Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: B
Interview Date: November 15, 1988
Camera Rolls: 2078-2080
Sound Rolls: 235
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Fred Black, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 15, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Colonel Black, my first question is about, what is the reason that you came to Howard and, ah, talk about the tradition of Howard that attracted you to the school.
Well I had been raised in the army, and had spent most of my life going to schools on army posts, until I got to high school. Matter of fact my last two years of High School I was in the city of Detroit where I graduated. And both my mom and my dad; my aunt and my uncle; and a brother had attended Howard. And I was attracted to Howard because of that tradition. The fact that Howard university was a place where you knew you would get a quality education, and you would also get a quality education while living the Black experience. And that was important as I was considering where to go to college in 1963, um, looking forward to graduating in '64 and going off to some school. So, Howard was attractive just because of that relationship, ah--
So again, what attracted you and made you want to come to Howard in '64?
I was attracted to Howard for one reason because many members of my family had attended Howard: my mom and my dad; my aunt and my uncle; and my brother.
What was, what attracted you about
coming to Howard in '64--
Well, Howard was part of a family tradition. Mother and father, my brother, my aunt and uncle had all attended Howard. And it was a known fact that you could get a good education at Howard: it had a tradition for excellence, and it had also a long history of preparing people for service, ah, lawyers, doctors, _et cetra_. And I looked at Howard as a great opportunity to go to school and live the Black experience.
You were a member of ROTC. How did they treat you as a member of ROTC in '64, '65 and then later on in '67 and '68.
When we first got to Howard in, in the fall of 1964, ROTC was compulsory for 2 years, you had to do four semester. ROTC was en-grained in, in campus life. Thursday afternoons you had drill out on the football field. And you would march around for a couple of hours, and do your drills and the stands many times particularly when the weather was nice would be filled with spectators who were just observing drill. And it was really part of the campus scene. Ah, ROTC did not have much controversy, associated with it even though everybody knew it was compulsory. Ah, you had a choice between Army and Air Force. So both units would be out on the field at the same time and there were just a large number of spectators who would come and watch you. By the time ROTC became a political issue on the campus doing away with it's compulsory nature in many cases you experienced difficulty because you were in ROTC, particularly if you were in the voluntary part: the third and fourth year. I remember very clearly a professor telling me on a Thursday morning don't ever come back to her class in my ROTC uniform, and it was very clear to me that she meant it. That whole change in attitude toward ROTC of course was in many ways influenced by the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the fact that, ah, people were protesting the war, but that had not really reached the campus yet, the issue was still just compulsory ROTC.
You had mentioned earlier, you had saw Ali on the campus in '67, this is when he had become a contentious objector. And he had said being a member of ROTC, and also you had a brother who was in Vietnam, how did you feel when you saw Ali on campus and he was talking to the students out here on the campus?
Well, I think the main reaction that I remember was--
Lets stop, lets cut a second, I want you to include--
OK, Ali is on the campus, he's speaking to the students, he's a conscientious objector, you know. You're a member of ROTC, you have a brother in Vietnam: what's personal reaction to what was going on?
The day of the Ali speech, which was probably one of the largest crowds ever out there: over 5,000 people at least. As I listened to him explain why he did not want to join the army, I remember feeling that gee, things are going to be different from now on. Here is a, a, Black figure who has come out publicly against the war, against even being in the service. And it seemed to me that we had fought so many years to be included in the major institutions in this country, that all of the sudden we are arguing being part of these major institutions. And those who, you know, who had gone voluntarily to Vietnam and even given their life, did it because they believed what the country was about, and here now we're starting to challenge those basic assumptions about not only the war but the role of Black people in America in support of that war.
What was your reaction personally. I mean, I understand what you're saying but you must have some real personal feelings about listening to him on that campus. You told me you got a brother who graduated from Howard who was in vietnam. You were in ROTC and eventually go to Vietnam, what were you thinking.
Personally, I, I respected his right to decide not to participate, but I think as I remember my major reaction was that "this is a, a, bad signal" to the rest of the country, when you have a charismatic leader like Muhammad Ali saying "Black people should not join the service." It seemed to me that that would be a sure, ah, way of excluding yourself voluntarily from an important aspect of American society and I just felt that, ah, this was not going to bode well for Black America
The Hershey, the Hershey event that took place of February of '67: how did you see that.
