Camera Rolls: 317:75-80
Sound Rolls: 317:38-40
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ossie Davis , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on August 29, 1992, for The Great Depression . 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 The Great Depression.*
And mark it.
You know I'm also going to refer to, back to the conversation that I remember from what we had in April, so you may not remember it, but certain things struck me. And one of the things that struck me was that you lived in a community, you know naturally in that time it was a segregated community, and the sense of what your feeling about white folks was at that time. Were they something to be feared, hated, were they part of your world, what was the world of black and white in Waycross, Georgia when you were growing up down there? Particularly in the '30s, you know that latter part of your growing up.
Well the world of blacks and whites in Waycross, and I suspect in the whole South, was a very mixed bag. Although we had fear of the Ku Klux Klan and of the wandering bigot who could do awful things to you, our relationship to whites in general was never one of all fear. There was envy, admiration, some love, some respect. We didn't like the way we were treated, but we always managed to respond or to express that dislike with a joke or something that was humorous. So the life that we lived provided us with comfort and cultural reference that enabled us to survive. We were never threatened, certainly not as a group, with extermination or anything like that. We knew that we might have to twist and turn, and scratch our heads, or do some things that we wouldn't normally do, but if necessary we would do those things and go on to the next level.
Well when you mention this thing, I mean that takes me to something else we've been talking about in our show is the threat of extermination. What was it like, I mean this is very different from it is, the way things are today, what was it like to live in an atmosphere where lynching was prevalent, lynching was possible, lynching happened, happened to people? Was it something you were familiar with, that you were close to, and what was, what kind of an atmosphere did it create in the black community?
Well, I suppose you have to remember that it was familiar, it was a world into which I was born, so there were no surprises in it. You know, I fully expected, as everybody else did, that the Klu Klux Klan would behave as they did and wear sheets, I fully expected that a black man particularly would by lynched from time to time because it was going on when I came into the world. It became a moment to me only when my family discussed it, or when in the schools we discussed it, or in the churches we discussed it. So it wasn't as if this was something that had all of the sudden happened to a community that was stable and well respected. It was a tradition that had gone all the way back into slavery, as long as we knew ourselves, we knew this as a part of the world in which we lived. We related to it on an individual basis, as it happened, we related to the incidents.
Excuse me, can we talk about that again and when you say "it" would you refer to lynching itself so that the people know, because they don't hear my, people aren't going to hear my question. So, just to kind of go back to what you were saying, so did it, did lynching not create a climate of fear, was it just something you accepted as part of your life, that was part of life, is that what lynching was?
Lynching, was a part of life, but lynching also created fear, and it created anger, and anguish, and a sense even for the need of retaliation. And as much as it was a part of the occurrence of the times, and, you know lynching in the South had only really started after the Civil War, blacks were not lynched before that, they were mistreated as slaves and things like that, but lynching was always something that was current, what happened, and we did respond. But we didn't respond only out of the fear that we would, well we never thought we'd be exterminated, we knew that we were too necessary to the well-being of the white community that they should exterminate us, we knew somebody had to get those grits in the morning, somebody had to do that, pick that cotton, somebody had to do those jobs. So that we knew that they were not going to get rid of us. But what did pain us was the inability to define the relationship in a way that we could always expect it to work in the way that it would normally work. In other words, somebody would be lynched, and it would never occur to us that he would be guilty because in most cases he would not be guilty, and
the lesson of the lynching was very clear to us, that "you as a black person have a certain position and you better maintain that position because if you get out of it, you know this is the punishment. It's not a question of justice, or right or wrong, or law, you know. This is something that we have the right to do and we will do it,"
** you know. So that lynching was always a public statement, was always something that defined the parameters of "black behavior." We knew that if we lived within those parameters there was a world, that was really to some degree a safe world, and a world that provided us, reaffirmed us as to whom we were because it was a black world. The authority figures were black, the preachers, the teachers, the doctors, the lawyers, the undertakers, the people of power and authority in my community, were black people, and that was good for me as a child to see, you know. But there were limits of the power that the black community had. It could not punish those from the outside who wrought crime against us, it could not demand that justice be done, it could beg, it could pray, you know, it could cajole, it could wheedle, you know, but it could never insist, and we knew that that was a limit.
Great, you know in line with that because I think a lot of young people, you know a lot of young people are going to watch this show and they're going to have questions, and one of the questions that they're going to have is, "Why didn't people fight back?" You know, today there is a whole different atmosphere, why back then didn't, didn't, were blacks, black folks more direct or more, why didn't they retaliate, why didn't they fight back, what kept them from fighting back?
