Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with Mary L. Hightower

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Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: June 4, 1989 and September 21, 1989

Camera Rolls: 2127-2129, 2158-2161
Sound Rolls: 260-261, 274-275

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 4, 1989 and September 21, 1989, for . 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


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, so Mrs. Hightower, I'm going to ask you a long question for the first one just to warm up, OK? I'd like you to tell us what you were doing when the idea "Gary" first came around, what you thought Gary might be about, and what you hoped it might be about?
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, what I was doing at the time the, the, ah, Gary convention was first brought before us, we were doing a voter registration drive in our counties and, ah, getting ready for 1972's county and district elections. So, um, what, actually, what we were, you know, how I felt at the time they brought it before us, um, really, we thought this was going to be something that would really, kind of, enhance what we were doing local, and, that r- it was just something new, um, new idea, new experience, and, and, and really, we didn't really know ex- ex- exactly what to expect, but, um, we were also hoping that it would be something that would help us to better what we were doing local.


JACKIE SHEARER: Why were you involved in voter registration?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, we were, it was really, the 1967 election that really got us really geared to get more involved in voter registration. We had a slate of candidates in '67, and we only ended up electing three people, and that was one of the problems that we realized, is that we didn't have enough people registered to vote, and a lot of them that were registered vote, we needed voter education. So, this was one of our major projects at that time.
JACKIE SHEARER: Cut. JT, is that killing us?


JACKIE SHEARER: So, if you were involved locally in terms of voter registration and education, why bother going out of state, why, why did you go to Gary? What was in it for you?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, we were involved locally, but we were also inexperienced as to what we, you know, the whole, I guess the make-up of registration, voter registration and voter education was all about. We were just sort of feeling our way through, and we had some volunteers that were helping us, but we felt like if, once we went to Gary, you know, this would really be an opportunity and it would be a new experience and we would gain some experience there, that we could come back and to use there, that would help us to even do a better job than we were doing now.


JACKIE SHEARER: Did you have any, any hopes about, um, um, a third party?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Ah, not really. I guess a third party per se is just, ah, a third party never really entered our minds. No, it didn't enter our minds. And I don't think that it did, with the other two people that went along with us, it was--


JACKIE SHEARER: So what were you thinking might come out of Gary?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, ah, really, an organized Black, you know, organized group. A national Black group, organized, that would be a national resource for the Black people. And this is what we were looking at. We, we had looked up on the Democratic Party as being our party, but, um, ah, we still didn't have anything that we could really identify as being our own as Black people, and, ah, we thought Gary was it.


JACKIE SHEARER: I'd like you to describe like you did in the restaurant just now, what you saw, what you heard, and what you felt when you drove into Gary that first day, and then when you got inside the convention hall.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, well, um, when we fi- well, when we arrived in Chicago that night, ah, the very next morning we were all ready to go to Gary, we were being bused over, and, you know, going over by bus, it was, I guess it was a lot more exciting than we really expected because upon approaching Gary, and, when we, came up in the bus, we began to see all these banners and the signs, you know, letting people know that this was a Black convention, and it was a really exciting moment, it was just a great experience. It looked like a big fair, with, with so many people and so many cars, and different, we noticed tags from different states, of course there were other bus- charter buses there, and, ah, it was, it was just, a moment there that you could remember for, that I will remember for the rest of my life. And, after getting out and then really going in and having to register, at that point it really came to you that it, it became real. That was the real moment that we was really here and it was a really, truly convention. And we, and, you know, going through the, the hassle and, and, and standing in line and getting registered, and realizing that you could not go in unless you were a delegate and you, and you have to register, and getting through that point. And then after, going in and being seated and really being identified as a delegate from your state, that was, truly a, a moment to, to remember.


