in response to the whole integration question. So you don’t have a solid Southern posture anymore, you’ve got degrees of differences ranging from white all the way to black, with a lot of different – a thousand different grades in between. There are many, many Southerners who say, yes, I think the schools ought to be desegregated, but I don’t think they ought to come to our church. Or they say I think they ought to be able to sit anywhere they want on the bus, but I don’t want them living in my block. Or I think they ought to have the right to have good schools, but I don’t think they ought to participate in sports together – you see – there are so many contradictions at this point.
RPW: Speaking of schools – let me give you a quotation from Reverend Glamerson [Galamison] - a TV interview not long back. I would rather see it – the public school system – destroyed than not conform to a timetable for integration – his timetable. And he added, maybe it has run its course already – the public school system. I’m just taking a few – a couple of sentences out of a - debate, but now, forgetting whether this represents his considered views or not, how do these views strike you?
WW: Well, first of all I would say that as a practical man I think both of us must understand every prophet exaggerates his point of view. It would be difficult for me to believe that Glamerson [Galamison] means literally to destroy the public school system. What he means, I think, - and maybe I’m hazarding the wrong guess here – is that the board of education in New York, as I’m familiar with it, says that it would cost too much and would disrupt the normal routine smooth running of our school system to do all you say do right now. Glamerson [Galamison] says, so what if it does cost all of that and you lose a month or a few days, the ills that it’s creating in the community and its deeper entrenchment is so severe that I think you ought to go to that awkwardness and inconvenience that it may cost. I don’t – I can’t see him meaning literal destruction. If he means that, then I can’t go that far with him, because I think there are some things about the public school system that are good, and –
RPW: The idea is good anyway.
WW: Yes, and as entrenched as some of the ills are, I, even as a militant, would understand out of practical purposes that it must be transitional, that you cannot say tonight it’s one way and tomorrow morning it’s another way. You just have people and administrative problems and geography – all of these things enter into it. And particularly in a city like New York City, where it has problems that are unique to itself by the very nature of its being New York City – there’s no other city like it anywhere in the world.
RPW: Do you regard a busing program as a tactic to dramatize a need, or do you regard it as a device that has positive, long-range advantages?
WW: I think it has positive, long-range value and I endorse it heartily.
RPW: What would you do about Washington, D.C., where there – are assumed to have almost entirely Negro population in the public schools? Where would you get the white children to bus in?
WW: Well, you see, each city’s program ahs to be geared to that city’s particular problems, and if Washington, D.C., in fact does become a Negro city, it’s a different problem altogether from a situation where the Negro would be in the minority.
RPW: Well, would the Negro be in the minority in the New York City public schools – not now?
WW: Yes, he still remains – the non-white – you have to add in the Puerto Rican factor there –
RPW: Yes, that’s what I say – the non-white,
WW: And that’s why I say, each city, you know – there’s no one rule of thumb for each city. So I don’t know that I have altogether worked out a –
RPW: How far would you be willing to bus children? All children ride buses some –
WW: I would say, just as a rule of thumb - and this is right off the top of my head – anything more than a half hour bus ride for a child – I’d say a half hour or forty-five minutes – seems to me beyond the normal duress of what would be needed.
RPW: Anything beyond that is –
WW: I think would be unusually burdensome, yes. As I say, that’s right off the top of my head. I can’t imagine a child having to ride an hour in the morning to school, and an hour in the morning (?) back from school.
RPW: That is, you would see the busing system, then, as a device to gain certain ends but not a solution to the problem?
WW: No. I would only be an interim program by which it would get certain results and at the same moment dramatize – I think it’s a both/and situation rather than an either/or.
RPW: But the dramatization would be ultimately – I’m asking you this – I’m putting it as a statement – the dramatization would be of the need for decent schools, decent –
WW: Yes – quality education for all children, regardless of neighborhood. And I think it would also dramatize the existence of residential segregation, which – about which –
RPW: Ah, that’s something else, now – that’s something else. In other words, it dramatizes a deeper ill than the mere fact of unintegrated schools
WW: Exactly so. The last battleground in the residential segregation that is perhaps the most difficult to get at, because the money-lending institutions and the city planners and the people who decide what the neighborhood is going to look like even twenty years from now are all, for the most part, white people, who have their own Anglo-Saxon, if I may say, Protestant heritage, to protect.
RPW: Yes, they do, by their own definition. You’re a Protestant?
RPW: And by your statement, part Anglo-Saxon, I presume.
WW: Yes, I suppose I am. But I do not interpret what my – my heritage is now what they interpret it – the same – different – because I have an old friend that – preacher friend, who says, a lot of people criticize me for not having religion, and when I see what they think it is I’m glad I ain’t got it.
RPW: What is a Negro in America?
