JOHN STEWART: Good afternoon, I’m John Stewart, Director of Education at the Kennedy Library, and I want to welcome all of you to our symposium this afternoon.
First, a very brief word about the format of the program today. We have, as you know, a very, very big topic and a large panel of speakers. And for these reasons, there probably will not be time for audience questions. However, we have, as you know, scheduled a very substantial break in the middle of the program and all of the panelists will be available for your individual questions at that time, and there'll be some refreshments out in the lobby.
Secondly, we welcome C-SPAN to the Kennedy Library once more. It’s always good to know that what we do in this hall will be shared by thousands if not, I guess, millions of people throughout the country, and maybe throughout the world.
We begin our proceedings today by watching a brief video of scenes from civil rights events of 1963. This is a film very appropriately shown in the Kennedy Library exhibit on the Oval Office.
MR. STEWART: We gather here today to remember, as The Boston Globeeditorial put it so aptly this morning, to remember a revolution. We gather to learn, to ponder, and to think about the purpose of what happened in America 35 years ago. We gather to use all of our faculties for historical analysis in trying to appreciate just what the threads are that tie us today to those events and decisions of 1963, and yes, to the men and women who made it all happen.
To help us in doing this, we have assembled a panel representing, I think, a very good cross section of the people who caused things to happen in 1963, as well as in the years before and after. We have people who were in the trenches, almost literally, in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the other states where the demonstrations of protest were taking place. We have members of the Kennedy Administration who were grappling with the unprecedented and uncharted historical opportunities generated by this great public upheaval. And we have representatives of the media who went beyond their minimum obligations of telling the American people what was happening because they, too, believed deeply in the purpose of the changes being sought.
There are several changes in the lineup of speakers from the program that most of you originally got. James Farmer, as many of you know, had a fairly serious medical setback. I spoke to him last month; his voice is still very vibrant and booming, and he desperately wanted to come. He received, as you know, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January, but while he wanted to be here, his doctor said it simply was impossible.
Jack Greenberg will not be here; he called me from Paris last night and his plane flight was cancelled. Judy Richardson has been called to South Africa on business, but we're pleased to have Reverend Prathia Hall to represent the SNCC perspective on the panel. And finally, Vivian Malone Jones, one of the two African Americans admitted to the University of Alabama in 1963, cannot be here because her husband has been critically ill.
Our moderator this afternoon is Elaine Jones. Ms. Jones, as you can see from your program, is head of that magnificent law firm, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She has had an amazing career as a litigator and civil rights activist. She is, I can tell you, a person with a vision, a plan, and some sort of an internal mechanism that causes her to be constantly running, doing, thinking, and accomplishing at an amazingly fast pace. So please join me in giving a hearty Boston welcome to Elaine Jones and to the panelists who will help us to better understand the civil rights events and decisions of 1963. [Applause]
ELAINE JONES: Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of this illustrious panel and myself, we are very pleased to be a part of this program with you this afternoon. These events that we are privileged to discuss with you today are very, very important events in our nation’s life. And they are, as President Kennedy said to us, “I sometimes think we are too much impressed by the clamor of daily events. The newspaper headlines and the television screens give us a short view.” That's even truer now than it is when he said it.
“They so flood us,” he went on, “with the stop press details of daily stories that we lose sight of the great movements of history. Yet,” he went on to say, “it is the profound tendencies of history and not the passing excitements that will shape our future.” That is why we're going to discuss with you today the events of January to September, 1963.
On the eve of the 20th century, there was a young philosopher, George Santayana, who was teaching at Harvard and during what is known in some circles then as the golden age of philosophy, Santayana reminded us that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat his worst mistakes. On this, the eve of the 21st century, we are admonished by Santayana and challenged by President Kennedy to remember the racial lessons of 1963 and apply them to issues which prevail still in today’s society.
The nation’s struggle to move beyond our rhetoric to reality in the continuing struggle for full equality -- social, economic and political -- for its citizens of African ancestry is sharply exhibited in the events we discuss today, the civil rights events of 1963.
Someone once said rob a people of their sense of history, and you take away hope. One, the people are the American people. Two, the story is essentially an American one in which there are lessons for humankind. And three, the hope is buried within the stories of the 1963 struggle for racial justice and we look to our panelists to help us find the hope.
Now, before we begin our discussion, what we want to do is to have an overview, simply to put this panel in some context. We want to take you back 35 years and understand the context in which these issues we discuss arose. We have asked to do that for us, our panelists, Tony Lewis, who is the Pulitzer Prize-winning -- twice he’s won it -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the editorialist with the New York Times. Tony Lewis?
TONY LEWIS: Thank you, Elaine. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s difficult now to remember, or for those who are too young to appreciate, what race relations were like in the American South in the early 1960s. In Mississippi, Alabama, and large parts of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia, black Americans were unable to vote. Attempts to register as voters were met with trickery, threats and violence. Only four percent of the black citizens of Mississippi had managed to become registered voters, 14 percent in Alabama.
The Supreme Court had decided in 1954 that state enforced racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The Court ringingly reaffirmed that decision in 1958 when it rejected the attempt by Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas to evade the ruling by a rousing, violent resistance. Yet, in 1960 in the five states I just mentioned, not a single African American student attended a public school or a public university with white students. That was the grim picture when John Kennedy was elected President.
And I have to tell you that it was not his priority to change the picture. It’s important to understand that. President Kennedy had two major concerns in his first years as President. The first, overwhelmingly the first, was the Cold War. It was a time of confrontation with the Soviet Union reaching a fearful climax in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. At the top of his domestic list was his legislation to cut taxes, legislation that was extremely difficult to get through Congress. Through that time, through those first years, President Kennedy proposed no new civil rights legislation. Then in the climactic year of 1963, all that changed. It was changed, I think, by events, events that were in themselves moved by the remarkable leadership of the civil rights movement. That's what we're going to hear about today.
But I might say a word about how it looked from Washington where I covered the Justice Department for The New York Times and kept a close watch on the racial situation. If one thing changed the mind of official Washington, at least that's my view looking back, it was Birmingham, Alabama. In that city, African Americans could not eat at drugstore lunch counters or ride in white, so-called white taxicabs, or use the same water fountains in department stores or enter the same public libraries. Those are just examples of a segregation as universal and as harsh as existed in Johannesburg in the darkest days of apartheid.
And segregation was enforced the same way as in South Africa, by fear and official violence. Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy and others challenged that repressive system by peaceful protest marches. The police chief, Bull Connor, met them with snarling police dogs and fire hoses. The mayor of Birmingham, Art Haynes, said of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, I’m quoting, “I hope that every drop of blood that's spilled he tastes in his throat, and I hope he chokes on it.”
Now, that leads me to make some perhaps more personal comments. I think more than any official in Washington, and I say that with the utmost respect of the two people who are sitting to either side of me, because I think they’d agree, it was Robert Kennedy who responded, not just in some abstract way, but inside himself, to these events. He saw for the first time in his life what the reality was for black Americans in the South especially, and he didn't like it. In fact, it moved him very deeply. And so he acted. He sent Burke Marshall to Birmingham to deal with the crisis over James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi, and so on. But I think it was the way he felt internally that was the most important thing, because he understood, he realized what was happening.