JACKIE SHEARER: Can, can you describe for us the, um, the roll call? You talked about how you felt when that went on.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, it was, it buds- at that point, you kn- you, you were a part of the convention, you know, you, it made you realize that you were really participating. And to answer to your state, you know, as they would call, and this, this say that it was really real. And after, you know, going through the roll call, and listening to all of the different states that were being called, it was, I had seen this happen over TV, but, to be here and actually be participating in it, it was really a good, it made me feel real good to be there.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, so you're feeling real good, but then you got a disappointment, you told me about, when you got a, a visit, I'd like you to tell me about the visit, what was said to you, and what you said back.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, this was our second day at the convention, and we were bro- breaking for, you know, had several breaks throughout the day, but we were visited by, a Mr. Everest, Charles Everest from Mississippi, we really thought he was coming to participate and be a part of the convention, but he had asked to speak to the Mississippi delegation, and after we, you know, we went into a little room and he, he addressed us, and that was when I was really disappointed, when I found out that he was coming there to, um, in an, even objecting to our being there, rather than supporting us, he said it, it looked as if we were coming there and fighting for, or fighting against what we were supposed to be fighting for in Mississippi. He felt that by us fighting fo- to end segregation in Mississippi and to try to get more participation in the Democratic Party in the state of Mississippi, that this looks as if we were trying to create another party, trying to isolate ourselves from the Democratic Party. But we, you know, we, in no way viewed it, our trip to Gary, in that manner. We really, to me, this was an opportunity for Black people to come together, to organize ourselves, you know, to, and to organize Black body of people acro- throughout the states, and to become a resource to each other. And, and we, in no way, looked upon it as being a way of iso- isolating ourselves or segregating ourselves from the party. And, we were quite disappointed in, in the approach that, that he took at that time and his observation of, of, of what we were there, of what we were all about.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now you told me this story about how, to you, it was the same as, with the house, story, remember, being welcome in someone's house is different from owning a house. Could, could you tell that?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, well, you know, um, I, wa- specifically, you know, in, wh- after he, well, it was really hard to convince him, but I looked upon it as being, um, th- you know, Democratic Party, being, a house owned by someone else, and we were welcome in the house, you know, and, ah, by re- and free access to the house, you know, up to a point, but it belonged to someone else. And to me, a person need their own, they need their own house, and if I'm able to get my own house, then, you know, you look upon me as equal, and then we can interchange our resources and so, but I need to own my own. And I just, when I looked upon as the Gary Convention as being our house, and, ah, you know, equipping ourselves to be accepted equally and being able to contribute something to the Democratic Party.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, cut. We rolled out.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, so could you tell us the story about the visit from one of your leaders?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Ah, yes, um, on the second day of our convention, ah, we had a visit from one of our leaders from Mississippi, um, and he had asked that we would, if he could speak with us, meet with the Mississippi delegation, so we met with this leader from Mississippi, and we were, you know, I really, when I think of our representatives, were disappointed because we had thought that this person was gonna coming up in support of our being there, but it turned out that this person was totally against our participating in the convention. In fact, he had made remarks of our being there in opposition to what we were doing in Mississippi, the whole fact that we were fighting to end segregation in Mississippi, to gain more participation in the Democratic Party, and he viewed our trip there as being totally against what we were fighting for there. But, it was, you know, it wasn't. We didn't view our trip there in that way, in that manner at all. As a matter of fact, we felt that there, going there would help us to be more participa- as leaders and as citizens to the Democratic Party and to the whole notion of ending segregation in Mississippi.


JACKIE SHEARER: Can you make, can you tell us how you felt about the kinds of things that Baraka was talking about at the convention. Did you see any connection between what he was saying and what you were doing back home?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, yes, um, when, when he spoke, and he spoke about the, uh--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, could you begin it again and mention Baraka's name?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, OK. When I heard Baraka, when he was first introduced to us at the convention, it was, um, really, ah, after listening to him for a very short time, I began to feel pride, ah, in the things that he talked about and, and thinking of the things that we were doing in Mississippi, ah, the kinds of work, or the kinds of activities that we were involved in in Mississippi. Ah, you could see a connection, ah, it, it was, the whole concept of, of, his working in Africa, ah, it really, at that time, it really brought to our, to my attention, and I think that it, it was that feeling, ah, with a lot of people, and I know the group that came from Holmes County, that, it was sense of pride, um, and it was something, you know, it, if I, it was at that moment that we, you, you could begin to look and feel proud about what you were doing, and feel proud about yourself, you know, because, um, I have a whole concept of, of people from Africa and what they were doing, and, and the kinds of people that they were was, you know, just totally erased, you know, by sitting there and listening to him talk, because we, in some sense, felt that, "Well, what you're doing is not any different than what we're doing here." You know, we're just in different places, and maybe in much smaller places, but our goals and our efforts are the same, and, ah, it was a great sense of pride, you know, to, to have, ah, listened to him and to, you know, have been in the same convention with him, you know, and, uh--