I was there that evening when General Hershey came.
the Hershey event mean?
I was in Crampton Auditorium the night of General Hershey's speech where he was invited to explain the draft and the rules and all those sorts of things. And in the middle of his address there was a protest that, ah, came on the stage and in the process General Hershey was knocked down. And I remember thinking that night that this was a major change in the direction of the campus protest movement that had been building momentum. Here's a national figure, appearing at Howard, that was going to result in many of the, the "so called" outsiders of university trying to impose their will on Howard, and they could do that very easily financially, since a significant part of Howard's budget came from the federal government. And here it was a federal officer if you will, a Lieutenant General in the Army who headed the selective service system, who had been mistreated at Howard at least in the eyes of many. Ah, and I, I just remember thinking that, "gee, the whole direction of protest on this campus is going to be different."
You said something about the media handled it, the way the media handled this whole thing on the campus. What was your reaction to the media coming up here with their cameras and their newspaper reporters, all their press people. What was your reaction to the media coming to Howard Campus and watching the conflict between the students and the faculty?
Well, In the case of General Hershey's visit, the media was very evident that night. And you never saw the media for most presentation. So you got the feeling that someone must have invited the media because something was going to happen that would be newsworthy, or at least in eyes of the TV stations. And that of course came about. Ah, the next day the TVs and the Newspapers all made a big deal of what happened that evening in Crampton Auditorium to General Hershey. But from that point on the Howard Protests received a lot of media attention, and there were days when you were just got accustomed to seeing reporters and TV cameras wandering around campus asking people their opinion on various things that were going on. But I think the Hershey incident for the media was a clear signal that something different was happening at Howard University. Something that was unlike, ah, student protests in days before. This was a serious, issue oriented protest movement.
The conflict among the students and the faculty: what kind of signal did this give to the media?
Well, one of the things that struck me, was that for the first time the media was interested in portraying Black disagreeing with Blacks. Whereas the media had covered the civil rights struggle as an example of Blacks fighting for their rights, the whole civil rights struggle as we saw on TV on the evening news. But now, here we have an example of a prestigious Black university where the students, faculty, and administration is in conflict, and it seemed like it was a very desirable news story for these folks, particularly in Washington D.C., given the tradition that Howard has had in this city. And, ah, it was not unusual from that point on to see negative Howard stories on TV or in the Newspaper, and you just wondered whether or not people were interested in what was really happening here or interested in portraying the students, faculty, and administration in a negative light.
Cut. How did you react--
As a member of the student government in '66 and '67, and watching Hershey Events student demonstrations against compulsory ROTC, you know, students being expelled, constant conflict between the students and faculty, what was going on in your head?
During that period of constant conflict and turmoil on campus, as a member of the student government, I felt like we were definitely losing control of the situation, 'cause in many ways the elected student leaders had no legitimacy left on campus, ah, those who elected us to represent their views and communicate with the administration, it seemed like we were dismal failures at that. As a result, a vacuum wasn't going to be tolerated, therefore, new leaders emerged. And that's when I think the student movement on campus sort of passed the elected leadership by, and took control of the momentum, and the next year you saw slates of candidates for offices all over campus that came from this umbrella organization that represented a lot of the so-called moderate and militant student groups that spawned almost overnight, these groups that rose in opposition to the liberal arts student council and the ah, university-wide student assembly, which were the major governing organizations. Each college had their own student council. Each university college sent someone to the university senate, that was the overall coordinating organization. And it was very clear that control was shifting in a very rapid way, that the elected student leaders were no t going to be the ones who were going to carry this battle forward; there was just no legitimacy left. Now, as a individual involved in ROTC and in student government and had many friends in many of these organizations, you felt like pulled apart different ways, because you knew what you thought would work, and violence was not the answer, and it was almost unheard of in those days to place demands on the administration. That started to happen. People demanded the resignation of the president and the dean of liberal arts and the vice president of the university. I don't think many of the elected student government leaders would have gone that far, given the tradition that existed when I first came to the campus: there was always room to negotiate and talk and fairly good relationship on the campus. But by '67 after a couple of the incidents over the judiciary board, the cases of those that had been involved in the Hershey incident, just a loss of faith, confidence, you might say, no trust. And once that happened, it was very clear that the movement had been passed to different hands.
