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Oral history interview with Cardes Brown by William Link
February 22, 1989
Cardes H. Brown
Cardes H. Brown, longtime pastor of New Light Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., served on the Citizens Review Commission that investigated the Nov. 3, 1979 shootings.
In this transcript of an February 22, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Carden Brown, Brown primarily discusses his experiences with segregation as a youth, and general race relations in North Carolina and in Greensboro. He also talks about his personal calling to the ministry, the role of the black church in the community, and the importance of nonviolent strategies. Brown also notes responses to the Review Commission report on the November 3, 1979 incident, and the aftermath of the event on the city.
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Oral history interview with Cardes Brown by William Link
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
The date is February 22, 1989, and we're in the office of Reverend Cardes Brown. I wonder if you'd mind telling me a little bit about your background and your childhood, where you were born, and some early memories that you have as a child?
Well, I grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in the eastern part of the state of North Carolina. I am the descendent of a Baptist preacher and a public school teacher. I have one brother, and of course growing up in Rocky Mount during the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was probably, I guess, at that time, a typical upbringing. My parents, of course, were probably classed as middle-class blacks at that time.
We were very fortunate as children to have parents like we had, and they provided as best they could for us. We probably enjoyed things like we had our own home and our own transportation and basically we were able to have many of the things that were offered to blacks during the early fifties. Of course—[Intercom message—pause in interview]
We were talking about your childhood?
Yes. More or less very typical for blacks, I suppose, during that time who were privileged to have parents who were pretty well secure in their work and their income. So we were fortunate in that respect. However, we still experienced the segregation that was a norm at that time. Certain places we could not go because we were black, and then the places we could go there were areas where you were permitted to go to, because of the fact that you were black. Such as, if you went to the movies, we went there and we were privileged to sit in the balcony unless there was an overflow crowd—at that point, we were not able to go. Certain stores, we had certain bathrooms to go to use, certain water fountains.
I very vividly remember as a young person growing up in Rocky Mount, I just had to see what the difference was between the water that came forth from the white water fountain and the black designated fountain. And so I took a chance, and it appeared that nobody was watching, and I took a sip of the water, but someone saw me, and it was a terrible experience. I not only had to experience the reprimand of the persons in the store, but it was reported to my parents for them to correct me for doing an unforgivable thing like drinking water from the white fountain that was in the store. And we just had those—those were experiences in the early 1950s that I guess were sort of the norm as it related to the racial tension that existed, the difference placed upon persons who were people of color, so that you always knew in a sense that you had to be mindful that certain things were not tolerated, and that was the kind of thing.
But I guess as well as one could grow up under those conditions, under the system of segregation, things were pretty well for us. Of course we, having grown up in a home of a preacher who pastored at the time several rural churches, sort of a circuit rider type ministry, I saw the disparity that existed among persons who were at that time designated as colored. Some did not have very much. I can remember as a child going to homes on Sunday to share in fellowship when we were invited to eat at my father's members' homes. And many times they had so little to offer.
My father taught us at an early age to be appreciative of whatever was set before us and sometimes in those homes, where there was very little, I can hear my father praising the meal and just talking about he had never had food like this, and I would be thinking to myself, “How can you really say that this is really good?” But it was the way we were brought up. We were brought up to appreciate simple things, to express thanksgiving for whatever we had, and I suppose with that kind of upbringing it has certainly helped in the adjustment necessary to deal with whatever kind of situation we were confronted with.
Let me just ask you if you remember what sort of feelings you had as a child about separate entrances, and was it a feeling of humiliation, or was it something you sort of took for granted? Was there ever a point that you realized that, or that it struck you that this was something that really bothered you?
It was certainly, I think, during in the early fifties and probably the late fifties, it was certainly that period—we were just on the threshold of what was going to be the changing time and so there was a sense of restlessness, there was a sense of worry—we were vexed I suppose at that time. Why was it? But one of the things during that period, we were always aware of the fact that it was improper to question certain things even though within your heart you felt that it was so unjust, you felt that it was so wrong, but having a knowledge of the fact that certain things were not, you never really got explanations for.
