Eyes on Racism, Part 3

George C. Wallace
George C. Wallace.

Eyes on Racism, Part 3 (Konch, Winter 2008)

“It really shook me and the people of Alabama.” – Governor George C. Wallace

Eyes on the Prize producers were especially eager to talk to George Wallace (1919-98), the most famous opponent of the civil rights movement. During Wallace’s first three years in office (1963-65), Alabama became the site of some of the most dramatic battles over civil rights: the Birmingham demonstrations, the integration of the University of Alabama, and the Selma campaign. It took months for Callie Crossley to get Wallace to agree to an interview. After many rebuffs, she got in touch with one of the governor’s fundraisers, and it was that contact who finally persuaded Wallace to go on camera.

Crossley broke with the production team’s usual practice of letting the episode’s white producer (in this case, DeVinney) talk to old segregationists. She did that because she had worked so hard to set up the interview and was determined to conduct it herself.[1]

The interview took place in the state capitol building, and Wallace was clearly enfeebled by the 1972 assassination attempt that had left him partially paralyzed. In fact, the governor’s poor health would lead him to announce his retirement less than a month after his interview with Crossley. Wallace also suffered from severe hearing loss, which required the producer to shout her questions.

Crossley began by asking the governor to describe segregation in the pre-Brown South. He replied that “it was not an antagonism towards black people, and that’s what some people can’t understand.”[2] In Alabama, he explained, “white and black have been together for so many years that their problems are small compared to some of the other parts of our country.” Crossley replied “Okay” in a low, disbelieving voice and moved quickly to Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address. In a scenario repeated throughout the discussion, Wallace tried to cut short questions about the most offensive aspects of his record.

Crossley: You’ve heard the famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” . . .

 Wallace: (Interrupting) Yes, uh . . .

Crossley: Now let me ask the question.

The producer wanted to know if the governor intended his speech to be an act of defiance against federal law. Wallace acknowledged that he was wrong to say those words: “I shouldn’t have made any such statement as that, frankly, because I knew even myself that [segregation] was not going to last forever and it shouldn’t last forever.”

The governor then brought up his “stand in the schoolhouse door” opposing the integration of the University of Alabama in June 1963. He defended that action by noting that his confrontation with federal authorities ended without violence, unlike the integration of the University of Mississippi the previous year. In Mississippi, segregationist rioters killed two and injured dozens.

Wallace blamed the unrest in Mississippi on troublemakers from outside the South: “What the good people of Mississippi did not anticipate [was] all these folks from all over the country, all these hate groups in [the] Nazi Party, et cetera, coming to that city and almost destroying that great university.” In Alabama, on the other hand, his police “arrested a bunch of those kind of folks from California.”

The governor noted that he made a televised address during the integration dispute, in which he told all unauthorized persons to steer clear of the university campus. Wallace boasted to Crossley that after his speech, “even the Ku Klux Klan leader got up and said, ‘Governor Wallace says, “Stay away.” He’s gonna raise the constitutional question for all the people of Alabama.’”

Though it was not widely known at the time of the interview, keeping the KKK in line was easier for Wallace than he let on. The Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, was a close, secret Wallace advisor who received a salary from the state highway commission.[3] But the governor’s most remarkable assertion about the integration of the university was his claim that the entire dispute was a matter of timing. “We were going to integrate [the university] the next year anyway,” he explained. “We wanted to set the timetable, and we were very upset at the federal government trying to set the timetable . . . They said, ‘No, you integrate this year.’”

Crossley moved on to some questions about Birmingham, and Wallace brought up the Klan’s bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, in which four young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) died and 20 other churchgoers were injured:

The church bomb was, I said the man who—people who—did that ought to burn the bottom of the electric chair out. It really, it really [sic] shook me and the people of Alabama for somebody to have done what they did in that regards [sic].

In 1963, Wallace’s remarks had been quite different: “I deplore violence. But who started all this violence? There’s [sic] a lot of agitators and the Communist Party mixed up in this picture.”[4]

The governor’s 1986 tough talk on the bombers is also belied by the fact that in 1963 his state police undermined the investigations by the FBI and the Birmingham police, elements of which were evidently serious about catching the culprits. With great fanfare, state police officers arrested five suspects in the case, including Robert Chambliss, who would in 1977 be convicted of murder for the bombing. But in 1963, prosecutors did not bring any charges other than possession of an illegal quantity of dynamite—a misdemeanor. The three suspects who were convicted received $100 fines and suspended sentences. Their convictions were later overturned on appeal, but the arrests achieved two goals for Wallace: he gave the impression that he was actively pursuing the case, and the FBI and local police investigations were undermined.[5]

Wallace’s handpicked director of state police, Colonel Al Lingo, worked closely with the KKK in orchestrating the show arrests. According to a Birmingham police memorandum from that time, Lingo held a meeting in his Birmingham motel room on the night that his officers arrested the bombing suspects. Present were Wade Wallace, a relative of the governor, and a number of Klan leaders, including Robert Shelton. The same report specifies that Chambliss was arrested “in a joint operation” by a state investigator and a KKK representative who had been present at Lingo’s meeting.[6]

Chambliss and the other leading suspects in the case were members of the Cahaba River Boys, a select Klan “action group” with ties to Shelton and his Birmingham Klan chapter, Klavern 13.[7] It is unknown whether Wallace ever asked his advisor Robert Shelton about the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, but Shelton continued to serve as an advisor to the governor for a number of years thereafter.[8] During Wallace’s four gubernatorial terms, no one ever did “burn the bottom of the electric chair out” for killing those four girls, and only one of the bombers, Chambliss, went to prison.[9]

The day after the church bombing, Dr. King put the matter bluntly:

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

In the interview, Crossley was equally direct: “Martin Luther King said at that time that he felt—he blamed you for [the bombing]. He said you were responsible for that because of your words, and what you said had created an atmosphere.”[10] Wallace interrupted and his voice became much more agitated and angry: “Now listen, you know, you all come to me, but who is it I spoke like? I spoke like Lyndon Johnson spoke . . . [Senator J. William] Fulbright of Arkansas spoke the same way.” After listing other politicians who voted against civil rights legislation, Wallace came to the point:

I have never made any statement that offended black people, unless I said in those days I was for segregation. I never made any statement about inferiority or anything [of] that sort. I don’t believe that. I was born and raised among black people and they’re my friends.

