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Oral History Interview with Cecil Bishop by William Chafe


Date: 1977

Interviewee: Cecil Bishop

Biographical abstract: Cecil Bishop served as minister of Trinity AME Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1960 to 1975 and was active in the city's civil rights movement during that time. He currently serves as the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Interviewer: William Henry Chafe

Description:

This oral history interview circa 1977 conducted by William Chafe with Cecil Bishop primarily documents Bishop’s recollections of the 1963 protests in Greensboro, including his ministerial colleagues and allies in Greensboro; the silent march downtown; the alliance of and differences between student and adult protesters; roles and members of the coordinating committee; and the city’s opinion that the protests were fueled by outsiders and students. Bishop describes the role of many individuals including McNeill Smith, John Tarpley, David Morehead, Ed Zane, the Blairs, Jesse Jackson, Bill Thomas, and Tony Stanley.

Bishop also briefly discusses his education and career before coming to Greensboro, the city's reputation at that time, and protesting a segregated restaurant in Rockville, Maryland.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection

Repository: Duke University

Item#: 4.23.621

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 Cecil Bishop by William Chafe

William Chafe:

When did you come to Greensboro for the first time?

Cecil Bishop:

The first time was back in the middle fifties, just on a visit. It was to—it was A&T College then [now North Carolina A&T State University], and I was there just for a few hours of one day. But then I moved to Greensboro in November of 1960.

WC:

November 1960, so that was six months after the first sit-ins.

CB:

After the initial sit-ins. I was here at the time of the original sit-ins, and I was doing some research myself. And I was in North Carolina when they took place and of course came back here to finish up what I was doing in Wesley [Theological] Seminary, and in December 1960 went down to Trinity Church in Greensboro.

WC:

Where had you grown up?

CB:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

WC:

And had you spent most of your life there, before you came to Washington [D.C.]?

CB:

Yes. I grew up in Pittsburgh, finished high school, worked a few years there and then away to college in Knoxville, Tennessee.

WC:

Where did you go in Knoxville?

CB:

Knoxville College.

WC:

Knoxville College?

CB:

Yeah, and finished at Knoxville College, and then I started theological training at Hood [Theological] Seminary, our denominational school in Salisbury, North Carolina, and then two years there. Then I had an opportunity to go on the staff as an assistant to the church that I now serve here and complete my theological training at the Howard University School of Religion. So I transferred, came here, and then finished Howard. And then I was assigned a church in Rockville, Maryland, and stayed there a couple of years and did some work at Wesley Seminary, and then in 1960 had the opportunity to go to Greensboro.

WC:

Now, when you went to Greensboro, were you called there or were you assigned there?

CB:

Okay. We're Methodists, we are appointed. And it happened that the bishop who presided over that area also presided over this area too. Although it was a different annual conference, it was crossing annual conference boundaries, so I actually transferred from this conference to that one.

WC:

And that meant you were in Greensboro for fifteen, sixteen years?

CB:

Yeah.

WC:

And that whole time was unbroken?

CB:

Right, from 1960 through January 1975.

WC:

Had you any—what were your preconceptions of Greensboro when you went there? Do you remember—that's a hard question to ask fifteen years later, or seventeen years later—but do you remember having any image in your head of—how did you feel about going to Greensboro?

CB:

Well, I knew that it was, number one, a North Carolina southern town, but I felt that it had some pluses in that it was a college town, and we did have a strong church there. And I had some familiarity with North Carolina, having been here two years previously. So I went there with a fairly positive outlook. Then after—you see, the sit-ins were just six months before, so I knew that was also a place where “the action was,” in matters of racial change, so I was rather happy to go there.

WC:

Had you been involved in civil rights protests, demonstrations yourself before going to Greensboro?