You know, if I were to engage my parents in a conversation such as, you know, “Daddy, why can't I do this?” Or, “Why can't we do this?” Or, you know, his answer would be one of postponement, “Let's table that until a later time. It is not the time.”
But I think that even then there was a sense that things were going to change, that there were better days. We were always encouraged by knowing that things were not as bad as they once were. I think that today, no doubt, persons could not imagine what my father shared with me as to the past. And I guess my children would not really be able to fully comprehend the things that I am even discussing now about the separate, the separation of races, segregation, this teaching of inferiority, second-class citizenship. It would be difficult for them to fully comprehend it because we've sort of come away from that era. But even at that time there was a sense of restlessness, there was a sense of desire, a desire for change, a desire—we were just getting to the point of saying that something has to be done. In our own little private ways—we didn't do a lot of talking about it, but we knew that a change was imminent. Somehow or another something would happen, and I guess all of us were sort of like we were looking for our own Moses, somebody to come and bring liberation, and I guess that, more or less, as a child growing up, was the expectancy. I guess we would dream that this day would come, even though we did not necessarily initiate actions to bring it about, because I think we were sort of more or less just waiting. It was a state of expectancy, but also a state of patience and waiting.
How did experiences differ between whites and blacks in Rocky Mount in schools? For example, the kind of schools you went to as a young adult or child?
Well, having been privileged, I think, to have a parent who was involved in public education, the experience, as it relates to what was actually offered to blacks—Negroes, at that time we were usually identified as—was quite different. I think it was different in the sense that generally whites were provided with better facilities, better opportunities. But what was the, if any, the bridging factor of the disparity that existed was this real genuine interest on the part of the educators who had the responsibility of serving as custodians of the minds of blacks. In other words, there was a genuineness—there was—it was a time when I was in school, elementary and high school, where teachers could take an actual personal interest in each student, I guess because of their awareness of how much we had to do to be competitive.
The world was still, as I said, the norm was separation and segregation, so what we were privileged to have were teachers who dealt with each student with the knowledge of this difficulty that would be encountered by each student. So what was stressed was the importance of learning. What you learn cannot be taken away. You have to get the subject matter, and to that degree, teachers then, when I was growing up in Rocky Mount, would take the extra interest in each student, to sit down, to make sure that they could comprehend the subject matter, that they understood what was going to be expected, that they knew, this was what we got a daily diet of, the fact of you're going to have to be better—not equal to, not able to compete, but you're going to have to be superior. You've got to be better, and that was the whole, that was what was happening.
Of course, that in a sense, produced a generation that had already become competitively oriented. We knew we had to compete, but not just compete, we had to be in that competition the best or we would certainly be denied. So I think that during that period of time, I can very vividly remember my mother falling asleep, many a night on the sofa teaching some child how to read, how to do certain things. And I had so many brothers and sisters, my mother became known by most of the teachers then, because it was not a matter of money, it was a matter of “This is my contribution.” And so my mother would tell me I had so many brothers and sisters—I only had one biological brother, but I had so many brothers and sisters that I would find in the home the next day. And Momma would take a personal interest and she would scold them for not doing well. And so it was a time, as I see it, in respect to educational opportunity that, of course the whites were offered the advantage of better facilities. They had probably the best materials to work with.
But on the other side, I think that we had at that time, as far as interest was concerned, teachers who were teachers because they wanted to be teachers. They actually wanted to make a contribution. They wanted to do something to improve. It was enough personal aggrandizement to be able to look and see a student that did well or made progress, and I think they all went into this profession with the knowledge of knowing that not all would make it but I'm going to do all I can to provide the opportunity as best I can for the person to succeed. And so, I think, probably a problem that today is directly related to the fact that that same kind of interest, involvement, investment, in the well being of a person—it just does not exist. Unfortunately that's one of the things we lost, I suppose, with integration.
So actually, in many respects, all this segregation provided an opportunity for cultivation of leadership and strong skills, individualized kind of instruction.
