Production Team: NA
Interview Date: May 15, 1979
Camera Roll: 18-20
Sound Rolls: 10-11
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Marion Barry, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 15, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
I JUST WANT TO ASK YOU FIRST OF ALL, JUST TO START OFF, DID YOU HAVE—TELL ME WHERE YOU GREW UP AND TELL ME IF YOU HAVE ANY PARTICLUAR REMEMBERANCES OF VIOLENCE OR ANYTHING WHEN YOU WERE A YOUNG MAN.
Well I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. That's where I went to elementary school and high school and to college. I don't remember a great deal about what was happening outside of Memphis, in my horizon, in my scope, in—my level of communication with what was happening in the country and the world was very, very limited. And I assume that was on purpose by those who would control information and communication…about this. I wasn't aware of a lot of other things that were going on. I guess I knew about the situation in Little Rock and, well, in ‘54 we had the Supreme Court decision. He had—some things were happening around the country, and so I don't remember a lot of specifics prior to ‘60 except those things that were national in scope. You know, the bus boycott in ‘55, ‘56, and the bombings in various places around the South during that period. You read about them but you really didn't know a lot—I didn't know a lot about them.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE ANY OF THE EARLY ORGANIZING IN NASHVILLE? HAD YOU DONE ANY PRE-ORGANIZING BEFORE THE SIT IN MOVEMENT BEGAN?
Well, fortunately in Nashville—I was in graduate school then. There was a minister by the name of Reverend Jim Lawson who was teaching at Vanderbilt, in the Divinity School, and in the fall of 1959 a number of us had been asked to go to a series of workshops on nonviolent direct action and frankly I didn't know what that was about. I didn't know—I mean I was more curious as to what was going on than anything else. But once we got involved with it we talked about the whole nonviolent technique of direct action and what we hoped would be achieved by that and we went to some workshops. We were pushed around, we were thrown on the floor and I, just, that part everything we had a number of discussions about why we had to think about being able to move in that area. This was before the sit-in movement nationally happening in North Carolina, just a Nashville group. In that group was Jim Bevel and Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette and some others that I can't remember now who had come from Tennessee State, Fisk, the American Baptist Theological Seminary, and there were a couple of people I guess from Vanderbilt. There were some white students in it who were on an exchange from several colleges around the country who were at Fisk who participated. I think Paula Prawn[sp?] was one guy [sic] I remember—it's been so long, trying to remember all these things but that happened in '59, and that was before February 1st, 1960.
SO THEN WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT THE SIT-INS IN GREENSBORO?
Well I think we were probably, we were—actually it's ironic in a sense. We were planning in Nashville to do something ourselves. We didn't know exactly what we were going to do, or when we were going to do it, or necessarily how in terms of the various specifics, but then this whole fall period we were talking about doing something. In fact we were thinking about waiting until the spring to have some kind of action when we get mobilized and had organized ourselves better and expanded outward to larger campuses. Most of the activity was centered at Fisk which was kind of tough because you know Fisk is a school where a lot of people send their young people to get an education and to grow up right, proper, and not to be talking about demonstrations or other things, but over at Tennessee State it was—there were some people who were also interested. So we were interested in maybe doing something in the spring. So when February 1st came in, and we read about it and Jim Lawson had some contact with some people in Greensboro. And I guess on that Sunday or Monday right after that happened he knew a lot about that and we had a meeting that week, middle of the week, in fact, Tuesday or Wednesday, and we had a major demonstration next Saturday which I think, thinking about, was probably the 8th or 9th of February—was the Saturday after the first series of demonstrations in Greensboro. So we, I think we were probably better prepared to do it.
