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Oral history interview with Pat Patterson by William Link
April 24, 1989
Robert Tyrone Patterson
Robert T. "Pat" Patterson (1941- ) was active in the civil rights movement while a student at North Carolina A&T State University from 1959 to 1963, and served as vice chairman of the Greensboro CORE chapter.
In this transcript of an April 24, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Pat Patterson, Patterson describes events that led to the first sit-ins in 1960, the demonstrations that followed, who participated, and why. He discusses his role in CORE as well as the role of Jesse Jackson, and the long-term effects of the civil rights movement in Greensboro.
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Oral history interview with Pat Patterson by William Link
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
This is William Link and the date is April 24, 1989, and I'm with Mr. Robert Patterson. I'd like to begin by asking you where you were born, and if you can say just a little bit about your early education, how you came to be in Greensboro?
Well, I was born in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Got all of my—went through the educational system there through the twelfth grade. I attended Laurinburg Institute the first five years, and then went to the state school system. At the time I grew up in Laurinburg, Laurinburg Institute educated all the blacks within a twenty mile radius of that city. The state had some kind of contractual arrangement with them where they would pay them so much to educate black kids.
It served as the black high school, the main black high school?
Right. Black high school, elementary, whole nine yards. And I think it was in about when I went to the sixth grade that the state and the county built an elementary school and a high school that was totally state-owned. And I went from the sixth grade through the twelfth grade there in Laurinburg in that school system. And that was about it, as far as my growing up.
In terms of my inter-reaction, or interaction with, with other races there in Laurinburg—you know, it was funny, because I guess it was the kind of thing that, you know, you knew you were segregated and you just kind of accepted it, you know. You'd go to the movie houses and you never thought for once about going in on the main floor. You knew you were going upstairs, upstairs if you were going to the movies. So I didn't really think very much about it back in those days.
That was true pretty much all through your adolescence, childhood and adolescence?
Yeah, pretty much. I guess about my senior year in high school I began to really question the system at that time. But because of the restraints on you from, parental restraints, you know, you kind of—your mom and dad said, “Don't shake the boat.” So you kind of just go along with the program. Even though back in those days I was a member of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], we never really did anything such as having demonstrations. We had our meetings and we talked about some of the injustices that were going on. But we never really did anything, not in Laurinburg.
Did they do voting—anything with voting [unclear]?
No, no voter registration, nothing. I didn't get involved in that until I came to Greensboro.
Did black people vote in Laurinburg? Is that—
Yes. In fact, they did vote. There probably were very, very few blacks that did vote, but they could vote.
Was there a sense when you were in high school that things were going to change? Was there sort of a feeling at all, or was it—say nineteen-fifty—this would have been fifty-eight, would have been?
No, it was '59 when I graduated. I guess the reason I started to begin to think about it was because I knew that I didn't want to teach school. And at that time if you went off to college, if you—well, you know, teaching was about the only thing that was available to you if you were black. And I knew I didn't want to teach. And I wanted to go into something in engineering, something in business. And I knew at that time in the South, there were no blacks working, engineers working for AT&T and some of the places, not in this part of the country. And there sure weren't any black bankers.
And I guess that's when I began to think about it, because I didn't like the idea that I was going to have to go north in order to work in a field that I had decided that I would like to go in. But—and basically I had just, this was something that I had just kind of thought about in my senior year, because that's the time that you start thinking about or start planning a career, start thinking about, you know, really what you, what do you really want to do if you go to college and once you get out. What do you really want to do?
Then I began to think about some of the things. I started to look around at blacks in Laurinburg, and I would think that at that time my high school principal probably was the highest paid professional person there in the city. And while I didn't know exactly what he made, I had, I had a good idea. And I used to think to myself, I'd say, you know, I wouldn't be satisfied with that. And I think that's the reason why I chose to come to A&T [North Carolina A&T State University] and chose to go into engineering, because I didn't want to follow the stereotype of being a teacher. You either—you know, if you wanted to break out of that you had to go to school to be a lawyer or a doctor, something. My parents at that time couldn't afford to send me to school that long a time. So when I went to A&T, I decided to go into engineering.
And too, a lot of it had to do with the fact that math and chemistry and what have you were courses that were the easiest to me. And I just knew that engineering was, that was a field that required that kind of a background. And so I ended up majoring in engineering.
You started at—you began in A&T in the fall—
In the fall of 1959.
What sort of impressions did you have coming from Laurinburg about A&T or about Greensboro? First impressions?
My first impressions—I probably really didn't have much of an impression when I first got here, because Greensboro was a lot more open than where, you know, the place I came from. And I must say, too, that—let me digress just a little here—in Laurinburg, it was such a small town, and my dad had a fairly good reputation in that town. And so somebody saw me—I never will forget in my senior year, that summer—I was riding in a jeep with a white girl. And it didn't dawn on me that you weren't supposed to do that. And when I got home I thought about that. I said, “You know that could've gotten your head knocked off.”
But I guess when I really, when I came to A&T I had thought about some things, but not to the extent that, that I got, that I developed a sharp impression of this town one way or the other. It wasn't until—it was about ten of us, all of which were majoring in engineering, in some facet of engineering, supposed to have been studying for an examination and sit down and just started talking about these kinds of things. You know, not being able to go into a restaurant and sit down. Having to go up to a special window earmarked “For Negroes” at that time.
