I WAS BORN in Memphis in March 1936. I went to Le Moyne College, which is a 4-year liberal arts college in Memphis, where I received my bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1958. In 1958-60 I was at Fisk University, doing graduate work in chemistry. After leaving Fisk I went to the University of Kansas where I received a fellowship in chemistry, a teaching assistantship for 1960-61. I was still in chemistry, but because of what had happened prior to '61 there were quite a few questions in my mind.
While in Nashville I had become very actively involved in the student movement, from October '59 to our graduation in 1960. I've been arrested several times on stand-ins, etc., in Nashville -- stayed in jail four, five days -- and I've been active on the negotiating committee, etc.
As a result of all this and other factors I was sort of thinking about getting out of chemistry and going into law. I was going to take a year out of school with the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Cordinating Committee] and give myself a chance to make this decision. But because of my age and draft status I would have been inducted into the armed forces sometime in September. All these factors entered into making up my mind to continue with school. Since I am from Tennessee, and Tennessee is cheaper, I decided to attend the University of Tennessee, in chemistry, while I was trying to make a decision.
One of the reasons I decided to stay in chemistry was because it needs educators. The Negro high schools are not producing the kind of people that we should be producing. A high school senior graduated from a Negro high school is way below the national norm and even the norm of the local white kids. This means that you have a high school diploma, but not a high school education.
Then you go to college, and the majority of the Negroes go to college in the South, 80-90 percent. So the Negro college has the job of bringing you up from 9.8 to 15.8 years of education. This is impossible to do. You go to college, you are not educated properly and of course you can't educate anybody else properly. This means that when a Negro gets ready for a job and he has to compete with other citizens regardless of race and he has to take exams, he can't by and large pass them. This is happening at the University of Tennessee. By and large 90 percent of the Negro kids at the university have extreme difficulty in their freshman year and make the bare minimum grade of D. Of course there are exceptions.
This thing has been on my mind a long time -- the whole idea of racial injustices. Memphis is similar to Mississippi in terms of attitudes of the people and police. Naturally you see quite a few injustices in Memphis. Also at the time I was growing up I could see quite a bit of segregation because buses, movies, schools, everything you could name in Memphis was segregated.
These things you kind of think about when in high school and you're starting to learn about American history, the revolution, etc. You see the inconsistency in the system. Plus personal experiences, as in going to a movie. As a child my mother tried to explain as best she knew how.
After finishing high school I went on to college. The first year I was very busy in college activities and trying to stay in school and also other extracurricular activities. The second year I got active in the college chapter of the NAACP, but we didn't do very much. No action.These frustrations were still building up, though -- you see all these injustices.
My junior year, a group of us started going to the fair grounds. They have two fairs in Memphis, one for whites and one for colored. Four or five of us went to the fair when white people were supposed to be going, and we told all the people there that we wanted to see the science exhibit. We approached the lady and she said we could go in -- but once we got half way in the door a policeman stopped us and said, "Where you going?" He said we had to have a ticket. He called the lieutenant.
At that poing we didn't know what to do, because all of this was rather new to us. We went on home, but this sort of left each of us with an empty feeling. We felt inside that we should have done something, but we dodn't know what. We had no power and no previous cases to look at. In the segregated Negro libraries there were no books or anything about race or Negroes.
My senior year came around and I had been active in student government and had run for various offices. Also, I was in a fraternity and active in a lot of other things, basketball, etc. Still I felt I should be doing something about the race problem. At the end of my senior year we had a bus desegregation trial in Memphis and one of the lawyers who was hired by the city was also on the board of trustees at the college. A white boy, he had been the former mayor of Memphis, a big man around town. He represented the city at this trial and he made some very unnecessary remarks in the hearing case about how the Negro should be treated as the little brother. My friends and I felt it wasn't appropriate. We wrote a letter to the college president protesting this. I was president of the NAACP chapter at that time -- we had a good hundred members.
