Production Team: X
Interview Date: November 22, 1988
Camera Rolls: 4062-4067
Sound Rolls: 426-427
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with William Rutherford, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 22, 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.
What was your position in SCLC? What did Dr. King have in mind when he brought you in? What did he want you to do?
Well my job in SCLC essentially was to serve as a manager in mounting, developing, and installing certain management systems that hadn't existed before. And when Dr. King asked me to come, it was essentially to fulfill a gap that they had begun to feel more and more strongly where they had this really, ah, mass movement of people interested in social change and in seeing civil rights advanced in America but who essentially were not organization people or were not accustomed to functioning in terms of organizations. And I remember when I first spoke to him about it. I originally came to SCLC not to serve in the organization but to serve as a representative of the organization in Europe. And I came over essentially to attend the, ah, first annual, ah, or the first for me, the first annual meeting of, ah, the Board of Direction, the Board of Directors, sorry. And, ah, become acquainted with them and with the organization's program and so on and then to return to Europe where I was living and working at the time, to set up something called "Friends of Martin Luther King" in Europe. This would have grouped several, ah, Nobel Prize winners in various areas, ah, Italy, Holland, Sweden, I think, ah. We had representatives and to serve as a locus for fund raising in Europe and also as a source of information. In those days there was virtually no information about Black America being diffused or actually available in Europe at all. That was going to be my, ah, role and function. But when I came to America essentially for a two week period to do this in 1966, I walked into the office on Auburn Avenue and it was filled with enthusiastic, busy, involved people, wandering here and there. Some saying hello, some trying to work. But a total, total chaos and cacophony, if you would. And I looked around and it was just unbelievable. And in one of my first meetings with Dr. King he explained to me that they were coming up on the 10th anniversary of the founding of SCLC. This was approximately in June/July and I think the anniversary was to have been in August/September. And he explained to me that unfortunately there was not sufficient time to produce a brochure or booklet or some kind of commemorative publication for their 10th anniversary. And having been a journalist myself, having worked, ah, for many years in publications and in publishing and so on, I was astounded at the idea that they couldn't produce a document, a publication in two months. So I said to Dr. King, "Well perhaps I can be of some help on this. And let me see what I can do." So I went and I called one of my oldest friends in America, Milton Moskowitz, who was in charge of one of the external affairs departments at J. Walter Thompson in New York. And I said, "Listen, Milt, ah, what do you think we could do about producing a booklet on SCL--ten years of SCLC?" He said, "Well, why don't you gather whatever materials and pictures you've got and come up here." And sure enough I rattled through the files and the archives at SCLC and so on, gathered up a couple of suitcases of documents and flew up to New York and we did it in five days.
Can you tell me something wonderful in terms of what your first impression was when you walked in the office at the SCLC office at the Auburn Avenue headquarters, in terms of the collection of people there? What did you find?
Ah, my first impressions of SCLC, I didn't believe it. It was an unbelievable collection of rich, poor, well-clad, poorly-clad people, articulate people, busy people, loafing people, visiting people. People from all walks of life, Black, White, farmers, ah, businessmen, people really coming to bring things, I mean everything from food, I won't say chickens but I really would say dishes of food, bread, and so on, that they would share with the staff that was there. The staff, I would say, ranged from unemployed sharecroppers to, through students, religious people, to very sophisticated business people who would come in to see how they could contribute and participate. And of course this lack of order and organization was what made it a grassroots movement that spread across the total spectrum of American society and life, ah. It gave it it's strength and it's impetus but then that became self-defeating at some point. And I believe this is where Dr. King decided, ah, and it had been discussed sometime, of course, earlier that the organ--the movement needed to become more organized. And that's essentially what I was asked to do. And after, ah, being there as I said, really for an orientation session and getting involved in and actually working there and having no friends there. I only knew two people when I actually arrived in, ah, Atlanta, Dr. King himself and Andy Young, and Mrs. King. I had met the three of them in Geneva a year earlier, ah. Having, as I say, having no other contacts or relations there, I really spent my time in the office after hours and on and on and on. And at some point Dr. King said to me very, very nicely, "Well Bill having you here has made a terrific difference and it really would be very nice if you could come back and stay for a longer time."
There was much debate over the Poor People's Campaign idea with SCLC. When the Poor People's Campaign was first proposed, did many SCLC staff people jump to agree with Dr. King?