CB:

Yeah, we had a situation in Rockville, Maryland. Rockville is just in Montgomery County, if you're familiar with the area. And we had several considered protest demonstrations right in the immediate community and also in Glen Echo Park. One Sunday twenty-three of us were arrested after church for sitting in at what was Hi-Boy [Drive-In] Restaurant. And the way that thing unfolded was rather interesting. Rockville and Montgomery County was moving slowly away from segregation, discrimination. And this particular concern opens up in Rockville just at the mouth of one segment of the Negro community there, the black community. And [they] sought advice from the city fathers about opening up on a segregated basis. And they were advised not to do that, but they did open on a segregated basis. And they distributed flyers in the community saying that if you would come and buy a sandwich, your beverage would be free. They distributed those all over the community. And one of them they distributed to the lady who was president of the local NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and she quite unknowingly took her two daughters and went out to get a sandwich or something to eat, and she was refused. And that sort of ignited the whole thing. We went up on a Sunday afternoon, quite a group of people of all age ranges, from people who were only nineteen or twenty to people who were sixty years old. And, well, to make a long story, we didn't leave and we were arrested.

WC:

At the church?

CB:

Yeah.

WC:

Were you minister at that point?

CB:

Yeah. But it was more of a community thing, it wasn't just our church. There were a number of people from our church, but it was, you know, a cross-section of the community.

WC:

Was this before or after the sit-ins in Greensboro?

CB:

This was—let's see, the sit-ins in Greensboro took place in—

WC:

February.

CB:

February of 1960.

WC:

Right.

CB:

This must have been after those sit-ins, because this must have been, say, like June, July, thereabouts.

WC:

So you came to Greensboro with that experience, as well as a sense of Greensboro being a place where things were happening?

CB:

Yeah.

WC:

Were you worried about being in the South?

CB:

Not really, no. When you say worried, do you mean in terms of bodily harm?

CB:

Yeah.

WC:

No, no.

WC:

Who were the people who persuaded you—that's the wrong question. Who were the people in Greensboro who you felt close to when you came, in terms of kindred spirits, people who also wanted to see action happen, change take place? Were there individuals who you talked to before you came, or shortly after you came, who you saw as your kindred spirits?

CB:

Yeah. Well, all of the ties that I developed, developed after I arrived. I had no prior tie or contact with people before going there. A number of people that I discovered who were all sort of headed in the same direction: Otis Hairston; I'm sure that name you've heard.

WC:

Yeah.

CB:

At that time, Richard Hicks, who is no longer there. John Marshall Stevenson Kilimanjaro, Donald Addison, John Corry. There are all people who are ministers: Otis Hairston, a Baptist minister; Richard Hicks, an Episcopal priest. Of course Steve was not a minister, nor Addison. Then of course you had in the college community Jesse Jackson, who was a student at A&T at that time. Let's see, what was Thomas' first name?

WC:

Bill Thomas?

CB:

Bill Thomas. Bill Thomas. They were very, quite active in this whole thing. So in that whole thing, you know, these are some of the people. However, I was there for like maybe a year or two before the next wave of sit-ins and mass demonstrations took place.

WC:

Yeah. I don't know the names of Addison and Hicks. I know the others, and I've talked to most of the others you mentioned, but I don't know Addison and Hicks.

CB:

Okay. Donald Addison, by the way, is in Washington, teaching in Washington. He's a sociologist. Richard Hicks, I think is in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. I think he's at Cheyney State [now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania], I think he's chaplain there. Richard Hicks was a very strong force when he chaired the Coordinating Committee for a while.

WC:

Coordinating committee of what?

CB:

That's all it was called, just the Coordinating Committee.

WC:

Not the Greensboro Citizens Association or—

CB:

No, no. Another strong force was Julius Douglas, now deceased. He was an older person than the rest of us, but very militant, very profound and perceptive. Quite a force for good in that whole struggle, quite a force.

WC:

Now, was Hicks at A&T at that point?

CB:

Hicks was at the [Episcopal] Church of the Redeemer, located on East Market [Street].

WC:

And Addison was a sociologist at A&T?

CB:

A&T, right.

WC:

And there is a Coordinating Committee, which existed sometime between the two sit-ins?

CB:

Right, and it grew out of the—our mass demonstrations, the Coordinating Committee. And I guess really that may—the Coordinating Committee was exclusively in the black community to—and the Coordinating Committee planned and held mass meetings, and held meetings with the mayor and/or his representatives, and probably was partly responsible for the creation of the Human Relations Commission. It was partly responsible for that.

