Interviewer: Sheila Bernard
Production Team: C
Interview Date: June 7, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2147-2149
Sound Rolls: 269-270
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Eleanor Josaitis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 7, 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.
So could you tell me a little bit about where you were living in the mid `60s?
In the mid `60s I was living in a community about 20 miles from Detroit called Taylor, Michigan--it's four miles from Metropolitan Airport. And it was a young community, White, it was,, ah, three bedroom brick homes, ranch homes, with, with, ah, family rooms and we moved out there because,, ah, my husband had just gotten out of the service and we could get a GI mortgage on this home, so that's where we were living. And, ah, I was a mother and a housewife and raising five children and very happy with my life, very happy with my involvement in the community. I had a lot of friends, I had a lot of neighbors that I loved and we were raising our children together and, and, ah, things seemed to be what you would expect of your life, you know, was happy, my husband had a good job.
What was your sense living out there? How did your neighbors see the people in the city? There were, there was a lot of moving out of the city, especially among White people.
There was a lot of movement out of the city at that time because express ways were being built, because new homes were being built, because large numbers of new homes were being built in the suburban communities at that time, and because of the number of people that were coming back from the service. That's where you could go to get, get a home, and get a starter home. But my husband and I both grew up in the city, we lived across the street from one another for 16 years so the city was very much a part of, of who we were and what our life was like. But the, the 60s and the struggle with the Civil Rights Movement was very, very disturbing and you could not sit in your living room and watch television and not be very much aware of what was happening in the world around us.
OK, hang on a second. Stop. That was great. Can you,, ah, I want to ask you about--
So if you could just tell me about the sense, before anything was happening in the cities, but what it was like in, what your sense was living in the White community.
Living in the White community during the 60s to me, my remembrance of it was that things in the, in the community were fine. We were all raising our children and things were, were wonderful, with our little part of the real estate. But when you turned on television and you saw what was going on in, across the rest of the country, the conversations then became very heated conversations, because people would be talking about what they saw on television last night or what was going on or what was Dr. King all about or what was this movement with,, ah,, ah, the Black Panthers, and what were these new expressions? So there began to be an anger, and the conversations became more and more heated, and there was more confrontations amongst people who thought they had exactly the same values and had the same point of view and were raising their children the same way. So the, the conversations were loud, and the talk was, ah, confused talk, talk, ah, a lot of hatred, a lot of, ah, what's happening and why are people doing this and don't they know what their place is, and a lot of name calling, and a lot of very derogatory name calling, and just a lot of people who were fr- who were frustrated, who didn't understand what was going on, who didn't care to understand what was going on, who just cared to put it down and stop it in any way, didn't want to be a part of it, but somehow felt that just by their own, who they were and their anger, that they could, bring some sort of, make sense out of this and, and what do these folks think they're doing. So there--
Stop for a sec, OK, cut.
So you, you were watching the Civil Rights Movement and you were also watching the cities going up--
Watching the cities going up and watching the Civil Rights Movement unfold and watching the anger and, and having it all brought to your living room--you had two choices. You could either watch it and feel some sort of empathy, and feel the confusion and wonder what you could do about it or you could watch it and completely ignore it, turn your back and pretend that it didn't exist at all. And I think in the suburbs where I was living at the time, both of those things were happening. But I can remember in, in the early 60s,, ah, being invited to a meeting of the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who was coming over to the Taylor Library to give a talk that night. And in, in going over there carrying my little placard and walking around the library, opposed to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but that was not out of the ordinary. I mean the, the, I have to keep coming back to the word "confusion," because I think that's the word that summarizes it for me the more than anything else, confusion--what are we supposed to be feeling? But at the same time, I was fortunate because Father Cunningham was a weekend pastor of our parish which was St. Alfred's Parish in Taylor, and he would come out there every weekend to preach. And I was so taken back by his ability to articulate what was going on through the Gospels, if you will, and articulate the, the nonviolent movement of a Dr. King and preach the sermon and kind of make sense out of what was going on but also translate it in a way that made you compelled to listen and to respond to it. So when--
Let's stop. I'm sorry, you can finish if you want to.
I just want to finish the thought because when he would, when he would--
So you would have people in your home to talk about what?
Father Cunningham, because of his ability to speak from the pulpit, intrigued me. I would invite him back to our home after Mass on Sunday, I would go up and down the block and get all the neighbors to come in, and we would discuss what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement, and we would discuss--
Stop for one second, stop for a second. I just need, we, we're not going to--
So you were trying to get your neighbors--
Father Cunningham was the weekend Pastor and when he would finish a sermon, I would invite him over to our house and then I would get the neighborhood to come in and talk. And the purpose of getting everybody to talk was to try to understand what was going on and the, the confusion again, was,, ah, unreal.
Do you remember any specifics?
Name calling,, ah, people who had no reason to ever come in contact with a Black person in their life didn't want to be bothered with this movement, didn't understand it, didn't want to understand it, wanted it to go away, and thought by turning their head that it would just disappear and--
Tell me about the moment when you decided, you tell me about this moment that really changed you.