Wallace then brought up the fact that black voters had supported him in the 1982 general election (when his opponent was Republican Emory Folmar, who was considered by many to be a representative of the extreme right). He argued that “if I had said anything that as [sic] the eastern press said I had . . . no self-respecting black would ever have voted for me.” Crossley tried to turn the conversation back to 1963.

Crossley: I think what [King] meant by that was, not you personally, but in the manner in which you spoke led other people sometimes to interpret that in a violent way, because they . . .

Wallace: (Interrupting) I spoke my—vehemently against the federal government, not against people . . . I never expressed in my language that [sic] would upset anyone about a person’s race. I talked about the Supreme Court[’s] usurpation of power. I talked about the big central government. Isn’t that what everybody talks about now? Isn’t that what Reagan got elected on?

Of course, overt racism had been a staple of many of Wallace’s 1960s speeches. In 1964 for instance, he told an audience at Harvard that African Americans were unfit for higher education because they were “easygoing, basically happy, unambitious, incapable of much learning.”

The main writer of that speech, and also of Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address, was Asa Carter, the leader of an Alabama Klan group known for unparalleled brutality. Carter’s followers participated in a riot that ended the first attempt to integrate the University in Alabama in 1956, and they were also responsible for a series of attacks on the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham civil rights leader, and his wife.[11] In 1957, six members of Carter’s group kidnapped and castrated a black man[12] in an initiation rite.[13] The victim survived, and in 1960, an Alabama court convicted four of the perpetrators and sentenced them to 20 years in prison.

In June 1963, just three months before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Wallace made his first appointment to the parole board. Two weeks later, in an act of extraordinary leniency, that panel reversed its 1960 decision and waived the requirement that the four men serve one-third of their terms before becoming eligible to apply for parole. [14] (Except for one who died in prison, all the convicts in the case ultimately received early parole in 1965.)[15] Coupled with Wallace’s close relationship with Shelton, the board’s decision to hold early parole hearings in the castration case was precisely the sort of signal that led Klansmen to believe that they had carte blanche to carry out acts of terror.

Perhaps for that reason, Wallace was eager to turn the discussion away from the topic of the Birmingham bombing. He stayed on the offensive when Crossley tried to break in and his voice took on a desperate tone. Wallace again brought up the fact that Lyndon Johnson had been a segregationist while in Congress, before becoming an effective sponsor of civil rights legislation as president.

Wallace: You see, you keep coming back to me, but Lyndon Johnson has filibustered and talked more against civil rights bills than I ever did in my whole, entire life.

Crossley: Let’s . . .

Wallace: (Almost shouting) Yet you rehabilitated him. You rehabilitated Fulbright. You rehabilitated, rehabilitated [sic] all these other distinguished, fine Americans [who] had no hatred in their heart[s] for any man because of color. But you won’t rehabilitate me.

Crossley: I will, governor [laughs].

In this exchange, Wallace closely resembled his old campaign persona. He became more animated, poking the air with his index finger, and his voice took on a more rhythmic, oratorical cadence. Just before delivering the climactic line, “But you won’t rehabilitate me,” he flashed his trademark sneer. And he wasn’t finished.

Wallace: I can—listen—tell you this and you must put this on your program. I—do you have a [sic] honorary degree from Tuskegee Institute?

Crossley: No sir, I don’t.

Wallace: I have an honorary degree from the—from Tuskegee Institute, and that’s the most renowned Negro college in [pause] black college, if you want to say it, in the world.

Crossley proceeded to Selma. She asked if black citizens were “freely able to vote” in 1965 Alabama and Wallace responded: “Oh yes. Black people were allowed to vote, except they had, you know, you had to be able to read and write your name.” He did concede, however, that “there were some discriminatory measures passed by other folks regarding voting, not by myself.” Discussing the Selma marches, Wallace made the two statements that appeared in the episode. The first pertained to Bloody Sunday:

It was something that happened that, that [sic] enraged me because I didn’t intend for it to happen that way. [Cut] But I didn’t want them to get beyond that point where there was [sic] some people that told me there might be some violence.

The second dealt with Wallace’s request that President Johnson take over responsibility for protecting the march to Montgomery:

We got a report—how much it would take to guarantee absolute protection for everyone—and we didn’t have the resources. So I called on President Johnson in Article Four, Section Four of the Constitution to send us troops to help maintain order.

Wallace’s claim that he halted the march out of concern for the demonstrators’ safety differs sharply from the reason he gave at a meeting with state legislators back in 1965: “I’m not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.”[16]

Likewise, most of the evidence indicates that Wallace had approved the tactics employed by his troopers that day. After Bloody Sunday, New York Times reporter John Herbers cited “a reliable source” who said that the decision to use clubs and tear gas against the demonstrators had been worked out in a meeting in the governor’s office. The same article quoted Selma mayor Joe Smitherman as claiming that the troopers’ actions were “in complete accord” with Wallace’s instructions.[17] A federal court later ruled that Wallace was responsible for the Bloody Sunday attack and that the “general plan as followed by the State troopers in this instance had been discussed with and was known to Governor Wallace.”[18]

It appears that Wallace did attempt to keep the two most violent lawmen—Jim Clark and Al Lingo—away from the scene, which suggests some desire to moderate police tactics.[19] Even so, it was ridiculous for the governor to claim to have been shocked by what his men did, since brutal assaults on black demonstrators, or African Americans who just happened to be nearby, had been a constant feature of his troopers’ modus operandi. That is especially true in this case, given that the march itself was a protest against a police riot by state troopers in Marion, Alabama, during which one of Wallace’s officers shot and killed a black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson. That story appeared in the episode and, combined with a great deal of violent footage from Bloody Sunday, it made the governor’s excuses sound all the more feeble.

Reverting once again to 1960s form, Wallace complained that the northern press overplayed the Selma story. He presented himself as a courageous underdog who stood up to snobby northern reporters:

It’s always been that way about the South . . . we have been a nation of rednecks and low-brows, and I stood on my own on Meet the Press and Face the Nation, Issues and Answers with the toughest folks that [have] been on television. They think they’re smarter than anybody else.