I think if we go back and begin to look at the persons, the products, the persons produced during the era of the oppression, the segregation, separatism, all of that, you cannot disregard the kinds of persons that came out of that period of time. I don't know that we see that kind of person emerging. We don't see the Martin Kings; we don't see the [former Southern Christian Leadership Conference director]; Andy Youngs; we don't see persons who have come out of that real furnace of affliction, that as a result of it are doing things to make the lives of others better and more meaningful.
So to a degree, the separation, the segregation produced I think some of the finest personalities that our history will ever present. That was, I think, one of the factors that tends to make me believe that there are some things that we lost, that in some way we're going to have to recapture, if we're going to continue to be a people, to be contributors.
You moved from Rocky Mount to Greensboro as a student.
Right. I finished school in '63 and I enrolled here at [North Carolina] A&T State University. In my first semester when I first came to A&T, it was my desire to enter into medicine. I wanted to get into pre-med at A&T, that was, I thought, what my life would eventually unfold into. But my second year at A&T I was called into the ministry. And I say that because that was a day when we actually believed that the way one was introduced and was made a minister was by a calling. I really, seriously say that because I believe with all of my heart that I was actually called into this. This is not anything I really wanted to do. And having grown up in a home with a Baptist preacher, one of the things that I always said that I would never do would be a preacher. I would not be a preacher.
But the pull upon my heart to preach, the pull upon my heart to become a minister was undeniable, undeniably real in my life so that I could not really get away from it. I can remember—I lived off campus on Dunbar Street here in the city and I had two roommates and we basically—I thought I was away from home for the first time, and I seized that as an opportunity to be able do things that I wanted to do. In fact, I was first living in Scott Hall and I said, “There's one thing I'm not going to do,” because I had to do it every Sunday and sometimes three and four times every week: I had to be in church. And I said, when I got to A&T and I was living in Scott Hall, I said, “Well, there's one thing I'm not going to do, because I'm on my own. I'm not going to church. This is one thing.” And I tried that for several months, but of course having grown up in church, it was like a fish out of the water. I was not content.
I eventually began to go to church, and still I wanted to do things on my own. I wanted to do things different. I didn't want anybody—one of the things that I can remember, I didn't want anybody to know that my father was a preacher. I wanted to get as far away from that, you know. It was always a certain thing expected of a preacher's son or a preacher's daughter. So I tried not to let anybody know that for a while. And during my sophomore year I can remember this pulling upon my heart, that God desired something other than what I really wanted to do. And I shared it with one of my roommates. I said, “You know, I can't understand, but it appears that God wants me to preach.”
And at that time my name was “Big Brown”—they called me [that] because I had a car on campus and I was one of the persons that quite a few of the students knew because of my being always sort of in what we would call “the know.” So when I shared that with him, he said, “Big Brown, that's just, it'll pass. Don't worry about that. That's not for you.” But the more I tried to share that, the more I saw it became an irritation: “You don't want to do that.” And so I had to sort of deal with this alone, and I continued to see this—to the point that certain things that I had been doing, I just did not want to participate in. We were living off campus, we entertained a lot and I just didn't want to be involved in that in this period, because I was really going through a soul-searching process.
And I never will forget when I was convinced, when I had no doubt in my mind that I was being called into the ministry. I was not very close or talkative to my father. I talked more to my mother. But I remember about two o'clock in the morning when I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do, I called home, and what forced me to call at that hour was I had a dream, and in that dream I was preaching a funeral. I had apparently at this point accepted the fact that I was going to preach. I was preaching a funeral and I came down to view the body and when I viewed the body, it was my father. And the dream was so real. I went back and I sat down in the pulpit and I said, “Well, it's not so bad, because Daddy, if anybody was saved, Daddy was saved,” and I woke up.
The dream was so real, I knew that when I called home my father would be dead. I knew that. And I called home and my mother answered the phone at that hour. And I said, “Momma, I need to talk to Daddy, now.”
And she said, “But do you know what time it is?”
And I said, “But I need to talk to him now.”
She said, “He's asleep.” I said, “Well, wake him up.”
