Production Team: A
Interview Date: May 15, 1989
Camera Rolls: 9001-9011
Sound Rolls: 901-906
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Harry Belafonte, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 15, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Do you have a first memory of the words Black power?
When it first arrived on the scene in its full blown infancy, so to speak. By that I mean, there always had been a quest for power, the whole struggle in the Civil Rights Movement was, was a constant reflection, of, ah, a certain amount of powerlessness that, ah, was, that had permeated through Black life, Black culture, Black aspiration. Ah, so I think people were constantly in touch with the idea that we were in need of power. Given Dr. King's position on the movement, in its broadest sense, and seeing it as all encompassing, not just for Black needs but for the needs of all of those who reflected an existence in the, in the underclass, or the poor peoples of our country, Dr. King, was somewhat careful in how he used racial definitions to characterize aspects of the movement. So no one ever really talked to the idea of, of Black power as such. It carried with it a host of, of definitions that for many, it was an unsafe, ah, well, cer--certainly that was the response of many people when they first heard it. Ah, but, when it arrived and when it was used as effectively and as powerfully as Rap Brown used it or Stokely used it as all of the guys out of SNCC and women out of SNCC applied it, it touched something that was irreversible. Ah, those who were afraid of it because it, it suggested anger and it suggested aggression, ah, were justified in that, in, in, in that as one of its definitions. Because it did represent, ah, a certain kind of aggression. It represented a certain kind of psychological aggression. It meant that we were ceasing a position, that a goal was very clearly defined: Black Power. All that we were to do from this day forward was going to be something that infused the idea that Black people would no longer be powerless. That, whatever we may have achieved, even if we achieved civil rights from a SNCC perspective, then, I think with great validity, also from Dr. King incidentally. But even if you achieve civil rights, one did not necessarily achieve power as we've come to understand, ah.
Take a drink of water?
For my? --that's going to, that's going to plague you all along. That's the nature of the beast, ah.
Can I get you to think about You were a particular character between camps, between Stokley Carmichael and Rap and the SNCC kids and Dr King and SCLC. Do you remember being in that role?
Oh, yes, very clearly it was, ah, it was a role that had been, ah, I'd been given the role. I mean I, it, it was a very difficult role to be in. But it was also a, a great challenge in a way. People in SNCC I think trusted me a great deal because, from the very beginning of the formation of SNCC, ah, I had been very supportive of it. And, ah, continued to be all through its existence. And I had been, ah, one of the primary, ah, sponsors financially of SNCC. Ah, I had a, a number of meetings with SNCC in its earliest formation. Ah, the council of Ella Baker and things that I had discussed with her gave me a great deal of insight into what SNCC was about and what SNCC hoped to achieve. And I felt very comfortable with that. I felt that their, that their suspicion and their sensitivity to SCLC and the elders, ah, ah, the Black community who represented it. Ah, that was historical and it was classic and it was the way it should have been. Young people are always in rebellion against, ah, the elders and the leaders, ah. If you come upon a moment in history when that history is not moving forward in some positive and some meaningful way. Certain Black people in this country were deeply frustrated, ah, by what had happened to and was happening to existing Black leadership, Roy Wilkins, ah, Whitney Young, and even the great and the viable leaders, Paul Robeson and Du Bois had all but been contained. There was really no, not, no, no aggressive voice doing for us what youth felt should be done. So I was very satisfied that, ah, SNCC served a very important dimension to the movement, that they were going to become the provocateurs. They were going to become the radical voice. They were going to become the voice of non-compromise, which I felt was vital to the movement.
Take me to a point to in late '65-'66 about beginning to exclude Whites from the movement, and how it was a position of great stress.
It was a position of great stress because, ah, it was around a very specific individual when it erupted. It was around a young man by the name of Bob Zellner who was a White member of SNCC and had certainly evidenced his deep commitment to the struggle and his willingness to go wherever anyone else went in the quest for, ah, ah, the end to racism. He was not the only individual but he was a primary force because he was certainly one of the most upfront of any of the Whites who had been involved in SNCC. And when the question arose, most people thought it was, it, it was a decision that had been reached based upon racial factors and had been defined it almost exclusively as such, which was not the case. The case was really in the beginning quite tactical. Ah, the question was, with the Whites who were in SNCC involving themselves directly in the Black community of events. Wasn't it more beneficial to the movement to have these very same White people who were quite astute by now and very sensitive to a host of issues and had learned a great deal out of the Black aspects of the movement, wouldn't it have been more beneficial for them to move into the White communities and to do organizing in the White communities as obviously Blacks could not do that effectively? What the White communities needed was White leadership and what better leadership was there available for that than the leadership that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, ah, in SNCC and in other aspects of the movement, SCLC as well. So that this rather tactic--this rather meaningful and I think substantive discussion, criticism, yielded the result that, ah, SNCC would purge itself, ah, which was, I, I always thought it was unfortunate that, that SNCC's position on this had not been more clearly, ah, described. Certainly that was the way I understood it, ah, because when I had to talk with and discuss these events with Dr. King that was the position that I represented to him because when I spoke to Stokely and when I spoke to Rap and I spoke to others in SNCC, ah, and speaking to Bob Zellner himself. Zellner felt, as he expressed to me then, he expressed to me then that, ah, it was an important crossroads in the movement and that he felt that SNCC's position was, was correct.
You were not only between SNCC and SCLC, you were raising a lot funds for SCLC and during those years these positions of Black power and no Whites couldn't of made it any easier
No, it didn't make it any easier. As a matter of fact, ah.
As a matter of fact, ah, the Black power issue did not make raising funds, a large portion of which--
Just a couple of things that, ah, I think just for archival or, or for other reasons. Black power also did something beyond just setting a new dimension for the, for the movement as such. It, it did a lot to unify people who had a history of certain levels and grades of dissatisfaction within their own tribal characteristics, light skin Blacks, ah, ah, feeling somewhat removed from Black skin Blacks and, ah, Blacks who had some Indian in them feeling a little bit different from Blacks, who, da, da, da. All those variables which, ah, ah, people were having a problem with, you know. Ah, Black power kind of just gave everybody a single place to be and Black in it's, in, in the use of the word Black in, in the reality to the psyche, Black is really Black. But the Black power movement said, Black is really Black and using that as the base, we accept the fact that all gradations of that color is acceptable under the term Black. So it became very unifying, light skinned Blacks didn't have to sit back any longer. I watched thousands of light skinned Black people struggle with, with their condition, ah, as opposed to Black skin Blacks. Ah, it was, it was a weird kind of thing to see emerge. I had always been aware of it but I never saw it display itself quite the way it did when the word Black power came up and it was a unifying, it was a, a very strange, unifying thing. Everybody had finally a word, they could feel some universality. It was universal Black. It said it all. It didn't get into gradations. Everything else seemed to have gradations. And it was also a word that came out of a realizable and recognizable Black source. Anybody can debate where the negro comes from. Anybody can debate where the colored comes from. Anybody can debate the use of a host of definitions to describe us, but Black power came from a nitty-gritty place, a, a vibrant movement where some people taking charge of their lives. So, it had that aura around it. It was terrifying for a lot of White folks, ah, even for a lot of Black folks. But it was also very healing for I think most. It, it served, I think, a very healthy dimension at that time in the movement.
It may have been healthy, but how do you raise money around something that's that assertive?
