Interviewer: Paul Steckler
Production Team: D
Interview Date: June 5, 1989
Camera Rolls: 4125-4127
Sound Rolls: 473
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Senator Roxanne Jones, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 5, 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.
We're back, back more than 20 years ago in the 1960s. How did you get involved, I mean you were never active beforehand? How did you become involved?
Well I became involved because I had to get on welfare, I had a broken marriage, and I had two children and I was working as a waitress. I became sick and a doctor told me, you know, I should go and get help from from welfare. At the time I had a constable's sign on my door. That's when they let all your neighbors know you owe rent and I had my electric being threatened to be cut off and I went to the Welfare Department. Ah, I didn't know that much about welfare at that time because I came from a working family, I had heard the welfare word used in the block where I lived. One lady was supposed to have been on welfare. And I just, not knowing much about it, but with the doctor saying they would help me, I went there with the idea I was going to get help. And, ah, I will never forget that day as long as I live. How I was treated, the disrespect. Not only me but everybody was sitting around in that office. And, ah, I didn't get welfare that day. As a matter of fact it took two weeks. As a matter of fact I didn't get welfare until I talked, a lady in the building where I lived knew a politician. And I went to see him. And he told me that when I go back the next day if I was, was going to be trea- if she began to treat me bad again, for me to ask to see her supervisor. And that's exactly what happened. When I asked to see her supervisor, I became Mrs. Jones with a smile and all of a sudden I got help, I got welfare that day. And that's the day, when I got home I fell on my knees and I thanked God for the check. And I told him if he would just allow me to do the best I could for my kids, that I promised him that I would be a good mother, that I would be both mother and father to my kids, and I would do whatever was possible to change the way that I was treated that day.
And you hadn't been active beforehand. How did you become active?
I, I became active because several months after I started to OIC, Opportunity Industrialization Center, I took the printing course and then I found a job in the paper. It said printer's helper, and I went and convinced that printer that I was the person for him to hire, and he hired me. And unfortunately, I worked for three months and my daughter's godmother took sick with the stroke and I was thrown back home again with my youngest daughter who was only two at the time. And I had to stay home and take care of her. There wasn't any child care around at that time. And so a leaflet came under my door one day, and that leaflet said, "If you're on welfare, you have some rights. Would you like to have more money to live on, would you like to be treated in dignity?" And I kept on reading and I saw down there, Welfare Rights Organization was holding this meeting at, ah, South Front Street. And I went to that meeting that day, it was a community center. And I guess I was so vocal that I became the chairperson that day. They elected me that day to become chairperson. We organized and immediately you say, how did I become active after being treated the way I was. After a couple of meetings hearing how those other women were treated, we began to, right then, organize to try to change the system. First of all we wanted to bring about dignity to ourselves because we knew we were somebody. We were mothers, we loved our children just like a working person loved their kids. And we wanted to be respected that way. And we began to organize then. That's how I became active. Being a welfare mother, being mistreated.
Were you angry about that?
I was very angry because as I said earlier I was, come from a working family. I, I come from a religious home, I love my brother and sister. I realize I'm their keeper. And I, I felt like why should I be treated this way? I haven't done anything, you know, to cause me to have to be treated this way. Why they look down on us, why do they say all welfare mothers are bad? And I thank God for the movement. Dr. George Wiley who, who helped start this movement. In Philadelphia though it started with some social workers and ministers got together. It was called Crusade for Children under the auspices of Hazel Leslie, my predecessor, she's deceased, she was the first chairman. And then it became Welfare Rights after they met Dr. Wiley.
Let's cut for one second. I want to pursue that--
What sorts of things was the Welfare Rights Organization in Philadelphia doing in '66 and '67?
Well one of the first thing, ah, President Hazel Leslie, they, they wanted to show the deficiency in the diet, so they went to sell blood. And, ah, it was only one I think of those ladies whose blood was apropos. So what happened, ah, they were showing the inadequate welfare grant, that's what they did just before I joined, got involved. Immediately when we organized, my group was called the South Front-Reed Group. One of the first things we did, we had one of the young ladies come in, young mothers came in and she had went to the Salvation Army to get help. And they had denied her help. And I just could not believe this and nor could any of the other members, so we immediately, ah, agreed to go to the Salvation Army the next day.
Why did they deny her help?
Because she was an unwed mother.
