Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: B
Interview Date: October 28, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3049-3051
Sound Rolls: 323-324
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Charles Butts, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 28, 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.
You had worked in Mississippi in the early '60s as a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle going on there. How did your work, what you were doing with the Stokes campaign, how would you compare that? How was it connected with the movement in Jackson?
Ah, thinking back to the, to the period of time of the sixties I think that was that people believed they could really make a difference. Um. Certainly that was the strength and the spirit of both the people in the south and some from the north that went into the south, that just their caring enough and wanting to do something could make a difference. And that certainly ah, was a, would be a carryover of both the '65 and the '67 Stokes campaign. They didn't, they weren't well financed. They didn't have all the appropriate endorsements, and yet they believed they could make it happen.
Talk about your experience in Mississippi and how that compared, how it was connected with what you were doing with the Stokes campaign.
Well, I'm not sure that they were connected except that it was that same time frame. I was ah, a student of the sixties and, and was in--just enthralled with the fact that we could change history. Although, now that I say that, I wonder if that isn't um, a retrospective view. I mean, that was what we, that was where the excitement was. That was the frontier. Ah, and, and certainly in terms of politics ah, the cities in the north were where the political frontier was. And so I was attracted to that.
I just really want you to say that you worked as a journalist in the sixties, and what you saw, and how that might possibly be connected with what you were doing in Cleveland or what you saw happening the movement happening in Cleveland. But just identify the fact that you had worked in Mississippi.
Ah, I published a ah, weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. It really served the whole state of Mississippi. It didn't have a real large circulation but it was the third largest circulating paper in the state, which says a lot more about how many people read in Mississippi ah, than ah, than how big it was. But I did that for two years from the summer of '62 until the summer of '64. And returned north and, and went to college. By then I was married. My wife ah, was going to be expecting a child.
Why did people join the Stokes campaign? You mentioned volunteers and idealism. What were people trying to achieve? What were you trying to achieve? Why did people join the campaign?
Um. The sixties, the movement, th--and we made reference to what was happening in the south was a--belief that civil rights, the rights of people who ah, had been--
Don't make a past reference. Why did people join the campaign? What were you ah, trying to achieve?
Civil rights ah, i--was a movement ah, where people believed that they could change the way people were treated. And in the Stokes campaign, ah, while it was a political campaign ah, it had a candidate and became a, a campaign that stood for that kind of change. Ah, and the energy that made that campaign go was not money. It was the belief that people could make a difference. And so it was, it was a volunteer campaign. It was a campaign that, that ah, brought in just ah, thousands of people.
Was there a particular belief in the democratic party as an organ of change at that time? How did you look at the democratic party in '67?
Ah, by '67, um, I was ready to believe that politics could really make a difference, that while everybody in it didn't ennoble ah, it could be a very noble profession and, and a noble mechanism. But as a student of the sixties, ah, when I was first in college and as I went into the south ah, I was ah, I was a cynical student and really didn't believe that, ah, big government and ah, big business and all that kind of thing that had brought the world to what it was ah, could really work. Um. John Seigenthaler ah, who ah, was at that time the editor of the Nashville Tennessean was a contact that I had the privilege of making. Since he was close to the Kennedys ah, I was able to see bright people um, who believed that they could make a difference ah, and it was a l--a lot of fun. It was exciting to be part of that. And so I began--While I wasn't--I saw him. I got to know him. He acquainted me with that. It made me believe that I could do that sort of thing even though I was not part of, of what he was.
In 1967, we're talking about the Stokes primary election, what were the numbers? What did you expect? What kind of strategy did you need to put together to get Carl Stokes elected?
Well, when we're talking about 1967, this is two years after he had run the first time as an independent. In 1965, there was little belief that, that he could be elected. As a matter of fact, the political pundits ah, ah, would have all, were all predicting that he couldn't possibly win. He didn't win but he came close enough for a recount. One of the things that I--this is before we had ah, polls for every election and ah, at every point in an election. Um, but I did what others did of, of asking ah, Blacks that might be taxi drivers or, or people in the parking lot and all the, all the ones that one would run into downtown, just as the political pundits. And they said, no, they didn't think Carl Stokes would win. But I asked them the second question. Ah, I said, "Are you going to vote for him?" They said they're darned right. And there, and, and that's part of what began, well. It happened in 1965 that needed to be exploited and taken, taken to victory in 1967 ah, was that there was a belief ah, that it was the thing, the right thing to do. And by 1967 it was pretty well clear because he'd come so close that he could win.
