Production Team: C
Interview Date: October 31, 1988
Camera Rolls: 2056-2062
Sound Rolls: 226-228
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with John Conyers, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 31, 1988, 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.
So we're going start slow and build up. As a Detroit resident how did you view the Civil Rights Movement in the South?
Well, I was always drawn to the struggle because my dad was a labor organizer for the UAW. Well, he had been in the labor movement at Chrysler, in the auto plants, even before the UAW, ah, where it was illegal to be in unions, and you had to wear your button on your underwear under your shirt, where you would get beat up, and thrown out, you'd get beat up before you got fired, ah, for trying to form a union, so I came up in that kind of environment with these kinds of friends of my father's, ah, who spent, ah, he retired as an international representative for UAW. So I always had a political view, and the Civil Rights Movement, of course, was electrifying. The first thing I remember about it was, ah, the forays that, ah, Martin, Abernathy, ah, Andy Young, ah, and others, used to make to raise money for the South. I think that was probably the first contact I had with him, Detroit outside of Los Angeles was the main, ah, supportive financial fund-raising unit in which the churches were used, and the labor movement. The UAW was always very sympathetic to that. The Ruether brothers were always, ah, ah, pro-civil rights, and so it was out of that feeling that, ah, and that contact that I began to, ah, follow this thing with, ah, deep fascination. And then why I, ah, ended up going to the, ah, I joined the National Guard unit that was activated, an, ah, Engineer Combat Unit, then I went to officer candidate school in Fort Belvoir, right out of Washington. And I used to come, and sit in the gallery and watch the, the members of Congress, and--
Do you remember the big march in Detroit in sixty--
Oh, I was in it.
Can you tell me about it?
Yeah, that was the march, that was the march before The March. As a matter of fact, much of Martin's, ah, ah, speech was being formed. "I have a dream" speech, there were parts of it coming together, but that was, that was the kind of, ah, spirit that was going on in Detroit. Reverend C. L. Franklin, who was very close to Martin King, ah, was probably the moving force, the planning all came out of his church. There were others, ah, ah, Ruether again, joined, the labor people joined in it, came right down Woodward and we ended up at, ah, Cobalt Hall. And, ah, it w- w- was the, it was the, the same kind of spirit of support for civil rights, for end of racism. And you have to really, ah, ah, strain oneself to remember, how segregated, and how different things were then. Ah, Detroit, now and then is like two different cities.
Can you tell me about what Detroit was like as a Black resident in the early '60s?
The segregation was profound. The, ah, stores, as one time in New York City, in the Black communities the stores were all owned by Whites. Frequently there were Jewish merchants, which lent a, a sort of, ah, particular, vent of, ill-will between these merchants and shop owners who always closed up every night, and clearly went somewhere else. There was a very little, ah, ah, interaction among, ah, Black political leadership because there wasn't any. We, let's see, I was in law school when the first Black ran and won for the city council. It, it was a very unusual kind of situation, ah, well I'm, excuse me, it was a situation very different from now, but it was really the norm. And it was this, ah, straining at the bonds, ah, th- the there was no city government responsive. Ah, there was no national leadership, there was no Congressional Black Caucus. And the, the civil--
So if you could start again, telling me about reading about the Southern movement and knowing what the issues were in the North.
Well, we, we watched with some interest the development of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. And we had this connection between Martin King, Abernathy, Andy Young, and the top King people. SCLC, of course, was brought about because the existing civil rights organizations were reluctant to adopt a confrontational strategy about breaking de jure segr- segregation in the South.
But in terms of watching the gains of the Southern movement, but being up here, up in Detroit.
It was a sort of a nagging, recognition of the fact that what was needed there wasn't too much different from what was needed up here. That there was a, ah, we were looking over our shoulders at the South, knowing that up North wasn't really all that much different anyway. And, ah, you had a, you had some other things going on. Ah, there was a, there was a kind of Black Power attitude that was, that was coming about in what part of the population, that was rather challenging, ah, to, ah, to, to the existing of Black leadership. Ah, we were, we were, we were going through periods, of, ah, of, ah, of, ah, street indigenous Black leadership which were challenging, ah, the, ah, the more, the more or less accommodationist attitude of, ah, of the existing Middle Class strata, at that time. This also was being compounded by some, some class, differences, the Vietnam War, ah, was also, ah, ah, percolating right on the scene. And, and that, ah, was going to end up playing a very large role, as more Black bodies began to be returned from Vietnam, it was, it was begin, it was beginning to be perceived that, that Black soldiers were dying disproportionately, ah, in the Vietnam War. And, and, ah, so that question began to nag, the economic system was, ah, horrible, the political was still nascent, it was literally non-existent, there were just a few Blacks, ah, that were state representative, here, and office holder there.
