Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: C
Interview Date: November 13, 1985
Interview Place: Chicago, Illinois
Camera Rolls: 552-556
Sound Rolls: 1523-1524
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with James Bevel, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 13, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Camera Roll 552.
Sound Roll 1523.
1963 was the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and started the year Governor Wallace pledged Alabama to segregation forever. As you prepared for Birmingham, did those thoughts kind of enter you mind, those other events?
Well, it does, but I guess by '63 we were pretty confident that we had developed a science that would allow us to, to eradicate segregation in that it was incongruent, you know, with the basic tenet of our Constitution. So, you know, as I hear that statement, the statement that Wallace made that segregation is forever, we had tested the science of nonviolence in other cities and we knew that it was comparable—incompetent to deal with their problem.
What made Birmingham a city to focus on?
Well, it had a reputation equal to the Mississippi—Birmingham had a reputation equal to the Mississippi Delta in terms of its brutalization of people. It was known for its—Bull Connor, its police department, its violation and bombing, and denigrating black people and it was very resistant city. Klan, a lot of Klan activity. A lot of suppression. And so, that made it special because the greater the resistance in the application of the science of nonviolence, the clearer the issues become for the onlooker.
So, are you saying that in order for nonviolence to work, it has to be met with violence?
No, I said that it, it crystallizes when it's like contrasts. You have a better means of showing and revealing and bringing out the contradiction when there is an adamant attitude in people about superimposing their attitudes upon other people. So that you get a better contrast when you have people who are very adamant about that.
You've talked about the oppression of a city like Birmingham, Bull Connor's reputation and things like that. I want to move forward to the point where you decided to involve children. I mean, if it was such an oppressive environment, wasn't that kind of risky to involve children?
Well, in terms of the nature of the situation because of the intense suppression and the conditioning of the adults, it was necessary to use children because children had not been indoctrinated into that kind of violence and suppression. So they could come on the situation with an—a fresh approach. But it wasn't particularly dangerous from our point of view of using children. At that particular point children were in Vietnam. Guys seventeen was in Vietnam and our thinking was that if a young person could go to Vietnam and engage in a war, then the person certainly the same age and younger could engage in a nonviolent war that didn't violate the constitution of the people, property, and that when you use that method the chances of getting injured is very little anyway.
OK, you mentioned children of seventeen being in Vietnam. You were actually dealing with children who were much younger than that though.
Yeah, we were dealing with children, six, and those who took the position that they were—wanted to involve themselves—that they themselves understood the nature of love and its power, and wanted to demonstrate that love and its power, then we permitted them to become involved.
Let me back up just a little bit. You talked about the indoctrination of adults. What was the adult thinking, because I know that you had many of the black leaders involved with the demonstrations, but what did the population in general feel?
Well, they felt that segregation would probably be—in '63 in Birmingham most adults felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way. That was a permanent system. It would probably be that way that. The power of the city, the power of the state, the power of the Congress, the Marines, the Army, the Air Force, they see all that as alignments of power, and they saw it as an impossible situation. And so, most of the adults felt that nothing like that could change probably, except if Russia or China invaded and destroyed America, or something like that, but people didn't think that there was a force or a power within the country strong enough to offset something as entrenched and as reinforced as segregation.
The adults must have had a great deal of fear.
Yeah, well you'd had people's homes and churches bombed. People had been lynched and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your grievances because—
We just ran out—
All right, just finish that part about the fear of the adults.
The—when in Alabama in '63 the fear was entrenched because the people had come out of a social system wherein they had no way to redress any of their grievances. Lynchings, bombings, so that there was a tendency not to do anything that would aggravate or cause state violence to be upon the people. So, they had a conditioning, and so you had to get people who had not experienced all of that and who had confidence in themselves and in the—in our system of law. And the young people were susceptible to that principle that the attitudes and opinions of white people did not constitute law. That was simply tradition and custom and that we had to live according to the New Testament and the Constitution and if we did, then we would forge in law rather than having to live by the attitudes and opinions of the people, of the dominant people at that point.
OK, but if the people, if the adults were so fearful, it seems to me that you became a pied piper in a way of taking these children away. I can't believe that the parents were supportive of their children getting involved with you.
Well, they was—we had workshops and we had mass meetings.
OK, tell me about the adult response to your use of the children.