And it wasn't until then that I really began to understand or see many of the barriers that were thrown up as far as the blacks were concerned, and the possibilities of then being able to do something. It just didn't dawn on me. I think that I was really shocked when I came to Greensboro in that—and it wasn't because where I came from was so much better. [It] was just that I, this was the first time that I ever started really thinking about some of the injustices that were going on at the time.
When you, these ten students that you, ten or so students that you met with, was that early in your—
That was, that was long about January of 1960. We were chatting and we had gotten together and had talked, I believe, in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the summer of 1959, I believe. For some reason blacks in Wilmington started boycotting one of the, one of the soft drink companies for some reason. I don't even remember what it was. And one of the guys that was in that group with me—I can say David Richmond, but it wasn't David Richmond—Joe, Joe McNeil was from Wilmington.
And initially Joe was kind of the leader there on the campus of those few fellows, those few guys. And he and Ezell Blair [now called Jibreel Khazan], I believe, and David Richmond also were engineering majors and ran around in the same old group. And my group, a group of fellows that I sort of palled around with, were a couple of guys from South Carolina and my roommate, and a gentleman—and a guy from New Jersey. And we started talking about all these things.
Basically, at that time what we were talking about were the food establishments out there, F.W. Woolworth and Kress. And to be perfectly honest with you, at that time I wasn't totally committed to do anything, because I thought these guys were just kidding around, and, you know, my parents had sent me to A&T to get an education. And after that discussion that night—it could have been the latter part of January because the sit-ins started out on February one. And I remember it, we sit down and discussed that we were going to go downtown and we were going to sit down. And I was going across campus at the time that next—on February first, and McNeil and Blair, [Franklin E.] McCain and Richmond said, “Come on, Pat, let's go.” I said, “You guys are kidding me,” because they'd gone down the day before and they didn't go through with it.
And I said, “I'm not going to miss my class just to go downtown and we get down there and everybody chicken out.” So I went on to class. And they actually did it on February first. I got involved on February second and was involved up until, I believe, just before school closed in 1963. I did not participate in that sit-in where they sit down in the middle of the square in 1963. I did not participate in that. But most of the things prior to that I was involved in.
But to say that I was very, very aware—I was very naïve about some of the injustices that were taking place at that time. And primarily because, I guess, we had just, you just learned to live with it. You know, you knew it existed, and you got in, you got in fights with little white kids in Laurinburg because they called you names and this kind of thing, but nothing real big ever came out of it. You know, you get in a little fist fight or something like that, get called nigger or something like that, you went on about your business. You got over it.
And part of it had to do with parents, you know. My parents would sit down with us and say, “You know this is the situation. There's no point getting yourself in a whole lot of trouble, you're not going to change it.” You know, you kind of learn to accept it.
So there was a very strong parent, parental admonition about it.
Yeah. I don't think that they were afraid of anything—afraid or anything. But it was just that they didn't feel like at that time that you had—well, you know, we lived in an area where Ku Klux Klan were fairly active. And so consequently, you kind of follow the rules or follow those guidelines that your parents kind of set down. Stay out of trouble. Don't get put in jail. Because, you know, prior to the sixties, very, very few people wanted to go to jail. And that was one of the fears that a lot of the kids had to overcome, the idea that if you go downtown and you sit down, you know, they can yank you off that street and put you in jail for trespassing.
A lot of us were not prepared to do that at that time. I know when I was in Laurinburg I wasn't. And even after I got to, even after I got involved, I'm not so sure that the first few times that I went down that I was prepared to go to jail. I think, though, as things began to, began to take shape, it was pretty obvious that that was going to have to happen. And I don't think at that time all of us, including myself, had thought about all of the ramifications of going to jail. Because I think sometimes you get caught up in the heat of emotion and you do things and think about the consequences later.
I did start thinking about that about the time when I got serious about school and knew that I was going to be graduating. I said now just how much is this going to be held against me? And I felt at that time that in order for me to get a job in an area that I was qualified, I was going to probably have to go North, which I didn't want to do. But I thought I was going to have to do it. In fact, I did. I left here. I worked around here—I drove a cab while I was in school for spending money. And got married right after I got out of school, and for a year or so I supported my family by driving a cab.
And I, for whatever reason, I couldn't get a job at that time. And I even went—I worked for the Greensboro Fire Department. They had a black station over there they called Number 4, on Gorrell Street. And I still was interviewing over at A&T State University and got an interview with Mobil Oil, and left here in 1967 and went to New York to work for about six months.
I didn't like the North. Well, it wasn't so much I didn't like it. It was just that I wasn't going to bring, I wasn't going to take my family into the, into New York. The kind of housing that I could afford in New York was not the kind of situation I wanted to try to raise my family, have my wife and kids running around the neighborhood. I just, I just didn't think it was conducive to raising kids.
So I packed my bag. I didn't pack my bag—I interviewed for a job with the state of North Carolina in 1965, I believe it was. In 1968, they finally got in touch with me, and I went over to Winston-Salem and interviewed for a job. That job came through and I came back to North Carolina.