When the Poor People's Campaign was first proposed I have to say that almost no one on the staff was really enthusiastic about the idea, let alone the problems and, ah, process of organizing a mass demonstration around the poor. The genesis of the Poor People's Campaign I'd say was really and Dr. King's thinking and the evolution of his thinking and you must remember that, ah, at the time, SCLC, ah, had achieved considerable success in a number of areas and, if the staff were basically indifferent to, I'd say indifferent to rather than opposed to an effort in that direction, it was based on the history of the movement until that point. If you remember there was, ah, the whole area of public accommodations. This was certainly one of the greatest achievements in, ah, the history of race relations in the United States. When they, actually for the first time in the history of the country, opened up all public facilities to all Americans. Ah, there was similarly, a very strong, ah, move, organization within the movement for voter registration. Remember that in 1964 they had passed the Voting Rights Act and we had a division. It was, ah, supported, ah, by various foundations and by the public around the country, ah, to register people to vote. So this was a very important activity. So citizenship training, to teach people, many people had never had the opportunity to vote, didn't really understand the importance of voting or didn't really care about voting. So we had what we called a Citizen Educa--Citizen Education and Voter's Right Department that was headed by Dorothy Cotton. Ah, and that's what she worked on basically. The other really important, ah, element within SCLC at the time was what we called our Affiliates Division. You know, SCLC was a grouping of organizations, grassroot organizations basically, clergymen throughout the United States. Basically in the South but throughout the country. So people were very actively organizing these local affiliates to work in their communities on public accommodations, ah, and voting, ah, registration drives and so on. And similarly we had begun the Bread Basket Movement which originated in Atlanta with two, ah, Black clergymen in Atlanta and so on. So the staff was really quite busy and quite involved in things when Dr. King looked up and in his reasoning and I'm paraphrasing of course, he said, "Fine, we now have the right to vote. Fine, we can now go to any restaurant, any hotel, any place we want to in America but we don't have the means. So what good does it do for people go to any restaurant in the world if you don't have the money to pay for a meal?" So, he says, "We've got to attack the whole issue of poverty, ah, and economic deprivation." And that was his thinking, his reasoning for pushing for a Poor People's Campaign. But of course when this has to impact on people that have been fighting to get people registered and into polling place, people who have been fighting to get, ah, education, people who have been fighting for the right to, ah, go into public accommodations. The idea of attacking something as vast and as amorphous as poverty, of course wasn't very appealing. So I'd say that basically almost no one on the staff thought that the next priority, the next major movement should be, ah, focused on poor people or the question of poverty in America.
What were the debates like? What was the discussion like?
Oh, I think there was a great deal and, I have to preface this, preface this by saying that many of our senior staff were clergymen, meaning that they are very good talkers. They like to talk. They're trained speakers. They're trained rhetoricians and being very strong willed and strong minded, or they wouldn't have been in the movement in the first place or they wouldn't have survived in it, they were all very strong personalities and characters. So each one would have his point to make. Each one would speak to his point and at great length and with great eloquence. And these meetings could go on for hours. And being again basically very, ah, creative, independent people, ah, they were very difficult to discipline. And my role, or part of my role as an outsider, was to attempt to put some organization in this very, ah, volatile, spontaneous, ah, situation. So, ah, we made it very clear who was in charge. Dr. King had made it very clear who was in charge. I chaired, pardon?
I chaired these meetings and that's when I got in the process of saying, "Well, each one get ten minutes or else we'll be here all night."
No, the SCLC staff was a collection of great individuals and individualists. Very independent as I said, and very articulate and each with a mind of his own, resulting one, to join the movement, and two, survive, ah, internal, external pressures. But being very, ah, individualistic and independent they're a hard lot to control. And I'd say that practically, practically no one could do that except Dr. King. Ah, all of that of course compounded by the fact that everyone was a volunteer, ah, come or go. So, who's going to give or take, ah, orders, ah, and of course part of my role was to attempt to instill some discipline or at least, ah, some order. And it wasn't, ah, easy as you can imagine having, ah, such a collection. I really, ah, high-powered, active, hyperactive, articulate, ah, motivated, dedicated people to try and control as a staff. Imagine Jose, Andy, ah, Jesse, ah, Fontroy, just a collection, T.Y. Rogers, others that you've forgotten by now. T.Y. Rogers being the head of our filliest[SIC] division. We called him the Tiger of Tuscaloosa. And he was one of these southern preachers who could mesmerize you, he could hypnotize, you know, masses of people and did. But when this same process was being applied on one another our meetings could go on for hours. And Dr. King was a soul of patience and he would listen and listen and listen and rarely interrupt. He would hear everyone out. Then he would say, "Well, ah, this is very interesting but what I think is:" Then he would summarize in about 20 minutes, four hours of previous discussion. In attempting to organize at least to moderate somewhat this outpouring of energy and enthusiasm and many, many very, very good ideas that were, you know, some practical and some not practical. I did a number of things, ah. I'll never forget going at some point, we'd say, each one has ten minutes. You'd take off your watch and you'd put it on the table in front of you and you'd try to each one to go for ten minutes. But how do you stop someone in the mid-oration, ah, the middle of their peroration, ah, to stop and say, "Well it's, your ten minutes are up" and so on. So I went by Sears and Roebuck one day on the way to the office and for a few dollars I got a kitchen timer and I put it on the, ah, table and of course then Jose would take off or Jesse would take off or Andy would take off. All of a sudden you'd hear that little ping. "What? You mean that's ten minutes already?" Of course it was ten minutes. Probably, ah, you know, a minute more or so. But other things, like sometimes people would show up for meetings and sometimes they wouldn't, ah, these very independent, individualistic people. So I began, again, something that might sound a little Boy-Scoutish now, ah, but it was necessary and I'm happy to say it also worked. I would impose a fine of $25.00 for someone who came to a meeting late. I would pose, impose a fine of $50.00 for someone who didn't show up at all. And this was particularly true of one of our staff members who was located in Chicago, was so independent he would come or not come as it suited him. And we'd be hopping mad because we'd sit there. We'd have, maybe Stan Levinson, who would fly in from New York, spend the night, talk to Dr. King, stick around for the staff meeting the next morning and the meeting would start an hour late. So you had to put an end to that. So we tried all kinds of things and, ah, so at some point I read off these new rules and regulations. From now on here's the way it's going to be. Following week, everybody showed up including our contingent from Chicago and so on. Ah, the meeting still started half an hour late. You know who the first person was that we stuck? You'll never guess. It was Dr. King. Twenty-five dollars it cost him. And this of course, a staff that has very little, ah, income of any kind, certainly not from the organization. But, ah, we were going to then use that fund for a recreation fund and, you know, all go on a picnic or something with those funds at some point. But that was our effort to put some discipline into the meetings of the staff.
