In 1964, Robert Penn Warren, a well-known White writer, interviewed a number of Black leaders — organizers and writers — and eventually published a lengthy Look Magazine article and a book, “Who Speaks for the Negro?” Fifty-five years later, Stephen Smith and Catherine Ellis have gone back to the original transcripts of the interviews and published excerpts to give a better sense of what civil rights leaders at the time had to say about themselves. Many names are still well-known, such as Robert Moses, Ralph Ellison, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young, Septima Clark, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin.
What results is a collection of undoubted interest to anyone familiar with the history of the Civil Rights Movement; but it’s a snapshot of those leaders at a particular point in time — when several important victories had been won; when the Johnson administration was poised to pass meaningful civil rights legislation; when the Black Power movement was still in a nascent phase; when the violence and defeats of the late ’60s, including King’s assassination, had yet to come.
For various reasons, the interviews are often disappointing. One is that Penn Warren sets the agenda — he asks the questions and has certain concerns that seem misguided a half century later — such as whether Blacks had a “split identity” between being “Negroes” and being “Americans;” whether Southerners, Black and White, had a “special bond” from their shared history that might eventually make overcoming racism easier in the South; and whether compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property” (i.e., slaves) after the Civil War would have made Southern Whites less bitter.
On the interviewee side, it seems likely that at least some of the leaders were cautious about saying things that would alienate potential White supporters. Thus, when questioned about the more militant Black leadership that was just beginning to appear in 1964, they generally minimize the importance of a trend that would transform the Civil Rights Movement. Questioned about criticism directed at Northern White liberals, most of the leaders acknowledge that some of the White liberalism disappeared when faced with Blacks moving in next door, but emphasize the contributions they had made.
Similarly, many of the interviewees credit American values for setting the context in which the struggle for civil rights could occur. King, for example, calls the movement “a revolution to get in ... It’s a revolution calling upon the nation to live up to what is already there in an idealistic sense ... a revolution not to liquidate the structure of America, but ... to get into the mainstream of American life.”
In another interesting set of interviews, organizers in Mississippi — Joe Carter, Clarie Collins Harvey, Aaron Henry, Robert Moses and Charles Evers — graphically describe the kind of repression, threats and assaults they suffered during the voter registration drives. Of the leaders interviewed, they are among the most optimistic and respectful of the capacity of what Penn Warren sometimes calls the “masses” of illiterate and undereducated Black people, having experienced firsthand and up close not only the kinds of sacrifices they were willing to make, but also the depths of their insights and understanding of the need for nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of police repression.
The interview with writer James Baldwin also stands out. Baldwin disagrees that eliminating racism is just about moving Blacks into the middle class. As he put it, “the best people involved in this revolution certainly don’t hope to become what the bulk of Americans have become ... the hope has to be to create a new nation under intolerable circumstances ...”
Most interesting are the interviews with Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin. Malcolm X doesn’t mince his words about the culpability of White people as a group. Prefiguring current discussions about White privilege, he says, “Can the Negro ... escape the collective stigma that is placed upon all Negroes? ... Well, the white race in America is the same way. As individuals, it is impossible for them to escape the collective crime committed against the Negroes ...”
Bayard Rustin, socialist, non-violent activist, uncloseted gay, and a major influence on King, does a good job of explaining the philosophy of nonviolence and what “loving” your enemy really means: “to love [Mississippi] Senator [James] Eastland is, essentially, to take from him that which makes love for him impossible — privileged power. Sometimes people have to give it up or have it taken from them ... before they can be stripped enough to be real ... To create a political situation where Mr. Eastland’s power is limited is to love him, because you are making it possible for him to see himself as a human being.”
While the book has some interesting passages, “Free All Along” would best be read along with other primary sources from other stages in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, not to mention a history that would put both these leaders and their words more in the context of what they did, what came after this moment in history, how the movement changed our society and what still remains to be done.
Read the full June 5 - 11 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.