In terms of percentages, what kind of voter turnout did you need from the Black community and how dependent were you on the White liberal community? What were your goals in '67 when you were running Stokes? What kind of numbers did you need?
Well, the strategy was ah, and, and this is particularly true in 1967 to ah, ah, have the candidate campaign really equally on both the east and west side of town, in both the Black and White community. Of course, the ah, they, the campaign relied on doing very well in the Black community. And that's where there biggest campaign volunteer effort was. Um, now this was an off-year election and a primary was the first critical one to get through. Ah, and as a result of ah, volunteers that were brought into that campaign ah, we were able to get an 80 percent turnout, and 95 percent success of the people who were voting. The 95 percent was almost more predictable ah, and not as big a chore as the 80 percent turnout in an off-year primary election.
So, if you could just say those numbers again, and make sure you identify that that's the Black community that you're talking about. So what were the numbers that you wanted, what were the numbers that you got in that election?
In, in the Black community which, as I recall, was about 40 or 42 percent of the total population, ah, we ended up with 80 percent turnout and about 95 percent ah, voting for Stokes. But it was the 80 percent turnout that was a result of this phenomenal volunteer effort. And ah, as I recall, about 25 percent ah, voted for Stokes from the non-Black community. And that was because there was a number of people who stepped forward to endorse him and because the candidate went out and sought that support.
What was your strategy for voter registration? I know voter registration was an important part of the effort. Could you talk a little bit about your strategy, you know, how that worked and any particular memories you might have.
Well, ah, voter registration ah, was very important in ah, in 1967 to capitalize on this feeling that it could be done in the Black community. Ah, a scheme that we came upon ah, was to have ah, what I called the non-registered voter petition. This served several functions. One, to involve people who wanted to get involved in the campaign early on. In a sense, test them and give them something to do to ah, for us to be able to measure whether they would be successful workers. And what we asked them to do was to fill out, I think it was a petition only called for five names of people who were not registered to vote. And this was well prior to the registration deadline. That of course gave us a targeted list that we could go ah, and attempt to get registered. And we met with a lot of success.
Could you talk about Carl Stokes, I mean, Carl Stokes as a candidate, and Carl Stokes as an organizer? Let's, first, Carl Stokes in the field. Talk about Carl Stokes. What was it like being with Carl on the streets of Hough or Glenville, in the Black community for instance. What was that like?
In both the Black and White community, Carl Stokes ah, was a, a candidate of just immense charisma. Um. It would, it would be easy to ah, see that ah, in, in the Black community but maybe its best measure would be in the White community. I, I remember ah, when a group of ah, liberal White ministers were having a meeting and they'd invited everybody together. It was in a basement of a west side church, it was very warm. Ah, ah, Carl Stokes was still serving in the legislature. And in fact, the legislature was in session that day and he just couldn't escape a vote. We'd made arrangements for him to fly back and ah, and yet even so, he was late. And I was with that audience and they were--
Could you talk about Carl Stokes and how audiences on both the east and west side, Black and White, responded to him?
Carl Stokes had immense charisma. I guess that's a word that's used a lot with politicians, but ah, a story that I think reflects that it really was true of Carl Stokes was as a matter of fact, on the west side of Cleveland, when a group of liberal ah, White ah, protestant ministers had a meeting for him. It was summer. Ah, the meeting was in a church basement where it was quite warm, pre-air conditioning. Ah, ah, Carl was still serving in the Ohio legislature and as a matter of fact they were in session. An important, could get out of. We had a plane arranged to be able to spirit him back in time for the meeting. Nevertheless, he was late. Um, these liberal ah, folks from the west side really got very angry. How could we have this meeting, and then he wouldn't be here on time? And it was about as surly a crowd as I ever remember because ah, they felt as though they were being wronged and short-changed. Then he did arrive. He came in that back room and gave 'em a Carl Stokes smile. And they just melted and were in his hand. Um. Tremendous power of, of, of just the presence of his personality. But there was more. Ah, he, he did understand how to organize people. And ah, and this showed on both east and west side. And maybe most particularly in his base in the Black community. That so many ah, in the Black community, their experience was ah, as a ah, undertaker, as a, as a teacher, as a ward healer, ah, that they would have a very small organization under them. And so that people in the Black community weren't exposed to an organization that would be wider.
