Production Team: X
Interview Date: August 10, 1989
Camera Rolls: 9015-9017
Sound Rolls: 909
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Paul N. Ylvisaker, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on August 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.
I'm trying to remember if they're historically accurate.
We can let you know about the accuracy here.
Don't let me lie.
I won't let you lie. Paul, the late '50s, early '60s, the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock, the shift in the Democratic Party to John F. Kennedy, but the movement is going on, it's, it's attracting national attention. Do you have first memories of the movement in your own life, and what do you think it, it was doing to White America?
My memory is, starts when, being with the Ford Foundation, worried about urban problems, and suddenly seeing that the major problem was not economics, government, or whatever, it was, it was human, and the passage of people migrating into the cities, into, attempting to get into the mainstream. So we changed the Ford Foundation emphasis in the late '50s. Bob Weaver was then working with us, and turned it to the human condition of those who had recently migrated into the city. That led me then to deal with the Whitney Youngs and others and be--to become aware of, more aware of the, of the movement that was on the rise.
Don't use Ford Foundation because it will make it sound like a--
OK. INTERVIEWER-- a publicity shot, right.
But what, what was it doing to, to Whites? I mean, you recognized, did it change your sense of America or government or where we were?
You talking about the movement throughout the whole period, or just at that time?
Well, the early movement. The movement of the March on Washington.
I think that my impression was that a good deal of America was favorable, if partly out of guilt, partly out of the attraction of Martin Luther King talking about the ideals of America. They could relate to that, as many of them as immigrants themselves. It wasn't until the later period that you got the polarization and the fear that was later expressed. But in the early periods I think there's a good deal of sympathy.
Now, what, what I'm trying to get a sense of, what do, was there any idealism? Was there a native American idealism that was touched by the early movement?
You have to, you have to tell me in this, you have to start with my, part of my question.
Yeah, OK. Clearly the ideal--the sense of idealism of the American public was touched, and very deeply, it was a very favorable response because Martin Luther King was talking about the ideals of America, and there was this latent feeling of guilt. We had done so badly by the Black population that we wanted to be with them in this kind of unthreatening way of going about it. I don't think there was, in the original period there was mo--probably more favor than there was fear.
What happens when America hears the words "Black Power"?
A chill sets in. There is now going, there is a threat. I mean, by this time I think Watts had happened, Harlem had happened, and there was a sudden chill that here we, a whole population is now going to rise up against us. And, you could feel that. It was, it came in different forms, but a kind of a feeling, would it, could it only be that Martin Luther King's ideals and the way he went about it in a non-violent way would be the answer. When it looked like it was going to be hostility, polarization, and violence, people got really frightened. Now, we're not, we also ought to talk about the people who were cheek by jowl with the Black populations in the cities, where the Black population was growing, where it was moving into other ethnic neighborhoods. The wealthier people had already escaped to the suburbs, and again, you had that confrontation of those who hadn't made it or those who had barely made it. So that was a different level of, of fear, it meant that maybe your neighborhood would be destroyed or be taken over, or whatever, but that fear was a very gut fear, the other was more of a general apprehension.
Was that fear driven by race, or was it inevitable that when people try to share livit--limited space they--
It's inevitable. And I think that's one thing that we in the United States haven't been good about.
You have to tell me what is inevitable, right?
When people try--
When, at that time, you had a particular thing that was moving, the mechanization of agriculture was driving the Black populations and other agricultural populations into the cities, and those who were displaced or dealt with it day by day in the competition for jobs, housing, and the rest, were particularly affected. You would find this, by the way, in the hostility to the, the Appalachian movement of Whites into the Midwest cities, Akron, Toledo, and the rest. There was that same kind of fear and competition that went with the newcomers coming into a situation--
Tell me about your first reaction to Malcolm X.
First reaction was the stereotype reaction, that--
Reaction to what?
The first reaction to Malcolm X was the stereotype reaction, that is, here is a Black man who looks like he could be dangerous just on the basis of color. And I didn't understand what he represented. Later, I came to appreciate the man, and in retrospect, I think there was a tragedy that he was not around longer on the American scene. I don't know how many Americans share what, my own impression, but I'm being honest about mine, it went from fear and hostility to deep appreciation.
Stop down for a second.
I've been going--
Now we may begin about this, this, the landscape of the city.