Can you cut.
In 1961 Mayor Cavanagh was elected primarily through the strength of the Black vote and primarily over issues of police brutality. Can you tell me about that election?
Well, to understand the, ah, the environment here in Detroit, it, it was really very anti-Black, even though, ah, more than, ah, a third of the, the citizenry, were Black citizens. We had, ah, ah, a local government that was totally unresponsive, and then, ah, when, ah, Miriani sanctioned the stop and frisk activity. Ah, in, in which, and of course, ah, ignited when, ah, doctors, and lawyers, and, ah, businessmen, the few that they were, were all stopped and pulled out, and of their cars, arrested, brutalized, ah, it really was like throwing a, a match into, ah, ah, ah, oily rags. It really, it really mobilized the Black community, and, ah, of course it, it politicized, ah, everybody to make sure that, ah, that this young new lawyer had never ran for office. I remember him calling me. I was, ah, I was a lawyer representing, ah, ah, working with a, a labor organization, the Trade Union Leadership Council. And they said, come on down here, we're interviewing, ah, Jerome Cavanagh, and, ah, he wants to run for mayor. And you know, we're s- sick of this crap. So I hopped on down there, and we met, and he was, ah, young, energetic, ah, lawyer, articulate, uh willing to take on the establishment, ah, joining with us about the racist tactics of the police. So, it was, ah, it was, ah, timely intrusion without, without which, ah, the, ah, the, the deteriorating race relations he could have never gotten elected. But that very definitely changed things in Detroit.
Let me ask you a little more about what was happening before '67 and can you tell me just briefly what Mayor Cavanagh's election meant in terms of hoping to change some of what was happening the police.
Well the election shook the political establishment and the economic establishment to its roots. Ah, he was not supposed to have won. Nobody thought he could win. And so it was hailed in the Black community. He integrated. He brought in an integrated cabinet and, ah, he was making, ah, ah, inroads into the housing. Of course you had everything piled up. Ah, he, appointed, ah, George Edwards, ah, now, he appointed George Edwards a labor lawyer as a Police Commissioner and, we were, we were going to really move forward from, from that point on. Ah, but, but the old problems were not that easily solved. And so, ah, ah, the police force, like many, couldn't care less who was the Mayor. I mean they considered themselves to be the permanent, ah, law organization and mayors came and went. Usually mayors were bent to the will of the police establishment. So, things were, were moving forward but they, they were, they were not being solved in a way that people could, ah, feel relief. In other words, the changes were, were much slower than, than the, than what was felt. And that, by the people, and it, it wasn't coming down. We were, you can put somebody the head of an agency You can make someone, you can change policy but that really doesn't grab hold immediately and, and, and is, and is treated as some kind of accommodation. So that's the problem, that was the problem that these things were behind the curve.
What about new problems? What about what was happening in terms of the expressways and the splitting of the Black in the Black community, the crowding of 12th Street and the White business beginning to sort of just move out in the suburbs. What was that doing to the Black community?
Well, all that was part of the socioeconomic.
I'm sorry. If you could just give me back what I gave you in terms of what was happening.
Well in terms of a, of a socioeconomic movement you, you, you must remember that there was a lot of, of other changes that was, that were going on that were much larger than the city could really control. As a matter of fact when we started talking about, ah, urban renewal. It was called Black removal. And, ah, ah, the businessmen were relocating, some of the businesses already were, were taking off, ah, there, there was a perceptible White flight problem going on. The, ah, the segregated patterns, ah, housing, ah, residentially, job-wise, were really very, very tight. There, there were, there were no, ah, ah, affirmative action programs. You, you must remember we didn't even have a national civil rights law at this time. And all of it, ah, was creating a buildup of tensions, ah, that were going to ultimately lead to an explosion. And, and the mayor himself was powerless to deal with it just from a municipal point of view. They were, they were far more intractable than that.
Watching other cities go. Nearly 100 cities since Harlem in '64 and being in Detroit and being one of the good things that was happening in Detroit, you were one of two Black congress people in Detroit, did you think the city would bypass it?