So can you start again and talk about--
Yeah, oh, I'm sorry. Ah, what happened, one of the first actions that we took was at the meeting it was a young lady who had went to the Salvation Army, she was unwed mother. She had two children and she went there to get some help for Christmas because we organized around November. And so when we- she went there and they denied her help because she didn't have a husband. So one of the first things we did, decided to move on there and to go there the next day and we did that. And about 50 of us mothers went down there and we changed their policy. So that was an action that immediately got around in the community. And other welfare mothers who hadn't joined immediately came to join the group. And that was one of the first things we did to more or less advertise where we were and we gained a victory, which was good. The first thing we did was gain the victory. Then we began to move on the fact of, ah, rotten meats in our area. We lived in South Philadelphia where, where, ah, there was a lot of stores that had rotten meat and giving inferior meats to, you know, welfare people. And we immediately got meat and we had a big church that we organized and then we set up and we had LNI there and the health department and we exposed those stores that had rotten meat that night and changed that policy in the community. And other welfare mothers liked that. Then we began to talk about jobs, the lack of daycare, the lack of jobs, and the lack of being able to go to college. And ah, at this point we're really organized, then we, this is the next year we've joined ah, National Welfare Rights and, um, January of 1968, ah, Hazel Leslie, the president of, of Welfare Rights passed away that April. And I was elected chairman that June, and, I mean citywide chairman. And six months later I was a member of National Welfare Rights, a coordinating member. And then things were really moving. In Philadelphia we, we were tired of dealing with the door to door salesmen. And so I, I said well, about three or four of us welfare mothers went down to Gimbels and, and, ah, we were called stupid for wanting, ah, credit, who did we think we was. And so we immediately decided to set up a demonstration. At this point we had organized Friends of Welfare, people like Dr. David Gracie and Father Paul Washington, they had began to organize a Friends of Welfare Rights group. These were people that wasn't on welfare, prominent people, ah, people on the main line that was really feeling sorry about Dr. King's death and they really began to see that we had been treated so unjustly, as mothers loving their kids, like working people. And also mothers saving taxpayers money because if we had to throw up our hands and say we couldn't cope, then these cities would have to pay more money to the foster mothers to take care of their children. So what happened after we organized this group and we wanted credit, we informed them and I called Dr. Wiley and told him I would always call him and let him know what we were doing in Philadelphia. And he thought it was a great idea. And as you know, we won that victory within one hour after demonstrating at Litt Brothers. Then all the other stores fell in line. All the other stores fell in line, ah, even Sears here in Philadelphia. Ah, they had trouble with Sears, other parts of this, of the, of the nation. But we won victory at Sears. One store was called Grant's and we had trouble there, we had to turn White to get credit there.
So of the things you were doing--
OK we're back. We were talking about 1966, actions in the 1967, a lot of things that have to do with economic issues, day to day issues. Some people would think this is a very different kind of movement than the kind of, sort of movement that people think of when they of the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement and that Dr. King was into in the early '60s. In what way was it different?
Because we're talking economics here, we're talking about actual survival, people being able to eat. See you got to, you got to put your frame of mind into a frame where you are a mother left by a husband with two children. And now you're not used to that check even though he might have been a drunk, but he brought the money home, enough for your to try to survive. But you're dealing with a totally inadequate welfare check. And you have to think about the fact that you're in a grocery store market and you, you need to buy milk and juice for your kids, but you got to decide on one. And you got to put your frame of mind to the fact that you, your rent is due and you need oil or you need to pay your electric bill, you need to pay your gas bill, and you have to decide which one of these you can pay. And, and, and you have to sit yourself there so you can really understand. Being able to go sit and eat where you want to eat is fine if you have the money, but here you're talking about not having that money, trying to live on peanuts, so to speak, not even enough money to exist on. And you have to put yourself in that frame to understand the difference in the Civil Rights Movement and this aspect of, survival is what I'm talking about, survival.
How did your program differ than let's say, Dr. King's program at that time.
Well at that time Dr. King was fighting about the right to go sit in a restaurant, the right to go to school, get a good education. Nothing's wrong with that, that's fine, I subscribe to that. As a matter of fact I had nothing but great admiration and respect for Dr. King. But again you got to understand these are welfare mothers who have been left as I said, by the wayside, to provide for their kids, to be both mother and father. And we're talking about having that food on the table for existence, they need to eat, and we have to make those decisions on how they can eat on the little money. Across the country welfare payments was that low all over the country. As a matter of fact, in Pennsylvania we ranked 27 low on welfare payments in 1967, 27 low, for the fourth largest city in the nation. So we were all bitter and not to take away from Dr. King's movement, we were a part of that movement, but we just saw our survival, we were talking about life, this is now. Yeah I'd like to go downtown and sit in a movie or, or eat in a restaurant, but what about not having the money to eat there. So we were talking about life, living. To me that was the difference, having the right to, to get a job, to be trained. You know, Dr. Wiley's slogan was, our slogan was, "Adequate training, adequate jobs, adequate pay". And I didn't see nothing wrong with that. And our other slogan was "Welfare's a right and not a privilege". And that's true.