You would have all this talk and then at the end Dr. King would sum up, did that mean that everybody would agree with him?
Ah, I don't know if everyone would agree with him, ah, no everyone didn't agree with Dr. King. But no one ever really, how should I say, ah, left the meeting, ah, opposed to what he had said. There was very little carry over. He would, ah, not impose a consensus but he was able, his thinking and his thoughts were so clear, he was able to cut through three or four hours of rhetoric and discussion and simply say, "Well, this makes sense. That makes sense. A good point made an hour and a half ago by Al Sampson or whoever it might be. Ah, and that, but I would have this to say about that." And he would go on and within 15 or 20 minutes he would have, ah, everyone would have expressed, ah, his or herself, ah, and he would be able to synthesize the whole thinking. So he probably had taken in the best elements that this, ah, you know, really rather heteroclitic crowd had been able to enunciate during that period.
And even people who disagree with him would think that it made sense?
Well, people who began disagreeing with him, would end up saying, "Well, that's probably out of this mass of ideas and proposals being put forward, ah, that is probably the best synthesis that anyone could make." So, yes, in that sense, we did all end up, ah, in his corner. Even if we had, you know, differing ideas at the outset and maybe the next day in fact. Then you had to come back and convince Dr. King. What was marvelous about him is that since he would hear you out, everyone was able to express themselves and so on. He really never sat on any one. Ah, you really couldn't say that you didn't have a chance to, ah, you know, articulate or enunciate your ideas. He heard you out and then he said, "Okay that sounds great but here's what we're going to do." And then he'd, but he sort of, you know, that was the word from the man, ah. In a very comradely fashion, he really never gave orders. He never dictated. He was a very strong leader but his leadership, I think, came from both the moral force within him and his intellectual powers of really of imposing on a number of very talented, strong, ah, personalities and intellects that surrounded him.
How did you organize? What was the grassroots organization like with the PPC?
Well we organized the Poor People's Campaign by putting out what is known in the movement as a call. A call to worship, a call to participate, a call for camaraderie, and so on. Whoever hears your call will respond. It's a kind of unspoken bond of friendship and camaraderie and so on. When I call you it means I need you and you will come.** If you put out a call and I hear you I will come. That in the movement was the call. So, the decision was taken and there had been a number of meetings with Dr. King's closest advisors in the trade union movement, amongst the clergy, World Council of Churches and so on about focusing on, ah, the issue of poverty in America. Ah, there was this famous book by Harrington, ah, _The Other America_ that dealt with the problem of hunger. Dr. King saw that a c--copy of that circulated amongst the staff and others and so on and so forth. Ah, so the call was issued and people arrived in Atlanta from every part of America, north, south, east, west, ah, and so on and they arrived to participate and to work, to discuss but then to, ah, go out and to assist in organizing this newest, most important of SCLC campaigns. And I remember there were some 300 people who gathered in Ebenezer Church, ah, to discuss the logistics, the arrangements, the plan and we had worked on those for weeks and weeks now, ah, and we were going to give the word to those who had responded to our appeal or to our call. Ah, they had really gathered, ah, as I said, from Texas from California from Detroit from Chicago from New York from, you name it, Mississippi, Alabama, all of the surrounding states of course. People had come in who had participated in previous drives, previous demonstrations, previous campaigns and so on that were all answering the call. And as I said, we all gathered at the, ah, church to hear the leader speak, give us the direction, then to discuss the details and so on. And we had a very, very large number of persons and we had chosen some that were known before and we would, ah, organize and dispatch teams, generally of two persons per location. For example we took two experienced, ah, civil rights, ah, participants or leaders or workers whatever you want to call them to organize Manhattan. In principal we had no money, we had a war chest that was very limited. The organization was indebted at the time. And I think we had allocated something like fifty dollars per week per each participant. That fifty dollars was to pay for everything, food, board, lodging, clothing, transportation, incidentals and so on. And for, ah, campaign expenses we allocated the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. Anything beyond that they had to raise locally. So we sent a team to California. We sent a team to Chicago, ah, Al Sampson being half of our Chicago team. We sent two men to organize Chicago and we sent two men to organize, ah, New York City. And of course they were to call upon the local clergy, the local SCLC affiliate, the local communities and so on for the resources necessary to organize, ah, the campaign in that locality and by and large they did. And I must say, ah, they also were to see about fund raising in each. Their mandate was to respond to the total needs of the Poor People's Campaign in terms of organization and participation, recruitment of persons, identification of persons, ah, publicity, information, and so on and so forth, through the schools, through the churches, through other community organizations and so on. Ah, and the whole logistical problem was that we could only ensure, I'd say, two months budget at the time we were sending this team into the field. Ah, but we had literally 300 people, ah, as I say, a very mixed group.