It was a familiar boast, but on this occasion, he included African Americans in the equation and gave the story a happy, Sun Belt ending:

I’m proud of the fact that I’m a southerner. I think if you look at what happened to us after the War Between the States, with no Marshall aid or Lend-Lease . . . that the black and the white people both suffered, but they all joined together and hung on until now we are part of the Sun Belt . . . [the] envy of the free world.

When Crossley turned the conversation back to Selma, Wallace nearly shouted that he had told Major Cloud to “do nothing that would stir up any trouble there. Just don’t let anybody attempt to hurt anyone.” An estimated 50-100 marchers required treatment for various injuries and/or tear-gas inhalation,[20] but Wallace told Crossley that “not a single person was harmed to the extent of having to be going to the hospital. There was no violence, beatin’ people down.”[21] Wallace’s plaintive tone distinguished his account of Bloody Sunday from Jim Clark’s. The two men’s remarks about that event were equally deceptive, but while Clark made his claims with brazen smugness, Wallace spoke with an urgency that suggested a man desperately trying to make his statements true.

An exchange near the end of the discussion encapsulates the governor’s representation of his past. He and Crossley had been talking about the changes the South had undergone in Wallace’s time.

Crossley: This is a change for the better?

Wallace: Oh, it’s certainly for the better. I recognized it was going to be for the better after the first year I was governor. I did object to some of the ways they wanted to artificially go about it by busing people back and forth, which was opposed by black and white alike. I’m still proud that I have an honorary doctorate in [sic] Tuskegee Institute, the most renowned college of—predominant[ly] black college in the world.

Crossley had expected Wallace to try to exculpate himself but was “shocked from the very first question” by his outlandish answers. “You have to be able to acknowledge what was clearly on the tape,” she says with a laugh. Was Crossley angered by Wallace’s sarcastic question about whether she had an honorary degree from Tuskegee? “The only emotion I had was frustration,” she explains. “I couldn’t break down the wall he had effectively built.” Crossley contrasts Wallace’s interview with Jim Clark’s, pointing out that while Clark lied repeatedly, he at least gave an honest account of his views on African Americans and the civil rights movement. “Jim Clark was very clear about how he felt. I appreciate that,” she said.[22] Wallace, on the other hand, had evidently concluded that his honorary degree from Tuskegee and electoral support from black voters had erased his previous offenses. He seemed genuinely perplexed that anyone would dwell on his racist actions and that even his political heir in the White House would want to conceal his debt to him.

It is now commonplace to see George Wallace as a man whose wounds caused him to reflect on and regret his past misdeeds. Today, images of the attempt on Wallace’s life, or of the wheelchair-bound candidate greeting black voters, appear as often as footage of the stand in the schoolhouse door. Likewise, John Frankenheimer’s 1997 made-for-television movie, George Wallace, ends with a scene of reconciliation at Dr. King’s old church in 1979, in which Wallace apologizes for his past actions—something that did not occur during the governor’s real-life visit to the church.[23] The man who appeared before Eyes on the Prize cameras was the real George Wallace, a man who showed more emotion when complaining about his damaged reputation than when discussing the horrific events of 1960s Alabama. Wallace’s performance overwhelms any sympathy the viewer might feel for him because of his infirmities and it puts a new light on claims that he felt remorse for his actions.

The series

It is easy to wish that Blackside producers had been more aggressive when questioning southern politicians. Reviewing a transcript of her conversation with Jim Clark, Prudence Arndt had a similar feeling. “I think I was too easy on him,” she says.[24] However, that sentiment must be balanced against Callie Crossley and James DeVinney’s enthusiastic reaction when they saw the interview footage and realized that Clark’s cold, unrepentant words made the perfect narration for one of the most dramatic scenes of the civil rights movement.[25] The producers’ non-confrontational approach persuaded a remarkable number of old segregationists to go on camera and speak bluntly.

Likewise, DeVinney points out that one reason Hampton and his staff rejected a more 60 Minutes-style approach was because they knew that countering each segregationist lie would require a great deal of stock footage and screen time. They feared that such an approach would marginalize the stories of movement activists.[26] Crossley adds that one reason why she let Wallace say all he wanted was because she knew that the entire interview would be available some day, and she did not want to give him cause to end it prematurely.[27] In that sense, the makers of the first Eyes on the Prize series self-consciously created a study of the 1980s as well as the period between Brown and the Voting Rights Act.

Viewed from that long perspective, these interviews belie sharp distinctions between the Old South and the New. Pritchett and Wallace successfully negotiated the post-segregation political world without ever facing their pasts. Clark is the odd one out. He neither hedged his bets, as Pritchett did, nor rose high enough to build a strong statewide or nationwide political base, as Wallace did. And he held office in a county where African Americans made up about half the population. These interviews vividly show the easy transition from “segregation forever” to the more subtle form of racist politics that followed the civil rights gains of the 1960s. After the segregationists retired, the game became still easier for new race-baiters like Trent Lott, whose careers started too late to include a stand in the schoolhouse door—or a punch on the courthouse steps.

[1] Crossley, interview.

[2] All references to George C. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview refer to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320456, Container numbers: 26616, 26617) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 001142, Container numbers: 11309, 27516). Interview conducted by Callie Crossley, March 10, 1986.

[3] Carter, Politics of rage, 300.

[4] Time staff, “Where the Stars Fall,” Time, September 27, 1963, 17.

[5] Carter, Politics of rage, 189-92.

[6] A photocopy of the document appears in Elizabeth H. Cobbs / Petric J. Smith, Long time coming: an insider’s story of the Birmingham church bombing that rocked the world (Birmingham, Alabama: Crane Hill Publishers, 1994), 203. See also McWhorter, Carry me home, 547-551.

[7] Cobbs / Smith, Long time coming, 90.

[8] Carter, Politics of rage, 281, 342.

[9] Ibid., 139, 188-193, 300.

[10] A film clip of Dr. King’s quote appeared in George Wallace: Settin’ the woods on fire, Part 1 of 2 (The American Experience series, Public Broadcasting Service, 2000).

[11] Carter, Politics of rage, 107; Stephen Lesher, George Wallace: American Populist (Reading, Mass.: William Patrick, 1994), 263.