Anyway, the letter to the college president requested that Mr. Chandler retract those statements or resign from the board of trustees. We weren't protesting that he represented the city because this is his profession as a lawyer, but in representing the case there was no need to go into all this gratuitous business about the Negro.The letter was reproduced in the city newspapers and it had my signature on it as president of the NAACP. It got into the morning paper, which is a very conservative paper, and into the afternoon paper, which is pseudo-liberal. It started an uproar across the city.
People said the letter shouldn't have been written and I shouldn't have said this and the white members of the board who live in Memphis got together and said that if Chandler resigned they would resign too.This went on for about four weeks. The board was meeting at this same time and a couple of the members wanted to expel me from school, but other members said no, this is not necessary. This was my first real experience in any kind of overt act.
"It Made Me Feel Better"
MY PARENTS have always been rather liberal -- they've encouraged me to make decisions. It was the same in this particular case. My father is dead; my mother has remarried and my stepfather is a butcher. My father's and mother's educational background is not very adequate. My father got to high school; mother finished high school also, but -- they are from a rural community. My stepfather is from a rural area of Tennessee and my mother from a rural area of Mississippi. They said whatever I wanted to do was a good thing to do -- they had no objections.
I was working downtown at the club at the time of all this. I was a waiter, and the man suggested that maybe I ought to take off for three-four weeks. He thought some customers might come in and recognize me from the picture in the paper or my name and would raise hell with the management. I said I would work until fired or until somebody does come in. But nobody ever came in. One man said he had read about me in the paper, but that's all. This was in the spring '58, and it was all new to me. This sort of blew over and the man was back on the board.
I graduated from college with a B.S. in chemistry. I came to Fisk and found they had no student group here that was doing anything. I inquired about forming a college chapter of the NAACP and they had it chartered -- got together a couple of fellows and hustled up some members, about 100150 people. But we didn't do much either. We didn't know what we could do. We had read about Montgomery but hadn't thought of going into the area of direct action. We moved along doing nothing much. Second year -- about the same thing, with more members. In the meantime in Greensboro, N.C., the student movement began Feb. 1, 1960. So we in Nashville decided we wanted to do something about it.
This was the opportunity for me to express my convictions in terms of overt action, and be effective. I don't know why it had to happen at this time but it did. To me the more I participated the better I felt about doing it; it provided me with an outlet for many years of frustration. I feel too many people in the past have been too afraid to stand up for what they believe is right, and this is true now. The moral fiber of many communities has deteriorated. My participation was just a matter of expressing my convictions. I didn't mind sacrificing because I had waited so long to do it; it was a matter of conscience to me -- it made me feel better inside. I felt bad when I didn't participate, which was only on one or two occasions.
I think it's good that the whites are participating, too because in the South you've had for so long this gulf between the white and Negro. When you find a white person who is participating actively you find they really get to know Negroes better because it takes a close bond in order to go downtown and sit in together, and go to jail together, etc. As a result, Negroes get to know whites better and vice versa. I think contact is a good way to break down stereotypes that one has. I think white students, too, have had things to undergo, such as intense pressure from the parents. Also, I think it gives the white student a little insight into some of the immense problems that the Negro is confronted with.
These same students today are going to be adults tomorrow. I'm sure some of these people will drift over into political or religious life, and they will have known people for people. This will influence them greatly, when they take into consideration the people they will hire or have come to their church. This will benefit the community and the Negroes. Also, there is the tendency in the South not to trust white people. I think this is not good. It's putting white people in the category that they put us, it's not taking people as individuals. In this movement if you're not sincere it won't be long before you won't be there, because the pressure becomes very great in some areas, as in Birmingham and Georgia.
"Americans Are Strictly Materialistic"
I THINK, though we don't admit it, that the majority of Americans are strictly materialistic. Material in most instances supersedes moral values. A good job and getting ahead of the Joneses, etc. People go to church and profess to have these high moral values. We are supposed to be the most moral nation. There are more churches and more churchgoers. But when it gets down to the individual in the community, I haven't seen much real evidence of this. Not many humanitarian-natured people. They haven't come through. Of course, there have been some, but I think they're in the minority.