--in terms of as a student leader, how did you feel about things going on, on campus?
As a student leader, you felt like you were being pulled apart, pulled in different directions, about what you thought what the right way to do things was as opposed to what the popular opinions on campus happened to reflect, much more militant attitude on the part of some students in terms of dealing with the administration, techniques and tactics were directly coming from the broader civil rights struggle off the campus, ah, and, you had to feel like this was not necessarily gonna work on a university campus--
OK, lets cut.
As a student leader what was going on in your head in 1967?
Well, you know after the Hershey incident where we had the we had student disciplinary hearings and the faculty got involved in some ways, I remember feeling very clearly that the situation was unraveling rapidly and that as a result, a lot of the students lost the confidence in the student government, and you saw very dramatically, this whole movement pass to a new set of leaders, not elected leaders, but proclaimed leaders who had a lot of supporters out there among the students on the campus, and you could see that this was a turning point, because the old techniques that the elected students had been following were seen not to work, and therefore students who demanded action and fast action were willing to go with a more militant set of leaders.
The day of the takeover, a lot, a lot of your friends, a lot of students you went to school with entered the administration building. How come you didn't go in with them?
Well, the day of the takeover, I guess it was March of '68, a lot of my friends were very much involved with the takeover, in leadership roles as well as support roles,. many of us were fellow political science students. i was a few months away from graduation and a commission in the U.S. army and I had decided pretty much that I was gonna go serve in the army for at least five years, and I knew very well that that takeover could lead to a situation where my future might be very much affected by that decision to participate in that demonstration. Taking over the university was the way to go. I agreed that the situation needed to change. Something had to be resolved in the conflicts on campus, but a sit-in, takeover, a situation that could lead to violence very rapidly, was not the solution. And of course a lot of other students didn't. But I think one of the things that stands uppermost in my mind, though many of us disagreed on the methods, we were still friends and we still agreed that we were working toward the same end.
I'm going to ask you this again, Ewert Brown was there, and you were telling me he was a moderate. Whats different about Ewert's situation was that he wanted to go to medical school, and you situation that you wanted to go onto service.
Ewert was president of the student assembly and I think Ewert strongly believed that from his position of leadership he could do more to help keep the situation under control by being involved than by completely turning the situation over to people who may not handle it as well as he thought he could Ewert was a clear leader, there is no doubt about it. And, I'm sure Ewert as he would reflect back on those days where we debated the, the various techniques, ah, would agree that there was a lot of dissension in the ranks as to what would be the best technique. I was not going to participate in a takeover because I didn't believe that was the solution.
There were professors at Howard whose job it was to teach you--and your parents spent all this money for you to go to school to get this education, I mean your parents must have spoken to you when they heard about all, what was going on the campus, I mean what did you think?
My parents spoke very clearly, and if I remember correctly, their line was "we did not send you to Howard University to get a degree in protest, you're at Howard University to get a diploma, a diploma that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life." I think there was a real problem amongst some students who were hearing that from home like I was, that, where do you get off telling the administrators of that great university how to run things? Ah, this was very radical departure on college campuses, where the students decided to decide what was best for them; this was not something that any of the administrators had any experience with either, and I think in some ways that's why they were caught off guard with the intensity, the real intense situation they found themselves having to deal with, thinking that gee, these people have been running a university for a long time, why is it that everybody rejects anything and everything they say, just because they happen to be the administrators? But yet you had to agree with the students who were arguing about the basic rights and procedures of the university, that something needed to be reformed. So, you were caught between these crosscurrents--what all of your home training told you, you should be doing, but yet common sense told you something had to change. Just, no doubt about it.
Tell me again what your parents' reaction were to what was going on on campus?
Well, my parents lived down the road on Woodbridge, even though I was living here on campus. It was a long trip to make those 26 miles back in those days, but, ah, they were following it very closely, because they were reading the Washington Post every day and getting the local D.C. television stations and they were concerned about whether it was gonna get out of hand and whether anyone's safety would be put in jeopardy, particularly just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and like all of us in that era, we've all heard our moms say the only way you get in trouble is when you're in the wrong place, and just don't be where you're not supposed to be. Well, all of sudden, where you are is where all the trouble is at a university working toward a degree. And I remember my parents saying over and over again, use good common sense; don't get yourself in a situation that is going to, negatively impact on you and your future.