The landscape of the cities at the time was affected by a number of forces. One was mechanization of agriculture, which was driving rural people into the cities with the cities unprepared for the avalanche, really, that was coming, and this was not only Black, but the Black was the most conspicuous because of the racial dimension of it. The other forces were the highways, see. In the 1950s, the nation committed itself to a vast expansion of highways which led to the suburbanization and the, and the flight from the cities as we describe it now. The final force was the demography. These were, there were packs of young people coming on, and the younger people were more impatient, more inclined to idealism than the rest of the population. So these forces combined, along with the affluence, I think, to be, to be the major forces at wor--work at the time. I would read everything in the light of those four forces.
Your reaction to Black Power the first time you heard it?
My reaction to Black Power the first time I heard it was, "Whoops, we're changing from what I could easily go with, was the Martin Luther King use of idealism and non-violence, to something that was now going to polarize and produce anger and probably violence." And I, my first reaction was, "I wish it hadn't happened." And then I began to see that on the progression, it was a natural evolution of the movement.
Any sense of you--the riot?
Yes, I can remember walking the streets of many of the cities I was in working out urban problems, and you could feel the smoldering resentment of the people in those trapped areas as they were excluded from any kind of voice. I ha--my major experience was Newark, where an Italian mayor was using the building of a hospital and medical school to displace the concentration of Blacks so that he wouldn't have to face a Black majority the next election. That anger you could feel, in the early '60s, growing, and I suppose it's the disappointment of the, of the man-child in the promised land. It was growing and it was not a surprise to me it, it blew into an explosion in the early '60s.
What was it like, your first experience with a full-blown riot?
I was called in immediately as a state official, into the Newark riot, and we, I, my department was a new department. The governor knew that I was the only department that had young Blacks and others working in it, so that we became, along with, interestingly enough, the State Police, the hawk and the dove combination. We negotiated with the Black community and were successful, I think, in most of the communities in reducing the tension and the violence simply because we listened to what the complaints were.
Who riots, Paul?
Well, it's a combination of things. A riot doesn't happen until there is a precipitating event. But the climate has to be such that it's almost at kindling point, so it can be touched off by a variety of things, and by a variety of people. In some cases, it was fun and games. But in most cases in that first year of, of the rioting that I experienced, it was cause-related, and some pretty idealistic people--
We ran out, so chang--
Paul, the moment of a riot, what's that like? And also who, who riots, what kind of people riot?
It's, a variety of things are going on when a riot occurs. First, there has to be the climate of anger, of resentment, of the feeling that you're not being treated as human beings. And then, it can be precipitated by actions by the police that set off the, raise the temperature past the kindling point. It can be, however, the longer accumulation of grievances, that pre--that condition people that they're willing to take to violence.
Do you have any particular memory of your first experience with it?
Yes, the first experience of violence that I had was the Newark Riot. The governor went in the first night and immediately called the people who were rioting "hooligans," much to the distaste of some of us who were working with him at the time. But within hours, the governor, who was a remarkable man, was meeting with the, what I'd call the rational leaders of the Black community, and he called me in immediately, because he knew that the time was now for rapprochement rather than for confrontation. And with my group of people who had dealt with the, the Black community of Newark before, we had acceptance and could immediately start negotiations. But it was in a climate, if you can imagine, 38 people, as I recall, were killed in Newark, shot on the streets, and gunfire was going around. We were in the head command post of the Newark Armory with all the ap--apparatus and paraphernalia of the military, but the governor was extraordinarily sensitive to people he knew who had legitimate reason for complaint.
It's a battle, isn't it? It's a, a--
It's a battle, it's a battle environment.
And who's on the other side of the line? You're on one side, or you're in the middle? Where are you?
You don't know who's on the other side. It can be a bunch of kids deciding this is the time to get a television set. It can, however, be, and the people we, we dealt with, were the people willing and, and competent in negotiation. We struck a bargain in the middle of that warfare, in the first 24 hours, in which we were going to remove the proximate cause of Black discontent, which was the mayor's attempt to displace thousands of people out of the concentrated Black ward by building a medical school. And the governor said, "Paul, I want you now to announce that we are going to negotiate with a Black negotiating team on the conditions of which that medical school goes in." And he took over from the Italian mayor, by the way, who later went to jail.
Is a rebellion a way to create power?
There's no doubt about it.
No doubt about what?
There's no doubt about it that rebellion creates its own kind of power. It is a power of fear, that, and, a willingness, then, of the, quote, "other side", in this case the established side, to negotiate where they wouldn't have negotiated before, take it seriously, that the state, in our case, was watching every minute of this thing, and television, press was on it. So rebellion does create its own sense of power. It also creates a sense of power in the community that's rebelling, "Finally, we have said who we are and are willing to die for it." Now the question is, can you cure or heal the situation and turn it into negotiating over legitimate demands, or do you escalate and continue the warfare. And, my, my sense of obligation was, "Let's not get into a Vietnam, this is, these are our people, and let's talk about their legitimate complaints."