[12] The victim of the attack subsequently moved away from Alabama and avoided media appearances. Due to his apparent wish to avoid public attention, and the social stigma that accompanies someone who has suffered such injuries, I decided not to state the man’s name.

[13] Marshall Frady, Wallace (New York and Cleveland: Meridian Books, World Publishing Company, 1968), 173, 148; Dan T. Carter comment appearing in George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, Episode 1 of 2.

[14] William Bradford Huie, Three lives for Mississippi (New York: WCC Books, 1965), 12-21.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stephen L. Longenecker, Selma’s peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and civil rights mediation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 173; Carter, Politics of rage, 247.

[17] John Herbers, “Selma’s Moderate Police Give Way to Troopers,” New York Times, March 9, 1965, 23.

[18] In his ruling, Judge Frank Johnson also said that Lingo and Clark were “acting under instructions from Governor Wallace.” Quoted in Garrow, Protest at Selma, 111-12.

[19] In his Eyes on the Prize interview, Wallace claimed that he had explicitly ordered Lingo not to go to Selma that day. Charles Fager corroborates that account in his book on Selma, writing that a few hours before the incident on the bridge, Major John Cloud of the state troopers and Dallas County Deputy Sheriff L.C. Crocker had told Wilson Baker that Lingo was going to pick up Clark at Montgomery airport when the sheriff returned from an appearance on a television news show in Washington, D.C. They also said that Lingo was supposed to “keep [Clark] busy until the whole thing was over,” which of course would have meant keeping Lingo away as well. But Lingo ignored Wallace’s orders, going to Selma anyway and sending a car to bring Clark. Clark arrived just as the march was reaching the bridge. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview; Fager, Selma, 1965, 91. See also the interview with Wilson Baker in Raines, My Soul is Rested, 201-03.

[20] In the New York Times, Roy Reed wrote that 17 marchers received treatment for various injuries and that 40 required treatment for inhalation of tear gas. Later, Time Magazine placed the number of marchers who were hospitalized at 78, Newsweek reported that 17 demonstrators were hospitalized for “fractures and other serious injuries,” while “70 more were treated for cuts, bruises, and tear-gas after-effects.” Surveying contemporary accounts in his 1978 book, scholar David Garrow wrote: “Estimates of the total number of injured ran as high as ninety to one hundred.” Roy Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes,” New York Times, March 8, 1965, 1; Time staff, “Civil Rights: The Central Point,” Time, March 19, 1965, 24; Newsweek staff, “An American Tragedy,” Newsweek, March 22, 1965, 18-19; Garrow, Protest at Selma, 76.

[21] Wallace repeated that claim almost verbatim in an interview with his official biographer in 1990. Lesher, George Wallace, 347, 549, n 99.

[22] Crossley, interview.

[23] Carter, Politics of rage, 462-63, 467-68.

[24] Arndt, telephone interview with the author, June 15, 2004.

[25] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Crossley, interview.

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Eyes on Racism, Part 1

Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia
Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia, 1962.

In 2004, when I was working part-time at Washington University Film & Media Archive, I researched and wrote a piece on the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. The materials that went into the making of the program are housed at the archive. At the time, those items had not been studied by researchers. I decided to write about the Eyes producers’ dramatic interviews with three segregation-era officials: Chief Laurie Pritchett, Sheriff Jim Clark, and Governor George C. Wallace.

I had studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of resistance to integration. Also, my parents had been supporters of George Wallace, so I had insight into the appeal that he held for too many Americans.

I submitted the article relentlessly, from the Atlantic to the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. No one was interested. Finally, I hit upon the idea of sending the piece to Konch, where it was accepted and appeared in the Winter 2008 issue. I noticed the article was no longer available online, so I decided to re-post it in three parts.

Eyes on Racism, Part 1 (Konch, Winter 2008)

On March 10, 1986, Callie Crossley, a producer of the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary, took her film crew to Montgomery, Alabama to interview Governor George C. Wallace. Once the nation’s leading opponent of integration, Wallace had won a fourth term as governor in 1982 due to the support of 90% of the state’s black voters.[1] Crossley, who is African American, asked Wallace some of the most pointed questions he ever faced on camera, and she was keenly aware of the symbolism inherent in their meeting. “I felt very connected to all the people that he’d had a thumb on,” she recalls.[2]

Interviews with segregationists played a large role in the making of Eyes on the Prize, which first aired on public television in 1987 and has become one of the most celebrated documentaries. The series garnered numerous honors, including a Peabody Award for the initial six-episode broadcast, which dealt with events from the 1954 Brown desegregation ruling to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.[3] A theatrical release of the documentary received an Academy Award nomination.

The program offered an unflinching look at the struggle against segregation and included accounts from previously unheralded activists, such as Unita Blackwell of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Fred Leonard of the 1961 Freedom Rides. Another veteran of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond, served as narrator. The first Eyes series also included many clips from producers’ interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, but obtaining those interviews often proved a difficult task. Old segregationists were likely to view any documentary on civil rights with hostility and racial and geographic differences exacerbated the problem. Henry Hampton, executive producer of the series, was African-American and his production company was based in Boston. However, each of Hampton’s production teams included a producer who was white. (In order to incorporate different views into the filmmaking process, Hampton appointed teams headed by two producers, making sure that one was black and one white, that one was a man and one a woman.)[4]

Callie Crossley’s interview with George Wallace was the exception: ordinarily, it was the episode’s white producer who interviewed southern officials. All-white camera crews were also standard practice in such cases.[5] Even so, the name of Hampton’s production company (Blackside) posed a problem when corresponding with racist politicians. Producer James A. DeVinney says that in such cases, he preferred to use the address of WGBH-Boston, the public television station for which Blackside made the series, rather than the production company’s own address.[6]

The Eyes team’s correspondence with former Alabama governor John Patterson shows how hard Blackside staff worked to obtain interviews with enemies of the civil rights movement. Patterson had good reason to decline to answer questions about his tenure as governor. He had won that office in 1958 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1961 he had refused to protect the Freedom Riders from mob violence. The ex-governor rejected an initial interview request, but associate producer Prudence Arndt wrote Patterson again, promising a non-confrontational approach:

We have no intention of recreating any tired images of Southern politicians as one-dimensional characters. This would serve neither history nor journalism . . . Our interviews are neither “live,” i.e. we can stop the cameras whenever necessary, nor adversarial (as in “60 Minutes”).[7]

In addition to Governors Patterson and Wallace, Eyes on the Prize producers succeeded in gaining the participation of a number of southern mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, and leaders of the White Citizens’ Councils. Only small clips of any interview appeared in the final program, while the raw footage in each case often ran 30 minutes or more. The complete interviews remained in Hampton’s possession until his death in 1998. Hampton’s trustees donated his archive to Washington University in St. Louis. The donation included all film and audio from Blackside’s various documentaries,[8] along with staffers’ research notes and other written records.

