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Oral history interview with William Snider by William Link


Date: October 1, 1987

Interviewee: William D. Snider

Biographical abstract: William Snider (1920- ) served in editorial positions on both the Greensboro Record and Greensboro Daily News from 1951 to 1982.

Interviewer: William Link

Description:

In this transcript of an October 1, 1987, oral history interview conducted by William Link with William Snider, Snider primarily discusses the history, traditions, and staff of the Greensboro newspapers and the history of race relations in Greensboro. He describes his experiences with and newspaper coverage of the Brown decision and Greensboro school desegregation, the February 1, 1960, and subsequent sit-ins, and the school integration of 1971.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.579

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Civil Rights Greensboro and the appropriate repository.



Oral history interview with William Snider by William Link

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

WILLIAM LINK:

—and the date is Oct 1, 1987. We're here with Mr. William Snider. And Mr. Snider, I wonder if you could tell me a little about your background and when you were born, where you were born, your early schooling.

WILLIAM SNIDER:

Bill, I was born in Salisbury [North Carolina], and went to University of North Carolina [at] Chapel Hill and graduated in 1941 in journalism. I worked briefly for Salisbury Evening Post and then went into the military, the U.S. Army, in India and Burma and served there for two and a half to three years. I came back and worked for the Salisbury Post for a while and became private secretary for Governor Gregg Cherry in 1948 and special assistant to Governor Kerr Scott. In 1951, I came to Greensboro as associate editor for the Greensboro Daily News, and became the editor in 1965, and the editor of the Greensboro News and Record in 1971, and vice president, and retired in 1982.

WL:

I'm wondering about your earliest, earliest memories—you came to Greensboro in—

WS:

1951

WL:

1951?

WS:

Yes.

WL:

What kind of place did Greensboro strike you as being?

WS:

Well, let me tell you a little bit about my experience and my views of Greensboro in those days. I came out of the political situation as—on the inside of state government for about three or four years, and had a chance to go to Charlotte or to come to Greensboro—I had the chance to go to the Charlotte News. And I decided to come to Greensboro, because I looked on Greensboro in those days as being rather progressive and forward-looking in its social work with community problems. It seemed to me they were doing some pioneering work in local government, and Greensboro had a splendid reputation as an education community. It was a manufacturing town, but at the same time it had a rather interesting, diverse population—a very strong Jewish population which was influential in the community with Cone Mills. And I felt Greensboro was a little more interesting place to come.

WL:

Did you—what sort of impressions did you have of race relations when you came to Greensboro, both before and after, and did they differ?

WS:

Greensboro, of course, reflected the traditionalist views of the South as far as race relations were concerned. “Separate but equal” was considered to be a way of life. And while we had here a strong black community, focused and coalesced around [North Carolina] A&T State University—there were here all the manifestations of the South that we're familiar with. At the same time there was a strong academic flavor here of the state colleges and universities, and private institutions like Quaker—and like the Quaker institution of Guilford [College] and Greensboro College, which made this community, I think, rather open, or more open to new ideas than perhaps other communities might be. It seemed to be in those days that Greensboro might be ready to move somewhat out of the traditional attitudes.

In addition to that, the Greensboro Daily News was a very strong and influential newspaper. And in those days, as you might consider liberal by Southern terms, was known to be progressive. That was reflected in people like Gerald Johnson, later the biographer and the editor in Baltimore; Lenoir Chambers, who was later the Pulitzer Prize winner and editor in Norfolk; and by a series of editors and publishers who, it seemed to me, led the community, rather than reflecting it. And my view was that this community could handle a great many things that perhaps some other North Carolina communities could not handle within the context of the situation as existed in those days. This proved to be the case, because in 1954 when the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision was handed down, there was quite a bit of activity in that area to support the Supreme Court decision.

I remember vividly a group of people who came around to my house—I was a young man of just thirty-two or [thrirty-]three years old then, and—it included Edward Kidder Graham, the chancellor at the University [of North Carolina at Greensboro, UNCG], and Edward Hudgins, who was the general counsel of Jefferson Standard [Life Insurance Company]. And I remember them particularly. There were others who were—decided that we—Ed Hudgins, you understand, was chairman of the school board at that time—and we decided that we would try to do all we could to perhaps persuade Greensboro that we ought to at least not take the negative position on this issue, which of course would be taken widely across the South.