[CUT. GOING TO 18]
MAYBE, JUST TO FINISH THAT UP, YOU WERE GOING TO SAY THAT YOU WERE BETTER READY, YOU WERE…
Well, we had I think in terms of the overall movement, I mean I think these things were rather spontaneous to some extent. We were to except that we had had some preparation in leadership development and in just the whole techniques of organizing people and the whole area of nonviolent direct action. And so when we went in to demonstrate on that Saturday, first of all, it was snowing yet we were able to muster, I don't know, two or three hundred people because people had knew, had known what we were trying to do. And so we were arrested the very first day. And we went to jail I guess that Saturday afternoon. We stayed there till probably Sunday, Sunday afternoon. And nobody got up-you know got all panic about it. We got our bond, went over to Fisk, had a big rally that night and got ready for some more action. And I think if you look at the people who came out of the Nashville movement as individual persons who had gone on and continued the movement already had done other things that were connected to the impoundment [sic] of you know black people, you find probably a larger percentage of those of us who were in Nashville got involved in other areas of the movement either with SNCC, or with SCLC, or a few people I guess, with CORE and then others you know who are now elected officials around the country, or who are doing things in their own way in the community. I think we have a broader base. It's not to say others didn't but I found when we went to Raleigh for instance we took, I don't know five or six carloads of people over to Raleigh and from Tennessee, and I guess the students from Nashville were sort of looked at as ones who we ought to talk to about how they did some things. And I just feel that we were better prepared—at the moment—to do that organization and that, any other way.
CAN YOU GIVE ME A KIND OF A PERSONALIZED ACCOUNT OF HOW IT FELT TO BE SITTING AT A LUNCH COUNTER AND BE WORRIED ABOUT SOMEBODY GOING TO THROW KETCHUP ON YOU OR THE SISTER SITTING NEXT TO YOU?
Well you never know what people are going to do. I mean even though we'd gone through these dry runs, you know in the church somewhere or in somebody's house, they wasn't a real live situation where white folks and police, police officers are on your case. I guess most of us, if we were to admit it, were probably scared to death as to what was going to happen there, but we knew we had to do it. That it had to happen and so once you get into it then everything just sort of, just happens. You don't even think about what the next steps are except to try to remember. When we went into the lunch counter when, you know, when white people would try to throw you off, and then cops would come in and drag you and beat on you as you were arrested. Being taken to jail, you know, to have twenty-five or thirty people cramped into one paddy wagon, to some extent was frightening as to what the hell was going to happen to you. So I guess if—if we were to admit it—it was rather a frightening thing internally but we didn't show that. We just went about our business and after it happened to you sometime, you know, you sort of just say it's what you got to do, and you go forward to do it.
IT SEEMS TO ME THAT'S VERY IMPORTANT. THAT KIDS NOW DON'T SEE THE NEED FOR NONVIOLENCE. THEY DON'T SEE HOW YOU WERE ABLE TO TAKE THAT. DO YOU THINK YOU COULD GIVE ME AN SORT OF AN EXPLANATION OF WHY? WHY NONVIOLENCE? I MEAN WHY DO YOU SIT THERE AND BE HIT? WHY NOT GET UP AND SMACK THE PERSON?
Well like I said, that's the only thing we knew in the sense that I grew up in the South and I knew that white people were tough. They didn't mess around and that from a law enforcement point of view they had all the control with the guns, and the police officers, and the courts, and everything else. And I guess you just come to the conclusion in this instance, in this situation, if you're going to participate in this way, you don't come out any way by getting up and knocking somebody down. I mean you can do that but at that time we were trying I guess to give a certain image that students could mobilize themselves, could organize themselves, and they could do it in what's generally described as a peaceful, nonviolent manner. Plus a lot of us didn't know about the other options that may be—were around—that could even possibly be used at that time.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE FIRST, TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE FIRST RALEIGH CONVENTION AND HOW SNCC WAS ORGANIZED? AND THEN JUST TELL ME THAT YOU WERE ELECTED.