So, you know, to answer your question about did I have these real, real bad impressions of Greensboro, no, I didn't. Greensboro was a, Greensboro was a step in the right direction, because it wasn't as bad as Laurinburg.
Greensboro was more open?
Yeah, it was more open at that time.
Had more opportunities?
I suppose, in a sense, that the sit-ins were an expression of that openness, that opportunity?
Right. Yeah. You know, and it was funny, you know, back in those days, I think the police department protected us very, very well during that period of time. I think it was in the interest of the city and the interest of not having —Greensboro had a pretty liberal image at that time, or a pretty decent image, as far as race relations. Greensboro worked very, very hard to keep from tarnishing that.
And so consequently, I, that's the reason I think you never, you won't read of anybody getting hurt or killed here like down in Mississippi and Alabama, because—I knew Captain [William] Jackson, who was on the police force, than about as well as anybody I knew in the city of Greensboro. And they did a good job in terms of holding down some of the problems that could have resulted as a result of our marching.
Back to 1960, when the sit-ins at Woolworth's began. Where did the model come from? Where did the idea come from to sit-in? Was that—
I don't know if it came from any particular place, because I don't think at that time that tactic had been used. The whole idea came from the fact that you had to go into Woolworth and there was a place where you could go stand and order your hotdog. We just said we were going to sit down. And the sit-ins kind of got labeled from that.
We decided—we didn't get—they didn't serve us, but we were going to go in and sit down. And that's where that phrase “sit-in,” you know, came from. Because we didn't—I guess it was a tactic, but it wasn't a tactic that we sit down and came up with. It was just the fact we didn't like the idea that we had to, we could go in and stand up and buy it and then we had to leave. We wanted to sit down and be served. And that's how, you know, I think that's how that particular technique came to be.
Spontaneous. Just evolved ad hoc.
Right. Nobody said, you know—we did say we were going to go down there and sit down, and if they don't feed us we're just going sit there. And in fact, that's what happened the first time, they just sit there between two gentlemen [?] and sit there, and they got up and left when they felt like they'd sit there long enough and weren't going to get served. And they had kind of served notice to them that they didn't want to go back there and stand up and give them the hotdog across the counter and then walk out with it.
What was the response in the A&T campus to these events, including the students and faculty and administration?
There was a lot of students that were kind of shocked, you know. A lot of students were asking the question, “What do you hope to gain?” The administration didn't try to stop us from doing it. But it surely wasn't helping them, because, you know, you had people down in Raleigh feeling like we—the chancellor, or the president at that time they called his position—they didn't understand why the president couldn't control those students over there and keep them from going downtown and sitting there, because—and during the time that Dr. [Lewis] Dowdy was president over there, Dr. Dowdy never really asked us not to do it. I think Dr. Dowdy tried to keep himself in a—Dr. Dowdy took the position that we were adults and that to that extent he couldn't control us.
And—but I think at the time that happened, it was a shock to a lot of people. I think we—the kids that went down there—we were shocked that we did it. And after we got through, after the first fear of doing it, more people got involved. And I think it—I don't remember the exact dates, but the Bennett College kids got involved. Most of A&T got involved. Most of the community got involved. And we got a lot of backing from some of the professors at A&T and some of the professors at Bennett College, and some of the people in the [black] community like [dentist] George Simkins. There was a Reverend [Marion] Jones at that time that supported us.
Most of the black community—those professionals that their incomes were not predicated on having a job working for the state or working for somebody here locally, most of the people had their own dental practices or medical practices that really supported us in those days. And a lot of the, a lot of the pastors of the different churches in the city of Greensboro supported us. There again, you know, here again, their incomes were derived from their congregation, and those people, there wasn't but so much pressure that could be put on those people.
And I think to some extent we were fairly, I won't—I'll use the word smart, because I can't think of a better word to use—but at that time, college kids had enough savvy that we knew who could be affected by what we were doing, and we tried as best as we to not draw those people into that. We didn't want, we didn't want kids going around saying, well, so-and-so was not involved. We understood why they weren't involved. I mean, if you were teaching for the City of Greensboro, they could—if they wanted to, whether they did or not I don't know—a lot of pressure could be put on these guys. And you know, after all, we were talking about their livelihood and their ability to send their kids to school and what have you. And so we knew at that time what we were up against and the kinds of people that we probably could draw into that, into that, into the demonstrations during that time.
And then I think there was a certain amount of comfort level that a lot of people got with the thing, because the City of Greensboro Police Department did protect us very, very well. Like when we would have these big marches downtown, we had a lot of the very influential blacks in town—teachers, school teachers and what have you—that got involved in that. They didn't go to jail, but they—we did show a kind of oneness in the black community that there was more than some college kids over there who had a lot of stored up energy just looking to get their kicks, you know, from demonstrating.
So I think that that might have been part of the reason why some things in Greensboro went a little smoother than they did in some other cities, because they knew the kids who were involved. And if you remember, once the sit-ins started in Greensboro, it spread to practically every black city where there were a college in the state of North Carolina. It just kind of spread like a wildfire. It became contagious. And I think that was the thing that kind of broke the back of—that let the people know that the college kids were going to have to be reckoned with.
