“The Negro and The American Promise” (1963)
From Fred Barzyk (7/20/2016):
Here are my memories of an important civil rights program produced by WGBH in 1963, “The Negro and The American Promise.”
I was assigned to direct, working with executive producer, Henry Morgenthau III, who also produced Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt (1959), Conversation with Svetlana Alliluyeva (1967), and many local WGBH shows such as Where to Get Off in Boston.
Henry and I go back a long way working together at WGBH, and this was our most memorable program. (As of this writing, Henry is 99 years old. Congratulations, Henry!)
Henry’s guests featured then-new and controversial leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and writer James Baldwin.
One of his most brilliant choices was to bring in physiologist Dr. Kenneth Clark to do the interviews.
Clark’s soft, probing questions allowed each person a chance to create their own dynamic while still leaving room for their reflections and emotions.
Psychology professor at the City College of New York, Dr. Kenneth Clark, introduced the segment “The Negro and the American Promise” from Boston public television producer Henry Morgenthau III…
The program aired in a climate of racial conflict, just months after Alabama governor George Wallace’s defiant support of “segregation forever,” and before the March on Washington. [Source]
Here is Dr. Clark’s introduction from the program:
Dr. Kenneth Clark: James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are, in different ways, symbols and spokesmen for the Negro crying out for his full rights as an American citizen. And now, if one dares to look for the common denominator of such seemingly different forms of Negro protest, one sees in each of these men a dramatic response to America’s attempt to deny to its Negro citizens the fulfillment of the American promise.
By all meaningful indices, the Negro is still, and unquestionably, the downtrodden, disparaged group, and for a long time was systematically deprived of his dignity as a human being. The major indictment of our democracy is that this is being done with the knowledge, and at times with the connivance, of responsible, moderate people who are not overtly bigots or segregationists.
We have now come to the point where there are only two ways that America can avoid continued racial explosions. One would be total oppression. The other, total equality. There is no compromise.
I believe, I hope, that we are on the threshold of a truly democratic America. It is not going to be easy to cross that threshold. But the achievement of the goals of justice, equality, and democracy for all American citizens involves the very destiny of our nation.
- Read the full transcript from American Experience website
Here’s how this landmark program can to be.
Henry and I surveyed a small studio that operated by NET, across the street from the UN building used by diplomats and others for quickie news stories. The rental price was right and just large enough for our two-person interviews. We agreed to three interview dates.
I believe our first interview was with Martin Luther King, Jr. I had the studio crew set up black curtains and use a lot of backlight to separate participants from the dark background. There were the obligatory comfortable chairs and table, with water for each person.
The day arrived and Dr. King came to the studio with a few members of his cadre. He knew Dr. Clark and the atmosphere was friendly and professional. The interview was adequate but not filled with the kind of passion we had seen Dr. King give from the pulpit.
Dr. King spoke about his non-violent philosophy and talked about the politics of change.
Here are a few excerpts from King’s interview:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: There’s a great deal of difference between non-resistance to evil and non-violent resistance. Non-resistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and dead-end complacency. Wherein non-violent resistance means you do resist in a very strong and determined manner. And I think some of the criticisms of non-violence, or some of the critics, fail to realize that we are talking about something very strong, and they confuse non-resistance with non-violent resistance.
Next to be interviewed was Malcolm X. A tall, lean man, he arrived in the studio with several members of the Black Muslims. All were dressed in suits, white shirts and ties. They were silent and seemed to view us with suspicion. Dr. Clark was nonplussed and posed his questions with a soft intensity. Malcolm X was strong and passionate.
From the transcript:
Malcolm X: History is not hatred. We are Muslims because we believe in the religion of Islam. We believe in one God. We believe in Muhammad as the apostle of God. We practice the principles of the religion of Islam, which mean prayer, charity, fasting, brotherhood.
And the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that since the Western society is deteriorating — it has become overrun with immorality — that God is going to judge it, and destroy it, and the only way black people who are in this society can be saved is to not integrate into this corrupt society but separate ourselves from it, reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try and be godly, instead of trying… try and integrate with God, instead of trying to integrate with the white man, or try and imitate God, instead of trying to imitate the white man.