Well it was good. A lot of adults would come out. One of the things we were interested in was getting the American black community involved. And in a city like Birmingham, you can't hardly go to a church, say in Chicago, where there is not a member in that church that is not related to Birmingham. So if you put several thousand children from Birmingham, say in jail, you sort of affected the religious community in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, so you wanted to get the black community involved in it. We wanted to get the black community in Birmingham involved and the way you get the people involved is get their children involved.** A lot of people were afraid to come to mass meetings in terms of the—the Alabama Bureau of Investigation would be around taking pictures and harassing people. So when the children became involved, they became involved, which meant they started coming to workshops and mass meetings. And our position was, rather than, kind of, get your children out of the movement, join the movement with your children. That the reason we had was faced with segregation because they themselves hadn't assessed the responsibility of breaking the attitudes and the patterns of misbehavior, say from their parents, and if the students didn't break those patterns then they would live a life of degeneracy in that kind of state. So, it was like the parents pretty much agreed that, and most parents even when it's dangerous and risky, they have a deep sense of appreciation and respect for young people when they're doing what's right. I mean, all of them knew it was potentially dangerous, but they knew it was honorable, and they knew it was noble and they knew it was right. So they didn't fight against it. And then you had myself, and Fred Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, and Martin King preaching, and it's very difficult to go against the logic and the reasoning of a preacher who is really in the—about the business of preaching and all.
All right, let's just go on. Tell me, tell me a story about what it was like when you started to train all those children. You had thousands of children that you were trying to train. There must have been some funny incidents.
Well, what happened—I had come out of the Nashville movement and the Mississippi movements where we had basically used young people all the time. And, well, at first King didn't want me to use young people because I had eighty charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor—minors—against me in Jackson, Mississippi for sending young people on the Freedom Ride. Well, that was about five to ten, twelve people would go on demonstrations each day and my position was well, you can't get the dialogues you need with a few people. Besides,most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills, but the young people wherein they can think at the same level are not, at this point, hooked with all those responsibilities. So, a boy from high school, he get the same effect in terms of being in jail in terms of putting the pressure on the city as his father and yet he is not, there is no economic threat on the family because the father is still on the job.** So the strategy was, OK, let's use thousands of people who won't create an economic crisis because they're off the job, so the high school students was like our choice. And we brought that to them in terms of you're adults, but you're still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies, so it is your responsibility in that you don't have to pay the bills, to take the responsibility, to confront the segregation question. And what we did, we went around and started organizing say like, the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then, they in turn got all the other students involved. Because it was only about, like I said, 15 people a day demonstrating was willing to go to jail because the black community did not have that kind of cohesion in terms of a camaraderie. People knew each other, but only in terms of on their way to jobs, on their way to church, but the students they have sort of community they'd been in for say, ten, eleven, twelve years since they were in elementary school, so they had bonded well. So if one went to jail, that was a direct effect upon another when because they was classmates. Wherein parents, people live in the community do not have that kind of closeness, so the strategy for using the students was to get the whole involvement. To help them overcome the crippling fears of dogs, and jails, and to help them start thinking through problems on their feet, to think through a living problem causes you to think. Wherein if you're just reading books and referring, but once you get involved, you have to think.
OK. Now you're telling me a lot of the philosophy, but what—what happened when you brought these kids together. Did you have—I know there's a story in here somewhere. What happened when you finally said, OK, I need some good volunteers here.
Well, first thing we did, we got to—there's a film, "The Nashville City and Story." I don't know whether you've seen it or not. It was NBC White Paper. We would show that film in all of the schools, and one of the things that I was—I guess the difference that—that we approached was that you are responsible for segregation, you and your parents because you have not stood up. In other words, our position was that according to the Bible and the Constitution, no one has the power to oppress you if you don't cooperate. So then if you say you are oppressed, then you are also acknowledging that you are in league with the oppressor. Now it's your responsibility to break league with the oppressor. If you don't second his motion on what's wrong, his motion on what's wrong will die, and you make a motion in terms of what's right, and second your motion, and that motion will become alive. So it was like, as long as you go along with segregation, you second Bull Connor's motion. So don't second his motion. Put your own motion on the floor. The fact that schools and business shouldn't go on as usual as long as you're involved in being oppressed.
Tell me about the kids. How did they respond?