I had a, a moment happening in my life that I hope I never forget, and what's called a significant emotional event. I was sitting in my living room watching television and watching the Nuremberg trial and being taken up and caught up with the emotion of that trial, and having the television series interrupted long enough to show me the Selma, Alabama march--when they, when the cameras took me into that march, and showed the police horses riding through the crowds with the cattle pr- prodders, knocking people over, and listening to people scream, and seeing people fall, and seeing the troops come through. And I remember sitting there what seemed to be hours saying to myself, "What is the difference between Nazi Germany and the United States of America? What would I have done if I'd lived in Germany? Would I have tried to stop it in any way? Would I have been involved? Or would I have turned my head?" And then asking myself, "What am I doing now? Am I doing all that I should do? Should I be doing more? What should I be doing and what can I do?"
And when the riot happened in Detroit how did this all--
It all came into place for me when the riot in the, in the 60s--
In the, when the riot hit in 1967, I was at Sacred Heart Seminary for Mass on that Sunday, and remember looking out the window and seeing the smoke and seeing the police cars and hearing the sirens and hearing all the confusion and being told, "Get out of the city, get back, hurry up and get back into your own community." And my husband and I had been down there with our children and we went back to Taylor, and I called back to Sacred Heart Seminary on the telephone and spoke with Father Cunningham and he interpreted what was going on for me. The following day my next door neighbor and I went down and walked the streets to see for ourselves what was going on. First time in my life that my husband has ever been upset with me--and when I got back home he kept saying, "Eleanor, do you know what you're doing?" Because of the worry, and because of the fear, and because of the television,, ah, communication that was, was just putting it all before our eyes.
What was, what was the feeling in the suburbs?
So what was the sense from television of what was happening in the city?
The sense of watching television and the riot of `67 was--
OK, you don't need to say "riot of `67," we already, it's happening, so just "watching television."
Watching television showed pictures of people in the street, it showed burning, it showed buildings on fire, it showed total confusion, it showed tanks coming into the city, it showed troops, it showded[SIC] showed people looting,, ah, it looked like a war torn zone, that's all you could think of was, "My God, this is 20 miles from where I live and it's, they've dropped a bomb." That was what you saw on television, and what you heard in the community was, "Why are they doing this, why are they doing this?"** And,, ah, "They don't know what they're doing," and "My God, look what's happening?" And just--
But I got a sense talking to you yesterday it was more than that, it was the sense that it was getting bigger and the next step was going to be Taylor and it was going to be taking over Taylor.
When it went on, and it didn't stop that first Sunday and it wasn't over right away and the troops started to come in and there was more and more conversation, then there became a fear in the community that it was going to spread, and it was going to come out, and Taylor was going to be the next place that would be, ah, riot, ah, rioting would take place, or Dearborn, or someplace else, so the talk in the neighborhood was: "We have to stock our basement with food. That's the first thing we have to do; we must go over to Dearborn and take pistol practice lessons; when do we want to sign up for the vigilante? When do you want to go and stand at the overpass on Telegraph Road and wait for all the Black folks to come out from the city and riot in our community?" And there was so much fear that that was going to take place that there seemed to me to be a sense of, of almost, ah, fear and hopelessness, that it was going to come so we'd better be prepared for it** And that's certainly what I was experiencing. And again, the, the negative comments about people and the name callings and, ah, animal was the, was the favorite term. Uh--
OK, cut. OK, I want to ask you--
So what was your response to what was happening?
My response to what I was seeing on television and what I was reading in the newspaper was not one of fear. It was one of, "How can I be part of this? What can I do? How can I demonstrate that this is wrong and that I want to be part of the change?" So immediately I was asking myself, "What can I do?" And joining again with Father Cunningham, my friend and, and Pastor of my church, and saying, "What can we do together?" But I, the frustration was, "How do we bring some sort of sense and some sort of calm to this? How can I get my neighbors and my family and my White friends to understand the, the, the anger and the fear and the frustration of Black people who are saying to all of us, 'Look, America, I'm holding up a mirror, look at it, see my pain, see my frustration?'" And my desire was just to say, "Can't we come together, can't we figure out how to understand one another because we, we seem to be so different?"
So, tangibly, what did you do?
Oh good, so we're looking at real life now. What you did, where you went that you got clothes together, that kind of thing?
The following day, my response was, "What can I do?" So I called a lot of friends and called people that I knew out in the area and asked if we could collect canned goods and clothing and whatever was needed, because that's what I was hearing was needed on television, and send some truck loads and, of clothing and food down to Sacred Heart Seminary where it was distributed, ah, and did whatever I could at the time. Um, again, in an effort to show my understanding of what was going on and accepting the invitation of a Dr. King who I thought was saying, "Come and get involved."
Well tell- let's, let's move ahead to, to your move back into the city and the, and the price you paid in terms of what you had to leave. Actually cut for a second. I don't need you to name specific people and I don't--
So when it was over, what, what did you do?
