Interviewer: Dale Rosen
Production Team: A
Interview Date: April 10, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1074-1075
Sound Rolls: 133
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Judy Varley, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 10, 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.
How did you come to hear about the march and how did you end up going to the march.
I had worked down in Mississippi and Alabama the two preceding summers and as a member of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, ah, we served to provide medical presence at marches. Ah, we do other things but, ah, when there's a march we have found that, ah, local emergency rooms are none too, ah, accessible. And so we go and provide first aid. And I of course heard about it through the papers. Made arrangements to go down.
Did somebody give you, make a call to say come?
The, the, ah, local Medical Committee for Human Rights chapter of which I was an officer, ah, started to send down a group and what we needed, most of all, was an ambulance. So, I went up to Washington, met somebody who had a van that they were willing to donate and we drove down to the, ah, march.
Terrific. What were your expectations about going south again? How did you feel about returning, seeing friends?
To be very honest, I just did not, ah, plan on going south that summer. I had the two preceding summers and felt I had to good advantage, but, ah, things had begun to change. And, although it was already, what, June, I did not see myself going south because I wasn't sure that I still had a role to play down there. There are many activities, you know, in New York City that I could spend my time on equally as well. I, ah, when the march started, ah, I went down, ah, expecting to do nothing but what we've done on previous marches and that's provide medical presence: ah, conduct foot clinic at night, pass out salt pills in the morning, and take care of whatever occurs in between. And that's, I assumed that it would be very much like the other marches I had been on. It was not.
Can you tell me more?
The attitudes were much different this time when I got down there. There was some polar--polarization, I, I think, was the best way of putting it. Ah, to illustrate, I had been in Greenwood, Mississippi, ah, in the summer of '64 for some time. Made friends there because I didn't drive and I had, a, ah, Vietnam vet, who for gas and meals would take me where I had to go and help me with what I had to do, give me entree into those areas where I might not otherwise have gotten it. Ah, he and another young man, who had just been shot by a drive-by shooter, ah, outside of Lulu's Cafe in Greenwood, had a tracheotomy, a hole in his throat, that I had to dress every day. And the three of us just went round and round, ah, the county and the surrounding areas, in fact the whole central part of the state. On the first morning in Greenwood I was passing out salt pills and as I walked up to them, I recognized them and was ready to throw my arms around them, locked eyes with Jimmy and, ah, he said, "We don't need any of that White man's crap." And they both pivoted, he and the Egee boy, ah, McGhee boy, excuse me, ah, pivoted and turned their backs on me. And, ah, that smarted but it, it gave me a good indication of the winds of change, the directions they were taking.
Let's stop for a minute.
Tell me how you felt about returning to Greenwood.
Since Greenwood, Mississippi was my base of operations in 1964, I was real excited. I knew that I would see people that I knew there, people that I had grown to really like. And the marches that I had been on before had been filled with a tension, but a very positive excitement. And there was a strong sense of solidarity. You're all in this together. That was not present when I arrived in Greenwood this time, unfortunately. There seemed to be two camps, to some extent, the people, the people that I knew were not at all cordial, in fact, didn't even choose to recognize me in a couple of instances. However, I did break out of the line of march and run off to a side street the next day to see the lady with whom I had stayed, boarded, while I was in Mississippi, and she welcomed me with open arms just because she's a very warm, loving lady, and we had a great relationship, but she told me that things had changed a great deal in the two years I had been gone.
What were the signs that you saw?
Well, as I say, lack of cordiality on the part of people I knew and, ah, I think that there was less openness, less, ah, give and take, ah, the dynamic was different this time. I felt that we were all down there to do a job but not necessarily together.
What were the two camps? Can you describe them?
I have to say that at least, in part, they were Black and White. I hate to say that but I, I, it is true. Ah, I think it was also the outsiders and the locals and that, ah, is something that we've not had in the past. We had not, the locals have always, you know, opened their arms.
You mean the Black locals?
Yes, the Black locals have opened their arms and, ah, in almost every instance, ah, and been a part of us and we a part of them. And I did not feel that kind of reception, that kind of openness, ah, when I arrived in Greenwood. And, I won't say it was, there was a physical polarization because, no, you know, we had a big tent and the boys were on side and the girls on the other. But, ah, the socializing was not what I had experienced in the past, ah, there was probably what I would call a color barrier there.
What was your routine generally on the march, as a medical person?