The ability to continue to raise funds from a source that had been traditionally given, traditionally given to us, became much more difficult because the quest for Black power put a language into the mix and they, the people who were White and supportive of our cause, who saw it in non-racial terms, ah, began to take a position that, ah, ah, this became a little too sectarian, too alienating. Ah, it was now specifically towards a goal that suggested, ah, ah, non-integration. It was much too much into the Malcolm X camp. It was moving too, it was going too radical. And, ah, no matter how much one tried to explain that away, even accepting some of those definitions as applicable but it had to be placed in a much larger context to be understood and therefore continue to command a moral and ethical giving by those same sources. It was very hard and consequently, it fell upon me to begin to look to the sources of funding that the movement had never examined before and that was what led me to do a whole special trip throughout Europe to identify specific countries and identify specific governments and identify specific leaders who were deeply sensitive to our cause, who would not be turned off by the emergence of certain slogans or words or definitions, but, ah, and that would feel the commitment to our, to our, ah, to our movement. And I, I selected two places in which to do a sampling as to the success of that possibility for new resources, not just economic but also moral and political support from an outside place. The first was in France, a huge, ah, ah, benefit was given in Paris, ah, which at first had come under the auspices of the American Church, under the clergy of the American Church, and then when the State Department and the FBI got through doing its mischief on Dr. King and it intimidated the, the Americans in Paris, they, they withdrew, left us with a date and left us with time and left us with organization but were no longer really committed to it. And it was interesting because it wasn't as if we had gone to Paris with a broad cross section of the movement. I mean we went only with Dr. King and, ah, even in the face of that, ah, ah, the Church, the American Church withdrew its support. But French allies, got hyped, I explained to them what happened that we were in this rather difficult and precarious position, the Church had withdrawn its support of Dr. King and our presence there under the guise of somehow, according to FBI records, we were doing mischief with the communists. And this French community stepped in and the leading artists of France and the leading sports figures of France all came together, at the Palais des Sports, and they saved the day. That turned out to be hugely successful, ah, made all of the French press, the international press and we received large contributions and set up our bases to be able to continue to do this. Our next stop after that was in Sweden and got the King of Sweden to be our patron. We got the Prime Minister to be our Chairman. We got the Bank of Sweden to be the receptacle for our fund raising. We got the Post Office of Sweden to be our conduit. Then we did, we did a whole Scandinavian hook-up for all of the Scandinavian countries focused on one event, which was to be the first of many. And a concert was given and Dr. King spoke and, ah, ah, about a week later after we returned to the United States, they had a meeting at the Swedish Embassy, ah, they presented Dr. King with, I think it was a 250 thousand dollar check as the first offering from our efforts. We were somewhat encouraged by all of this because it was not only a new source of revenue for us at the moment but it was also a new source of power, of, ah, we were beginning to touch the conscience of, and give legitimacy to people who wanted to support us on the outside but didn't know quite how to do it.
You were also in Africa, playing that role between the SNCC kids and Sekou Toure, later.
That was, ah, ah, SNCC, and the young people of SNCC going to Africa was a different, ah, ah, set of circumstance. When Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were discovered missing presumed murdered, before that information had become fully ah, ah, be-before it had been evident, I mean before, before all the facts had fallen into place, ah, I was called by Jim Foreman and, ah, Jim said, we were at the tail end of the summer, three civil rights workers are missing, ah, all the students are going to go back to campus. I believe that the people of the South, here in Mississippi, are going to feel, are not going to be able to understand all of the, facts that the program had come to an end and all the students were leaving to go back North and they assumed that all the students would be there going back North but not because of the new school year, because of the three civil rights workers were murdered, that would look as if this act of intimidation had successfully aborted the, the voter registration campaign. And that if this became evident, that, that, that, if this was interpreted as a fact, that it then have it's ramifications to, ah, the Ku Klux Klan and others, wishing to do evil, doing it all over the South and using murder as an important weapon to, ah, to impede the movement. And what was required was a huge sum of money to be put in place by those students who would volunteer to stay on past that semester, stay in the South and, ah, continue to work, especially in the face of the, the civil rights murders. And that the decision had to be arrived at very swiftly, ah, because the passion was there and the students were going to vote on it very shortly. Ah--
With this, with, with this state of emergency, ah, I asked Jim, how much did he, how much money was required here? He said, between 50 and 60 thousand dollars. And I had only a matter of few days in which to raise this money. Ah, you have to understand that if it were just that one event alone that required monies, it would not have been as difficult. But you have to understand that we were busy supplying money to so many levels of the movement that it was becoming more and more difficult to find sources, ah, to give. Much of our money had been tied up in bail, ah, that was just not being returned by the courts for people who were, were on bail. Much of it had been given to other mobilizations. And so when Jim called for this amount of money after having raised the, the, the, the initial sum for the voter registration for the students to begin with, it was a difficult thing to do. So I had to hook up with, with people in various parts of the country. And I had to get individuals, because there was no way to mobilize a rally or a benefit, it had to be gotten from individuals. With the understanding that, ah, it was quite possible that the money would not come back, unlike bail and other things. So, ah, I set for myself another goal and that was I had become sensitive to the fact that many of the people in SNCC were on burn out. They had really been on the front line for so long doing so much and had been beaten and battered and, and intimidated and still held the line. But they were beginning to make mistakes. Decisions were being arrived at in, in, in, in ways that, that didn't sit well. Ah, and that what became very clear to me was that they really needed a hiatus. They needed to get away. They needed to, to just stop for a minute and, and, and just do something very natural, rest the body, put the mind to bed for a second. Ah, and, when I thought about all the places in which that could possibly be done, for me to do it in Africa and to be able to take, at, at, at their selection, a group to Africa, to just go to stretch out, to become part of an African environment in the country that was noted for its political progress and for its ideas in where it was going, ah, I then took this fund raising moment to raise additional funds, ah, that I then gave to SNCC. And I said the 60 thousand is for the voter registration needs and the additional 10 thousand that I've gotten here is really for your transportation to take people who are the most in need of it, and I know it's a difficult decision to make, but it had to be made, to just to on to Africa for two weeks or three weeks and just really cool out.
Because it was all Black. It was a place to which many people had alluded. Many people talked about it. Many people talked about the emerging Black leadership of Africa, hoping that America would fall in place with the, with the Jomo Kenyattas and the Tom Mboya and the Kwame Nkrumah and the Sekou Toures and the Julius Nyereres who were emerging. And I felt that, excuse me, I felt that in the African environment, removed from civil rights, removed from certain aspects of White pressure, as was understood, and political pressures were understood. But it would be a very different place. It would be a chance to get out of self and to interface with, ah, with a place that, ah, most of them had never been before.
Do you remember it touching anyone in particular?
Yeah, I think the person who was most affected by the trip. Well, if, if, first, let me hasten to, to, to change that. I can't say who was most affected because effect is not always immediate. It can be very long range. And for a lot it was long range. But the person who immediately appeared to be the most affected was Fannie Lou Hamer. Ah, of course when we arrived, in, in, the, the, the, Ghanaian government put us up as, ah, as their guests. So everything was, ah, as, as a gift from the government. And they were given the best places in which to live and, and, and fellow Africans were there to, to serve and to, and to help with the needs of the, of the guests. And Fannie Lou Hamer was in the middle of taking a bath over in her area, right in the middle of taking a bath, when Sekou Toure, without any, ah, ah, protocol, without saying anything drove up to meet us, we were to supposed to meet him until the next day officially at a reception. But he was doing his evening thing and drove by and I had to go over to tell Fannie Lou Hamer that the President and arrived and it was the only time I could ever remember Fannie Lou Hamer getting totally rattled. I mean, she said, "What?, No, no, no, you all playing a joke. No, no, you don't do this to me now. I'm having a bath." And she went and, and, it was wonderful to, and then when she, when she was, when she understood that we were telling the truth that he had come, ah, she dressed and she came to the meeting and after the meeting, the Sekou Toure talked through an interpreter. After the meeting, Fannie Lou started to cry and, ah, she said that she didn't know quite what would happen to her from this experience because for so long Black people had been trying to get to the President of the United States of America where we were citizens and where we had rights and could never see him. And here in Africa when we had an appointment on a certain day this President came to see her, was, was, I don't know, metaphorically or somehow symbolically, ah, it meant a great deal to her and, ah, I don't think anybody who was on that trip ever saw themselves in quite the same way again. But it was an environment that did a lot for the people who went and that when everybody came back I think it was, ah, well, it was an appropriate thing to do.
OK, Jump into Malcolm, Malcolm X and the first memory.
My very first memory of Malcolm X was, a matter of fact, ah, ah, in Harlem at a street rally that he was speaking at and, ah, I listened to him and I was instantly aware of the fact that, ah, this was no ordinary human being. This was not a street side polemic, somebody just looking for recognition and had a scam he was running. This was for real. And, ah, ah, I knew very little about the Black Muslim movement. Ah, I was aware of its existence but it didn't texturally do much--I was too distracted and too preoccupied and I never really saw in it the significance that had emerged. Ah, I knew about, ah, Elijah Muhammad. I knew about all of that out of Chicago and, and and, but it was something that was quite confined. It wasn't until Malcolm X that it began to have national and international ramifications. And the more I listened to him the more I found myself in conflict. Because I had seen in his utterances, not so much pride of manhood, quote, unquote, pride of race, I saw in it, something that tactically disturbed me as it did others and that was--if, if you beat the drums of war loudly enough and you make all of the members of the tribe war ready, they begin to trust that sound. What happens when the moment comes to apply it and you discover that you are incapable of effectively making the difference you thought you could make because violence and the design of violence would be quickly snuffed out. It was, it was very troublesome. And it wasn't until extensive conversations with Dr. King that, ah, I not only felt somewhat supported in my query but was also supported in the fact that Malcolm was deeply, deeply significant. And, that, ah, he was also doing something else that the other aspects of the movement was not doing and did not do until Black Power came along.