The people who are rebelling, were they the poorest people?
I think if you took a look at who broke the windows in the first round, who threw the first brick, it would be mostly poor adolescents, but also, you can't quite determine whether they're also looking for excitement. But if you get caught in looking for who through the first brick, and for what immediate reason, you lose sight of where the basic causes and angers are and how to deal with them. You can't get preoccupied with the violence.
I guess what I'm looking for is, is, the people who were often times arrested were people of some substance. They had jobs, they were not, not the people without hope.
I would like to look at the pattern of arrests. I mean, you, you understand quickly that the people who get arrested in protests and so forth usually are ed--better educated, have better economic circumstance, they tend to be the leadership of the community. On the other hand, when you take a look at who threw the brick and stole the television set, who created the violence in the first place, it's doubtful that those same people will show up in the pattern. I know in Newark that the leading Black, the head of CORE, tried to stop the violence and almost got killed in the process.
It's fascinating to see what happened after the violence occurred in any one of these places, but I'll take Newark as an example. If it hadn't been for the violence, you would not have had a willingness to negotiate. The governor needed that kind of a precipitating event to say, "I will now talk with the Black community of Newark about its, its needs and its feelings of exclusion." And that was a signal event that happened. We then sat down in protracted negotiations with a Black negotiating team and the state officials on how we would resolve many of the things that had come up during that, that riot. The governor then, along with other politicians around the country in that period of fear and apprehension, the governor put into the legislature, I think it was--
Oh, I gotta, I gotta bring this down--
OK. INTERVIEWER-- it, a short frame about after the riot, people got together and conclusions.
After the riots, people got together, but that dissipated over time. The sense of urgency went. When they began to see that there probably wouldn't be further violence, and that was after the first year, then people tend to go back to normal, and the same kind of issues that created those periods of discontent, that extended itself again, so you'd see it, it was a crescendo: violence, response to violence with urgency, and then, back to normal when they no longer feared the violence.
How did the political leadership react?
National political leadership.
Certainly the President, who had ignored what I'd, as head of the commission, I had put to him the week before, then created the Kerner Commission, he had res--no alternative but now to face up to it, created the Kerner Commission, and then for a while, there was a period of kind of an outburst of political leadership, but again, after a while, the majority in America controlled the agenda, and they controlled the concerns of political leaders, and so there was a reversion, gradually, not through, not so s--slowly, it was, it was a reversion to the "Let's do business the way we've always done business."
The act of, of, of leadership in a moment of crisis, any memories of, in the rebellions or in the, in the nation at that point of somebody doing it well?
I would say that a number of governors reacted well: Terry Sanford of North Carolina, certainly the governor of New Jersey was extraordinarily adept at handling this thing. Mayors who, well, take Dick Lee of New Haven, certainly the mayor of Oakland responded pretty well to these things. But there were also, there was another level of leadership that emerged in this period, the nation spontaneously called for those people who were adept at negotiation, conciliation, and listening. And for a period of time, that was, that was a great period of time in American history. But again, the dominance of the majoritarian concern--
Who were those people? The leaders who, who did it well?
Well, certainly on the, among the Black community you had some extraordinary leadership at the time: Vernon Jordan, Whitney Young, others of that kind who were very good. And then, the private sector emerged. The foundations began taking an immediate interest, and some of them quite actively, and intelligently. There was a business leadership, I could never forget the head of Prudential who responded to the call of Lyndon Johnson for immediate housing to solve those problems and there was this billion dollar housing program that the insurance industries put together. And then there were private citizens who had stature and were accepted across the line of Black and White.
There are countless people that I met during that period of time who inspired me and kept me going. One particular that I remember was a guy named Bob Curvin, who had headed CORE. After the riots we each headed negotiating teams, he for the Black community, and I for the state, and we dealt, these were protracted negotiations, at one, point my colleagues, unbeknownst to me, were lying in the position they took in the negotiations. Bob caught on immediately, and the whole party got up to walk out, and I called across to Bob and I said, "Bob, can we talk?" And we went off into a corner, man to man, and I said, "Bob, I didn't know. You were lied to. I can understand your anger, but this is too important, and can we continue?" And Bob and his group came back to the table to a very successful negotiation, and he and I have remained lifelong friends since. I'd go to the wall for him, and I know he would for me as well.
What's it like to sit in a room with people that you thought you knew and have them call you a honky mother?