No, I, as a matter of fact, that, that night I spoke to a, the Black Real Estate Association that Saturday night, ah, ah, that the riot took off and, and I was talking about, people reminded me of what I had said. Little did I know that I would be called out of my sleep that night, awakened and brought out on 12th Street. Ah, but, every, it, it was clear that this wasn't going to, ah, ah, continue on. Because there, there was a, there was a, ah, a nascent Black Power Movement developing, ah, that was, ah, rebellious to both Black and White leadership, that was, ah, making it clear, ah, that this is not going to go on and, and it was a, it was a, it had its own leaders and, and, ah, it was really calling for a confrontational, if not, a, a, a, physical reaction, ah, to this, segregation that was, was steeped in, in every part of life of a Black citizen in Detroit.
So what happened Saturday night, what was it you were?
Well, it was the, it, what we, I was speaking at the downtown, the Black Real Estate group was meeting and I was predicting that something was going to happen. That, that this, that it was intolerable and I was, I was talking about housing patterns, ah, which they of course were very sympathetic to. They, they wanted to integrate housing and it was a, it was not being integrated at all.
Can you tell me, go to Sunday what it was like being on 12th Street. Can you paint a picture for me?
Well that night, the night that it started, it was start, we were hoping that it could still be turned off. It started off, we were saying, "Well, you know, if everybody will go home and go to sleep and, ah, we clear the streets." There had been, ah, up and down 12th Street the police had, ah, raided this after hours place which had thought that they were paying money to the police for protection and, ah, they ended up having these women thrown down the steps. And this is what really angered the crowd. That the, ah, the police captain on duty was not there that night and this lieutenant decided that they were going to raid this place. And it's just something as unforeseen, unpremeditated as this could kick it off. And that's how it started. That was the genesis. That's why it started on 12th Street. This place upstairs had been, been used, and, ah, people knew about it. It was almost a semi-legitimate business as a matter of fact. So it was just shock and outrage that this kind of, of violent police action could be brought to this, ah, this, ah, after hours place. And that's how it started, so when, when we got out there, ah, we, we, there was a hope that maybe we could head it off right now and, ah, and everybody calm down and cool out and things would, would become stabilized. But that was not to be the case.
Tell me what you did though, it sounds frightening what you did a car.
Well, that was the next day. That was the next day, on Sunday when it became on clear that that was, that was not going to be our luck. That, ah, crowds were gathering, ah, you could see smoke off in the city's horizon, that other fires were being started in other places. I remember we had this incredible incident of, ah, here were all these policemen dressed in Black with helmets, weapons, and then they had bayonets on their rifles and they were, a platoon of them were standing there on 12th Street, at the top of 12th Street. And it was so provocative, everybody would come by and say, "See that? Look it. They're getting ready to attack us." So we, ah, we, the civil rights leadership and indigenous leaders, ah, immediately contacted, ah, I remember Arthur Johnson and Hubert Locke and others, ah, we contacted the mayor and said, you know, "You have to take those bayonets off of those weapons. Are you out of your mind?" Well, of course he didn't know that. But we finally got them to do that. They, they did that. But this was the kind of provocative scene, ah, and more and more people kept coming out. The streets were clogged. We couldn't get people to disperse. Ah, there, there was this mumbling going on and, ah, ah, ah, you could hear in the background sometimes windows being smashed and stores being looted, houses were being set fire to. And, so I, ah, ah, I was thinking that maybe, I, I'm looking with people that I knew. I mean these were not strangers. These were, these were, ah, my constituents. These were people that supported me that I knew and knew me. ABut they were angry, so angry, the hostility.
Who were the people in the street?
The people that, that were milling around angry and, ah, and, ah, and, ah, belligerent, ah, were my constituents, were people I knew, were friends of mine, were acquaintances and, ah, it was a, it was a mean spirited kind of mood that hung over this. And, ah, I don't know, I don't know what, what, impelled me. There was, someone had a bullhorn and here was a car out in the middle of the street and, ah, I jumped up, I jumped up on it, ah, to make an appeal that we should all disperse, that we're going to get to the bottom of this, ah, that we're on the case and that nothing can be gained, ah, from us just continuing this kind of random attacks on, on our own community. And, ah, you know, it was after I got off I realized that that was a pretty dangerous situation. I mean, people, ah, ah, nobody, ah, said anything to me directly. They were, they was mumbling and grumbling, "Ah, go ahead on." And, "It's too late for that," and, but I didn't get stoned or drug off there, ah, but you could see that there was a, there was a, a murderous tone about this whole thing. It was, it was really, ah, people were letting feelings out that had never been let out before, that had been bottled up. It really wasn't that they were that mad about an after hours place being raided and some people being beat up in, in, as a result of the closing down of that place. It was the whole desperate situation of being Black in Detroit and now, all of a sudden, ah, there was, there was no supervening force. There was nobody on top of you. Everybody looked out in the street, and it was, it was us. It was just us and they were, then, and so this was the kind of mood that accompanied the looting. The looting was a, was a compensatory act. We, we were making up for all this crap. And so, as we found out, occasionally there would be a Black looters and White looters who, ah, would go in and they would all, all be just helping themselves. And, and then of course the whole thing deteriorated to just plain looting and burning.