Can you sum up by talking about the 300 people that went out and other people that you sent to New York City, the whole thing and how this was to organize America?
Yes, well we had, as I said, fewer than 300 persons, hands I'd say, to organize America. We were asking 300 persons to organize 200 million people. And of course, to a large degree, they did. We had a movement that began in the northeastern United States that I think brought a caravan of some 100 and some buses of people from the northeastern United States across the northeast into Washington. We had support from artists, I mean the Pete Seegers, the Marlon Brandos, ah, many, many people in many areas in many walks of life, ah, from the trade unions to prominent Hollywood figures. I mean the Burt Lancasters and so on that participated and would donate say, a bus, no great, you know, ah, shakes for them, but tremendous, ah, for us. Ah, and these 300 people did go out to organize America. And I will never forget going out to, ah, Albuquerque. We were having difficulty with, ah, the organization, logistics of the local group that were going to come from the south, ah, west to participate in the Poor People's Campaign. And I met, ah, Brando in Albuquerque. He came down because he was going to buy ten buses. He was going to donate ten buses, say. And to be sure that these buses were going to leave, as he said on the, he said to me on the telephone, "Well, listen man, no fooling around." He said, "If these are going, if this money is going to go for buses. I'm going to be sure that it goes for buses and that the buses leave." I said, "Easy." I said, "We're going to have a rally there and your the perfect person to participate. I'll see you in Albuquerque." And sure enough he came to Albuquerque, blue jeans, whole thing, ah, and we went to, ah, a local stadium, held a rally, ah, 90 percent Chicano, ah, but with Anglos and Blacks that were there in the audience as well and he spoke and he was, he speaks very briefly, very much to the point. It was a very staccato kind of presentation that he makes. And as we left, people were coming back and there were ladies who were dropping their wedding bands into the kitty and he was so embarrassed, he stormed out of that, ah, stadium. I was right behind him saying, "Hang on Marlon. Hang on. We'll give the rings back. We'll give the rings back." And so on, but, ah, that was the kind of enthusiasm of course that Dr. King and the movement and all of its participants were able to generate throughout the country.
Can you tell me about New York City. What did you do and who were you sending?
Well, New York City, into New York City we sent, ah, Reverend Kirkpatrick, who is a well known minister from Texas, a rural minister from rural Texas. We sent James Collier who had been around the map and had participated in a number of, ah, earlier, ah, demonstrations in Chicago and Selma and so on. And these were the two men who were assigned with their fifty dollars to go and organize New York City. And of course once they were there, they had resources, they had friends in the artistic community, in the academic community, in the religious community, community and so on and so forth. And they did everything from organizing meetings in churches in the evening to speak about Poor People's Campaign, about the Poor People's Campaign, and to invite people to participate. So they were recruiting at the same time. And at every, ah, possible level.
And that's how you organized in America?
That's how, by and large, we organized America. It was not publicity. It was not advertising. It was not, ah, newspaper or television publicity and so on. It was people to people and person to person. Those were the people who decided it was time to do something about, ah, poverty in America.
Tell me about the trips that you and Bernard Lafayette took to talk to more militant Black groups.