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, had you ever thought of yourself in terms of Africa before this?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Not really. Well, you n- you have, you have thoughts about it, but not really knowing, not re- you know, being, I s- I would say, just being ignorant of what, ah, the, the whole notion of Africa and what people are doing there, and the kinds of people that are there now, you, is, is like a hidden thought, you know, you know, you did, you didn't allow it to surface and you didn't talk about it. But, um, after the convention, you know, it was something you, we could talk about and we could go back and talk to our people and, and, ah, you know, talking with pride, and it made our people begin to feel good about themselves.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, did you think in terms of the work that you already were doing back in Mississippi, were you thinking in terms of identity, in terms of new identity?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, the, the work that we were doing in, in, in listening to him, um, it, it, you realized that, th- that work, ah, in a sense, was the same, and it was something that we could be proud of, and the, the, the whole notion of hearing him, and listening to him, ah, it made us feel, you know, it gave me a new sense of pride. And it, and when you, when we went back to our people and began to express the kinds of things that he expressed to us, and a lot of it, the concept of, of the work that he was doing, a lot of the methods that he talked about, were new to us. But then, the, the end was us, and what he was trying to accomplish, and what he was getting over to us about what we should be trying to accomplish, ah, that we, we felt that it was similar to what we were doing there, and in that, in sense, it made us feel that we were somewhat in, ah, the same.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, how, how do you describe what you brought back to Mississippi from Gary. What, what effect did it have on your work?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, we were, we brought a whole new, we were motivated and we were able to go back and carry that motivation back to our county, um, we had a new incentive and a whole new idea to use in going back to our people and we were able to pass this motivation on down to our people and get them much more involved. And, um, I think one positive note that even helped us further was the fact that we got this visit from one of our leaders from Mississippi. We were viewed, we was shown over TV, in which our people back in Mississippi didn't understand the, the whole concept of what that visit was, but it was a positive on our part because they viewed us as being participants in the convention, and, it made us feel important, and, ah, and it made us be viewed as important people when we got back to our homes by our people.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you talked about how you were working on the elections and voter education and registration. What happened in the next election?
MARY HIGHTOWER: As a result of that, um, the effort I believe from the convention, we were able to go back, as I said, and, and, ah, put new motivation and new life into what we were already doing. And, ah, we elected, ah, in '72, a year later, a majority to the board of education, a majority to the board of election commissioners, and, um, those are people that runs the election, and, and run the school. And I attribute this to, ah, our trip to Gary, to the convention, and what we learned there, the experience that we gained there, we were able to carry back and to gain a lot more, ah, success in our registration and our voting, voter registration.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, I'd like you to go back to the beginning, and, um, get again the description of the roll call, OK? I'd like you to describe, make believe you're talking to someone who's never been to any kind of convention, what a roll call is and how this one worked and how you felt about it.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, well, um, they, um, the very first day, ah, in order to be seated, ah, after we were registered, and, ah, we were, ah, where we went in to the convention floor, and, ah, to be, we were seated and after everybody was there, after the registration was over, then they called the convention to order, and the next order of business was roll call. And, the roll call was to identify, ah, each state, or delegates from each state that was there, and, ah, you had to answer, you know, ah, to the roll call, and it's like at school when you, you answering to being present, and, ah, but only this is just, it was a, much, much greater to hear to, ah, hear the answer to the roll call of these different states, members of these, of, ah, the delegation from states throughout the United States, and it was, ah, it was just, ah, I is, almost indescribable to, to, to, ah, remember, ah, each of th- the, ah, delegations, you know, answering to the- to their roll call. And this went on for, ah, I can't remember, ma- but it, it, it, it looked like it took a long time to go, you know, through that roll call and to, ah, have people to answer, but people answered with pride.
MARY HIGHTOWER: --we took care of , that's one of the greatest thing, one of the greatest accomplishment we had.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, so, I'd like to have you give me a brief description once again of the roll call and how it made you feel, what it was, and how it made you feel.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, the, um, roll call was, um, an, ah, a way of identifying, you know, all the states and all the delegates that were participating in the convention. And once we were all inside the convention and, ah, seated, they began the roll call. And, the roll call really made you knew- at that point, you realized that you were, then, truly in the convention, you know, you were truly a participant in the convention. And I think it was, ah, it was excitement and anticipation and, and anxiety, all of this is all into one, waiting your turn for the roll call, you know, just hearing states after state being called, and, ah, delegates that were represented there, and, ah, it just looked like it took for the longest to get to Mississippi, our delegates, but once we grot- got through it, and, you could tell from the, the, ah, the answer to the roll call from all the state, it was just like, ah, ah, ah, the sound, people were answering with pride, you know, in answer to the name of their state, um, and each of us did, I think aro- all of us felt that way, um, during the roll call. And, this, after, at- a- during the roll call, another thing that came to mind that made you realize, that once they got through there, it made you realize the number of people that were participating in it, and just hearing the different states called throughout, I can't remember, ah, any state that didn't have representatives there, but, ah, it was, ah, a, a really, truly good feeling.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you also, um, said that it made you feel that you were part of history.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, well, um, to really, um, um, the way, in the, well, let me go back and say that when we first were getting ready to go, um, the, the, it was just e- exciting moment to be going there and to, ah, be sent there by your counties, you know, to be representing in the state. But, after getting there and, um, really, ah, realizing that this is truly convention and really began to participate, then you, in your, would, your mind really began to wonder and you, and you think about, "I'm here, and I'm making history." You know, "This is a historic moment for Black people throughout the United States, and I'm a part of it." You know, "I'm from Mississippi and a little small, you know, county, but I am a part of making history here." And that truly was a good feeling, you know, I felt important and felt a pride that I, ah, that I had never felt before, and, ah, I felt very confident, and, this is the, you know, a, a feeling that I was able to leave there and, and carry back to my hometown, you know, carry back--