And this group, then, was somewhat enlarged, because I was in touch with newspaper editors in Charlotte—Reid Sarrat in Winston-Salem and Pete McKnight in Charlotte. And we decided that we would—this is incidentally something that perhaps you wouldn't do in these days. The press might not be as aggressive about joining forces in various cities and trying to be persuasive. But at any rate, by 1957, after the city school board under Mr. Hudgins' leadership came out to say it would support the Brown decision and would try to do all it could to carry out and implement what it had decreed, we then decided with working with the school people in Charlotte and Winston and Greensboro to do what we could to perhaps encourage not integration, but the first step in desegregation of the schools in the three communities simultaneously. This was to be done in September of 1957, which ironically was the same time that President Eisenhower sent the troops to Little Rock [Arkansas], and this of course dominated the news in that day.

We did succeed in getting the three schools to begin the process. Each of them then decided that black students would be admitted to individual schools in each of the communities. And that was the year that in which the three communities of Greensboro, Winston, and Charlotte broke the mold of total segregation. This didn't seem to be much of an achievement, of course it wouldn't seem so much today, but if you go back in those days it was a considerable achievement.

WL:

What were the particulars of this, of the, the program? Was it simply an open admissions?

WS:

It was, it was to allow a black student to enroll in a predominately white—in a totally white school for those days. And the first student was admitted in Greensboro, and in fact, was admitted, they were admitted in each of the three communities that fall. They had a rough time. The—Ben Smith, the superintent of schools here, had dreadful things happen to him, such as cross burnings and deliveries of coal and flowers and other things to his door. Harassment—there was, there were elements to Klan here. All of us, in fact, we were so identified with this that the same kinds of things to happen to us. I had crosses burned in my yard. I lived in a little cracker-box house in Kirkwood. And I was away one weekend and this happened, and my wife called Mr. Hudgins. And they broke, they smashed the windows out of our house—in fact, where our small children were sleeping. So we had a rather interesting time in those days. Of course it was not of much significance, because there were larger things happening on the national scene. But that experience sort of dominated my view of how things were working in Greensboro in those days.

WL:

Did—how would you characterize the general reaction of Greensboro to the Brown decision of 1954?

WS:

Well, I think the community tended at first to be somewhat tentative, but mostly negative. I think there were varying views. There were, there were numbers of people here, in the academic community particularly, and some in the business community and elsewhere, who thought that there should be some effort to comply with the law of the land. And while I think that the predominate view perhaps was negative, I think there was a certain force of leadership here which allowed at least the initial breakthrough from the completely segregated schools. That created a great deal of turmoil in those days. And of course, as you know, it later led into the sit-ins and to the marches led by Jesse Jackson in the early sixties, which, all of which, constituted quite a, quite a focus on Greensboro as a place where these things had happened.

Now my view of Greensboro would be that they happened in Greensboro because the community was perhaps a little bit more open than the average Southern community to allowing this kind of change to begin even in a very small way. And my view is that this might not have, have happened and did not indeed happen in certain other communities. But there was in North Carolina—unlike in Virginia and South Carolina and others where massive resistance took place—a certain openness or feeling of fairness about perhaps trying to move a little bit in this direction.

The Pearsall Plan came along under [NC governor] Luther Hodges, and this was seen by many people—many, I would say knee-jerk liberals said, oh, this is just a way to keep the schools closed to blacks. But actually the Pearsall Plan was two-edged, there were two sides of the coin to the Pearsall Plan. The Pearsall Plan allowed communities like Greensboro and Winston and Charlotte to move tentatively forward, but at the same time allowed an escape valve for those communities which were not able to do it in more rural and more provincial areas of the state. And my view is that the Pearsall Plan—we supported the Pearsall Plan in Greensboro. Some other papers did not. We did, because we felt it allowed a freedom of action and a right to choice about a very difficult subject. And therefore we did not in North Carolina go the way of Virginia in closing schools.

Later, of course, many people said, “Well, it took you longer to complete the action, because you didn't break the egg thoroughly. It would have been better if you had, had not.” But it always seemed to me that it was far better to make a start at something that needed to be done than to keep all the doors closed.

WL:

So the Pearsall Plan was a genuinely moderate—a genuine attempt to decentralize the decision [unclear]?