And I think that for the first time, college kids were able to, to make an assessment that this is something we can do that our parents can't do, because, you know, as long as we use some good common sense about it—there was some danger out there involved in doing that. But I think that for the first time college kids saw that there was an opportunity where they could do something that could help a lot of people. Even help our parents, you know. And I think that a lot of them just boiled it down to that. “This is something that I just got to do.” I mean, you know, “The time has come. Something has to be done, and this is the way, this is the part I can play.”
You know, we could—I didn't like the idea of going to jail. But it was something that each time you got a little closer and a little closer. And you had to start using some other techniques, because just marching and singing, the city of Greensboro kind of gotten used to that. It was the kind of thing that you were trying to use something to get them off dead center.
I remember we used to have negotiating committees. And I have to honestly say that you'd sit down with the business people from Greensboro, and I think they were sincere, but at the same time we just didn't agree. And, but I think things begin, things began to move, and when we started having all those arrests, the theory that—you see, I think, prior the arrests the police department and the city fathers knew or thought that these kids basically come from middle-class families and they don't want to go to jail.
And so it came a time when we had to make the decision that we were going to go to jail and that Greensboro, Guilford County didn't have enough jails to house all of us. And that's, you know, and that basically did happen.
So that was a real turning point?
Yeah. That, I think that was a tremendous turning point, because then I think that the power structure then found out that, hey, these kids are not afraid to go to jail, and you know. I mean, we had so many people they had to put us in the old rest home down on Huffine Mill Road. Some were out at the armory laying on the cement floor and this kind of thing. So that proved to be a very good, a very significant tactic in order to get some people to begin to move from the, to kind of move, get off dead center and try to deal with some of the issues.
Back in the 1960's sit-ins, what—you had very specific objectives, that was to desegregate the national chain of stores, Woolworth's and Kress's.
Kress and Woolworth. And then there was the S&W [Cafeteria], but I don't know if the S&W was national. Kress and Woolworth were national. And then they were probably, were in most, you know, they were well represented all over the country.
And you were dealing with a situation in which you were not asking the city government—I mean, is it correct to say that you were negotiating, or your objectives had to do with Woolworth, Kress, rather than the city?
What was the city's positioning in any kind of negotiation you had with the [unclear]?
Well, I can't say that the city was involved. I will say this. Some very, very influential members of the community were involved. They were very, very concerned about it. I think to a great extent the city—and I don't have any way of backing this up—I think to a great extent the city fathers in Greensboro played a very, very important role in terms of how long it took us to get those places to open up.
And at some point I think they played a role in getting them to open up. Because I think at first, the city fathers did not want to see Kress and Woolworth open up because of what was going to happen. And that was going to throw everything—then, if Woolworth's and Kress open up, then that was going to put the pressure on a lot of local, local organizations, local restaurants. And so I think they fought it to some extent.
Now I don't have any way of proving this, but I think they had some part in the decision that Woolworth eventually made. But at first I think they were saying, “You can't afford to give in to this.” And I think they were looking out for the business people here in the city of Greensboro, which is, which is, you know, as you sit back and think about it, which is understandable. If you're a politician or if you're a mayor, you can understand this.
We wanted that national chains where we can put, let, we can put pressure on them all in a lot of different areas, because it's going to hit that bottom line a whole lot quicker. You know, it's going to, it's going to—when we were able to muster that kind of strength, it was beginning to effect back then.
And I think they knew that if we targeted one small restaurant in the city of Greensboro, we could probably effect that bottom line a whole lot quicker. And it probably would have, would have heightened racial tension even more, because, you know, Greensboro kind of looked at S&W, I mean, F.W. Woolworth as one of those Yankee chains from up North, you know. Although I think when we really started putting the heat on them there, then they had to start thinking about it was going to affect local people. Because we, we picked, also we picked a small firm, the Mayflower [sic, Mayfair] Cafeteria, which was the mayor of Greensboro, well, ex-mayor—
Yeah—had, you know, and he was very emphatic about it. I never seen a guy got so angry when we decided to go out to his place. At first, it was the kind of thing that Kress and Woolworth were the biggest organizations to go at, and they were kind of big. And then as when we began to get into that thing, we said—
—[unclear] some of the things that were going on the city, having been an ex-mayor. So you know, at that time we were, we were using a lot of different techniques to try and get what we want[ed]—what we thought was right then.
That leads me to another question, and that's what kind of structures emerged out of this in 1960? Now you mentioned after the Woolworth's sit-in of February 1960, the, there was a spread of a similar kind of thing to other campuses in the state of North Carolina. Was there much coordination, state-wide? And to what degree was there?
Well, not an awful lot. You know, I think SNCC grew out of that, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee grew out of that.
That was organized in Raleigh.
Yeah, yeah. That grew, it grew out of that. And CORE began to get into—the Congress of Racial Equality—began to get in there and get into the act, and they had these bus rides down to Mississippi. Some of us that were here in Greensboro organized a local CORE chapter here.
And—but—and at that time, then things began to become—CORE made it much, much better, because one of the things that helped us was that Greensboro had a local NAACP chapter that was really very strong, that was really very active. George Simkins and some of the other folks had done some things prior to Woolworth's [unclear] I think they tried to integrate the city swimming pool. They were very instrumental integrating the old Gillespie Park golf course. So you know, a lot of things had gone on prior to some of the things we, the things that we were doing.