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you also mentioned that there were some reasons why you thought that we needed to do this, could you go into that?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, well, um, I, we've never, in my lifetime, had experienced the, um, any, any, kind of resource from Black people, nationally, ast- ah, even throughout the states, and to, ah, we've never had anything that we could identify to say that we really as a Black race had accomplished, and there was no organized body of Black people, and, to me, this did all of that, you know, it brought together, ah, ah, people from throughout the state and it sh- it showed our people that we could really accomplish something and that, and we could really pull, ah, together a group of people and to organize these resources and, and, ah, make, ah, these resources beneficial to the people there and to our people back in, in our homes. And this, we, we, we were successful at doing this, and, ah, this is, a, a historic moment that all the Black people were proud of and, and could be proud of, and even to today, you know, that is a proud moment there that no one can take away from us, you know.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, if you had to tell someone the one most important thing about Gary, what would it be?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, ah, the, ah, the fact that we were able to pull together that convention and to organize ourselves and to really, ah, organize a group of people to, to, to carryout a successful convention and to leave there, ah, with a sense of duty and a sense of responsibility to carry back to each of our areas, and, ah, we gave ourself[SIC] a resource, ah, we opened up a line of communication that we'd never had before, and, ah, we gained a new experience. The, ah, ah, the experience of the things that we were doing back there, and it told us that once we got there, um, what we was doing right and what we was doing wrong and what we needed to do more of, um, this convention provided all this to us, but more than anything, it, um, let us know that we could accomplish something, you know, as, as a Black race, you know, that we could successfully accomplish something together, and this convention did that.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you also talked about how it felt to look across the room and see professional people and elected officials and, um, they had one vote and you had one vote. Would you tell me that?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, well, um, when we were voting, ah, when you had roll calls and you would vote, and you know, it was at this moment, you know, when you, well, I, when I was sitting there, and, ah, seeing people vote, and, to me, you know, I was on the same level as everybody else, you know, regardless of my lifestyle or my profession and all, I was equal to everyone else there in the convention. I was accepted as everyone else there in the convention, and to me, ah, this was a great feeling. It was, ah, ah, a feeling, a moment, ah, that, too, that I cherished and that I could carry back, ah, it's, to be there and to be accepted, ah, regardless of, ah, the professions that people were, the financial status that they were, the education level that they were, we were all equal.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, cut. OK, I think we've got it


JACKIE SHEARER: Now as you're coming up, remember, back in 1972, as you're coming, driving up from Mississippi to Gary, what are your hopes for this, this national Black political convention?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, as, ah, we left Mississippi in going to Gary, there's the whole, it was just the whole excitement of really getting prepared and getting ready and getting on the road and going to Gary to, ah, our first convention, you know, the first Black convention, you know, ah, as a matter of fact it was our very first convention at all, you know, we had never participated in any one. But, I guess it was mu- much more exciting to know that it was ours, and, ah, when getting there, it was just a lot of anticipation of really getting there and get, ah, our place in the convention, ah, is- it was just, we were just excited, like going up, I guess, to our first show or going out for, ah, just, for, I, maybe like, even high school prom, but it was really very serious because we had put a lot of efforts into getting people in our areas, throughout Mississippi, and everybody was just excited about going to the convention, and, uh--