When confrontation occurred at the University of Alabama over the admission of two black students, and Nick Katzenbach went down and confronted the governor, George Wallace, that became the occasion for President Kennedy to speak out for the first time on June 11, 1963 on the racial issue -- speak out in a way that was not just abstract or distant or detached, but was engaged, and he felt that the President of the United States really wanted to deal with this problem.
It happened -- this is a personal recollection -- Carl Kaysen, who’s sitting here, and I have talked about this, so he’ll remember it. I was having dinner that night with -- I think it was Carl’s boss at the time -- George McBundy, and he came from the White House and he said -- I’ve been corrected and told it isn’t true, but I still believe it was true -- he said, “You know, the President hasn’t got a complete text, and he’s about to speak.” And we turned on the television and watched him speak.
And I think, I believe that he didn't have a complete text, and that at the end he was speaking from the heart, and a speech that was very, very moving.
One echo of it especially mattered to me. During the protests in Birmingham, Dr. King was imprisoned, and he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, he answered those who said that he and the other protesters should be more patient, and he answered it in a devastating way. And President Kennedy said in the June 11th speech, “Who among us could accept that patience was the answer anymore to the indignities, the inhumanities heaped upon people because of the color of their skin?” And in a way, I think that was the triumph of Dr. King, that his words were coming from the mouth of the President of the United States.
Eight days later, President Kennedy proposed sweeping civil rights legislation, the most complete ever offered, and after his death that was enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Elaine, those are my recollections.
MS. JONES: Thank you very much, Tony, for giving us that context. Now, I'm going to ask our panelists to tell us in a few moments, and it’s very difficult to do that because they have such rich lives and have made such tremendous contributions which they continue to make, but I want each one of them to put themselves in January of 1963 where we begin this story, and tell us their personal story of how they became involved in civil rights, how they came to be where they were at that time. And I would like our first discussant to be Ed Williams, who in 1963 was an official of the State Department and who for 20 years has been head of the Joint Center for Political Studies. Ed?
ED WILLIAMS: Thank you, Elaine. 1963 was indeed a crucial year for civil rights and for this nation. I read someplace that there were more than 900 protest demonstrations in 115 cities in 11 southern states; more than 20,000 demonstrators were arrested, and there were at least 35 bombings.
Unlike many of my colleagues here today, I was not in the front ranks of the escalating civil rights revolution in ’63. And, yet, a position I held in the U.S. Department of State provided a very critical window for me on civil rights. After the election in 1960, I was invited by the President Elect’s transition team to come to their office and they sat me down and said to me, “We want to integrate the State Department and you're going to be one of our instruments to do that.” And I said, “Well, okay, that's fine, I can do that. But what's the job?” So they said, “We want you to go and talk to Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke, the Chief of Protocol.” So I did. And Ambassador Duke offered me an appointment to work in a new program that was starting up at the President’s instigation called the New Nations Division.
And the purpose of that program was to deal with some of the discriminatory problems that African diplomats were having in Washington. They couldn’t get adequate housing. They were discriminated against, just like black Americans were. And so going to the office, the first thing I encountered was that the career deputy director of the office announced to the staff that there was no job in the Office of Protocol that a Negro could do. Well, we got past that hurdle, I think I was there when he was out the door. [laughter] But in any case, this was the first time that an African American had worked as a professional in the Office of Protocol.
Well, this new Nations Division did indeed work with the real estate board and other officials in Washington trying to minimize and eliminate discrimination against Africans in housing. And as a matter of fact, this was quite ironic for me, because I was fighting for housing opportunities for them that I did not have myself at that time in Washington, D.C.
So after some time, by the time we got to 1963, some progress had been made with the President using his influence, and Dean Rusk using his influence, and those of us working in the city. And so I vividly remember at the meeting of the D.C. real estate board at which several realtors decided to open their apartments to Africans, one realtor in particular summed up the views of his colleagues when he said, “I don’t want to hurt the nation’s foreign policy,” – we had been using that as a stick -- “I don’t want to hurt the nation’s foreign policy,” he said, “so I will open my units to Africans.” And there was some applause and some people remained silent. And then he added, “And since I can’t tell an African from an American Negro, I’ll open up to everybody.” Thus, open housing came to Washington, D.C. before it was mandated by law.
We talk a lot about the impact of legislation, and that is indeed important. We’ll hear talk about that a lot today. But there's some indirect ways in which the President can influence the civil rights agenda, and did, through executive actions, using the office as a bully pulpit, to the power of appointments. One person who constantly and often successfully urged President Kennedy to use all of the weapons at his disposal to end discrimination was a man whose name was Louis Martin, the Deputy Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. His efforts are well known to many on this panel, not so well known to the public at large. And they are detailed in a recent book entitled, “Walking with Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power.”
During the Kennedy years, Martin was the bridge between the civil rights movement and the Kennedy Administration. I'm also pleased to say that he was my mentor. He was the consummate insider, who was trusted by civil rights leaders. In his own self effacing way, he brought key civil rights leaders to the table of compromise, often making a way out of no way.
Louis’s genius was never more evident than in 1963 when he lobbied hard for the President to propose a civil rights bill with a public accommodations component. That same year, he persuaded President Kennedy to host a reception for blacks on the occasion of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, an unusual situation for a Democratic president to do. Since this was an occasion tradition, they celebrated by Republicans. This event was a huge success in terms of one, co-opting the Republicans and in terms of dramatizing the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights.
Amid the 1963 drama of mass demonstrations and harsh local responses, the murder of Medgar Evers, federal intervention to integrate the University of Alabama, numerous court battles for civil rights and many local efforts to pursue equal opportunities, two important facts became clear. One, the administration gradually shed its politically cautious posture and provided effective leadership during the rapidly escalating civil rights revolution.
And two, the administration’s commitment to the cause of civil rights was demonstrated in several bold actions which laid the foundation for the legislative triumphs that were to follow and were to transform America. My last job in the Office of the Chief of Protocol was to serve as an usher at President Kennedy’s funeral. Thank you.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Eddie. Our next speaker will be Dorothy A. Cotton. And Dorothy A. Cotton was an official in 1963 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; more specifically, she was the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And she has recently been, and is now, the Director of Student Activities at Cornell. Dorothy?
DOROTHY COTTON: Thank you, Elaine. You asked us to make a statement about how I think we personally, how we got involved and to speak to that rather personally from 1963. But actually, I have to go quite far back to talk about how I got involved.
MS. JONES: If we can just do it in three minutes, that's fine.
MS. COTTON: No, faster than that, I can do it …
MS. JONES: But you’ll get a chance. Whatever you don't finish, you’ll get a chance.
MS. COTTON: I can do it one sentence. When I was about ten years old, a little white boy was riding his bicycle down my street in Goldsborough, North Carolina, and he was singing, “Deep in the Heart of Nigger Town.” That's when I got involved.
MS. JONES: That would be galvanizing.
MS. COTTON: I told you I could do it in one sentence.
MS. JONES: Yes, you did.