When the march fell into line every morning, ah, well before the march fell into line and we had our breakfast, such as it was, very likely, ah, again, bologna sandwiches and tepid Kool-Aid, one more time, ah, we would hold clinic, a very brief half hour, hour clinic, and people with minor ailments and broken blisters on their feet and so on would come in and we'd pass out, ah, salt tablets as the march took off and grabbed the ambulance at the end of the march. Medical people never were up front with the news cameras. They were always from the middle to the very end of the line of march because, ah, that's where they were needed. You needed to be there to pick up stragglers and wait for the ambulance, if that's what was needed and, ah, ah, get your first aid or your, ah, ah, whatever and, ah, your Kaopectate, and, ah, then rejoin the line of march. Ah, we took turns marching and riding in the ambulance, the van, and, ah.
Can you tell the story about how scary it was sometimes. I'm thinking about Dotty.
Oh, after we left Greenwood, ah, we marched to Belzoni, the heart of Dixie, as they call it. We were staying in a very large old church yard next to a, a Black Baptist church, no street lights, no amenities, nothing. We couldn't even set up our tent. And, at the end of the block there was a service station owned by Whites, ah, and we had been told that across this low brick wall that separated the empty lot from the service station, that there were people with guns. But, that was nothing terribly new. We faced guns before, frequently. And, ah, so we held evening clinic. We had no lights, no street lights even, so the, ah, press gathered their cars into a semi-circle and turned on their lights so we could dress blisters and other foot wounds and, and give out aspirins and whatever. And, ah, after clinic we, ah, Dotty and I, my friend and I, decided we would sleep in the van since there was no big, ah, circus tent, and, ah, we were laying down. Everything was quiet. And all of a sudden there was noise of a 55 gallon drum that had been filled with bottles and cans being pushed over, horrendous noise, followed by a whole bunch of gunshots, at which point I looked over and my friend was on the floor dressing in a lying down position, just as fast as she could, swearing she'd never take her clothes off again in the State of Mississippi.
OK, lets stop.
Tell me about White hostility on the march from the locals.
We had a minimum of contact with local Whites, except along the road side, they were there with their flags and spit and assorted other, ah, gestures of goodwill. Ah, the, ah, ambulance, as I say, always rode at the back and we were running low on gas so we pulled out of the line of march, ah, one afternoon. And it was no, no place, absolute flat, ah, grasslands. It wasn't even tilled. And found a gas station well ahead of the line of march, ah, but it had been boarded up and it looked like brand new boards and it was in fine, the place was in fine shape. It wasn't abandoned. And as we stopped and approached the service station we could hear signs, sounds of pounding and I knocked on the door and asked if possibly we could buy some gas. And the gentleman inside told us in no uncertain colorful terms that he would not sell us any gas. What are you going to do? What he had forgotten to do is unplug the Coke machine. Now you cannot know how valuable, when it's 105, 106, out on the pavement what that, ah, Coke machine was worth. We dug quarters up from everywhere and ran it dry. Ah, and we were very grateful to him for the privilege. Thanked him when we left, through the battered door.
OK, tell me about White hosti--local White hostility--
On this march we did not have a lot of contact with local Whites, ah, because we were on the move. They were at the roadside with their Confederate flags and spit and other kind gestures but, ah, very little contact. We did, ah, pull out of the line of march, at one point, ah, and there was just nothing around there but one service station and we needed gas so we were well ahead of the line of march. Pulled in there and the entire place had been boarded up and we still heard pounding inside. And went to the door and knocked and asked the gentleman if we could buy some gas and he told us in very specific terms, no, that he wasn't selling us anything. So, and he was still pounding in there. I guess he was barricading the door from the inside at that point. He must have been very frightened. And, what he had forgotten to do was unplug the Coke machine. Now, you've got to know in a 106 degrees, pounding the pavement, what an ice cold Coke was worth. We scrabbled around, got every quarter we could find, including going through the upholstery in the van, and, ah, bought out the Coke machine and thanked him very much for having forgotten to unplug it.
Can you tell me something about the anti-White sentiment on the march? Can you think of any incidents or specific moments?
Other than the incident involving the McGhee boy and Jimmy, I did not have any anti-White, per se--
Were there people doing that--
There were some people who did some, ah, ah, "Honky's got to go," type chanting. But, ah, it, it, kind of was amusing. Most of the time if you were anywhere around there, they'd pat you on the back, the chanters, and say, "But that's not you, you know. We don't mean you. We're talking to them," meaning the people at the roadside or people gathered to stare.
Did you feel that was true?
I just didn't feel as comfortable a--the sense of, of, of kinship that I've had in the past, with people on a march, was not as marked, ah, on this march. And I felt that some of their anti-White sentiment, ah, could as easily have been directed at me. I don't know that it was but it could have been.