They responded beautifully. Well, your first response is like the young women. I guess, from about thirteen to eighteen. They're probably more responsive in terms of courage, confidence and the ability to follow reasoning and logic. So nonviolence to them, it's logical that you should love people, you shouldn't violate people, you shouldn't violate property. There's a way to solve all problems without violating. It's uncomfortable. It's inconvenient. It's immediate threat upon you, however, if you maintain your position, the threat goes away. So that kind of logic fits very well with young people who are not engaged in a—
OK, so young girls thirteen to eighteen, they were pretty good. Who was the next group to respond?
Then the elementary students. They can comprehend that. And of course, I guess the last guys to get involved—most of them was finally got involved—is the high school guys, or the last days because the brunt of the violence in the South was directed towards the young males. So that the females had not experienced that kind of negative violence even the white males as readily as they, the young black males did. So they didn't have the kind of immediate fear say of white policemen, as the young men did. So their involvement was more spontaneous and up front than say, the guys—
OK, on camera roll 553 we have 100 feet remaining.
I don't want to philosophize about this too much. I want something visual, that if you can describe how the kids responded or behaved. Can you do that?
Yeah, I think I can.
All right, go ahead.
Now, say in a nonviolent movement—I think King makes a statement that it's not like punching a bunch of buttons and you get automatic response—people with all their frailties make up the matrix of a movement. So if you have a philosophy, you have in any movement all the divergent attitudes and emotions, and people bring all their problems with them. And so you don't in a, say a movement dynamic have the absolute discipline which you have. You have the spirit of discipline—
OK, OK, but you're giving me philosophy again. I want to know what the kids did. Did they run down the street? Did they run around the cops? Did they do something like that?
Yeah, well, see all of that was like, all of that was part of within the tactical scope of what you're doing. In other words, none of them got outside the law in terms of what they were doing. They—
I'm not suggesting that...
I'm saying that, let's say like when we had demonstrations, a demonstration planned, we call a blitz. OK, we said, OK, now we're going down this street, and you're going to be confronted by the police. Now while these people being confronted by the police, we want these groups of students to go around the police and go down this street and wind up downtown because we want all of you downtown. Now, in downtown you had not just morning praying people, you had students being students, singing, jovial, walking through stores singing. But you didn't have nothing in terms of out of the ordinary because if you know anything about [telephone ringing] Birmingham, say, in—
Sorry, I thought that had been taken off.
OK, that was a roll-out on 553. We're going to 554.
OK, finish telling me the story about the blitz and, don't—tell me a story about the kids being kids in the midst of all of this.
All right, start the story over if you—
Well I'm saying see, I have to tell the story from my experiencing and how I was experiencing people and what they were doing in my environment. I'm sure that based on me running nonviolent workshops and students seeing me as a nonviolent teacher. Their conduct around me probably would be different say, if they was around the street, in the corner, etc. But in relation to my experience in the young people in particularly in all of the confrontation processes in Birmingham, I would say that I had, I had not met even the Birm—I mean the Nashville students who was on a college level did not manifest the kind of maturity and strength of character those young people in Birmingham. So that—that I think that that is what is phenomenal about that movement. That you had the total high school population operating at a highly internal discipline, not in terms of external forces, but internal discipline than any movement I've seen. And I'm sure that, like I said, children are children. They act young people act, like young people, and they didn't always go around acting like, you know, monks or anything like that. But in terms just in terms of respect and , decor...
How does a six-year-old girl respond in the midst of something like this?
Well, that particular girl that you would see a picture in, say in the Martin Luther King book on why we can't wait, that little girl came to me and said, "I want to demonstrate." And I said, well you're too little and beside you'd have to understand Jesus Christ, and Gandhi and all that stuff, and I said you've got to be born again. And she said, "Well, I been born again. I'm member of a church and I've been baptized." I said, "Well, I still think you're too little," and her mama said, "Well, she been thinking about it and she's not too little she goes to Sunday School-"
Could you hold it down in the back room, please? I'm sorry.
And she goes to Sunday School and she's—she lives out her conviction. And my position, well, if you, if you understand what the cross is about and you don't have no problem with getting killed, and you don't have no problem going to jail, and you understand that you can't sue nobody, 'cause this is something you take upon yourself. If that's the way you feel, if you feel about it like I do, then you can get involved. And it was like on that basis that that young girl was involved.
OK, now somebody's speaking in from the kitchen. John, is that in your shot? OK, I have seen a photograph of you, Reverend Bevel where you were using a policeman's bull horn to talk to some children because I think they started to misbehave one day, I think—wonder if you could tell us that story.
