Production Team: C
Interview Date: November 13, 1985
Interview Place: Chicago, Illinois
Camera Rolls: 550-552
Sound Rolls: 1552
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 13, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). 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.
BLACKSIDE INC., EYES ON THE PRIZE, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, 13 NOVEMBER 85, SOUND ROLL 1522, CAMERA ROLL 550, REVEREND ELLWANGER.
GIVE YOU SOME REFERENCE TONE.OK THIS IS TEAM C, CALLIE AND JIM
REV. ELLWANGER, HOW DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THE SELMA CAMPAIGN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME DIRECTLY INVOLVED?
Well, we got news releases in Birmingham about, uh, some of the things that were happening there and, and something that caught our attention that really, uh, got to our guts…
LET ME STOP YOU. IT'S HAPPENING WHERE? SEE I, THEY DON'T KNOW.
Mmmm, all right, that's a good example, all right, ha. Oh.
Oh, I just keep on going.
All right. We got news releases of things that were happening in Selma as uh, uh, people were being jailed because of the uh, demonstrations in front of the courthouse uh, and uh, women and children and men were being put in barracks with no heat. This was February, uh, and it's not cold, cold in Alabama at that time but it's cold, and uh, we just could sense the kind of treatment that they were getting and uh, that's, that's where we began to be concerned about uh, what was happening in Selma. Of course, we were concerned uh, about more than just the treatment of the prisoners, we're concerned about the issue, but that's what brought it to our attention.
WELL, WHEN YOU SAID "WE," WERE THERE OTHER PEOPLE IN YOUR GROUP THAT WERE CONCERNED?
I'm thinking especially of the uh, Birmingham Council on Human Relations which was uh, the one integrated group in Birmingham, Alabama that met on a regular basis. And our whole uh, reason for existence was to uh, uh know about and to uh, express concern and act on behalf of people who were being uh, hurt and discriminated against and so even though this was a hundred miles away south of Birmingham, uh, we sensed uh, a closeness and a concern.
NOW WHEN DID YOU ACTUALLY GET TO SELMA?
WHAT DID YOU DO YOU KNOW, WHEN YOU FIRST GOT THERE?
Well, we planned this demonstration in Selma for Saturday March 6, which was um, a day that people could rather easily get away from their jobs and that's why we picked a Saturday. Uh, and we planned 3 or 4 weeks probably to uh, pull this off and uh, the purpose was to raise up uh, before the eyes of the public in Alabama and throughout the country uh, what was happening in Selma to the people who were being mistreated but more importantly uh, the civil rights uh, of the people themselves who could not even register to vote, much less vote. Um, we saw this as an issue that was of uh, real concern if the south was ever to change, to say nothing of uh, the urban pockets in the north.
NOW THERE WERE 72 WHITES THAT JOINED YOU THAT DAY ON MARCH 6th. TELL ME A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE COMPOSITION OF THAT GROUP, WOMEN, CLERGY, ALL CLERGY, YOUNG PEOPLE, OLD PEOPLE, YOU KNOW, WHAT, WHAT WAS THE MAKEUP OF THAT GROUP?
It was really a motley crew with a variety of people and probably about half men and women, uh, probably a strong percentage of professional people, teachers, doctors, and uh, a few ministers, maybe uh two or three, besides myself. Um, but the rest were very ordinary people uh, uh, housewives, and uh ordinary people who were just deeply concerned about what was happening in Selma.
AS YOU PREPARED TO GO, WERE YOU UM, FRIGHTENED THAT ANY OF THIS GROUP HAD TO BE CONVINCED THAT THIS DEMONSTRATION WAS THE BEST WAY TO RAISE UP THE ISSUE?
