As types, they could not have been more carefully chosen. The Black Militant, in blue jeans and boots, the heel of one leg resting defiantly on the knee of the other; the Counselor, long-haired and bearded; the Socially Conscious Housewife, cloaked in an elegant silk blouse and liberal guilt.
And then there were the public figures: a middle-aged judge, two cops, a legislator, a school board member, a former mayor's wife. The rest of the cast included two young men from the Moral Majority in suits and ties, an ex-convict-now-law-student, a graying labor union organizer, a handsome young white banker, a Realtor, a black preacher, a housewife, and an 80-year-old black woman whose beauty was a compliment to time.
And there was the Nazi, as they called him, the short, bespectacled representative from the National Socialist White People's Party, making some nervous, and others outraged. Perhaps it was the swastika button he wore in his lapel.
They were gathered for a "sensitivity seminar" in racism, paid for (at $150 per participant) and filmed by WJLA, making what is surely one of the most curious experiments in local television.
Led by Dr. Charles King of Atlanta, a burly 56-year-old former teacher, preacher and member of the President's Commission on Civil Disorders, and his blond assistant Debby Pellegrino, the eight-hour marathon was aimed at getting the white participants to feel what it is like to be black, and to accept the premise that "institutionalized white racism is the basic cause of the problems experienced by American blacks."
SCENE: King plays for the first of what will ultimately be four times, a recorded prose-poem called "Just Like You," which begins: Are you listening to the music? I am. Are you looking at the children? I am. And I see some of them in the cities and some of the town, just doing things, and they seem to cry out, help me, help me, help me, help me . . . I'm nobody. I'm just somebody who's trying to be a man. Just like you. Trying to love a woman. Just like you. Trying to watch sons and daughters grow. Just like you . . .
Afterwards, King asks them to describe what the poem said, and asks some if they think the speaker is black or white.
"I have no idea," says Jim Wright, of the Maryland Moral Majority.
"You're lying, Jim," yells King. "You DO have an idea. How stupid."
"I can honestly say I didn't think about color," says Vera Deckelbaum, the elegant housewife.
"Vera, forget about the voice, what was the man saying?"
"He was saying he was oppressed."
"That's enough out of you, Vera . . ."
SCENE: During the first break, Vera talks to Martin Kerr, the Nazi.
"I mean, you know, when I look at you, I think you, like, want to kill people," Vera says to him.
"We don't want to kill people, we just think the races should live separately. Race-mixing hasn't worked," he lectures.
"I've never, you know, talked to a Nazi before." She eases away, leaving him once again alone. He makes no effort to talk to anyone during the breaks. h
SCENE: The record is played again. Martin the Nazi repeats his reaction: "Oversentimental, liberal platitudes devoid of any significant meaning. It's a false idea that everyone is equal, that the races are equal."
King, shouting and peering close to his face: "You look me in the eye and tell me I'm not equal to you!"
Kerr, fidgeting slightly: "I think the black race is not equal to the white race." The others throw marshmallows at him, the directed signal of disapproval.
Jim Wright: "I believe in the sight of God he's wrong."
King: "You owe every black in this room an apology."
Kerr: "I don't owe anybody an apology."
King: "Hang in there, Martin."
King to D.C. school board member Carol Schwartz: "If someone insulted you, I would fight for your dignity. That's why millions of Jews died in the ovens, because no one spoke up against it."
Schwartz: "I don't believe a majority of black people would fight for my dignity as a white woman."
King: "Carol, you're sickening!"
Absalom Jordan, of the Black United Front, shouts: "The problem is not Martin. The problem is the proper white people in here!" He lists various problems faced by blacks, including "red-lining by banks and Realtors, bad public schools and housing."
King tells the black people to leave the room, as he does. Tom Lennon, a police officer from Prince George's County, who said earlier that if he was black he'd "be a rebel with a gun in my hand," shouts: "Look who's separatin' now. It's not me!"
After some more discussion, Randy Wyckoff, general sales manager of the Bank of Virginia in Springfield, says: "Education, red-lining, those are the easy problems to solve. The real problem is that I go to a cocktail party and someone tells a nigger joke, and I don't say 'you're full of s---.' That's what makes me sick." There is a brief pause, as everyone realizes a Moment of Truth.
After King and the other blacks return, there is more back and forth, more shouting, more of King cutting people off before they can speak, telling them they are not feeling, or not being honest, or being stupid. They break for lunch; the group eats fried chicken and potato salad and King is not present.
During lunch, Wright assures Rev. Ernest Gibson of the Council of Churches and Wyckoff that if the Moral Majority does not write a strong "affirmation of civil rights" into its priorities, he will resign "with a bang." They tell him not to fool himself.
Del. Luiz Simmons of Maryland says he objects to the method of the seminar; that it's designed to produce the most extreme statements. Jordan says he doesn't understand why Channel 7 flew King up from Atlanta when "there are plenty of trained brothers around here who could do something like this."
Judge Jacob Levin of the Prince George's County juvenile court says that if he'd known there was going to be a Nazi in the room, he wouldn't have come. Simmons agrees. Dan Manville, an ex-con (drug-related manslaughter) currently studying at Antioch Law School, says the seminar is a "media hype," and the participants are not being required to "get into a real therapy situation."
In the afternoon, Schwartz says that she is "more interested in people's needs than their rhetoric," and for this she is made to stand up, put a plastic cup on her head, stick her arm out and sing "The Star Spangled Banner."
"Are you angry with me?" King asks.
"No," she says.
"Is anyone?" There is no answer. "That proves it!" King shouts triumphantly. "Everyone is trying to get a better understanding, but is refusing to feel something for a human being being humiliated in front of you. Whites use their heads rather than their hearts. That's why you are not dealing with us as a people . . . I apologize to you for doing that, but I sucked you into it so nicely."
"Emotions don't solve problems, thoughts do," says Wright.
"I should have put the cup on your head," King answers.
Later King explains some of what he was trying to do. "I have manipulated you. I have cut you off, I oppressed you, not let you speak. I made everything go according to my system. It dehumanizes a person. You felt guilt, shame and anger you didn't show.You slowly lose your dignity . . . This is really an awareness seminar, to make you aware of the need for solutions."
There is more discussion, more shouting and some assessments. Vera says she is more aware. Simmons says there has been a lot of "cliche slinging." Jordan says he doesn't think that anyone has changed, or made a commitment. "I'm tired of begging white folk," he says.
The record is played for a fourth time: ". . . Trying to understand the earth, just like you. Trying to farm, just like you. Trying to build, to live, and smile and work, just like you. So as it is, just like you, I don't know very much. But I do see and I do hear and I do listen to people, just like you? And I love the land I live in, just like you, and I feel ancient in the land I live in . . . just like you? My nation's made up of hills and valleys and mountains and gold and silver trees and rivers and people, black and red and brown and white and yellow, but people just like you. And I love order and with order I make laws. Just like you? I been black, I been red, I been white, I been poor, I been rich, I been cold, I been hungry and I been strong. Just like you? And I'm old and young and beautiful and I love and I'm strong just like you. And my daddy and my momma and my brothers and my sisters and my cousins are just like you. Hey pardner, are we gonna live in this land? Hey pardner, are we gonna build in this land? Are we going to? Just like . . . you are too."