WS:

Yes, Governor Hodges I—I knew Governor Hodges well in those days and knew what he was attempting to do. I knew Mr. Pearsall well. And they were interested a conscientious effort to allow some movement in the more forward-looking communities. At the same time, not creating the kind of backlash in the rural areas that would defeat what they were trying to do. I don't want to overspeak this, you understand. I think these people were rather traditional in background, but they were not unenlightened. In some ways they were thoughtful, and they were looking out for what they thought were best interests.

Governor Hodges was much opposed to views taken by Beverly Lake in those days, who was a strong proponent of segregation and later was an associate of Jesse Helms and that group of political people in North Carolina. But it seemed to me that Governor Hodges was a genuine moderate and later served, of course as you know, in the cabinet of President Kennedy. So my own view was that North Carolina had a fairly good moderate kind of leadership for the South of those days.

WL:

Let's go back a little bit and—about ten years before, if you don't mind—and talk about the impact of the Second World War. You're a veteran of that war. Just—not only in Greensboro, but generally, your experience of the South—did the war affect race relations in the South?

WS:

The war was a great revolution. Of course there's no doubt about the fact that millions of young men went off away from home for the first time, were exposed to all of the influence and the ideas beyond their own provincial areas, and came back, I think, changed. And I think that when President Truman began the first steps toward desegregation in the military forces, and the blacks and whites served together in the war, there was no way there would not be great change in attitudes of people and great movement toward abolishing “separate but equal.”

WL:

Was there a sense that change was going to take place?

WS:

I think the war did create this feeling when people came back. And I think particular this was reflected in, as I say, the beginning of it with President Truman and his activities, which of course were greatly opposed in many areas, but actually constituted the beginning of the movement toward desegregation.

WL:

The state government of North Carolina, of course, was widely acknowledged to be among the more progressive governments, more efficiently run in the South [unclear]—

WS:

As it would seem in those days, because V.O. Key, as you remember, in his book on southern politics, actually saw North Carolina then as a little different from the rest of the South. And the thing is North Carolina was. North Carolina's never had the “Old South” colonial influence of the great planners of the rural areas that other states have had. Unlike Virginia, which relied on a public schools system, rather than private schools, it has reflected that kind of upland independence and stubbornness and point of view which did not go along with the traditional Old South view.

WL:

The main reason you came to Greensboro I guess was, as you said earlier, was this reputation Greensboro had as being progressive forward-looking. The—I'm interested also in the tradition of the Daily News, and what sense you had that the Daily News was part of a larger tradition of Southern liberal journalists?

WS:

Well, it seemed to me that the Daily News was much in tradition of Ralph McGill in Atlanta, and Lenoir Chambers in Norfolk, and Jonathan Daniels in Raleigh. Of course the News and Observer was an interesting publication, because it was a strongly segregationist paper under Josephus Daniels earlier. And his son Jonathan, of course, turned that around in beginning his service with Roosevelt during World War Two. But I saw the Daily News as being a thoughtful, independent kind of newspaper which was not entirely predictable in its views, but would—I was impressed with the caliber of the editors and the thrust of its leadership in journalism.

WL:

And it had what would be called for today a liberal, a Southern liberal point of view?

WS:

Yes. Let's be sure we understand that when we say that. We say that for it's time and place, it represented something other than the traditional traditionalists' point of view in North Carolina and in the South.

WL:

But it was very much in the tradition of Southern liberal journalism of the twentieth century?

WS:

Yes. Yes it was.

WL:

As in McGill and as in John Temple Graves, sort of [unclear]—

WS:

Right, right.

WL:

One of the reactions—there's a body of negitive reactions that comes out of the Brown decicion. And some of it is expressed violently. Other parts of it, I guess, or another type of opposition to Brown is expressed in another way, and that is to resist the decision. I wonder if you could comment just on the nature of opposition to desegregation? Or is it that simple. Maybe I'm mischaracterizing that.

WS:

Well, the Pearsall Plan worked in North Carolina for its time. There were no schools closed as a result. The process of desegregation moved pretty slowly in North Carolina, but it did not create a massive confrontation of the kind that you had in Virginia, for example. As I say, people differ as to whether or not this is good or bad, and whether or not it was better to go ahead and do the job and do it immediately and get it done.