JACKIE SHEARER: Now what did you think was going to come out of it, I mean, what was your expectation of about what would happen at Gary? Particularly for you as a, as a Mississippi person.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, there, ah, we expected, once we got to Gary, to really become organized and to, to, have, to, to, ah, ge- organize on a national convention and from that convention would come our leadership to go back into each of our areas and to further organize and to hold elections or just, ah, a number of things that we had planned to do, but the main thing was, going to the convention, was going to be our beginning, and, ah, this is, this is what we were prepared, and this is what we were preparing for, to go there to get our beginning at the convention.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you mentioned that it, um, um, well-respected, NAA leader, whom you really respected, said you shouldn't go. Why was that, and what, did you agree or disagree with him?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, I disagreed because--
JACKIE SHEARER: If you could just start that, you know, "Somebody in the NAACP--"
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, after we had left and went to the convention, and, ah, once we were seated we had a representative from Mississippi, one of our well-respected leaders, to come in, and he, he opposed to our being there.
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, if you could start again but just say, that someone from the NAACP leader from Mississippi.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, um, after gel- going through the convention and getting there, One of our N dou- NAACP con- ah, leaders came to the convention and he opposed to our being there, and, ah, he was saying that we were separating ourselves, but, ah, we didn't see it that way[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-35. Ah, going to the convention we felt like this was, ah, really enhancing our chance of being, ah, brou- of, of aiding and assisting the existing party because, ah, you kn- to me, yo- it was just like isn- if you have, ah, if you have, ah, you may have a home, hah, and you, you make that house open, you know, you, I'm, I'm, I, I would say that, you'd say you were welcome to the use of my home, you know, I can just use anything in it, but to me, it's a difference in having my own, because once I have my own, home, then you respect me and we can interchange and exchange and, ah, this is the way we felt about the, ah, the national party. Once we organize our national Black party, we could interchange and exchange resources. So we didn't feel like we were being separate, but, ah, we were being able to add to the leadership.
JACKIE SHEARER: Could you cut please? That's nice, OK.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, could you give me a sense, now, coming from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, you've been, fought with all kinds of terrorism, what is it like, again, saying that piece it, and coming in to Gary and seeing all of these Black people with this common purpose?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, getting ready and going into Gary, ah, first let me say it's, it's, I guess the re- really realizing that we were, ah, now at the convention was coming in to Gary and seeing all these signs that s- that directed us to the convention center and, and, ah, just, it was, that, at that moment, ah, it was just, ah, overwhelming. It, the kind of feeling that, you know, it's almost indescribable. But, ah, it's, we were just overjoyed and happy, but, after getting and going into the convention and, and, ah, seeing, finding our place, because we had nametags for each of the states, um, this even added further to the be- to the reality of, of, ah, being a part of a convention, and once we got in there and we looked around and that was, I mean, just num- numerous of Black people from all states as far as you could see, people were signing in and people were getting placed and, ah, to me, at that moment were one of the greatest moment that I've ever experienced.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, can you tell me that again, but give me a sense that you're coming from working with the Mississippi Democra- Freedom Democratic Party and, and the sense that you had been, you know, there had been a lot of Klan activity, and then what it's like to see that.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, after leaving home I'd say, and especially experiencing a lot of opposition to our trying to get organized local and a lot of opposition to electing people locally, we was really--
JACKIE SHEARER: Sorry, when you can, if you could just mention Mississippi.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, ah, coming from Mississippi and coming from Holmes County in Mississippi, where our area was and where we had been doing a lot of organizing, ah, we had just a year or so, elected our first Black representative, and even with that we were still experiencing opposition to organizing Black people or even getting Black people elected to office. And, what, putting an effort, even with that we still were able to organize people from our areas in Mississippi to go to Gary and to really accomplish and really to make it to Gary, ah, made all of that effort worthwhile because, um, when we got there, they says, you know, "This is the new hope. This is the new dream for us." You know, to, you know, here, at the convention, we're going to be participating, we're going to be finding a way to really overcome what we just left. And, to go in there and to see all the people there and, and really get a sense of what we were there for and to organize and to furnish leadership to each of us that needed it, this was one of the most exciting times that, that, that, for me, and for all of us. And to see the pe- each of us in our, each of our local areas, you know, going, say, for instance from Mississippi, our delegation group down, once, once we got there and we had to register and we signed in, ah, even then, we, ah, we thought we had really experienced excitement, but I guess the greatest time it was is when we had to answer roll call, and, ah, we got in and, and, ah, to me, roll call says that, you know, we had made, you know, we really did it, you know, because this is, we were really, we really accomplished organizing this party.


JACKIE SHEARER: You mentioned also that when you looked out you saw people and they were in dashikis, they looked different, they talked different, give me a sense of that, the sense that once you really started to one another, you realized that they weren't that different from the people you just left.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Yeah, well, this was true, of all of the states--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, if you could just--
MARY HIGHTOWER: After getting to the convention and really looking over the convention floor, there were people of all segment of life, I mean all levels and all professions, and, and, to see all of us there and we were all able to mingle and to communicate together, this was ah, ah, ne- regardless of what level of, of, ah, the community we came from or what level of profession we were from--
JACKIE SHEARER: Keep rolling, but if you could give me a sense that when you first saw them, they looked a little strange to you, you know, those people looked a little crazy. You know.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Which they did, they did.
JACKIE SHEARER: So talk, talk about that, make me realize.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, after, when, after we, after I, we made it to the convention and we got there, um, being wi- one of, really, our first time away from home and first time participating in a convention of this, or a convention of any kind, and really, we, ah, I was a little skeptic and, and a little uneasy, but after getting there and seeing people or, any, they were people of all professions
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, OK, he's going to just change the camera rolls.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, give me a sense of just how crazy some of these people looked and talked, I mean they were talking about all kinds of philosophies, they looked all different kinds of ways, so what was your first impression, and then tell me how that changed.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, wh- when I first got to the convention and, and, ah, as I say, all the different people from all walks of life were there, you know, I began to wonder, you know, just how I would fit into it, and, ah, what I could get out of at, at the co- being at the convention, because, ah, now we, being locally, being from Mississippi, a lot of people there, ah, a lot of lifestyle, a lot of dress codes or hairstyles and all that, we've never seen before. And, people talking about, um, the different, ah, kinds of leadership in each of their prospective areas, we, you know, it was just confusing at first, you know, it was just like a state of confusion, and, ah, you know, you just wandered around and really tried to get a sense of direction, but, ah, once the convention was called together, and everybody was recognized there, and then the true meaning of the le- the conference came out, ah, in fact the, the co- the convention was called to furnish leadership, and this was something that we all could relate to, you know, all of us were there seeking leadership and guidance, and, ah, at that point, ah, everything else ceased and we became a united body, you know.
JACKIE SHEARER: Now, what did you think--