MS. COTTON: Now, since I didn't use even a whole minute there, we can fast forward to being in high school when I was in a high school drama and had to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, and I know now that something was really seething inside of me, that something was wrong with the way we had to live. And so when I had to say the Pledge of Allegiance, you know how it ends, “With liberty and justice for all,” and what came out of my mouth was, “With liberty and justice for white.”
Okay, one other event. Fast forward a little bit to my being very active in church in Petersburg, Virginia, where I'm now living. And in Petersburg, black folk could not use the public library. The then pastor of the Gilfield Baptist Church, a Y. T. Walker, was also the head of the local NAACP there and decided that we had to take that on, the fact that black folk couldn't use the public library. When we made an appeal to use the library, we were told that the library, that property, was deeded to the city of Petersburg for use of white young men and women.
Well, I was quickly making picket signs in the church and helping other folks learn to understand something of how to respond if they were approached with violence as we walked with picket signs in front of the library and in front of the Woolworth store. So from that we started having big mass meetings. Martin Luther King, on the heels of his leading the Montgomery bus boycott, came up to speak for us and invited us -- because he saw all of the activity and the way we were organizing Petersburg -- Dr. King invited us, the pastor of our church actually, to come to Atlanta, Georgia to help him really expand the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And I said to my husband, “I’ll go down and help them out for about six months,” and I stayed for 23 years.
MS. JONES: Thank you, thank you very much, Dorothy. Our next speaker is James Hood, who along with Vivian Malone were the two African American students admitted to the University of Alabama, which we will discuss that admission in detail later. He serves now as Chair of the Human Protective Services Department at a technical college. Jim, would you share with us?
JAMES HOOD: Let me begin by reading a headline from an article. It says, “Negro Inferior, Carolina Professor Said.” This is what precipitated my application to the University of Alabama. It appeared in the Atlanta Constitution in October, 1961. Now, let me just read you briefly what it said. “Dr. W. C. George, controversial professor at the University of North Carolina, Wednesday released a racial study which said Negroes are inferior in maintaining western civilization.” And George said, in presenting the report, “Integration is not Christian.” George was commissioned for $3,000 to make the study by the State of Alabama, whose governor at the time was John Patterson.
Most of its contents were revealed over a year ago, which would have been in 1961. Now, the interesting thing that I want to say to you is I was one of those students that was studied. I was one of the students that was studied. We were told at the time that the study was to compare our scholastic aptitude scores with those of white students, okay? But here's what the conclusion said. “George said that Americans have been misled into believing that integration is morally correct and that this study sought to disprove this. ‘Federal courts,’ he indicated, ‘should take special note of the study before ruling on integration cases.’ Asked why integration is not Christian, George said, ‘Integration is evil; doing evil is not Christian.’ He singled out schools as the place to avoid race mixing because he said that is where the people develop attitudes and are most vulnerable to the evils of integration. ‘I have no objection to whites and Negro brick masons working together, though.’ George said he would be available to testify in Birmingham where a federal court is hearing suits seeking to integrate public schools.”
Now, let me just move on and tell you what … I’ll read you the conclusions, which I think you might find, I guess, because these conclusions were used by governor nominee George C. Wallace of Alabama. The first conclusion: individuals are not born with equal biological endowments. Second conclusion, Negroes are about 200,000 years behind whites in developing brain structure associated with higher mentality. Cortex, thinner. Three: the super granular layer of the cerebral cortex, latest structure to arise in evolutionary development of the brain and closely associated with the brain’s higher function, is 14 percent thinner on the average in Negroes than in whites. Number four: in tests made in the United States, Africa and other areas, only 10 to 20 percent of Negroes examined exceed the white intellectual medium. Number five: in the same test, six times as many Negroes as whites fell below 70 percent I.Q. Six: about six times as many whites as Negroes fell in the gifted child category. Seven: significant differences in favor of whites do not disappear when social and economic factors are equalized. Number eight -- this is the biggie: interracial marriage leads to a deterioration of races.
When I read this article, I was a sophomore at Clark College, and my English teacher was a lady by the name of Dr. Christine Ferris King, who happened to be Dr. King’s sister. And my project was to do a research project and try to disprove Dr. George’s contentions. Took me eight weeks and a number of inputs from people like Dr. King, Dr. King, Sr., Christine, a man who many of you probably have heard scant talk about, Benjamin E. Mays, who at the time was our neighbor and President of Morehouse College.
And I sent a 27 page research paper to Dr. George, and I got a letter back which was written on a napkin. And it said, “As a Negro boy, you don't have the intellectual capacity to challenge a white scholar like myself.” That's how I got to the point of deciding that since I was in Atlanta as an out-of-stater -- I grew up in Alabama, was in Clark College in Atlanta paying out of state tuition -- that I could go home. So that's when I applied to the University of Alabama.
MS. JONES: You were certainly motivated. [laughter] Thank you, Jim. We will next hear from Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was the wife of the Director of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, and who recently has ended a three year tenure in her labor of love as Chair of the Board of the NAACP. Myrlie?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. 1963 was the defining time for me. I had been known as the supporter and the wife of Medgar Evers. Shortly after midnight on June the 12th, 1963 Medgar was assassinated at the front door of our home. And that became the turning point of real activism for me.
I do want to state, however, that the civil rights struggle did not begin in 1963, it started far beyond that time. And the question being asked of us, how do we become involved, goes back some time for me because what's in a name or how a name is thought of helps to determine how people perceive of you and how you perceive of yourself.
I was born colored. I didn't like it too much then because it just sounded different. I fought whenever I was called nigger. Then we worked hard to have people understand and respect the name Negro, pointing to our knees to be sure that it helped others to pronounce the name correctly, Negro. And then I became black, a name which I have fought over some time ago, but perhaps I'm moving a little beyond 1963. But I must with this particular thing, black became beautiful and I finally accepted that. Today, I'm African American; in the 21st century, I don't know what I’ll be. [laughter] But it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter as long as I know who I am and know what I must do. So my activism, realization of what was necessary to do came at a very, very early age when I had to walk miles to school, past other schools. When I was in a classroom where textbooks were torn and ragged. When we studied chemistry and had no test tubes in our classes to go through experiments. When we realized that the schools were not equal, the education was not equal, but we had teachers who told us, “You can be and you must be the very best.” When time and achievements were defined amongst us that we had to reach the highest goals that could possibly be set for society, however, as long as you stayed within the perimeters of society’s set, which meant that you could not reach the stars as everyone else could.
And then there were the indignities; regardless of your age, you were either a boy or a girl. You were not addressed as Miss, Mrs. or Mister. You could not go into stores and buy clothes as other people did. You had to guess at your size. You dare not try on hats. You weren’t sure about the size of shoes at all.
Speaking of the libraries, we knew the Dewey Decimal System, but we couldn't go there. We paid taxes, yet we could not swim in the pools. We could not go to restaurants. We went to the movies and sat up in the balcony which actually provided the best possible seats in the theater, but it was called the buzzard’s roost. So we found that to our dislike.