Well the truth is that they did retaliate, and they retaliated often in major ways. But those—
Excuse me, I'm sorry, could we start again, and just again say, you know, black folks or whatever, just so we know who "they" are.
Well the truth is that we in the black community did retaliate to lynching and to other things, and sometimes in a major way. But, what we did in the black community was not reported to the general public at large in any sense that they could understand that we were engaged in a struggle. You must remember that we had to overcome the stereotype, and the whites would not carry the news if it was something that indicated that we were struggling. But if it was something that [laughs] was bad they would headline it, you know like "Fast Black Goes to Gang," you know, [laughs] as if that was all that we were doing. Luckily of course for us, we did have, even in the bottom, access to the black press, , you know, used to come into the black community every week. And , and we'd read about ourselves in other contexts. But I remember the time when my father and my mother told me, and reading about it in the paper, when there were expressions of resistance to lynching. I remember one case, I forget where it takes place, about an undertaker, I think his name was B. Solomon or whatever, and he got to be wealthy, and he acted like a wealthy man. He drove a good car and he lived a good life. And the Ku Klux Klan particularly didn't like that. So they decided to punish him, as a matter of fact they killed him. And they hung him, you know left his body hanging in the square. And, they gave his wife permission to come and get the body, and she came with a sheet, you know, and two or three people on a wagon to come and claim the body. So, but when she got to the square, you know, she fell to her knees, and from out the sheet she took a rifle and proceeded, you know, to do some serious damage with the gun that she had brought. This wasn't unusual, but this was not the kind of story that would make or or whatever, but we in the black community knew about it. And, sometimes we escaped, we ran, we did a lot of things that enabled us to survive. We were not by any means a helpless community, cowering against, under the boot heel of the oppressor, you know. It was as if the sheep would come into the fold and take a lamb and go back out, you know, so you come in and the raid would always happen and somebody would be killed or somebody would be run out of town, but it wasn't a constant thing. And we would react to that.
Let's hold that. We're going to need to change rolls.
And, mark it.
Getting back to lynching, let me describe the closest relationship that I've had to a lynching. Now of course this took place technically before the Depression.
Hang on a second, I'm sorry.
That's good, and mark it. Beautiful.
OK, you were saying?
I think the closest I ever came to having direct contact with the Ku Klux Klan, with the threat of lynching as it effected my family, took place when I was maybe four or five, a bit before the Depression, and my father what was, at that time, a job that a black man should not have at all. He was chief of a section gang on a railroad, working under his own supervision, repairing railroad track. And the thought was that that was a job that belonged to a white man. The Ku Klux Klan of course thought that that was the position that should be maintained and they were constantly after Daddy and us, threats were filtered through. Now we were living in a very small place in Georgia, called Mashawn[?] or Zirkle, you know, and we lived close to the railroad track in, well it wasn't a hut, but I'm certain it was one of those places that, you know black folks lived in. And, so I remember one morning when Daddy had gone to work with his crew and they were working two miles from where the house was, and when we came out to play, there in the yard was a stick, you know, about five, six feet tall with a split in the top of the stick, and in the top of the split was a letter. And I found the letter and I took it to Mama and she got it, and she read it, and the letter had a picture drawn in red ink of a heart and a pistol, bullets fired into the heart and the blood from the heart dripping down into a coffin, and something about "daddy" or "nigger" or whatever, "you better get out of town." So Mama took the letter and the pistol, Daddy's pistol, put it in her bosom, left the children with me, got on the railroad track and walked the two miles to where Daddy was. She gave him the letter and the pistol and came on back. Well, [coughs] that night, when Daddy came home, all the work gang came with him, and they came with their arm as well as their equipment. And that night they stayed, we built a campfire out in the yard, and I was a kid, I watched it all and, you know, so they kept guard all night. Nothing ever happened, but the threat was there. And that was the way that intimidation worked in the black community, but that also was one of the ways that we responded. Everybody didn't tuck tail and run.
Let's cut because now we have—
Mark it. You've got to really slam that thing down.
Oh I didn't—
That's all right, keep going, because I think it's electronic so it'll sync up anyway.
Just one last question about lynching, which is what, what did the local authorities do about lynching, I mean were they, did they try to protect?
No, no, no,
we always knew that the sheriff, and his cohorts, and some of the police, were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. It was open intimidation, part of the political process, and there were few people in the white community who raised any objections to it. We talked about it in our pro-peds[?], and in school, and in things like that, but we knew that to go to the law to get protected against lynching, no, no, no, that was a total waste of time.