Well, Bernard and I made several trips and, for a number of reasons I would say. Not only to recruit people for the Poor People's Campaign and to participate in the campaign and to support the campaign but also not to interfere with the Poor People's Campaign. We sought, ah, the widest possible constituency. We sought not only the participation of majority America and Black America. We sought all of those that we thought had common interest and would make common cause with us. So we sent out another call, ah, from SCLC to related groups. We sent out a call to the Hispanic groups. We sent out a call to the, ah, Appalachian poor White groups. We sent out a call to the American Indian groups. And we invited them to come and sit with us in the councils and to participate in the discussion, the reasoning the strategy and so on. And, ah, this had happened earlier where you had small groups of these other, ah, that is to say, ethnic constituencies and so on that that had participated in SCLC organized civil rights drives and so on but for the Poor People's, Poor People's Campaign, again we thought we'd have a token representation. And again, we put out the call expecting perhaps 50 people and we ended up with perhaps 150. They came from north, south, east and west again. We were expecting one or two, American, Native American groups to participate, ah, and we had maybe ten. We expected one or two Hispanic groups to participate and we had all of the mainline Hispanic groups in America at the time. We expected some of the, ah, tenants' rights groups in Chicago, which is an essentially, all-White poor peoples group in Chicago. They came. But so did people from Appalachia and so on. And Bernard Lafayette and I walked into this group to this meeting which Andy had sort of, with the back of his hand, said, "Alright, Bill, why don't you and Bernard handle that one?" And we said, "Okay, sure, we will." And we went over and were overwhelmed and immediately sent a scout back, you know, get the leader, he needs to see this and get him over here and so on. There was just a tremendous turnout with such enthusiasm and so on. So in fact Dr. King was right all along. His hand was absolutely on the nerve of America. People did respond and would respond, ah, but that was our sending out the call to affiliates or to allies in the, ah, community in America. But also we had to allay, ah, or I should say, parry the possible interference of the Black Panthers, other radical groups, who tended to disrupt, ah, peaceful demonstrations to use them for their own purposes where they couldn't assemble a group of ten thousand, whereas, ah, Dr. King could. They would then attempt to make, ah, their point and advance their agenda by disrupting the meeting and calling down repression, the more repression their thinking was, then the greater would be the public reaction and, ah, rather than the contrary. So we had various meetings with the Black Panthers, with some of the, ah, Black Power movement organizations, ah, SNCC, what am I thinking? The, this New York outfit, ah, Roy Innis' group at the time, which was also a very militant, very much into the Black Power thing and was not about to, ah, pretend that they were non-violent, not at all, on the contrary. We went to see the Gray Beret--pardon me, the Brown Berets in Oakland. I remember going out at some point, ah, we needed permission. I made up an arrangement whereby any expenditure above a certain level in SCLC required two signatures including one of the, ah, principles and myself or Bernard. And if there weren't, weren't two signatures available as far as I was concerned.
So start me with you and Bernard going off to meetings.
Yes, Bernard and I had meetings with a number of, ah, as I said, other community groups. And either asking them to participate the in Poor People's Campaign with us or at least not to interfere with the campaign. And we spoke with the Panthers in the West Coast in a couple of instances. We spoke with gang groups in Memphis. We spoke with, we spoke with SNCC leaders in Atlanta and Washington. Ah, one particular, ah, occasion I remember, Dr. King and Andy were there as well, ah, and we spoke with Courtland Cox and Rap Brown and I believe, ah, Stokely Carmichael was there as well. And these guys who had been former, ah, members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, would become absolutely fierce in terms of having accomplished nothing with non-violence and they wanted to short circuit and, or not, only not hesitating to turn to violence but actually advocating it. And we really met with them on more than one occasion, ah, to insist that they not, ah, interfere with our program which was, by its nature, ah, non-violent. And I remember one of their arguments saying, they said, "No, no." They attempted to reassure us that they would not interfere and Courtland made the statement, ah, "Our policy is that we will no nothing to impede the efforts of anything that anyone is doing to help Black people." And, that was the position that they took and we were not totally reassured but that was their stated policy. And after we left, ah, that meeting in Washington, I remember saying to Dr. King, because I was very impressed with the force and the sincerity of Court, sincerity of Courtland's statement, and I said, "Gee, that makes a lot of sense to me." And Dr. King wheeled on me and literally took my head off. He said, "No. No. No. Absolutely not. It is not correct at all. Anything that is violence. It has no, nothing to do with whose doing it." He says, "But it's absolutely anathema. It's the worse possible thing. Violence only brings more violence and you achieve nothing ever with violence." And he spoke with such heat and such strength, I realized then he was not simply taking my head off, because he rarely, ah, castigated an individual in front of others, ah, that, way and with that strength. I realized he was articulating and repeating to himself his basic and fundamental thoughts on the subject of ends justifying means. He thought under no circumstances, ah, would violence ever be justified.
So tell me where did the idea come from, and what did you do, what happened?
Well the idea of extending the call beyond, ah, the immediate constituency of SCLC grew out of the fact that in previous demonstrations there had been many, ah, non-Blacks who had come to participate in SCLC demonstrations, from Selma on. People arrived spontaneously, voluntarily, and so on. And I was always rather impressed by the support that SCLC and the movement had generated around the world. So at some point we raised this in the staff meeting and, ah, Dr. King said, "Well absolutely, contact as broad a cross section of people as you can and invite them to participate." And I think at the time there wasn't, ah, an anticipation that there would be a tremendous response. So we went to our friends in the, ah, Friends Service Committee, to the Chicago Tenants Union- Unit- Union and other groups like that that we knew had been active in civil rights to inform them about the, ah, Poor People's Campaign. So we sent out a call to them through a mailing, through a mailing list that we gathered over Dr. King's signature. And whereas we expected a token participation, as I said earlier, masses of people, ah, came to join us and turned out. Groups that we had never heard of, had no idea who they were or where they were from. They just began to arrive and to turn up as soon as the world got out. So not only did we put out the word to civil rights activists, to civil rights, ah, participants but to other groups, to other, ah, ethnic groups and other, ah, social, ah, groups around the country.