OK, could you just start again and just make it clear that you are talking about politicians? That politicians came from the ranks of funeral directors and teachers?
I didn't really mean that. I mean, that's that's the experience. I was struggling with that a little bit.
Once again, could you talk about Carl Stokes and his ability to organize coalitions and to organize a campaign?
I think, particularly for the sixties, he was somewhat unique ah, in the Black community among politicians, certainly at least from what I saw in Cleveland. Ah, in that he understood how to put together an organization with captains and lieutenants and sergeants and, and soldiers. Ah, by and large what one saw, both in politics and in business in the Black community and in the church was one person who might be a very strong person, but the, he would only--he or she would only have ah, someone under them that they could control. And so the Black politicians in 1965 did not support Carl Stokes, almost unanimously while he ended up having widespread support amongst the people. They really couldn't comprehend a campaign that would go citywide. And, and that was his uniqueness I think, to be able to visualize and then carry out an organization that w-went beyond the people that he immediately controlled.
OK, could you talk a little bit about that coalition, or people who might have been in that coalition or weren't. Could you talk about labor, if they were involved, Black political leaders, you talked about a little already, but let's talk about labor and White liberals. What were their motives and why did they become involved in this campaign in '67?
Well ah, as opposed to the, the really great support that I associated with ah, liberal causes when I was in the south, coming from labor, ah, the labor movement in Cleveland in 1967 ah, in that primary and certainly in '65 when he first ran was not, did not represent support for Carl Stokes. The liberal community was a, a, another ah, another matter ah, where he did have a number of people who ah, were very excited by his campaign. They were caught up in the fact that the sixties was a time when some of the things that they had been talking about could happen, and that, I think, Carl Stokes personified that for many. Ah, so while they, they, they represented most of the money he was able to raise. It wasn't a great deal. Ah, but ah, but it did come from the ah, ADA kind of liberal community.
What about the business community? What were their motives in supporting Stokes?
He did get some support in '67. Ah, ah, the more cynical view might have been that ah, that that was in order to protect--
Could you start again and make sure you identify the business community, in 1967, why did the business community support Stokes?
It's ah, it's really not fair to I suppose ah, for me to, to try and determine the motivation of the business community's support of Carl Stokes. A, a, a cynical view might be that there were those who supported a Black mayor because then he could control ah, the Black community at a time when the business community, and everybody I suppose, was afraid of the kind of riots that were occurring at that time. Um, that would have shortchanged, I think, the spirit that was behind ah, the people who were supporting ah, Carl Stokes in the community. And, and I don't think it's fair to say it was true of all of the business community. Ah, but I think that would've been the kind of thing you might have read about in the paper both before and after the election.
Describe to me walking in the headquarters with Carl Stokes and then showing him in the telephone room upstairs, could you just talk us through that again, walking inside, into the campaign headquarters and the telephone room and explaining what the telephone room was for.
I'd been able to arrange to get a downtown headquarters ah, that would be the headquarters in the 1967 ah, Stokes campaign. Ah, for free, which is the way you want to get it in a campaign. It had some ah, ground level ah, office space that would have been ideal for our volunteers to do the traditional kind of activities, but it had a, a larger room ah, that was ah, just down a hall and up the stairs as I recall. And as I was walking the candidate, Carl Stokes, through that first day and kind of laying out how I envisioned it, I said, "Up in this room we're going to have forty telephones and we're going to ah, we're going to solicit volunteers ah, cold, out of the phone books." Um, and um, and he said, "Well, that's going to cost a lot of money." And I said, "Well, that, that wasn't my part of the campaign," but that we did in fact ah, have that phone room. We did ah, solicit cold ah, volunteers and ended up with what we call a volunteer coordinator, a Black, Black supervisors. Black supervisors.
Once again, explain the strategy of how you organized people through the telephone.
Ah, this of course is just, I'm--If I describe ah, how we did it through the telephones, that's just one of the ways that, that people were recruited into the campaign. But I think it was a, a unique way that ah, that helped us to have that eighty percent turnout that occurred. Um, that uh--there's something called a crisscross which is a telephone book that organizes by house number as opposed to by alphabetical order. And we divided ah, all of the streets in the Black community ah, and sectioned them off ah, by twenty households. And we hoped to find a volunteer who would be willing to solicit support for Stokes ah, within each of those blocks of twenty. So we called them ah, block supervisors. And um, they had to go through the system of ah, of getting the non registered voter petition filled if they were involved early enough in the campaign. And then other activities that could then in effect test them. And those that, that didn't respond mail something back or bring something back into one of the field headquarters, why then, we'd go back to that list and try and find somebody so that for just about every twenty households in the community there was someone identified who had been tested who was working as a volunteer in that campaign.