And I think that within itself, too, made it a little easier for us to do something here in Greensboro, because some things had happened that led us to believe that it would not be prudent to get out and [unclear]. Because you did have—there was some very, very strong leadership in this town.
The organization CORE was—took place at local initiative on campus when this was first organized?
That wasn't an on-campus kind of thing. If my memory serves me correct, CORE sent a field person into town, and I can't even remember the guy's name. And so that was—CORE sent in some folks to organize that, and those of us that had leanings towards CORE kind of moved in that direction— Bill Thomas, Lewis Brandon, and some of the people I can't even recall their names. I can't even remember them any more. Reverend [A. Knighton] Stanley.
That's when we organized a local CORE chapter and became affiliated with the national group out of New York. And I believe Jim Farmer at the time was, was the head of that organization.
Was, was it at this point that—did the strategy change at any time after this? After—was there a clearer strategy?
Yes, strategies began to change, and prior to that it was mostly a student thing. But I think we began to get a lot of mature, mature individuals that had been involved in these kinds of things, whether it was a direct confrontation or not, but people that had been involved in these things over a lot of years to, to kind of bring some organization, bring some maturity to the group.
And by this time we had been involved in this thing about two or three years. And I think that that helped a whole lot, because I think a lot of the college kids—you could warn them down if you hadn't had somebody there to keep telling them, saying, “Hey, you don't change these things overnight. You've got to develop some—you've got to do some planning. You've got to have some good organization. You've got to find a way to keep the community conscious of the fact that these are some things, these are the things that we want to do.”
So I think it was about that time that those kinds of groups began to come in, and there was a great deal of more organization and, and a lot more of experience in how you, how you attack these problems.
The spring and summer, or early summer of 1963, was a period of heightened activity. Day after day of marches, demonstrations in Greensboro. What would—what was—what set the stage for that? Was this very conscious, very planned?
I think that was about the time that, that, as I mentioned earlier, that—I don't believe before that anybody had gone to jail. And things were, things were not moving. And I think we knew then that we were going to have to do some things were a little bit more.
That was right after those bus rides down. And if you remember, I think it was in '62, late '62, early '63, that they had the bus ride down to Mississippi. I think it was at that time that we decided that, you know, we were going to have to use something besides marching and laying down, sitting down, in order to get things up some. And that's when, I think that's when we started having all these marches and just drove this busload of people getting put in jail and this kind of thing.
And I think that's also, that too, also led to, to sit-ins up there in the square, because that was the end of the school year in 1963. The reason I remember is because I was going to catch a bus to New York to get a job so I could make enough money to come back to school.
What, to what extent did—well, I gather community involvement was much greater at this point, had been growing for several years. What were some of the mechanisms of drawing in the community?
We used to have rallies in churches. We had rallies around town, in churches. We'd—at that time we began to get a lot of locals involved, I mean high school students. Bill Thomas grew up here and when he [unclear] a senior at Dudley High School, a junior when I first started. He got actively involved.
We used to have rallies up at Providence Baptist Church and they were—Jim Farmer would come in and give speeches. We started, and they had, like I say, they had field people down there that organized, helped us organize students and kind of give the students some guidance in terms of what you ought to be doing. And we never got as radical—well, I don't know, I won't say we were that radical. Just the mere fact they'd get on a—get a bus load of folks to ride down to Mississippi talking about freedom rides caused problems, you know. We didn't ever do anything, we didn't ever do anything quite that drastic.
But then, I think you have to think, too, that Greensboro, Greensboro wouldn't have paid very much attention to that, because that would not, that would not have been so obnoxious to Greensboro, so against the grain that they, that they probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it.
Down in Mississippi and Alabama, that was just something you weren't supposed to do. It was—they—I think that your, where your place was, was a little bit stronger once you got down in South Carolina and a little further south. Your position was more, more clearly defined.
So, but it was about that time that things began to—and also we had a, we had a minister who was working for A&—wasn't working for A&T but was working for a congregation, the Congregationist church we had. He was, he was one of our advisors. We had advisors during that time. There was Reverend [John] Hatchett who was a, who taught religion at Bennett College. And I can't remember the other guy. But also Doctor [Elizabeth] Laizner who was a Ph.D. over there.
We had a lot of people who had good stature in the community. And also, probably had a better—[pause] probably entered into this thing less emotional than the students did, and kind of advised us as to, you know, what is the worst scenario, what is the worst thing that can happen here that you need to be, you need to be concerned about.
Like, I had an instructor. While she was not involved, she used to constantly counsel me. She said, “Pat, I understand what you're doing. I can appreciate what you're doing. But you've got to keep all this stuff in perspective.” She'd tell me, “Your grades are not looking too good. You know, sooner or later you've got to make up your mind that you're going to become a professional demonstrator or you're going to balance this thing.”
And so I think even, even in '63 this thing had kind of peaked, because I think it was '63 that Jesse Jackson kind of got involved. And there—Jesse was, Jesse was the president of A&T, the student body. So a certain amount of organization came about because of some people that were getting involved in the thing.