An implicit element of confrontation makes the interviews with enemies of the movement especially interesting. More importantly, these discussions are barometers of change. How had these men’s attitudes evolved in the 20+ years since the struggles over integration? How did their accounts of their actions compare to the facts, and what did they hope to gain by going on record again? James DeVinney points out that Blackside producers made a point of trying to keep discussion focused on events that took place within the scope of the series,[9] but the idea of the New South—a mix of “Sun Belt” economic growth, the rise of more moderate southern politicians in the 1970s, and attempts at racial reconciliation in cities like Atlanta—hangs over these conversations.

Ronald Reagan’s two electoral victories cast a long shadow in a different direction. As historians such as Dan T. Carter have pointed out, Reagan not only opposed all major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, but he also built his presidency on the foundation laid by George Wallace’s campaigns. Much of Reagan’s language on race and civil rights was derived from Wallace, especially the longtime segregationist rallying cry of “states’ rights” and his deceptive, racially charged stories about “welfare queens.”[10] During his first term as president, Reagan opposed the Martin Luther King holiday bill and also tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act before finally giving in to Congress on both issues.[11] Work on Eyes on the Prize proceeded in 1985-86 amid fresh reminders that resistance to the civil rights movement was not merely a historical issue.

Of the interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, three stand out because of the subjects’ different roles during and after the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Given his high profile, George Wallace is an obvious choice. As police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett blocked Martin Luther King’s efforts to desegregate that city in 1961-62, but later became chief in High Point, North Carolina, where he integrated the police force. Jim Clark, the one-time sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, led the opposition to the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign and saw his political career end when he was defeated for re-election the following year.

“It sort of surprised Dr. King.” – Chief Laurie Pritchett

In 1961, before the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, civil rights activists attempted to use nonviolent direct action to integrate Albany, Georgia. Led by Charles Sherrod, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated the effort, joining with local black community leaders such as Dr. William G. Anderson to form the Albany movement. In December 1961, Anderson persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Albany. King was arrested while leading a demonstration and thereafter he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became fully committed to the campaign. Enforcing the city’s segregation laws was the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett.

Under Pritchett, Albany police showed more restraint than other southern lawmen when dealing with demonstrators, though there were numerous reports that Pritchett’s officers committed off-camera violence against protesters.[12] In July 1962, a local court convicted Dr. King and his chief lieutenant, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, of disturbing the peace. The two refused to pay their fines and each received a 45-day jail sentence. Two days later, some local businessmen paid King and Abernathy’s fines secretly and Chief Pritchett released the ministers against their will.[13] A week later, the city secured a federal injunction against further demonstrations, but a higher court quickly vacated that ruling pending further hearings. King and Abernathy led another demonstration and were again arrested and jailed, along with 26 others.[14] In early August, the two leaders were released from jail again, this time because the judge suspended their sentences.[15]

Chief Pritchett’s low-key brand of law enforcement prevented any televised incidents that might have galvanized national support for the campaign. With the demonstrations losing numbers and momentum, Dr. Anderson announced that the Albany movement would henceforth emphasize voter-registration rather than direct action. King and the other SCLC leaders left the Albany campaign soon thereafter.[16] SNCC continued local protests, but on a smaller scale than before.[17] Integration proceeded gradually, assisted by a new round of federal court orders. In the national press, however, the story was simply that King had failed to desegregate Albany.[18]

In 1966, Laurie Pritchett left Georgia to become chief of police in High Point, North Carolina and presided over the integration of that city’s police force. He retired in 1974, amid allegations that he allowed illegal gambling. However, a subsequent investigation failed to substantiate those charges.[19] Pritchett died in 2000, but at the time of his Eyes on the Prize interview in 1985, he was living in High Point. James A. DeVinney (who is white) was the producer who questioned the former police chief, and the resulting episode (Episode 4: “No Easy Walk”) paired the Albany story with an account of the movement’s successful 1963 desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

The show’s Albany segment featured three selections from Pritchett’s interview. In the first two clips, the old chief explained how he responded to a tip from federal authorities that Dr. King would soon be arriving in town:

I did research. I found his method was nonviolence, that his method was to fill the jails—same as Gandhi in India. And once they filled the jails, we’d have no capacity to arrest and then we’d have to give in to his demands.

I had set [sic] down and took a map and went, fifteen miles, how many jails was [sic] in a fifteen-mile radius? How many was in a twenty-mile radius? On up to maybe a 50- or 60-mile radius. And I contacted those authorities. They’d assured us that we could use their facilities, and we had, when the mass arrests started, we’d have marches and there’d be 200, 300—at one time there, I think we had almost 2,000—but none in our jail.

The third clip addressed Pritchett’s tactic of releasing King and Abernathy.

Pritchett: I knew that if [Dr. King] stayed in jail, we’d continue to have problems, so I talked to some people. I said: “We’ve got to get him out, and once we do, I think he’ll leave here.” An arrangement was made. Frankly, I don’t know who the man was that paid the bond [i.e., the fine].

DeVinney: But it was done at your request?