Obviously uh the question of uh, of white folks in Alabama demonstrating publicly in uh, a place like Selma uh, was uh, very controversial and it was uh, not easy to convince uh, white Alabamians that this was the thing to do. Uh, shouldn't we play a quieter uh, more low profile role in all of this? Uh, so it was a struggle. It was something that went against the grain of uh, all of us in the group uh, with the exception of one or two of us. The rest had never participated in a public demonstration of this type. And uh, so it, it took a lot of convincing, a lot of talking and uh, so most of the group came from Birmingham although we had uh, people from Tuscaloosa and outlying areas uh, it was the Birmingham area that had the opportunity to talk this through and to reinforce each other and encourage each other.
OK NOW I'M GOING TO SKIP OVER THE PRELIMINARIES OF, YOU KNOW, WALKING THROUGH THE TOWN OR WHATEVER. YOU'RE AT THE COURTHOUSE STEPS NOW. GO BACK TO THAT MOMENT AND TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED.
Well, and we, I was at the lead of the column uh and uh, as we came to the steps of the courthouse, we were met by a phalanx of uh, sheriffs and uh, the one sheriff stood right in front of me and, uh, I didn't know what he was going to do, whether he was going to arrest me uh, or, or what but he pulled out a piece of paper and began reading from it, uh and he said, "I have a telegram from uh your superior, a Reverend Homrighausen," and uh, I thought, "Well, this is interesting," uh, so he read the telegram which in effect, uh, said that uh, President Homrighausen, who was president of our, uh, Southern district of the Lutheran church that I was a part of, said that I uh, did not represent the church, and in effect he was distancing himself and the church from me, uh, in as polite a way as possible. So after he read the telegram, he said, "Now what do you say to that?" And as, as far as I can re—uh, recollect, I said something to the effect that, "Well, uh, Dr. Homrighausen uh, is entitled to his opinion uh but we are here to demonstrate." And I was intent, I was determined that we were going to finish what we came to do. And so, he did step aside and uh we went up to the steps and uh, completed our demonstration.
NOW, I'M, I'M TOLD THAT SOMETHING FUNNY HAPPENED ON THE STEPS THERE AT, AFTER YOU GOT UP AND YOU GOT PAST THE DEPUTY. GO BACK AND GIVE ME A LITTLE OF, OF THAT COLORFUL SCENE THERE.
That was a colorful scene because uh, on the one side of the street were uh, at least fifty or sixty whites and uh what we would call uh, rednecks, many of them from the country. Uh, and representing White Citizens' Council types and Ku Klux Klan types, uh they had their cars revved up uh with limburger cheese on the manifold so that there was a lot of smoke that was being blown into our eyes and across the street was a group probably of a hundred, hundred and fifty blacks and uh, they were rather quiet as we demonstrated uh, but before we knew it, uh, after we sang, um, "America" and read our statement of concern, uh, the, the uh, the redneck group began singing "Dixie" and uh, the Blacks across the street began singing "We Shall Overcome," and we had an interesting uh moment but for us, we barely heard "Dixie," all that we heard was "We Shall Overcome" and it was really a moment of support for us because uh, we were in the middle of this, and uh we felt we had somebody backing us up there if, if it came to that kind of a confrontation.
NOW IT DIDN'T COME TO THAT.
YOU WERE ABLE TO LEAVE PEACEFULLY?
Yes, as a matter of fact, in spite of the jostling we got as we passed the, the group of uh, the WCC types, we were never, no one was knocked down and uh, we were asked by the Safety Director in Selma, Wilson Baker, to leave via a different route and uh, so we did follow his directions. And uh, we got back without any serious incident.
TELL ME HOW YOU FELT AFTER HAVING ACCOMPLISHED THAT AND HOW IF YOU CAN REFLECT WHAT SOME OF THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE GROUP FELT, PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO AT FIRST MIGHT NOT HAVE WANTED TO PARTICIPATE.