Great, now about the Depression itself, what was it, when Franklin Roosevelt came to power, when he became president, and it was a New Deal, was that something that black folks in your community felt, I mean was it, was there something different about, how was it different than what had gone on before with Roosevelt? Did it, was there a sense that this was a different time now, something had changed and was it something that felt hopeful or, did it, did Roosevelt have any impact on your family's life or your community's life?
Yeah, Roosevelt did have a tremendous impact, and the New Deal, on the life of my family and the community, but not at the very beginning. Politics was something that took place up North. The Depression, even the crash of the stock market, that was Wall Street, and Wall Street was where evil people lived who made money at the expense of other people. The White South and the Black South both looked upon the crash almost as a kind of punishment to the people up there. It was only later when the New Deal began to articulate programs, number one, food was sent into the communities, welfare was sent into the communities, but then they began to institute other kinds of programs. I remember going to classes conducted by people who taught in stores, or in churches, in various other places, sometimes at night, as a part of the New Deal. I remember script. My family didn't particularly, I don't think Mama ever was on welfare in the sense that we had to go and get the script and stuff like that. We relied, as we always had, on the extended family for food. And since we were sort of in an agricultural situation, you know, always there were members of the family who would plant and there would be collard greens, and mustards, and okra, and tomatoes, and beans, and you could go into the woods and catch something, or kill a chicken or whatever. So we were never, except on one occasion, [laughs] close to absolute poverty and starvation. I do remember [laughs] on one occasion, Mama was at the bottom of her resources and she cooked a pot of greens and a pot of grits. Now in the South grits and greens do not go together. Grits for breakfast and stuff like that, but greens for the dinner time and with the peas, and the rice, and the meat, you know it's a whole other thing, but that's all Mama had to offer her children. And we were visited by one of Daddy's sisters, who was a bit above the family in social level, and she particularly looked down on the mixture of greens and grits, but [laughs] she sat at the table and even as she talked against it, she consumed all the grits and the greens [laughs], which left us for the moment without resources. But, the government programs, you know, were there, and not only did they provide a service that was needed, but they put into positions of authority and power, black folks. There were black farm agents who went out and worked with the farmers, and black teachers, people who got these little jobs and who did service the community, oh yes.
How did people feel about Roosevelt himself, I mean did they feel like he was a friend, that he was just some distant white figurehead, or did they have some personal feeling about him?
When Roosevelt sent the New Deal to the South he gave us a whole new political orientation, and we in the Southern black community began to identify him as a friend. Before that time Abraham Lincoln was the icon that we looked up to in the white community, but then Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the person to whom we could respond. And, one of the major things that he did at that time was to send his wife as a kind of ambassador above and beyond politics to express the spiritual intent of the New Deal. And though she never came to Waycross, our picture of her was of a woman who cared. And she had a friend named Mary McLeod Bethune, who was a member of tremendous importance in the black community, and those two women began to symbolize for us what the New Deal was, who Roosevelt was, and what the response to the Depression was, how it was being led and orchestrated by kindly forces. Roosevelt's impact on the black community is still with us. Blacks are by and large are still, in a majority sense, Democrats. Before that time we were basically Republicans.
It's running out.
Are we running out?
Just ran out.
OK, perfect timing.
Camera roll to seventy-seven, change sound roll to thirty-nine.
OK, just a couple more questions about Roosevelt. One is, you know in our show we deal a lot with lynching and the Anti-Lynching Law, and the fact that a lynch, an anti-lynching law never passed federally, and Roosevelt never publicly supported it. And so my question always comes around to, if Roosevelt, people loved Roosevelt even though he didn't come out publicly, why did people like Roosevelt if he wasn't publicly supporting a very meaningful civil rights act?
Well we understood that Roosevelt had to rely on a congress that was controlled by Southerners to do anything at all. And I think we also understood that Roosevelt didn't belong to us in the same personal sense that Eleanor Roosevelt did, or Mary McLeod Bethune, whom we looked upon as the kinder faces of the New Deal. We talked about the Anti-Lynch Law, and we wanted it passed, but we were also aware that even had the law passed, we never thought that the law itself would control or tame the Ku Klux Klan, we knew fundamentally that some other thing had to be done. And so we were highly politically motivated, you know to, for the quid pro quo to get what we could, and settle for, you know, what could happen and that which we couldn't get. We decided not to make that the stumbling block, you know, get what you could and keep working toward trying to get that Anti-Lynch Law.