And so I was so sure she was going to come back to the phone and say “Daddy's dead,” but instead of that, my father picked up the phone.
And I said, “Daddy, are you all right?”
He said, “Yes.” And I said, “I've been called to preach.”
And his response was, “I know son. I'll talk to you about it in the morning.”
That was the end of the conversation. And from that time on it was a matter of—and I would call him—I said, “Daddy, when am I going to preach my initial sermon?”
And he said, “It will come.”
Until that time there was not really a real close relationship. I respected my father. I had a great fear of him. But we became real close during this period, very close, and he would share with me. I never will forget the first, one of the first sermons I preached, I preached before an association of ministers, and they all sat there with their chairs turned towards the pulpit and were gazing at me, and I had made up in my mind—I was a sophomore in college and thought I knew things very well, and I was going to show them how to preach, and I stood there that day and I talked about the twin documents of salvation. And I made such a mess. It was such an obvious mess that when I finished I eased out of the pulpit into the study, and my father followed.
And when he walked in, I said, “Daddy, I made a mess.”
And he said, “You sure did, son.” But I never will forget his words, he said, “But I'm glad it happened early in your ministry.” He said, “You went up wrong. From now on, you remember: to preach effective messages, you go up like a lamb, God will allow you to come down like a lion. But you went up the wrong way, today.”
I never will forget that. So these things, I suppose, have shaped and have been factors in my ministry as it relates to the way I approach matters and the seriousness by which I try to be sure that God leads me in whatever I'm doing.
When you were at A&T, and in Greensboro, what sort of observations did you have or reactions did you have coming to Greensboro from Rocky Mount? Was there much difference between the two communities that you noticed?
As I said, during the early sixties, we began to see changes. The efforts to bring about social change had already taken place. Jesse Jackson was the president of student government when I enrolled at A&T, and of course the sit-in demonstrations had just occurred here, and some of the students from A&T that participated, I knew them. And so you could see the shift. Greensboro was a much larger place than Rocky Mount. There was more to do. I saw on a college campus the minds of blacks who were involved in social protest. They were going to make changes, and I of course joined in.
It was that time, and we were experiencing possibly two approaches to resolve or to bring about these social changes needed. And of course there were the persons who advocated the nonviolent approach of Martin King, who was probably the most impressive figure within the black community at that time. And then you were beginning to hear the college students who were inclined to believe there was a better way or a more expedient way of bringing these changes. And I guess, at that time, because of my own personal association with ministry, Martin King became sort of the model. He was the person that we believed really had the power, the appeal, and all to really bring about change. We did our little in Greensboro, our own little—participated in our own little protest activities nonviolently, and I of course participated in those.
And we could see that there was a change. Greensboro was, I guess, the most [phone rings] noticeable city at the time, especially in the South, where we could see that activity was being generated to actually effect change, and it was exciting, I think, to be in the city of Greensboro during that period of time. Much focus, national focus, was on Greensboro, and so just to be associated with it, you were always sort of involved in things. You always had to have an opinion about things because of the way the media and other coverage was focused upon the activities of Greensboro. So it was quite different from—and we could see then the change from the segregated norm. It was—things were being changed by the active participation of persons who wanted to see different things happen.
You perceive that there was a division or whatever between people who wanted more rapid change and wanted to get it suddenly, and people who were, well, not necessarily advocating slow change, but would emphasize nonviolence.
Well, I think that out of that era, you heard the powerful statements of “Black is beautiful,” the enduring of pride, the respect and importance placed upon one's ethnicity at that time. There was—we had even gone to the point of believing that in some ways, because of the, as you say, more militant groups and the work of the Islamic religion and others, that maybe it's not so bad being black, maybe in fact it is to be preferred. And so, those were sort of the emotions that really were the tenor of that time, and we, I guess, capitalized on the fact that focus now was really on what are we going to do about the social injustice, the social ills.