WC:

Yeah, So this would have existed—growing out of the '63 sit-ins, demonstrations with the [Greensboro] Citizens Association and the [Greensboro] Men's Club and the ministers—

CB:

Right.

WC:

—coming together, the NAACP, kind of forming a coalition. And the Coordinating Committee would have been sort of the direct-action voice.

CB:

That's true, with all of the groups that you have named being very supportive.

WC:

And no one holding back from—

CB:

No one.

WC:

—within the black community?

CB:

Right. Yeah. I've seen mass demonstrations that probably had in them anywhere from, oh, one- to two-thousand people. That was all ages, just a mixture.

WC:

Growing out of churches—grew out of church meetings and then going into the streets?

CB:

Yeah. We would have teenagers, college students, young adults, middle-age people, senior citizens. One very moving experience that I always remember was a silent march, one evening, oh, just a little earlier than this. And most of the time the marches had been with singing and hand clapping. This time we planned a silent march. And if you're familiar with Greensboro, from Davie Street all the way back to Dudley Street this silent walk was just complete, this long line of black people emerging on downtown. No singing, a very, very quiet, a very somber movement, which I think sort of, in almost a kind of eloquent but silent wave, articulated the determination of that group, because it had reached a point when there was a sense of being determined about something.

WC:

Is it your recollection that in the very beginning of those marches in '63, were representative of all segments of the community, old as well as young?

CB:

Yes.

WC:

So at no point, from your recollection, was this primarily a student movement?

CB:

It was primarily a student movement in this regard: the students were like the sharp-shooters, the storm troopers, and you could get more from them for direct action, for picketing, for marching, and the like. You could get more of them. You could turn them out quickly. But the adult black community was also with this, and there were times when it was not with it as much numerically as the student community, but was with it in terms of influence and in terms of economic support. Because you know we raised considerable funds for a number of things. That came largely from the black adults in the city. So it was a unified effort that had much of its thrust—much of its thrust through the black churches, and that was a very good communicative device [unclear] channel.

WC:

Let me ask two questions about that. The first is: I know at your church and Shiloh [Baptist Church] and St. James [Baptist Church]—was it true of all churches? I mean were there three or four churches which were the leaders in this, in terms of being out front, or was it something which was true of every church in the black community?

CB:

Well, to use your words, hardly anybody was holding back. I think you would have to say that there were several churches that figured in this: one, that our church, a lot of mass meetings were held there. You take Providence Baptist [Church], where Lorenzo Lynch was at the time, a lot of the mass meetings were held there. You take United Institutional Baptist [Church]—I don't know if name has surfaced in your research—that church held some mass meetings. May not—it may have been because at that time the—several of us were, you know, not too far removed chronologically from the student community.

WC:

In terms of the ministers?

CB:

Yes, myself, Otis Hairston, Richard Hicks. I guess Douglas was the exception. Douglas was with us. He didn't do that much marching, but Douglas was a man who we could always count on to go with us to confront, you know, the power structure, to articulate our position, either verbally or in writing. And he could do both very well. So he was with us. I mentioned, I think, Lorenzo Lynch. John Corry, for example, at St. Matthews [United Methodist Church], was the chaplain also at Bennett [College], and John was really with us. I think you could say that John performed a real ministry to the students who were arrested. And he was a frontline person, so there's no question about it.

WC:

What kind of ministry did you have in mind when you said that, that John performed a ministry to the students who were arrested?

CB:

He was—like after they would get arrested, he was like going around visiting, almost making pastoral calls. You know, see what they're—and he was the guy who could get in easier than anybody else, because he was the chaplain. So he would find out the situation, he would come by and report to the Coordinating Committee. If we felt that conditions were not what they should be, then the chief of police and the mayor would hear from us. So he served a real function.

WC:

Now, when he came back to the Coordinating Committee, who was on that committee?