I think that there was a sense on the part of everybody that uh, we are glad that we did what we did. We had no uh, understanding at that point of what publicity we might get because we were really concerned that this message get across the country and reach the, even the white house, uh, as the voting rights act was being considered. Uh, so we had no idea how significant it would be but as far as having taken our stand, our personal stand, and identified with the Blacks of Selma who were trying to, simply register to vote, we felt very, very good about having done what we did and uh, almost to the last person, there was a sense of tremendous accomplishment, uh even though we didn't know what the, the long range ultimate uh, results would be.
NOW, YOU MENTIONED UH, WASHINGTON, WERE YOU AWARE, BY THE TIME YOU DID THIS MARCH, IT WAS MARCH AND THE SELMA CAMPAIGN HAD BEEN ON-GOING FOR SOME TIME. WERE YOU AWARE OF THE GOING ONS IN WASHINGTON THAT THERE WAS ANOTHER STORY OF CONGRESSMEN AND EVEN PERHAPS UH PRESIDENT JOHNSON CHANGING HIS MIND AS TIME WENT PAST ABOUT THE VOTING RIGHTS BILL?
Well, we know that the voting rights bill was in the hopper, that congress, people were really discussing this seriously and that uh, Lyndon Johnson was uh, reportedly considering it but was uh, very unpredictable at this point, and that's why we hoped that our voice, that uh, we were trying to say that white Alabamians support voting rights for Blacks, and for all people not just Blacks asking for their rights.
JOHN WOULD YOU STOP A MINUTE?
ON CAMERA ROLL 550, 50 FEET REMAINING.
YOU SAID THAT YOUR GROUP WANTED TO PARTICIPATE AND YOU YOURSELF WANTED TO PARTICIPATE BECAUSE YOU WANTED TO EFFECT SOME CHANGE. BUT AS A CLERGYMAN, I'M WONDERING HOW MUCH OF THIS HAD TO DO WITH YOUR FEELING THAT THIS WAS MORALLY RIGHT. AND DID MARTIN LUTHER KING HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH CHANGING YOUR PERSPECTIVE OR WAS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ALWAYS THAT WAY?
Well, I think uh, in terms of my own personal commitment, to uh, doing justice, uh, which is a phrase right out of the Old Testament, I always had that kind of concern. But there's no question, but what uh, Martin Luther King uh, who had been in Birmingham two years previous to this, uh, and whose uh, movement throughout the South, uh, I had followed very closely personally, uh, had an effect on me and raised this concern for justice, uh, from a level of uh, what we might…
I JUST HEARD IT GO OFF
OK THAT WAS A CAMERA ROLLOUT ON 550. WE'RE GOING TO 551.
OK, I WANT YOU TO PICK UP WHERE YOU WERE. YOU WERE TELLING ME THAT MARTIN LUTHER KING HAD CHANGED… HAD AN EFFECT ON YOU.
Yeah. Even though I had this commitment to justice, uh, I think the role that Martin Luther King played in my life and I, and he did this for many many others is that he helped raise that commitment to justice from a kind of intellectual level to an, an action level. And uh he freed, he helped to free many people to recognize that uh, a concern for something as big as justice must be more than just an intellectual commitment.
NOW, YOU WERE A PART OF THE, THE CLERGY THAT WENT TO, TO SELMA AND IN FACT, OTHER FOLK WHO UH, WENT TO SELMA FOR WHAT IS NOW CALLED TURN-AROUND-TUESDAY, WHICH WAS MARCH 9th, RIGHT AFTER BLOODY SUNDAY. WHERE WERE THE, THE WHITE SOUTHERN CLERGY MEMBERS AND, AND WHY DIDN'T THEY FEEL THE PULL TO COME? WE HEAR ABOUT THE NORTHERN CLERGYMEN COMING IN.