Yeah, that was the time I was referring to. That we were coming off a demonstration and the police was using, was driving the students back with water and dogs, and when we got back to the church a lot of their dogs had come out of the community was watching. Now the students was being playful and jovial and mocking the police, but the adults upon seeing a lot of the students knocked down by the water, and the clothes torn off by dogs began to organize their guns and knives and bricks. And what I did, actually was tell the students that they had to respect police officers, and that their job was to help police, and that to keep order. And that the police was there to keep order and that the people who was there probably throwing was probably paid as instigators, and therefore we had to watch them. And it was like, it was very effective. It started all the students to pointing at adults who had rocks and knives and guns, and then the adults had to start dropping them, and because it would've started a riot, and a riot would've gotten off the issue. And I think the students was very aware of that, and the adults weren't aware of that. So what we did, we got the adults that day say, maybe nearly a thousand to go into the church, to go through the reasons why you don't use violence. And the fact that we were in control and that we were gaining because we were not using violence because the issues were being made clear. But that, that was like one of the spectacular events that you got this policeman with a bull horn not knowing what to do with it and I said, "Well, where's Bull Connor?" And it was like, he said, "Well." He started looking for him, I said, "Well let me use your bull horn." So he just gave it to me, so when I took the bull horn I said, "OK, get off the streets now. We're not going to have violence. If you're not going to respect policeman, you're not going to be in the movement," and you know, it's strange I guess for them. I'm with the police talking through the bull horn and giving orders and everybody was obeying the orders. It was like, it was wow. But what was at stake was the possibility of a riot and that, once in a movement, once a riot break out, you have to stop, takes you four, five more days to get re-established, and I was trying to avoid that kind of situation.**
You ever have a run-in with Bull Connor?
Yep, I, one day, we—I had been out on a demonstration since eight that morning 'cause the kids would come in, instead of going to school they'd come to the church, say about 6:30 on. And I started doing work shops, so I hadn't any food any water, so the police was out all that morning also. So there was a lieutenant, so I said, "Well look man, I don't want to leave them out here because, all these kids out here, so can I get some food off the truck?" So he said, "Yeah, just get in line with my men." So by that time, Bull Connor came up and saw me in the line and he started screaming, he said, "Get that nigger!" He said, "He ain't eating. That's the city's food!" [laughter] So the lieutenant said, "I told him he could get the food." "He can not have the city's—" I mean he just went into a rage and it was interesting, because that's the point at which he actually lost control of his policemen. That when he carried on like that, and the lieutenant was saying, "No, Reverend, you can have the sandwich," and Bull Connor was saying, "He can not have the sandwich," and Lieutenant say, "I told him he can have the sandwich." And it was like, it wasn't really between me and Bull, it was between Bull and his lieutenant. And so I said, "Well, Mr. Connor, if you, you know, don't think I should have your food, you can have your food back," and the lieu said, "No, you can eat the food." And it was like you know, something that simple and petty that the lieutenant was really, was really pushed in terms of seeing how petty he was and how negative he was about something that small. But that was to me a great day of confrontation in terms of he and his men, you know, and my eating the sandwich was interesting.
On camera roll 554, 50 feet remaining. Sorry 150 feet on 554.
And flags, Jim, it's all yours.
OK, tell me about how you heard about the Sixteenth Street church bombing.
I was on my way to Sunday School. I was in Edington, North Carolina, had gone up to work with Gordon Franks, who was our North Carolina and Virginia Field Secretary. So I was on my way to Sunday School, and I was preaching that Sunday night, heard about it on the radio.
And what was your reaction when you heard?
Well, my first reaction when I heard about the bombing was anger, rage. I felt that the bombing of the church was almost like a personal insult. That we had used the church, and the young people and I was feeling that the reactionary forces or the Klan, or whoever, was trying to teach us a lesson. And it was like, I guess I experienced it more or less as an insult than an injury. And then I got information to the effect that some of the guys who was involved in it was from the sheriff department. And then I was thinking about killing people. And then I had to do a lot to thinking about that. And that's when I started thinking about what would be the appropriate response to that kind of situation.
Now, I get the sense that is was very often how you handled things, that you would feel that base reaction and then you would think it through and bring out something of a higher level from it. Is that something you did often during this time?