However, my feeling was that the leadership of North Carolina did a pretty successful job. Governor Hodges was succeeded by Terry Sanford as governor and Terry Sanford represented a liberal for those times, and for these, I suppose. His administration proceeded with what Hodges had done, particularly positive side. And it seemed to me that we had in North Carolina a fairly, a fairly good leadership. We reverted to a more moderate conservative kind of government under Dan Moore after Terry Sanford—who Dan Moore succeeded in defeating Sanford's candidate for governor, Richardson Pryor, in 1964. But even at that, Dan Moore was not the kind of conservative of the yoke of Beverly Lake, who also ran in that campaign. It was rather interesting. North Carolina seemed to me in those days—and I wrote about this many times—seemed to me always take sort of the middle way. Rather than being strongly liberal or strongly conservative, it tended to take a point somewhere between those two points, and its government has certainly shown that. Its leadership has certainly shown that in most of the time I can remember. I think that's persisted up until this day, in fact.

WL:

What is your perception, or what was your perception, of the developments inside the black community in the 1950s? We talked about white reaction.

WS:

In Greensboro, I think the best view of that was done by [William] Chafe's book—from Duke—which was about Civilities and Civil Rights, as he called it. Real interesting. I had some differences with his book's thrust, because it seemed to me that he tended, perhaps, to downplay the role of civilities to some extent, which, of course, was a theme in Greensboro of trying to make things work out, rather than to have the massive confrontations which would bring the real liberals and conservatives—

WL:

The title—his title comes from an editorial, doesn't it?

WS:

Yes, it does. From my paper. And this was our theme in those years. I had the feeling that the sit-ins—one interesting example of how this worked in Greensboro: we had the openness in the community to allow people like Ralph Johns,the white merchant who helped the black students to go and sit in at Woolworth's; support for the black students from the college communities, the university communities; the nucleus of A&T State University, which was a leadership area for blacks, including the leader who is still with us, Jesse Jackson, who was the president of the student body in those days and became a real leader in the move to open up all public accommodations in Greensboro.

It's rather ironic, I think, that we, even now in the midst of Judge [Robert] Bork's confirmation hearings, to hear that perhaps he would have taken the view that many of the merchants and conservatives were taking in Greensboro, that the private property owner had a right to serve who he wanted to serve, and that it didn't really matter that he could serve blacks, or whites, or yellows, or reds, or anybody—but he had that right.

As it turned out, we had a very interesting young mayor named David Schenck in those days, who was a representative of the old Greensboro stature. His father had been the one who created the Guilford [Courthouse] battleground memorial and park—national park which eventually came there. [His] grandfather was a judge. He came from an old North Carolina family. David eventually, in the long run, came down on the side of movement against the public accommodations. But I think the most important thing—the movement for public accommodations and opening up public facilities like restaurants, theatres, and so forth to the whole community—but the main factor, we must all remember, was economics. There's no doubt about it, that the situation in the commercial community began to hurt bad enough to want to do something about it. It wasn't going away, therefore a leadership by someone like Schenck, who was in the moderate conservative area, came forth to at least to preside over those changes and to, to open up the Mayfair Cafeteria, which was the main focal point of the closed facilities in Greensboro.

WL:

Is that a case of Schneck moving ahead of the business community, or the business community—

WS:

Well, I think that eventually he was able to recognize that this had to be done, and that he did, to some extent, help get it done, though I think the whole economics of the thing really was the main factor in opening up the store.

WL:

Because you do see that elsewhere in the South, that the leadership for desegregation often comes from the business community, out of the reception that, as you say, it has to be done.

WS:

Yes, yes, it does eventually. And I think that sometimes, the business community—for whatever motives—ends up doing what needs to be done and has to be done.

WL:

It's not good for investment, and it doesn't create a positive investment atmosphere.

WS:

That's right. That's right. That's even true today, as many Southerners are coming around to vote against Judge Bork, because they're afraid of the black vote.

WL:

That's an interesting case.

WS:

Yes. it is.

WL:

Getting back to the black community. Is—how would you describe, generally, relations between white and black in the fifties? I mean, is there communication—Chafe characterizes it as being a lack of communication, at least there's a perceived lack of—

WS:

There was some communication at the upper levels in the establishment community—black establishment and white establishment, it seems to me. The president of Bennett College [Willa B. Player] was very active person. The city council had black leadership—black doctor on the city council at that time [Dr. William Hampton]. In fact, he became the largest vote-getter one year in Greensboro. There were thoughtful doctors and lawyers and other professional people, a small number, in the black community who were in touch with the white community. In fact, I served in a little club that's still going on called the Conversation Club—it was founded in about 1953—and we had black and white membership from that day to this, and it's still meeting—we just met two weeks ago; it meets every month in Greensboro still.