When the riots were over and people were gathering around trying to figure out when the Black folks were going to come across, ah, Telegraph Road, and when are the riots going to take place in the suburbs, my desire was to move back into the city. My husband and I--
I'm sorry, stop for a second. You know what might be a better lead in--
OK, so when it's over, what's what--?
When the riots in `67 were over, there began to be a feeling that `68 was going to be a very hot summer** and people in the suburbs began to, ah, start the talk of fear again, and start the talk of "What are we going to do?" and "How are we going to brace ourselves?" My reaction was exactly the opposite. My reaction was, "Let us begin to bring some sort of change." So my husband and I sold our home and moved back into the city of Detroit. I wanted to live in an integrated neighborhood, I wanted my children to be raised in an integrated neighborhood, and I wanted to be part of the ongoing struggle. We didn't do that without paying a price for it. We paid a price from our neighbors who thought that we were making a tragic mistake, "How could we possibly take five little children and move into an area that just the year before that, they were rioting two blocks away?" Family who loved us dearly couldn't understand why we would want to subject ourselves to that. There was talk of, "Somebody ought to hire an attorney and take our children away from us." Ah, there was talk of, "I'll never talk to you again." There was talk of, "Maybe you ought to use another name." Ah, there was just talk of, "I don't know what you're doing but it's wrong and you ought to think about it, and we don't want to have anything more to do, to do with you." And I think that if I look back on it now, I would say that it was fear, fear for my husband and myself, fear for five little children. But to me it was exactly what needed to be done. If I was going to teach my five children that hatred was wrong and to hate somebody bef- because of the color of their skin could not be tolerated and was exactly the opposite of what it meant to love your neighbor, then I had to show them by my example and my teaching them to live in an integrated neighborhood. And I was never going to ask anybody to do anything that I myself wouldn't do.
OK, cut. That's a nice answer. Um--
OK, so after you moved back into the city--
After we moved back into the city, Focus Hope began to grow and our role--
Sorry, you need to say at least what "Focus Hope" is.
Want me to start over?
After we moved back into the city and Focus Hope--the organization that I was involved with and co-founded with Father Cunningham, began to take our message of, of working together, Black and White people together, to anybody that would listen to us. We took it into the pulpits, ah, we had home meetings afterwards where we would have the church community open up their homes and bring Black and White people together to talk. And the reaction that we were getting is, ah, one of acceptance, one of, "Hurray, I'm glad we finally talk," one of trying to understand one another, and again, the opposite of that which is, "Don't bring your message out here to the suburbs, I don't want to hear it, I don't want to be a part of anything you're talking about, and s- let's, keep the riots there and I don't have to be a part of it." And, ah, being asked to leave places and, ah, ah, being very confused by that and, ah, more than frustrated by it. Ah, again, I have to go back to Dr. King and how difficult it must have been for him to be constantly confronted with the hatred and the, and the violence, and the reaction, and experiencing just some of that myself, and wrestling with it and saying, "How do you deal with it, how do you forgive, how do you move forward?" But--
OK, cut. Um, when the Commission came out and said--
OK, so if you could tell me about the relief that you --
The day after the riot, the call went out for clothing and food and things that were needed to help those that, in that torn part of the city. I came back home to Taylor and made as many telephone calls, and I called everybody and everybody's Aunt Martha, in order to see if I could collect some food and some clothing, and sent, ah, about two yar- large trucks back into the city. But I mean, I made a lot of telephone calls and called a lot of people. So there were good-willed people that wanted to contribute, and many of them just wanted to be invited and wanted to do whatever anybody asked them to do. And of course you got as many "No, I don't want any part of it," as we did, but I certainly called as many people as I could call to ask, to, to help, and we were able to send the food and the clothing down and it was definitely appreciated.
Great, OK, cut. Thank you so much.
The following summer, after the '67 riot, people thought that Black people were going to riot again and what they were fearful of is that they were going to come from the city, move out into the suburbs and we'd have a repeat of what we had. So everyone was calling it "the hot summer," And they, the talk in the suburbs was "Buy a gun, stock your basement, and when did you want to join the vigilante group?" The vigilante groups were dividing themselves up so that they would take their turns standing at the overpass, on the telegraph road for example and watching for when all the Black folks were going to be coming across the borderline. So gun buying increased, it was not unusual to be asked if you wanted to go over to Dearborn--which was a suburb--and take pistol practice lessons and be part of this movement that was going to stop the folks that were coming out of the city.
In '67 the White community is, is fearful because they don't understand it. But it's still 20 miles away, it's not like it's going to happen immediately, like it's going to flow out of the city and it's going to go. After '67 as we got closer to sixty--
There was not the fear that it was going to come into the all White community 20 miles away. That somehow we could stop that. Or that the people in the suburbs would stop it. The city was a Black city, if you will, and there were more Black people there so the rioting would take place in the city. In '68 it was more the feeling of retaliation. "We now need to go into the communities where the White people are and show our power, and Black power was the sign and the symbol, and carried the fear further." In '67 I don't think it was the fear that it's going to hit my neighborhood right now, because I'm twenty miles away, but surely in '68 that was the talk. That was the fear then, "Now we're going to go to all the White communities."