Now, can you tell me what your reactions in Greenwood were to the Black, to Stokely Carmichael's speech about Black Power?
That was a very dramatic, ah, evening. He was up on a jury-rigged, ah, dais of sorts, platform with, ah, klieg lights, ah, more light than we had ever seen at night on a march. And, ah--
I'm sorry. Can you say Stokely Carmichael.
I'm sorry. The night of Stokely Carmichael's speech was kind of a dramatic one. He was up on a jury-rigged, ah, platform with a lot of klieg lights, lot of--
Sorry, a door, we have some extraneous noise, so we get to do it one more time.
OK, the night of Stokely Carmichael's speech, it was kind of a dramatic event. It, he was on a jury-rigged platform, ah, and great klieg lights, I've never seen so many lights, ah, on a march. And, ah, we listened and there was a lot of, lot of cheering, lot of yelling, lot of, ah, enthusiasm when he spoke. And he spoke of Black Power. But I came away feeling that the Black Power he was talking about was essentially, ah, the good old American way. The only way you'd get power in the United States is either through the ballot box or the cash register and he was saying that Blacks have got to seize both of those, ah, in, in, ah, their own self interest. And I felt that that was a perfectly acceptable, perfectly fine message. Ah, it did indicate to me that I think our time was past in the South that we needed to go back North and, and make some real, serious changes. Ah, that we needed to clean up our own backyards. And I did not feel badly about that. I felt I had done my bit down here and there were a lot of things to be done back home.
Let's cut for a second.
--that when he used the word "Black Power" that it sort of clicked for you and made some other things that you--OK.
I had known, ah, as I said earlier about, ah, the change in attitude down South, the feeling, just a very vague feeling that I did not really need to go down any more. And I went down for the march, for that specific event, but, ah, the night of Stokely Carmichael's speech, it all kind of came together for me. And it, it was very definite then in my mind that my work was done down South that I needed to go home and clean house.
Can you describe the most frightening moment you had on the march?
Well, the day the cherry bombs went off in Philadelphia but really the most frightening was that night that they were shooting. Ah, I imagine it was over our heads. We never saw any gun shots in the side of our van or whatever when we were parked, camped in Belzoni, but, ah, yeah, it is, it's very scary when you're in pitch dark and there are guns going off, and you know that it, they aren't the guns on your side.
Now, can you tell me at the end of the march what you felt and what you--?
I, unfortunately, had to leave the march before we got to Jackson. I had an abscess tooth and a high temp and also a very bad case of chiggers. Slept out and, really got an infestation. Ah, I felt badly having to leave before the triumphal entrance into Jackson. Ah, but I felt that I probably would never be back down South, at least not in that role, not as a member of the Medical Committee for Human Rights or within the framework of the movement and I was right. That was the end of it.
OK, that's it, we're done. Check with Jim.
Tell me about that, other people's reactions and about the New York--
Immediately after the speech by Stokely we drifted back to the big tent where we were sleeping and a number of us sat up and talked about it afterward. There seemed to be alarm on the parts of, of some of my colleagues. They read a great deal more into the speech than I did. I felt that the, ah, call for the use of Black Power was legitimate, ah, and, and the way he expressed it was, ah, later when I got back to New York and the march ended, ah, a press conference was held. And, a, a small headline appeared in the New York Post saying, "White Nurse Endorses Black Power." And it was surprising, the amount of flak I had to take. Ah, there, there was a lot of misunderstanding about the term. It was a phrase that was fraught for some people with very, very serious, ah, overtones. And I did not see this.
What kinds of overtones?
Ah, Black violence, ah, violence stemming from, ah, ah, the Black areas, ah, a, ah, thrust to overtake the government as it were, ah, and locally, down, especially down South where they hold the majority or in New York City where Blacks hold the, ah, majority for the ballot box, that's as it should be.
What did you think about Stokely Carmichael? What did you think of him?
Stokely was, well let me, let me, let me put it this way. I was a, a very, very, ah, true follower of Dr. King's and Dr. King's methods. I, I believed very strongly in non-violence and do today. Ah, Stokely was a bit more enthusiastic than that. Ah, he was a bit more rabid, and, rabid is kind of an extreme term, I don't, take that off, clip that. He was a bit more enthusiastic and, ah, he was, a, firmer, harder sort of doctrine. And that appealed to a great many people especially the young people.
What did you think of him? Did you like him?
I didn't dislike him. I did not want to become closely associated with him particularly.
Was he frightening?
Not frightening, no, no. He was, he's just a real hard-liner and I think I shy away from real hard-liners of any persuasion.
I think we're done.