Pritchett: Yes, it was done at my request, and it sort of surprised Dr. King. This is one time that I—the only time I’ve ever seen when he seemed where he didn’t know which way to go.[20]

On camera, Pritchett appeared relaxed and cordial. James DeVinney was taken aback by the ex-chief’s genial demeanor. “I had to sit there and keep looking at my notes,” he remarks. One of the main subjects in DeVinney’s notes was Pritchett’s claim that he employed nonviolent tactics. Sheriff’s officers in the surrounding county jails beat a number of Albany demonstrators so badly that they required hospitalization.[21] Likewise, in an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Albany SNCC-leader Charles Sherrod reported that he had been “slapped nearly unconscious” by a deputy at the jail where Pritchett sent him, and he poured scorn on the chief’s reputation as a moderate lawman:

Some people say Chief Pritchett was nonviolent. How could a man be nonviolent who observed people being beaten with billy clubs? One young lady was dragged up the steps of the courthouse . . . by her hair. Another man, Reverend Samuel Wells, was dragged into the courtroom by his gonads . . . I just don’t understand how they could come up with this, but it has been the case.[22]

In his Eyes interview, William Anderson offered a more favorable view of Pritchett, saying that “most of us who got to know him closely . . . got the impression that he was a sensitive man.”[23]

Talking to DeVinney,[24] Pritchett inadvertently bolstered Sherrod’s case when he said that he developed his program of police nonviolence after he found out that Dr. King was coming to town:

After learning this [King’s nonviolent strategy] and studying this research, I started orientation of the police department into nonviolent movement [sic]: no violence, no dogs, no show of force, even took up some of the training the SNCCs originated there, like sitting at the counter and being slapped, spit upon.

DeVinney drew out the implications of Pritchett’s statement.

DeVinney: You trained your officers in the nonviolent technique when you knew King was arriving. Does that imply violence in—within the police department before that?

Pritchett: Oh, no . . . We would not have any force, that didn’t mean that we used force on the police department. It was just a method of showing them that if they were arrestin’ somebody, encountered with somebody, and if they were spit upon, they would not lose their cool, so to speak.

When pressed once more about the charge that there was police violence during the Albany movement, Pritchett replied that he did remember one instance, an attack on a local activist. “Camilla, Slater King’s wife,[25] went down [to a jail in a nearby county] and while she was outside the fence—she was pregnant at the time—one of the deputy sheriffs of that county did kick her. It was an unfortunate thing that happened.” Pritchett added that when he heard about the attack, he apologized to the victim and her husband. However, he did not tell DeVinney that Camilla King lost her baby as a result of the assault.

The final cut of the episode did not mention that incident or Charles Sherrod’s blunt account of abuse, the latter of which appeared in Blackside’s published volume of interview excerpts,[26] but DeVinney and Callie Crossley (the other producer of that episode) undercut Pritchett’s claims in other ways. The final program included stock footage that showed the horrendous conditions in the jails, and in one piece of film, Dr. King stood outside a jail and talked to civil rights activists being held inside. The prisoners told King that guards had crammed 69 of them into a cell designed to hold 10.

Despite his zealous opposition to the Albany movement, Pritchett repeatedly told DeVinney that he was not a segregationist, merely a conscientious law enforcement officer:

I did not disagree with [King’s] motives or his objectives—it was his method. I believed in the courts; he believed in the streets. So I’ve never been classified as a segregationist, and not as a [sic] integrationist. I was [an] administrator of . . . Albany Police Department.

It was a convenient distinction, but it was belied by the fact that, after the Albany campaign, Pritchett repeatedly went to Birmingham to advise Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor on how to defeat SCLC.[27] Likewise, the more Pritchett bragged about his measures to keep the city council from having to give in to the demonstrators, the more he undercut his claims of neutrality. Regarding the release of King and Abernathy, he remarked:

After it was all over, we discussed this, and [King] told me, he said, “This is one time, not only did you out [non-]violent me, but this is one time you outsmarted me” . . . It was a shrewd move, but it accomplished what we wanted to do.

During the interview, Pritchett also allotted himself a larger role in the battle against the movement than he had claimed in previous years. The ex-chief’s remark that it was his idea to pay King and Abernathy’s fines differed from the account he gave an interviewer a decade earlier: “I was not instrumental    . . . I sat and observed.”[28] While boasting to DeVinney, Pritchett claimed that he “never did look upon [King’s departure] as a win or loss,” but his other remarks made that one ring hollow. When the producer asked why there was so much resistance to integration in Albany, the ex-chief slipped even further back into his old role as a segregationist official:

We didn’t—when I say “we,” myself and the city council, and the mayor—did not want to be forced into doing something by force, intimidation. And this is, in one sense, is [sic] what it was. We were intimidated; we were threatened

That clip was the only other part of the interview to appear in the series: producers used it in the “teaser” at the beginning of the episode.

Pritchett’s portrayal of Albany resembled his depiction of his own actions. The chief was eager to show that the town was a progressive urban area and to distinguish events there from the worst of southern resistance to integration. He offered an interesting twist on the old southernism about “outside agitators,” drawing a sharp line between the sophisticated white inhabitants of Albany and white troublemakers from more rural areas. When DeVinney raised the issue of the Ku Klux Klan, Pritchett noted that he had banned Klan meetings within city limits, leading that group to hold its anti-integration rally some 500 feet outside town boundaries.

When Pritchett told how he warned Klan-leader Robert Shelton to stay out of Albany, his voice became more emphatic than at any other point during the interview: “[I] told him, ‘You cannot come in this town.’” Summing up that episode, he said: “we did not enforce the law one-sided. We enforced it, we tried to equally keep the whites and the, and so to speak, the rednecks down.” The former chief pushed his assertions about Albany’s urbanity to bizarre lengths, even trying to deny that the town’s politicians were segregationists: “It wasn’t that the city officials of Albany were segregationists. We had a Catholic mayor; we had a Jewish judge . . . We were a metropolitan city, so to speak.”