Malcolm brought an instant sense of being potent. Ah, he put impotency aside for a lot of us, ah, ah, and that made people very heady. It really did. Ah, it was a wonderful euphoric feeling, to all of a sudden get up one day and say, Yeah, I'm really tough. I'm resilient. I'm bad. Ah, ah, he articulated so much that was pent up in, in, in millions of Black voices and, ah, for a long time his greatest satisfaction, tactically correct or not, it was the fact that he was a great tonic for what people needed to hear and have some relief from. Certainly for me, the greatest couplet, the greatest thing that could possibly have been brokered at that time would have been a holy alliance between Dr. King and Malcolm. Many of us worked for that tenaciously. It would certainly have meant that both forces would have had to have done a great deal of examination about their position to find a basis on which to be able to come together that would not make them have to retreat from, from, from, from a role that they had cast for themselves. Because in retreat one would have, it suggests defeat, it suggests one surrenders something. I had hoped that such a brokering would come about where, where it was not a surrendering of anything but an amalgamation of something that yielded something terribly new and, and, and beautiful. And I think that was a hope that many of us had. And, in fact, ah, had felt that Malcolm's trip to Africa and then ultimately his trip to Mecca, when he came back and said, which I thought was very key and very fundamental, when he said, "I have been to Mecca and there is no race." Ah, he, he used his trip to Mecca to point out that he had seen all of Allah's children and they were blue eyed and White skinned and Black and brown skin and they came in, in, in all colorations. And that he was beginning to view the future in a, in a, in another dimension, was for us, I think, a moment of incredible joy. Because it meant that he saw himself in universal terms. He saw himself in all people terms and that, that was the first basis, excuse me, that that was the first basis for Dr. King and he to be able to, to come together. Ah, he didn't live much longer after that.
I was about to ask, when we lost him, do you remember the assassination?
And the feelings?
The assassination was, ah, ah, ah, a tremendous sense of loss, a great loss, ah. First of all, leaders were hard to come by. They weren't just growing up every day, not to the stature of a Malcolm and not to the stature of a King. Ah, we had leaders who were able to work in, in, in specific areas and, and do very specific things, all the strategic, terribly important, as a matter of fact, in the long haul, they had been the most important because they became the caretakers, the leaders that were local and what not. But, certainly from a national and international perspective, we didn't have many who had that platform or were given that platform, because media still controlled who was heard and who was not heard. And, ah, ah, certainly Malcolm had that platform and had it, ah, quite vigorously. And he and Dr. King coming together, was the most wanted, ah, goal.
Do you remember Ossie's eulogy?
--shining Black men--
Right, well Ossie's eulogy was, I think, most clearly, excuse me, . Ossie's eulogy was clearly a reflection that was felt by everyone. It was not, his eloquence and his own poetry is always there, but I think that--the glory of Malcolm and what he was potentially, not even what he had achieved, not even what he had overcome in his own personal life but to go on was, was, was, was for many of us, it, as a matter of fact, it, it gave the movement from the point of view of positive, powerful leadership, a more horizontal frame. Everything in our leadership has been vertical. You cut off the head you get everything else and that certainly was true of much of America in that period whether it was Kennedys or whether it was King or whether it was, ah, Malcolm, ah, and, and a host of others. Ah.
Malcolm's death cost us the man but if you watch this history he is he grows from his death. Do you agree with that?
Yes. I think that, ah, I think that Malcolm left us a legacy that will forever be a well that young people or people in general can go to. Because our struggle is still very much, in many of its characteristics, exactly as it was in the '60s, in '50s, and the '40s and the '30s and the '20s. And it has in, in, in, in very profound and, and, and meaningful ways, changed very little. We have examples of success. We have examples of, of people who appear to have overcome and have taken advantage of the integrationists spirit and done something with their lives which are held forth as barometer for the other 30 million Black people in this country to use as their guide and therefore if you pursue your interest the way these, ah, illustrators have done then, ah, you too will become part of the great fabric of America. Suggesting that, ah, anything that we wanted to be was totally within our province and that we control everything. So, if we were poor, hungry, on crack, dope, struck out, homeless, hungry and unemployed, it was our doing. And that, ah, if we would just aspire to what the others were achieving, that had gained, ah, media, ah, ah, ah, representation, that, just do it the way they did it, ah, and you'll be OK. Here's one of the greatest hoaxes ever and Malcolm often denounced that. Ah, he often found those who sat in the position of privilege were sometimes the greatest instruments of, ah, of, of, of, the greatest obstruction to Black aspiration because it confused, it muddles the mind. I don't know what the Black kids, I know what Black kids really do when they look and they see, you know, ah, Michael Jordan and a few million dollars and they see, Sidney Pottier and they see, ah, ah, Eddie Murphy and they see the successes that appear to be mine only for the taking. Ah, without any real sense of, of how totally out of step those successes are. They're unreal. They have no basis in reality, not even for White folks. You know, the inordinate success for some, some Blacks are, are experiencing given the condition from which we have come.
Go back to '65, '66, '67 and rebellions, riots, are now beginning to sprinkle, to blast the headlines and change this movement, because it's a Northern phenomenon. Do you remember the Detroit riot?
First time flames, really came into, into very visible. It was, it was, it was an unbearable experience for those of us who had sought to pursue the guidelines set down by Dr. King, ah, guidelines we ourselves accepted. Ah, I don't think it was--I, the, the person for whom it was the most troublesome, was Dr. King himself. Ah, the thing that he had feared most, that violence would erupt, ah, that it would become a, a, a major player in the course of, of, of our history, was very, very troublesome and he, he wretched over trying to find the miracle that would make the difference because he felt he had failed. He felt that, ah, ah, no matter how much one would define for him that social and historical and environmental circumstances were very, very much at play. He so believed in his objectives that he also saw himself as the missionary for that objective, as having to be all omnipotent, ah, on some level, that he should somehow be, be, be much more touched with the ability to inspire so that people could understand more fully that he was, that he would somehow be able to get over. And the Detroit riots was the beginning of a whole series of events that, ah, ah, took him on a, on a special course. One meeting that we have at my home, he had come back from a meeting in, in Newark. He had met with Imamu [Amiri] Baraka.
Don't lose that.
Ours had to be done, ah, on a number of, of, of major campaigns, whether it was the March on Washington or Birmingham or Selma, ah, Montgomery. Certainly, or, the Poor People's Campaign, Dr. King came to New York, he would convene a number of people from media, journalists, opinion makers, leaders. And Dr. King used that time to be able to give a firsthand discussion, a firsthand definition as to what the campaign was about, what he hoped to achieve, what was the reason behind it, ah, what were the tactics and what would be the various moves that would, ah, be unfolded in the event of certain, ah, encounters. Ah, this did, did one thing in particular. It did a lot of things in general but one thing in particular was that it gave allies to the movement, and even those who were prepared to ask objective journalistic questions, an opportunity to hear from King directly, what the campaign was about. So that once we unleashed the campaign there would be, to try to get Dr. King at that time and to try to get a clear picture as to what was going on, was not the most ideal environment in which to do it. So he always convened, ah, strategic people to hear what Dr. King had to say and to query the, the objectives. On such an occasion, before coming to the meeting in New York at my home, Dr. King had to meet with, ah, a group in Newark at a place called New Ark, which was where, ah, Imamu [Amiri] Baraka had headquartered himself. And Dr. King came late and, ah, he gave his, his apologies for lateness, went on with the discussion as to the campaign, because it, it was the Poor People's Campaign that he was on his way to, to Memphis. Ah, at the end of that meeting, when everybody had left, Dr. King was highly, highly agitated and he was, you could tell when he paced, he had his shoes were off, his tie was open, he was walking up and down the living room and talking and Andy was there, and, ah, ah, Bernard Lee was there, my wife, myself. And, ah, there was one other person, I think it was Stan Levenson, I'm not too sure. But, Dr. King, it was the first time that I heard him say something that we, we quoted quite a bit later on, and he said, I really, I'm very, very concerned. Because he was looking at all the riots and all the aggression that was beginning to emerge, and he said, ah, This integration movement is beginning to unfold things that I had never quite envisioned and I wonder if we are not in fact integrating into a burning house. And he then began to, it was the first time that I had heard him utter anything that suggested that there was another dimension to this whole theory. We were going, going, we were all going to have to go someplace else. That, for him, by the time the Poor People's Campaign came about and all this eruption was taking place, the Civil Rights Bill as we eventually got, he knew was coming. Nobody quite knew in what form, what all the details would have been, but he knew that that victory was in hand, that the Civil Rights Movement itself would have to give way to something much more profound: economic rights. That's why he began to talk about the Poor People's Campaign. He saw the amalgamation now coming, moving away from just Blacks and Whites looking to integrate but bringing the people together in a much more fundamental way around issues that affected everybody regardless of race, class or color or not class but race or color or ideology. It was the chance to bring the Native American, the chance to bring the Hispanics, a chance, on levels that they felt directly, ah, in tune with. Ah, and it was at this time that he raised the question, ah, about integrating into a burning house. Ah, he didn't accept that that's where we were going but certainly the question was there very largely. It was in this context that rioting, ah, I think required Dr. King to begin to[SIC], because on hindsight now, at the time Dr. King came into being, there were less than 300 Black elected officials, on all levels of electoral politics. By this time in our history, in, in, in the thresh of the 21st century in the 1990s, we are looking at somewhere around six thousand.