OK, can you tell me again, and this time without mentioning Mary McLeod Bethune, can you tell me again about Eleanor, what Eleanor Roosevelt meant to people, what she meant to, why, what was she, I mean you alluded to it before but I was afraid we had perhaps a sound problem, if you can tell me about Eleanor again, just what she meant to people?
Well Eleanor Roosevelt meant to black people, and in a sense to the whole of America, the interior spiritual dimension of the New Deal, which I suspect we felt was missing in Franklin because he was such a consummate politician, and such a consummate dealer, quealer[sic] and dealer, that we knew that a lot of the things that we wanted from him, and that he might even promise, would get lost in the shuffle. But we knew on the other hand that there was
** and she was really where the buck stopped, for us, in the black community. And we always felt that if she guaranteed something, it would happen, and that she was always not only going to be fair, but she was going to go out of her way to make sure that we in the black community were included
** in everything that happened. I suppose even the fact that we never go the Anti-Lynch Law was made a bit more palatable to us because Eleanor Roosevelt was there, and we knew that she opposed it, and we knew that she would fight against it, and we could depend on her. She was the one who really guaranteed the New Deal, and Franklin Roosevelt, in our community. The buck stopped with Eleanor.
Great, thank you, thank you. Now I want to talk about Joe Louis.
Again, can you, in these days it's like people, again kids think he's a boxer, you know, why was he such a hero, what was it about Joe Louis that just captivated black folks at that time? What did he mean to people then?
Well, in defense of the young people of today, we have to recognize that that was a different time, and the circumstances of our lives were profoundly different then than they are now. In those days we needed desperately every chance we could to authenticate our value as human beings in the middle of a culture which kept saying, "No" to us, which kept pushing us down, which looked upon us as "niggers," as inferiors, and even our white friends, you know, always had, there was something about their appreciation that was paternalistic. We needed, from within ourselves, some affirmation of who we were, and that that picture of us was marvelous and magnificent, and it represented our subconscious wish to be vindicated, wish to be considered as somebody valuable in the world, number one. Number two, since
most of the things that happened to us, in relation to the white community that we objected to, were physical you know, and there were lynchings, and there were beatings, and there were things where physically we had to suffer. Joe Louis coming along
** as an example of physical capacity par excellence, stated our capacity to defend ourselves given a half chance.
** And every time he physically beat a white man, we [laughs] beat him too, you know, and it was joyous. This was our revenge for all the things we had suffered, you know. In his fists was our vindication. So it was not only the joy of him as an athlete, we never thought of him as an athlete, he was our Avenging Angel.
** And the very fact that he was sort of inarticulate and never said much, helped the image. We put the words in his mouth, we put the meaning of his actions and everything he did. And I remember the first Schmeling fight before Joe was champion, and how after that twelfth round knock out, we were stunned, we were voiceless. The agony went beyond words or recrimination.
** And first place we knew that Joe had done all he could, he hadn't let us down, he hadn't traduced us, but he was beat. And our Avenging Angel had lost his sword, and our champion, you know, had been knocked into the dirt, and sullied, and begrimed. And so on the other hand, after he did become champion, and Schmeling came again. You know, we sort of knew in advance. We expected that Joe would make up to us and the world for whatever happened back in that first fight, and he did. And the bell rang, you know, it wasn't long before the whole thing was over, and then did our hearts have wings, and our fire in our eyes, and we lost our sense of ourselves because Joe had done for us one more time what needed to be done. And the fact that he had proven not to be a superman, that he had fallen and had been beaten, but had risen up from defeat, you know, and really done such a magnificent thing, only made the triumph all that more wonderful. So it wasn't just little boys seeing a big boy good as an athlete who set an example for what they could do in the ring, it was always more than that. No, Joe was our
** military strength deployed against the enemy, and knocking them down as fast as they could rise up. He was spiritually necessary to our sense of who we were, to our manhood, to our vision of eventual justice, to our true belief that given one tenth of a chance, there was no field that we couldn't conquer
** in. And we knew that the white community, you know, puts a special premium on violence for social ends, the cowboy pictures, you know, where gun play and fist fights, always in defense of somebody's honor or defense of the beautiful maiden, whatever you know, that violence was visited upon the villain. And here was Joe Louis taking that same violence that they used, and using it against them. [laughs] It was about as close to heaven as we could get in Waycross, Georgia in those days without dying. [laughs] Joe was marvelous to us.
OK, great, thank you. I have one more - how are we doing on footage here?
Go less than a minute here.
OK, then we should cut and start a new role.
And, mark it.
Camera roll seventy-eight.