Pritchett preferred to see the integration battles in Albany as a genteel affair, and accordingly, he had words of high praise for Dr. King, calling him a “great man” and remarking that “one thing that I regret about all of this is Dr. King was killed in Memphis. He did not fulfill or see the fulfillment of his dream.” Of course, such comments were rare among southern officials from that era, and they prompted the interviewer to ask some unusual questions. During a discussion about the freedom songs that came out of the Albany campaign (Pritchett said that he owned an album of them), DeVinney impishly asked the former chief to sing one of them, intending to cut that clip together with footage of one of the Freedom Singers performing the same song. Pritchett would not play along and today DeVinney says, “That was a cute idea that probably deserved not to work.”[29]

Pritchett differed enough from other southern lawmen to make a favorable impression on some of his opponents. SCLC’s Reverend Andrew Young wrote that during his visits to see Dr. King in Albany jail, the chief often expressed misgivings about his role in enforcing segregation and “apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong in the eyes of God.” A few years later, when Pritchett applied for the job in High Point, Young recommended him to black community leaders there.[30] During his Eyes interview in Atlanta, William Anderson heard from DeVinney that Pritchett was also in town to be filmed. Anderson came back later to see the ex-chief. The two men hugged and went out to dinner, along with their wives. “I thought, this is just getting too weird for me,” DeVinney remembers.[31]

Among opponents of the movement, Pritchett was the most eager to appear in the series and clearly wanted publicity. “Laurie Pritchett was thrilled to be interviewed. He couldn’t wait,” remarks Callie Crossley.[32] Pritchett’s Eyes on the Prize appearance allowed him to achieve the share of fame that he wanted. The program showed how the chief’s tactics succeeded in thwarting the desegregation campaign. Also, Pritchett came off as morally superior to his Birmingham counterpart, the uncontrollably violent Bull Connor—even if the episode did cast doubt on the Albany lawman’s claims about his methods.

Pritchett’s attempt to blame Albany’s racism on rural outsiders did not fare so well. The episode did not include the “redneck” quote, but it did highlight the chief’s hand-in-glove relationship with the virulently racist rural sheriffs who housed his prisoners. Pritchett also failed to settle the contradiction between his professions of regard for Dr. King and his pride in blocking the civil rights leader’s campaign. His closing remark to DeVinney was true to form. “Frankly, I was hoping that [King and SCLC] would accomplish what they were doing,” he said. Cracking a slight smile, he added, “but after they left Albany.”

[1] Dan T. Carter, Politics of rage: George Wallace and the origins of modern American conservatism, Second Edition (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 464.

[2] Callie Crossley, telephone interview with the author, May 19, 2004.

[3] Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Six episodes). Produced by Blackside, Incorporated for WGBH-Boston. Creator and executive producer: Henry Hampton. Original airdate: 1987.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Prudence Arndt, interview with the author, May 19, 2004; Jo Ann Mathieu to John Horhn, October 24, 1985. Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9970.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Prudence Arndt to John Patterson, January 27, 1986. Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9938.

[8] The interviews were shot on 16-mm film with audio recorded separately on ¼-inch tape. The archive does not currently possess equipment that can play the ¼-inch audio. However, it is possible to make a transcript from audiocassette recordings of the original audio, and then (after some lip-reading practice) to use the transcript to follow along with the silent footage.

[9] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[10] See Carter, Politics of rage, 471-74; Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 55-59, 62-66.

[11] Charles W. Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981, 416-418 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1982); Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 2nd Session, 1982 (C.Q. Inc., 1983), 374-76; Kathryn Waters Gest (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 98th Congress, 1st Session, 1983 (C.Q. Inc., 1984), 21; Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 58.

[12] See page 6.

[13] David J. Garrow, Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986), 202-04; Taylor Branch, Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 601-07.

[14] Branch, Parting the waters, 616-621.

[15] Stephen B. Oates, Let the trumpet sound: The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 197-98; John A. Ricks III, “‘De Lawd’ descends and is crucified: Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Georgia” in David J. Garrow (ed.), We shall overcome: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Volume III (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carson Publishing, 1989), 986-993; Stephen G. N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The struggle for racial equality in Georgia, 1940-1980 (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 141-48.

[16] Garrow, Bearing the cross, 215-17.

[17] Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 152.

[18] Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 160-199; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 216-17; Branch, Parting the waters, 631; Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn (eds.), Voices of freedom: An oral history of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), 111-14; Oates, Let the trumpet sound, 189-199. See also Jason Sokol, There goes my everything: White southerners in the age of civil rights, 1945-1975 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 64-83.

[19] Kelly Hall, “Colleagues recall former police chief,” High Point Enterprise, November 14, 2000, online edition: http://www.hpe.com/2000/11/14/news/1114news7.html.

[20] This article follows the convention of deleting incomplete words and expressions such as “uh” or “um.” The only exception is when someone is interrupted after saying “uh” and the word is preserved to show that they had not finished speaking.

[21] Branch, Parting the waters, 614-16, 622-24; Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 151; Zinn, Southern Mystique, 174-79.

[22] Charles Sherrod, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9101). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, December 20, 1985.

[23] William G. Anderson, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9074). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[24] All references to Laurie Pritchett Eyes on the Prize interview pertain to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 26663) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 320446, Container number: 11530). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[25] The Kings of Albany were no relation to Martin Luther King.

[26] Hampton et al., Voices of freedom, 107.

[27] Pritchett, Eyes on the Prize interview; Diane McWhorter, Carry me home: Birmingham, Alabama: the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 339-41, 431-33.

[28] Howell Raines, My soul is rested: Movement days in the Deep South remembered (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 362.

[29] DeVinney interview, April 7, 2004.

[30] Andrew Young, An easy burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 178.

[31] James A. DeVinney, telephone interview with the author, April 6, 2004.

[32] Crossley, interview.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I always feel reluctant about commemorating the dates of assassinations. I worry that, when we do that, we might divert attention from the person’s life and feed morbid obsessions with death.

That said, we remember April 4, 1968 as the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It is important to look back at that time and consider the projects Dr. King was working on when he was violently taken from the country that needed him so badly.

Dr. King died in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting a strike by sanitation workers. He was also preparing the Poor People’s Campaign, a series of demonstrations and direct actions in Washington D.C. aimed at a better economic deal for impoverished Americans.

The campaign went ahead without Dr. King in May, 1968. It was a brave effort, headed by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, but it didn’t transform American thinking about economic injustice or racial injustice. I think that’s America’s fault rather than the fault of the campaign’s supporters.

Many of those who claim to celebrate Dr. King’s life disregard such vital aspects of his activism. In 2004, I interviewed Dr. C.T. Vivian, a close ally of Dr. King’s and long-time member of the executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was quick to point out that Dr. King’s work for social justice has been ignored in recent years. “They want to forget” he said. I’ll never forget the intensity with which he said it.

Here is information about the Poor People’s Campaign from American RadioWorks, with powerful audio clips from Dr. King’s speeches on the subject. Dr. King knew that different forms of injustice are linked. I wish America knew that.