Can we go back from that because you're in 1966.
No, I'm just making, I was talking about how prophetic.
I didn't see the point but let me, keep you on Dr. King.
OK, I was just going to say that he said that it isn't just enough to get Black people elected, is the point I was getting at.
Take that piece off, just don't make reference to the 1990s, that's all.
OK, OK, let me just reword that then, ah. At the time of, of, of, of, of the movement emerged there was less than 300 Black elected officials, ah, on all levels of electoral politics. Dr. King, although he felt that Blacks using the, the, the, the voting process, the constitutional basis for involvement and therefore changing much about our conditions in life, was not going to be exclusively, ah, the only handle that we had on our destiny as a people because he maintained that for many, not just for a handful, but for many Blacks who would begin to evidence themselves in these new roles, electoral politics, that their clear class interests would override their racial interests, that once they began to feel opportunity, once they began to feel success, once they began to feel personal power, that they would begin to drift away from the very thing that gave them the platform to begin with, they would begin to drift away from, from, from meaningful Black interests, that they become part of a whole new thrust, that they become a disillusionment in ways and that the only hope for the movement in this country was for a people's movement that would be vigilant, that would be eternally in motion as long as there was a need for it, that would then serve notice on leade--because if there were leaders getting into office and no movement, then we would, we'd just, ah, retrogressed and, ah, he saw all of this in that period of the eruptions in the cities and the violence and the displaced because to satisfy the youths of Chicago and Detroit and other places, it wasn't just about the vote, it was about opportunity, economic opportunity and getting some of those rights. So Dr. King saw those riots, both the frustrations and the difficulties that, that were inherent in it and in it he saw some resultant, ah, ah, effects.
You saw him in Chicago when he was trying to get the City of Chicago to come to grips with these issues?
Very frustrated because, for instance, in Chicago, a Northern city, which didn't have the classic image of a Southern city, racist mayor, a declared racist, segregationist, ah, he came into Chicago. He, he had this little apartment that he lived right in the heart of the ghetto. He lived in, in the environment that he was representing. Ah, and he talked to Mayor Daley and Mayor Daley was certainly symbolically a liberal force within the Democratic Party, ah, he certainly had been there and a great friend of Mahalia Jackson and could evidence hundreds of Black people who were known to him by first name and whom he had given a lot of opportunity and privilege to. So he was a tough one to get in line. Ah, and Dr. King knew that he was taking on a new kind of adversary, that it was no longer the, the stereotypic segregationist, White person from the South in the tradition. It was now coming to something far more insidious, ah, the institutionalized, ah, the, the, the well honed, ah, ah, ah, benevolent racist, the one who, who--who sought in benevolent ways to give privilege but would not use his power to change the system and to change the condition because it was not to his political interests to do so. Ah, it was a new onslaught. As a matter of fact in Chicago, in the State of Illinois, particularly in Cicero, the next time he came back, it was the worst single experience Dr. King ever had. He felt closest to death in Cicero than he had anywhere. He never saw hate quite as, in, in the dimensions, anywhere in the South and all that he had been through, as he saw in Cicero, Illinois. Because he saw it among what he considered to be informed White folk who should have been very different.
Did he ever talk about the other level of White folk, the liberal who had supported him in the South? Did he ever perceive them beginning to withdraw when he moved?
That was Daley. That was the Daley crowd. Daley was very much supportive of Dr. King and the movement when it was in the South.
Because, the absence of affluent Blacks from support to the movement, on almost every level, not just money but just in terms of visible support, using their platform wherever they may be to help sell the 'cause was very, very difficult to acquire. It, ah, ah, up until now even, there are a lot of people who have never fully committed themselves to what the movement was about. And, that, that was a very sharp, ah, line for Dr. King to understand that, ah, ah, Blacks would really look at class interests above racial interests, human interests and therefore play a classic role in the, in, in, in, in a class war. Ah, ah.
Let me jump you.
To the new groups beginning to appear on the scene and one of them using the symbol form Lowndes County, the Black Panther emerges in Oakland, California, young men who call themselves Black Panthers. Do you remember that phenomenon, frightened of it, stunned by it, approving of it, but Black Panthers, it was going to grow into a national player in this sort of next phase of the movement.
Ah, the Black Panthers did in fact, ah--cause quite a tremor in the movement. Ah, it wasn't even so much that it was a group called the Black Panthers and they appeared to be, quote, unquote, very militant and were going to go to, were prepared to bear arms, prepared to go down. That wasn't the problem. The problem really was that there was such an inordinate level of intelligence that made up all those young men and women who came together. I mean they, I mean Eldridge Cleaver, and, ah, the book that he wrote, ah, "Soul on Ice" and Hampton and, and, and Bobby Seals [Seale], all of them. I mean when these young men spoke, they spoke in such rich, with such rich vocabulary and such passion and such depth of commitment that, ah. Dr. King often said that were I able to co-opt to those minds into my cause, there is no question that victory would be swift and eternal. Ah, ah--as events unfolded and as the Black Panthers used themselves to show the cutting edge of violence, particularly in the North and the insidiousness of police and investigations and FBI, they became a living instrument through which all these unholy alliances of those institutions locking together to serve, ah, ah, notice on Black people, they, they, they were, they were catalysts to a whole new, ah, ah, ah, set of information. And, ah, certainly when the, ah, with the murder of Hampton and, ah, all that yielded in terms of information. Certainly when the guys in, in Oakland had to come out undressed to show that they were not, so that then in the event they were killed, ah, that they were not bearing any arms and that they were, you know. All those things that the Black Panthers devised in ways to, to, to show the, the corruption and, and, and the oppressive of the system became very meaningful and became very real and became very tangible. And, ah, best expressed I think in, in, in the court trials of the Chicago Seven, ah, ah, in which the Black Panthers were represented, ah.
You were very close to Dr. King and the awareness of people surveilling[SIC], watching him, listening and other phases of the movement, was it something he ever talked about?
He talked about it constantly.
What was it?
It was the awareness that it existed. Ah, it would have been silly to assume that it didn't exist, number one.