WW: That’s a question which is antiphemic [antithetic?]. I really don’t know. From a Negro’s point of view it is a person who moves within the Negro community, societally speaking. For the white man, it’s any person who has a drop of Negro blood.
RPW: By the law of Virginia – I once looked this up – it’s changed over the years – the percentage – getting smaller and smaller percentage each time – each new law defines – Negro blood – defines Negro.
WW: It’s down to one-thirty-second now, I think.
RPW: Something like that.
WW: And of course I don’t know how they measure that, you know.
RPW: What happens if a Negro man, say, marries a white woman and she lives then, societally, as a Negro?
WW: She becomes accepted. A white person is – becomes assimilated into the Negro community in such a way that no white and no Negro could ever become assimilated into a white society. We haven’t gone that far yet.
RPW: Aren’t there some Negroes who have, by losing their identity?
WW: Oh, yes, that’s what we would call passing. Of course, that’s not assimilation, that’s in a sense disappearing. That Negro – he becomes the invisible Negro of Ralph Ellison.
RPW: Yes. What is your view of a person who passes – a Negro who – a so-called Negro, shall we say, who passes?
WW: This may surprise you. If that’s what he wants to do, more power to him. And I say –
RPW: No, it doesn’t necessarily surprise me or otherwise, I just –
WW: Irrevocably – if I – you know, there’s always the irrevocable question – if you could come back, would you come back as a white man or a Negro? – I’d come back as a white man every time.
RPW: I heard the other day a professor of law in a distinguished law school saying, it must be great to be a Negro now.
WW: Well, this is a great hour for him.
RPW: This man is a white man, you see. He says, it must be great to be a Negro now – you must have a sense of significant action that you couldn’t have as a white man.
WW: I think the white man may feel – I don’t know – I never thought about it really – he may feel that he’s in a sense at the mercy of history, whereas the Negro in a sense is guiding or directing –
RPW: Making history – is that it? Well, this has some – I’m sure has some at least truth in it for a large number of people. It’s an interesting formulation.
WW: The assessment that I made about – it’s a theoretical question, and
theoretical – is that if a man – I say, a person selfishly wants to have an identity which would give him the greatest breadth of fulfillment at the stage American is now – for instance, I know people say to me, well, you’ve done pretty well, you know, why are you bothered with this – you know, you’ve developed some of the culture of our nation, you’re highly educated, you’re not doing bad –
RPW: Summa cum laude.
WW: Yes, my response is well, suppose I had not had the obstacles to face that I’ve had as a Negro. There’s no telling what I might have been, you know. I might have been attorney general of the United States.
RPW: Let’s reverse it. There are some Negroes who say that in special cases – not as a general principle – in special cases, segregation has meant a spur to achievement – to self-fulfillment.
WW: Yes, I think that is true.
RPW: Mr. Farmer says that.
WW: Yes, I think that is true in special cases. But if the human spirit is what I think it is, I do not really believe that the coincidence or the accident of color really changes the nature of a man. And I think I would have had the same kind of ambition and the same kind of drive and the same kind of incentive in striving for perfection that I do – as I happen to be a Negro. I don’t think a human personality is something that is genetically and biologically fixed.
RPW: You don’t think the – you take that view – you don’t take the view of the psychologists –
WW: I don’t think environmental environment plays as much – is as much a factor in the personality as many modern thinkers would suppose.
RPW: Well, now the argument – the chief argument, I guess – the chief non-moral argument against segregation is that it does warp personalities and limit – it gives an environment which is bad.
WW: Well, I think that’s true (talking together) I was trying to be precise and say I don’t think it has as much influence as many might say – it does have an impact and does have influence, but I think the bent of a man’s life – here again I’m falling back on the psychologists with whom I – some of whom I disagree – they say the bent of a person’s life is usually set around four or five years old, when the concept of race is barely beginning to break through, you know – prejudice – white and Negro.
RPW: Speaking of psychologists – you are familiar no doubt with Dr. Kenneth Clark’s attacks on the non-violence theory. He says for one thing that the practice of non-violence is to ask someone who has been oppressed to love his oppressor is putting on that person an intolerable burden.
WW: Well, I think the first problem Dr. Kenneth Clark has is that he has a semantic problem. He doesn’t really know what we mean by love within the context of a non-violent revolution. Secondly, he is a man who – and I don’t know him very well – so I have to qualify that – I would adjudge that he has only a naïve religious orientation, and for one to understand what we are saying, he must be basically religiously oriented, and he must have some knowledge of what we mean by love. When we say love we’re not talking about an emotional attachment that you like somebody – as I’m sure Dr. King would say.
RPW: Yes, I’ve read his notes.