JACKIE SHEARER: I froze there, we could all. Give us a sense of what you saw. So what was it like, that's OK, what was the physical, there were the dashikis, I mean, people in long dresses, there were folks, a lot of, Baraka's people were all in Black, I mean, it was all, OK.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, give me a sense of what you saw, what you saw when you walked in there and the sense of confusion you had at first and then what that developed into.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, ah, when I first went in to the convention and, ah, I began to, you know, look at the different people that were there and, really, it was, ah, I was stunned, you see, seeing people weighing dashikis, some wearing long dress with the headbands, and, ah, and, and, um, seeing people with the, ah, ah, you know, ah, Black outfits and so on, it was just, ah, something that we couldn't relate to, because we were, you know, in our areas, people didn't dress that way, and, and, ah, and as a matter of fact, we didn't have any people, you know, that, ah, even remotely associated to wearing an African hairstyle at the time, Afro. And, to go in, it really made you wonder, you know, if, if you were at the right place or if you, if I'm here, my being here if it's really going to make a difference. Ah, it, it, it was just a state of confusion right then. When you looked over the, over the room, looked over the convention hall and you saw all of these different people there, and, ah, just saw all of these different dresses, coats, ah, different, ah, even talking different languages than we were, and, we began to, I began to really wonder, you know, how I was going to relate to this, you know, how, what am I going to get out of this, and even if I was going to get anything, ah, to carry back home. But, ah, after getting through that point and, and, ah, really, ah, people getting organized, people getting signed in and identified at the convention, then the convention took on a whole different meaning. Ah, the true meaning of the convention came out, and people began to address problems, ah, problems that we all could relate to, ah, not having Black leadership, not having a Black national party, and, ah, all these other things just seemed to cease, and it was at that point that we realized that, and I realized that, even though we were there, ah, different in appearances and even a lot of, in our languages and all, but we were all one and the same.
JACKIE SHEARER: Cut please. Yeah, OK, thank you.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, when, ah, Congressman Diggs miscalls the vote, um, what did you think? Did you think it was going to threaten the holding together of the convention?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, ah, when Congressman Diggs miscalled the vote, I, I got, um, really shaky and uneasy at that time because, ah, I felt like the mere fact that he did this, it was going to create, ah, confusions and, and, ah, arguments in the convention that would really take away from, ah, the real purpose of the convention. And, ah, which, in, in the sense that, ah, it did in a little, in a little sense it did create confusions, but, um, even at that point I didn't lose hope in the convention, but I was really, really uneasy because, ah, I thought that this would really sce- steer us off in the wrong direction.


JACKIE SHEARER: What kept it going then? What, what held it?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, ah, people, ah, really addressing it, you know, really getting on it right then and, ah, bringing it to attention and really getting the, the convention back on track, and, tha- this was really a good experience for us, and because we, people opposed him, and, ah, you know, I don't think that he expected the people, but, really, people, you know, they stood up then and after opposing him and, and, ah, really making him realize that he had miscalled the vote. That gave hope to the convention again.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, cut please.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, I'm going to ask you another question again, which is, and if you could mention that you were working with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and then talk about coming into the convention and just seeing all those Black folks. And if you could mention that you were, you know, under siege. You don't have to go into specifics about elections or anything, but just sensing, you know, you had been under siege by, um, by White people in Mississippi and then coming into this gathering, but mention MFDP, "Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party." OK, so what, again, coming in from Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, what was it like coming into that gathering?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, having been working with the Freedom Democratic Party, um, through, in, in Mississippi, and really experiencing a lot of opposition, a lot of intimidation, whatever, from the White race there, leaving and coming to the convention, um, leaving that situation and going to the convention, um, we were, I really had a lot of high hopes of going to the convention and, ah, just, ah, and being able to find a way to, ah, eliminate what we had just left. And, ah, even though the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was furnishing leadership for us there, but to go to Gary to National Convention, Black Convention, to me, this was going to be the beginning of a new hope, a new leadership, a new direction for us to take back home.