Was it a deliberate policy to not identify Stokes publicly as being a Black candidate, as opposed to just being the candidate? That is, was there a deliberate effort to take race out in the public media in the campaign for Stokes?
In the media?
Yeah, as far as your campaign media, your campaign message. Did you try to downplay race?
Ah. Carl Stokes ah, you know, o--obviously ah, you got a problem?
What did you think of Stokes' policy of not being labeled as a Black candidate, of making sure that he would campaign equally in the Black and White communities to try to downplay race in the campaign?
Well, I think there's two ways to answer how Carl Stokes ah, did not want to operate just as a Black candidate. On the one hand, he did campaign throughout the entire community, irrespective of the race of the neighborhoods. Um. Probably in the end he spent more time in the Black community but it was an effort to really try and evenly ah, balance it. On the other hand, ah, he certainly didn't shy away from talking about the issues that were important issues in the Black community. The thing is, of course, what was true then and I think is probably true now, is that issues that are important to urban citizens that happen to be Black are very often issues that are important to ones that don't happen to be Black. But he talked about issues that were very important to ah, to urban residents. And ah, I mean, he didn't shy away from them at all. And they played very well in the Black community. And they began to make some impact on the, on the west side as well.
What, what did the endorsement from Zalt and Campos mean to the campaign? What was the symbolic importance of that?
Well, I'm going to have to admit that the endorsement of ah, of the ah, ethnic editor is not one that I can recall as well. Uh--
Tell us the story of the second debate in the general election--
Tell the story of the second debate at the high school on the west side. And talk a little bit about the first debate and what happened that night in the second debate?
Well, the, the context of the second debate ah, in 1967 ah, probably should be set with the first debate, was on the east side with a largely ah, Black audience. Ah, Carl, who ah, thinks of himself as a very good debater and, and usually is had great success the first night. Ah, in the debate on the west side the audience ah, was more hostile. And a remark that ah, Carl made about the fact that the media and others were trying to make the race racial ah, was not well accepted by the audience. There was boos. There was ah, heckles and catcalls. The net result was a very negative kind of feeling. And the perception was, certainly what was written in the newspaper, was that ah, he had not won the debate. And there was a setback for the campaign.
What happened that next day in the campaign office? It was after Stokes had brought race into the campaign. It was after it had been mentioned
Um, the f, the following day a number of the campaign activists ah, whether they were supposed to go to work that day or not ended up in the morning down at campaign headquarters. There was some recriminations against some decisions that had been made by some publicists ah, that were brought up, and, and generally a feeling that ah, the campaign had been let down by this error. Stokes did, I thought, was a pretty strategically wise thing. He asked me to get everybody up in that phone room which was our largest room. And everybody trudged upstairs. And then he spoke to them. And he said that while we had this incident last night, ah, it may have been that ah, your candidate made a mistake. Ah, but remember, your candidate isn't God, going to make mistakes. It's, it's been our one setback and we feel that the opposition has had a lot. Ah, and one mistake won't lose an election unless you let it so. Just remember your candidate can make mistakes. And he repeated that he thought that the candidate wasn't God. And so ah, it worked very well because they vented against him for a while and then kind of began to feel better, began talking about other strategies in the campaign and the meeting ended. And I remembered as people were ah, filing downstairs ah, and they were stopping to talk with him. And then they had all left and it was only he just getting ready to go down the stairs. And I said, "Carl, it must have been rather difficult for you to say that the candidate wasn't like God." And he said, "Yes, it was. But I didn't mean it."
Great. Could you talk about the primary night, and we're going backwards, the primary in '67? What was, when, finally, it was announced first by the radio, that--by the TV that Stokes had lost, that Locher had won. Do you remember those details? If not, let's just talk about the victory that day.