Well white southern clergy people were uh, in a very vulnerable position. The one white clergy person that I recall being in our uh, demonstration on Saturday, and I think he came back on that following Tuesday, uh, received so many personal threats when he returned to his parish, that uh, he fin—-he left within a matter of weeks from the parish. He simply couldn't take it and his, and his family couldn't take it psychologically. Uh, so there were, there was that kind of uh intimidation and that's uh, what almost every white person in the South felt uh, if they were to really go public. Uh, they might talk uh, in, small conversation in favor of change, but uh, taking action publicly was just uh, almost unthinkable on the part of most whites.
SO MOST OF THE CLERGY AT, ON MARCH 9th WAS REALLY FROM OUT OF TOWN? FROM NORTHERNERS?
Very definitely. I don't recall any whites besides this one white Methodist minister there may have been one or two, but they were a distinct minority.
NOW, WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN THE, THE LINE TURNED AROUND? EVERYBODY WAS NOT PRIVY TO THAT DECISION AND DID YOU THINK THAT MARTIN LUTHER KING HAD TO TURN AROUND THEN?
That's a big question. Now, none of us in the march were aware of the fact that apparently this agreement had already been made and the leaders knew that once they crossed the Edmund Pettis bridge they were going to stop and call it a victory for the day and come back. So the rest of us were really surprised. Of course we didn't know exactly what was going to happen because we knew we couldn't march to Montgomery, that was 50 miles, on that day. Uh, we didn't really know how far we were going to go. We were completely on the mercy of the people who were leading us. So, uh, when the leaders did stop and finally the word trickled back that we were turning around uh, we felt let down because we wanted to get beyond the point where the people had gotten on Bloody Sunday just as a moral victory and a symbolic victory but uh that didn't happen and uh, as we think back on it historically uh, you can argue back and forth, whether this was the right decision. Uh, ultimately, what did happen certainly was for the good, and that is that uh, Lyndon Johnson did give permission uh, for uh, troopers to come and protect uh, the marchers from Selma to Montgomery and the Selma to Montgomery march did take place. I think one of the concerns that King had uh, was for the safety of the marchers, because uh if anybody's driven the road from Selma to Montgomery, that Highway 80 is a very very lonely highway uh, and there all kinds of stretches of the highway where people could be uh, in ambush as we found out uh, a couple of days, or the day after uh the day of the march that was completed then when uh, Viola Liuzzo was shot.
SKIPPING FURTHER ALONG, UM, HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT UH LYNDON JOHNSON'S UH SAYING "WE SHALL OVERCOME" AND THE, AND EXPRESSING A NEED FOR THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT?
Uh, well of course, he came on after Bloody Sunday, uh, and uh made this rather impassioned plea for support for uh the voting rights cause and uh, and then quoting the song "We Shall Overcome," that was uh, a nationally televised speech uh, um speech of his, of course, and uh, anybody who was watching television would see this and hear this but uhm, many of us who were uh, very committed to the cause wondered whether this was lip service and especially for somebody like uh Lyndon Johnson to quote "We Shall Overcome," uh when he had not taken a whole lot of leadership up to this point. Uh, we had a sinking feeling in our stomachs that this may have been just a cosmetic thing that he was trying to show that he was sympathetic but uh, until he was going to, until he came through with support for the Voting Rights Act we were not going to accept this as any kind of a victory.
BUT WHEN HE FINALLY DID SIGN THE BILL?
When he did sign the bill, uh, then I think a lot of us were really surprised and when he openly supported it uh, because uh, he was a Southerner from Texas and everyone questioned whether he would risk uh, his own relationships with a lot of politicians in Texas and elsewhere uh, to finally come out in favor of the Voting Rights Act, and uh, we were pleasantly pleased and therefore hopeful uh that it would be enforced, and that was our next concern because you can pass a Voting Rights Act and unless it is clearly and actively enforced uh, it's worth nothing but the paper it's written on.
OK STOP A MINUTE JOHN.