Yeah, I think that one of the—I think it's natural for human beings to get angry when there's an intense violation and I think if a person don't have the capacity to get angry, I don't think they have the capacity to think fully through the implications of that which caused them to be angry. So I've always had the—felt I had a right to be angry and express my real feelings about that. Now, I did not feel that to carry out a conduct that's as demeaning to a person as, as the person carried out, was necessarily correct. Under the nonviolent Christian thing, is OK, what you do is you relax and you work through the cause and then address the cause. But basically when something like that happens, my first response is to get angry and want to kill somebody.
Now, Andy Young has told us that as a result of the Sixteenth church bombing you and Diane Nash came up with the whole idea for the Selma campaign. If that's true, could you tell us how you thought that through?
Yeah, well we were dealing with, well, if the sheriff was involved in that and the deputy sheriff was involved in that, then the way we can stop the bombings is to give the black people the option to put sheriffs and irresponsible law-makers and law enforcing agents out of office since they're elected by the people. So, rather than being mad and asking for Kennedy to send the army down and those kinds of things, let's take to the people, since all of the people are angry, and all the people feel the shock of this violation. Let's take to the people a strategy and a plan for working on the right to vote. And what was interesting, all of the people bought into it, but the leaders had problems with it.
When you say leaders, who do you mean?
The NAACP people, the Urban League people, the AME people, the CORE leadership, and in fact some of the people in SCLC, like Shuttlesworth. They had problems with it because it, it demanded a new commitment. It demanded an involvement. It demanded that we become engaged in the confrontation over the question of the right of black people to vote. And I think that all of them was aware that most of the violence perpetrated on and toward black people was specifically for the purpose of disenfranchising them. So they felt that if we moved in that direction, we would probably reap a whole lot of violence—unprecedented and so I think that most of them was not willing to face that.
And OK, OK.
OK, camera roll-out on 554. Go into 555. OK, we're going to stop at this point and go to sound roll 1524.
Camera Roll 555.
Sound roll 1524.
OK, based on what you were telling me, I sense that compared to Birmingham and similar campaigns, Selma was a whole new way of thinking. If that's true, would you expand on that a little bit and tell me about the difference?
Yeah, the other movements had faced, was focused on public accommodations—the right of a person to eat, the right of a person to ride the bus, and the right of the person to use a theater. The Selma movement was to address the specific problem of disenfranchisement, which was different in terms of it wasn't asking for an accommodation, it was asking for a basic constitutional right. It was addressing the violation of a basic constitutional right, which is the right to vote. My thinking on that was that the American people would be more responsive to that than say, the right to eat or the right to ride a bus because that is more basic in terms of an American principle—the right to govern yourself. That's very basic. There was a lot of debate and argument as to whether people, would respond to that. My position on it, was that if you clarify for people in terms of the need to vote, people understood that. The problem was that they didn't see a way or means by which that could be accomplished. I think once we showed that that was possible, if they wouldn't settle for nothing less, the question becomes what's possible? What's possible is what you want. What's yours is right for you to have if you don't settle for nothing less. And, and the point was in getting people to agree to settle for nothing less than that because there was no rational reason why any segment of the population should be denied the right to govern themselves. And it was, it was pretty easy to sell the people on that.
In terms of Selma, do you think that that was one of the best organized campaigns that was part of the whole civil rights movement?
I would say that in terms of, yeah, probably more classical, and better, probably thought out better. If you studied it in terms of Chuck Fager's book or in other books, I think you'll find that the application and the response is probably more accurate. I think it's because it's constitutionally clearer. I think there's a lot of growth and discipline in the people who were involved, and I think the need was clearer and necessary, and I think that's why it was maybe more of a classical movement than the other movements.
The movement does seem to be a little bit older and a little bit more sophisticated by the time you get to Selma. Is that how you see it? What was the basis for all that sophistication?
Give me a sentence on that.
The—that which would allow us to be more accurate, more confident, more secure in the application of nonviolence, grew out of our experience, in experiments in Nashville, Albany, Savannah, Danville, Virginia, Birmingham, Greenwood, McComb, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Nashville, the Freedom Ride. I had gone through all these campaigns when I got to Selma, so you know, it's like playing ball. You are competent based on the application and the response in your ability to apply the principle, so that people were trained. They were accustomed to violence. They were not afraid, and they were at this point comfortable with the principles and application of nonviolence.