What was the message to you as a civil right leader out there trying to stop people but they were no longer listening to you? Were they listening to Black Power ideologies at that point? What were people going to listen to?
Well, it's, it's too hard to sort it out neatly in, in that kind of a situation because some were listening to each. I mean some people, ah, were, were, ah, listening a new drummer, that they wanted new leadership. Some were not listening to anything. Some, some, it was perceived by some as an opportunity. People who had no particular political orientation, although as you know, ah, ah, a person is making a political statement when they do anything out in the streets, in terms of taking somebody else's property and looting and burning, that, that's a, that's a statement regardless of whether you have a leader in front of or not. And, that, that generally was what, was how one could characterize the riots, that, they were, they were not organized. We, we had the, the federal presence in trying to find an organized, subversive leadership, which was pretty insulting, in a way that, that, ah, you'd have to have communists or radicals come in from somewhere, ah, to, to get, to have this kind of activity result. And we were trying to tell them that this isn't any sinister, ah, left-wing political ideology manifesting itself through covert leadership. These people had had it up to here. But it was a, a, a, a dimension of the misunderstanding that they couldn't see that. That we were busy trying to convince the city, ah, ah, leaders, the, the local police, the federal people, ah, I got a call from President Johnson right in my house in the middle of the, of the rioting, to let me know that they were, ah, sending in, ah, ah, the, ah, the, ah, leadership council and, and, all the Washington people to really stabilize and coordinate and investigate. But the fact still remain is that, ah--
I'm sorry. What did President Johnson say?
Well, the, the President, first of all, he wanted me to tell him what was happening and, and, to describe how serious it was. Was it serious enough for him to, to send in the federal presence? I assured him immediately that it was. And, ah, he was telling me who to be in touch with and, ah, ah, it, but it was clear that they came in, ah, thinking that there, there must be, there must be more to it than just rioting. I mean, there had to be a political, somebody was subversive, had put people up to this. And they were searching for, ah, for political evidence of ah, of left wing. This was the anti-Communist mentality that has never really gone away, ah, that always comes in, in full bloom. I mean if Blacks are being disruptive, they have to be being put up to it. I mean they, they couldn't just go out and do this on them, on their own. They were behaving themselves pretty nicely up until now.
Can you tell me, your office was getting calls increasingly throughout the week about these, according to Leon Atchinson about police brutality. Can you tell me about a growing awareness that the police were losing control during this week?
Well the police were actually engaging in a riot. The, the, what really went on was a police riot because, ah, as a matter of fact, if anything, the addition of a state and particularly federal law enforcement agents restrained the Detroit police because they saw this as a, as absolutely, ah, intolerable conduct that had to be stopped by any means necessary.
Can you give me an example?
Well they were shooting at, ah, they were, they would, they would shoot a person, ah, ah, on a rooftop. I mean, ah, they, they figured that that person might, might have a gun and would shoot them. So they would shoot at them first. Ah, they were using, ah, ah, they were misusing physical force and lethal force, ah, because they were, they were angry and they were also frightened.
What kind of brutality did you witness at the police station when you were there kind of?
Well, they were dragging people around--
I'm sorry I was talking over your answer.
At the police stations, particularly at the Livernois Station, they were mopping up blood on the floor. I mean, it was, it was, this was, ah, this was like a, it was like a war zone. Tanks, you have U.S. tanks going down neighborhood streets. You had all different kinds of your national guardsmen, police, army, ah, all trying to, to coordinate itself. But the Detroit police were unbelievable in their determination to visit, ah, excessive violence upon the population. And they were, they were just mopping blood up. This was obviously blood of Black people that were being detained at the, the station. The violence was insane. John Hershey captured it in one of his books, _Algiers Motel Case_. But the whole thing, ah, ah, made it so that what they did.