Then it was James Baldwin. He and Dr. Clark arrived very, very late for the interview. I knew something was really wrong. Baldwin looked terrible and Dr. Clark used every “psychiatric” tool to calm him down. Finally, he was able to get Baldwin to sit in our set. Baldwin lit up a cigarette and stared out into space, obviously angry and upset.
Later we learned why. Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, had called Baldwin a day earlier and asked him to gather a group of black friends to his luxury apartment in NYC to discuss the civil rights problem. Baldwin quickly gathered artist friends, actors, writers and a young man who had been beaten during one of the freedom rides.
This is how the meeting was recalled in Larry Tye’s new book, “Bobby Kennedy, The Making of a Liberal Icon” (Random House, 2016):
Black novelist James Baldwin had pulled the group together, at Bobby’s request, to talk about why a volcano of rage was building up in the Northern ghetto and why mainstream civil right leaders couldn’t or wouldn’t quell it as summer approached…
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t welcome, nor were the top people from the NAACP and the Urban league, because Bobby wanted a no-holds-barred critique of their leadership. He also hoped for a sober discussion of what the Kennedy administration should do, with Negroes who knew what it already was doing. Having a serious conversation without the serious players would have been difficult enough, but Bobby made it even harder: what he really wanted was gratitude, not candor. Baldwin did his best given those constraints and one day’s notice…
Kenneth Clark, the black America’s preeminent psychologist, came prepared to lay out studies and statistics to document that corrosive racial divide, but he never got the chance. Jerome Smith, a young activist who had held back as long as he could, suddenly shattered the calm, his stammer underlining his anger.
“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” he began. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail-party patter.” The real threat to white America wasn’t the Black Muslims, Smith insisted, it was when nonviolence advocates like him lost hope. The 24-year-old made his words resonate. He had suffered as many savage beatings as any civil rights protester of the era, including one for which he was now getting medical care in New York.
But his patience and his pacifism were wearing thin, he warned his rapt audience. If the police came at him with more guns, dogs, and hoses, he would answer with a weapon of his own. “When I pull a trigger,” he said, “kiss it good-bye.”…
Bobby was shocked, but Smith wasn’t through. Not only wouldn’t young blacks like him fight to protect their rights at home, he said, but they would refuse to fight for American in Cuba, Vietnam or any other places the Kennedys saw threats. “Never! Never! Never!” This was unfathomable to Bobby.
Others chimed in, demanding to know why the government couldn’t get tougher in taking on racist laws and ghetto blight….
Three hours into the evening the dialogue had become a brawl, with the tone set by Smith…. Bobby had heard enough. His tone let everyone know the welcome mat had been taken up. His flushed face showed how incensed he was.
This is what caused the delay and the desperation in both Dr. Clark and Baldwin. Somehow they did manage to conduct the very intense interview. It was an unbelievable moment as Baldwin, near tears, spews out his frustrations, despair and hopeless anguish.
Henry knew we had filmed an important moment. He released the interview that night to a local commercial station in NYC. He could do that because WNET, based in New Jersey, did not have a New York City channel. The New York Times picked up the story and ran it on the front page the next morning. “Negro and the American Promise” was soon published as a book.
Henry had also carved out monies to shoot some film related to each of the guests. It was a way of bringing a visual aspect to a traditional talking head show. Staff cameraperson Stan Hirson and I plotted out the locations.
Stan Hirson started his professional career as a documentary filmmaker in Boston. He covered the civil rights movement in the South and made film portraits of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Hirson joined the documentarians Maysles brothers and was involved in films such as The Beatles in America, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and numerous other documentaries.
The budget was tight. All we had was a silent film 16-millimeter camera and limited reels of black and white film.
We decided to introduce Malcolm X by filming at and around the Black Muslim Mosque in Harlem. Then, we would travel to Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta to capture his religious persona.
One other plan was hatched. Stan agreed to a special assignment, one that turned out to be dangerous for him.
Stan agreed to join the black civil rights group, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was led by James Farmer. He would travel with them in a car traveling across Mississippi to capture footage.