Well,I can't remember all of it. We got there, a lot of us were excited about going because we knew there were other students around the country we had heard about. We had seen them on television or we had talked to them on the telephone in trying to hook up coordination about certain weekend movements and things. We didn't know who they were. They didn't know who we were. So just the—plus to get out of Nashville, and we had been battling in Nashville since the early part of February, and every weekend we were demonstrating and some weekends at night, and some nights during the week we were—we had a number of night marches downtown. And so I guess we were in battle and one was to get out of Nashville, just to take a break for that weekend. It was Easter weekend. And also to meet all these students we had heard about and had seen. And so we got there, it was like we hadn't known each other, but we all came together and we introduced ourselves, everyone around, you know, the campus, at Shaw University. And plus, you know, Dr. King was there and a lot of has, had a lot of respect for him and some of us had been able to see him at various rallies or had participated in some affairs with him so that to be there—a number of other people we hadn't seen, just heard about—you know, people in Birmingham and in Montgomery and North Carolina and South Carolina and Orangeburg [South Carolina] who had gone through hell probably much more than we had gone through in terms of the-you know the white folks and the jails. It was just good to come together. That was one thing. The other thing was that Dr. King was trying to convince students they ought to become part of SCLC, and it was fed by a lot of people out of the SCLC organizers were there. I think I remember Wyatt Tee Walker, and a lot other people around that I can't remember now, were there and students decided that they didn't want to necessarily make that move that way. So a lot of caucusing going on among various delegations, the Nashville group was caucusing with the Alabama group and the Alabama group was caucusing with the Georgia group. And so I think over a period of time, certain groups like for instance the Nashville group became very close to the Atlanta group—I guess there were a lot of similarities in Atlanta as there were in—
[SOUND ROLL ELEVEN, CAMERA ROLL EIGHTEEN]
Blacks would get on the bus and blacks would fill up to about three-fourths of the bus. As it went through town, there would be less and less black people, more and more white people would get on it so by the time you get to the other end of the line it was predominantly white. So when the bus would come through our neighborhood, in the summertime particularly, and people had their arms out the windows, we used to throw water on them, you know, the buses, hit white folks with sticks and things—a lot of kind of stuff like that—I didn't know then what I was doing. I thought I was just, I'm now looking in retrospect, it was, it was a reaction to—we used to throw Coke bottles on top of the movie theater all the time, throw them down there, and it was dark. They didn't know who threw them and they went there and said sitting watching the movie, you know.
GO BACK TO TALKING ABOUT RALEIGH, THE CONVENTION IN RALEIGH.
Well at Raleigh, as I said it was a coming together and there was a basic inclination on the part of students to sort of have their own organization—or have our own organization. Because when we understand all the other things, I didn't understand all the other things that were going on with SCLC and with CORE, NAACP, and all these other things that were happening and the Nashville students were probably more insistent on this than the most about keeping an organization of students coming together, coordinating their efforts. Also, there was an effort made to try to get students to do the same thing everywhere. And we were quick to point out that each situation was different, that what we could do in Nashville, maybe could not be done in Rock Hill, South Carolina, or because in Mississippi it was unheard of. When we went to Raleigh in 1960, I doubt we had hardly anybody there from Mississippi because Mississippi was just considered one of those states where students and no other people would out—really demonstrate, you know. There were a few from Tougaloo, but Tougaloo had always been a campus where people had done things. There were a few there I think from Rust College, but by and large Mississippi was not that well represented at the conference. Then there was the whole question too of nonviolent direct action, what that meant. And Jim Lawson was like the foremost proponent of the philosophical construct around nonviolent—I mean most of us were doing that out of a tactic, I never felt any real deep philosophical sense that we ought to do it this way except that was the best way at the time to do it, and so I could argue that and feel comfortable with it. I think that's where most students were too. They had bee—
WHY WAS THAT THE BEST WAY?