OK, one of the things that happened, of course, another time when you took a sad moment and came up with a moment of victory, or at least a way of achieving victory was after Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed. I think you—that was when you came up with a very important idea. [speaking to the camera crew] And are you going to put that in? Because if you are going to put that in and make a noise then maybe we should stop down here because you're going to— All right, tell me about your reaction to Jimmie Lee Jackson's death.
Well, Jimmie Lee Jackson's death came at a point when I was recovering from pneumonia and a beating I had taken myself [unintelligible] all demonstrations in Selma. So, James Orange came and told me that Jimmie Lee Jackson—James Orange was a member of our staff who was in charge of Marion, Alabama—and he came in and told me that this guy Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young deacon in Marion, Alabama, had been shot and of course a few days later he died. I was getting out of the hospital myself. So, I asked him what was the situation. And he said, well the people are mad and they're going to—they want to riot. But I think what a significant thing that happened during the period in which Jackson was killed—the state troopers had gone to Marion and had beat up all of the newsmen and had destroyed their cameras, tore up their pads and ran them out of town. So for the first time, the local and national press really started focusing in on the police violence and brutality. And it was that night that Jimmie Lee Jackson was, was killed. Well, when I went up, I had to preach because I had to try to get the people back out of the state of negative violence, and out of a state of grief. Now if, if you don't deal with negative violence and grief, it turns into bitterness. So what I recommend was that the people walk from Marion to Montgomery, which would give them time to work out in terms of what energy and thinking through their hostility and resentments, and get back focus on the issue. And the question I put to them, do you think Wallace sent the policemen down to kill the man or do you think that the—in the—in out of the pressures and the fears that the police overreact? Now, if overreact, then you can't go around assuming that Wallace sent the men down to kill. So what we need to do is to go to Montgomery and ask the governor, what is his motives and intentions and did he do that deliberately, and was that in fact, just an error that took place. And so the people agreed to do that. You know, it's like, let's further investigate. And my point with the people was that, you know, I don't have no problem with shooting people necessarily, but before you shoot people at least you ought to have all the facts as to what happened so that you're acting rationally upon the law. So that you're not just indiscriminately going around mad, killing some white people that may be coming down the street. If the governor sent the man down there to kill the man and you know that then if you want to deal with the governor on violence, then you have the information. But first of all, do all your investigations and your analysis before you take an action. And the people agreed to that. So then they agreed to walk from Selma to Montgomery to see the governor.
Was Dr. King supportive of the idea?
Yeah, it's a—in a nonviolent movement, if you went back some of the classical strategies of Gandhi, when you have, say, a great violation of the people and there's a great sense of injury, you have to give people a honorable means and context in which to express and eliminate that grief and speak decisively and succinctly back to the issue. Otherwise your movement will break down in violence and chaos.**. So, agreeing to go to Montgomery was that kind of tool that would absorb a tremendous amount of energy and effort and it would keep the issue of disenfranchisement before the whole nation. And the whole point was of walking from Selma to Montgomery, it take you five to six days, and which—which would give you the time to discuss in the nation, through the papers, radio, television and going around speaking what the real issues were.**. So it was like, we need time to educate all of America to this problem and by walking from Selma to Montgomery, that would give us the five or six days we need to address the nation.
And while you were walking, were you aware of what was going on in Washington through all this?
How did you stay in touch with it? Tell me about it.
Well. We, well we had Walter Fauntroy, who was in charge of our Washington office. And then we had Gov. Collins. I think he was ex-Gov. Collins then, but he was like an emissary of something for Johnson who stayed on the scene all the time. And then you had the Justice Department guys who was on the scene all the time, so whenever you have a movement going of that proportion, we were always in immediate communications with the Justice Department and the executive branch of the government.
Just before the march started, of course, President Johnson was on national television addressing a joint session of congress and made the immortal line, "We shall overcome," and how did that make you feel when you heard President Johnson use that line?