And of course with Martin King's appeal and with his ability to actually command attention because of his ability to orate, to stand and to so persuasively present his message, it was just a time I suppose that we were very proud of being associated with this kind of movement, and you could see that others were catching it. His nonviolent appeal, though it was very dangerous, was—
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
—anticipation that we could see in this new surge of energy for freedom. People were being brought into the movement because of the work of Martin King and because of the work of others who believed that nonviolently we could move upon the emotional strings of persons who had been silent to become proponents of the necessity of change.
And I think that what was really desired, as we look back at that period of time, was to bring about equality. And I think that probably the means by which we thought equality could be brought about was integration. I think that maybe history might reveal that integration, in and of itself, was not really what was really desired or what was really necessary. I think that in order to really bring about equality—Martin King's efforts were best in doing that, because of its nonviolent approaches. That is, you can not really effect real equality unless we do it through the changing of the heart.
And I think that nonviolent tactics had more of a heart appeal than maybe the militant issue of forcing it. I'm sure that the militant resistance probably did as much to induce the integration, but I do not know that it did as much in really bringing about equality, because just being complicit, being in compliance to the rules and regulations, does not really make one want to do that which is necessary in order to effect equality. And I think that this is one of the things that I see out of the sixties that we actually lost in comparison to the segregation of the fifties. We integrated, but only because of legislation. We did not integrate because our hearts were moved to become one, or to become equal, or to see each person as a person. I've often preached that when you look at a person, you don't really see the person, because the person you look at is more than you see.
And I think that this is what—the only way that we will ever really be able to experience real equality is for the hearts of persons to actually be changed. There must be a revolution of a kind to induce change of heart or we'll go through the same kinds of problems as I see existing today. I think that we have integration, but we still have separation. We have separation of the heart, we have integration of the bodies. And I think when we get into this kind, get into the understanding of why this exists, we may be able to bring about some more meaningful change.
Now when we really deal with the issue of whether or not the racial relations are better today than they were in the fifties, I think we'd be sort of fooling ourselves to say that things are just so much better. I think in some ways, in some real obvious ways, to me things are much worse. And statistically, I can show that to be true. We have probably today, as opposed to the fifties, we know that we have more black men in prison than we do in college. That did not exist in the fifties. We have persons who have basically lost hope. We have the disintegration of the family within the black community. The problems that we have today in some respect are much greater than the problems we faced even in the fifties, and I think it's because of the methodology we have used and employed in order to bring about what we call equality. It is certainly not equality. And I think that it is basically because our hearts are not really—and this is one of the things that I can point to as it relates to the past administration.
During the Reagan administration, we were able to see the fact that persons' hearts have not really been changed, that really there is a lot of apathy, there's a lot of hate, there's a lot of—we've seen the rise—they were just sitting waiting for the opportunity, the skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan. All this is still there. It has never, we've never really reached the heart to bring about the real revolutionary change that would make equality a reality.
So in Greensboro, to try to deal with it, in Greensboro I have seen—I think Greensboro was sort of the focal point that was a center, it was the center of activity that sort of caused focus to be upon the activities that were going on here, to sort of set them—a model of things that would be going on everywhere. It's always I think been a city of transition. So therefore, when things are actually changing, when there is progress, you usually can focus, as it relates to the South, on Greensboro to see what's been done.
I wonder if you would mind talking a little bit more about the role of the black church in the black community, and since your experience has been, since 1964 in the black church directly, aside from your own childhood, and particularly how you think, or if you think, that role has changed over time, and what perhaps you might see for the future.
I think that without very much debate we would be as a community, blacks would be in agreement when saying that the black church has been the most powerful institution within the black community to bring about social change. It's been out of the black church that personalities have come forth that were sort of the stalwarts of social change. And I think that that's the real hope for change even as a nation. It will basically come forth from the black church. If I might be, maybe a little ecclesiastical I suppose I would say, I think that the hope of our nation, more than just the hope of a better relationship, is really sort of set up in the activities and the mission and missive of the black church. I do not believe that blacks or Africans were brought to this nation without a providential purpose.