Sorry, What, what it? Reference for me, the surveillance of the government, the pursuit--
First of all, ah, ah, there is no way for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to have conducted its affairs the way it conducted its affairs if it was not specifically hostile to us and to the movement and everything it represented. And that, for J. Edgar Hoover to find some moral basis on which he would contain himself from doing the evil that he did was just not, he, there was no way, that equation didn't exist. He was too corrupt. He was too evil. His utterances, both public as well as in private, were too racist and too, it, it, it was, you know, he was paranoid. All that stuff made us knew that every facility available to the FBI was going to be used and was in fact being used to discredit the movement and that wire taps and surveillance, ah, ah, certainly events that happened in some instances with SNCC, ah, ah, the coincidence of things emerging when nobody knew, ah, either was the result of an informer in the group, who informed, or the result of direct intervention through wire tapping and other surveillance. An, we talked about that constantly. So that there were times when we spoke to one another from safe phones, given what the nature of the information was that where we would be. Ah, find a safe phone, give me the number. I'll go to a safe phone and call you. We did that any number of times. I certainly did it with Dr. King especially during the years of the trial. And the whole issue of Bobby Kennedy and Stan Levenson and the need that they had for Dr. King to begin to purge our ranks and, ah, of communists, quote, unquote. The, the full dimension of that reality did not become very clear to us until, ah, ah, we had access to the information in the archives--
the Freedom of Informations Act, when you saw all of it, ah, and, and, and but what was, what, what, what defied us was that the very people whom we saw as allies to our cause, whom we felt were people of fun-fundamentally good will to us, were also involved in wire tapping and were the ones whom we had reason to trust --were serving certain information. To think of the Kennedys and Bobby Kennedy and people in the Justice Department in the Civil Right Division, tapping us when we were, in what we considered to be open concert with them. Ah, there was nothing that we ever said or didn't say to Bobby Kennedy, ah, that, that, that wasn't reflective of what we were saying in private. Dr. King was very much on the table. I mean he was upfront. We didn't have major battle, we weren't trying to overthrow the government. There were no reasons for us to break up into cells. We weren't consorting with the enemy, whoever that would have been, what the Soviet Union, ah, our generosity to our own 'cause was also that generosity that opened us up to anybody who would hear us and they could hear it all in an open forum. The need to wire tap and to do what they did only served later on to, to be used as instruments to discredit, ah, by getting into our personal lives and getting into personal information which had nothing to do with politics. Ah.
Move you to Dr. King and 1967, '68, the war is escalating and the morality or the immorality of the war is now increasingly clear, being urged, I think by Stokely and the kids of SNCC. Do you remember him in that, beginnings of that, quandary then the moment when he decides to make the Riverside speech, when he comes out, and the reaction.
It was being urged, not only by Stokely Carmichael and the kids of SNCC, it was also being urged by the Peace Movement, which was fairly large. The Peace Movement was looking for a central place in which to be able to bring its energies and to have it, ah, ah, propagandized, to have it understood. Ah, Dr. King became the catalyst for all of it. Ah, I just wanted to broaden the base. Certainly SNCC was very active in, in moving that campaign along. Dr. King had no problems with the issue, morally or ethically. But to him at the very beginning it was clearly understood. What bothered him was the fact that in shopping the information around for feedback he found so many Black people, for instance, who got all of a sudden, caught up in this wave of, of concern about the definition between, between Black, legitimate Black aspiration for freedom in this country and the question of, about our patriotism. That was a big, that was a very difficult hurdle. Ah, because the one thing that many people in the movement wanted to do.
The year is 1967, '68, Vietnam.
Many, many, many of the Black, those who represented the Black leadership from the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, all the rest, that ilk. You know, wanted to know how in the name of God, could we making these demands on the federal government in the assistance of the Black cause domestically and violate this government by raising the issue that clearly had to do with foreign policy. And--
The, the question raised by the Black leadership of that period, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and others, the only one who was exempt from this was A. Philip Randolph. You know their position was, how in the name of God can you be asking the federal government to give us all the resources we require to change the domestic situation here at home and at the same time violate, ah, their, their foreign policy, ah, put them to the mat on an issue that is at the nerve center, the very heart of this country, ah, at best they're going to be viewed as unpatriotic in having ceased to hurt the country in its most vulnerable moment and at worst what you're going to do is to have such a backlash from people that, ah, Blacks will be further back than they had ever been before. Ah, it was a persuasive argument, ah, in terms of its potential. But Dr. King had come to accept the fact that, from a moral position and an ethical position, the war was inhuman and unacceptable, but also from a technical position. Since the war was clearly illegal, unconstitutional, all the things that we've come to know that war to be, how were the Blacks of this country ever going to be able to have their resources to do what had to be done, if in fact integration was to come about, if the government was spinning off all of these funds and monies into these illegal activities. And, the fact that Blacks were the first to be drafted and were numerically the largest number serving in Vietnam and dying in larger number per capita than anyone else, that the whole thing, in, in, in its entirety, ah, ah, was a campaign that Dr. King was, was prepared to, to go through with, with the understanding that the true patriot, the real American, the one who was doing the country the greatest service was the one who would in fact state his case that it was illegal, immoral, unacceptable and not to the best interests of the country, ah, domestically as well as in its foreign policy, ah--
We seem to have made the magic statement.
This subject is just never to be discussed.
More personal if you could, the night before--
Dr. King had no problem with any of that. He, he clearly saw, not only that the war was immoral, unethical, unconstitutional, illegal. He also saw that since Blacks were paying the price that they were paying, the first to be drafted, the most to be drafted, the most on the front line, numerically speaking, comparatively, per capita. We were paying the biggest price for the war and all these resources were being drained away. He, his mission was very clear to him, what he had to do and should do. Ah, for the rest of us, ah, I had no problems with it. I really, I didn't have any problem from the beginning, ah, I was already a peace activist. I had already come through certain periods of history in this country from the Second World War and then into the immediate period after the war, ah, Isaac Woodard and the Blacks who were being murdered and, and maimed, coming back as returning heroes from the Second World War and then going through the McCarthy period and having the FBI on my case then and Blacklisting me and all that kind of stuff. By the time I got to Dr. King I had, I was somewhat seasoned to much of this already so in a way because of this background, because of this history, a, along with others, Dr. King was able to find, ah, important areas to, to air his, his, his feelings, ah, where he found people who were sensitive to what he had to say and supportive of it. Ah, after the speech at Riverside, ah, there was, there was a lot of haggling before that by many who didn't want him to do it. Ah, obviously those who wanted him to do it on the moral persuasive, some factors were far more--
Clearly that group was, was, was more persuasive, that position was more. I think the first that I heard after the Riverside speech, of anything that really and truly disturbed Dr. King were two articles that came out in the Editorial of the New York Times and the Washington Post, both newspapers were scathing in their denunciation of Dr. King, the Washington Post in particular was really quite aggressive in its language and, ah, it, it, it, it sought to discredit Dr. King on every level. It didn't take issue with him just on the war. It called him I, I, I'm trying to recall the article but it, but it said as much, this incompetent leader has now gone further in his incompetence, that kind of language. And, ah, the New York Times was not too far behind in the way it framed its denunciation of Dr. King on this issue. Ah, so much so, that later on, ah, when other publications came out, ah, ah, also taking Dr. King to the, to the mat, Dr. King was not so much concerned about what those articles said about him personally as it was what they would do to the mood of the movement, that this was not just a criticism as to a point of view on the war, it now sought to discredit him in very profound ways, leaving nothing intact that suggested the movement was, was the correct thing to, to be happening. In other words, if you don't agree with me on the issue of Vietnam, why kill the Civil Rights Movement and, and, and all of those issues that had been raised, so there is a dimension that you don't agree with. But when he saw it connected to the movement itself and all that was coming and, and appeared to be somewhat prophetic from the point of view of Roy Wilkins and others, he--was quite vulnerable to that and I, and I'll never forget at a meeting, Stan [Levenson] was there and everyone, I said to him, I said, what fascinates me is your, you're, you are deeply rooted in, in the bible, you're deeply rooted in the Christian, in the Christian, ah, theology, ah, it is the essence of much that you use to define where you go. How do you see yourself out of step with Jesus if you expect your utterances to be approved of by those who are the directors of vested interests in all that goes on in the world. There's a whole misappropriation here. I don't mind your being upset and I don't mind your ready to take on all the, the adversaries but you can't be wilted by this kind of language because you, why do you have expectations of the Washington Post or the New York Times, ah, who clearly have a role in all of this, that is, when exercised in many ways, is not to the best interest of poor people anywhere. I mean they are the moneyed class. They are the people who, who stand to gain much from our failure or our successes. They will play the game according to those interests. And, that kind of approach to him in resolving his pain with this stuff, worked. Ah, he began to call upon his own resources to define what was going on and not see himself isolated or a person who saw himself connected to a host of people who have ever taken that kind of position in history, leading movements who pay that price.
Was the meeting right around thereafter the Riverside speech, you had a session in your home I think with Stokely and some people from SNCC and Dr. King. They apparently came to some kind of agreement that they weren't going to publicly criticize one another?
That they would not publicly criticize, yes. One of the things that, ah, I think everybody became very sensitive to.