WW: But you have – you recognize this person’s worthfulness as a fellow human being, despite what he may do – see. You may be a hard-core racist, and out point of view is that as – you are misguided or misdirected or a product of your training and education and culture and whatever –
WW: Yes, I say – it is a factor, but not the factor. And that this makes you do the things untoward that you do. Now, our point of view is that even at a practical level, the weapons with which I fight you of necessity must neither be physically violent or must not be a violence of the spirit, because neither will – can reconcile us. The only think they can do is for one or the other or both of us to be annihilated.
RPW: You look toward the motive of reconciliation as the aim of the whole –
WW: In other words, what we’re saying is this – that we have maybe a dangerous optimism about the resiliency of the human spirit, that if it can reflect in enough instances, and in repeated terms, a kind of heraldism [heroism?] or courage, that layer by layer we can peel back the hard core of what years and years have built up. Now, we may not convert in every instance, or at the moment. With some it may be short-term, with others it may be log-term – some it may be never – but, as Matt Dillon says, you can’t win ‘em all. But at least my personal moral position is stronger because at least I tried, you see. Somebody – I think Woodrow Wilson said it – it is better to lose – it is better – how does he have it? – it is better to have lost in the cause who will ultimately win than to win in a cause who will ultimately lose – something – let me – can I take a break here?
RPW: What do you say we do – end of Tape #2 or conversation with Reverend Walker – continue on Tape #3.
Mr. WARREN: This is Tape #3 of a conversation with Wyatt T. Walker, Atlanta, March 18 – continue. Where were we?
Mr. WALKER: I don’t recall. Let’s see –
RPW: Well, let’s start something – let’s pull a card out of the deck. This is a quotation on Negro history. The whole tendency of the Negro history movement – not as history, but as propaganda – is to encourage the average Negro to escape the realities. The actual achievements and the actual failures of the present. Although the movement constantly tends to build race pride, it may also cause Negroes unconsciously to recognize that group pride is built partly on delusion and therefore may result in a devaluation of themselves or being forced to resort to self-deception. This is from Arnold Rose, Muirdahl’s [Myrdal’s] collaborator.
WW: Well, I see a couple of holes there. I think we must honestly face the fact that almost every page of history – I know that generalizations are bad – are romanticized to a degree. Now, what I am saying is that I would imagine that as the new move for Negro history is developed, and I am intimately involved in just such a project myself, that some of the Negro’s history and his contributions and the establishment of his historical roots will be romanticized to a degree – maybe overdrawn. But this is nothing more than that which is natural. I think some of us say that it is a character of the human spirit that the further removed you become from an event, the more and more it becomes embellished, and I think this is something that is a part of our humanity rather than to say that something unique is now happening to the Negro because he has an interest in Negro history. I’m about to take a leave of absence from my work with Dr. King by a project that I kind of backed into – really had no interest whatsoever earlier, because I – my appetite was one of being an activist – a militant. But the offer kept on coming, and then I began to be interested in what these people were trying to do. I am planning to go to work with a company that’s putting out a sixteen volume encyclopedia on Negro life and culture. Either I have persuaded myself or I have become persuaded that this in a sense is the next frontier, to give to the Negro of this present generation and the next a sense of historical roots which he has never had. It’s in a sense going to solidify his new identity that he’s building. I – I don’t know whether you’ve been able – I guess you know that I am a damned Yankee –
RPW: Yes, I know your origin.
WW: And I went to integrated schools all my life, and the only thing I can recall reading in history books about Negroes, is that we were slaves and that slave owners for the most part – there were a few – I’m paraphrasing now – there were a few slave owners who didn’t treat their slaves well, but for the most part a genuine warm relationship existed. That’s all I can really recall, and I’m sure mental block about it because I’ve never had any feeling about denying the slave experience of the Negro, and this has grown out of my deep appreciation for the – what is almost the only thoroughly American music we have – the Negro spiritual and folk songs. Rather to me, despite the terrible experience slavery was, it was an ennobling experience for the Negro, because he has been – he has proven that he could rise about it, that he took the rigors that it produced and somehow kept his spirit and soul together. So – and I have become convinced that whatever efforts I have, that more people are reached through the written word than the spoken word in a sense, and so this new project is really fascinating to me, that if we can get into, say, two-fifths – two tenths of the Negro church community, we can get in a tenth of the public school system or get in half of the libraries, get in a tenth of the civic and human relations groups with these volumes which will talk about the Negro and his contributions to medicine – which is a kind of neo-nationalism – in sports, in religious life, Negro womanhood, essay, literature- you know – the whole gamut of experiences that he has been able at best to develop within his own culture – this is really fascinating.
RPW: It is. Programmatic history can be the kind which was written by the South about the reconstruction.
WW: Yes – which guided their patterns for the next two generations.
RPW: That’s right. It guided them – very unfortunately. Now we are finding a crop of Southern historians who are re-writing it – new researches [sic].
WW: It’s been very shocking to some.
