Interviewer: Sam Pollard
Production Team: X
Interview Date: September 29, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2162-2164
Sound Rolls: 276-277
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Willie Felder, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on September 29, 1989, 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.
OK, Willie, just, let's go back to 1972, Gary, Indiana. Describe what it was like when you first got to Gary and you first went to the convention hall, and all these different people from all over the country, you know, militants, grass-roots people. What was your reaction to what you were seeing?
I had a--
You need to include "My reaction was--"
My reaction to, OK, OK, OK.
I'm sorry, if you could start over.
Is that OK?
OK, we've gone back to 1972. Give me a reaction when you first go to Gary, when you first got to the convention hall. All these people from all over the country, militants, people from the South, you know, people from your delegation. What was your reaction to what you were seeing at Gary?
I had a very, very good reaction. I'm sorry, we've better go back to, I'm sorry about--
Yes. You want to just?
Yeah, you just--
OK. My reaction to having seen so many people from so many different parts of the country, ah, such as Jesse Jackson, Baraka, Basil Paterson, and a whole host of other Black movers and shakers in that era, was one of great happiness and joy that they had seen or felt enough about that assembly or the calling of that assembly to come on in and, and be a part of that 4000 or better Black persons from all over the country. And it was a mixture of successful and professional versus blue-collar, if I may use that term in the Black family, versus even those who were unemployed or jobless found a way to get there from their various states. To me, that was one of the most, ah, ah, moving sights that I can recall in my h- career.
Why do you think it was important to go to Gary and join with people who might have been considered militant and maybe too radical, being from the Michigan delegation?
Well, we had some of the same--
If you could say the Michigan delegation--
The Michigan delegation, ah, in terms of having its share of militants, had its share as well if you must use that term. But in the Black family in America, there was a definite need for everyone's input, whether they were considered militants or moderates or just plain good 'ole boys. There was a place and a need in that national assembly, National Black Assembly, for input from each and every one of them, regardless of what their philosophies were, because the objective was to put together, ah, a blueprint that would contribute to leading the Black American out of, ah, socioeconomic deprivation and claiming their rights into a society that had otherwise, in our judgment, denied us.
Tell me a little bit about your com- your delegation. What did the Michigan delegation represent, I mean, and why was that constituency so important when you got to Gary?
OK, ah, the Michigan delegation represented, ah, a multitude of, of, of persons, such as Black historians, Ed Vaughn, of Michigan, was a Black historian and still is there, ah, national and international labor figures, such as Coleman Young, who was a state senator but who came form labor, ah, Nelson Jack Edwards, who was vice-president of an international union, United Auto Workers, and the highest ranking, at that time, Black labor principal in this country, ah, we had lawyers and teachers and housewives and, ah, wha- you know, just persons who, ah, related from day-to-day, ah, factory wives, to job wives in terms of, in factories, and on streets.
Stop for a second. What I'm, what I'm trying to get at is, when we spoke on the phone a couple weeks ago you said, "Well 65 percent of delegates--"
So my question is, what did the Michigan delegation represent in terms of the kind of input they could have at Gary, and why were you upset at how the Michigan delegation had been treated when they got to Gary?
Why we were upset, over--
No, the Michigan delegation--
The Michigan delegation. Why the Michigan delegation were upset over the way it had been treated after its arrival to the Gary convention, the Michigan delegation, I believe, ah, was upset before departing from Michigan because we were aware that there had been a total exclusion of the Michigan Black leadership in the framing of the agenda. You must remember that 65 percent or better of the delegate body from Michigan were from labor. Auto-workers, steel-workers, ah, municipal workers, and so forth. And, you had some of the most renowned labor personalities folded into that delegation who were international figures**, and, ah, the conveners, or the facilitators, of that assembly, ah, knew full well that they were, they were there, because we'd worked toget- we had worked together over the years in other struggles. And, we just felt that, ah, it was a very, very bad mistake for any organization to pull together a national Black assembly and exclude the expertise and the, the, the influence of those Black labor leaders out of Michigan who participated in negotiating economic contracts all over this country and Canada and Mexico and Puerto Rico, and yet, to come into an assembly of your own, and be denied an opportunity for input, ah, was a bit hard to swallow. And that kind of engendered the, the so-called confrontation, which, later, as you know, ah, led to something else.
Let's take it another step further now. We have Jesse doing the opening speech where he says, "We are pregnant, we are ready for change, the blood is spilled, a new Black baby is born." I mean, this was a rousing speech that called for a sense of unity, it called for unity. It called for "nation time" as he said at the delegation, at the assembly. What was the reaction of the Michigan delegation to Jesse's speech, I mean, knowing the fact that you hadn't had any input, in terms of in the framing of the agenda?
