Black History Month special
“Speaking Freely” compilation show.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to a special edition of “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Over the past few seasons, we’ve had the privilege of hearing from a number of people who’ve played vital roles in America’s path to civil rights. Today, we celebrate that march to freedom with a look back at conversations with Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis about their early roles in the movement; and from Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist David Halberstam, who covered the protests of the 1960s. We’ll also hear from Elizabeth Catlett, an artist whose powerful work bridged the civil rights era. We begin today with actor and singer Harry Belafonte.
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Paulson: “Did you decide early on as an artist that you weren’t gonna separate your art from your activism?
Harry Belafonte: Ah, no. as a matter of fact, my earliest thoughts on activism had nothing to do with art. I had no idea I was going to become an artist. I became an activist because of poverty — ah, born in America, born in Harlem, born in confined and oppressed circumstance. And, ah, watching all of those who were trapped in this abyss struggle against it, it became quite evident to me that the, the struggle would be going on from generation to generation and that those of us who had witnessed this oppression had a responsibility to do all that we could to change it and to make a difference, and I was, ah, instructed in these thoughts and in these ways by my mother and the people who made up my community. When I became an artist, ah, it became quite clear to me that art – and I, I quote my mentor, Paul Robeson, ‘That art is not just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be.’ And I saw in the world of art the opportunity to speak to issues that might help society grow and develop and become more understanding of itself.
Paulson: Do you think an artist has an obligation to do that?
Belafonte: Ah, yes, I do. I think artists have a moral and a social and a personal responsibility. And they certainly have the right to do what they want or say what they want, but, ah, I do believe that the height of art, art in its highest form, is art that serves and instructs society and human development.
Paulson: If the impulse to become an activist came earlier — early in your life, you didn’t have the impulse to become an artist, I understand, until after you’d left the military.
Belafonte: After I left the military and discovered theater. Uh, I quite accidentally went into a small theater in the Harlem community, and I saw in that performance and in the people gathered around that center a sense of purpose. I was quite taken with the brightness, the energy, the creativity that went on, and I saw in art the opportunity to instruct and to use that platform to influence. And, ah, the better your art, the better your capacity to influence, so I, I seized on it.
Paulson: And you walked into a remarkable acting class early on. Can you tell about that a bit?
Belafonte: Well, actually, there were two such happenstance. The first was in the American Negro Theatre itself in Harlem. And when I walked into that organization, there were people like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Sidney Poitier and others. However, the, the, the institution itself was not framed for higher instruction, and I had to go off to study theater in, in a, in a deeper context. And that took me to a school called the New School of Social Research and Drama Workshop, under the tutelage of a man from the Max Reinhardt theater in Germany who had fled fascism and became a sought-after instructor here in America. And when I signed up to participate in, in that institution, on my first day of attendance, my classmates were Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis, just to name a few.
Paulson: Tell me there were some people in that class who did not become stars of that stature.
Belafonte: Ah, none that I can remember.
Belafonte: As a matter of fact, it’s, it’s quite a statement that so many of us should’ve turned out to become so highly profiled.
Paulson: And, for a man who did not become an entertainer, or didn’t have an interest in the arts, becoming a performer, until 1945, you — your career rise was pretty quick. By 1953, you’d won a Tony. A lot of people associate you, of course, with your recording career. In 1955, um, your Calypso album, the first million-selling album. Ah, and that had to be an interesting time. It was also the height of the Red Scare. People were concerned about Communists, and you were a man who felt the need to speak out. Was there a backlash against you?
Belafonte: Yes, there was a backlash against almost anyone who took up the cause of, ah, free speech, anyone who took up the cause of, of human rights, civil rights. America was in a — was not in a very generous mood at the end of the second world war. The generosity that this country showed towards Europe and the Marshall Plan and rebuilding Europe, rebuilding the land of the enemy, was far more on display than any willingness it was to treat its citizens of color with a, with a sense of fair play. Many of us who served in the second world war had felt that the whole issue of democracy, the ending of totalitarianism, was indeed a, a lofty objective. And, in the success of that, the execution of that war, we came back to America with expectations that the segregated laws would be turned on their — turned upside down, that America would be more embracing of the black soldiers who served in that war and served this country honorably, and, ah, America, as a matter of fact, was not in that mood. As a matter of fact, there was a strong resurgence of, of , of institutions of segregation and oppression and to put us back in our place, to rid us of any lofty ideas we may have had about democracy in America as opposed to democracy elsewhere in the world. And those of us who had come from the war just felt that, ah, the deal was unacceptable, that we would continue to organize and to protest and to do what we could to change the way America was doing business with its citizens of color.”