“Although the United States Supreme Court… had ruled that segregated interstate bus travel was unconstitutional, such buses enforced segregation below the Mason–Dixon line in southern states. Gordon Carey proposed the idea of a second Journey of Reconciliation and Farmer jumped at the idea. This time the group planned to journey through the Deep South. Farmer coined a new name for the trip: the Freedom Ride. [From Wikipedia]
Stan flew to Mississippi to join the Freedom Rides. I had an agreement with CORE that their people would drive Stan back to King’s church in Atlanta to meet me for the next shoot.
It turned out to be his most frightening drive: one white guy with a camera and three African Americans in an old black car driving across America at night.
Stan was to meet me at our hotel in Atlanta by 8:00 pm on a Thursday. That afternoon, I flew from Boston to Atlanta and planned to check into one of Atlanta’s oldest and grand hotels, the Dinkler-Tutwiler Hotel.
As I walked from the plane to the terminal, an older man wearing a hat and long coat approached me.
“Are you from Educational Television”
“Yes, I am.”
I reached out my hand to this person who was welcoming me to Atlanta. He leaned in and whispered menacingly.
“Get back on that plane. We don’t want you here.”
I was taken aback, shocked, really. Then I thought it was a dumb joke. But he wasn’t kidding. I laughed, shaking my head in disbelief, shrugged my shoulders and headed on my way. I never did see him again.
I took a cab to the hotel and checked in. I asked if Stan Hirson had left a message for me. The clerk said there was no message. He pointed me to the elevators and handed me a key to the 7th floor. He said my luggage would be up shortly.
I walked to the elevator and the door opened. Inside was a young black girl in a quaint hotel costume. She ran the elevator. I stepped in, mentioned my floor and we took off.
On the way up, I asked her how long it would take to get to Dr. King’s church via cab. She moved closer to the elevator doors and said nothing. I got the message. She had to be careful and wanted no contact with hotel guests. Who knows what had happened in the past. I backed off right away.
I got off the elevator and headed to my room. It was nice, big and a bit old fashioned. There came a knock on the door. It was the bellboy with my bags. He was an older black man with a great smile. He put my bags down and I gave him a good tip. He asked if I wished to have any beverages brought to the room. So, being a kid from Milwaukee, I ordered two beers. He left and I unpacked, turning on the TV. Nothing special on the local station.
Soon, another knock at the door. It was the older gentleman bringing me my two beers and a frosty beer glass. I gave him another good tip. He turned to me and said:
“Your friend will be here in two hours.”
“What? How do you know that?”
He smiled and left. My God, this was the second person that knew I was in town. It seemed everybody knew what I was doing. It was clear that a series of networks had been created to survive the tribulations of the civil rights conflict. I sipped my beers … actually downed them pretty fast.
After an hour, I decided to get a bit of fresh air and do a walk around the hotel. I went to the elevator, rang the bell, and soon the doors opened. It was the same girl. I entered and moved way back in the elevator so as not to alarm her. As the elevator headed to the main lobby, she turned to me and smiled.
“It will take about an hour to get to Dr. King’s church”
“Oh … thanks.”
Stan finally arrived, safe and sound. He told me he had hidden on the floor of the car as he rode back from Mississippi in that car with the Freedom Riders. I bought him a couple of beers, too. We went to bed, wondering what the next day would bring.
Morning arrived and we headed out the front doors of the hotel to the cabstand. The driver got out and opened the trunk to house Stan’s equipment. He asked where we were going. When I said King’s church, he slammed the trunk shut and told us to use the cabs across the street. “They’ll take you there” he said, as he climbed into his cab.
Stunned, Stan and I went over to the “black” cabstand. No problem for the black driver when we mentioned were we wanted to go. As Stan and I drove to the church, we tried to process all that had happened over the last couple of days. It felt really unreal. I felt like a stranger in my own country. As I looked out the window to see the streets of Atlanta, I wondered how the people of city adjusted to the civil unrest.
Our cab came to a stop at a red light. A white, middle age woman drove up next to us in a large American sedan. She looked over at us; two white guys in the back seat of a black cab and gave us the most frightening hate glare I had ever encountered. We were nothing but despicable interlopers in her town.
That look has stayed with me my whole life. I will never forget it.
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