And yes, something very, very important -- the right to be able to register and to vote. And finding that the few that were able to slip through the system and register and vote received poll tax receipts, which was like your badge of honor. But before that, you had to go through a series, if you will, of questions and one being asked by a registrar who might have had only a third or fourth grade education, of someone who had had, perhaps, at least a college education and perhaps a master’s degree, being asked how many bubbles in a bar of soap. And who can answer that question?
All of those things, along with the murders, the threats that came along, of remembering Medgar Evers who was the first black to apply to the University of Mississippi Law School, or to that school at all, and being turned down and later helping be sure that another student, James Meredith, got in. A compilation of all of those things that said, “You are not a first class citizen of America.” Of having a father and Medgar who fought in World War II, who came back and thought perhaps America would be a better place for which they could live, of having the opportunities. All of those insults, all of the threats, the fire bombs that were thrown at our home just before Medgar’s death, and then finally early that morning, after my children and I stayed up late to hear President Kennedy make his address, of Medgar, a warrior, a pioneer in the civil rights movement, drive his car into his driveway, get out, and hear the shot fired that snuffed out his life. Of seeing three children fall to the floor and crawl to the bathroom as I rushed out and found his body lying in blood. And knowing full well that the six foot one inch of that man fell forward and moved us all forward that much toward freedom and justice and equality. 1963 was a determining part in my life, and I became an activist of activists all by myself after that time.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Myrlie. Thank you so much. [applause] I'm glad the moderator has good sense to know when not to interrupt. Myrlie, I'm so glad that you shared that with us. Our next speaker is Burke Marshall, who was Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice in 1963. And since then, he’s moved on to do wonderful things, such as he was General Counsel and Former Senior Vice President of IBM. He’s an author and professor of law at Yale. Let’s hear what Burke has to tell us.
BURKE MARSHALL: Well, my involvement in civil rights matters in January of 1963 is simple. It goes back to being hired by Robert Kennedy and then nominated and appointed by President Kennedy to a job in the Department of Justice to run the civil rights division.
It may have been somewhat of an advantage that I didn't have the vaguest idea what I was doing. [laughter] And that perhaps Robert Kennedy didn't either. That advantage had worn off to some extent by January of 1963, but I would have to say that I did not anticipate in January the enormity of the changes that would be set in motion during the rest of that year, which we’ll discuss.
MS. JONES: Thank you, thank you very much. [applause] Next, we will hear from Ted Sorensen, who was Special Counsel to President Kennedy, who has authored several books -- at last count, I think it was eight; it may be even more than that now -- who has practiced and does practice international corporate law in New York. Ted?
TED SORENSEN: Thanks, Elaine. Having had the good fortune to have been born to two wonderful parents committed to making our society a better society, I first became active in the local civil rights effort in Lincoln, Nebraska, when I was in high school and in college. I founded the city’s first social action organization, which took means including even in those days, sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and the local swimming pool. I wrote a column for the local black newspaper and gave speeches on the subject and led an effort to try to get a fair employment practices bill through the Nebraska State Legislature, for which the head of Associated Industries, as it was called in Nebraska, said I was a communist. In that effort, I'm happy to say one of my colleagues was the Executive Secretary of the Omaha Urban League, Whitney Young.
When I went to Washington, I had the good fortune, almost by chance, to participate in a small way in one of the Amicas, friend of the court briefs in school desegregation case. And by January, 1963 I was just finishing ten years with John F. Kennedy, eight when he was United States Senator, and two when he was President of the United States.
As a senator, his heart was in the right place on civil rights, but as Tony Lewis accurately said, it was not one of his priorities. During his campaign for President, he spoke more vigorously on the subject than he had before, including some phrases that you will find repeated in his historic June, 1963 speech. But again, it was not a priority, nor was it in his first two years as President. And yet, much was accomplished in those two years in breaking down segregation, in interstate travel -- with the help of a good many grass roots organizations -- and in education and in other aspects of the public life.
We were all frustrated that not more was being done or could be done given the nature of the Congress at that time. And yet, by January 1963, I had a sense that that year was going to be different, and it was.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Ted, thank you very much. [applause] Our next speaker is Prathia Hall, who in 1963 was the field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and who now serves as pastor of the Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and she's Dean of the African American Ministries of the Union Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Prathia?
PRATHIA HALL: Thank you, Elaine. We were asked to share how we got started, how we became involved, and I have to say that I believe I was born in and born for the freedom struggle. I was born to a preacher family in Philadelphia where there was an intense passion for justice. And so I grew up with a very heightened awareness of freedom as a struggle for racial and economic justice and an understanding of justice as a divine agenda.
My first really intense personal experience with Jim Crow was when I was six years old. Of course, in those times, every time the family took a trip south, it was a family crisis of some sort. And my sisters and I had been placed on the train by our family to be met by family further south in Virginia. And we were snatched up by the conductor from our seats and marched through the train in our pretty little frilly dresses -- black folk always dressed up -- and taken to the smoky, dirty, dingy bunk of a car behind the engine. And somehow, all that trip the train wheels seemed to be saying, “You're not good enough.” I will never forget that.
In high school, I became involved with a group in a place called Fellowship House, an organization which began in the 1930s as a center for peace and human rights activism. As a part of that group when I was in college at Temple University, we joined the Freedom Rides, which had begun in the deep south, and a group from Fellowship House participated in a northern flank of Freedom Rides in Maryland, on the Maryland eastern shore. It was there that I was arrested for the first time as we tested public accommodations and interstate commerce in the bus waiting room in Annapolis, Maryland. We were jailed, took the position of jail, no bail, and stayed in jail for a period of about two or three weeks until we were released pending the outcome of the case.
In 1962, as a student at Temple University, I then, after being involved in support activities for the student movement in the South, went south and was first assigned to the SNCC project in southwest Georgia -- sent to a place called Terrible Terrill County known for its brutality, known for its violence, known by the fact that for many, many, many years, people who, black people who were uppity, who tried to register to vote or assert their personhood in some other way just came up missing. It was said that those rivers ran red with the blood of such people.
In Terrill County, the house we lived in was shot into and later bombed. Three of us at one point were shot, the churches we held mass meetings in were burned to the ground. We were encountered in our canvassing for voter registration by a deputy marshal with a gun in his hand who inquired what we were doing and when I answered, “We're registering people to vote, and you have no right to stop us,” became so enraged he literally foamed at the mouth, whipped out a pistol and fired bullets in a circle around my feet.
Early in 1963, I was awakened by a visit to the southwest Georgia project by SNCC executive secretary James Foreman and told that I was needed in Selma. SNCC had just begun in early 1963 to open up Selma, Alabama, again, one of the most violent places on earth. And so we snuck into Selma, Alabama under cover of darkness to bring some support to Bernard and Colia Lafayette, who had been working there alone, supporting the work of Mrs. Amelia Boynton and the Dallas County Voters League.
That was the beginning of an extremely … so that all of the time that Birmingham was going on, there was an extremely brutal experience taking place in Selma, Alabama. Most people know of Selma only from 1965. But there could have been no activity in 1965 if it had not been opened up in 1963. Thank you.