And—but CORE, there were CORE and then the local NAACP, George Simkins and his folks. We got a lot of support from the adult professional community. The adult community period. We were also getting some direction from the Friend, I don't know if it was Dick Ramsey that was, was with the [American Friends Service Committee], that had a position, I can't remember what it was. Dick was a person who believed in organization, and he influenced our thing some, too. And so we developed a certain amount of sophistication about what we were doing. We weren't just rabblerousing. We weren't out to get anybody hurt. We wanted to see change take place. We were willing to bend.
—we did have some of our fellows involved in that to talk to us and kind of calm, calm down those emotional students. You know, I think there was a tendency on our part to, at that time, to not feel like you had a hell of a lot to lose, because, you know, if you lived in the South at that time, about the most thing you could do is teach school and most of us didn't want to do that. But you know, it was the kind of thing where, you know, it doesn't really matter that much. And if you left here and went North they were going to say, “Well, you know, if I'd been down there I'd have been with you.” So it wasn't going to hurt you too much if you had to go across, north of the border, because at that time that's where most of the kids from North Carolina, unless they were teaching, were going anyway.
You know, people want to get a job over at Proctor & Gamble, it certainly wasn't going to be in Greensboro. It's going to be in Cincinnati or it's going to be someplace else. If you were going to work for Lorillard, it's wasn't going to be in Greensboro, it's going to be in New York City or out in the Midwest or someplace. And that was fairly clear.
You mentioned earlier, before we took, turned the machine on, about, about leadership style and some objectives of that leadership style perhaps were not to gain publicity, to gain publicity or to gain high visibility.
No. No. Because there were times when we had a little dissention in the ranks where some of our people that belonged to CORE were saying, you know, “This person or that person is getting is getting, is getting recognition for something that he ought not be getting it for.” Mainly Jesse Jackson.
Jesse was a very, Jesse brought something to the sit-ins in Greensboro that wasn't there prior to his coming in. Jesse had become the president of, of the student body at A&T. That student body would kind of follow him. And those of us that had been working in the trenches for the previous two years, some of us didn't like it.
And we used to sit around sometime and talk about that and say, you know, “Hey, we're not out here to get a whole lot of notoriety or publicity for this. It's fine if he gets credit for doing that. That's great.” And that was the time that Rev. Stanley was particularly very important to the group, because he'd say, “Hey, you know, our goal is not to get a whole lot of publicity. Our goal is to cause change. And unless—” you know, “We cannot afford to lose sight of that because somebody thinks that somebody else is getting a little bit more publicity than somebody else.”
And so we used to kind of sit around and plot and plan and kind of, we kind of manipulate[d]—I don't like to use that word—but we kind manipulated some people, because—you know, saying, “Hey, you know, it's not important who gets the publicity. The important thing is that we get the job done and get, obtain the goals that we set out to obtain.”
But then there are some people—until today—every time that Jesse decided to run for political office, when he had run for president, I'd get calls from people saying, “You know, you ought to knock pegs out from under him and you know, cut off—.”
And at—but—and, you know, my thing has always been that there were certain people that, because of the notoriety and the publicity they got out of that, was able to, to launch a career in that kind of thing. And when I think back, I don't get upset about it, because that's not my style. I'm not a politician. I'm not a preacher. I'm not the barnstorming type of individual. So it didn't, didn't bother me.
And even today, you know, I try to moderate some of these things. I ask people, I say, you know, “You know, you're concerned about that. Why are you concerned about it?” And I says, “You do not have the personality to fit that kind of appearance. I mean, you're not a politician.”
Jesse is a very good speaker. He's politically motivated. And for whatever reason—and I think I know what his reasons are—I think he wants to see change. But then some of us have bigger egos than others. And I knew deep down in my own mind that that was not a part that I could play. And so it never bothered me at all. I'd never get upset about what Jesse may have accomplished as a result of being involved in the civil rights movement. Because, you know, I kind of look it like a play. You cannot have—you got to have supportive stars, supporting actors. Everybody cannot be a star. And you have, somehow or another, you have to, you have to be able to deal with that. And I know some people who, they're not dealing with it now and it's been, what, it's been twenty-nine years. And they aren't dealing with it yet.
But I think that's, that's the price you pay for progress. You're going to have a little dissention. You're going to have some people that don't particularly agree with what somebody else gets out of it, you know. I think you—we've moved into the political arena now and I think that there are some people still holding some grudges. And all I say it's unfortunate for those people to think that way.
I personally, I've reconciled within my own mind that I'm playing the part that I can play, that I think I can best play. And I think Jesse is playing the part that he can best play because of his personality. Lewis Brandon, I think Lewis is playing that part that he can play. Lewis is working in the educational system, and he's doing a good job. He's affecting some young kid's lives now that, by being involved in the sit-ins, he can sit and talk with some kids, and there's a certain amount of believability about what he's saying. He works at the, at Gillespie [Junior High], the special school for the city of Greensboro. He—and Lewis can relate to those kids. I mean he can, he can sit down and talk to those kids and they believe him, whereas an old stuffed person with their blue pinstriped suit can go over there and no one would think he's making sense [?]. But they believe him, because they know that he got involved. And what he's telling them has some believability [?] about it.
So, and you know, when I look back and think about myself, how I was involved, I was always, I was never a big rabble-rouser. I was a fairly quiet, calculating type of individual. And I think being in—I think people see me in this position and they can relate to that, whereas they could not relate to me, I don't think, in some things, some other things, because it just didn't fit me as a person.