I'm sorry , I wanted to see if--
OK, during the, during the, the riots, our office became a sort of a, a, a mini station in which people were calling in for help, assistance, family members missing, somebody's been arrested, someone, "This is it." The police stations were all overrun and the jails were filled. So they just created detention centers. And, so, people were calling up reporting what the police were doing or did or reporting missing people, ah, people wanting to file complaints. Fear, anger, ah, this, it was this, could this be happening in America?** I mean that you look out your, your window and you see tanks going down the street and so, so, ah, the thing was an absolute madhouse of all kinds of conduct and activity going on. And people calling us frequently. They were probably calling everywhere else too. But they were calling us trying to get us coordinated. In the meantime, we were meeting, ah, a the leadership groups were meeting with the, the law officers and with the, the federal presence that was here trying to coordinate and, and see how we could head this thing off.
Your constituents were calling you with the tanks on the streets in terms of what the and this couldn't be happening in America. What was the mood of your constituents?
Well you'd have to, to, ah, realize that for a people to whom this had not only never happened before but had never expected anything like this to happen, where, where we become, ah, oc- occupied by our own army, by our own law forces. People were angry, bewildered, frightened. They were looking for missing members of their family, ah, they were calling up for help and assistance. We had, ah, emergency detention centers, ah, people were trying to find out where to go. Many, much, ah, work, ah, was suspended, ah, in the city, obviously, and we were, we were trying to give off an, an impression in the government, ah, that we were in, things were in control and were getting better and if everybody would stay calm and cooperate. But the underlying problem was that, that the government was really opposed, ah, to the people. The law enforcement part of the government had gotten completely out of hand. Many of the activities were menacing, ah, all the people killed were, ah, ah, Black citizens, many under, ah, incredibly, ah, strained circumstances. The violence, the threats, the, ah, overreaction of the, of the law enforcement itself. The National Guardsmen were, ah, of course, ah, unique because they were youngsters who'd never been in an urban setting and were, were just generally, ah, unprepared for this kind of duty or activity.
In terms of other, other views of the rioting in that it should have been allowed to take its course, and what happened was the more that was tried to repress it, it became an occupied, an occupied community.
Well there were two views, ah, that generally dominated how, how this, ah, riot ought to be handled. One is that, ah, if you take it easy, ah, it would, ah, run out of steam, it would run its course and we'd, we'd end up, ah, with everything, ah, it might take a little bit longer, ah, but it would, it would be safer. The other point of view was that, ah, if, if we allowed it to run its course, ah, more lives and property could be lost and that what we've got to do is, ah, reestablish the, ah, preeminence of, of government and law and that we've got to clamp down on it, we've got to snuff this thing out immediately. And of course it was the, ah, latter view that prevailed. And out of that determination came the, ah, view that, that, ah, we've got to show everybody that we mean business, that this is, this is, we're gonna, ah, have curfews, ah, people w- were arrested going to the store and, and detained for days. The whole thing, the whole thing was a reflection of the attitudes of the government and, and the law enforcement agencies toward Black people which created the problem in the first place. Namely hostility. And of course mixed with some fear.
Let me ask a question we asked before in terms of the new movement in the North, in terms of the move to Black Power, in terms of traditional civil right. Can you talk about emerging? It's kind of a shift in gears, we're going back to before the riot, but sensing this emerging voice in Detroit.
Well it was, ah, the, the mood can be seen, ah, ah, it was coming forward in a number of ways. Ah, first of all there was a lot of impatience, ah, with the sort of, ah, prodding acceptability of the relationship between Blacks and Whites, ah, ah, in the, in the factories, ah, particularly within the unions. There were militant factions within automobile plants, ah, ah, locals which were, ah, which were determined, ah, that they were not going to wait, ah, to bargain and negotiate every two or three years about what they considered to be outrageous terms and conditions, out in the streets. Ah, there were new organizations being formed, with new leaders, indigenous leaders who were willing to march and picket and confront, ah, discriminatory housing, ah, employers who would not hire Blacks, ah, businesses that were considered to be, ah, unfair or overpricing and overcharging Blacks. And there was this, ah, that, ah, there was this new nascent leadership of a variety and it, it was all unorchestrated but a, but a, from a variety of sources that were determined that, ah, things were going to change and that they weren't waiting for, ah, ah, leadership on high in the Black community to give them some instructions from this point on. And these, these two different--
I want to ask you one other question because we're running out of film. As the riots were ending, did you see any evidence or hear any stories about Congressional White backlash, cutting back on giving aid, to cities and cutting back from getting involved in Black communities. Did you see Congressional White backlash as a result of the riot?