This has disillusioned me somewhat. Specifically Christianity. I'm not anti-religious, but I'm against a lot of the actions of church Christians. Also, these materialistic values overlap into other areas. Most people are so busy trying to get ahead materialistically, they don't have time to look at the international situation or the domestic situation. They are aloof from anything except their special interests. Politically they don't take much part in government. They register and vote, but only because the politicians get them out to vote. They don't understand the true issues.
To me, this is not in keeping with the democratic process as I understand it. Participation in community affairs, understanding for your fellow man, are the pillars of democracy, and this is where I differ and where I think my values differ from the majority of people. I think that all people should be aware of what is going on around them. Particularly in college you should be active in extracurricular activities, appreciative of the various cultures and people. You should know what's going on in the world. In college we had a group last year -- free discussion among college students -- but it's amazing how few students you can get. They would rather sit at the student union or go out than seek the truth. In the South, people are afraid to discuss things that are called "controversial." Everybody feels this way. Basically.
I've been thinking all along: How is it that I've got the set of values that I do? I'm part of the same environment as my friends and yet their values differ greatly from mine. I see them at home now, driving around in a big car, and this is their main existence. It puzzles me why I have the values that I have. And yet I know that I do.
This is the Bible Belt in the South. I went to church with my parents. I'm a Methodist. After I grew older I continued to go to church. It was of interest to me -- we had interesting discussions and a very good minister. He tried to integrate historical facts with what we have here today and did a good job. This continued, but as I got to college, and because of my scientific training, I became more analytical and I questioned things more than I had in the past. There were things that I was skeptical of and didn't believe anymore.
The majority of students who are participants in the nonviolent movement have had a strong religious background. This is true with me to a certain extent. I believe in the dogma, but it isn't practiced today. I think religion should be practiced, but they don't practice it. It certainly has influenced me. When I see Christians not practice what they preach, it makes me indignant and causes me to confront them.
"It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time"
AS I UNDERSTAND traditional Negro leadership in this country, particularly in the South, it meant doctors, religious people, etc., people who were the leaders because of their profession or their capacities. In the community they were not necessarily close to the masses of people but the people didn't buck them because they didn't have the power. I think in a sense that this is broken down now. Dr. King -- I think he's traditional in one way, in that he's a minister. But he's not traditional in that he has broken away from the traditional methods of action and spirit of earlier Negro leaders. What this amounts to is a new kind of leadership.
The traditional leader in the South was one who supposedly spoke for Negroes but who more than likely knew some white people downtown he could see. All this sort of selfish attitude whereby the traditional leader got built up in the community by the white people.
But the new leadership has broken away from this in that they are speaking for themselves, and the masses of people are coming forth and saying what they really believe, not what they're told they should believe. As a result you get a number of organizations caught up in this thing that have been left behind. They get angry about it and say we've been doing it this way for 50 years and we're going to continue doing it this way. This is why I think you have differences in leadership at this time.
Take specifically the NAACP. I don't think anybody can deny that in the courts the NAACP has done a tremendous job. But I don't think that the courts were the only way to do it. There's a definite need for the courts, but it's a matter of both. Even if the NAACP decided to change their program to direct action, I think they ourht to keep the courts, too.
There's a great need for as many people actively doing something as possible. A lot of people accuse the NAACP of being too conservative, too slow. From the point of view of the new methods -- action -- I tend to agree. And the masses now want the new kind of action. They want to demonstrate, etc. But by no means should the NAACP's program be stopped. At the same time, though, I don't think it should take the attitude either that we were here years before you so we have the rights.
I think that it's going to be a long, time before we change our values. There's going to be duscrimination and segregation between people, races, creeds and colors -- even if integration comes about tomorrow.