Production Team: X
Interview Date: April 4, 1989
Camera Rolls: 4123-4124
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with James Figgs, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 4, 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.
So what I want you to do is think back that day in Marks in 1968 and think what it felt like. I want you to paint us a word picture of what the mood was like. Were people excited about Dr. King coming to town?
Well, you know, at, at that time, ah, ah, Marks particularly and Quitman County as a whole, Marks being a county seat, ah, everybody was excited about, ah, Dr. King coming to see about us and our problems. We had been hollering in the wilderness for a long, long time and it seemed that no one was listening to us. And with the various civil rights organizations having been working in Marks--COFO, SNCC, SCLC and NAACP and with the amount of problems we had had with the integrations of schools and, and the, ah, ah, violent attacks on students, ah, with individuals being thrown off plantations for exercising their right to vote, ah, yes we were excited. You know, some things that you can't hardly remember, but Dr. King's visit to Marks, it, just started the adrenaline flowing in your body all over again because, ah, we saw hope where we thought there wasn't any hope, as a community and for those of us who had been involved in the activities of the movement, ah, for the rights of people to express themselves. Yeah we were excited.
How did people think of Dr. King? Did they see him in some way when he came here?
Oh yes, ah, people, thinking of Dr. King when he came to Marks and, and having known and heard about, ah, his courageous action in Alabama, ah, it was just truly a Moses coming home to see us and to lead us to that promised land of housing and better schools and jobs.
How'd your mom feel? I mean she'd been active in--
Well she had been active and she was, she was totally excited, but certainly, ah, ah, as, as the movie that we observed, Eyes on the Prize, ah, she were that person, she kept her eyes on the prize because, ah, opportunities and programs and federal grants that, that were not being sought after because of the local government not wanting to be involved, ah, with the federal government and thereby federal government telling them what to do in their towns. She was an advocate of bringing in projects to uplift the downtrodden and, ah, preschoolers and, ah, the homeless and the hungry. So yes, she was definitely excited and very outspoken and um, she stayed that way until she was unable to go any longer.
Let's stop it down for a second, I want to make sure that everything's going all right.
We're back in Marks. Now the people in Marks are glad to see King, your mom's excited about King. You go to this meeting with your mother, you were a lot younger back then, and did you yourself buy Dr. King's program, were you into non-violence at that point? What did you think of his ideas and his programs.
I had been one point, ah, ah, considering, ah, to become a part of the non-violent movement, but, ah, being with, ah, SNCC and COFO and what have you, we, we felt that we had to be aggressive and, and, ah, we would, would not stand for anybody to, to, take our rights or deny our rights to us, but we respected and, and loved Dr. King and we wanted to cooperate. And we felt that he had the kind of national political backing from churches and politicians and people in high places in government that that would be an avenue that we could, ah, could travel and get where we wanted to go. And of course that's why we joined with NAACP and, and the non-violent movement, ah, and SCLC. And of course We were very excited, ah, about, ah, this Poor People's Campaign that he spoke about. It's the first time that the concentration had been on poor people's and their living conditions. And we wanted to, ah, ah, be a part of that. That's what we had been working toward we felt through voter registration, that political power would bring economic power. And of course, and, and when Dr. King came to Marks and was so warmly received and we were able to turn people out to hear him that had never been to a mass meeting before**. So we were excited about that. A lot of work had been, ah, put into, ah, making preparation for Dr. King to come to Marks and, ah, we were just excited and we were glad the people showed up.
What did he talk about, what was he like that day?
Oh, he was just like a shining star to us. He was, he, he let us knew that there was hope and not to give up. And spiritually he filled our hearts, ah, ah, with, ah, the, the attitude that all we had to do is just go with him and march with him around, ah, Washington, D.C., around the United States Department of Agriculture, around those areas of housing, just 'round those various agencies that could make a difference in our lives and we were ready to go.
Would you have gone anyplace he, he said?
Oh, any place. I, I believe that, ah, and I said, to some of my friends, I believe that if he had led us to that red sea and the water had been there we would have walked in the water with him because, ah, that's the kind of hope that he had instilled in us and, and his supporters--Andrew Young and Jose Williams--and all those people had given us the kind of assurance, ah, ah, that we needed, that we wouldn't be arrested, that we wouldn't be, ah, ah, bodily harmed and that, ah, the shacks that we were living in here in Marks, Mississippi would one day be brick homes and, and that, ah, out-houses that we had would one day become closed in bathrooms with hot running water. And, and that's, ah, was American dream for us and we want to share the dream that Dr. King dreamed about.
Stop it down for a second. That was great.
I want to take you into Resurrection City to think about the same sorts of things, I mean how you felt and what you saw and what you were thinking.
OK, Resurrection City. And there you are, you're up in Marks, Mississippi, it's May 1968. Again a word picture, what was it like, what was it like being in a northeast city?