The Paschal's meeting, what happened when y'all got to Paschal's? What did you all do?
Well, when people came to attend the meeting at Paschal's. Bernard Lafayette and I, we made a presentation about the reasons for wanting to conduct the Poor People's Campaign, about our plans for the campaign and what we really hoped to achieve. And this boiled up into a discussion, not of the situation in which Black Americans found themselves, but in, but the situation in which poor Americans found themselves. The Chicanos also spoke very strongly and pointedly to the issues of poverty in America. The poor Whites spoke very pointedly and with great heat and passion to the issue of poverty in America, so did the Native Americans and other participants who were there. We ended up with a several-hours meetings with dozens and dozens of people and organizations that we had never, ah, anticipated which actually gave a larger dimension and larger focus to the whole, ah, structure, ah, and thrust of the Poor People's Campaign.
Were they comfortable participating at the end?
I think people were very happy to participate. And again, you had Appalachian, what, people that were once known has hillbillies. They were perfectly happy and comfortable working together with Black sharecroppers, ah, and when the two groups would have totally ignored one another at some other time and point in history.
There's a wonderful story you tell about Dr. King as a man, as a person, that takes place with that last organizing, uh, organizing meeting of the Poor People's Campaign. Can you tell me that story?
Well, that is a story, it's one of my favorite stories about Dr. King and I think it's a real measure of the man, ah. Here is a man who had met kings and princes, who had been with prime ministers and leaders of secular world and the, ah, religious world and was very much a personality himself and he had been able to put this call out that brought in, as I said, several hundred, ah, civil rights workers from around the country at their own expense, hitchhiking, walking, Lord knows how they all got to Atlanta, but they all came to Atlanta under their own steam, more or less. Ah, and we're in the meeting where we were conducting the briefing, the orientation and the planning and the logistical arrangements, presentations, and so on and Dr. King was to address the meeting. And he came very, very late, ah, for various reasons. It was shortly before his death and I have other thoughts, I think he was, really, ah, had an intuition that something serious was going to happen or something really perhaps fatal was going to happen to him. But he came to the meeting really rather late and there were these very impatient people who had come because he had asked, because the leader had asked to come. And they were sitting waiting for him very impatiently within, ah, the hall, inside of Ebenezer Church, I think the Education Building of Ebenezer Church and, ah, I was waiting for him on the sidewalk outside of the building and so when he arrived I was really just tremendously relieved that we could continue with, ah, the meeting and the orientation sessions. So when he came I literally grabbed and said, you know, "Martin, Martin, we're all waiting for you. We're all waiting for you." He said, "Sure," he said, "I'm here," he says, "Everything is okay, everything is going to be alright." And as we went into the church building there was the, ah, janitor cleaning this spotless entry hall and as we went in, Dr. King stopped, the meeting could wait for another minute at least, and he said, "How is your wife?" And the janitor looked up and with a nice smile he said, "Well, she's doing right poorly, Doc." And Dr. King said, "Well, ah, say hello for me and I hope her back gets better." His concern at that moment was not about changing America and the world and so on. But he saw a human being before him and he was concerned about the health and the well-being of the wife of the janitor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. And I found that most impressive. And I think you can use that to apply in many, many ways to Dr. King's thoughts and concerns which basically always came back to the individual, to the person and the impact or result of situations and events upon individuals.
Toward the last two months of his life he was under a lot of pressure. There was opposition from friends. There was some opposition from SCLC. Did he ever consider giving up the Poor People's Campaign?
Well, the short answer is no. Ah, a bit longer answer is that certainly--
Can I stop here one second. I thought you were going to say that. Could you give the statement of incorporating the question. When I say, did he consider giving up the campaign. Did he consider giving up the Poor People's Campaign?
Well I think, if one asks oneself whether Dr. King ever considered really giving up the Poor People's Campaign, the short answer is no. Ah, but being a thoughtful reflective person, of course he considered alternatives, the options, other directions to go because of the, ah, opposition and disagreement he found on all sides of him, on all sides of himself. However, being a person of very strong convictions, once he decided that was the logical, reasonable, ah, I should say, correct thing to do, there was, there was no alternative. He couldn't have done anything else. He knew that after achieving the Voters' Rights Act that allowed people to vote, after achieving a public accommodations law that allowed people to participate in public accommodations, that the economic issue was the great and key issue.
Great. Cut. That was great.
You told us a story at lunch about how you first heard of Dr. King's death, that you had been in Memphis and came to Atlanta. Can you tell us that? How did you first hear it?