Well many of the, ah, poverty programs in the, ah, ah, Office of Economic Opportunity, ah, the CETA programs which had their built-in critics within the federal government and in the Congress particularly, ah, many, ah, ironically, ah, were senators and congressmen from the South. Ah, they, they used the Detroit and Watts and Newark, ah, as examples of why these programs could not possibly work and, and why they were in some instances counterproductive, that, that, that they may have, they may have been the underlying reasons for some of the unrest that was, was, ah, that was brought about because people were expecting to get something for nothing. They were expecting to get government help and they were expressing a frustration that it was so little and so late or never came at all. So, ah, there was a, ah, a political, a negative political dimension to the riots, absolutely.
So the question is --
The Detroit riots were inevitable in the sense that the building frustrations of the Black community, the powerlessness that left them without, ah, any way to redress and, and no way for them to see that they were ever going to get out of it really formed the, the incendiary base for something as trivial as, ah, ah, ah, breaking up a after-hours joint to create the, the most destructive civil disobedience riot in American history in terms of the life and damage that it caused, but it, it had to come out. And, and once this thing started, ah, as we find out, it was unstoppable.
The Kennedy and Johnson administrations are generally seen as allies of the Civil Rights Movement. What changes when Nixon comes in?
With Richard Nixon we, we had an ascendancy of the philosophy of, ah, there's too much government, ah, handouts are bad for character, ah, welfare is not the way out. All of the, the Democratic programs, ah, CETA, OEO, ah, even, ah, some of the, ah, Medicare programs were all, ah, put under a new scrutiny, especially in view of the fact that the Vietnam War was escalating and the ferment was really out there. President Nixon developed, ah, from, from the earliest part a sort of a bunker mentality, ah, of them/us, ah, which was, was constrained somewhat because of the, the great number of Democrats that were in the Congress.
I'd like to hear a little bit more of--
The traditional relationship between federal government and civil rights leadership, how did that change when Richard Nixon comes, in specific to the civil rights leadership?
Well President Nixon never held himself out as a friend of the Civil Rights Movement so that was part of what the, ah, campaign about his, ah, election was about, whether we were going to move it forward. It was narrowly won but it's winner take all. And so, ah, the Civil Rights Movement, ah, public affairs, ah, ah, organizations, ah, urban constituencies that had, ah, that were beginning to look at housing and delivery systems for food and jobs, education program--all of these things now were subject to being turned down, ah, remodified. The, the Nixon people were then put in charge of these agencies and frequently it, it was, ah, foxes watching hen houses sort of a thing, so that the civil rights leadership had no doubt about the nature of their problem. Martin King was planning a Poor People's March to Washington, ah, which was to deal with this insensitivity that was being clearly manifested by the administration.
So did you find then that this was the right time to start this--the Congressional Black Caucus? Can you talk about the formation of the caucus?
The, the, ah, the Congressional Black Caucus, there was, there was conversations going on among the, the nine of us then that there ought to be some coming together in, in a loose affiliation. Ah, and, and I want to tell you that the, the Congress was far different, ah, from, from the way it is now. I mean people without seniority, if you weren't a southern chairman of a committee, ah, you didn't have that much to do in the Congress in those days. But, ah, Adam Powell, ah, ah, was, was, ah, actually, ah, the person that said, "You, you don't need a Black caucus." He said, "I represent all of you." I mean he used to tell me that every time we would, we would tiptoe the subject up to him, he'd say, "W- what do you need it for? I mean what's the problem?" And, ah, we, we said we were going to do this anyway--
Why was 1969 the right time to starting organizing the Congressional Black Caucus?
Well the, the Nixon administration had to, ah, give us some impetus because, ah, not only were they whacking back at the, ah, social programs, ah, housing, ah, education, job training, but they were, they were also--we, we have to remember that they had, ah, Attorney General John Mitchell plus J. Edgar Hoover in the FBI and they were looking upon civil disobedience not only in the, the Vietnamese, ah, anti-war protests against Vietnam but also the rising activity of the Civil Rights Movement. I mean King was under active surveillance, ah, up until his death. They, they, ah, it was very clear that they saw all of this as, as, ah, inimitable to, ah, law and order as they saw it. And so this additional harassment, ah, the, ah, the, ah, the, ah, COINTELPRO, the, ah, the, ah, the blatant discrimination that existed, ah, in terms of federal law enforcement, ah, the non-enforcement of, ah, civil rights laws, all of this, ah, created a circumstance that I think augmented the necessity for us to pull together and finally create a, a caucus where we could more efficiently carry on the business of trying to represent, ah, all, all the Black people who were so grossly under-represented in the Congress to begin with.
OK, can you talk about what happened between the Congressional Black Caucus and Nixon, trying to get him to meet with you and his refusal, and then your going into a boycott of the State of the Union Address?