Ah, in the meeting with Stokely and others, at my home, with Dr. King it was one of several meetings but this one was most fruitful in the fact that we had come to a moment now when whatever differences existed would certainly have to be, given the nature of where everybody was headed, would certainly have to be viewed more carefully and, and, every effort had to be made in order to hold discussions that would never make any disagreement become a matter of public policy or become a matter of public, ah, ah, concern. Ah, we were too vulnerable, the issue of the war, the issue of the movement itself, civil rights, the issue of the Poor People's Campaign, all of America was up for grabs. Because by this time, although all of these Black institutions were beginning to play even more powerful roles than they had in the beginning, one has to also look at the fact the White movement in this country, the women's movement, the labor movement, the peace movement, all of those movements were now beginning to find a new day for their own objectives. They were beginning to find courage and platform and, and reason and, and spokespeople for their cause so that this country was in a, in a huge mobilization on all levels including environmentalists, not the least of which. So that the, the opportunity to bring coalitions together, to make people come together and maybe at the end of all of this, we an iron out differences and, and treat this thing as, as often done, there was a tremendous energy being put forth and it was at that meeting, ah, right after this that, ah, SNCC and, and Dr. King and, and SCLC had agreed that there would be a moratorium on differences, ah, and that that they became so crucial that there would a, a conscious effort at coming together to discuss these things before they would erupt.
The we lost him. Where were you when you found out he was killed?
I was in my home and, ah, it was, it was, it was--unacceptable. Although I had often discussed death with Dr. King, as a matter fact one time on NBC when I hosted the Tonight Show, ah, Dr. King was one of the guests. I hosted it for a week and it was quite a week, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King and, and a lot of political, it was, Dr. King was, he had, he had come late to the show and he said, ah, he said, I'd like you to forgive me for being late, we were on the air, he said, I'd like you to forgive me for being late, he said, because, ah, but, ah, the plane was late and I got to the airport and the driver was trying to get here on time and he was cutting some corners and beating some lights that, ah, that made me say to him, Look, young man, I'd rather be Dr. Martin Luther King late than be the late Dr. Martin Luther King. Could you just drive a little, ah, let's be late. It was with that handle that I then said to Dr. King, death is very much in your arena. Death is very present in your life. It is very present in the lives of anyone who is a follower of yours in all the campaigns. How do you, how do you come to grips with it? And, ah, he went on to, ah, give a full explanation as to his view of death and this was particularly revealing on the show because, it not only gave him a chance to speak to the issues of his family, but Dr. King had a, a psychological problem in that he had a tic, a hiccup. He would get this tic and it would come upon him and he would suffer with it for a given period of time. I mean in, in a matter of minutes and it was quite difficult and, ah, we had noticed it and talked about it and it was obviously psychological and then after a while we discovered that this wasn't there any more and I said to Dr. King, "What happened?" And he said, "I've come to grips with death. I've come to grips with that." And it was in that context that we then talked about it. He had come to grips with it because he believed that he could not clearly make decisions that had to be made in what to do if a preemptor was a concern for life in its, in, in, in, in, under any condition, death, in other words. That, ah, he had to put in place not only the possibility of his own death but the death of his wife, the death of his children, the death of those who were his followers, the death of those who may be in a march, at any moment. And he had to deal with this responsibility. And, ah, I think that when he went and said, you know, I've been on the mountain top, I don't know that he was alluding to anything terribly specific, although he could have been. I think he was alluding to a host of conclusions and decisions that he had arrived at because he saw a new day in where he was going and where the movement was going and what had to be done. I think that's what he saw, ah, on the mountain top.
How did you feel on the day you found out he was lost?
The first thing that hit me, ah, with, with his death was--disbelief, then swiftly pulling up on mechanism that put that into reality. Because the first report was that, it was just that he was shot. And then, ah, not too long after that, word came that he was dead. My wife and I were there and we, you know, the tears came and welled up but there was not much time for that part of it. I got on the phone immediately, after the first thing that he had just been shot, and do what I always did, was to call Coretta and the children, first off, to make, to identify where they were, whether he was incarcerated in prison or in this instance like this. My, I always called the family to just make sure that I knew where they were and what conditions they were in and what was, what would be needed. Was Coretta in, in Arkansas? Was she in California? Was she with the kids? Where were the kids? So that, because Dr. King, one of the things that I, was done to give them peace of mind was for him to know that his, his family would never be left without a lot of attention and care. So that--
The level of aggression, just clapping sticks and making noise.
The giving in to the loss of Dr. King erupted but only in moments. The real sense of grieving about him did not come for, for me, I think for my wife and a lot of others until later. The act and the, and the nature of the violence of it put everything in such jeopardy because of the grief that a lot of us immediately turned our attention to, to not let this moment destroy everything that we had worked for because anger, which was obviously quite justified, would have to be directed towards the immediate objectives and towards goals that we had, things we could achieve as a collective, rather than being left unattended because it would then do what in some places started to evidence itself, in Washington, in Watts and other places, when, when the country was going up in flames. So that, when I flew immediately to Atlanta, ah, not only was there a lot that to be done in terms of, ah, there was just a, an invasion of people and faces and things that we never heard from, never knew before, all kinds of people, many of whom we had been trying to reach to help give us access to our, to, to the success of our cause, all of a sudden, came to the fore, ah, almost as if it was a photo opportunity in a way. I don't mean to discredit many who came for it out of real genuine will. But there were others who saw in it a time that, that, that it could be manipulated. So we had to do what we could do to sort out those whom were going to be the manipulators, those who had to be put in place immediately to help move on with the Poor People's Campaign and a host of other issues, ah, ah, and for a personal, private conversation that I had with Coretta King to talk with her about going to Memphis, to being there, to picking up with the garbage workers and to carry on the campaign in just a matter of two days later, ah, two or three days. Ah, and the discussion that we had with the family about the appropriateness of that and everybody agreed that it was appropriate. So, I, I arranged for a plane and all kinds of things to give Coretta mobility and to give others mobility, so that people would, in the midst of the grief, still be committed to the movement and to see that the fallen Dr. King did not leave behind a movement that, that was going to abandoned. There were all these disciples, all these people who had been in, in place, Hosea Williams, Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, ah, ah, Stony Cooks, ah.
Just with the--let's go back to the people of SCLC after the assassination and what happened after the loss of a leader.
I would submit that, had Dr. King been given, maybe another three years. Let's assume that destiny who said, you're going to die, if it had chosen a time three years later, the movement would have been in an entirely different place than where it found itself at the time he was assassinated. I think that Dr. King in the Poor People's Campaign with the garbage workers in, in Memphis, was on a thrust here that was going to give a new and a much broader meaning to the movement, which would have required a more broad base use of people and a more broad based input from leaders on a lot of levels. So that the emerging group that inherited, ah, SCLC and other movements, and, and, other organizations, were caught in a transitional period for which they were ill equipped to do the task. Yes, there were still the civil rights issues to be clarified, there was still the Civil Rights Bill to be passed. All that was fairly evident. We had to take the movement however, since it had been clearly around the issues of segregation, integration and civil rights, we had to carry it now to its next logical and more mean, more dimensional place, dimensional level had not yet all been put in place. We were just in the process of doing that. Had Dr. King had three more years of refining the leaders and the people who came to be for all these diverse areas, the movement would have been, and the country would have been qualitatively different than where it found itself. Be--
Did you ever cover Resurrection City?
Yes, I went, ah, ah, in going to Resurrection City and looking at all the tents and all the people, what I saw there, more than anything else, was a sea of hope and an assumption that we would arrive at the same places, ah, with the Poor People's Campaign that we had arrived at with the Civil Rights Movement. The one thing nobody really understood clearly was that it wasn't going to happen because not only was there no real plan, there was no leadership for it. Ah, ah, so that SCLC, by the time Abernathy took over, by the time it started to re-group, by the time it started to, to call meetings together to do things, there was no clarity. There was no clarity as to what were the objectives any more. We knew the titles. Nobody had the specificity. Nobody knew the exact way in which to go about doing any of it. Ah, ah, that caused a lot of confusion and in the confusion a lot of people began to create their own little power pockets and began to seek to do their own thing. I don't think, I would not discredit my, my, my comrades and my colleagues in this endeavor by saying it was a quest for power. I think a lot of people broke off and did things because they really believe that in, in, in, in light of no real understanding and no great leadership for this, they would do what they could do in their own little environment and then set up a lot of little camps. They'd set up a Chicago camp. They'd set up a Atlanta camp. Set up a Memphis camp. Set up a New York camp. Set up, and it was very difficult to get people to come together in a like minded way.