After, at first it was pretty forbidding, and I had to deal up front with a number of riotous situations, including in one case having to stop some tanks from going into a Black neighborhood. But on many occasions, the Black community would come down and protest, and I can remember there was a kind of a chilling feeling of, "Oh my God, is this going to turn into violence? Am I going to survive today?" The, the shades that they wore, the 'fros that they wore were all kind of forbidding. But then you began to deal with them as, as individuals and human beings, and I found it very easy to cross the line. Once we'd gained confidence of each other, we could get through most of the nonsense in a, in a great hurry.
Did you ever lose a close friend over the issues of race and racial control?
Well, during the middle of the riots when I was off to the wars, I'd come back, and my son was working at a gas station, and I can never forget the look on his face when he had heard that I had quote "saved the Black community" of, of both Newark and Plainfield with the willingness to negotiate. He looked at me and he says, "Dad, explain to me what you're doing." Because we lived in a community of, of rednecks, and his, he was affected by that, he needed his dad to say what he was doing negotiating with those people.
What did you tell him?
I told him, and in a way, that we've obviously maintained a very close relationship ever since, and it's effective, my one son is a jazz musician, and he's known now as the blue-eyed brother from Boston.
What do you think the movement meant, what did it do for the country?
It hit me the other day what this movement had done for the country. I got a letter from an Italian scholar who asked whether America could recover the idealism that made it a magnet for peoples around the world. They had seen us go through two decades now of cynicism and selfishness, and they began to wonder would we lose what we had at the time of the '60s? And I think the movement, symbolically, said what this country was all about. What it did to this country was when it became involved in the Vietnam War, when we began to see that rising expectations sometimes led to violence, in the student movement as well, the country began to go negative and defensive and went into its corner. This is one of the tragedies that I see, that it was the idealism of that time and what the movement gave this country was submerged, was, was turned to acid. But I still think that this is cyclical, and again, I think this country is beginning to change. Now, we'll wait to see if it will be a gentler, kinder America, but I sense that the residual of the movement is very deep and very powerful and it isn't limited just to the Black community.
Attica, do you remember the reports from Attica?
Attica to me was like reliving the period of the riots. When the macho instinct of politicians and the public overwhelmed their reason and willingness to listen, it was a tragedy to try to use force in that kind of situation, and we saw the results when finally Rockefeller decided to be macho. But that was my feeling a--memory of the cities of New Jersey where we had solved these things through negotiation and listening, and the patience that went with that, and the memory flooded back to me, and I said, "Why did the man do that?"
Stop. All right. Getting close?
Over here? OK. When I look back, reflectively and retrospectively, it was almost, it was an inevitable period in American history. This anger had to explode. It was pent up, and righteously, for too long. So that when I go back to the earlier things that we did and the way we responded, I feel happy about that, and I think a lot was accomplished, but when I look at it in retrospect, even more was not accomplished. It turned out, I think, that opportunity did open for Blacks who were most like the established part of the country. Those who had education, professional advantage, of, they endured a lot of discrimination, but, still, when you look back 20 years later, 25 years later, there's a huge part of the Black population that is, has kind of "made it" in America. So what we did was we opened America to those who looked most like us. What we didn't do was to solve the structural problem that is creating havoc for the people that Bill Wilson in _The Truly Disadvantaged_ writes about.
What did the movement do to you, you personally, Paul Ylvisaker?
To me personally, it, it had an indelible impact, but a reinforcing impact. I was raised as a son of a minister who's sermons were very much like Martin Luther King, and there was a resonance, for me, across the color line so that I felt I was in church through mo--most of that period of time. Kind of a nice homecoming. The, and that--
Didn't, didn't, didn't change you? Didn't move you somewhere?
Oh, it made me much more of a human being, much more at ease with myself to be able to identify with others who seemingly are different. My, my friendships and my society I travel in are totally mixed in race, and I've raised, because of that I was able to raise my family with those same kind of values in a much more secular situation. So it has had an indelible impact on me, as a human being, but it's simply that it's made me more human.
Sixty? OK, stop, stop just for a second.
Paul, what do you think will happen between Black and White Americans?
It depends on class structure. Of, that, that between Black and White America at the class that you and I represent, I think it's going to be fairly easy given all the problems that still remain of discrimination and prejudice, but it is, that's going to be the easier part. The harder part is to be able to start working across the line of what Wilson calls "the truly disadvantaged" where we don't have the affluence that we have so we can't buy our way out of this, we've got enough understanding now that we know that structural things are going to have to change, and I'm looking for the leadership on both sides of the line who can confront that situation rather than continuing to ignore it. And that, in that sector, it's going to be, I think, we're going to go through a lot worse problems up ahead before it gets better.
Fifteen feet? Not bad.