Well, that was all that we knew. I mean, well, as I said, none of us, those of us in the South particularly were faced with all the power, either subtle or not so subtle power, the white power structure. In those days, I didn't think that you could organize anything violent. On the other hand I think we were dissatisfied with the slow pace of the legal route. That the NAACP had done about as much as they could I guess, but that had been a very slow process, that the Brown decision had not accomplished very much when we could see it. In the south, also it didn't deal with public accommodations, it didn't deal with voter registration, it didn't get at the kind of things we were very, very much concerned about, and so we didn't think the legal way was any way of getting it done. Plus it seemed to have moved the country to have these thousands of students marching, demonstrating, being put in jail, in some instances being beaten with national publicity on it, and so we thought that was what was necessary at that time. I couldn't think of any other way and I don't think other students around—I know at subsequent times, in the movement when there was a big debate about whether you ought to be nonviolent, you ought to be defensively violent, or you ought to do this or do that. I mean that, that was a natural growth, outgrowth out of that kind of movement. But it was just exciting and it made you feel good to see hundreds of students from all over the country, particularly in the South. Black students too who were ready to mobilize themselves and ready to demonstrate and to stay out of school and to face expulsion, particularly from the state schools. There were a group from Montgomery, from Alabama State, who were, had been expelled and there were others on the verge of being expelled from most of the state schools, but even some private schools, and so that just made you feel good. That maybe what you were doing was the right thing to do and the right technique at that time.
YOU SAID YOU SAT IN THE BACK AND NOBODY KNEW [unintelligible].
Well I think we all, we talked, we met them early but looking in retrospect I don't think that the Greensboro movement after they got started was as strong as some other movements, and therefore the dynamics of that conference was that everybody was jockeying, trying to get into something. Because the Nashville people had decided that we were going to be wherever the action was, we would be there with it.
[unintelligible background conversation]
WERE YOU ELELCTED AT THE CONFERNCE IN ATLANTA? OR…?
OK, MAYBE YOU COULD JUST TELL ME THAT, AND THEN TELL ME ABOUT WHAT HAPPENEND IN ATLANTA.
Well actually I wasn't supposed to be elected in the sense that I, we had decided that if Diane Nash wanted to be nominated for coordinator for chair, whatever the leadership structure, would be, that's what we would do and I was sort of like the second or third person in that whole configuration. And we had the final meeting of the coordinating committee, or the meeting to discuss the continuation committee, that's what it really was, and for whatever reason Diane was not there, and so the Nashville people knew that I was the second person that ought to be talked about. But moreover we had made a lot of friends with people in Atlanta, and in the Carolinas, had a large delegation of people from the up and down the Carolinas because it was close by, plus they were doing a lot of things. And so someone I think Virginia Thornton from Virginia made the motion that I be the temporary chair and it was second and there was no debate about it. And so I was named the temporary chair of the temporary coordinating committee of the temporary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That's what it was [laughter]. I mean it wasn't anything permanent. It was temporary and we agreed to meet one month later in Atlanta to talk about how we begin to organize the structure of that organization. And we met in Atlanta. I continued until the fall of 1960. At that time I went to the University of Kansas. First of all, I was out of the movement daily because I couldn't get back and forth into it, and secondly the whole structure at that point was to try to find a full-time chair. Someone who would take off and sort of really direct the attentions and energies to be in the full-time chair of the organization. In between that time I had gone to both the national conventions of the Republican party which was held here in Washington and the Democratic party in Los Angeles. Bernard Lee and I had done that during the summer to try to generate some support for the movement at that time, so it wasn't the only conscious effort I think that we made was the Nashville students were determined to be wherever leadership was. We were going to be in there because we thought we had a good movement and we thought we had something to offer. The other parts of the movement—
WHAT WAS THE FINANCIAL STRUCTURE LIKE? HOW DID YOU FUNDRAISE FOR AN ORGANIZATION LIKE THAT?