And I think that then, without any real apology, I would have to say that the Afro-American church, or the black church in America, is a product of divine activity. It was placed out here by Providence for the purpose of really offering salvific hope. I know that the black church is not an offspring or a concoction or a creation of white thought. I know it. It's—the spontaneity of it, how it has come about, is so supernatural, it has to be a missive that is beyond or transcendent to what we generally understand the mission to be.
I think in relationship to what we have looked at as far as the biblical account, I think in a sense the black church is the equivalent to the Israel/Egypt situation. I think we were placed here and that real hope of change, of effecting real, genuine brotherhood regardless to race, creed, or color has to really be a message that comes forth from the black church. So I see the black church then as the social mender, the hope for the nation, and what has happened in the last ten years is that many have sort of come to the point of believing that we have argued issues such as theological relevance, we've argued about dogma, we've been so caught up in doctrine, we've been wrapped up in theology, and the real practical relevance of faith and hope that was really visible in the sixties, faith and hope, you see. The whole nation, the power of the nation, the hope of the nation is locked up in its ability to be faith-oriented, to be able to transcend, to be able to not be selfish.
One of the things that I think is characteristic of the past eight years is the selfishness, the selfishness. All I see coming out of the Reagan administration is a sadistic selfishness, piling up for the rich, not worrying about tomorrow, not worrying about the debt. “Forget taxing, forget how we're going to pay for it, live for the moment.” Sort of the Epicurean philosophy, you know. “Live, you know, eat, drink, and be merry, today we live, tomorrow we die, forget tomorrow.” The children today will be the ones who'll have to pay for what has happened because of that selfishness. “What about education? Forget education. Cut all the social programs. Let's live for the moment.” And I think that what the black church has always been about, and I think this is what's so important—see, sometimes we believe that the black church—the real issue is that the black church is for the black people—that's not true. The black church is really that Israel place in the Egypt to say that there is a better way, there is hope for the nation, there is faith, there is a divine power that we can turn to.
Look at all of the things that we have done as a nation and see how important that faith motif was. In other words, when we went into wars, we were sometimes outnumbered. Sometimes we did not know—you know, I look at the history and see that what really was the strength and the platform was a deep faith in that which we are not able to see, the ability to transcend. The same way it is today. I don't really believe—I think that the black church is the messenger of hope, the messenger of faith, the messenger of “it does not matter about how oppressed you are, or how denigrated you might be, or how inferior you might be classed as—there is something beyond.”
I think that one of the things that has happened, as I look at it, especially with blacks today, is this sadness that comes as a result of the loss of hope, hopeless personalities that I have to look at. And, you know, if you can preach to people like our fore-parents, that there's a better day. And then, not only is there a better day, I am so optimistic about the better day, that even though I know it will not be for me, I'm happy for you. We as a nation have lost it, we've lost the sight of: “Though it may not be for me, it can be for you.” And if we could ever get back to that—and that's really why the black church has always been.
We have never—I think the black church has never been—just recently we have gotten involved in the issues like black theology and, you know, the concerns about eschatology and numerology and homiletics and all of these other kinds of matters that we argue about as it relates to intellectualizing the importance and significance of our ministry. But the real practical—you know, if Jesus were alive today he certainly would not be a graduate of Harvard. I doubt seriously that he would have even been a graduate of A&T. You know, that was not his mission, you know. He just put into practical reality the best way for us to show how we could live so that we would be able to treat others as if we were the others. “Do unto others as you would have—”
In other words, these real principles by which we are to live—you did not have to teach them to slaves that were brought to this nation. I've always said if there were any real beneficiaries of slavery, it was not the Africans that were brought here on these various search-and-seize missions, but really it was the whites who were given privilege to see people who were oppressed, who suffered, and yet did not learn to hate. Now I know there were those, but by and large those persons who raised those children, white children, and the people who went into the fields and labored—I said this this past Sunday, that even though the first blacks that were brought to this country came as indentured servants, it was not—it naturally, the natural process to expect following that period, would be slavery.