Well in Resurrection City, ah, I was, ah, not as excited that I had been when Dr. King came. Matter of fact I almost didn't go because I was scheduled to drive the mule that my brother drove to Atlanta before they loaded up, ah, the mules on the train. But, ah, consciously had made a commitment to Dr. King in Marks at that church that we would go to, ah, Resurrection City. And since he had been assassinated and we felt obligated to go. So we, we, we went to Resurrection City, ah, to keep a promise to Dr. King to tell the world of our problems. We, we got there, ah, we were excited about the tents. Most of the womens and, and the elder people were put, ah, ah, in other areas than those of us who could weather the weather and, and we went in the tent. And, ah, it was a coming together of all races of people who were poor and who had concerns for those of us who were poor. And it was exciting and we were there for two weeks and, ah, things was going well. Now we would meet, ah, somewhere between 9, 10 thir- 10 o'clock in the morning, had various sessions and with the different agency of federal government that we felt that, that could hear our cry. And waiting on the instructions of the leaders of the Resurrection City, ah, Dr. Abernathy, ah, ah, lieutenants. Waiting on instruction from them, where to move from one place to another one to, to testify before the various committees about the conditions and what have you. And, ah, we en, we enjoyed it, ah, we, we, it was it was fun. And we were there for business but we mixed a little fun into it, ah, you know, meeting people from New York and California and Detroit. It was exciting and, and the, ah, American Indians and the Chicanos and Mexicans and, and, ah, Puerto Ricans, ah, people with all minority backgrounds were there. We were excited and we felt that once we left, ah, Resurrection City that we had gotten the attention of those who we elected, ah, in this country to make sure that, ah, those of us who were from Marks and other parts of the country would be given a fair share of the American dream that Dr. King talked about.
OK now you told me--
You remember Jesse Jackson from back then?
Was he pretty visible in Resurrection City?
Not much. No, not much.
So let me know what it felt like when you got there. I mean stories or what it was like to be there.
Well first When I got to Resurrection City I quite frankly was scared as hell, being in, ah, Washington D.C. and being out on, on the U.S. government turf and, and not being authorized to be there. And course we had got used to being places that we wasn't supposed to be. But, ah, you know, you couldn't help but think that if something happened, ah, Dr. King is not here** and we knew that if he had been there, you'd been a little bit more relaxed. Didn't quite have as, as, as much, ah, ah, ah, confidence, ah, with Dr. King not being with us. And of course but we had a determination to go on anyway, and, ah, ah, meeting strangers, and a lot of people at Resurrection City wasn't there for freedom. Well a lot of people they came to Resurrection City in Washington D.C. with, ah, ah, just there, ah, out of curiosity and or my own people, they were just out of curiosity and, and they had other alternatives being there. And 'cause even though you, you were there together, you still had to watch, ah, those, those, those few who wasn't there about the business. And you couldn't help think about, ah, the Memphis situation with Dr. King and the, the march that he, for the, ah, sanitation workers and those who were planted in the sanitation workers' march to disrupt, ah, ah, ah, that march. And you couldn't help think about where are they. You knew they were somewhere, ah, just because Dr. King was gone, but this still was one of his, ah, objective was to bring poor people together and the powers to be didn't want poor people together because it exposed America for what it really was, had forgotten about those who had built it on the sweat and tears and lives. And we were always watching even though we were being advised by people who were much older than we were how to conduct ourselves, how to behave and what have you. But, ah, after a couple of days, three days there you got the feeling that you had a job to do there and whatever you was asked to do, you would do it. And, ah, that sort of was the general attitude we had. Whatever little part that we could play as a group individually, ah, as a group we would do it.
Now some people might look back on Resurrection City, I mean for a lot of people they must think it didn't work out very well. But you said it had a good start. I mean what happened, how come?
Well I, I think it had a good start because, ah, the intent purpose of, of us going there was to tell Congress, tell the Senate, and tell the elected peoples in the, in the highest office in the House and the United States that, ah, the check that King talked about and all this it still needed to be drawn on. And we were still suffering. That's what those us from Marks, Mississippi were there for. And somewhere in Resurrection City, ah, that message, ah, just wasn't carried out to the end. As I look from the hindsight, it might have been the communication between the various group leaders and the team leaders, could have been a breakdown there, too much time, down time between there. And we began to scatter somewhat, ah, ah, we would go from the Tent City to down in, in the city, in the city loitering around and what have, you know, really then, we were supposed to stay in the Tent City. Our purpose there was to, to give to those elected officials our concerns. And of course, ah, and at the end with all the rain and mud and the policemens, ah, being discharged on us and we sort of scattered ourselves. And, ah, but the purpose on which we went I think, ah, was accomplished as to, ah, how long we should have stayed, I still question that. Ah, maybe we should have went in and, and, and did our testimonies and demonstrations and got out of there. And maybe we might have stayed too long, I'm not sure, because that'll never be known. But our purpose for going there, the exposure of the conditions of poor people up front to those who vote on legislation dealing with the livelihoods of peoples in this country, ah, I think we made, ah, made our presence known.
That's a good thing in term of the overall campaign. I want to get you feeling, you know, what you were feeling at that time, let's say after the first half of week or whatever. I mean you said there was, there was a different feeling that you had over time, that it seemed like when you first came there there were things and then something happened. Can you get me from the first day to after something happened or what you think was happening or what you were feeling at that time that there was an absence of.