MS. JONES: Thank you very much. [applause] Now, our panelist who will speak next also was in the eye of the storm. Nicholas Katzenbach, who was Deputy Attorney General of the United States when our scene opens in January of 1963. Since that time, he served as Senior Vice President of IBM, and for a dozen years he has been a partner in a New Jersey law firm. Nick?
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Thank you, Elaine. Like Ted Sorensen, I had parents who had no tolerance for discrimination. My father was instrumental in getting Paul Robeson admitted into Rutgers University. But my own involvement really started, as did Burke Marshall’s, when in January of ’61 I joined the Kennedy Justice Department as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel.
The Office of Legal Counsel at that time was, in many ways, the President’s lawyer. We were responsible for things like Executive Orders, so I was immediately involved in Executive Order with respect to affirmative action and activities of that kind. I think one of our major contributions early was in getting the Interstate Commerce Commission to rule against discrimination under the Interstate Commerce Act, although I had thought prior to that time they were talking about discrimination in crisis. But it became a discrimination in race in 1961.
But my own really heavy personal involvement probably came about rather accidentally in 1962 on a late Sunday morning when I was in the Justice Department and walked into Bobby Kennedy’s office and he said, “Have you got anything important on this afternoon?” I said, “No, why do you ask?” He said, “Well, I’d like you to go down, take charge of the 500 marshals at Old Miss.” So that was what I did. [laughter] My involvement became a little bit more public at that point. That was a failure in I think in all our views, but we did learn from it. And we learned from it so that we handled the University of Alabama in ’63, I think, rather better. And it was, I think, the beginning of this rapid acceleration. Throughout the period, before the Kennedy election, throughout this period with Dr. King with the demonstrations, with all of the other people working, it was a great deal of pressure building to do something about civil rights, at the same time given the context of the times, a good deal of danger. It had to go on, yet there could be a tragedy and were tragedies of a racial nature that went on at this time because of what you've all heard about, of the extreme views in the southern states. But the African Americans had the courage to continue, and it was a result of that courage, I think, that the other crucial events in 1963 took place.
Looking at it in 1963 to solve the problems of overt state-supported discrimination in the South seemed like an enormously difficult problem to overcome, and it was. Looking back on it 35 years later, it seems to me that it may have been the easier part of achieving an integrated society, that necessary first step to achieving integration. But 35 years later, we still do not live in that society that Dr. King dreamed of.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Nick. Let’s give our panelists a hand. [applause] To use President Kennedy’s words, we celebrate the past to awaken the future. And so in trying to do that this afternoon, we have been asked to undertake a very difficult task; and that is to do it chronologically and not just in a span of a year, but we have to sort of take it in groups of months and my job is to make sure that you can follow our presentation.
What I'm going to ask my panelists to do, if they will all refer to and use to the extent that it’s needed, the civil rights time line which is the yellow sheet that the panelists have, because it’ll help you think in terms of months. Because I know your perspective is much broader than what I'm going to require of you, and it will help you. This timeline may trigger events in your mind and you may have some comment on those particular events.
Now, I know that in the first timeline that we have to discuss, really, is Birmingham, the Birmingham campaign, its beginning. And that time period is January through March of 1963. We've been given five minutes to discuss that, but we may take a little longer. [laughter] Now, if this is focusing on Birmingham, we see that Martin Luther King had asked the administration to issue a second emancipation proclamation on January 1 of 1963, the hundredth anniversary of the original. Now, on January 10th there was a historic meeting in Birmingham, and I want Dorothy Cotton to explain to us why Birmingham, what was the purpose of this meeting and from her perspective on history, what happened there?
MS. COTTON: Well, why Birmingham? Actually, it would be helpful to remember that Albany had already happened, so we had come through that period. People look at the Albany movement actually as a failure. But we say it was important in that we learned so much that would help us in this next heat of battle.
MS. JONES: All right, now I don't want to digress off Birmingham, but why are you talking about Albany? Give the two or three major lessons that you believe that you and Martin picked up from Albany, that Albany campaign?
MS. COTTON: In Albany we learned that we can’t be firemen. There's a direct quotation from Dr. King saying, “I don’t want to be a fireman anymore,” and that is going where stuff is already going on, and we, now SCLC or Martin Luther King, must come in and put out the fire.
MS. JONES: Right.
MS. COTTON: We won’t do that anymore. We learned that we had to work in a very particular, in a systematic way. We did training before there were demonstrations, but I’m ahead of the story. Because I want you to know that we didn't go into any city without being invited to go in.
There's one sentence from the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth that will summarize the whole reason we went into Birmingham. From Shuttlesworth and battle perspective, “Birmingham segregationists made up a three tiered society. If the Klan didn't stop you, the police would stop you. If the police didn't stop you, the courts would.” He, therefore, felt that Birmingham would be the ideal target, the SCLC’s next campaign. And SCLC was formed by a group of preachers, if you will. They were indeed all preachers, Fred Shuttlesworth being one. Fred Shuttlesworth had tried to enroll his daughter in a “white” school after the school desegregation decision. And he was chain whipped for doing that, and we're talking about five years earlier. But a group of ministers, the group was convened and a discussion held looking at the question of so where do we go from here, and what kind of systematic organization should we have, can we have, that will move us forward here?
So in actually January, 1957 Dr. King invited preachers really from around the south to come together to talk about what should be done. And they called themselves first the Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration, and that was because Dr. King had talked about nonviolence in the Montgomery bus boycott. But in Birmingham, again, there's a wonderful quotation from Mr. Emil Hess, who owns the Parisian Department Stores. I met with him, he was in his 80s, he died last year, a couple of years ago. But he said, “Birmingham catapulted the United States into the 21st century.” Because the reason I wanted to meet with him, thanks to his granddaughter whom I met at Stanford University, I wanted to know what white businessmen and women thought about what was going on there, and it did indeed catapult the …
MS. JONES: Now, what …
MS. COTTON: So, I'm sorry? No, go ahead.
MS. JONES: What was the objective of the Birmingham campaign?
MS. COTTON: Again, having gone through Albany, we felt that Birmingham, and given the assessment that Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth made, that it really was the seat of racial hostility and oppression and hatred, that we could so -- I picked out some wonderful quotations -- “We could begin working away that would so dramatize the plight of black folks all across the south, that we indeed could push through a comprehensive civil rights bill.” And so we were attacking every level of oppression, segregation, discrimination.
And so we went in knowing we were going to have economic boycotts, but we were going to do it systematically in the sense that we would begin as we didn't do in Albany, with negotiation so that everybody wouldn’t be already mad, wouldn’t be already angry, where it would be so difficult to mount a campaign and get all the factions in the community involved. And so we were working on all of these levels at the same time -- that is negotiating, laying out plans right out in the open, as that is the way of nonviolent campaigns where you don't hold your goals back. There are no secrets in a nonviolent campaign. You're constantly strategizing, and you put most of it right out there for everybody to hear.
So the goal was to so lift up the plight of black folk in this part of the country that we could get a comprehensive civil rights bill, and that is indeed what happened. And we can talk about the training and some other aspects of it. But another important lesson we learned was we had to really focus on how to involve every strata of the community. And so we formed at Birmingham an advisory committee, for example, made up of key business and professional people and so that nobody -- that was done initially, that's important, so that folk would be kind of on the same wavelength as we proceeded to move through the training for demonstration, training for confronting the powers that be, learning how to negotiate, which Andrew Young was our most skilled negotiator. But that's sort of maybe a rambling way of …
MS. JONES: No, no, that helped.