If I have a servant who waits on me and provides for me and gives me what I need, and do what I tell them and go when I tell them to go, when that time of their servitude is to end because of the agreement that we have, I can't let you go now because I have become accustomed to not doing it. In other words, it raises lazy folk, and as a result of that, that's why we have the push-button mentality. We're just lazy. Labor is something we are not interested in. And it's the same way I was saying Sunday, I said even our children are so accustomed to not doing that you can't be surprised when it comes down to really expending energy that they want somebody else to do it. You know, [they say], “Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to go and pick that up?”
Because we have gotten away from the importance of recognizing—I think the scriptures says if the person's not willing to work, they should not eat. So I think we've gotten to the point now where we want others to wait on us, we want others to serve. And I think that probably the only hope, as I see it today for our nation, not for blacks, for this nation is an amending of our ways to the degree that we will hear the words of [Georgia National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] and National Urban League president] Whitney Young who said that “We must come to the point of recognizing we will live together as brothers and sisters or all die together as fools.” What will happen? What will bring about this kind of heart transformation? The only thing I see that will bring about a heart transformation even now in the eighties, as we approach the nineties, is a crisis. It has always been that which actually brings people together, a crisis.
And I think a crisis is at hand, I think if it's not our national debt, something will be so traumatic, so devastating that it will have to bring us together in a common cause. We've got to stop arguing about how much money is being spent for this school and for that school. We will have to say that there is something that is more important than these little private agendas we have, so that people really forget. Two people in a foxhole, this has been proven over again. They're in a foxhole fighting for their lives. One's black, one's white-they become brothers. They smoke off the same cigarette. Because the crisis demands togetherness. And it is that kind of hope, and I guess I sit back here and sort of look for whatever God is going to do, because I think that it will have to come that way. Racial relations are right now, in our city, in Greensboro, to be very honest, if we uncover the matter like we should, if we exegete the real text, we're going to find out that they are not improved, that things are very volatile—that they are volatile, and that there's that possibility of explosion at any moment.
I never will forget when I served as the president of the [Greensboro Pulpit] Forum and I was on the Human Relations [Committee's] Concerned Citizens Review Commission to look at what happened on November the 3rd when these people were killed, and after weeks of labor and interviews and talking, and we'd presented it to the Human Relations and others on the [Greensboro] City Council, it was just pushed under the table. It was nothing. They wanted to do that as a means of saying, “Let's appease those who are concerned, so we can get this matter—so we can become the All-American city that we profess to be.” Crisis.
The city pretty much ignored that.
Oh yes. We spent six months working on that documentation to present it, and tell that we do have real serious racial problems that need to be addressed. And this was a panel of—this was a committee of six whites, six blacks, and all of us were together. We agreed. The report was written, presented. The Human Relations Committee put it under the table. Nobody was really interested because tension had sort of died down as it relates to “Something's got to be done.” While I was president of the Pulpit Forum, [SCLC leader] Joseph Lowery—and I was getting calls every week where groups, national groups, NAACP, all of them wanted to come here and mobilize. [They were saying] “Let's do something, let's show that there's a reason. We need to come back to Greensboro because Greensboro's where it started,” and that kind of thing. And we were sort of holding them off: “Wait a minute. We're working on this thing. Don't come now.”
And really, that was basically what was desired. As president of the Pulpit Forum, [if] I had just said to Joseph at that time, “Come on. Let's bring the national mobilization group team in and let's see if we can focus attention on the real issues,” it would have been different. But having served on the commission and having believed that we were genuinely seeking a resolution and trying to bring about a way of easing the tension, you know, I asked that they would allow us to do it. But really, it was just a farce. It was just not real. They were really not interested.
I worked on the Citizen Review Commission for Alternatives for Incarceration and after working on that, we did all of that, compiled our book, presented it to Jim Hunt who was the governor at the time, and the statement that he made when we suggested that there was a way, there were alternatives to incarceration—we have too many people—we're building too many prisons. It costs $20,000 at that time, $20,000 a year just to house one inmate. We could take that same money and put it into meaningful effort to rehabilitate and to bring people—give them jobs, you know, go back to the era of creating jobs. Just give people a purpose for living.