Well, I don't think it was that line in particularly that that really set me off. I think it was the, I don't know whether you read the whole speech, but in my estimation that speech, I think it's entitled now "We Shall overcome", I would suspect, unless, in my ratings, if I was to rate the Civil Rights speech of the '60s as the most potent, best speech, I would give that speech the, the number one place out of the whole speech. I think it's a classical, in terms of a man rising above being a Southerner, being white, and being anything and just in that moment was possessed by the spirit of being man looking at America, looking at the Constitution, looking at the struggling people. And I think there was a genuine sense of love and respect that went from Johnson to all people. And I think it's very clear in that speech that it is not a political speech. It's more or less a sermon. And it was the same effect that I get when I hear good preaching. It's, you know, it's like this guy is really saying it and he's not playing, and because he is saying it and because he is not playing something is going to be done. And it was like that's the law. That the President is speaking, he is not politicking, he's very serious about what he's saying, and people hear him and they know that he is right and they're going to address the problem. And it was like, yeah, well, the movement, that movement is solved. Yeah, that's, we've solved the problem.
What do you remember about Jim Clark?
Well, big Jim Clark? Big, threatening—[laughter]
OK, that was a roll-out on 555, going to 556.
OK, talk to me a little bit about what you saw as the basic differences between Jim Clark and a Wilson Baker.
, Jim Clark was, was like a typical reactionary, Southern sheriff. Who in fact—it's interesting—he, I used to see him all the time because he was dating a black woman that was—lived about a block from the church. So his car would be over at her house, like when day break and all, you know, and, and everyone understood that that was typical. See that's typical of the reactionary Southerner white sheriffs. His whole power base was based on the disenfranchisement of people and intimidating people. He had a posse of about three hundred people and he would ride around in motorcades with his posse and threatening folk, and this kind of thing, and he was the sheriff of the county and Wilson Baker was a—what are called city—safety commissioner, I think. And of course, he was from North Carolina. What had happened, he had married a woman from Selma, but he was a very well-trained police officer. In other words, he had a concept of what police work was under a democratic system of government in terms of upholding the law. And of course, his position was that, in that, that was a science, that a man who had studied and mastered that science could be impartial in the enforcing of the law. And that's all he was interested in, and he used to sit down to me and talk about, you know hours, about police work and police enforcement and all that kind of stuff. And on the other hand, there was Jim Clark who was the sheriff, who was negative, threatened if you didn't act frightened around him, demanded that you, you know, get down for him. All those kinds of antics. And of course, when you'd come around and act just like a man, he would go off. He would go off, like when he jumped on Vivian[C.T. Vivian]. That was a problem that day, you know, he couldn't get Vivian to act cowardly, and when a black man didn't act cowardly around him, he just—he went off. And, but he basically didn't know police work. He had based, you know, like the little fiefdoms in the—you read about in—in history. And he was, he'd remind you more or less of the guys, I don't think you ever knew them, the sheriffs down in New Orleans—not in New Orleans—but in Louisiana. I mean, they was pretty much like Jim Clark. They had little kingdoms and they had these little armies, and Jim Clark operated pretty much like that.
Let me just stop you. Do we have a problem with the sound here? Should we stop down? Should we? OK, do you recall when you first heard about Emmett Till? Did that make a very strong impression on you?
Yes, when I first heard of Emmett Till I think I was in Cleveland, or the Navy. I remember that era. It's about '55, ‘54ish, and well, I'm from Itta Bena, Mississippi, and the next county is Sunflower County and Ruleville. So it's the gin fan belt—that the fan that they put on his body came from a gin—the Gibson gin right in Itta Bena where I came from. So it had a real effect upon me in terms of that kind of South had to be changed and had to be dealt with. But I remember that very vividly in terms of how if affected me and how it affected all the people around me.
You were involved in very many campaigns. You've told us about quite a few of them today. Was there a time where you felt like you were really part of something that was big? Something that was, could be called a movement rather that just being a person, an individual that was out there fighting alone? You really felt like you were part of a large movement at the time?
Yeah, well I was of the impression that the movement was an act of God in history, and that I was simply one of the persons that he had called forth to be involved in it. And I saw it comparable to the Moses movement out of Egypt, any of the movements of that proportion. That here was a people who had been oppressed and that they were going to change that condition. And that that is an act of God and that, that you have to be faithful to God in order to get him to do that. See, 'cause, see the proposition is that you ask God to remove the oppressor because you're not going to kill the oppressor. Well, in order to get him to do that, you gotta do what he said to do. So, I feel myself a part of the God movement or historical church movement. That it's the church, it's God moving in history eliminating oppression, and war and all that, and I'm a part of that.
Was there any particular time when you felt like you saw that, or understood that, as some event that really triggered it inside you?