Well, I, I first heard of Dr. King's death about two hours after having left him. So it was obviously not only shocking it was an unbelievable thought to me at the time and remained so for several days after his death. We had, ah, a weekly staff meeting on the subject of the Poor People's Campaign and other organizational matters, ah, wherever Dr. King happened to be. If Dr. King was in Atlanta, the staff meeting was held in Atlanta in his presence. I usually began the meeting, conducted most of the basic work. He came in and participated in those parts that concerned him or to, ah, make a statement or whatever he wanted to add to the agenda. We had had our staff meeting in Memphis at that time because he had gone to, that week, he had gone to Memphis in connection with the sanitation workers' strike. And after leaving him, Tom Offenberger, who is our, another one of the heroes of the movement, as far as I'm concerned, with Tom Offenberger who was our information chief and so on, ah, we returned to Atlanta by plane, 35 minute flight. Ah, we arrived in Atlanta Airport, took a taxi to SCLC office and it was a scene of total pandemonium as we arrived at the office on Auburn Avenue. People were screaming and fainting and literally rendering themselves, tearing their clothing and so on and so forth and, ah, we said, "What on earth is happening?" And, you know, some young woman screamed at us, "Doctor King has been shot. Doctor King has been shot." I said, "Well that's hardly possible. We just left him. Just left him." So, and went in the office and attempted to telephone to Memphis and of course I couldn't get through, ah, for hours. But then we had the radio on and we began hearing the, ah, radio broadcast that reported, not only that he had been shot, but that he'd actually died. Ah, that was the way we learned of his death, having left him. All of the senior staff was with him in Memphis, ah, either at the time of this death or very shortly before.
You told me that in the weeks following there was this general feeling about, come to the door, can you tell us?
Oh, it took me ages and ages to accept the fact that Dr. King was definitely dead. He was such an active man. He was such a force and a presence and his presence continued and continues to live on and many, many people including myself and, it was just unbelievable and I suppose psychological unacceptable that he would not be coming back. And in the midst of all this chaos and pandemonium in the SCLC office and headquarters I kept expecting Dr. King to walk through the door at any minute saying, "Alright, come on, this is great. But why don't we stop the nonsense now and get back to work."
Can we do that again but without clock in the background.
It's in the aftermath of Dr. King's death. Tell me what you were feeling and what that expectation was?
After Dr. King's death my personal feeling was one of such unbelief, disbelief for days and I would say even weeks after the actual event. I was convinced that he would be there again. That he would come in at any minute and the world would continue in the sensible way it had been, it had been going before he was killed. I could not accept the fact of his death for many months, in fact, after, after the fact. And I'm sure that was true for many people. Dr. King was such a presence and his presence was felt and, so deeply and so penetratingly and so many of us, I think he was and is, ah, with us after his death and continues to be with us.
If he had come through that door, what would he say?
He would have said, "Well, this has been a tumultuous time but let's stop the nonsense now and get back to work." He was a very dedicated, devoted man and the only thing on his mind essentially was advancing the cause of civil rights in America and in the world. Dr. King, in that sense, as you know was not parochial at all. He was concerned about advancing, really the cause of human rights in the world.
Can you do that line again but preface it with I almost expect him to come through the door and then he would have said, so... Your feeling and then the expectation of coming through, and what he would have said. So how were you feeling.
Yes, it was such a feeling of disbelief. I actually expected Dr. King to come through the door at any moment and stop the tumult, stop the chaos and the pandemonium, and said, "That's enough. Let's get back to work." That's actually what I expected to happen.
That's great. Cut.
Okay, it's the same time period, SCLC has to go on with Resurrection City. What were your expectations for Resurrection City?
Well, The purpose and the goal of the poor people's campaign was to focus the attention of the nation and the world on poverty. The technique, the tactic being used, was to gather the poorest of the poor in the nation's capital, the heart of the wealthiest country in the world to camp them, these homeless, hungry people in the heart of this city and its fabulous mall situated between the Lincoln memorial and the Washington memorial** take the plea and the complaint of the poor to each of the government agencies, to each of the instances of the United States government with their complaint, to take them to the Department of Agriculture where they deal with food. to take them to the Department of Justice where they deal with laws and the application of laws, to take them to the Department of In--of the Interior where the Chicano and the Native Americans have very serious problems of land tenure and so on. The thrust, the tactic of the Poor People's Campaign was in dealing with our own government to focus and attract the attention of the world on these problems which are ever present but which by and large, then, as now, are largely ignored by the masses of Americans or which are not really focused on, on the masses of Americans.
Right after the assassination, how did you feel about Resurrection City? Did you feel it would really succeed, that it could succeed? It was something that you had to do for his legacy?
Well, after the assassination, we continued with the Poor People's Campaign, in part because of the momentum that had been generated prior to his death. But also because it was the agenda that had been set by the leader and who, given the horrendous events, ah, taking place, would ever have even considered changing the agenda, who would have had the authority and the weight, the vision. No one ever surfaced that could have given us a valid reason for changing Dr. King's plan. On the contrary his assassination probably, ah, made the need, ah, to go ahead with the program, ah, more deeply entrenched and more deeply felt than prior to his, ah, death. We followed the agenda that the leader had set. And there was no further discussion as to whether or not there would be a Poor People's Campaign. If people had ever wanted to avoid having a Poor People's Campaign, they certainly, ah, achieved exactly the opposite result by murdering it's, ah, leader and, ah, chief thinker.