OK, again, more about Joe Louis. Can you describe, I assume, I assume that you followed Joe Louis by listening to his fights as they came on the radio, did you listen to it?
Can you describe what it was like for your family, for your friends, or whatever, to hear Joe Louis fight on the radio, what the feeling was around that on the night of a fight?
Well, my memory seems to put me always in the presence of my classmates or other boys. I don't remember my family in a sense ever listening to a Joe Louis fight, I don't, maybe we didn't have a radio, I'm not sure now, you know. We were not very affluent in those days. But, there was always a group of us, boys normally, who listened to the fight, and, to listen to a fight is a different experience than seeing it on television because in listening you have to supply the images, you know. And we would gather, and the excitement would build for us as we listened to the build-up and whatever was happening, and you know, we would, we would sit tense, and then
when there was a significant blow or anything happened that was worthy of note, we would explode, hit each other on the back, knock each other to the floor, [laughs] we would do violence in our expression of, we would become Joe Louis, and whoever was next to us would be the opponent, you know, you know how boys can do.
** And then, you know, we would remember the high spots of the various rounds and we had committed them to memory, so that when the fight was over we would, before we went home, we would replay, and redo every big moment in the fight. But, then of course, it was a spontaneous thing, a sort of tribal ritual, like going to a picnic, or going to a dance, or some big public occasion that you were blessed by participating in. At that time I never thought of the social dynamics or the need of the ego to be massaged, it was an occasion where blessings came down and were shared by us, it was being rich, it was being alive, it was being, it was a part of a brotherhood and a sisterhood of magic, all kinds of possibilities. And then, I remember I would always go home and I would, we would discuss maybe the next day around the dinner table what had happened, and I would listen to Mama and Daddy talk, and though they were fans of Joe Louis, Daddy really was a fan of Jack Johnson, that was his man, you know. And they would talk about the glorious things that had happened, and though we never said it, underneath it all was this thought: that the white man was very superior, and he used his physical prowess as one of the ways to express that superiority which enabled him to dominate the entire world. So we would say to ourselves, "Well Mr. White Man, if you're all that superior, and you have all that strength and capacity, how is it that you get into the ring and you let a black man knock you down? How can you be superior when you let that happen to you?" [laughs] So Joe was our lesson in equality, our lesson that we too were valuable and somebody. But the fights themselves were rituals, we could go back and do the fights with Billy Conn, we could do the fights with Schmeling, we could do the fight with Sharkey, we could do the fight with Braddock, you know, and we'd remember the details, and go through the motions each opportunity we had. It was, food, food for the ego and food for the soul at the same time.
Now tell me in that same, you know, since he meant so much, how did the whites feel about him, how did the whites around, around feel about him? Was he a threat, was he-?
I, no I don't remember that the white community felt that he was a threat. There was a kind of pride that they too expressed, you know. Racial relationships, particularly in the South, a very complex set of circumstances. They too sometimes, maybe they would drive by the house and stop for something, and they would say, "Did you hear the fight?" Joe Louis, of course, usually it would be [laughs] somebody from out of the country, Primo Carnera or somebody like that. Joe Louis knocked out somebody who was not an American, and he would defend the country's honor. So as Southerners we joined together. The fights sometimes gave us those moments where whites and blacks could step a little beyond the area and be a little bit more familiar with each other because, you know, Joe Louis is something we sort of had in common.
Great, thank you. Do you think Joe had a, I mean you sort of alluded to it about the, you know, when he fought Schmeling and Carnera, do you think he had a broader meaning for Americans at large? And I'm not just thinking of the black community, but the nation, so to speak.
Oh, yeah, oh, yes. The, [coughs] the American community has never denied the prowess of the black athlete or the black artist. It was only that they always insisted that it be put in the context of racism, and that it could only go so high. But man they would bet on a champion, and put their money on a black champion as soon as they would on a white one, and feel the satisfaction, you know, "Oh my lord," I should really talk man, "My nigger," you know, and have that sense of ownership, that sense of pride when something you own, who therefore represents you and your interests, has done very well. I don't remember, the Jack Johnson era. I do know that after Jack Johnson did win, from Jeffries I guess it was, that eleven black folks were killed that night because the black man was a threat and all that. Somehow, either we had advanced when Joe Louis came along, or something about Joe's persona was not threatening. Jack of course was a very threatening individual to anybody, black or white. Joe, on the other hand, was never beyond the good, kind, gentle negro, who wouldn't hurt a fly. And this is who he truly was. Therefore, he wasn't as much of a threat, for example, he was not as much of a threat as Muhammad Ali got to be because Muhammad Ali was articulate and expressed point. Joe I don't think ever did that, he just let his fists and his capacity take care of business, speak for him. They did speak for him, and they spoke for us, and they spoke for white Americans too.