Yeah, I guess I started that kind of feeling whenever King, King spoke. When I first heard King speak and when I started hearing him and listening to him when he'd come to Nashville. That it was obvious to me that he was not motivated by, say, political ambition, that his motivation was altruistic and theological. And that he was scientifically correct, and that when a person is scientifically correct, and what they're doing is not designed to injure anybody, it's designed to help everybody, then it has to be motivated by God, because the individual motivation is selfish. OK, so when I said, now, he's not doing this for money, he's not doing this for reputation, 'cause he'll mess around and get killed, right, so he's got to be doing it because he's really—have a love for black people and a love for white people. So as a minister, he really did love all the American people and he saw it as a contradiction between brothers, so he was not like a black racist, or a black nationalist. So he approached it as a Christian minister. So in that sense, I felt that it was a part of the historical abolitionist movement. You know, I read a lot of Gandhi's books, a lot of the Quakers' movements, and I felt that I was a part of that stream of history that addressed the whole problem of oppression.
Now, let me jump back to Selma. When you marched from Selma, finally arrived in Montgomery, Dr. King gave a very fine speech on the steps of the courthouse, or the capitol at that time. How did that speech feel for you because you've been talking about Dr. King's words. How did that speech seem to you that day? Was there something special about it?
Well, not particularly in terms of his deliverance. The speech in Montgomery was nothing like the opening speech for the campaign back in January that he'd made in Selma, I mean where he really preached in terms of laying out his intentions. Where he really was like perfect as a preacher, but the Montgomery movement was like a culmination of, a culminating of the summary of where we were. And it was like, I was pretty confident based on the speech and based on what Johnson was saying that the basic work, the basic proposition that we would get the right to vote without a lot of problems, I was confident that that would happen. But to me that was not say one of his greater speeches. The greater speech to me was the speech that he made at Selma, I think around January the first.
After Selma, many things about the movement were never quite the same. SNCC sort of changed its philosophy within the coming years. So, and in some ways the energy disappeared. Did you feel that slipping away at that time? Did you sense that maybe you were at a turning point in the movement's history?
Well, yeah, see what happened—it's not to me—it's never the change in the philosophy, it's the abandonment of principle. What keeps the potency in a movement is the principle being applied. And, and applied to the need and the problem. The need at the time was for the blacks and whites in Alabama to be reeducated to participate in a democratic government responsibly. And I had proposed that we boycott Alabama and call for a new election. And in the proposal it stated that the universities, like say, Boston U. would take say Jefferson County, and each university would take a County and would engage in social education, and political education, economic development education, which would cause the people to think scientifically and academically about living in community rather than the age old pattern of black and white. I lost that struggle within the movement and Hosea Williams came up with a scheme called, Scope, and when King got caught up in that and spent a half a million dollars, wasted time and money, in a scheme called Scope. And to me, that is what threw the movement off because we should have pursued the educating of people so that they could functionally carry out good government from the precinct, through the beats on up to the legislative districts, in the, you know, in the counties. And to me, we failed the people when we didn't complete, completely take them on to a process of democratic government. When King made that decision, to put the staff and the money under the auspices of Hosea, I simply decided that I would come to Chicago and apply nonviolence to the whole question of open housing. So that's what I did.
Sounds to me like you think that the failing of the movement then was in the area of education.
Well, yeah. It's an area of the application of nonviolence to what is the next problem. In other words, see, the movement is a dialogue, you know, and so you've got to follow the logic of the dialogue. So you say, well, look, man says now I've taken a bath, the next move put my clothes on. Well, now, you've got to put your clothes on because you've finished your bath. Ain't nothing else to do. So you can't pretend like you haven't finished your bath, and you ain't gonna put your clothes on. So we come to a point where the government say, OK, yeah, people can vote. Now the next step is, OK, now that the people can vote, then let's make sure we do what needs to be done so people can responsibly handle that vote. Now if you don't follow through on that, then you're not going to get the kind of growth and strength and development, and clarity and the lack of fear. And the intimidation and harassment and the age-old hostilities can be dissolved if you go through an educational process, see. And I think when we didn't do that, I think, we let the people down and we violated the nonviolent movement, and we violated our constitution of responsibility. We was as church, as a church, as a Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as ministers, as American citizens—you have a responsibility to follow through on that kind of work 'cause that's a constitutional proposition. And when we didn't follow through, I think that injured people, and it injured the movement, it injured and it lessened the dynamic and the potency of the democratic process
That was a camera roll-out on 556. OK, this is room tone.