RPW: Very shocking – Van Woodward has re-written reconstruction history – he’s a Southerner from Arkansas. Now, the question I’m getting at is, is it a danger – it’s a program, isn’t there? – the danger of the delusion –
WW: Yes – over romanticizing it – building a deep nationalistic spirit – making black rather than white, you know – or developing the martyr complex.
RPW: Or even doing something else – over-promoting the great American vice – American history. You said something a moment ago which struck my ear in passing – it was this – before we come back to history – this bears on it – you said you regarded the slave experience as an ennobling one for the Negro. Now, in Faulkner’s character of Dilsey in the Sound and the Fury, we have the only noble character in this novel – she is noble, understanding, powerful, enduring, pitiful – passionate, I mean, in that sense. For some Negroes this character is an affront, she is a character painted as being ennobled by history and by her condition. Now, when Faulkner, a white man, says that, this would cause resentment among certain Negroes, including James Baldwin. Now, you said it could in no sense cause a resentment. You were about to say that James Baldwin what - ?
WW: I was going to say that James Baldwin – I recognize James Baldwin mechanically and artistically as a great writer from my own judgment, but I cannot accept James Baldwin as the last word on Negro expression – what I feel. James Baldwin can speak for James Baldwin and what he feels, but that does not make him the architect of expression for the Negro community. I don’t think there’s any person who speaks for the Negro community – not even Martin Luther King, Jr. – I think he’d be the first one to say it. We are as individual as we are different, and we reflect a heterogeneity of attitudes and responses as does any group of people – white, black, yellow or brown. James Baldwin – you kind of intimated that he did not find any comfort in the character of Dilsey.
RPW: Southerners have an illusion – they cling to it desperately – and Dilsey is such an illusion that justifies the Southerner in saying, oh, everything is all right because she’s so nice and she comforts me. I won’t read the whole thing.
WW: I think a part of what he’s saying may be true. Faulkner was a novelist - or maybe all together – he drew some of his characters from experiences that he had had. I am sure that these ennobling qualities that Dilsey had – and I’m not familiar with this particular book – I mean, I know the name but I’ve never read it – that she might have been the composite of qualities that a slave person could develop despite the slave experience, and this is what I am getting it,
RPW: That’s what he’s presenting –
WW: And I’m not saying that if I want to be a noble, make me a slave – that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that in spite of, it developed in the Negro, which might have developed otherwise and maybe at a more accelerated pace, but it did not kill his spirit, it only broadened his – the resiliency of the human spirit and it was by some accident or fortuitous circumstances that it happened – that it occurred in the Negro experience. In other words, it did a lot of bad things to him – to us, but it didn’t dessimate [decimate] us as did the Indian inflexibility, you see. In other words, if I had to choose between the two course, I’d take the Negro’s lot anyway and undergo the slave experience and survive, rather than be relegated to a reservation as had the Indian.
RPW: Yes. You were speaking of the heterogeneity among Negroes and among Negro leaders a moment ago – this is an interesting fact – most revolutions tend to move toward a single focus of leadership.
WW: Well, I have a little – maybe this explains it – I don’t know – my attitude toward the revolution is that it has not quite gelled yet – it’s finding its way, and I agree with you that any significant historical turn of events must move on the vehicle of personality – it does not move on idea alone – it must have substance, it must have personality, it must be substantive by a personality. I – my feeling is that the revolution is like a child who is taking its first few steps. A year ago I was saying we were just landing on the beach and digging in. I think Birmingham stood us up, and we’re like a toddling child, because I think that when the revolution is full-grown, we’re going to have such things as removing the prerequisite of literacy as a right to vote – and that’s right around the corner – we’re going to have a demand for an economic reorganization of our whole free enterprise system – to me that is the revolution full-grown.
RPW: Now, to get back to leadership – is there a tendency toward not a single person now visible – even Dr. King who has become more the symbol than any other single person – but King does not dominate the whole impulse – there’s a vast amount of energy in the movement – it is not – or even outside the movement there’s random violence but he does not dominate – is there any logic in the situation which would lead toward the domination by a single personality? There always has been in a revolution. Or can you swing a revolution with a democratic control? Does that present a problem – the force of the –
WW: I would say no to the latter question, and say not necessarily to the former. Now, to be specific, what I am getting at is, I don’t think there are rules for revolution, you know, that there is a possibility of a revolution occurring which doesn’t conform to any of the other previous revolutions recorded in history. I think our span –
RPW: That’s a good pragmatic view, anyway, isn’t it?
WW: Yes. So I would not be dismayed if there does not emerge on the American scene in race relations one Negro leader who towers above all else.
RPW: It might be very dangerous, as a matter of fact.
WW: Yes. On the other hand, I think I might – I don’t know – I have a kind of reluctance to agree that Martin Luther King does not now dominate the scene more than any other single individual.