How we doing on—?
Two minutes, two-and-a-half minutes.
You mentioned, in our conversation before briefly, that when Italy marched on Ethiopia—
—you and friends of yours had a reaction to that, what was, what was your reaction to the events?
We, we had been following what was happening in Ethiopia long before, well not long, but we knew the raids and the war didn't come all of the sudden. We had known through Haile Selassie, who became a hero to us, brought to us essentially by the black press long before the catastrophic things happened to him and his country. So there was, among us, a feeling of identity that this man, you know, the beauty of the man, and the beard, and the way he expressed himself as "The Lion of Judah," and the son of the Queen of Sheba, you know, that he was a part of our history. And Ethiopia was one of the two countries in Africa that had not been colonized, it was still a free country. So we had a lot of emotional baggage invested in Ethiopia and what happened to it. And also Haile Selassie knew how to direct his plea for help to the American people, he knew how to speak so that everybody would listen, he was somebody on the world stage, bearing in mind that during the Depression you had great personalities on the world stage, you know, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mussolini to mention only three. Well Haile Selassie was one of those people who could speak and express himself.
So when he was threatened what did you—?
When he was threatened—
What was your reaction to, and I know there were people in this country who volunteered to go. Were you part of that? Did you think about that?
Well I thought about that, but before we get to that, the war came to us, World War II sort of came to us in Haile Selassie's image, to the black community more than it did as a general threat, which it became later on. And I was in high school, and a friend of mine and I decided when the invasion took place, I think it was '35, or whatever it was, that we wanted to go and fight with Haile Selassie, with the Ethiopians, but-
Let's stop there.
Oh, well we'll start, we'll pick up—
OK, change camera rolls seventy-nine, sound roll forty.
Mark it. Thank you.
OK, again, just a, just briefly actually, because we have the background of it—
In terms of your reaction to the, sort of the, the movement of black Americans towards Ethiopia, what—?
We thought that something should be done, by everybody, the League of Nations, but also by the black community, to express our help for this great man. It percolated down to my classroom and a friend of mine, Garrett Taylor, and I decided that we wanted to leave school and go and join the Ethiopian army to help fight this great war. But nobody knew exactly which way Ethiopia was and we couldn't get sufficient intelligence or support to leave town with that purpose. So we failed, but it was truly in our hearts to go and help the Ethiopians.
Now, the Marian Anderson incident in 1939, were you aware that this DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], that the DAR had in fact turned her away, this great singer, were you aware of it through the newspapers or whatever, and what was your reaction to that incident?
I was aware of it, but not through the newspapers. I was a student at Howard University at that time. She had been invited by the student body at Howard University to come and sing at a church I think, or some other place, but the church burned down. So the thought was, this is Marian Anderson, let's move it to a larger place. But the student body—and I wasn't very active, but we were a part of all that—so we know when she went to try and get Constitution Hall, and
we know what the Daughters of the American Revolution said to her, which was a slap to us as well, and we know the great sense of relief we felt when Harold Ickies and the others said, "Well if you can't do Constitution Hall," and Eleanor Roosevelt too, "let's go to the Lincoln Memorial."
** So I was a part of the social ferment surrounding the whole incident. It was to us, political, as well as cultural because of this fact. So, I myself had previously planned to leave college and come to New York on the, sixteenth I guess it was, of April, but it turned out that that was the day that Marian Anderson was going to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. So I delayed my departure from college by one whole week so that, instead of coming to New York, I could be at that Lincoln Memorial with that 75,000 people listening to Marian Anderson sing. Now, here again was a situation that had basic spiritual and religious dimensions. There is a thing about the Lincoln Memorial, when you stand and see him sitting there, and it's awe inspiring. It tends to generate from within the memorial a certain sense of quiet and respect that you feel. And then, there is in this magnificent woman,
** that same sense of being a larger person than life. Marian Anderson was never a star in the star sense, she was always more than that. She was an institution, an icon. To come into her presence, you know, was almost a religious experience, and to see her standing there in that quiet dignity, singing those songs. And we knew what the songs meant, you know, they never had to be explained, they never had to be embellished, but nobody could sing the songs that meant so much to us better than Marian Anderson. So it was almost a holy moment, in this particular place with that tall imposing figure of Lincoln in the background and Marian Anderson standing quietly on the steps. She too was not one for furbelows, or gestures, or anything. She was the quintessence of quiet, self-contained dignity. And every gesture, every word, had a meaning which we all understood, and it went beyond our identity as human beings, it was religious in its dimensions. And there have been other singers, great people, with perhaps even greater voices, but none of them had that quality that Marian Anderson had. She was holy, in a sense. I can imagine people who feel strongly about the Virgin Mary having that sense of awe when she stood in our presence and when she sang. I was always in love with her in that kind of way, that you love something and worship it legitimately at the same time. And it's hard to think of it even now without tears, not tears of sorrow, but the tears of awe at seeing something so great, so sublime, and participating in it. She blessed us in a way that nothing else could or did,
** and that was one of the truly most memorable things that ever happened to me in my life. Marian Anderson singing the songs that took me back to slavery, but also brought me out of it, and set me at a higher level. She was a spiritual resource to black people, and to America, the likes of which seldom appears. That day, that Easter Sunday, standing there with all those people
** and those students, being lifted over, above, and beyond ourselves on the wings of this voice that just picked us up and carried us.