You had been a member of the student body, you were a member of ROTC. You were sort of outside of the hub of all this activity? how did you feel? did you feel out of place. I mean at this time? All these radical students trying to change the campus?
No, by 1968 I was trying to graduate, and I made a conscious decision not to be part of that group that was planning these major events on campus. ah, I was very active in couple of organizations still, but I had made a conscious choice not gonna participate in what I considered to be activities that I just couldn't support, because I didn't agree with their techniques, so I didn't feel out of place. I still had my friends and we still had our functions, and you know, in some ways, you lived two lives on Howard's campus. Some of the normal collegiate things were still occurring, but yet they were occurring amidst all this turmoil and campus unrest. So that never really bothered me I never felt ostracized or anything by my friends because I wouldn't participate. You know, I think people were very tolerant of letting others make their decisions about they were gonna do in regards to the protest.
How'd you feel about these meetings they had and you didn't go in? You'd been together your friends and you went to these meetings, and you didn't go into these meetings. How did you feel?
Well, in some ways it felt like you were giving up or giving in, because--
yeah, when your friends were having meetings and you didn't participate in them, I think there was feeling you were giving up or giving in to others, even though you might have made a contribution, or might have been able to contribute something that would have shaped the outcome of those meetings, as early as the beginning of second semester my senior year. The way this thing was moving it was not something that I wanted to be associated with.
Were you affected by the Black consciousness that was coming about I mean--Rap--Stokley, and listening to Malcolm?
I don't think you could help being affected at Howard University by what was happening, in the greater Black movement out there in the country. The militancy that was developing, the transformation from being a Negro to being Black, the development of so called, Black curricular studies, the afro, all those sorts of things hit Howard about that same time that the student demonstrations grew in intensity. You couldn't help but be influenced. Um, it was just one of these things that everywhere you turned you saw indicators of massive, change movement occurring on your campus. All of this happened within a very short period of time too, I think that's important to remember, that this was not a long, drawn-out process. It, it was very sudden and it had a tremendous impact I think on everybody. as I mentioned to you before, the ah, whole idea of the afro--
You can't say you as "as I mentioned to you before"
Oh I'm sorry.
Let me go back to a question I asked before, I mean you said you were influenced you couldn't not help but be influenced by what was going on. It must have had some stronger affects on you when you didn't go to meetings where other radical students started to make strong and heavy decisions.
Not participating in some of the decision-making,ah, processes that involved the whole protest movement was a conscious decision. I remember feeling in some ways like you were giving up or giving in to others when you might have been able to make a contribution. But I had decided at the beginning of the second semester of senior year that I just wasn't gonna get involved in planning those events and activities because I didn't believe that was the solution, so I basically, stayed away and I didn't feel one bit guilty about staying away, I felt a little bit saddened, I think, that as the protest movement grew, there was less opportunity for multiple voices to be heard and differing viewpoints to be considered; I think that the party line got to be very narrow.
What was that line that sort of separated you form Adrian and Tony? In terms of the fact that they went into the administration building and you didn't?
We were all operating in terms of principle, and those people who made the decision to participate in the organizations and those of us who didn't, had to operate in terms of our own principles. I felt very certain and confident about the decision I made and that being the right decision, the taking over the administration or the president's office was not the solution to the problem. I'm not so sure people who were involved were as certain that they were doing the right thing. But they were risk-takers. And I think as a result, the university has benefited from its experience in the 60s, late 60s. But you don't want that benefit.
Why don't you do that again without that.
What was that line that had Tony and Adrian going to the administration building but kept you out?
Well I think, the difference in why people decided one way or the other as to what to do about the takeover was a function of what you thought the right option was for getting the administration to act--I did not personally believe that that was the best way to accomplish our goals. Therefore, I felt fairly certain I was doing the right thing by not participating in the takeover in the administration building, March of 68. I think maybe those who made the decision to participate maybe were not as firm in their belief that that was the right thing, but at that point they felt that the options had disappeared and therefore leaders of this organizations were going to continue it to its logical conclusion. i just felt that that wasn't the way I saw the solution ever being worked out--confrontational politics to me was not the answer.
Good. Lets cut