It's a good place to move to Gary and Gary is one of those moments for us of unity in a time of diversity, conflict. Can you give any sense of how diverse the elements were that people tried to get, why Gary was such a shining moment in a way.
Well, what I thought about Gary, ah, at that meeting called by, by Richard Hatcher was that for the first time in one place under one roof, almost every representation that the movement had, was gathered together at this convention. And, it was an enormously exciting experiment and an idea, could we come together, this diverse group? And in the absence of the glue that held it together previously, meaning Dr. King, meaning Malcolm X, in the absence of those leaders, ah, and particularly Dr. King, what would emerge out of this? Could there be a consensus? Could there be a, a conclusion arrived at that would give uniformity and give a sense of purpose? And that was not achieved.
Do you have a memory of Gary?
In what way?
Standing on the floor, looking at Queen Mother Moore or Baraka?
Yeah, I mean I spoke with Imamu Baraka. As a matter of fact it was at that time that something had happened with Imamu Baraka that really threw me for a loop. Ah, although we had had some adversarial encounters earlier on in the movement, ah, and having been defined by him as a lost soul in this maze of, of, of freedom activity, liberation activity, in Gary he was very warm and very friendly, which I accepted willingly as a spirit of, of a new day. But coupled with that when he told me he was now a Marxist and had found a new level of, for political philosophy and for doings, I was kind of thrown for, ah, I, I didn't know quite how to handle that information. I didn't know where it came from. I didn't know that he had any such inclinations and, ah, the fact that it made itself evident at that place, I could only begin to query what would his objectives be and his goal in America armed with this new philosophical, ah, ah, position, ah.
Was there tension? tension, do you remember people being frightened it was going to pull itself apart?
Yes, I think there was a lot of that. I think that people were deeply concerned as to whether or not this moment would lead us into greater diversification or integrate a controversy or integrate an alienation. Would it be confrontational? That it wasn't. There were hard things debated. There was a lot going on.
The Republican of Africa over here, the Panthers over here, the NAACP.
I remember talking with, ah, with Richard Hatcher at the convention and, ah, because he had put a lot into making this thing come about. As a matter of fact, it was setting Gary, Indiana to become a center for ongoing civil rights activity and hope that in the city of Gary, Indiana they he would be able to build a, a, an institution that would house, become the major think tank of all people involved in the human rights and in the Civil Rights Movement, in the, ah, ah, as a matter of fact it's now being turned into a museum, ah, some, some of what has been achieved. But this was the, the beginning of that moment, ah, that we would find this place, we'd come to this convening and I had never seen a collection of greater diversification except for the march on Washington. Ah, at this meeting in Gary, Indiana there was everyone represented, the NAACP, Black Republicans, Black communists, Black Democrats, all the, the, the civil rights organizations and individuals, ah, ah. And there was a spirit of hope but there was also a sense that, ah, somewhere in this complex of bodies, people also looking to see in this squash of people, in, in, this overview, if you could look into, all, which one was going to be the leader? Which one or which group was going to be the force? People were looking for answers. People were looking for all kinds of things. It was, it was a very interesting convention. Ah.
Do you remember Jesse's Nation Time speech? Were you there for that?
The birth of the baby in the water.
The war--water's broken, birth of the baby, nation time. Ah, Jesse was also on his own campaign. Ah, I think Jesse, with PUSH, with his base in Chicago, having come out of, ah, the, the late travels with Dr. King and having been at Memphis, ah, and all the controversy around that. But he came out of this meeting as a, as a, I think it was the first time that people heard Jesse in a way that we were to have heard, that we were to hear Jesse from that moment on. Ah, very articulate. Had a way with words. Ah, most people described it as, as his audition for heir apparent to Dr. King's role. Ah, I think Jesse has always worn that mantle. I think he's always felt that calling. I don't think he felt the calling to be specifically Dr. King. I think he's, he knows that no one will ever be that. But if anyone is to inherit Dr. King's legacy and move it forward to some campaign, Jesse certainly has filled that role and started to play it even then.
Did you come away from Gary with a hopeful feeling?
Even if, even if objectives were not arrived at that everyone had hoped would be achieved, declarations of purpose.
I think with all that we had hoped would be achieved and would come out of that meeting, and I think there was some sense of reality that the greatest achievements would not occur then, what we were, most, ah, hopeful of was that these conventions would continue and that even if on the first encounter we didn't come to, to, to, to real and important conclusions that we would have an ongoing dialogue with this format and out of it would emerge, ah, good thinking. What I loved about it was the pluralism of it. What I loved about it was the diversity of it. What I loved about it was the fact that it brought together people who were, who had to put their stuff on the table and it had to be chewed over thoroughly and out of that, I think, I felt that if we were to be really healthy in terms of what would emerge, that that was the best environment for it to emerge because everybody had a chance to make input, no one was left out, and, ah. That's still to be done incidentally.
Do you remember Coleman Young when he walked out of, led the Michigan delegation out over conflict? --
I remember the incident. I don't remember the specifics of it. What was it about? Oh yeah, the camera is rolling.
I remember something like that, yeah.
But it was the diversity, you did very well there. In October of 87[SIC] there was a series of SCLC concerts around the country with Baez and Sammy Davis, Jr., and you in Houston, Oakland, Chicago and apparently the public response, now because of the war and the other things, wasn't what the other ones had been. Dr. King was upset about that --
He was, ah, certainly a major force for Dr. King were celebrities, the arts and he found in us, as a community, ah, the ability to articulate and to attract people to issues that was in some ways even more powerful than the press. Ah, people revered, you know, they, they view their artists and their choice with tremendous passion. That's why people can get very upset when we do anything they don't like and they can become very euphoric when we're doing things that they like. We have a very special place I think in, in the psyche of people and how they view us. And Dr. King knew that that was an important source and one of my tasks was to continue to, continuously corral that energy, to reach out to my colleagues and to find the ones who were most vulnerable and willing and open to the information and find out those who were most strategic and find out why they weren't vulnerable and to hold dialogues and what not and that was a constant. And, ah, it began to give us tremendous relief, not only in the PRing[SIC] of our mission but also in the ability to raise funds. After the Vietnam thing and when we went out and started to do concerts and started to, or, or continued to do concerts. Ah, ah, there was a decided fall-off and, ah, we were able to get back some even up, up to the time of Montgomery. And, and, and we were always on the down side but there was a period when, for instance, when we went to Houston, ah, it was the first place where we had been met by, ah, an active calculated disruption, ah, a, a tear gas pellet was thrown into the air conditioning unit which fed into the auditorium that just panicked a lot of people and the concert was disrupted. And, ah, there was a campaign in a lot of places where we went by White John Birchers and people who held up signs, maintained that we were unpatriotic and un American and, and, ah, other devices. And I'm not quite sure that the FBI and a lot of their people were not also playing a part in this, in this kind of instigation of, ah, and disruption. Ah, after Dr. King's death, ah, the arts community continued to respond, especially in the immediate days. As a matter of fact the large convening was held in Atlanta before the funeral in order to determine what we would do in the celebration of Dr. King's death, were we going to take over the stadium? Would there be a concert? Would there be a night watch? We felt we wanted to do that and the arts community was the best one to bring that off because, first of all, media would be sure to be there and we could then turn over the platform to those who articulate the hope of the future and to be able to give a one voice view to the world on what we felt about Dr. King so that we would, so that people would not be lost for information. And, ah, even in that environment, ah, many of us came to, it was a dissension and views that took place and we never pulled it off. But we were able to do other concerts, ah, a big one with Cosby and Barbra Streisand and other people and, and, at the, ah, ah, Hollywood Bowl in, in L.A. and a few other places, to maintain the momentum of the movement, ah, in the immediate days after Dr. King's murder. Ah.
Just to jump back to Gary, this notion of the artist as political force to which something not common the American political spectrum it was evident there. I mean here you had Baraka, a poet, you were there as an artist. Did people have a sense that they were doing something very unusual?