As I recall, ah, the unity emphasis that Jesse put into his speech, ah, really, i- as I read the reaction of the Michigan delegation while we enjoyed the oratory of, of Jesse, ah, we were fully aware that we came, or the delegate body was fully aware that it came to Gary with the spirit and intent of unification, but based on inclusion as well. And so, the appeal of Jackson, ah, didn't necessarily, ah, ah, interject any new adrenaline because it was already there. It was just angry, pent-up adrenaline. You know, housed within about 68-65 percent of that delegate body. And our appeals, ah, for, you know, the right to participate and be included in, in resolutions committees and election committees and platform committees, et cetera, and to offer, ah, some, some recommendations that would have given credit to other organizations that has helped Blacks along in the struggle, such as the UAW and AFSCME and others, was denied, and, ah, that, you know, that was, for a delegate body that comes out of a strong industrially-surrounded community, whose, whose, whose economic and job tentacles reach out throughout the country and other countries, ah, it was just unthinkable that we would do that to one another.
Let's go back, Jesse had just made this speech, ah, it was "Nation times", calling for nation time. Everybody is roused and excited. What was the reaction of the Michigan delegation to Jesse's speech?
Yes, Jesse's speech was rousing and exciting, but the Michigan delegation, you must remember, ah, while they enjoyed hearing Jesse, they were not overly moved by that kind of oratory because of, by having been excluded from the, ah, the basic input to structuring up, ah, participating in drawing up the proposal. And the Michigan delegation felt, 65 percent of them or better coming from organized labor in the state of Michigan, and, and a number of them being elected officials in Michigan, and that kind of thing, felt a little bit left out, not a little bit but felt very left out, and so I don't think that Jesse or any other orator could have motivated them to a spellbinding sort of frenzy, ah, about having, hearing him call for a point of "nation-time". Most of them felt it was nation-time by virtue of the fact that they traveled from Michigan to Indiana, to Gary, to be a part of that historical event.
Do you remember standing next to someone, listening--
Do you remember standing next to somebody as the speech is going on--
Just give me that story again about one, one of the delegates you were standing next to when you were listening to Jesse's speech, what his reaction was to Jesse's speech, and why the Michigan delegation was mad as hell.
OK. We were, well, Jesse's speech was a good speech except that it did very little to motivate or stimulate the Michigan dele- delegation, ah, because of their feeling of having been excluded and because of, basically they felt that their leadership had been ignored. For example, I was standing there listening and laughing and talking with a colleague of mine who had come to the convention and, and a couple of other folk, and this fellow laughed and said, you know, "Jesse's doing all right, but, but these people from the Michigan delegation is mad as hell, and his message ain't getting through to them at all." And, the reason for that, of course, was, ah, ah, we had been trying to persuade, through negotiations with the facilitators, them to give our leadership an opportunity to address their concerns.
And, and, and, and, and why they felt, eh, that they were, that they had been excluded and why they felt that they had a right to make some inclusions into the agenda. And they had been rebuffed, they had been denied very vehemently by, ah, some of the facilitators, particularly in the attitude of, ah, Imamu Baraka, who was very, very succinct in his attitude of not wanting to include any Michigan representation into framing that agenda beyond Congressman Charlie Diggs. And I think Charlie Diggs was a little embarrassed by that because, ah, he was considered the godfather of our successes, ah, in the Black family, and Congress, and our relationships with Africa and connections with, ah, African sisters and brothers.
Stop, stop right there. I'm sorry I jumped on top of you there. What I was trying to get for you to just say specifically why the Michigan, Michigan delegation.
Tell me about that little situation with your colleagues while you listened to Jesse's speech.
OK, we, you know, Jesse's speech included some, some real rhythmic phrases and, and the particular one of calling "the nation-time peace" was very good, except that I doubt very seriously whether any of the Michigan delegation, or the majority of them, heard, really cared about that call at that moment. For, you see, we had been excluded from input in the framing of the national agenda. We had been excluded from having special privileges to include our concerns in the discussions on the assembly floor. And, ah, that delegate body consisted of some 65% or better of organized labor membership. The UAW and other international unions. And, ah, and, ah, these, these delegates had abundance of experiences in collective bargaining and winning contracts or socioeconomic benefits for Black families as well as other. And to have excluded that talent from a Black family was an insulting situation and was intolerable. And it led to some other situations as you know.
Let's cut. Let's move on to something new.
Baraka was a major force in the convention. What was your reaction to him, to Baraka, and his constituency? I mean, also if you can remember some story about Baraka that you might remember. What was your reaction to Baraka?