I'm not trying to over, to exaggerate the contact, because I think there was, there were elements of this. I think many of the people in the white community didn't know of what was going on in the black community, and they didn't care to find out. But I think there were some, some individuals who broke that particular mold, and that there was some contact. But I think that perhaps Chafe was right about saying that maybe the work of people like Ed Zane in race relations—the vice president of Burlington Industries who took such a leading role in trying to bring together the community in particular on this public accommodations question. I think that, that did represent a force in the community which made it possible to move.

WL:

Is there a fear in the 1950s, and sixties especially, of white backlash? I mean, you have so much evidence of it with Klan or Klan-like organizations burning crosses.

WS:

It's very difficult to not to emphasize that, because it was a tremendous force in those days. And this is what governor Hodges was trying to offset so thoroughly in the kind of thing he was doing. We had the same movement in Greensboro. When Captain [William] Jackson of the Greensboro police force would call Jesse Jackson, the president of the student body, and ask him each day, “Now, where are you going to march tonight?,” he was thinking about the fact that on many occasions, on several occasions which I remember, he had the white Klansmen marching at the same time that the black students were marching from A&T up the hill toward the center of Greensboro. And my view then was it was a rather interesting phenomenon. We had a police force which you had a captain who would call the black president of the student body and try to organize a march which would not create violence in the community. This, if this is civility, then I'm all for it. I think that it's probably a very good kind of civility if you can make it work when you're moving in some direction that you're [unclear].

WL:

The marches with Jackson—there was this regular series of communications between the three Jacksons—

WS:

The three Jacksons—

WL:

the two Jacksons. What sort of information would go between them? Logistical mainly?

WS:

They—yes—he would say, “We're going to march up Friendly Avenue” or on those days—what streets they going to march up, “Elm, and then across Market, and back around. That's our plan of action. We're going to start by the courthouse and stay for a while, and then we're going to go somewhere else.”

One evening I was downtown in Greensboro when both the Klan and the and Jackson's group were marching simultaneously. And Captain Jackson had managed to get them marching around different ways so they couldn't meet each other [laughs]. And he succeeded in doing this, which I thought was rather interesting.

WL:

The violence actually was quite limited. [unclear]

WS:

Oh, yes. Yes. There was no violence to speak of, in those activities. Which, again, I think was a big point.

WL:

Where did the Klansmen come from? Any information on that?

WS:

They came from here. But many of those came from rural communities round about. They had several contacts here, people—we had a call one night at my house. I know there was a man named Webster who was a painter, a house painter. I had gotten to know him. He had come to see me down at the paper and I knew that he was one of the Klan's leaders in the community.

WL:

Any evidence of whites—was there any equivalent of a White Citizens' Council in Greensboro at that level?

WS:

Not so called, no. This was subdued. And I think largely it was subdued, because of this toleration point, as Robert Penn Warren used to say, the fracture point in Greensboro was a little bit above that. We had a community leadership which, I think, didn't say that was the proper thing to do. And because of that, it seems to me that Greensboro avoided some of the real redneck activities that—

[End of Tape 1, Side A—Begins Tape 1, Side B]

WL:

—well, the response of the established, critical leadership, but also you mentioned the unwillingness of leaders, I guess, to take sort of a White Citizens' Council approach to resisting desegregation. About the political system, how well did the political system work here in the 1950s and sixties?

WS:

I felt that Greensboro was a remarkable kind of community. It was, as I said, was comprised of somewhat diverse elements for a Southern community of that size. The Quaker influence was substantial, the Jewish influence was substantial. The academic—the black and the white university units here—made what might have been just simply a textile manufacturing town something a little different. And so I felt that we had here a good combination of practice and resources which made this community capable of doing something a little extra or a little different from the normal tradition of Southern towns.

WL:

What kind of role did the people out at Guilford play?

WS:

Well, as you know, the Quakers were always strongly—that was a unit of the underground railroad, as you know, out there at New Garden back in the Civil War. And the Quaker community is always quiet and undemonstrative, but persistent and dedicated. And that element, thrown into the other elements of this community, made a difference. I think it's rather interesting that the establishment in those days—we had a strong Jewish community in Greensboro, and these people were comprised of people who were educated, intellectual, cosmopolitan, [who] brought a different touch to Greensboro—the Cones and the Sternbergers. And this community had both the wonderful elements of intellectual and artistic talent, plus the business acumen, which combined in sort of like the Forsyth saga you remember you had in this community.