MS. COTTON: But a lot of things were going on at the same time: negotiating, training, demonstrating, because it was deemed the seat of racial oppression and segregation and hostility in this country.
MS. JONES: Now, Burke Marshall, during this period, January through March, what did the civil rights division know, and when did it know it? [laughter]
MR. MARSHALL: Well, Elaine, I must tell you that between when I said I got hired and this time, I picked up a few things. And during 1961 and ’62, I’d done quite a bit of traveling in the south. I went to every city where there was a school desegregation order. And I met with the officials in those places in an effort to avoid what had gone on in New Orleans and in Little Rock. And in addition to that, I had spent some time in Mississippi and in Birmingham. In fact, I think by the time of January of ’63, I’d probably been to Birmingham three or four times and had met with people that would meet with me. Now, the number of people that would meet with me -- I'm talking about whites -- was limited. But some of them would, and so I was sort of in touch with Birmingham more than I would say any other city in those states that Tony Lewis mentioned at the beginning of this program.
As far as the plans that were going on by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of course there was no reason for them to, and they did not take me into confidence with respect to doing it, but I was fully cognizant. I'm speaking personally, and therefore to some extent at least the Attorney General and others were fully cognizant, of the political situation in Birmingham.
MS. JONES: Would you give us a footnote on that political situation, about the election that had just taken place and Governor Wallace had just been inaugurated?
MR. MARSHALL: Well, Governor Wallace had just been elected; but also in Birmingham, there was a new mayor and the new mayor had a reputation -- I must say about 90 percent undeserved -- but that reputation of being more moderate, of intending to move Birmingham in a direction of openness. [laughter] And so that there was a little something that compared to Bull Connor for people like me to work with. So the political situation was that. I mean, every time I went down there, I would hear about that, that these outsiders -- that's how they referred to Ms. Cotton and Reverend King -- were going to come in and upset a justice, they were about to change everything and see the light. So that was an area that was closely watched by us.
I might add, Elaine, as you well know, that this was all sort of extracurricular on my part. We did not have statutory basis for interfering with the segregation practices of the business in Birmingham, which were the main targets. We were not permitted by the courts or by Congress to bring school suits. We had no statutory or basis, really, that would stand up for doing what I was doing on behalf of the Attorney General, really the White House, in these places. We were volunteers in a sense.
MS. JONES: What I want to know is if Ted or Nick would like to comment on that? I know that to be the case as a lawyer, but yet the President and his Administration were fairly ingenious in finding ways to become involved, even publicly. I mean, Burke made several trips. Do you have any comment on that, Ted, the Administration looking for ways to make sure it could “be involved” in Birmingham, although it had no legal authority because there was no ’64 Civil Rights Act at the time?
MR. SORENSEN: Well, let me yield to Nick because it was the Justice Department that really led the way and had led the way in the variety of areas that I mentioned where the President or the Administration had been active up to that point.
MR. MARSHALL: I may say, Elaine, that my personal involvement, and therefore the involvement in the Administration in the Justice Department in Birmingham was very public.
MS. JONES: Yes, it was.
MR. MARSHALL: Not so much in January through March, but afterwards it was very …
MS. JONES: Yes, April, May, it was. We're going to come to that. But I'm just… Do you have anything you wanted to add to that point, Nick, and then we’ll come back to Dorothy?
MR. KATZENBACH: Just to make this observation, Elaine. Burke is quite right, that there was no statutory basis for it. We felt we had to be involved in some way. And one of the reasons we felt we had to be involved was the dangerous nature of that situation, because I think there would be no question about the fact that when things went wrong, and they did, they were going to blame the Administration for those things going wrong. Not the local administration, but the government in Washington for not doing what it should have done, even though what should have been done was without any statutory authority at all.
MS. JONES: Now, Nick, just further elaborate for a moment and explain to our audience the dangerousness of that situation. When you say it was dangerous, yes it was, but what do you mean? Define dangerous for them.
MR. KATZENBACH: I would define danger in terms of the human lives of some of the demonstrators. They were being arrested. God knows what would happen to them. You take a man like Dr. King in jail in the south, there were real risks in that for them. The risks for the Administration were the political risks, particularly after promises in the campaign that had been made and yet with a political situation in Washington which at least at that time wasn’t going to result in what eventually we were able to get with the statutory base that Burke was talking about. It wouldn’t have happened at that point.
And, indeed, the general feeling, I think, of many whites outside the south is reflected in the letter to Dr. King from the white ministers. Take it easy, it’s not a time for demonstrations, don’t use the children, don’t run risks. And what I tried to say at the outset was if you didn't run the risk, you weren't going to make the progress. If you did run the risk, there was a very real danger to everybody involved.
MS. JONES: Now, Dorothy, you had a point you wanted to make?
MS. COTTON: Well, he touched a little bit on what was sort of welling up inside me was the fact that there was no statutory basis by which we could act either. But what we were realizing was that the people were speaking and that was more powerful than any statute that was or was not on the book. That if we hadn't continued the actions in the street, then these gentlemen that you've just heard couldn’t have made the contribution as effectively as they could have made. So I just want to emphasize the people acting, and I hope that we will come back to talk about the power of that, as Gandhi called it, soul force, if you will.
MS. JONES: Now that …
MR. KATZENBACH: And as a footnote, the young people involved in the movement down south had learned how to use television extremely well.
MS. JONES: Oh, television, right. Yes, we will come to that, we will come to that. Tell me though, Dorothy, just before we move to talk about the period in Mississippi at the same time when that meeting took place in January of 1963, where the SCLC leadership met to discuss Birmingham and to decide what its response to its being one of the most segregated cities in the South and to begin to plan that campaign, what sources of support did Dr. King find within the African American community?
MS. COTTON: In Birmingham?
MS. JONES: Yes?
MS. COTTON: Well, we had to work up the support, if you will. We talked about this support committee. I can see that about 30 people sitting around the room, 30 of the AG Gaston Motel, discussing the strategy and whether we would act and what actions, what those actions would be. And, again, we learned in Albany that we had to bring the local people together from the black community, only because those are the only ones who would gather and meet with us, to talk about whether we should work together there and what we would do.
We had a lot of folk who had real skill, and Dr. King being a major one, and Andrew Young being another, all of us actually playing some role in that. Talking with people, sometimes one on one so that they would understand what we were about, and that they would come to a larger understanding of nonviolent protest. Because that was clearly a sense that there was a readiness to take the action further.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was the key leader who had been on the battle front, if you will, for a long time, four or five years before SCLC was in there. And he was urging that we come in and go the next step. But we had to build this base. There were also people in other parts of the country who were now starting to look at what was going on in the south, and television certainly helped a lot there. But people were looking for ways that they could also be supportive. And where college students and other folk were starting to think about whether they should come down and help. So we discussed every aspect of organizing for a dynamic, nonviolent campaign with the local people as we were starting to negotiate with businesspeople downtown.