It was rough. As I remember, I think SCLC quite frankly lent us or gave us some amount of money. I don't know if it was $2,000. Mrs. Ella Baker was very involved with that process. When we first went to Atlanta, in May of 1960 I think, we met oh, Morehouse campus or someplace at Atlanta University center, it was—at that time we were looking. We decided we ought to stay in Atlanta and we ought to look for an office in Atlanta. And Mrs. Baker I think persuaded SCLC people to let us use space above their office. I think it was at 208—these numbers and streets sort of slip me—but we were there for awhile and we finally had some other people. I think it was Jane Stimberson, some others who knew some other people who gave us a hundred dollars here, fifty dollars here, or twenty five dollars until we just were able to put together some little amount of money. Now what we did in terms of people getting to Atlanta each of the movements paid, like for instance the Nashville movement paid my way, you know, to Atlanta and the other movements paid the student's way to Atlanta, and paid our way back and also gave us I guess five to ten dollars to spend on food while we were there. So the movements themselves had to sustain our subsistence or our existence, and then I think we moved over to 197(?) Avenue. But money started coming in the fall particularly with NSA, the National Student Association got very busy to assist in raising money. We had activities on the college campuses in the north that sent money south to students and they began to form a kitty. I remember when we went to Los Angeles we had to, Bernard and I just had to hustle the money from various places to get to Los Angeles. We went on the train and got there, and once we got there some people there, some churches, helped us raise some money to get us to Washington. So we managed to fly over to Washington, but it was that kind of struggle of asking people to give some money in any way they could. And the local movements in the south, they raised money because most of had fundraising activities—had rallies where we took up money. We asked churches to send us money. They took up money on Sundays and the community contributed to bail bonds and things. In some instances the bond was returned, so therefore the money was available, but it was pretty rough.
HOW DID FOUNDATIONS—CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE ROLE OF FOUNDATIONS IN THE VOTER EDUCATION PROJECT?
Well, this is a big debate in that period because there was a big debate in SNCC about direct action and about voter registration. Some of us including myself was a little leery of those who advocated let's not turn the movement into a movement for voter registration at that time: ‘61. So we finally compromised. We had two things going. Those persons who wanted to participate in voter registration would be in that wing of SNCC, and those of us who wanted to do direct action would be in the direct action wing, and so that's where the money question of foundations came into being to some extent. And there was some people who wanted to try to get money directly to SNCC from foundations, and I think the foundations resisted that, and I guess this whole notion of the voter education project became a viable kind of alternative place for monies to go. I don't know a lot about it quite frankly at the time because I was not interested that much in the voter registration part of it and in the foundation part of it. I was interested in direct action. But I later learned, you know, looking back and talking to people how some of that happened and who was involved with it.
CAN YOU TELL ME? I MEAN, FROM WHAT WE READ, THE FIELD FOUNDATION AND THE[?] FOUNDATION GAVE YOU A LOT OF MONEY, AND THAT—DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THAT, I MEAN—
Of course I know about that now. [laughter]
KENNEDY'S INVOLVEMENT IN POLITICALLY MAKING A DECISION TO DO THAT?
At the time I didn't. I don't think many of us did. Of course we didn't. I didn't, I'm speaking for myself. I don't understand the structure of the Justice Department and the FBI and the attorney general and all of that, I didn't understand all of that. And so even with the direct action side of what we were doing, we wanted to get the attorney general and the Justice Department in and try to protect our lives, 'cause we were in these tough situations and, but I now understand in retrospect that there was a major effort on the part of the Field Foundation, the[unintelligible] Foundation, to put money into voter registration. That the Kennedys had, you know, friends and influence in those foundations, and that there may have been some other kinds of agendas that were there that I didn't know about, and I don't think the people who were really genuinely pushing for voter registration knew about it. I think I, I had the vision and I—a tug of war was around us. It wasn't that we ought to keep direct action going because I think it was effective, and we all thought it was effective, and voter registration was just as effective and I guess we all came to the accommodation that it both ought to go on, that both could be effective, that both could supplement each other. That is in some cities or counties voter registration could be a good way to get activities started that would then maybe flow over into direct action around public accommodations. And at the time—
DO YOU KNOW WHAT THOSE FOLKS AGENDAS WERE?