One story I remember about Greensboro, which I think typifies it, is that the first Mr. Ceaser Cone, whose sisters, Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel Cone, went to Paris and became contemporaries of Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Matisse and others, and created quite an art collection in thier Paris apartments, and came back to this country, ultimately, and left their collection to Baltimore—to the Baltimore Museum [of Art]—and the leftovers to UNCG's Weatherspoon [Art Museum].

But at one time, the apocryphal story which is told is that Mr. Cone, who was a very business-like, non-academic kind of person, completely practical and bottom-line in his orientation, said to his sister Miss Etta, he said, “I believe your art collection is worth more than my cotton mills.” And I think this was—typified something of the intellectual ferment that was created out of the strain, and the flavor which gave the community like Greensboro, which otherwise might have been rather pedestrian and unimportant, unspectacular kind of place to be in the South. So while these are small, I think it's important.

I'd like to emphasize, too, that I thought that some of the leaders in the black community were extremely able and dedicated and involved people, who had a great—I look on their contributions as being sizeable in trying to move this thing a bit. And I think that was important—very, very important.

WL:

When the sit-ins begin—when you get into the black activist phase, I guess, in the history of race relations in Greensboro in 1960 through '63, I suppose. Were the sit-in's a shock? Was this, was it expected, or—

WS:

Yes, but there was an interesting kind of a reaction. The newspapers didn't really pick this up very much. One of our reporters on the Record did pick this up—Jo Spivey, a wonderful woman reporter who did pick it up. She had contacts in the black community. And she heard this was going to happen, so that it was published in the paper immediately. And in the beginning there was a—there was a surprise, I think a reaction of surprise, generally. There was not uniformly, though, the negative reaction which I think you might have found in another community. There were enough people who were embarrassed about it and thoughtful about it so that there was not a completely negative reaction. And as a result, there was not this reaction which went on to go ahead and throw them out, and that sort of thing. The community, the police department, I've already mentioned was rather, I think, progressive and enlightened for its day and time, so that actually it was allowed to progress. And as it was allowed to progress, it then became evident that things were going to be changed.

And the whole idea that this store would allow blacks to come in and purchase any item, but would not allow them to sit at the lunch counter and purchase food made many people uncomfortable. And they—even those who had strong racist views perhaps were somewhat uncomfortable about being told that this was the case. How can we justify this sort of thing? These people are not causing a commotion, they're not trying to be violent. They're simply saying, “We'd like to be served. We're part of the public, why can't we be served?” And the fact that these young men were so decent in the way they went about it and so effective in the way they went about it disarmed greatly the, those who would have reacted in a more violent—or positively or negatively on their views.

So, I think that, again, I emphasize this—Chafe probably didn't emphasize this enough about Greensboro—that this was a place where this kind of thing could happen. And while many of the blacks who had jobs would be afraid to have done that, the students who were at A&T were in something of a sanctuary, so that they were protected from economic reprisals. And therefore they were free, as they often are, if you'll go back and look through history, at times the university served its purpose as a sanctuary area—and these young men then were able to do this unencumbered. And they had the full support of their associates, their parents, and their friends, and the older black community. And they were looking for a way to do this and ot make it effective, and so therefore it was. But at the same time I have to emphasize that I think there was this multiplicity of responses in the non-black community which fractured any effort to be totally negative about what had happened.

WL:

Various levels of responses?

WS:

Various levels of responses. Right.

WL:

The black community's response was fairly unified?

WS:

Oh, I think it was. I don't think there was any doubt. It's just like in Birmingham and just like in, you know, all the, all of the great civil rights movements of Martin Luther King. You had this great groundswell of support among the blacks, and this was true with this here. Sure.

WL:

In the case of A&T, the position of the university administrators may have been compromised, I suppose—

WS:

Yes, although [A&T chancellor] Mr. Warmoth Gibbs and the chancellor there, they were—while they felt that they had to be discreet about their behavior and response, they certainly were for it as much as they could be.

WL:

It was clearly understood that it had its blessing [unclear]?