Can we cut. That was wonderful.
Yeah, as a matter of fact, we loved Dr. King. As a matter of fact, a lot of us was part of that movement. Ah, but, ah, we in Philadelphia were somehow upset because Dr. King had not, we felt, spoke out on the welfare movement in this country. All the things he did was good, but we felt like he was a little lax there. So we heard he was coming to Philadelphia, ah, St. Thomas Church. And so, ah, Dr., I mean I'm sorry, Hazel Leslie, our chairman was alive then so she appointed me to be the one to ask him the question about why he had not got involved, you know, and adopted National Welfare Rights' philosophy on welfare mothers. And so he came, we went to the meeting and, ah, when my chance came around for the question, I got up and I immediately asked him, I didn't understand, how come you have not, you know, fought, help- why you're not helping us fight this fight, why you're not talking about welfare mother. And I went into the whole bit, you know, not exactly like as if I was talking to a welfare secretary. But here I'm talking to this man who I had great admiration for, whom I loved so much, who I felt had done such a good job, but I still had to be honest with him. I felt he had not addressed the question about my life and what I'm trying to do and about all these other welfare that was there in the room. And so I went through the whole bit. And he sat there and looked at me and listened, just as polite and, and the most earnest as I guess he could have. And when I finished he informed me that he had left Chicago last week and that he had indeed addressed the welfare problem and that Welfare Rights was indeed a good organization, he- and he subscribed to everything that we were about, and yes he was with us 100 percent. And I felt like a fool because nobody had told us in Philadelphia. George hadn't got to us that he was at that meeting and they had met in Chicago. And Hazel didn't know it. So therefore, you know, here I was confronting this great man with this question, and then, but he was so polite and so gracious about, in his answering me. And I just will never forget him because that's the day he told me, he said, "You going to be a great leader." I didn't even understand, I didn't even subscribe to that when he was saying it. And, ah, I asked him, "Could I have the pencil?" He had me hand it to me, and I said, "Well, I'm going to take the glass too." So I have them to this day. And, ah, I just think about him, ah, during the struggle when times have been hard and it seemed as though I wasn't going to accomplish a accomplishment, and, ah, I would think about Dr. King and he has been a great inspiration to me. And, ah, that was one the embarrassing things of my life, but it turned out to be a good thing.
When you first heard about the Poor People's Campaign, what did you think?
I thought it was a great idea, excellent idea, and to this day I think it was good. Not everything is perfect, I think a lot came out of that movement. Again.
What about it did you think was good?
I think what was good a lot of issues. If you remember, a lot of issues came to focus. We had people coming from as far as Mississippi and all over this country came and they were all saying the same things to me. They were saying, we want jobs, we want to be treated as human beings, we want the right to work, we want the right to get an education. And I think when you had that many people coming together, whether you have some little problems or not, like flies found in the greens, you know, when they was cooking out there. That was just not even worth mentioning. The, the thing that I liked most about was people came together. They were all saying the same thing, "We want our government, we want to petition our government, and we want this government to be a good government, a fair government, and we want a fair chance, and we want what's rightfully due us because of the constitution." And I think in spite of all the little problems, I think people need to look at that, that's what came out of that movement. Whether or not we got it all, but the point is people came together and they were real about coming together.
Give me one lead sentence to get into that--when I first heard of the Poor People's Campaign.
Well, well in Philadelphia when, when I first heard of the, the Poor People's Campaign, we immediately had a meeting and we wanted to be involved because we realized it was a good thing; realizing people were going to come together from all over this country--poor people, people of all walks of life was coming together. And I thought it was good.
Why do you think, I mean, when they were in Washington, some things didn't work out for you all, why do you think that was?
Well you gotta, you gotta under that's the same year that we lost a great emancipator: Dr. King. And, and, and even though people organized and tried to do their very best, but they were doing it through a great hardship. We had lost our leader and so I think all those little mistakes that happen have to be just discarded, ah, because people were under great tension, great remorse and there was a lot of things that probably didn't go right. But I think when you look at the overall picture, I think we're foolish to try to look for faults. I think we should look at really the positiveness that came out of that movement.
And what sorts of positive things came out?
Well--look at me, look at me, take a look at me. I went from welfare to the Senate, and I was at the Poor People's march.
Cut for a second.
What about the folks who thought back then that it was a failure, who criticized it, what would you say to them.