JACKIE SHEARER: So now, when you said that somebody from the NAACP, a leader, whom you respected, from Mississippi, said that you shouldn't do that. What did, what did he say? And, what did you feel about that?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, ah, first of all, ah, the NAACP leader from Mississippi, he came to the convention and re- we thought he was coming there in support of us, but, um, he came opposing our being at the Gary convention, and, he stated this was separate, we were separating ourselves from the National Democratic Party, the Mississippi Freedom, the Mississippi Democratic Party, and, ah, that this was, that we were segregating ourselves, that was the word he used. But to me and to others there, this was not so. We felt, by the Gary convention, as a person would owning a home. Ah, the Mississippi Democratic Party being the, having their home, and, ah, we, as Blacks, wanted to have ours too, you know, and to be, coming to Gary was creating our own home and by us having ours and the Mississippi Democratic Party theirs, we would be able to add to and to offer resources and offer the kinds of leadership that just one party, there being, and one party, that I might add that we had been left out of, this was giving us an opportunity to contribute, and, ah, we didn't see it in the manner that our leader, NAACP leader see it.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, now let me ask you when, um
JACKIE SHEARER: That was lovely.


JACKIE SHEARER: Give me a sense of what was at risk. You say that the national eyes were on you and then the local eyes were on you too, give me a sense of that.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, we knew that going to Gary that there was a great risk, once we, you know, if we had failed, um, and going back home would have been--
JACKIE SHEARER: If you could begin again and just say, "If we failed", not "Had failed", because you're still in time.
MARY HIGHTOWER: If we failed--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, just start all over.
MARY HIGHTOWER: We, ah, leaving Mississippi and going to Gary, ah, we knew that we were taking a great risk, I mean, ah, not only to, a risk of not being able to accomplish anything, but also the risk of going back and maybe even getting stronger opposition, and, and, facing a lot more problem than we had, ah, before we left. But, and, and if we had failed, we c- would not have been able to go back and to participate or even to ha- just even get the respect of local people, the local Whites or the local democratic party, um, we, we would've, we wouldn't have been able to, ah, ge- to, to, to participate or, or anything because they would've, I would've, I felt like they would say that if we failed, you know, as a body, then we couldn't expect them to respect us and to open their doors to us, so we, we, we had no choice but to succeed. And, ah, w- we did.


JACKIE SHEARER: That was a perfect answer. But I'm going to ask you to do it one more time but just mention that the eyes of the nation and your own communities were on you as you were leaving. But that was a perfect answer, so do it again.
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, um, in going to Gary, um, and leaving Mississippi and leaving our homes, ah, our little local, our local community, local eyes was on us as well as the national eyes was on us to see if we was going to succeed or fail.
JACKIE SHEARER: I hate to do this, but you're going to have to do that one again.
MARY HIGHTOWER: I figured as much.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, talk again about what was at risk with the national and local eyes on you.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, ah, leaving, ah, Mississippi and going to Gary, we knew that there was, ah, great risk in going because our, all local eyes was on us from our communities, from many at the local Mississippi Democratic Party, and then national eyes was on us, you know, to really see if we were going to succeed or fail. And, we, ah, we had no choice, you know, we had to succeed, ah, because if had failed, if, if we failed to accomplish what we set out to, we couldn't expect to go back and, and, ah, expect a local party, the Mississippi Democratic Party to open their doors to us. Um, to me, they would have felt that if we couldn't succeed there, then we didn't have anything to offer them back at home.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now I want you to tell me also about another moment when you thought it might all disappear, and that's when the Michigan delegation walks out. Now if you could just talk about seeing them all walk and then just "nation-time."
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, the, nearing the, the end of the convention, ah, the Michigan delegation, ah, walked out w- at that time we thought the whole delegation had walked out, and, and it was sad, you know, because, ah, if, with any state delegation getting up and leaving, you know, to me, that was a sense of failure, but to see a part of them still remaining and, and saying that they were staying, you know, ah, it was really great, you know, and, and we were all cheering and, and, ah, just, ah, ah, it, it, it gave a new, ah, momentum to the convention.