CAMERA ROLL 551, 200 FEET REMAINING
GIVE ME A LITTLE, A BRIEF WORD PICTURE OF WHAT BIRMINGHAM WAS LIKE THAT, YOU KNOW, APRIL 1963, OR IN THE SIXTIES IN GENERAL AND AROUND THAT TIME IN TERMS OF RACE RELATIONS AND BE AS SPECIFIC AS YOU CAN, SOME CONCRETE DETAILS.
Now Birmingham in 1963 was about as segregated a city in the south as you could find. There were still signs over water fountains. There were no black clerks in downtown stores. There were no blacks in the police or the fire department. And there were a lot of open uh, threats on the part of the police commissioner, Bull Connor, uh against any attempts to uh, to gain some of these rights. Um, so that, so there was not even a single forum where Blacks and Whites regularly came together except for the Birmingham Council on Human Relations which was uh, suspect as uh some kind of Communist organization by virtue of the very fact that Blacks and Whites came together. And that group numbered about uh, forty or fifty on paper and when we actually met we were like maybe uh fifteen to twenty-five.
WHAT WAS YOUR FEELING DURING THIS TIME? HOW DID YOU GET TO THE POINT OF BEING AWAKENED AND ENLIGHTENED, ALL OF THAT?
Well, you wonder whether any really uh, radical change is ever going to take place, or whether it's going to be this slow metamorphosis uh, over long periods of time. Uh, and I guess this is why uh, the possibility of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the demonstrations uh, led by King uh, opened up uh, a great deal of hope to people who otherwise felt that a there's just never going to be any change made here for the next generation or two. It's just going to be a very very slow process.
WHAT WERE WHITES AFRAID OF IN TERMS OF, OF INTEGRATION? WHAT WAS THERE TO FEAR?
Well, when it comes to like a lot of our fears, when it comes down to what uh, the basis, the real basis, of the fear is, uh, there was practically nothing of course, but in terms of what they thought were things that, to be afraid of uh, there was just the, the fear of the unknown. What is it going to be like if our kids go to school with black kids? What is it going to be like if uh, we associate in open and openly and freely. It was literally the fear of the unknown.
WE TALK ABOUT THE LETTER FROM THE BIRMINGHAM JAIL BEING WRITTEN UM IN RESPONSE TO AN AD
OK, WHY DON'T YOU BEGIN THE, THE ANSWER?
As we think about what people were, white people were afraid of in terms of uh, the possibility of an integrated society part of it was simply the fear of the unknown. Uh, I think, perhaps even deeper, was the fear of the Ku Klux Klan and the, the threats becoming a reality. In Birmingham, we had had something like 40 bombings uh, in the previous ten years, and so it was not an idle threat. Uh, and so there was literally the fears for their lives and just the kind of convulsions that they expected in society if this were attempted. Uh, there just would be open warfare in the streets. And uh, even Governor Wallace I think, in the back of his mind thought that we're going to have complete mayhem if we attempt to have uh, an integrated society.
NOW WHEN THE BIRMINGHAM DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, WHAT— YOU WERE INVOLVED WITH IT, WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE? WHAT WERE YOU DOING?
My role in the Birmingham demonstrations uh, was basically a roll of being a part of the committee of 20 that met uh, to do the planning. We met in uh, the uh, A.G. Gaston Motel and I can still remember those sessions uh, with uh, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young uh, and it was uh, an amazing experience of uh, an openness towards everybody's idea. There was no one uh, who was not given the opportunity to help participate in the planning. Uh, the demonstrations themselves uh, went so quickly that um, it was a surprise to all of us that the uh, results came as quickly as they did.
OK THAT'S A ROLL OUT ON CAMERA ROLL 551. WE'RE GOING TO 552.
OK, REVEREND, GO AHEAD.