Well I'd like to know what they were looking for, you know, what did they expect to come. You know, I'd have to ask them, what were they looking for. I mean here are people coming from all over the city to address their government in a way they felt was best to do it. I would like to say to those people really, what was you looking for, what did you want to come out of, what did they want to come out of. And I think those people that criticized it just talking because they want to criticize because anybody with common sense ought to know that that Poor People's March was a good thing that happened. I'm not saying everything happened within the march and all the problems, but it, the concept was a good concept, and those people that did that I just think they're a bunch of phonies.
Can you start with by saying, I would say that the critics of the Poor People's Campaign.
Yeah, I would say to the critics of the Poor People's Campaign that they was full of BS because I don't know what they was looking for. They'd have to realize it was a positive thing. Not everything went right, but the concept was right.
What about, um--
You were telling me on the phone about the Poor People's Campaign being good 'cause it was going to force the government to do some things. What sorts of things would happen to poor people coming to Washington to force the government--
Well I felt like, that, that with people coming to Washington, addressing the government, talking about jobs, job opportunities, that this would happen. And out of that area some jobs did come forth. Yes indeed, job training came about, you know. We have different, ah, ah, ah, organizations that were able to get into different programs, there were people worked that had never worked before. And I think all that helped.
Now some people would say the government really wasn't in much of a mood to listen to people at that point.
Well I think that's true, the government wasn't. But you see, this is why people like us always had to fight and push and get ugly in order to make the government do anything or legislators to a think, they just was about business as usual, but that's what it took, the Poor People's Movement, to get a lot of things started in the various different states.
I think it played its part.
And I think it forced a lot of people within other states to do things. I really think so.
If you had to make one statement as to how the National Welfare Rights organization affected mothers, how it made them overcome barriers and see themselves differently, how would you say it?
Magnificent, the best thing that ever happened with Dr. Wiley, the welfare mothers, and Johnnie Tillman to Beulie San- Beulah Saunders and the, the, the Matthews, and I could just them all. All of them played a big role. I think that's a movement that has been downplayed, that has never been looked at the way it should have been. Dr. Wiley and the welfare mothers across this country.
What did they accomplish, what did they do?
Well I think they first of all they made the statement that we ought to be recognized, ought to be respected. That was number one, we ought to be respected, we are mothers. These are the, we have the same sons that when they get 18 years old, you take 'em, train 'em, and make 'em be anything you want 'em to be. So we're saying now while they babies, give them what they need, give us what we need to make them strong so they can eat right, they can get the right education. We made a statement in saying that we're going to fight for what we believe is rightfully ours, and we did just that. And it was one of the greatest movements ever been in this country. And proof of it is that I'm sitting here now as the first Black woman ever in the state of Pennsylvania, the first Black woman, I sit in the Pennsylvania Senate telling that same story. The movement has continued with me right here.
What was George Wiley like, and why was he important?
A great man. This man was so great.
Can you start by saying George Wiley?
George Wiley was a great man. Here was a man that was a chemist, he was a married man, and even I think he, I think his, he lost his wife being in this struggle because of his constant pace of being away from home. The man has never gotten the credit he deserves. Here's a man that believed in women, in a, in women's strugglin', across this country. And he wanted us to be recognized and have the things that we deserved and he taught us how to get them and he was a brilliant man, brilliant. I loved him.
Did people have to make, did they have to jump across a barrier in the way they saw themselves to be able to be active in this kind of movement?
No, because as I said earlier, you know, when you're affected by something, and someone comes along and say, "Hey, I might not have the whole solution, but if you join in with us, we can all fight together to accomplish this goal." And this's the type person George Wiley was. As he traveled across this country and I traveled a lot with him and, and he sent me a lot of places, and the fact of it was this was a man that just talking to him you immediately want to get involved. If you was one of them mothers that sat around all day looking at Search for Tomorrow, those daytime stories, after a conversation with Dr. Wiley, you would forget that television and you'd go right and join and get involved. And I followed his philosophy and that's why the movement was so great in Philadelphia.
Beforehand, were you ashamed that you were poor?
Well, I never got poor 'til I got on welfare. See I came from a very rich family, a loving family, we had a lot of love. I never was hungry in my life.
But when you, when you had--
When I, you mean was I ashamed to get on welfare?
Well yes because the way I was treated the day I went there and subsequently, after then hearing all the things that they were saying about welfare mothers made me feel ashamed until I got involved deeply in the movement and realized that welfare was a right and not a privilege as Dr. Wiley taught us. Welfare is a right and not a privilege. And I really accepted that and, and, and I knew it was a right and I knew it was just, and then we began to learn, we began to learn that if it wasn't for us poor mothers, some of these people wouldn't even have jobs. We realized how valuable we was. And we learn all that in that movement, in the welfare rights movement.