WS:

Oh, I think so. I think so.

WL:

As far as the student population. [pause] Following Schenck's decision, which is to desegregate in June of '63, is there widespread acceptance among the merchants in downtown Greensboro to—is it, is that generally forced? Is it—

WS:

You mean then? At that time?

WL:

Yes, at that point.

WS:

Yes, at that time, yes. I think that once the breakthrough was made and once the acceptance came through from Woolworth that they would go along with it and that the other places of business would also do it, then there was, I think, the walls were down.

WL:

That happened. Bars were lowered very rapidly. Definitely. So well before the Civil Rights Act [of 1964]?

WS:

Yes, certainly before.

WL:

A year?

WS:

Not a year or two before.

WL:

How does this happen? I mean is it—does it, do public accommodations become desegregated almost overnight? I mean, do people notice? Is it a rapid process?

WS:

Actually, I think that it was rather slow, because, contrary to the views of many of the real alarmists, the segregationists, many blacks were not interested in going to places where they would be uncomfortable. This is true of the students who had to be quite courageous in order to go, to be those first students to break the mold of the all-white school. This was a greatly courageous thing to do, and very difficult thing for parents to allow their children to do, knowing the potential for violence.

WL:

Let's talk a little bit about the events of school desegregation, which is sort of in the middle of this whole subject—the Brown decision about schools, and it's the most extensively—it's the area of which is most extensively affected by public policy, I guess, for the last thirty years. By 1957, Greensboro is beginning to admit black students in the schools.

WS:

Yes, very slowly.

WL:

How well does that experiment work?

WS:

Well, actually, it—black students did attend predominately white schools, but it took Greensboro quite a long time to complete the job of desegregation of the schools. In fact, it was finally done in about 1971. And at that time we had tremendously effective leadership from the total community to see that it was done effectively and well. And tremendous planning done—my friend Joanne Bluethenthal was very much involved in this, and this was quite a tremendous effort to try to make the thing work. And I think that it was difficult to do, but I think that it was done well.

WL:

The Civil Rights Act sort of changes character of debate, I suppose.

WS:

Yes, it did. There's no doubt about that.

WL:

And, how—what was the reaction to the Civil Rights Act of '64? How did you—you did an editorial [unclear].

WS:

Well, we had felt—of course, the “Southern Manifesto,” you know, came out in those days. Our view was that we felt that we ought to move along with this, that this was something that we had to obey the law of the land. This was just something that we had to do. That was—

WL:

Did the newspapers support passage of the act?

WS:

Yes. Many of those legislators and Congress members supported it. Of course, they were defeated, as you know [unclear].

WL:

The busing crises of '71 is the logical extention of the Civil Rights Act—what the way the Civil Rights Act changes Brown in a sense. Does busing work in not only in '71, but thereafter? To what extent does it work? What are some of the costs of busing?

WS:

One of the problems, of course, with busing is that [pause] it ultimately generates problems that in which both white and black parents are concerned about the way in which their children are going to school. I think that, that busing served a good purpose in several areas, but that the more rapidly it could be—we could become desegregated in ways other than simply in the schools, the better off we would be. That is, I think, the natural inclination of parents, particularly in those oncoming generations was to say, “Why? Why do we do this?” And yet we know why we do this—it's because the society is segregated in the way that lives, although much of the South this is not true, as you know. Blacks and whites live rather near each other.

But, again, as the process becomes more acceptable—I mean as desegregation becomes a way of life for young people growing up, many of these problems change. And so that then the issue of busing is no longer seen as an instrument which is used for desegregation. But it seems to be an anchor or something that's not necessary. And so I think that that's the reason that busing has come on bad days in the area.

Of course it's quite true that we're now—even in Greensboro and Guilford County—encountering the same sort of thing. We had white flight from the cities to the counties—to the county—and county school system has been refusing to go forward in any kind of consolidation for the very reason that I think that many of it's, it's people are rejective to some objective certainty. Not so much the mixing of the races as the tip-over of the races in certain schools where there's a feeling that if it becomes more than 50 percent black, the school is not going to be effective, and therefore the child is not going to get the best education. Yet that's the fear of many whites as you know.

But I think that all of this will pass too as the SAT scores rise for blacks, and as the “separate but equal” fades into the background. And as there are more opportunities provided for blacks to achieve, I think this will be one of those things that will be ultimately decided for that reason, rather than others.