Well, we, we determined that the first thing we should do is bring the plight, the issues of Black America to the President of the United States. And so the negotiations that began to, ah, lead up to a meeting, ah, actually, ah, after a while it was clear there wasn't going to be any meeting. He had no desire, ah, to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus then, which was still less than a dozen members. But still that, that was something that he did not entertain as, as something that was feasible or necessary. So, our counter position was to boycott the State of the Union address, ah, all of us, ah, ah, as a group. And the, the reaction was phenomenal. Ah, it, it was, ah, it was very clear, ah, and we made it clear that the reason was our inability to meet with the President, to air the demands that were, were growing in terms of the hostility that his administration was showing. The, ah, the lack of enforcement of, ah, federal laws that would, would give us some protection to, to, ah, citizens. And so, ah, the, the Congressional Black Caucus in a way was instantly put on the map because of the incredible reaction, ah, that came about, ah, from our refusal to, to, ah, to attend the inaugural, and at the same time his refusal to meet with us. We, we seemed to have created a stage in which we could at least, ah, have our presence felt. That they could no longer ignore us, ah, that it, it wasn't just a request that you could throw in the wastebasket and say, "That ends that." And so it, it gave a heart, politically, ah, to, ah, people from one end of the country to the other, as we began this, ah, new assertion of ourselves within the Congress, ah, no matter how difficult and how, ah, how, how, ah, outnumbered we were.
And what happened when you finally met with him? What did you get from him? I understand that you presented sixty some demands. What did you get from him?
Well, it was, it was a nominal meeting that, ah, that had no, no, ah, no serious consequence. We finally got the meeting, and when we got the meeting, ah, we had our demands, ah, pretty well drawn up. And, and, they were, they were, they were received but not acted upon. It did not create a new beginning of a relationship in which, ah, we argued that we ought to get these, and they argued that we will maybe give you these instead of those. They were received and filed, and that was the end of it. President Nixon could be a pretty hard-nosed, ah, executive, ah, officer when he wanted to be. And, ah, to him this was a, ah, an unprecedented demand being made upon the Chief Executive. That he would meet with the political leaders of Black Am- with the political leadership of Black America. The, the whole thing, ah, to him was a, an unjust demand that was being made upon him for, for purposes which he could not fathom.
What had happened in the country?
Well, in 1972, ah, we were faced with probably the results of ah, four years of Nixon that had shown us that law and order was here to stay, J. Edgar Hoover was riding high, ah, ah, the, the themes of Richard Nixon had been really stamped on the federal government. The Fred Hampton incident in Chicago, the assassination in his sleep, by FBI agents, of a very highly thought of young Black activist. And the whole era of repression of, Nixon had finally come into his own, and we were sort of at the bottom. We were at the, at our wits end. I think that fueled the desire of, ah, Black leadership of, that were not just radical, but progressives, political people, labor people, street people, intellectuals. Ah, there was a felt need that we come together and, ah, Mayor Hatcher's city was seen as a central spot, not only by it being mid-west, but it reflected a place where we could all come together and express ourselves.
Can you remember any highlights of the Gary convention?
Well I remember the Detroit delegation because it was, ah, it consisted of people who were, who weren't all working in sync in Detroit. We had the labor movement, represented by Tom Turner; we had a state Senator name Coleman Alexander Young, who had been on pretty unhappy terms with the Labor movement; we had the--
Just a second, I know this is important but we probably won't--
What is happening in the country in terms of repression, law and order, um, that makes it important that the Black political convention be called together.
Well in '68 in the begriming, President Nixon had really found strength and resources
If you could actually begin with 1972, with what happened in the country in 1972.
OK, all right. By 1972 President Nixon had really hit his stride. He had the FBI with J. Edgar Hoover into their repression mode, we don't know how many strategies were going on, that would come out later. He was attacking, very effectively, many of the social and domestic programs that had been going on. He, he was rallying us around the Vietnam war, so all the time, ah, the fortunes of the Congressional Black Caucus, Black leadership, and the feat of--
I'm sorry, what's happening is you're looking down.
OK, so what's happening in the mood of the country, with repression in 1972?
In 1972, President Nixon had hit his stride. Ah, with ah, J. Edgar Hoover, ah, and the repression mode they were going full steam. Domestic programs had been cut back. Ah, Vietnam war protesters were being characterized as ah, unpatriotic at best, subversive at worst. The Civil Rights Movement was, ah, almost flat on its rear end. And, ah, the, the, there was a felt need among Black political leadership and those in the labor movement, intellectuals, ah, mainstream and radicals, that we come together. And for a lot of reasons, Gary was seen as the center point, the midpoint where we could all come together.