MS. JONES: Now, Nick told us that there was possibly, potentially some change that was going to come about, hopefully, because of the defeat of Bull Connor for the mayor by 8,000 votes. Well, it was the defeat of Bull Connor. What did SCLC think about the defeat of Bull Connor? Did they think that that was something to look forward to in terms of Birmingham moving into the 20th century?
MS. COTTON: Absolutely. Bull Connor symbolized both the worst -- probably and the best -- energizing factor, if you will. And I often wondered why one city, for example, didn't learn from a prior city, when they saw that we weren't going to stop in Albany or wherever, the Freedom Riders weren't going to stop, people were going to continue. And when people were brutalized, it would motivate folk to be even more committed. But no city learned from the prior city.
We were energized by -- I'm sorry, you can see Reverend C. T. Vivian getting hit in the mouth, for example, by taking people to vote. But people didn't run away from the movement based on that, it would further help people concretize, if you will, that commitment to be involved in the struggle to bring about positive social change.
MS. JONES: Now, we see where Birmingham is on a radar screen, it’s a cauldron, it’s originally segregated city and as we move forward beyond March, we will talk about what went on there. But at the same time, we have neighboring Mississippi all during this period, January to March. And in Mississippi, there were quite a lot of issues going on nationally and locally. The Commission on Civil Rights issued the report. And Myrlie, would you just talk to us a bit about activism in Mississippi during that two month period?
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: I’d be delighted to, and I’ll lead the legal side to the others who were involved. Even in the winter of 1963, I think we had carefully …
MS. JONES: The winter of ’63, January, February, March? Okay.
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: I'm not really about to get into that except to give a description. That period of time was called the “Long, Hot Summer.”
MS. JONES: I see.
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: It was that kind of atmosphere under which we were working. It was perhaps one of the most crucial times ever. And as you said, Dorothy, that was a time when people had stopped running from confrontation. They finally had decided that they had to come together and were led mostly by young people who sat in at the counters and older people who said, “We're moving too slowly. We have to move ahead.” It was those who we would call the middle class blacks who were reluctant to really be involved because they didn't want to lose their jobs.
There were nightly mass meetings that grew from a couple of hundred people to thousands. And, again, based on what you said, depending on what happened to someone, the crowd began to grow. Young people were arrested for demonstrations and thrown in what we called then the concentration camps. It was the fairground that had barbed wire fences around it. It was the place where policemen brought food in galvanized tin tubs and spat in it before they gave it to the people there to eat. It was a time when Medgar had challenged the city of Jackson, the mayor, that everything would be desegregated that was segregated. It was a time when he went on television to challenge the mayor’s message known as “We will use Thompson’s tank,” Mayor Thompson, to bring down everyone. Demonstrations and demonstrators being met with armed officers, with police dogs, with water hoses. It was a time when even celebrities were beginning to come in and give their support. It was also a time, and I don't know if I'm getting ahead of the agenda here, with integrating the schools, the school suit that was filed.
MS. JONES: A little ahead.
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: I am ahead? [laughter]
MS. JONES: It’s all right.
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: But I will just quickly say, before I forget, that that was a time we were pulling people together not only to register and to vote, but also to think about what had to be done to integrate the schools. And I know my time is up, but I'm just going to add this. Please, that lawsuit was called Darrell Kenyatta Evers versus the State of Mississippi, with lots of others.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. I say the best of times because there was a spirit there where people didn't care what happened. They were determined to put their lives on the line. They didn't believe that anyone could protect them but themselves. There was little or no expectation of help from the FBI because they were looked upon more as people who were spying than they were helping. It was the best of times because there was a spirit that was unbreakable, and one where almost every person of color came together hand in hand and embraced those that we called white as well. And it was a unifying time. It was a time when electricity was in the air because we knew something was going to happen, something had to break. It was a time when we had an economic boycott throughout the state, but the most successful one being in Jackson, Mississippi and where those people who refused to obey or to take a part in not spending their money -- don’t buy gas where you can’t use the restrooms, or not spending your money at stores as they walked out of the back of the store, and it was always the back of the store.
We developed another tactic, one of taking their names and phone numbers and reading them out aloud in the mass meetings with thousands of people there. You can imagine the number of calls they got. Some still persisted and when they walked out of the stores with their goods, they were taken from them and they never got them back again.
In other words, it was a message that was sent that we mean business. Either you're with us or you aren’t. And if you aren't with us, we’re going ahead with what we have to do and you will pay the consequences.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Myrlie. Now, Prathia, you were there in Mississippi. Were you in Mississippi in January? You were in Selma.
MS. HALL: No, I was in Alabama.
MS. JONES: You were in Selma, but you were with SNCC at the time and SNCC was very active in Mississippi. Matter of fact, there was an assassination in Mississippi in February of 1963. Tell us a little something about your organization at that time and what the strategy was in Mississippi?
MS. HALL: Right. SNCC was active in a number of states across the south. And the philosophy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was to go into a community to find the existing local leadership -- either the active leadership, which may or may not be the standing leadership, may or may not be the public leadership -- to work with those people and to do a job of organizing so that regardless of what happened to individual staff people, the people would have a movement, the people would be strong. And whether staff were assigned to go to another place or whatever happened, the strength of the movement would be there. It was owned by the people who lived there and who had lived with this system all of their lives.
And so it was when Bob Moses and other SNCC workers went into Mississippi that they met with and worked with a farmer by the name of Herbert Lee, who was murdered, and then accused after his murder of having attacked his murderer when actually he was trying to move out of the reach of the murderer. A student, Jimmy Travis, was shot in the neck and it was said that he shot himself to get publicity. Meanwhile, in Selma, there was the state trooper, Al Lingo, the Director of Public Safety, and his troops attended the mass meetings, parked outside, ringed the church with their rifles at alert while Jim Clark, the local sheriff rode around the church on horseback with his posse, or came into the church with the guns and the rifles drawn. In Gaston, Alabama a group of young people were chased across an open field, forced to run across the field barefoot. Of course, there was crushed glass in the field and their feet were scarred and cut. They were chased by Al Lingo and his public safety troopers with cattle prods and they got great delight from poking the cattle prods into the wounds, the cut feet or the groin, a favorite spot for cattle prod brutality.
Meanwhile, I want to say that we kept the telephone line, we not only were using the television, but we kept the telephone lines hot to the Justice Department. So John Doar and Burke Marshall and Nicholas Katzenbach heard from us. And a part of our concern was, as Myrlie said, we did not trust the FBI. We knew that they were investigating us, not our complaints.