WL:

Do you think that—did busing damage the school system? Did desegregation then damage the quality of the schooling for whites and blacks?

WS:

Well, desegregation was very difficult. We had labored under the idea that "separate but equal"—that separate was equal. And, of course, everybody knew that it wasn't. From the time of Plessy v. Ferguson it was pretty obvious that it wasn't, and yet we had failed to confront that problem, just as we had failed to confront the fact that blacks were people and weren't a free physical person two hundred years ago. We failed in that case—two hundred years ago—and the result was, I think, largely the Civil War. And to correct that greivance, the Fourteenth Amendment, which then came on to correct that wrong. But it took time. Plessy v. Ferguson was, in the late nineteenth century, served a certain purpose of holding back what was coming, but it provided perhaps the time for it to happen. And it didn't happen until finally in 1954. We were able to move into a new era.

And so I think that we're still having to deal with the tremendous difficulties of bringing up to a higher level a group of people who had been held down for a long time and who had not the advances of others, and therefore it's been extremely difficult. And the school systems have felt the pangs of change. And they have resulted in the rise of the institutions like the Greensboro Day School, which is—hurts the public school system. North Carolina's been a strong example of public school systems being the way of life. And we didn't have many private schools like Virginia and other Southern states. And I think that anything that hurts the public school system hurts the state badly, and I think that the state has had—the local communities have had a tremendous job on their hands to try to make this thing effective, and at the same time make people—black and white—feel that their children were getting the best education that they could find. And I think it continues to be a problem and will continue as long as there is this feeling of inequity in the potential and the mobilities of certain groups of people.

WL:

How would you characterize the status of race relations in Greensboro today in the 1980s, as compared, perhaps, to thirty years ago?

WS:

Oh, in many ways it's greatly improved. Certainly, on the surface, blacks now are highly acceptable in places where they never would have been in the past. And, of course, the fact that you have your desegregation of neighborhoods—so that I think that on the surface we are doing pretty well. But as Jesse Jackson and others have noticed, the black people have moved out of one era into another era of fighting to achieve their rights and now having to look to themselves to sustain their ability to take the roles that they've been allowed to assume in our society. And so I think that this inner frustration continues within the black community. And at the same time new generations arise and new racist sons arise in the white areas of the younger generations.

Coming along, we can't understand this sort of thing. You speak of affirmative action, why we need affirmative action, why affirmative action isn't reversed desegregation, why you have to identify blacks rather than to say they're a general part of the population rather than not. And all of the tremendously complicated issues that we have in our society now with the [University of California v.] Bakke decision and all the other things that have been reflected in the current Supreme Court fight now are still there. But a community like Greensboro simply reflects the broader views that there's still tremendous problems of race in this country, and not only in the South, but in the rest of the nation. And I think they'll probably persist for some time, and we will see that in various ways.

WL:

There has been, I think, clear evidence of both of those things that you have talked about—that is, the resurgence on the part of racial misunderstanding. [unclear] lack of understanding.

WS:

There's no doubt of that.

WL:

—and also rising frustration for the black community. And I wonder if you—if there's any way you could elaborate on that? The, the, there—there just seems to be a gap in pre[ceptions]—maybe I'm misreading it—there seems to be a gap in perceptions between what whites and blacks understand here in Greensboro, and nationwide as well.

WS:

Yes, well, I think that the problems are still with us. And I don't—they're still difficult to deal with. I think that your blacks who have made it, who have risen by their ability into the ranks of business and education professions, probably in some cases forget that there are a great many blacks who haven't made it and who are not doing as well. We have this tendency of society to segregate those who are unable to achieve and unable to attain the best vision of life for themselves.

So I think it's a continuing problem. I think that the people that are trying to lead the country are going to have to understand that it's going to be a continuing process here of maintaining an awareness of the fact that we have to stand for equality and stand for the quality of opportunity particularly, and somehow to offset this argument which comes out that you stigmatize groups of people by identifying them as such. That you create a crippling influence on them therefore, that they are not given the full potential to become, say, full doctors or lawyers who are accepted as having graduated because of their ability to rise, rather than because of the help that was given them, or the particular crutches that were provided to allow them to make their way. It's a very complicated question. It's not, it's not easily answered. And it's a subject to people using this as a subterfuge for racism, because—but again it's also a very valid reality. There's no doubt about it.

[End of Interview]