At what point did you realize that Resurrection City was not going to work?
I think the impression that Resurrection City was a failing cause occurred probably two or three weeks into the campaign for the demonstration. That is we had anticipated a reaction on the part of the American public under the impact of the publicity that we had hoped to generate, ah, that would have helped achieve the goal in focusing attention on the plight of the poor in America. And within two or three weeks after the demonstrations at the Department of Justice at the FBI Building at the Department of Agriculture and so on. It became more and more clear that, ah, this was not happening, it was not about to happen. In fact I would say that, ah, the culmination of the Poor People's Campaign which left thwarted and frustrated the hundreds and thousands of people who had come from all parts of the country who had no homes to go to, who were deeply buried in poverty and who remained buried in poverty despite the Poor People's Campaign, and were left, I mean completely stranded. They were the survivors of what I said at one point, could be described as the Little Big Horn of the Civil Rights Movement. I would say that the Civil Right Movement probably began to dec--began to decline to the point it's reached today, ah, as a result of the failure and at the end of the Poor People's Campaign. I think the Civil Rights Movement has never regained the strength and dynamism that it had, ah, prior to the Poor People's Campaign.
What do you remember about the last days of Resurrection City? What stands out to you?
The last days of Resurrection City were like being in the camp of a defeated army... the battle of the court. And they had lost.** I think the spirit went out of people. There were people there who had no place to go. People who had come to Washington, had come to Resurrection City with a great deal of hope and who had none left. Ah, when I say it was like Little Big Horn of the Civil Rights Movement, in fact it was the end of the hopes and dreams of many, many people who had come from various parts of the country to participate. It was a very sad, depressed and depressing, ah, scene altogether. You may remember that we had terrible weather at the time. The city was bogged down in mud and rain. Resurrection City was as bad as any battlefield, ah, there could have been in any of the great wars with the foot soldiers slogging through the mud. It was a thoroughly depressed and depressing place and in effect for me, it began the long decline of the Civil Rights Movement.
What about that day, what do you remember of the last day, things you saw, things that were happening?
Well there were really very sad scenes, there were people with no place to go clinging to these frame shanties. It was an instant shanty town there. People with very few possessions, poor possessions, things, that, ah, you wonder why or how a human being could have their total worldly goods reluce--reduced to such a small lot of almost nothing. But, friends saying goodbye, friends being separated. Strangers who had become friends during the weeks of the, ah, Poor People's Campaign and Resurrection City, it was a very, ah, unhappy and miserable scene from every point of view. The point of view of the weather, the results of the campaign and so on.
Cut. Thank you.
So take yourself back to, you're at the edge of Resurrection City, what was it like?
The last day of Resurrection City, as I said I can continue this, ah, simile about a camp at the end of a battle or a war, ah, the camp was largely abandoned, very few people were left. They had been warned. They had been given a delay to leave the, ah, premises and they were being in effect evicted by the Capitol and Park Police. And, there was a cap that went off and it sounded like a shot. Of course everyone was very apprehensive and nervous about possible violence. Ah, and of course it was not a shot. I don't know really what the noise was, perhaps a firecracker. But the police in this long blue line moved forward and they actually fired teargas and we got a good whiff of teargas those of us who were supervising or serving as observers for the evacuation of the camp and there was the smoke from the teargas rising from the ground, again, like an abandoned battlefield. As you moved forward across the site, it was literally at the end of a, a major battle, battle of the poor and they had lost.
Was there suspicion among those people in the SCLC staff that it might be somebody internally leaking information to the FBI?
I think there was a great deal of suspicion even paranoia amongst the staff concerning the activities of the FBI that somehow managed to be extremely well informed under the strangest of circumstances about coming and goings and movements and so on. And, ah, at the point it became quite clear that there was an FBI informant very closely connected with, ah, SCLC, and of course the question became, "Who could it be? Who might it be?" Ah, I think at some point I was accused of being the spy. Many people were accused of being the spy until it became really quite ridiculous and in the long run there actually was an FBI informer on the staff, he was the last one anyone would ever have thought of. And of course, ah, it became a kind of in-house family joke like, ah, "Alright take that to the FBI and see how they like it." Right? So, no it was very widely known that the FBI had Dr. King and presumably the whole organization under surveillance and, ah, it reached a point where I made it very clear, ah, people were saying, "Well let's not discuss this on the telephone or that on the telephone." And my policy, I made it very clear to the staff, that we had no secrets and we would have no secrets. And the best way to counter the FBI surveillance was to say exactly what we thought, what we were doing, what we were planning to do, because there was absolutely nothing that we were doing, planning, or thinking that was in any way either subversive or illegal. So, my response to the FBI, ah, informant and surveillance was just more light and more sunshine on everything we were doing. That, in itself, I thought, was a form of protection for what we were trying to do.