CB:

Well, the group was called the Coordinating Committee, maybe for the lack of another name, but it included just everybody who would come to a big mass meeting. And we had sort of an executive committee, I guess you would call it—several ministers, I think Otis, Douglas, Richard Hicks. I think George Simkins was on that committee. I'm trying to think of some lay people, because we did have, you know, some lay people who were very, very strong. George Simkins was one, through the NAACP. We had some strong support from the legal community. We had people like Henry Frye and David Dansby, those fellows who were really with us, too.

WC:

So would Henry Frye and David Dansby be on the committee, or would they just have been advisors?

CB:

I don't really recall.

WC:

Yeah. I guess that would probably be the executive committee now. How about Kenneth Lee? Would he have been?

CB:

He was supportive. He was not on the executive committee of that group, but he was supportive of the thrust of our effort.

WC:

Would students have been on that committee?

CB:

Yes, yes.

WC:

Would Jesse Jackson and Bill Thomas have been on that committee?

CB:

Oh, yes, yes.

WC:

So that this was a committee which clearly bridged any kind of generational gap.

CB:

Oh, yeah, a real cross-section.

WC:

Would John Marshall Stevenson have been on that committee?

CB:

On the executive committee?

WC:

Yeah.

CB:

I don't know. He very well could have, but I don't recall. He was with us. He's very vocal, very supportive, and was with us right from the beginning. He and Donald Addison, at the time, were close.

WC:

And would they have been the primary A&T people, from faculty people at A&T, who would have been identified as protest leaders?

CB:

Probably so. Yeah, I guess so at A&T. At Bennett you had a fellow named [James] Bush, and another guy whose names escapes me. Bush is a United Methodist minister who is now serving a predominately white church somewhere in the Midwest.

WC:

The name [A. Knighton] Tony Stanley keeps on—

CB:

Yeah, Tony Stanley was at A&T. I'm glad you mentioned it. He's here, by the way.

WC:

I didn't know that. I'm going to try to find out where he is.

CB:

Yeah, he's here. He's with Peoples [Congregational] United Church of Christ on 13th Street.

WC:

Fantastic.

CB:

Tony Stanley was with a group known as the United Christian Fellowship Foundation, and that was some kind of student religious group that was trying to operate on these state-supported campuses. And it was through that medium that Tony Stanley, yes, had quite an influence with the students, and was extremely vocal and in the forefront of this whole thing. Yeah, Tony Stanley. You should talk with him if you can while you're—one of your trips.

WC:

Yeah, I'd like it very much. I've heard a lot about him. One of the things that I guess—one story I've heard is that the white power structure wanted to and was able to for a long time use the rationale that this was a bunch of outside students coming in to agitate Greensboro, and it was hard to persuade them that this series of demonstrations—

CB:

This movement.

WC:

This movement represented the entire black community in Greensboro. And the story I've heard is that—I really should be asking the questions rather than telling the story, but I'll tell it anyway—is that one of the key figures in informing the Coordinating Committee of what was going on in the minds of the white power structure was McNeill Smith. And that at some point, there was an exchange which led to the major Sunday evening march toward the end of the demonstrations in which practically every major teacher, principal, as well as preacher in the black Greensboro took part, which forever dismissed the idea—

CB:

I think that's true.

WC:

—that this was a—

CB:

It was a silent march. I believe that was it, the silent march, yeah. Now, that mindset—you're right, that mindset was really there. “These are a few outside agitators, and this will blow away. It will go away.” And McNeill Smith was very supportive, very—he became, I think, very helpful to both communities as a communicator. I think that march—and I think that was the silent march. We had a couple of marches, but you know one of them ended with a mass arrest, this mass arrest right in the [Jefferson] Square.

WC:

Yeah.

CB:

That kind of wiped out the whole thing. But then more and more, you take—David Schenck was mayor at this time. And Dave Morehead was at the [Hayes-Taylor] Y[MCA—Young Men's Christian Association], I think even early on was getting the word to Dave Schenck, “Look, this is not going to go away, man. This has to be dealt with.” And as I recall, Dave Schenck did not want to deal with it. He did not want to deal with it. He became quite upset, thought it would go away. Of course, we said, “We'll go march at Dave Schenck's house. Where does he live?” [chuckles] I think that march, that demonstration, kind of dispelled that whole thing. And word got through that these people really have a sense of determination, and that it is not just a few college kids. Because, see, for a while there we felt that they were trying to hold out until school closed, and knowing that when school closed, the troops would be gone. But it didn't quite work that way.