And I think something that we've, we forget 30 years later uh, is that uh, there was not only the belief in the white community that Blacks were inferior but their, that was a belief that was clearly articulated and was uh, assumed as the basis for the segregation that had existed all these years. And uh, to break down the barriers of segregation is to permit uh, in that way of thinking, an inferior race to mix with a superior race and the inevitable result would be, of course, and this was a phrase that was even used in public, a mongrelization of and a pulling down of that white superior race. And uh, that underlay that, both the fears and uh the wild threats and the commitment that the KKK had to uh, enforcing its viewpoints. Many of the KKK had that as almost a religious belief in their heart that we've got to maintain that kind of uh, purity of the race and uh otherwise we are dooming ourselves and our future generations.
OK. I'M GOING TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE LETTER FROM THE BIRMINGHAM JAILS WRITTEN IN RESPONSE TO AN AD BY A NUMBER OF CLERGY IN TOWN CRITICAL OF THE DEMONSTRATIONS. WHAT WAS THE SENSE AFTER HE WROTE HIS LETTER BACK ANSWERING THEM? WHAT WAS THE COMMUNITY SENSE THAT YOU CAN REMEMBER? UM, THE RESPONSE TO THAT…
Unfortunately King's letter from the Birmingham jail did not get nearly the press in the local uh, papers that the ad did of course in uh, the the issue before. But uh, there was no question that what uh, most of the people, from what I can recall, the leaders' uh, response to King's letter was simply, uh, well, we beg to disagree with you. You're just uh, defending your position because you can't do otherwise. Uh, but it's interesting because what uh seemed to turn the corner for movement there and turned it so quickly was the fact that uh the demonstrations uh mounted so quickly in size, there were literally hundreds of people, and and kids especially, children and youth going through the downtown streets, and the business community then became fearful of what would happen to their businesses and they called uh the religious leaders and the movement leaders together and said let's talk and uh that's what really made the difference.
NOW WHEN WE THINK OF THE CHURCHES THERE, WE THINK AGAIN ABOUT JUST THE BLACK CHURCHES AND THEIR ACTIVITY, BUT THERE WERE MORE THAN 700 CHURCHES IN BIRMINGHAM. WHAT WERE, OTHER THAN THE FACT THAT SOME OF THE LEADERS WERE WRITING ADS, UH WHAT WERE THE REST OF THE CHURCHES DOING DURING THE CRISIS?
Well, the unfortunate thing is that uh most of the white churches in Birmingham were going on, from day to day and week to week almost with uh, business as usual. Uh, I would, I'm, I'm only guessing from what I could tell but uh, I think that most of the, the churches and most of the preachers uh did not even make any reference to the events that were happening in their sermons. They, they preached sermons uh, that could have been preached in the year 1910, or 1810, uh, and that's very unfortunate, because the religious community is called to do is relate the word of God to the events of the day. Uh, and that is a distinct weakness on the part of many religious communities uh, who do not relate the Word to the, the events of the day.
OK, THAT'S IT.
Now, this was a very real question uh, with Albert Boutwell having just been elected as mayor of the city of Birmingham, uh he was supposed to be a more liberal, more progressive mayor and so uh, both uh, leaders in the Black community and the white community were saying please give Boutwell a chance to make the changes and uh, he'll do it. Uh, why are you pressing the issue with uh, these uh, proposed demonstrations coming right after he was elected? And uh, that was a real struggle because uh, Boutwell had made some promises about uh, fairer government and, but they were all generalities, and most thinking people uh, who were ready to, who really wanted change recognized that unless Albert Boutwell had some real help in making those changes, he would meet with the same resistance toward change that has been, uh, had been shown uh, down through the years. And uh, as we decided to, to uh, to go ahead with the demonstration, it was with the awareness that we were not an enemy of Boutwell, but we saw ourselves as really helping him to make change and to bring about the ferment without which uh, Boutwell would have had far, far more difficulty. In fact, he wasn't the one who really ultimately made the changes, it was uh, the merchants and the business community who recognized we've gotta make some changes or there's going to be more and more trouble, more and more difficulty in our, in our system.
OK. THAT'S A WRAP ON THIS INTERVIEW.