And so there was great risk, there was concern for safety. You would have had to have been insane not to have known fear. There were people who refused to participate because of fear, but fear was a rational response. But there was a process during which people learned how to take their fear into their own hands and operate on the basis, use it as a basis of information so that they could predict certain things. But at the same time, they would work through their fears so that people would say things like, “I'm scared. It may cost my job, it may cost my life, but I want to be free. And I want my children to be free, so I'm going down to that courthouse in the morning and I'm going to sign my name, and I'm going to trust God to take me there. And I'm going to trust God to bring me back.” [applause]
MS. JONES: Wonderful. Myrlie, you have …
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: Just one brief thing, it needs to be mentioned. That during mid 1963, or perhaps even from the very beginning of the year, that there was something that could have possibly happened that might have changed things around. Perhaps there's no need to get into that, but I think it’s important to mention that the civil rights groups, SCLC, SNCC, NAACP and others at the local level, at the state level, they were working extremely well together. But at the national level, there was debate as to which organization was going to be the lead organization.
And I remember extremely well when Medgar and King were to meet and that was during the formation of SCLC and Medgar was given orders not to be involved. So at a national level, we had to overcome what was a growing antagonism, one organization toward another. But at the local level where people were putting their lives on the line, I don't think it made any difference as to which group you belonged to. We were all in it together.
MS. HALL: And we would debate fiercely. We would debate with each other fiercely. But you're absolutely right; when the rubber meets the road, we were working together.
MS. JONES: Dorothy, you had a burning point.
MS. COTTON: I just want to say, Prathia, your comments just now reminded me of how much this was a singing movement. When people made the resolve that you just described of working through the fear, then it would always end with a song and so folk would sing, “Gather your dogs because I want my freedom.” And they really would mean it, and singing the song somehow, you reinforced this catharsis, this releasing of the fear and this being bonded together.
MS. JONES: So now, Nick, Burke, and Prathia and Dorothy were telling me they were calling the Justice Department. And you received some of those calls because there were several actions that you took in Mississippi during this period of time. Either Burke or Nick, either one of you tell me about before county and the issues there?
MR. MARSHALL: John Doar, who was just mentioned, and some other lawyers from the civil rights division were constantly in Mississippi during this time. And to the extent they could, they tried to be responsive to the physical danger that especially the SNCC workers were putting themselves into during that period. Bob Moses, who did extraordinary work down there at the time, was constantly in touch with John and with me. And so we did what we could.
Now, it is a very, very difficult matter, or was at that time, still is, the matter of physical security because as also has been mentioned, it can’t be mentioned enough, the Bureau was of no help except in one way, so I’ll qualify that in a minute. But. basically, they were of no help in dealing with the activities of the civil rights groups in Mississippi and Alabama and southwest Georgia and eastern Louisiana and northern Florida, and so forth.
Herbert Lee is a man that I’ve always sort of felt personally responsible for in a way. Herbert Lee was approached by the Bureau, and he wouldn’t talk to the Bureau, about attempting to vote, registering to vote, at the urging of Bob Moses, as I remembered. But he would talk to John Doar and to Bob Owen and some of the other lawyers of the division. And as a consequence of that, he became known by the farmer on whose land he worked, and by other people in that area, as somebody that was going to break the ranks of the black people in that area and register to vote and also testify for the civil rights suits. We had a lot of suits going in Mississippi. They were very, very difficult in that part of Mississippi because of the judge.
And so as a consequence of that, I’ve never had any doubt it was a consequence of that he was murdered. And we went over and over and over that case to try to find a witness that could testify against a white man before a grand jury and was capable of getting at least some response from the all white grand jury that sat in Mississippi at the time so there could be some notice, at least, of Herbert Lee’s murder. That was never possible. I mean, after his murder, of course, nobody would testify. They’d have to be out of their minds to put themselves in a position where they were known to be a witness against a white man for the murder not just of a black man, but of a black man that was going to break the ranks of behaviors that were enforced in Mississippi at the time.
So it was very, very difficult. The Bureau … I’ve said there was one exception. The Bureau, after a while, would sort of show up if we asked them to show up, if we knew there was going to be a demonstration or a public meeting of some sort in Greenwood or Floor County or Hattiesburg in Mississippi. The Bureau would show up and simply their showing up and taking notes, which is an activity that was much derided at the time, but simply that activity at least, I think, caused some restraint on public attacks, of the attacks at night, cross burnings, arson, the secret violence that went on became more and more endemic in Mississippi through 1963 and 1964. They were almost impossible to prevent and very, very difficult to punish in any use of the criminal justice system.
MS. JONES: Thank you. Nick and Jim?
MR. KATZENBACH: What I want to say is a very brief, just to be sure that all of you understand the problem that Burke was talking about. What the Justice Department could do was bring lawsuits, and bringing lawsuits, as you all know, is a matter of evidence, witnesses and time. That was no solution to any of the problems in the south at that time.
What you needed, and what we eventually got as a result of all these things, you needed an approach that massively dealt with discrimination, that massively dealt with voting, not something that was one step at a time with a result after appeals five years later if anybody was still alive from the witness list.
MS. JONES: Jim?
MR. HOOD: I’d just like to have people remember, at least from the perspective of the mindset, that the demonstrators that were involved were not people that we just pulled off the corner. They were college students who were academically in good shape. They understood the issues, they understood the consequences of their actions, and they committed those acts knowing full well what was the likelihood of a problem occurring. So don’t get the impression that the folks out there who were running around demonstrating and picketing were idiots. There was a great deal of time and energy spent behind the scenes preparing for demonstrations. They weren’t just by the seat of your pants. They were well planned, well orchestrated.
And one of those people who sat behind the scenes that many people don’t know about is a guy by the name of Wyatt T. Walker. One of the best civil rights strategists this country has ever known. And Wyatt was behind the scene personally. So I just don’t want you to get the impression that it was all these people doing things up front, and the other folks just kind of floated in. No, those folks were committed, just as committed, as anyone else.
MS. JONES: Now, we do have to give our audience a break. But just before we do that, Dorothy has her hand up and that thought may leave her, she may not have it after the break. So if she takes a minute, we’ll hear it. Dorothy?
MS. COTTON: One of the best kept secrets of the civil rights movement is that we had massive training programs. Andrew Young and I ran a program called the Citizenship Education Program, funded by the Marshall Field Foundation. And for years, we brought 40, 50, 60 people together in a little place called McIntosh, Georgia, doesn’t even exist anymore, it’s now Midway, Georgia, and we would stay together for a five day residential workshop. And these were sometimes folks right off the farm plantation. Fannie Lou Hamey came, eventually the college students that got kicked out of Albany State College came. They were now expelled from college because they were demonstrating. But they spent five days coming to understand the six steps in the nonviolent approach to organizing for change. They came to understand the philosophy of nonviolence. They understood how to analyze their problems and come up with a plan.
This went on for years. Every single month, that was a major training program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. So remember, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the program was started at the Highlander Folk School, actually, and when they attacked that school and shut it down, we inherited that training program. And people came there by the thousands through the eight years that we ran the program. And these people went back to the various states they came from and their hometowns were never the same again, they were trained.
MS. JONES: Thank you, Dorothy.
MS. EVERS-WILLIAMS: They also learned how to fall, how to protect themselves physically.
MS. COTTON: Understand the Constitution.
MS. JONES: All right. Thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, now we are moving toward with a full state spirit of revolt. I mean, it’s a nationwide phenomenon. When you come back, we have an hour and ten minutes to cover it all. So take this ten minute break and come back at ten minutes of. Thank you very much.
END OF SESSION 1