** That woman, Marian Anderson.
When she sang, you talk about the songs, the spirituals that she sang on that day, what about, there she was at the Lincoln Memorial and she sang of all things after all the indignity that preceded it, she sang, the first thing she sang-
All right. The first thing she sang was "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
It was, it was, I mean correct me if I'm wrong, but it was the white man's song, right?
My country, "sweet land of liberty," and that's the song she chose to sing first.
What, what must that have felt like? What about that choice, that-?
It was a very symbolic choice. A part of what we've had to assume as a group responsibility has been to give back to the white man his best and greatest thoughts, to remind him of the magnificence of the vision which he brought to the country and which brought him here, to restore to him his own greatness, and to participate in it. If America is not an extraordinary company, if America is not a paragon of all the virtues, think to what degree that pulls the rug out from under all black struggle.
We can only dignify our struggle by dignifying the objective of that struggle, which is to be included in an America, but it has to be an America that is worth all that we can do and say. So when she sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" she was reminding the country, "this is who you truly are, and what has happened to me is a measure of how far you've strayed from that. But this moment let's get back to who you truly are, America.
** "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." It's an act of faith that black people have to accept, otherwise we'd go crazy, we'd shoot ourselves, we'd shoot white folks. We have to believe that the original promise of America is still the last best hope on Earth worth preserving no matter what sacrifices we may have to make, because in the end, when it is truly seen who we are and the contribution we made, then all will be well. We live because we know that in the course of time that must happen or America will lose its identity itself and won't be anymore. At the heart of the experience, the American experience, is the black experience, and that's what Marian singing of America, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," and I felt as she did. I didn't feel all these lynchers, and all these segregators, and all these mean people, and this is their song and their constitution, I'm not going, I'm not going to participate, I'm not—
I'm not going to be a member of that, no, you know. It's a part of—
I'm sorry, sorry we ran out.
OK, so just to finish kind of what you had just, you were just about to conclude, so when she sang that song, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," what that brought together—
Yeah, Marian's singing of that song was the expression of the affirmation of our faith, black people's faith, and a vision of America that, though it's never been there, it's still real for us. Langston wrote a poem, he said, "Let America be America again," you know, it's that same expression. And, you know, when Martin Luther King and that great "I Have a Dream" speech, it is that we see the vision of what America truly is in terms of what America can be, in terms of what it truly is, what it must be, to be what it is, so we don't give up faith. You know, the lynchings come, the riots come, the disappointments come, but we don't give up the faith because we know, that if America does give itself a chance to be itself, then we would be automatically included, and that's all we truly want. Marian sang it for us that day, "My country, 'tis of thee, that I sing."