Well, Baraka has, Baraka's involvement was very, very crucial and influential in that, in the assembling of that assembly. But that did not mean, necessarily, that Baraka was that well thought of, or he had that much influence over that whole assembly body there. Because he had his own agenda, and my personal opinion, or my, my, my feelings about it was that I was not ready to follow Baraka's prescription, and I don't think eighty, ninety percent of those who were there was ready to follow a prescription of separatism. And that kind of threw fear into, or some consternation into the minds of people that were there and were it not for the Hatchers or the Diggs or the Jacksons and the Patersons and others, ah, you might as well have adjourned the meeting. Baraka played a great role in, ah, in, ah, in, ah, in denying, you see, when Coleman Young made his appeal for conciliatory understanding for the privilege of, of, ah, introducing some concerns from Black labor, Baraka's attitude was, "No way." And he was con- he was a part of the controllers at the podium, and so how do you, ah, how do you have an exchange with the presider of a 4200 assembly from the floor if you're not given the mic to do so?
Let's, let's go to, ah, t- to Sunday. This was the last day of the convention.
And, ah, Coleman had just spoken. What, describe the Michigan walkout and what precipitated, I mean, what happened after Coleman had spoken to, ah, to the delegation?
Coleman's speech to the--
We're at, we're on, we're Su- we're at Sunday now, it's Sunday, the last day of the delegation, of the, ah, convention. Coleman makes his last effort, appeal to Baraka, you know, to get them to listen to the Michigan delegation, people who were pro-labor. What was, what was Baraka's reaction to Coleman's statement, and what did you do, how did you react to this?
Coleman's statement was presented, I thought, in eloquent form, and I was across the hall, across the assembly hall to the Alabama delegation, who had yielded to Michigan in order for Coleman to get to present, ah, the Michigan's, ah, ah, feelings and desires. And, ah, before I could get all the way back to the Michigan delegation, after Coleman made such an eloquent appeal, ah, there were three persons on the platform, in the name of the Congressman Diggs and Hatcher, as I recall, and Baraka. But Baraka abruptly rebuffed any appeal or suggestion from Coleman that consideration be given, and, ah, the UAW delegation, as I indicated earlier, which is 65% or better, and most of them are very, very acquainted with the rules and procedures of running meetings and, and having had their spokesperson attempt to represent their feelings and desires and having been abruptly rebuffed, and there was no recourse except for those who felt very strongly about it to do what they had to do, and that's walk. You know, there was no, ah, no drum-beating, or anything of that sort. We, they, they just quietly got up and moved out. And of course, the whole assembly knew that Michigan was walking because that whole discussion had been going on ever since we had arrived there, and there was much effort made to avoid it, and I certainly don't think that Coleman or Jack Edwards intended to just go there with the intention of walking away from it.
Give it to me again, now, this is, you're in the heat of the moment here. This, this must have been, this was an intense moment, I mean, tell me exactly how you were feeling here. You're watching Coleman--
--talking to, let me finish, talking to Baraka, trying to appeal to Baraka, he's been appealing to Baraka all weekend--
He's appealing to the three facilitators, OK. Yes.
Facilitators, and this is the last effort. His last-ditch effort. And then he's rebuffed. And you're standing there watching part of your delegation walk out. I mean, tell me what happened, you're watching this. Your reaction to it.
I, I, I, I could not believe that the, the re- the rebuffing would come so abruptly. At least, I thought we were sophisticated enough to give it consideration and buy us some time for harmony and unity's sake. But that was not in the cards and I was kind of startled at the fact that it was treated in such an abrupt manner and way. And, ah, so that, you know, it, it, although I was startled at that fact, some of us had to make some real tough decisions as to whether or not we in fact walked totally, which was 65% or better of the delegation, or for the good of the overall objective of that assembly, we stay and see it through, painfully, and some of us did that. And of course when the bulk of the Michigan delegation walked out, then the leadership of the remaining delegation changed hands into another force that were more in kind to going along with the facilitators wishes, and that's by the agenda.
I want to do it again. I thought this was really good, but I really need to, if you can--
The last day now. This is, this is it for the Michigan delegation, people who were pro-labor. What happened? What was your reaction when Coleman was rebuffed by the facilitators up on the dais?
If you could give me when Coleman was--
When Coleman delivered his, his speech, or his appeal, ah, it was a very, very eloquent appeal, as he is capable of doing, and it made all the sense in the world as to why we thought we ought to be included and heard, but as he gave it, and instantly after his conclusion, ah, the facilitators were, were looking and Baraka just abruptly rebuffed any appeal that had come from Coleman. And, of course, the Michigan delegation was highly incensed at that attitude and treatment toward one of the more outstanding leaders in the Michigan delegation, and so, for those who felt very strongly about that, had no recourse except to walk. And, frankly, I think that Coleman was, ah, was sort of shocked at the reaction, too, because I, I really think that he gave it his best shot and the least it warranted was some qualitative consideration, and that didn't come about. So, and I just couldn't believe my eyes, I just couldn't believe what I was witnessing there, but, and I don't know why, I should not have expected it, we'd been trying to crack it for two days and were unable to do so.