And I think it's funny how things work out. If you kind of, if you kind of go in a direction that you set down and plan for yourself, and what fits you as an individual, I think overall you meet with more success than if you're trying to force yourself to become something that you aren't. I could no more be what Jesse Jackson is doing than a blind man. And I just, I just accept that.
And of all the people that were involved in the civil rights movement in Greensboro, Jesse by far is the most famous one of all. And I think that—I don't have any problems with it. Because I think that to a great extent what has happened to Jesse, Jesse had a lot to do with it. It wasn't just because that this man's in the jumping off place. But he paid some hell of a dues. Because I remember when, Jesse and I both graduated the same year, and Jesse had an opportunity to go to Duke University on a scholarship, and Jesse chose to go to Chicago.
Now to me, it wasn't coincident that Jesse chose to go to Chicago. Martin Luther King had planned a specific program in Chicago during that summer, and I knew Jesse was going to get involved. All of Jesse's—people that he looked up to during the whole time we were in school were ministers. And Martin Luther King was the top one at that time. And Jesse left here in, I think it was the summer of '63, and went up to the University of Chicago. Got involved with Martin Luther King. He became one of Martin Luther King's lieutenants, and from there he moved on. And I just know that I couldn't fit that role, so it doesn't bother me.
And then again, I likened it to what I was saying. You know, it's like being on a stage. Somebody got to play the support role. Everybody got a part to play. And everybody can't be worried about who's the star. If everybody's going be a star, you're not going to have a very good program. And I think that's the way it—in terms of success, probably if you look back to what happened back there, and ask people, “Who was the most successful person involved in that, that was associated with the movement?”, they'd point, point to Jesse. And it's all because, you know, he runs for president.
And I'm not so sure that—course I'll say this—I'm not so sure that every black person walking on this Earth right now couldn't run for president of this country, doesn't make any difference because it's Jesse. I think Jesse, right now, I think Jesse's probably the best person fitted for what he's doing right now. There are very few people that can stand flat-footed. There are not many people can knock Jesse off his feet. He thinks well on his feet, which I think you have to be able to do. So you know, I think he plays the role pretty good. Even though, even though I don't agree with everything he says, all the tactics that he uses. But I know, I think I know what his overall objective is.
What was—in 1963, what was the thing that Jesse brought to the movement? Did he bring a large following or popularity?
Well, I think he broadened the base. There were a lot of college kids at A&T that could relate to Jesse that didn't relate too well with us. It then became an A&T function, as opposed to a function of a few students of A&T, like myself and several other kids, maybe fifteen or twenty. But then you had that total college campus that kind of got involved in that. And I think by the sheer numbers it helped.
And so, I think he played a very, very important role. And like I say, some of us realized what was going on and said, “Hey, this movement is bigger than any of us. And while we've got a little bit of dissention in the ranks about who was getting the proper recognition and that, we've got to control this thing, try to balance, keep them in the fold and move on.”
Were there any other divisions in the leadership?
Not really. Not really.
In the personality?
Jesse kind of had a kind of a personality that you either warmed—you'd feel real fuzzy about him or you kind of, you know—and I think that that was the problem. It was kind of like, you know, I—so you'd feel real comfortable around him or you, you know—well, I hate to say this, but Jesse's the kind of person that left very few people sitting on the fence when it comes to it. You either warm up to him, real warm, or you're lukewarm, or you're way over here, just totally cold. That's just the kind of personality he had.
And you know, it's extremely tough to be everything to everybody, and sooner or later you have to, you know, you have to—you soon learn that you're not going to be everything to everybody. And you have to go on and try to deal with those people that you can deal with and move on.
To what extent was the movement in 1963 influenced by external events? For example, the Birmingham marches were very similar, seems to me, or some similarities. Is this going to happen anyway, do you think?
I don't think that had a lot to do with what was going in Greensboro. I think a lot has been said about that. Some people have said that we stole, we stole some ideas from other places. And really, I can honestly say that I don't think that happened. I really think—and I'm honest about this—is that we knew what was going on in Birmingham, and I think we kind of considered ourselves a little bit more fortunate than the folks in Birmingham because of the position Bull Connor took down there and some of the positions from other folks too.
And their situations were a lot, lot tougher than our situation. And I think we were very, very thankful about that, because I don't think anybody wants to be sitting in church and the church gets blown up. And I think that we were able to do some things here because it wasn't a life-threatening thing [unclear], whereas in Alabama it was life threatening to get involved.
I did some—I traveled to New Orleans, and I thought I was a fairly brave fellow until—and I don't know, maybe it was a figment of my imagination, but it seemingly, when we crossed the South Carolina state line, it just seemed like everything became overcast. It seemed like a totally different world. And, you know, prior to that I thought North Carolina was pretty bad. And even the eastern part of North Carolina was a lot worse than it was [laughs] in the area that we're in now. Because I remember going to Warrenton to start some demonstrations down there and I was living in an upstairs room over a shop, and people came by shooting.