RPW: More than any other person, but not the whole scene. He doesn’t dominate – WW: Not the whole structure.
RPW: He doesn’t dominate a great many factions and random feelings too. WW: Well, let me ask you this – what do you think the Muslim following represents really?
RPW: I have no way of knowing. I read the papers and I read the books, the articles – it’s all what I read – how do I know?
WW: Well, let us say, for instance, my feeling is that the Muslim movement and its so-called impact and its in race relations is almost nil. It’s a specter, a paper target that the white press has created. I say the white press because that’s the only press that exists in a real sense. For instance, I have a serious question as to how strong they are with all of the fear that they strike in some people’s hearts. I know in Birmingham they say they’ve had a temple there for ten years, and they have to scrounge around to get fifty people. Now, a movement that is no more vital than that in ten years, I have some question about. In Atlanta the same thing is true. The only place – the only place – and you can document it – the only place where Malcolm X can get a crowd is Harlem – that’s – maybe Newark, because it’s in the shadow of New York, but you get him anywhere else he’s lost. Half – fifty percent of the Negroes don’t even know what the Black Muslims are – they never heard of them – they don’t know who Malcolm X is. But ninety percent of Negroes know who Martin Luther King, Jr. is.
RPW: Yes, I know that for a fact – I mean, that’s beyond dispute. It’s a question of what impulses are implicit in these appetites and angers, you see – an instinct for violence and revenge would be implicit – and have not dominated the idea.
WW: This is where I think a great many people have misjudged the real temper of the Negro. For instance, I would raise a question – who can best say what the temper of the grass roots Negro is – can Roy Wilkins say it? No. Jim Farmer? No. Whitney Young? Certainly not. Who is it that enjoys titular leadership of the Negro community, who really knows what the pulse of the central plain people are? The one man who had a following and who has the logical contact – even more than a man who moves at their level – who has any kind of programmatic thrust that ever touches them – and that’s Martin Luther King, Jr.
RPW: Well, I should say that certainly in relative terms there’s no denying that – that’s clearly true. Speaking of any –
WW: What single man – let me press it – there is not a single Negro leader – not a single white leader, who touches as many people individually as does Martin Luther King, Jr. I took a six weeks’ check, following – oh, I guess when we came out of Birmingham in less than ten days’ time, he personally – I mean, he saw hands and eyes and faces of nearly – of better than a quarter of a million people – there isn’t anybody who commands the kind of response, individual physical response that he does. Now, I’m not even counting the compounded contacts that he makes when he’s recorded his speeches and they play them over the radio, or if he’s on television such as he was at the March on Washington. And I think this is unique in a man, something that goes by – it’s so ordinary for us, that we are slow to detect it.
RPW: Do you remember this quotation from Mr. Wilkins? They – that is SNIC, CORE, SCLC – furnish the noise, NAACP pays the bills for the bail and all the Negro advice and so forth, and of CORE and so forth – here today and gone tomorrow – there’s only one organization that can handle a long-sustained fight.
WW: Do you want my candid response?
RPW: Reaction – candid response – not your uncandid response.
WW: Off the record or on the record – I’ve got two –
RPW: Well, give me both of them and you have the script – you can – one background and one on the record – put them both here and we’ll – you have the script anyway -
WW: Well, first I would say, I think Roy Wilkins – I know Roy personally, and I used to work under him for years until I got exiled to Siberia – let me go into the off the record response –
RPW: All right.
WW: The NAACP has become bureaucratic, or is bureaucratic – it has lost contact with the grass roots people – if it ever had it – it has lost it. I worked within the structure of the NAACP ever since I was eleven years old, so I know it pretty well – I mean I’m not somebody on the outside looking in. I was branch president for five years in Virginia, reputedly one of the best branches in the nation per capita –
RPW: That’s when you had a charge there – a pastorate –
WW: Yes, that’s right. And I think I could pretty well document that whenever within the lines of the NAACP energetic and/or ambitious leadership begins to develop, you go to the guillotine. Why, I don’t know, because it seems to me the life of any organization if it’s going to exist in perpetuity, must have some transfer. But out of my own experience and what I – began to look around and see in other circumstances, I found it to be true. They have almost a kind of an organization of determinism and it’s reflected in this statement – this is on the record, now – that the NAACP, because of its longevity, is the only organization. I cannot subscribe to that view. I think the discontent of the Negro takes many different forms. Here again I’m talking – this reflects the heterogeneity of the Negro – and the NAACP’s program is not versatile enough to take within itself all of these different impulses. Now, the first thing I would say about Mr. Wilkins’ statement in Arlington, Virginia, is that it was not factual. I remember specific instances when SN[C]C, to whom he refers, got involved in Mississippi, and the students go off sometimes without counting the cost. This is not because they are students, it’s the rebellious age of the human spirit. And in many instances, they have done things precipitatively which were good and in other instances they were ill-advised. But all of us make mistakes. In that instance in Macome, [Macomb,] I don’t remember, it was either $20,000 bail or $10,000 bail – whatever it was, Roy Wilkins called me personally and wanted to know could we help with the bail and they had appealed to us and we agreed on the phone that they would put up half and we would put up half.