Well, ah, on election night, primary election night in 1967, ah, it looked like it was going to be a close election. We certainly would have expected it to be. And we realized Lou Stokes, his brother, and I, that there was no one down at the board of elections that was really friendly to the Stokes organization. And we thought we should go down there and kind of watch over what was happening. So we did go down there and stayed long enough to, to come to realize that ah, it was going to be a, a Stokes victory, a pretty, pretty ah, sizable, substantial Stokes victory. So then we ah, we went back to the campaign headquarters. But it was a very difficult job even getting close to it. The campaign headquarters that I had opened months before ah, as an empty, barren place was now just surrounded by people far out into the street. And there was dancing in the street on Superior Avenue. And, certainly, that is a, a night to remember.
After the primary, why was Taft such a formidable candidate? Why was he a difficult candidate for the Stokes campaign?
Well, it didn't seem like it should have been. I mean, ah, it was a democratic town. Ah, had a democratic ah, nominee who had, after the primary, a unity rally that ah, really for the first time brought in substantial labor and ah, and, and really crossed the board, democratic political people who supported ah, Carl Stokes, including U.S. senator Stephen Young. So you wouldn't think that a republican candidate would make any more than a nominal run. Ah, of course the reason that he was able to was because it was still a, a town that had much racial feeling in it. And so a White candidate, irrespective of party, was running against a Black candidate. And it ended up being a very close election.
OK, Stokes has won the election, November 7, 1967. What was the expectation, what did people expect of this new mayor? What did people hope for when they voted for Carl Stokes?
One of the consequences of having a, ah, emotional, volunteer kind of campaign is that people have to believe in some kind of dream. It probably always becomes an unrealistic expectation. It did seem, though, that by winning with not only substantial Black support but very meaningful White support, that Carl Stokes had an opportunity to really do a lot to, to solve the wounds of ah, of a divided city. Um. I think he did a number of things to move in that direction. In over all, though, ah, by the time four years later he had left, ah, it was at least as divided a city and in some ways perhaps more so.
OK, let's just go back to the beginning. You had worked in Mississippi as a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement. How was what you were seeing in Mississippi connected to the work you were later doing in the Stokes campaign?
You still ask it that way.
All right. Can you connect what you were, what was happening in Mississippi with what was happening in Cleveland?
Well--When I was in Mississippi, I, I mean, that's the problem, there was no Cleveland you see.
What were you doing in Mississippi in '62-'64?
Beginning in the summer of 1962, for two years, ah, I published a weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evers ah, was on my board and one of the people that had begun that newspaper in the first place. He served on my board until he was assassinated. And I unfortunately ah, had the unfortunate um, ah, experience of being the first newsman on the scene because I knew where he lived when word came out that he had been ah, shot down. Um, James Meredith ah, went to Old Miss at that time and there was--that crisis ah, resulted in the death of ah, several people. Ah, I knew him both as a journalist covering that as a story ah, as well as knowing him as an individual.
Stop the camera.
After that second debate, Stokes began to slip and Taft began to rise. Election night. What are your memories of it? Were you losing hope? Was there a chance that Stokes might not win?
Oh, I think ah, election night ah, general election night in 1967, it was expected that Stokes was going to win. The fact that it turned out to be so close I, I think was a surprise. And there was some anger ah, because i-it was so close that throughout the evening it could have gone either way. And the feeling that the only way a democrat who had won the primary convincingly the way he had, the only way he could lose was because of racism. And as I recall Gary Hatch, Dick Hatcher running in Gary, Indiana ah, was having the same kind of teeter-totter ah, night.
Talk about the informal polling that you did in '65 and why that set it up for '67?
Ah, in, in 1965, the political pundits ah, didn't believe that Carl Stokes was even going to be really a factor. Ah, they didn't believe that most Blacks ah, voted and they didn't think that if they did they necessarily would follow a Black ah, candidate. There wasn't the precedent. They had polled, and I did the same kind of polling, ah, Blacks that they had encountered just ah, in the course of the day. And they'd said, "Did you think Carl Stokes was going to win?" And they said, "No." And I think they thought that he probably wouldn't. They didn't ask the second question though, that I, I did ask. And that is, "But are you going to vote for him?" And they said, "But you're darned right." And they did. And I, they may have surprised themselves, because of their numbers and the intensity of their support ah, resulted in an election that was close enough for a recount. Carl didn't win it that time but he came that close. And it was certainly the momentum of '65 that made '67 ah, possible. And everybody knew then that it was possible.
Thank you very much.