No, I think those of us who came out of a tradition of art in, in, in, in politics, of course I came out of the '30s. My father was a, was a, was a, was a, was a seaman, unemployed and he was a organizer for the Maritime Union. We did concerts all the time, the Woody Guthries of the world, the folk singers of the world, the folk songs of the period, a lot of writing in that period was writing about social and political issues, Steinbeck and Hemingway and, and, ah, ah, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson and those. So that, there was not a sense that we were unusual, ah. And I'm not too sure when we go to these events incidentally, unless you're performing or unless you're specifically writing a poem, that we're there as artists. We're there as human beings who are doing something that belongs to the family and when we leave that environment we then begin to translate it into our songs and into our poetry and into our plays. Sometimes at these events, we're required to do that because we sing at them. We'll bring political, you know, ah, we, we bring a fabric to rallies by singing songs and, you know, I mean, all, what's a rally without a song? It's a failure. Ah, ah, so that our mix in that was for some of us quite traditional. It was for others quite unique. I mean people who felt that art and politics, never the twain meet. Well, first of all, those people are to me a great query. I don't understand how they can pursue art and in its highest sense and not have a social and a human consciousness and be somehow involved in the affairs of the family of human beings. It's impossible. I mean to me all great art does that. It's the only art that, that, that, that's meaningful and tangible.
Segue to Muhammed Ali, physical art but magnificent. Do you have thoughts on him when he was beginning--
I've often thought when people ask me about, about Muhammed Ali, I said he was the genuine product of the moment. He was the best example. He was the, the Negro kid who came up in the Black moment who was Cassius Clay and then became Muhammed Ali, that took on all of the characteristics and was the embodiment of the thrust of the movement. He was courageous. He put his class issues on the line. He didn't care about money. He didn't care about the White man's success and the things that you aspire to. He, he brought, he brought America to its, it its most wonderful and its most naked moment. I will not play your game. I will not kill in your behalf. You are immoral, unjust and I stand here to, to attest to it. Now do with me what you will. And he was terribly, terribly powerful and, and delicious and he, ah, he made it, he made it. He did it and was very inspirational. I mean he was, in many ways, more inspiring than Dr. King, more inspiring than Malcolm, more inspiring than the whole, because those people were the classic leaders. Here come this young kid right out of the heart of what it was we all said we were doing. That was the, that was the future. That was the present. That was the vitality of, of, of, of what, ah, we hoped would emerge. And for him to come, you know the embodiment of all of it, the perfect machine, the great artist, the incredible athlete, the, the, the, facile, articulate, sharp mind on issues, the great sense of humor which was traditional to us anyway and his ability to stand courageously and say I put everything on the line for what I believe in and, ah, that was it.
I giggle when I know I just had a hit--
That's a cut.
Sometimes during these years you walked into the White House, you would be invited there or you would be invited into the Presidential or people responsible for the country.
Now, you mean or then?
Did you ever have an incident or memory or something where you, you tried to tell people the urgency with which you felt, when you had access to power because of who you were for a minute? Do you remember any event?
Most of my visits to the White House and certainly my visits to the Justice Department under Bobby Kennedy more often in that vein, were more often to the objectives of trying to get them to focus on where we were going and what we were doing and what we were aspiring to and to try to find the, the commonality. What was good for the government and for the politics of what they had to do and how they had to do it mixed in with what the movement was demanding and had to do and where it had to go and how do you make, how do you make it fit? How do you make everybody come off successfully in it? And obviously that meant compromise in, in a lot of, of ways. The government had to compromise. The Kennedys certainly had to find moments of compromise. And so did the movement. One time in particular was because of the FBI and because of the great distrust, justifiable, that we all had of government and what they were doing, was the concern about the draft and was particularly sensitive for SNCC. Because throughout the South, where many of the people in SNCC held residence, they were concerned about the fact that they would become draft-able very, very immediately. And that even if they qualified or didn't qualify they would be drafted as an instrument of removing leadership from the field and that this was at best, ah, ah, hurtful to our cause and at worst it was a misuse of government power. Ah, and sensing that this was taking place and was a great consideration on the part of certain States and certain Governors and certain, the draft boards in certain areas that were run by, by racists. Ah, I had to take to Bobby Kennedy this information to ask that there be an intervention so that the very thing which was important to the White House, which was voter registration, because how sensitive they had become to the fact that Black votes were very key to the future of this country and certainly to the future of the Democratic Party from that moment on. Because the White oligarchy had been seriously broken by the Kennedy victory. The way to yield and to get rid of all those people who bottled up our committees by seniority was by getting the Black vote. It was very, very crucial and terribly important to the Democratic Party and excruciatingly important to the Kennedys. So that in the name of this, these leaders, these young heroes that were in there doing their job, if they were co-opted by the draft and taken out and what not, ah, who would do this work? And, ah, it was very sensitive position for Bobby Kennedy to be in. First of all, he couldn't intervene because how could you meddle in the draft and give a sense of pref--preferential treatment. It was clearly illegal. And, ah, certainly from a political point of view it was a terribly sensitive, ah, place to be in.
--you back to the point of walking behind the coffin of Martin King, you'd lost him anger, depression, the press is there--
There was a sense at the funeral, Dr. King's funeral that, that, we were at a moment in history that was very, very unique. All those hundreds of thousands of people who came, all the people who had to express their loss and their grievance and their grief. All of the people who came there were in a sense of oneness that I've never quite experienced anywhere else again. It's interesting about death: you have a certain feeling when you're in, at the March on Washington when Dr. King was alive which was a major convening of, of very diverse group and you had a great sense of yourself and your power. It's another thing to be in this other environment that's almost as dramatic and dealing with a loss. It does something about it how it brings you closer to your fellow human or how you perceive them. And I'll never forget that I was standing at one point next to a writer from the New York Times and he was obviously sad about the event and he was a major person at the Times. And, ah, I said to him, recalling the article on Vietnam, the, the, ah, the editorial and some other articles which helped to fan the waves of discontent and to make people quite angry at us. I pointed out to him that that march was reflective of something that the New York Times had also helped create the environment for that. And that, ah, because the way in which they had discredited Dr. King and especially as it was also done with the Washington Post but there was something about it that, that, that, smacked of, it was vitriolic. It was punitive, and it was a great disservice to a, to a rich cause. And at the funeral when I said this, I didn't say it to him in a personal accusation, I said it to, because I wanted him to understand that none of us were really exempt from a responsibility to that moment by just coming to, to, to grieve the loss, there was no cleansing of responsibility. The world would go on and remember what you did to make this moment realizable, what you did to participate in this and be cautious about how you use your power in the future because new leader obviously are going to come. There's going to be a new wave of need, a new wave of demand and that, ah, ah, it's even going to be global.
Stop right there I'm ready to wrap it, I'm going to ask you to--this is your--
Mark it please.
From Emmett Till through all that time, to Selma to Dr. King.
From Emmett Till, from Emmett Till to tall that time from, from the 1930s, from the Civil War, from slavery, I think that, I'm not quite sure, Dr. King and I used to talk about this, why are we really here? What is our purpose? What is the mission? Ah, what are our, what are really our rights? I think that those of us who have been involved in this kind of experience are not out of step with history. I believe that those of us who have this experience are the richer for it. People have often talked about things that I may have sacrificed in my commitment to the movement like more money or jobs or greater visibility or moving along more rapidly with, with, with other interests that they hold dear. And I feel a lot like Ali must have felt, it doesn't equate. It, ah, it's, it's meaningless. Nothing can replace the experience of Dr. King and the movement and Fannie Lou Hamer and the experience and Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney and, and, and all Medgar Evers, everybody who was in it. It was a great, great time in my life and I was blessed to have had an opportunity to be in service to it. I continue to be in service because as long as I live and the need exists I will do what it is that I feel I have to do. But I believe that we will be viewed in history as having been a milestone and a reflection of the best that this moment represented in America. We were the best. Not our walking on the moon, not our technological breakthroughs, not our inordinate successes on the stock market, none of it. Anybody who is in motion to save this planet and was in motion to make a difference in the lives of human beings and how we come to a greater truth about it all, will be the ones who will be in the final analysis, I think, the ones most remembered or the ones most revered. Ah, what Dr. King gave us, what Stokely Carmichael gave it, or Malcolm X gave it, everybody gave us. Whether you agreed with him or not the energy of that time and the goals that we were all aspiring to I think is what it was all about at its best. At its worst is when we did nothing.
If you had to say it to an eight-year-old, in a short time.
I would say that--you are really responsible for the world in which you live. If others happen to come along and join you in the spirit of your endeavor and your objectives to make the world a better place then you're the richer for it. But even if they don't exist, you still have your inner self to answer to. You still have, you, to deal with. And I think that those who put themselves in the service of life and the betterment of their fellow human beings are the ones who are on the best mission, the ones who are going to receive the greatest rewards from that experience.