RPW: You being SCLC?
WW: SCLC. This was back in 1961. In the Freedom Ride which he intimates, Roy is not completely honest at this point, in that he says NAACP and embraces a legal defense in education fund which is something altogether different. Even knowledgeable white people who are students of the revolution are not aware of this, and it was the legal defense in education fund that took up the cudgel of the freedom rides legally, and this is what they exist for. So they should have done it. Birmingham, which has been the biggest single confrontation to date that I know of, the NAACP does not exist in Alabama. I do not know of any single thing they did or paid save Mr. Wilkins’ transportation from Tuskegee Institute over to Birmingham to speak, and back up to New York. Now, that is the only involvement I know of with them with Birmingham, and I know I can speak with authority because I’m the business head – I’m the man who handles the bills and O.K.’s the requisitions and this kind of thing. Any city he wants to name, there have been some instances where the NAACP branch has become involved or their youth chapters have become involved with the assistance, openly or quietly, by SCLC or inspired by SNCC, goaded by SNCC, prodded by us, in which they have had some responsibility, but the job was being done under the aegis of the NAACP. And I think we should have to face the practical realities that in these civil rights organizations with the diversified attack now along the system, the one point at which there is sharp competition is fundraising. Now, uniquely enough, even though we stay in the red, I think we have a broader outreach in fundraising than any organization that exists, and this is because Martin Luther King is in it. He has a tremendous appeal.
RPW: I have seen it in operation in Bridgeport two weeks ago.
WW: Oh, yes. Well, then, you know exactly what I mean.
RPW: I have seen it elsewhere too, but that’s –
WW: That was one evening’s work, which was a rugged evening for him, when you consider his overall schedule and the organizational responsibility he has. That was an $8,000 night. Now, Roy Wilkins it would take – I don’t know if he could ever get up a crowd that big to come hear him speak. He admits he’s not colorful, he’s not a symbol. This is the symbolism of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we practically translate it into meaningful support for his organization. There’s a whole ream of untold stories about Martin Luther King, Jr., as far as his income – he has not accepted an honorarium, for instance, he raised in his appearances last year, raised better than four hundred thousand dollars for his organization, which was, oh, fifty percent of the budget or more, the budget expenditure, for which he got a dollar. He gets no personal income from this organization, but yet the stories persist, you know, about this man is making a mint, he’s stashing it away – well, I think I know more about the personal finances of Martin Luther King, Jr., than any living person save his wife and secretary, and I know of more offers that come to him which are legitimate and which he has every right to accept, but because of his unique symbolism he is reluctant to do it. Many people do not know – and I don’t know whether you want to hear it, but Martin Luther King, Jr., was born a wealthy man. He has no need, you know – no need exists.
RPW: I considered he was comfortable anyway – I didn’t know –
WW: Well, I would say within the frame of reference of what the Negro community – our scale – you know, our scale is considerably lower, but with enough financial affluence not to ever have to hit a lick of work as long as he lived. Now, I could say that. RPW: Going back to the matter of recent history –
WW: I want to be sure that I made clear that –
RPW: You made it perfectly clear.
WW: - first of all, Mr. Wilkins’ statement was not accurate. It was said in a moment of evident pique when he – it looked like NAACP was being displaced by the new –
RPW: The same thing was said by the local president of the NAACP at Bridgeport while waiting for Dr. King’s appearance, two weeks ago in Bridgeport.
WW: He said the same thing about Wilkins?
RPW: he wasn’t there – I mean the local president.
WW: And just to show you, if I may press this one point further – that same meeting Mrs. Anderson – I know her by name – because I – and this is a practice of Dr. King and of many of them – they can’t get a crowd unless they use the name of the movement, and the fact is that King, Abernathy, Chelsworth and Walker are the principal names. I went to Bridgeport for an NAACP rally, for expenses only, to raise money for the NAACP. Dr. King is going to Las Vegas at the end of next month on a 60-40 basis to raise money - 60 percent for the NAACP. If they had Roy Wilkins out there they can’t get $25 or $100 a plate for a dinner, but they can do it with Martin Luther King, Jr. He raises more money for other organizations than the people within the organizations themselves can possibly do. Now, we have a letter I believe – I haven’t seen it but Dr. King remarked about it – the Gloucester Currant wrote to us, thanking Dr. King, that they had the largest membership that they ever had, and it was because of Birmingham – you know, the interest created. Jim Farmer of CORE said their income was strengthened – SNCC has benefited – any number or organizations. We were the only organization – the legal defense in education fund had one ad in the New York Times that cost $110,000. We were the only organization who didn’t send out a financial appeal on Birmingham, and you know why? Because we were still over there doing a job – we just couldn’t do it.