Dr. C.T. Vivian and the Civil Rights Movement

Dr. C.T. Vivian, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi during a Freedom Ride, 1961.
Dr. C.T. Vivian, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi during a Freedom Ride, 1961.

I don’t much like anniversary celebrations. In particular, I don’t understand the numerological significance given to anniversaries with numbers ending in five or zero. Why not eight or three?

In the case of the Selma Campaign and the Voting Rights Act, we could have used a 48th year commemoration to show America what it was about to lose. While that anniversary passed,  right-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court were plotting to use the case of Shelby County vs. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act. They managed to do just that on a 5-4 decision announced in June 2013.

But the media like their fives and zeroes, and I understand why Civil Rights Movement veterans and other activists hold commemoration events during anniversaries in those years. The ceremonies in Selma reminded me of an interview I conducted in 2004 (has it been that long?) with Dr. C.T. Vivian, one of the early leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. Vivian played a crucial role in the Selma voting-rights campaign, and his confrontation with the racist sheriff, Jim Clark, was a pivotal moment of that era.

It was an education and a pleasure talking to Dr. Vivian. I often think back to his remarks about the parallels between economic exploitation today and the old plantation system. Likewise, his statements about poverty and the need for campaigns to raise the minimum wage were certainly prescient.

Getting Back to MLK’s Agenda

Interview with Dr C.T. Vivian, Progressive Populist, April 2004

Few understand activism better than Dr. C.T. Vivian, who played a central role in many of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s. An early member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he went to prison in Mississippi for participating in a 1961 Freedom Ride, and was one of the leaders of the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965. He is probably best known for his confrontation with Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark, during which he protested Clark’s use of force against demonstrators. The sheriff responded by hitting him in front of television news crews. Bleeding from his mouth, Vivian continued to upbraid Clark until the sheriff ordered him arrested. The assault was one of many televised outrages that helped pass the Voting Rights Act, but Vivian also sees the event in terms of the personal impact of Gandhi and King’s philosophy of nonviolent direct action. “I would never run from anybody. That’s one reason why I love nonviolence.”

About as dramatic as the Selma campaign was the effort to integrate public accommodations in Nashville in 1960, which included in a march on City Hall by 4,000 demonstrators. At City Hall, Vivian and fellow activist Diane Nash pressed the mayor to commit to integration. The mayor broke with essentially every other southern officeholder by agreeing that segregation was morally wrong and promising to help end it. The downtown lunch counters at the heart of the controversy were quickly integrated, an event that helped spur the campaign to integrate the rest of the city. Was Vivian shocked by the mayor’s response? “That it actually happened shocked me. I had to cut him off right quick and show him that he wouldn’t get away with just making a nice speech.”

Victories against such overwhelming odds have contributed to Dr. Vivian’s infectious optimism. At age 79, he continues to be active in SCLC, while maintaining a heavy schedule of talks at universities and progressive organizations. Vivian is currently upbeat about American activism, despite the repressive mood prevailing in the county. He sees the recent demonstrations against the policies of the World Bank and World Trade Organization as evidence that people are beginning to understand that poverty in other, low-wage countries contributes to poverty here. “We have to see to it that the ‘developing countries’ develop,” he remarks.

A key theme of Vivian’s talks these days is that the public has received an incomplete picture of Dr. King’s activism. He notes that politicians and media figures are happy to discuss King’s efforts to end legal segregation, but ignore his views on economic justice. Given the powerful interests at play, Vivian does not believe that omission is a coincidence. “They want to forget,” he says, his voice sharpening. For him, the starting point for activism today is King and SCLC’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to redistribute the nation’s wealth. The campaign reached out to all ethnic groups, including impoverished southern whites, and managed to bring some whites into the fold, both before and after King’s death. However, 1968 is remembered as the year that the Republicans “southern strategy” of coded racism came to fruition, and Richard Nixon split the southern electoral vote with George Wallace.

Even so, Dr. Vivian is quick to point out that blacks and poor whites have not always been at odds in the South. Lower-class whites were often prominent in southern anti-slavery groups, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because they realized that slavery depressed wages for free workers. In a pattern often repeated, the plantation aristocracy crushed those organizations. “One of the things that kept poor whites poor was the division between black and white,” he explains. “The bankers [in the northeastern US] wanted it to happen, because the South was basically a colony anyway.”

Dr. King and his successors in the movement have always sought to ally with poor whites, but can progressive groups overcome GOP racial politics? Vivian cites the issue of corporate welfare as a potential rallying point for working-class people of all ethnic groups and regions. The spate of deregulation, corporate subsidies, and tax-breaks implemented to attract industry have created a situation in which working people “have to give up everything to have a job in their town. You put all that together, doc, and what you’ve got is the old plantation system.” In the near future, Dr. Vivian expects to see SCLC take more of a leading role on questions of economic inequality, especially with regard to the push for a higher minimum wage. “We have to understand that what we’re talking about is Martin’s agenda.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Newly Discovered Speech

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

On December 7, 1964, Dr. King gave a speech in London. A few days later, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. (My guess is that if Dr. King had lived to see the Nobel Peace Prize given to Henry Kissinger in 1973, he would have given his prize back.) Brian DeShazor of the Pacifica Radio Archives recently discovered the speech, which aired today as an exclusive on Democracy Now!

Dr. King spoke about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, of course, but also such subjects as economic injustice, apartheid in South Africa, and the rights of immigrants in the United Kingdom. In this segment of the speech, he discussed a common retort to human rights movements, viz. that change is moving too fast and that patience and time will solve all problems.

We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”

Dr. King also called for an economic embargo on South Africa’s apartheid regime and criticized what we might call the cult of “free trade.”

Why is trade regarded by all nations and all ideologies as sacred? Why does our government and your government in Britain refuse to intervene effectively now, as if only when there is a bloodbath in South Africa—or a Korea or a Vietnam—will they recognize a crisis? If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil, if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny that we find there, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.

The speech also included this powerful passage in which Dr. King responded to a contemporary trend in pop psychology, which emphasized being “well-adjusted.”

But I must say to you this evening, my friends, as I come to a close, that there are some things in my own nation, and there are some things in the world, to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation, discrimination, colonialism and these particular forces. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.

See the Democracy Now! report, with full audio and a transcript of the speech, here.