So as you begin to think of welfare as a right and you begin to get into things about economics, this is very different than a movement which is based on purely integration.
That's true, that's why I said the, the movement never got the exposure it should have with the press. Dr. Wiley as a leader and a great man never, as far as I'm concerned, got the credit that he deserved for organizing along with all the great welfare mothers and along with all of the social workers and the ministers that got involved to organize this organization.
Why was that?
Well I think that, ah, I should, well we have to ask the media. I don't know why.
What was more--
I think it was that Dr. King was the issue during that time, integration was the thing during that time. And I think, ah, it was people within the government and the media that didn't want to really bring out this whole inadequacy of the way they were treating, you know, people on welfare. Because they took us as being nothing. "Who are you? You, you asking for a handout. We giving you this little check, ain't you satisfied? I mean who do you think you are asking for something? I mean you ought to be glad you're getting this little check, no matter what it is." This was the attitude of the government 'cross this country. And that's why I loved Dr. Wiley because we exposed, he taught us how to expose the government for not doing what they was supposed to do, take care of us adequately. You're not going to have it both ways. You either going to up the ante or you're going to give us job training and jobs so we can live and take care of ourselves.
For you back then, was integration more important or were these economic things more important?
Well right then, of course, now you know economics was more important to me, 'cause what the heck did I care about going and sitting beside somebody in a restaurant, eating when I couldn't even afford to go in the restaurant. More important to me was my family, was my children getting a good education, for me being able to get the kind of job training I needed to go on a job or for that matter, many of us being able to go into the colleges, like we had to knock open the doors to get in there. We had to fight for we everything we ever got. For the right even to go to college, for the right to be in Volunteers in Service to America. We had to fight for that. We had to fight for a right for our kids to, this, this whole government is nuts. I mean they couldn't even understand prevention. When Dr. Wiley and the legal committee got together to meet with HEW on, ah, early screening and diagnosis, prevention, we had to literally almost fight 'em to make 'em understand we're talking about saving money in this country. I mean isn't it better to correct a illness while a child is young, then to wait 'til that child is 21 and then become permanent disable? Took us two years to make 'em understand that. So everything we did has helped. And that's a movement that I still say lacked the recognition it should have gotten.
Cut. That was wonderful.
You were telling me a story about going down to Washington and occupying an office during the Nixon administration?
Oh yes, his campaign office--
So this is in 1968?
National Welfare Rights, we went down and we decided to take over his office.
What year was--69?
Probably, it was, '72.
Tell me about what it was like to go down in something like the occupation of Nixon's campaign office with the NWRO. How did you feel and what sorts of things would you do?
Well I felt great about going down, and Dr. Wiley called us to come down. And I felt really good when I knew we was going to go down and take over his, ah, campaign office and make it National Welfare Rights' Office. We felt good because we felt we would get the attention. Now understand me, we, we always knew that we had to do some outrageous things like breaking down a wall at HEW to talk to the employees at about different things that we wanted to talk about at that time, early screening diagnosis. But we had to do these extreme things in order to get the attention and to get the attention then we were able to express why we were doing those things, you know what I mean? Like going to jail here in Philadelphia for knocking, ah, my shoe through the window. That was because they were getting reading to cut off old people and, ah, the only way to get attention was to do something extreme after they had invited us here, told us we would be able to speak, and then closed the door in our faces. So we just went off. But I think a lot of people look at the, the extreme things that we did back then, but I think less attention has been paid to the accomplishments. We did those things but what, what happened after we did those things. People want to say, "Oh she's crazy, she did those things, she's nuts." But look what happened after doing those things.
A lot of accomplishments has happened in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania when, when we did the thing here and, and, and Harrisburg, ah, old people were not cut off welfare, OK. When we went down to Washington and took over Nixon's office, we were again telling him that your Family Assistance Plan is not going to work and we're not going to hear it and it gave us access to the press. "When you down here you done took over Nixon's office, what you got to say, why you doing this?" Well then, hey I got the microphone, then I'm able to say, "Look we're not going to live in $2400 a year. His dogs live off of 27, their budget is 2700, and he wants four human beings to live on 24. This is why we took over this office. We want to address our government." And these are things like we would do to get attention to bring the issues, not personal attention on Roxanne Jones, but attention to the welfare struggle, the fight here is what we're talking about, the right to work, the right to have jobs. It all tied in.
That's great. Thank you very much.