What is your high points from the Gary Convention
Gary convention was something that has never been reproduced. It was the one and only convention of its kind in which, ah, the various different political forces in Black America came together, ah, not just to strategize, but to let each other know what their positions were. There was, there was, a lot of posturing, there was some incredibly fiery speeches: the rhetoric tore the ceiling off the place at least once or twice. Baraka of course, ah, was the lead radical intellectual, whose speech about the inevitable failure of capitalism, um, is really one of the great Black political statements of all time. But there were, there were others there: Jesse Jackson, ah, ah, put forward the case for an independent party. He was far less politically active then than anyone thought he would ultimately become. Ah,, there were representatives of the Labor movement that were present. Ah, there were probably intellectual conservative forces. So this created a dynamic of its own, a tension that couldn't be reproduced in other ordinary kinds of conferences. And this tension drove everyone to put forward their case in the most descriptive emotional, hair-raising, rhetorical style possible, so you had some of the, the real great speeches of our era that came forward--
Do you, do you, aside from Baraka's speech do you remember Jesse's speech for example, the--
Well, Baraka, Baraka and Jesse I think were probably, ah, were probably the most notable of--and it left us, it actually left us so far out that we didn't have any place to pragmatically work after we left the convention, ah, ah, it's like, it's like a group of people coming together and saying "What if?" and "How do we plan this?" It was, it was, good to know that there were so much, ah, dynamism, and, and hope out there. But the, ah, and we promised to come back again, and there were, ah, resolutions of how we were, ah going to direct ourselves, but they kind of faded away. What we saw happening was the Civil Rights Movement began to continue to move its way forward, and the political activity began to catch on. More and more Blacks the Civil Rights Act and the Voter Rights act began to kick in, and actually the numbers of Black elected officials, in the Congressional Black Caucus, but at the local level which was in some ways was equally as important.
Did that relate to Gary in anyway?
I think so. I think, I think--
If you can mention Gary in your answer.
Yeah, I, I think the ah, the, ah, slow and steady increase of Black elected officials in Black and local level did related to the Gary conference. Because, ah, what we saw, was that you had to be in a political mode. It politicized more people, and even those who did not buy Baraka's notion of a building a new system based on the imminent burial of the present one or Jackson's notion that there aught to be an independent party. It did give us the insight to see that there was a lot more to be done between now and the time that our visionaries were painting in their speeches. So there was that relationship that got us on a political track.
How did you first hear about the Fred Hampton/Mark Clark murders?
I think it came to me over the--
Could you mention the ?
OK, the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, I was probably in Detroit. And, ah, it was a so shocking that at first you were hoping that maybe this wasn't really the way it went down. As you remember there was also this exotic that the states attorney engaged in trying not to reveal how they were actually executed by law enforcement agents. That the FBI had coordinated this, that it was, it was murders were totally unnecessary, totally unprovoked. I mean here were you talking about killing people at night as people lie sleeping in their beds. So this was a totally unnecessary massacre of particularly well thought of Black leaders. This was our leadership being cut down in a repressive way that, that really inflamed the rest of the country and left us deeply saddened by it. When we recovered, of course, we had ad-hoc hearings in which Black leadership, the beginning, the nascent beginnings of a Congressional Black Caucus. Most of the members, ah, joined with other local officials to hold ad-hoc hearings, to have witnesses who testified about the circumstances that day, and evening and night.
How many witnesses were there? Can you give me a sense of what the hearings were like?
Well, first of all we went actually to the residence in which they were killed and made a physical examination of it, with lawyers and representatives of the families of the slain men so that they were pointed out the detail, we were examining bullets, and, ah, and, ah, where they were fired at, and, ah, the position that they were sleeping in the bed when they were killed, that this was actually a government execution that then had to go to the next step as frequently develops in government crimes is that there has to be a cover-up. So there was this exotic description of, ah, how there was some kind of alleged shoot out--as it turns out there wasn't at all, and, ah--
What, what were the findings of your investigation? I mean do you remember any of the findings?
Well we determined of course--
Sorry, could you say the--
OK, in terms of the ad-hoc committee's findings, ah, we ultimately took the testimony of witnesses, which pointed out and made it, I think, conclusive beyond any doubt that there was no basis for, ah, for this execution, this government execution, that the, that none of the people in the homes, particularly those who were killed, were acting in any way offensive or threatening the, ah, lives of the government agents in any way. And that the, ah, assassination were completely uncalled for. There was absolutely no basis for this incredible misconduct and abuse of authority on the part of government officials.