After he took our report and read it and he said, “I want to assure the citizenry of North Carolina that we're going to build as many prisons as we have to get all criminals off the street.” In other words, it was a waste of my time, almost six or seven months I labored with that commission for nothing, because we're really not interested in really attacking the problem where it is. It's a hard issue and when one stands and talks about inequities and they talk about the inequalities that exist, and then can show the importance of survival of the nation. We don't hear statements anymore like, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country.” Don't be so—be more altruistic—don't let selfishness destroy you. Think about the other person. What have we done for children, for cultivating minds, over the last eight years? Where is public education?
Somebody asked me this the other day, with the magnet school sites and all, what are we really—we really have no real genuine interest in raising a generation that can take this nation up to higher heights. Can't be, because the focus is away from that. The focus is on, now: Let us show our military superiority. Let us show our intellectual—how are we going to be competitive intellectually when we're closing down the factory that produced intellectual power? We want to go to that clone production industry where we take the best minds we know, whoever we decide they are, and we have private schools, and we want to do away with public education, so we can put the best minds we know.
See, when you do that, you close the factory that produces intellectual power to the possibility of raising persons like George Washington Carver or Booker T. Washington or Benjamin Banneker, who laid out the city of Washington. What would we be like as a nation without the stoplight, that was basically identified as being a product of a black man [Garrett A. Morgan]? Where would we be without meat processing, which is basically a product of a black man [Lloyd A. Hall]? Where would we be without the inventive and creative knowledge presented by George Washington Carver—the things that he showed this nation we could do with a peanut.
And what we're doing is closing down the factory of possibility, and I think that our nation—and I love this nation—see, nobody can tell me to go back to Africa. I love Africa because it is the native land, but this land's my home. If there were a contest where I had to fight, I know what side I would have to fight on. This is my home.
You mentioned the shoot-out in November. What do you think, I mean if you can, I'm not asking you to repeat the report that your committee wrote, but what relationship do you think there was between conditions that existed in Greensboro and this tragic event?
What we were able to document was the fact that there was involvement by persons who were in authority that actually gave rise to this incident in the first place. In other words, there were persons who could have actually prevented this confrontation. We knew that, admittedly. And finally, you know, after many trials it was concluded that civil rights had been violated, and that was certainly—because we knew that in the first place. The police department had knowledge. This is documented. We presented this, that we've got to address the fact that we did not act properly.
The police department knew that the Klan were coming on [Highway] 220, already knew that they were armed. There was no real justification for the confrontation, when they knew that this was a possibility, a real possibility. The FBI was already involved. There was a plant already with the Klan. There was no real reason. And I think that what we as a city tried to do was to sweep this under the rug, but it created such a big lump that it has never really gone away. It never will go away. We've tried to pretend it away. But people today even now are still talking about the November third incident. What it has created is a feeling of resentment, more distrust—blacks are not really, they don't really believe, I don't think—I say this as my own personal opinion—that you can really trust the police department even today, with a chief of police who is black.
There is so many things. I had nine persons to be fired from the police department, that I work with, one who happens to be a deacon of this church today, who were fired because of what appears to me to be an improper dismissal. And nothing was ever done. A man lost his job, had three or four heart attacks behind this, moved here because law enforcement was what he always wanted to be. And no real satisfaction. We spent money trying to get them to appeal. We talked to the city manager. But no real progress, because in the private session they said, “Let's leave this alone.” Nine were fired, I think, or eleven maybe. Two were white. Supposedly for using drugs. There was no real evidence that this was ever true. Even one of the officers who sat on the committee to review this concluded that they did not have proper evidence to fire these persons. But it was done.
And we're learning that, you know, people sort of do what they want to. I remember when I was involved as a chairperson of Concerned Citizens against Police Brutality. I was constantly harassed—at that time, Paul Gibson was sheriff—just as a result of that, five of the deputies were fired. That incident involved the person who the police department, or the sheriff's department, had stopped a car and in the process an argument or something started. Anyway they beat this young man and he had a condition that demanded immediate medical treatment after the beating and—
[End of Interview]