Well I, I, I felt that the time that we were in Resurrection City that the absence was we were not, ah, consistent enough with our programs on a day to day basis and after a period of several days that began to have too much lax time, too much lax time in between, ah, ah, for our team leader, you know, from, from the overall perspective we just did not have, ah, ah, ah, after the first several days we did not have an agenda that we, that we were required, ah, to be about for a, a full day. And with that many people, ah, being there, ah, ah, lax times should a been a no-no. But, ah, you know, as I look from the hindsight on it that's basically what I felt that many of us was just wasn't doing what we should have been doing either because our team leader did not provide us with that kind of, ah, leadership.
Was SCLC well organized for this campaign?
I think so, I think for the first time, ah, ah, as a commitment to Dr. King and wanted us to make sure that what he had started would be successful, that a, a lot of the bickering and stuff that normally go had ceased. And they wanted to put their arms around the Reverend Abernathy. And, ah, I think the other groups, civil rights groups, for the sake of Dr. King, ah, and the Poor People's Campaign wanted to make sure that they give SCLC all of the assistance that they needed to give 'em.
Do you think thought that--
People came into Resurrection City with a lot of energy and I think most people would agree that, that a lot of things were accomplished in terms of people--
--in terms of people seeing the poor. When you were in Resurrection City and people were trying to understand why the agenda wasn't being as clear, did anybody talk about just communication from the leadership to the people in Resurrection City or the communication that was coming within SCLC? Was there any understanding of what was going on at the top?
No, ah, that's what I, I felt the, in Resurrection City at the time that when I spoke earlier on about the, ah, agenda not being consistent, ah, our team leaders from our state and our particular area, ah, would not have, ah, ah, at some point would not have any communication to us. And until we see such communication then we would just be loitering and what have you. And we did not question, ah, that, ah, non-communication to us 'cause we felt from the Reverend Abernathy and his team leaders that at, at the appropriate time they would advise. Not being familiar with the strategies in which the, the, the team, ah, captains and Reverend Abernathy was involved in, so we just didn't know what was going on. And of course we had to try to be as patient as we could and, and just wait until, 'cause we felt that something should have been happening. Well naturally we had questioned in our mind, but as far as us, ah, really pursuing that, ah, we did not. We just waited, you know, we would just, whatever we were told we would do and we would wait to do, so we just did not question the lack of c- communication to us.
Did you feel like things were going downhill?
Honestly, y- yes, I felt, I felt, there's something, you got the feeling, you really got the feeling that, that things, ah, were beginning to go downhill and that you had reached a peak there. And that, ah, ah, it, it was time to get, it was time to go. You know, we had nothing new was exciting, ah, nothing, ah, ah, that you could look forward to the next day that we were going to be in front of the Justice Department raising hell. You couldn't look forward to the next day, we were going to be, ah, at some Congressman's office raising hell with the Congressman about his voting record, you know. So none of that excitement kinds of stuff that, you know, that, that we wanted, at my age at that time, you know, wanted to go on, it wasn't going on. And it became various disagreements within Resurrection City with some of the various groups, you know. You had, ah, 'cause, ah, we hear a lot about gangs today, but you had gangs from New York, Chicago and California in Resurrection City at that time. And, of course, they were being monitored and, and we had a little disturbance but not, nothing, ah, to the point that the press would get hold to because they would do a job on 'em. You just kept--if there was some disturbance among, ah, those of us who were there, we just kept it among ourselves. But in terms of being aggressive from 10 to 5 each day after the first several days and that began to go downhill and, ah, many of us felt, ah, that it was time to pack up. And course, I guess that was one of the things that scared us. Now we been here, now we gonna return, and what's going to happen. And that, that really when you got ready to get out of Resurrection City you, many of us have felt that, ah, we should go a different direction than come back home because you knew what was going to happen. You sort of felt that you was going to meet all kinds of repercussions from the establishment.
Why don't we stop for one second.
The only line that I want you to say is that, I was, I was, were you eighteen years old?
I was 19.
Nineteen. I was nineteen years old when Dr. King came and marched that day.
Do you want me to say my name or just say I was 19.
No, just I was. So whenever you're ready.
OK. I was 19 years old when Dr. King came to Marks to organize the Poor People's Campaign.
Let's do that once more.
I was 19 years old when Dr. King came to Marks, Mississippi to organize the Poor People's campaign.
And one more line. Just say that where you were living in Resurrection City.
I lived in Resurrection City in Tent City, part of the Resurrection City, ah, perhaps in the middle of it, ah, there were many tents, hundreds of tents set up there.
So you were living in a tent.
I was living in a tent there at Resurrection City, ah, about ten more than the tent was supposed to have in the first place. So that's where we were then.
Can we do that once more.
Sure. Just I was living in a tent--
I was living in a tent.
I was living in a tent in Resurrection City, ah, perhaps in the middle of the whole Tent City of Resurrection City during the Poor People's Campaign march.