Great, thank you. This is kind of a, this is kind of a wild card, but there's some connection here that I can't quite, sort of think this through with me and think through it on film, but is there some connection between Joe Louis and Marian Anderson? Is there some common significance that they had for, not only for black people, but for Americans, is there something about the two, one's an artist, one's a boxer, is there something about that that, I don't know, that it feels like it's all right for that time. There's something about that time that those, that there was these two people, and these great incidents, these great events—
There was something, and you mentioned it when you said, "the time." It was the circumstances, it was the peculiar and particular atmosphere in which we as black folks lived, in which America handled its race relations at that time. We were by and large an oppressed people. We saw ourselves as oppressed peoples, but we were not negative about our oppression. We knew that it was something imposed upon us and we knew that somehow or rather we would someday get rid of it. But oppressed peoples have certain deep needs which must be continually met. Joe Louis and Marian Anderson, and they were only two, helped us to meet the needs of an oppressed people, how not to be destroyed, how not to be the victim although you're, how in spite of what you were involved in you could still see victory and rise towards it, you could still affirm who you truly were in spite of what all the facts said that you were. And we needed it desperately because the country was organized along racial lines in a way that it is not organized now. There was desegregation remember, you know, there was Jim Crow, and there were signs on the water coolers, "Black Water" and "White Water," and all that sort of, all the constant reminders of us being forced into an inferior position. We needed to struggle against that, not only socially and politically, but physically and spiritually as well. And it was those people who helped us to struggle against it, but they were not alone. There was Duke Ellington telling us the same thing in music, and there was Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson telling us the same thing in dance. "You, in spite of all," they say, "you're an excellent people, you're a marvelous people, you're gift giving people, so keep your hands on the plow. Don't give up now, keep at it, good brother. One day it's gonna happen. It must happen in the course of things, that all of this will be wiped away and be made, it will be justified. In the end you will see that all of the suffering was somehow worth it." And Joe, Marian, Paul Robeson, a lot of other people, kept telling us that.
Great, thank you. You can cut now for a second.
So how did African-Americans react to Nazism, and to the plight of the Jews, were they aware that the Jews, that there was danger abroad for the Jews, and did they feel any need to do anything or was that their problem, or how did that work in the black community at the time?
Yeah there was strong awareness of what was happening, in Europe, to the Jews and to others as a result of the Nazi onslaught, and we were aware of it. And one of the reasons we were aware was that there were those in the community who kept us aware. W.E.B. Dubois was an internationalist, you know, and Paul Robeson, a young man named Alfius Hunten. Africanist people who always tried to keep us in contacts, context with what was happening in the world at large. And there was a significant left-wing contribution, there were communist writers and thinkers who were far in advance in terms of describing the Nazi threat than the regular channels of communication, but they were there and they were making an impact, you know. And people like A. Philip Randolph, people like Adam Clayton Powell, they saw what was happening. They saw what was happening, and they knew, and they reminded us that, you know, if they can do this to the Jews, who do you think is going to be next in line? And they told us what the Nazis had done when the Nazis went into France and one of the first things they did was to begin to deface the statues and the things that France had erected in memory of black soldiers in World War I, and we knew that if they got the statues down, if they got to us, you know, we certainly would be in the line of fire. And there was the Lincoln Brigade, a group of Americans who went to Spain early on in order to launch the fight against fascism and Hitler. And in that brigade were black people who fought because they understood very thoroughly what was going on. Langston Hughes, I think, went as a war correspondent, and he reported on what was happening in Spain and black newspapers carried it. So we were very well aware, and remember that Hitler and Mussolini were the thugs and gangsters who had done this desperate deed to Ethiopia, so we certainly hadn't forgiven them for that. Yes, there was a tremendous awareness among us of what was going on, what was happening on the African continent, and there was a tremendous desire on our part that we should do something, that the government should do something. And
** as non-aggressive as I am, you know when World War II came, I volunteered because I felt that that was the place to be. Oh yeah, we never thought of it as the white man's war, or let them settle it. Some of us did, some of us articulated that, and we had a right to be, to feel badly about it, you know. Even when we got into the army when the war was on, we were still in segregated units and we were still treated as inferior people.
What about for earlier, before the war started, when the Jews were trying to get into this country and they were being turned away—
Was there any reaction to that in—?
Yes, there was reaction to that. And remember that—
Again tell me because they don't here my question. Tell me what the reaction, you know, the reaction to what?
When, the prelude to World War II, you know, was before us, and awful things were happening and the racist, the racist nature of the Nazis was made very plain by what they had done to the Jews. There was not only discussion in our communities, but there were efforts to even help persuade our government, you know, to open up and to be more responsive to the plights. Racism, you know, was a key issue to black folks, always, and when it happened to somebody else, we were very sensitive to that. You know, there were people in the NAACP for example, particularly the youth groups, and we used to meet and discuss what was going on, and to petition government to do something about it. I'm sure that in the broad sense the black community was possibly not any more forward thinking than Americans in terms of organized effort to help the Jews. But there was, in circles, certainly on the college campus where I was, and in the New York community where I came, very articulate expressions of support for the Jewish community, and of protest of what was happening over there, and of protest to our government for not doing more.
I remember, as a young man, you know working in the garment center and going on Saturday to the demonstrations—
We ran, we ran out.