JACKIE SHEARER: Did you ever feel that, during that time, that it might not, that it might collapse on you?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, an, at the door, before we realized that all the delega- the delegation had not, we did, because one--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, if you could just mention we didn't know that, yea--
MARY HIGHTOWER: OK, we, we, ah, during the time that, you know, that part of, ah, the delegation walked out, well before we realized that it was only part of the delegation, we felt like, ah, ah, I did and I thi- and I later found out A lot of others felt that once Michigan delegation walked out, others were going to walk out. And, ah, we was ner- you know, it was, we were really afraid, you know, everybody was just, like, standing there dumbfounded for a while, you know, reall- realizing what's going to happen next[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-46, and, ah, but, when a part of the Michigan delegation remained, ah, you know, everybody, you know, just cheered, it just brought out a great, you know, cheer, and I don't think they was just cheering for, ah, Michigan, that part that remained, but we were cheering that, you know, we, we haven't failed. You know, we didn't break up, and every- you know, that the gele- that the delegation is still here, you know, the, the convention is still here, and, ah, that was a, that was a great victory.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, ah, tell me what you felt like. The convention is over. What did you feel like going home? What did you feel like had been done?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, ah, it was a- ah, I, I felt like a new person--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry, if you could start by saying, "Going home after the convention."
MARY HIGHTOWER: After the convention was over and we were all getting ready to home, I, I felt like a completely new person. Different person. And, the excitement from the convention, ah, it lasted all the way home. You know, just, ah, ah, I think it was about five of us in our car, we drove up, and, ah, it was, you know, we carried the convention back home with us, and the excitement, the, the whole, ah, ah, I guess the at- the attitude, the atmosphere and everything that was spread and, and, and, and, and exchanged at the convention, we carried it on back to Mississippi with us. And, um, I felt like that was a new beginning for us in Mississippi because once we got back, we were able to take that spark that we got from the convention and to, ah, spread it out.


JACKIE SHEARER: Um, what, what do you think, is there anything that you most remember in terms of a magic moment at the convention?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, there was, um, I guess, ah, two or three different, ah, during the convention it was two or three different, I guess, exciting and magical times. And I think the first one was when we had to answer roll call, and each state had to stand up and answer to their, the name of their delegation in their state, and to me, this was a magical moment. It was really exciting, and to hear people answering to that, the, the roll call throughout the, the convention, and answering with excitement, and, it was, this, this was really magical.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, let's cut please.


JACKIE SHEARER: Why did you think the national Black agenda was important in terms of a common agenda for, for Black people nationally?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, we needed, ah, ah, to call this convention together to, to furnish national leadership and to form a structure for Black people nationally. But, ah, even more important than that, we needed a body or, or structure that would b- create a beginning for, a future for Black people, in the, you know, United States, nationally. And, ah, this is why it was important. Our, our future was at stake.
JACKIE SHEARER: Do that one more time and just say, yes, just keep going. If you could start again and just end with "our future is at stake."
MARY HIGHTOWER: We needed, in going to the convention, we needed the convention to come together to, ah, not only to form a structure for Black people, but we also needed the leadership, we needed the future leadership for Black people. As a matter of fact, coming together, we saw this as being our future, the future of the Black people.
JACKIE SHEARER: OK, we can cut.


JACKIE SHEARER: So give me a sense of these state caucuses meeting and talking, this kind of activity day and night.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Um, after the convention would end or when we would have breaks, ah, ah, different states would caucus and this, you know, it increased, you know, day after day, and in it, this was another exciting time, you know, waiting for the convention to break or to end so that we could begin caucuses, and we created a lot of leadership or a lot of communi- ah, communications between states caucusing together.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now what would you talk about at these caucuses?
MARY HIGHTOWER: Ah, how we were going to, well, we would, OK, we would talk about any, any, any, during the caucuses, we would discuss how we were going to vote and what issues we were going to vote together on and, um, we, ah, we would, you know, carry this out. But this would be our "politicking", you know, as we got out of the convention.


JACKIE SHEARER: And one last question, on, um, again, give me a sense of somebody who's coming from Mississippi and all the terrorism that you've met with, and why the Black agenda, national Black agenda, is important to you.
MARY HIGHTOWER: Well, um, after leaving Mississippi and going to the convention, ah, leaving there, um, confused and leaving with very, ah, little hope of what we h- what we left behind, ah, going to the convention was--
JACKIE SHEARER: I'm sorry. Rather than the hope, if you could just give me a sense of the intimidation and that kind of thing.
MARY HIGHTOWER: In, in Mississippi during the time that the convention was organized, we were experiencing a lot of intimidation, we were experiencing opposition to our registering to vote and, ah, opposition to our electing Black people to office. And, leaving all of this and going to Gary, ah, we were, I was in hopes that we would find a way to, ah, eliminate this when we get back to Mississippi and, ah, to get, at Gary, a new sense of direction, a new leadership, and, ah, new directives to go back home and to really face this and to overcome it.
JACKIE SHEARER: Let's cut. OK, is there anything that we