RPW: Some people say – people who are quite active and courageous in this movement, that Birmingham was a disaster.
WW: Well, without –
RPW: Charles Ellis, for one – I put it on tape.
WW: - first of all, he isn’t knowledgeable about the Negro movement in the South. He’s been away from Mississippi too long. Secondly, you can’t measure the results of a revolution altogether intangible results, and in the paper that I gave you – that it was a direction-turning event, not just for a single city but for the South and even the entire nation.
RPW: Was there a shock to your leadership in an outbreak of violence there?
WW: Not at all.
RPW: No shock? This is sometimes said, you know – even if the shock was great to your leadership there – after the bombing, when the mob broke, you know – I mean after the bombing at the motel when the mob broke. WW: You know what my shock was? I was on the scene in both instances.
RPW: I know you were.
WW: I was in the motel when it was bombed. My shock was that we were successful in containing it to what it was – that was my shock.
RPW: The containment?
WW: The containment. I really thought that city was going to blow itself off the map that night and the next day. There was enough provocation to warrant it. The other thing is – the reason why this assessment may come out – is, here again we’re at the mercy of – and I don’t think they’d do it with any malice – white press corps who interpret it – they can only see it through white eyes. They cannot distinguish even between Negro demonstrators and Negro spectators. All they know is Negroes, and most of the spectacular pictures printed in Life Magazine and in television clips, had the commentary Negro Demonstrators, when they were not Negro demonstrators at all. I could go through reams of pictures and identify for you pictures depicted as demonstrators and they were not demonstrators at all.
WW: Spectators. If I could share with a little intimacy off the record of what gave the movement – what built the Birmingham movement was something that was an accident that we parlayed into its most useful application. When we went to Birmingham, as – I don’t know whether you know – five months ahead I had started in, at Dr. King’s behest, preparing the community, organizing, mapping out the streets, et cetera. We had four hundred people when we came to town April the second who we knew were ready to go to jail for ten days apiece and we were going to stagger them through a period of time. On the second – on the first Sunday of the demonstration, which I believe was Palm Sunday, we had twenty-three people in the march, but you know how mass meetings are – they are, like, well, they last a little while, and we were about an hour behind schedule, and with the demonstrations that had begun that week, with 15 and 8 and 12 and 20 – the people who are free on Sunday – Negro people in any Negro neighborhood – began to stand around and wait to see what was going to happen. Well, it swelled to about 1500 people – only twenty-two people marched – see – but they followed these twenty-two down the street and when the UPI took the pictures and reported it, they said 1500 demonstrators – twenty-two arrested. Well, the twenty-two or twenty-eight was all we had. So then we devised the technique. Well, this is the way we’ll do it. We’ll set the demonstration for one hour and delay it by two hours and let the crowd collect. Now, this is a little Machiavellian, and I don’t know whether I’ve ever discussed this with Dr. King – I doubt if I have – but, some people say I’m the Richelieu or something, you know – and it was the image of all of these people following just a handful and it was the spectators following upon whom the dogs were turned. It was only until three weeks later that the hoses were actually used on demonstrators per se, and that was only done one afternoon – isn’t that interesting? But there were reports over and over again of –
RPW: The dogs, you mean – only one afternoon?
WW: No, no – the hoses –
RPW: One afternoon?
WW: One afternoon. After that, they saw that didn’t stop them and they just started to use rented buses and pulled – buses of them and put them on buses. One afternoon – the Saturday before the truce, I remember particularly, out of which came some of the most graphic pictures – we decided, since they had been a little rock throwing on Friday, that we would not have any – (end of tape)
Mr. WARREN: This is Tape #4 of conversation with Reverend W. T. Walker, March 18 – continue.
Mr. WALKER: I was about to –
RPW: The crowd following the demonstrators in Birmingham.
WW: Yes. I was referring particularly to the Saturday before the truce. On that Friday there had been some rock-throwing by spectators, and we felt –
RPW: White spectators?
WW: No – no, Negro spectators.
RPW: At whom?
WW: At the policemen.
RPW: At police.