Nothing like that ever happened here. The closest danger that I remember was a guy charged me on the picket line. And before he could get—I glimpsed him out of the corner of my eye—and before he could even get near me, the police and the FBI had him like that [snaps fingers]. And I don't think the same kind of thing happened in some of the other cities.
So while what we were doing was fairly dangerous for around here, it wasn't as dangerous as some other places. It didn't take as much nerve as it took in Mississippi and Alabama. It was fairly rough. I was—the whole attitude was totally different. I mean, I don't think—I think there was very, very few people here that wanted to see college kids get shot at. But I'm not so sure about Alabama and Mississippi. Shooting a black person down there was like shooting a mule, or shooting a hog, or shooting cattle, some cattle, or something like that. And I don't believe they even looked at us as human beings.
The police in Greensboro were quite good, as you said before—
Well, I, I—they did a good of protecting us.
But you know, we were paying—we were giving up some money to give them the kind of information they were given. They were, to some extent, they were controlling us, because we developed a false sense of security after awhile that the police department was protecting us. And we kind of did some things that they, we did things that they wanted us basically to do so they could have some input into it, how we're going to do it and when we're going to do it.
And a couple of times it was pretty obvious when we threw them off and we didn't maintain that timetable they got a little, they got a little bent out of shape. But I think the good thing about that is that when we, when we were going to not do something that the police was not totally aware of what we were doing, we knew what risk we were running. So all those things that happened helped them along.
But the city fathers, the people in Greensboro, I think, charged the Greensboro Police Department with, “We don't want any big blow up in this city.” And the police department went to no end to try to, to try to control it.
What do you think, in retrospect, was the greatest accomplishment of the civil rights movement? To what extent —behind the questioning is how well you think these changes, how effective have these changes been? What sort of effect have they had is sort of the big question?
Well, I think it brought about some things that none of us—well, I don't guess we could have known before it happened. Like for an example, I would think in Greensboro, you know, you have fewer black teachers teaching school. Hadn't thought about that. I don't think when we had the sit-ins that we realized that once we opened the doors, the key then was going to be if you had enough money to go on and avail yourself to [unclear]. Those were some of the things that we didn't think about.
I don't know if that was the time to think about it, though. It became, it became clear to me that Greensboro was going to open up. First day in February of 1960. And they wouldn't have had too many others in there, because there weren't many of us who could afford to go in there in the first place. And so some things that there had—we—like for example, we've lost some, we've lost some key positions—
[End of Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
I don't get really uptight about it, because I think what has happened is we have broadened the base of role models. I think prior to 1960, you know, you could aspire to be a black lawyer, a black doctor, or a school teacher, basically, if you were going to be a professional. Now I think even though there's not a lot of it, but I think you have people in banking, you know, you've got a black [unclear] in Winston-Salem, you know.
So I think what we gave up in those classrooms and those principalships, we gained them in other places. So I think now a young black kid can almost aspire to be anything he wants to be, because there's somebody out there to serve as a role model. Even though we gave up some major black principals we had—you know if you had separate but equal educational systems, you, whatever you—you had your black president here, the black president here, black principal, black principal, two, one white school in town, one black, you know, one black principal, you know, and a white principal. You go to some of these smaller cities now where they've merged, you've lost that black principal. And a lot of us got very, very concerned about that.
But I think if you really look at integration, at what it, what it was originally intended to do, I think we did not realize that we were going to lose some things but in the process we were going to gain some others. And I think that those persons that look at the short run are the ones that get a little bit concerned about some of the things that happened over the last fifteen, twenty years.
But I think over the long haul, even though I think things right now are static, you know, and there are a lot of reasons for it. I think that whether Reagan did it on purpose or not, I think he set back race relations in this country ten years. And it wasn't so much what he did, it was what he didn't do. And I think it—you reach a point where people say, you know, “Just how much [unclear]?”
And, but—you know, right now I think things are a little static, but I think, I think—I don't think that you can continue to hold progress back. I think that it, through some form, the momentum will be regained and you're going to see some things. I think we've still got another period to go through where it's almost like it was back in the sixties.
I think there are a lot of people who are kind of, kind of drifted away. A lot of blacks have gotten into fairly decent positions and they've kind of lost sight of what the overall goals were. So they're just kind of meandering along right now. And I think that, I think there's another chapter. And I don't, and I'm not saying it's going to be a big upheaval. I just think that there's another chapter here that's going to have to be written, and people are going to have to realize that there's still some work that needs to be done. And I don't think it's going to be earth-shattering.
But then I look at my kid. My kid grew up in a very, very middle-class—possibly above middle-class when you compare—middle-class black. And so consequently, there's some things that he doesn't concern himself with, because he's had affairs with a lot of [unclear]. And I think that what's happening right now, though, is a lot of—and I think he finally saw that when he graduated from college, because he didn't make the kind of grades that he could command a good-paying job. He's having to painfully now sort of [unclear] work place, but it didn't pay to come out here. His grades and his degree did not command the kind of salary that he thought he wanted. Of course he's having to pay the price. And I think that's going to happen. I think that's happening more and more with, with black kids. And I hope they're become more and more, more and more conscious about what is going on [?].
But I think you're going to have that, I think we're going to have a—I don't think that the potential violence is as great as it was back in the sixties. But I think it'll happen, but I don't think that the potential for violence is there.
[End of Interview]