WC:

Were there other people, either black or white, who were doing the same kinds of things that McNeill Smith was in communicating back and forth? I guess one of the things that I—people who were trusted by both segments of the community, or who were able to kind of—

CB:

Well, let's see, McNeill Smith—I think Ed Zane, who was with Burlington [Industries] at the time, was probably in that category.

WC:

Would Dave Morehead been one of those people?

CB:

Yeah, yeah. I know those two, one white and one black. [pause] Vance Chavis would have been in that category, and John Tarpley. These are the black people that the white community would listen to what they were saying and had some measure of respect for what they were saying. I'm trying to think of the person with the Citizens Association. Otis was with the Citizens Association part of the time and brought that element. I couldn't think of this other person. It may come to me as I talk.

WC:

Now someone like David Morehead had—one of the things I guess I see about him was, through connections to Burlington and Spencer Love, he had a—he almost had been appointed to, both in—because of his position in both communities—to that kind of communicator role. I don't know if you would see that as being appointed, but I guess one of the things that I see is, I've heard him talk about how he came to know Spencer Love, and I almost sort of see that there was clearly a mutually beneficial kind of relationship that existed between Morehead and Zane and Love and that kind of thing. And I guess probably it might be true of Smith as well—McNeill Smith as well.

CB:

And yet, in the case of all of them, they could have refused these roles. For some reason they chose not to.

WC:

And in some cases the roles reversed—they suffered for the roles.

CB:

Yes, yes. I'm sure McNeill Smith suffered.

WC:

And Tarpley suffered, I would think. I mean, I guess I have some sense that Tarpley was viewed, by at least the younger part of the black community, as being much too accommodationist.

CB:

Well, many of the, you know, say, college students viewed a number of people like that. They even viewed some of us—you know, that we're not moving fast enough. But certainly people like Dave Morehead, John Tarpley, Vance Chavis they thought of in those terms. Yet these people, in their own way, from their particular platform, made their important contribution to the whole thing. And, you know, just from the practical point of view, they would have lost their usefulness in the black community if they had not done this. So again they were almost—there was not much choice.

WC:

Yeah. If they were to be true to their real purpose and to realize the objectives of the community, they had to do what they did, even though that constantly involved the risk of losing—

CB:

Right.

WC:

—this part of that community, which is one of the things which fascinates me most. I mean someone like Dr. [William] Hampton, who I guess had died by the time you got there—

CB:

Yeah, just a few months.

WC:

—but his role was so ambiguous. On the one hand, clearly a very proud spokesman of the black community, on the other hand used by a segment of the white community for its own purposes.

CB:

But you see, right at that time I think something significant happened in Greensboro—was happening and maybe escalated right at this period—but it happened in most black communities. And that is the black leadership became dispersed. You did not have one or two black leaders. Perhaps for a time John Tarpley and Hampton may have been the two, and maybe even John Tarpley may have been the one. There was a time that any black teacher, the only way they got a job was through John Tarpley. But you had sort of a leadership being dispersed. You had several ministers, you had several college professors, people like Stevenson, Addison, and [unclear]. And you have just some community people. You have people who may be with the residents' council on one of the housing projects. So you have this dispersed leadership, so now it's—here you've got a coordinating committee, you got students, you have student leaders. You have all of these leadership personalities now, rather than just a single person. I did not know Dr. Hampton.

WC:

Someone like Ed Edmonds, who was there also before you, speaks very critically of Hampton, but from the perspective of being much more militant than Hampton found it able—found himself able to be, at that point. I'm not siding with Edmonds or Hampton, but coming into the community from a different place and a different perspective, in a sense, those speak of Hampton as being the enemy. And that's an interesting kind of both ambiguity and problem within a situation where power is held basically by one side, and you've got to deal with that power in some way, but you can't deal with it without recognizing its reality and that whole problem that I guess every protest movement has.