Well I mean—I think that it's obvious that they were probably trying to expand their base in the early sixties. Because, as you know, John Kennedy won the Presidency by a very narrow margin in ‘60 and I think they were trying to expand it in the South because I think black people were probably more than likely to be more natural allies of that group of philosophical political thought than some white people in some other parts of the country. Plus looking in retrospect, voter registration was a motherhood kind of issue. Who could who could legitimately say that black folks shouldn't be allowed to register to vote? You know, you couldn't defend that even though you didn't agree with that. So I think it was one of those motherhood issues that also satisfied some other political agendas. At the time it happened I know I wasn't aware of that ramification of it—I was just busy about trying to get the movement going and trying to do that which I thought was right to do, you know, for black people, and I didn't know about these other agendas. I mean I learned about these things as you travel around the country, as you go to meetings, as you get more sophisticated about what would happen back in those—I think most of us were very naive about the political ramifications of all this. We were just busy trying to work hard to change, change the damn system.
IN RETROSPECT, WERE YOU INVOLVED IN ANY KINDS OF PLANNING MEETINGS THAT FOR THOSE KINDS OF THINGS THAT IN RETROSPECT YOU CAN ANALYZE?
Well I think, you know, I guess we probably were—I mean what's finally happened after the debates had gone down as to what we ought to do, all of us participated in trying to plan voter registration drives, even though we had some difficulty with them and vice versa. Those persons in SNCC who wanted to do voter registration also helped us to plan direct action kind of campaigns aimed at public accommodation 'cause we all loved each other. We all were in the struggle together so after we had our big debates, and our big fights that went on all night and half the day and half the next day, and we finally came to an agreement, we still help each other try to plan what we, what we could do—
I GUESS I WAS ASKING, WERE YOU INVOLVED IN ANY MEETING WITH FUNDRAISING PEOPLE, WITH FOUNDATION PEOPLE WHICH YOU CAN IN RETROSPECT ANALYZE?
Well I can't remember too many of those. Most of the time I was debating about when we going to get our money and how we could get it over to the people that needed it. I was not in too many—I think I might have gone to New York a few times to sit in some of those meetings to try to get as much as we could for SNCC. That was a big debate as who ought to get the money, too. It wasn't quite that easy to say well we ought to give it for SNCC. I mean SCLC wanted some of it. The NAACP wanted some of it. CORE wanted some of it. The people of Mississippi were the—the COFO people wanted it, people in southwest Georgia wanted it and, so we were constantly battling for what I consider our legitimate share of that money. And I don't think that, you know, the money thing really changed the people who working in the projects. I think they needed it to survive. And they were, they managed to use it to survive and even though there were some other agendas now that I know looking back at it, that were, that were attached to it.
SO, WHAT YOU MEAN IS THAT IT WOULD HAVE GONE THE SAME WAY, IT JUST MADE IT EASIER BECAUSE THERE WAS SOME EXTRA MONEY THERE?
Well I think that, that the voter registration effort was a good effort and looking in retrospect I think it should have gone on. I think that the differences of opinion between us at that time really wanted, weren't as huge as they appeared at the time, that both those actions were very, very necessary, very, very helpful and very, very synergistic to each other at that time, and broke open the south. And I think we're now reaping the benefits of both those movements, both the direct action movement and the voter registration movement because each learned from the other, and each took on some of the same techniques from the other because they were brought to the court house as opposed to the lunch counter. There were marches to the jail after a few had been arrested for trying to register to vote just as there had been marches to the jail and after people had been arrested for trying to sit in on a lunch counter, or an integrated library or a swimming pool. So I think that was, there was some parallels in both of the movements, but it's amazing to me how many people were involved looking back in retrospect where you can't hardly get people involved to do hardly anything now, including voting. There were thousands of people in the south particularly, local people as well as students who were involved right across the board who took a lot of chances with their lives and who stood up and at the time. I guess we didn't realize the significance of that, of those actions.