WW: Yes. And this did not grow out of the demonstration per se, but at the policemen’s insistence to make them move back, get up on the curb – just rough treatment generally – and they resented it. And I think a woman or so were struck, and so out of a crowed of a thousand people some rocks and bricks came. So in response to this we felt that in order not to have the non-violent thrust scarred by rock-throwing which, if the demonstration originated at the Sixteenth Street Church it would naturally draw the crowd. So what we did that morning, we began to distribute our demonstrators to other points in the city, to other churches, and they left the church in twos and threes. And that day, even though there were some three or four hundred arrested, not a single demonstration originated at the Sixteenth Street Church. Well, we couldn’t let the spectators know what we were doing, nor did we want the police particularly to know, because what happened, our picketers were beginning to show up down there, they were down at the town hall, they were over at Sears and Roebuck – they were just coming from all quarters, coming from the train station. And the police couldn’t figure out where they were coming from because they were not leaving the church in line as they had been. But the spectators waited from, say, 11 that morning – which was an off day – until about 4 that afternoon – you know, waiting to see some action, waiting to see the demonstrators. And none ever appeared. So they had gathered in the park, which is a shaded area, and the firemen had set up their hoses at two corners of the park, one on Fifth Street and one on Sixth Street. And the mood was like a Roman holiday – it was festive – there wasn’t anybody among the spectators who were angry, and they had waited so long and it was beginning to get dark now – so somebody heaved a brick because they knew that – in fact they had been saying, Turn the water hose on – turn the water hose on and Bo - then somebody threw a brick and he started turning them on – see. So they just danced and played in the hose spray – this famous picture of them holding hands – it was just a frolic of them trying to stand and some of them were getting knocked down by the hose – they’d get up and run back and it would slide them along the pavement. Then they began bringing the hose up from the other corner, and instead of Negroes they ran to the hose – it was a holiday for them. And this went on for a couple of hours. It was a joke, really. All in good humor and good spirit. Not any vitriolic response on the part of even the Negro spectators. Which to me, again, was an example of the changing spirit, you know. When Negroes once had been cowed in the presence of policemen and maybe water hoses – here they had complete disdain – they made a joke out of it.
RPW: What kind of people were in this crowd?
WW: Mostly marginal and sub marginal livers – people who came in from –
RPW: The very poor?
WW: Yes, the very poor.
RPW: Were they town people or country people?
WW: Primarily I would say townspeople, who did – were not inclined to get into the movement per se, you know – to take the training and what not. With all of the more than thirty-four hundred people who went to jail there was hardly an instance of anybody going to jail who was not signed up, whose actual record was not made and who did not receive two hours of instruction.
RPW: Thirty-four hundred people?
WW: Yes. A tremendous administrative responsibility, but we saw it. Nobody will ever know, I guess, until I get my Birmingham diary finished of what really went into Birmingham. But it’s an operation that I was proud to have a part in, which I take a great deal of pride in – this smoothness with which it operated.
RPW: Albany is – episode is coming in for criticism of one sort or another.
WW: Well, revolutions are not dissolved in a single battle. Albany had no apparent gains per se, but in that paper that I gave you, published by the New York University, I document the gradual – not gradual, but the perceptive change in the city fathers in their position that they took at the beginning, closing down of public facilities, the integration of public schools, the abridging of constitutional rights guaranteed under the First Amendment – at every point they approximated their former inflexible position whereas the Negro did not have any positive gains that were visible. Yet, the system of segregation has been successfully challenged, and I think the story of Albany is not over yet – in fact we have something going on there now. We still have a movement. The fact that the Albany movement exists in the life of the Negro at all is different.
RPW: You know Lomax’s analysis of that, of course?
WW: Yes – can I say something about Louis Lomax? – one of the most informed chroniclers of the Negro movement alive. Mechanically, Lou Lomax is a good writer, but Lou lacks integrity, and I would say this as quickly to him as I do to you. It is difficult to believe, but I can document it, that with all of the pages that Lou Lomax wrote about Albany, Georgia – could you believe that he never set his foot in the town? With all of the pages that he wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. – could you believe he never once interviewed him? And some people think that my criticism of Lou is because they felt he gave me a bad treatment in the book. I did not feel so. I felt he was absolutely accurate in his description of me – he had one or two facts off, but as to my demeanor and my attitude, he was as honest as any man could be. So it isn’t anything personal. It’s a matter of his – what I call maltreatment of an analysis of the movement about which he is generally uninformed. I’ve heard some response to his lectures around the country on Birmingham. Lou is not knowledgeable about Birmingham. He wasn’t long enough there to know or to grasp or to understand all that was involved in Birmingham, and I think it’s unfortunate that the general reading community, white and Negro, who are interested in the movement, look to Louis Lomax’s articles on the movement.
RPW: They do – uncritically.
WW: Yes, But here again, this was another casualty of the revolution. Those of us who could do an interpretative job and who are intimate about the work, have no time to write it because we are it.
RPW: Only Caesar did that.
WW: Yes. And of course that was in a day when a revolution was slow-moving.
RPW: Slow-moving. Alas, I’ve got to go, and I’m sure you’re ready for a little relief from this.
Original materials provided by the University of Kentucky and Yale University libraries and digitized with the permission of the Warren estate. Digital archive created and designed by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.