CB:

Right. And I don't know. I did not know Dr. Hampton, but it may have been his way of dealing with that power. Because, you know, in the early 1960s or like 1959, it's hard to deal with it head-on.

WC:

Yeah, absolutely.

CB:

You could get hurt, swallowed up. I don't mean bodily, but there could be repercussions.

WC:

Sure. Economically, especially. You have any of the—the students in your church—I mean would you have a large student population in your church, or would they mostly go to A&T services or Bennett services?

CB:

At that time we had a large following of Bennett students, because we were not very far from Bennett. The old church was on East Washington [Street], just near Pearson Street, which is just under the underpass if you go from Bennett to our church. United Institutional was a little closer to A&T and got more A&T students, so we had a very good following of Bennett students with us consistently.

WC:

Did you know Ezell Blair Jr. [now Jibreel Khazan]?

CB:

Yes.

WC:

Well?

CB:

His father, Senior, even when he was in the school system, was very vocal and very supportive, very militant in the total scope of that movement.

WC:

I gather his mother was, too.

CB:

Yeah.

WC:

Maybe less vocal, but still—

CB:

Yeah, the Blairs were very much at the heart of things. Ezell Blair, Sr. was very outspoken—very, very, outspoken. Of course, Junior was with the first sit-in, and by '63 he was not so active. He wasn't even there.

WC:

Well, yeah. I guess that I—I thought he wasn't there either, but I was reading a—

CB:

Well, you know, he was there on occasion, and you might pick up and read something, you know, where he was doing this and he was back. But I don't think he was actually in town, as a resident.

WC:

I talked to him, and I guess I sort of gathered from that that he wasn't there, but I've read in the [Carolina] Peacemaker a retrospective piece written in '70 about the '63 sit-ins, in which John Marshall Stevenson was recalling how Ezell Blair Jr. got up in an assembly in '63 and sort of put it to Jesse Jackson and said, “What are you going to do?”

CB:

Yeah, yeah. I think I was there, but the—he was not living there.

WC:

I see. I see. But you remember that event?

CB:

You mention—something of that comes to my mind. But you know, I guess it's just like a football team. You know you meet and you huddle and, “Okay. Now what is the play going to be?” And get the best play to score. Then after the huddle, find out what the best play is and everybody lines up, you know, and just try to go for the goal. And there was a good bit of that—mass meetings, many ideas were articulated, lifted up. But for the most part, we'd come out with a pretty strong united front. And at that time it was so easy to identify the enemy, namely Mayfair Cafeteria and S&W. And when you can identify the enemy very clearly, it's easy to mobilize the forces and say, “Look. That is the target.”

WC:

Right. One of the other things I guess—in terms of the '63 demonstrations, let me just present to you what I guess I've picked up and see if you agree with it at all, what your reaction is. Basically that William Thomas was the field general. He was the organizer, the guy who—he didn't make a lot of public speeches, but he put it together. And Jesse Jackson was for the most part the public leader, the overt spokesman, the man who went before the reporters, as well as before the students to sort of rally the troops.

CB:

Yeah, I think that's an accurate assessment. Now, Bill Thomas did make statements and the like, but he lacked the charisma that Jesse Jackson had, that he's had all his life. So as a result, when the two would speak, Bill Thomas may be laying down the facts of the situation, and Jesse Jackson may inspire the group. It would be that kind of interplay of the two personalities. I remember very clearly, one evening Jesse gave this talk just like a sermon, and he was still a college student. In terms of the projection of himself and giving inspiration to the people to whom he was speaking about what we were about, he was very effective. Bill was the guy who did a lot of the—sort of the field general, dealt with the facts, but he was not the person to engender inspiration as Jesse was and is.

WC:

They worked together well?

CB:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, complimented each other.

WC:

Do you know where Thomas is now?

CB:

Last I heard he was in Boston.

WC:

In Boston?

CB:

Yeah.

[End of Interview]