OK, why did you remain with the rest of the Mili- Michigan delegation and decide not to walk?
I had a very, very, ah, ah, wracking decision to make and it wasn't easy for me to make that decision, ah, to stay. But, I had reviewed the document, and, most of the ingredients in the document went to issues, in my judgment, that were far more important to the Black family of this country than to just pick up my marbles and go home because somebody had kicked me in the behind and ordered me out, in essence, by denying me the open right of participation. And, ah, for example, the, you know, the, the labor movement, we were all about wages, ah, for the under- ah, underprivileged, and day care, and, and health care, we were all about, in the UAW, dismantling discriminatory practices in management, and that's what the National Black Assembly agenda advocated also, and so these things seemed to me were weighing factors in my decision and others' decision to stay and, ah, course it wasn't a popular position to take, it was misunderstood by many, but I think, at this point in time, looking back, it was worth it.
OK, Willie, if you can give me the, your reaction, the, the story about your reaction to Jesse's speech when you were talking to your friend in the delegation and, you know, why you were so upset, why the Michigan delegation was so upset.
Well, I was, ah, Jesse was giving this speech, and Jesse does a very good job in delivery, and I was standing there with a couple of colleagues on the floor, and one turned to me, I remember very clearly, and he kind of laughed and he says, "You know, Jesse did a, made a good speech, but he might as well have given that one in Chicago because this Michigan delegation is mad as hell and it just doesn't move them." And, ah, they, you know, they had good reasons for it because, ah, they had, they had felt neglected and denied the right for input into that conference, and, and we had 65% or better of the delegates who came from organized labor that constituted that percentage of Michigan delegation. And they just, ah, they were just not easily persuaded by, ah, you know, the, the, the, the baptismable oratory. That wasn't church time, that was nation time. They just wasn't in the mood for accepting any persuasion of that sort. I doubt very seriously whether Jesse was aware that that situation was that critical, because I don't recall him being involved in any of the mediating processes of it. I think that, that talent came along afterward.
Did they do anything at the point that you stayed and they walked out?
Of course not. They, well, they were disgruntled about it, and then my own constituency was unhappy about it because they did not understand at that time, ah, but, you see, we had UAW officials out of Illinois, Ohio, and other states who also, although they were with their states, they were officials in my organization, and they remained with their delegations, you know, because it really was not affected by that and they dispute. It, it was more a--
If you could just do that one again for us, why did you remain with the Michigan delegation, ah, when, ah, with the Michigan that had decided not to walk out?
When the, when the 65% or better of the delegate body decided to walk out, you must remember that they were my constituents, they were labor, and I am labor, and it was a very, very painful decision for me, ah, to have to make, and that was to remain in the session to its conclusion. It was very difficult. I was executive director of a major, a sub-major department.
Why did you--
Why did you remain with those in the Michigan delegation that decided not to walk out?
Well, it wasn't easy. Remaining was not easy. It took some real fast and serious thinking on my part because you have to remember that those 65% or better--
We gotta cut.
Now, Willie, why did you remain with those in the Michigan dele- Michigan delegation who decided not to walk out?
Well, it, it, it wasn't an easy thing to do. It was very hard for me, uh--
If you could do remaining wasn't easy--
OK, I'm sorry, OK. Remaining was not easy for me. As a matter of fact, it was one of the harder periods of my lifetime that I had to make a decision of that magnitude because you have to understand that 65% or better of those who walked out were my constituents of the labor movement, and, ah, it, it, it, it pained me to have to do it but then I had to weigh what was the objective of that assembly, vis-a-vis the, the insults and intimidation that had been engendered by Baraka and people of his attitude. But the content of the agenda outweighed my urgent inclination to leave with the rest of them. It meant more to them or to those that had left and to the national Black family for me and others, it seems to me, to have remained and saw the whole thing through in order to be able to interpret it to those who weren't able to be there and in order to be able to help to whatever extent you could to implement the resolves of the agenda. I did not share the view that it was anti-labor, or anti-White, or anti-establishment in that sense. It was my view that Black folk had every right to come together and develop an agenda of socioeconomic directions that's developed out of their own minds and their own souls and based on their own experiences and their needs. And this is what happened. And that's, that was, those were the things that persuaded me to stay. I don't regret having made those decisions now that I look back at it.