Paulson: “Joining us is a distinguished actor, playwright, director, and activist whose remarkable work spans more than half a century, Mr. Ossie Davis. I, ah, went back, and I read any number of press clips about your career over the years, and it seems like every reference to you mentions you as both an actor and an activist. Have the two always been inseparable?
Ossie Davis: For me, yes. Ah, it, it — the arts for the black community were always a form of our politics, our protests. I would imagine, and I, and I tell people this sometimes, that when we were slaves, you know, huddled in the work camps and all, there must have been times when the old master sent down to the slave quarters and said, ‘That gal who was singin’ as I crossed the field, the senator’s coming tonight. Get her up to the house.’ And that girl would be taken and bathed and put on in her best, ah, clothes. She’d come to the house, she’d sing, and the master would be absolutely ecstatic. The senator would be smiling. So, out of the fullness of his heart, he would say to her, ‘Ah, you done good, gal. What can I do for you? What do you want to show my appreciation?’ And then she would say, in addition to a few things for herself, ‘Well, if we could have some corn that didn’t have bugs in it, or if we had a place where the water didn’t come in the roof, we sure would feel better.’ So, our arts were always, from the very beginning, a means of, of protest. It was the one way we had where we were free to truly declare that we were human beings and not cattle, so art was always very political for us. And, ah, when I came into the theater, the people who were most important to me, um, were the heroes of the theater at that time: Paul Robeson and Canada Lee and, um, Lena Horne, and they were all a part of the struggle; so I came in at that level and sort of joined the theater and joined in the struggle, and they were always and still are, in my mind, ah, intertwined in my experience.
Paulson: When you entered the business of theater, were there African-American performers who didn’t want any part of the politics?
Davis: Oh, yes, there were African-American performers who didn’t want, ah, ah, to be politically active because they knew, and they were correct, that they were exposing themselves. In other words, they struggled so hard to get what little was there in the way of the crumbs, and now, here we came along, saying, ‘Never mind the crumbs. Go out and take a stand and march and, you know, show yourself.’ They said, ‘Don’t be a fool. We just got in here. They gave us the opportunity. Let’s just be quiet and make the best of it.’
Paulson: At the very dawning of your career as an actor, I understand you saw Marian Anderson on that historic date on which she sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Can you talk about the controversy and your feeling about her at that time and what that performance felt like?
Davis: Yes. Yes. Well, I was a student at Howard University. Now, I had heard Marian Anderson sing on records and various other things and was very impressed with who she was. Ah, she was supposed to come to Washington to sing for the students at a church. The church caught fire, burned down, so, where can we hold this concert? Somebody says, ‘Why not Constitution Hall?’ We tried Constitution Hall. Daughters of the American Revolution, who were white, said, ‘Oh, no; we can’t have a black woman singing at the Constitution Hall, no.’ Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, heard about it and became incensed. I think she resigned. And then, she, on her own initiative, ah, decided to find Marian Anderson a place to sing worthy of this artist. So, she and Harold Ickes and several others made available to Marian Anderson the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And I think it was April 16th, Easter, a cold and dreary day, and Marian Anderson, ah, was on the front steps in her mink coat, as it were. But, standing there, there were 75,000 people, of course, and the student body was included, standing there, listening to her. All of a sudden, I had a transformation that was almost of a religious nature. Ah, something in her singing, something in her voice, something in her demeanor entered me and opened me up and made me a free man. And, in a sense, I never became — I never lost that. So, she became the kind of angel of my redemption through her art. And, also, her example taught me, ah, in a very concise fashion, exactly what I wanted to be about. I wanted to be able to do with writing what she was able to do with music and song. And there was, in addition, Paul Robeson, whose music, you know, moved people. Lena Horne — people at that time, so — but Marian Anderson on that particular day, you know, opened the doors of my prison, and I walked out a free man.
Paulson: You and Ruby Dee have had a remarkable partnership and a remarkable marriage, and it’s detailed in the book. Did both of you come to the relationship with a similar passion for, for the movement?
Davis: Ah, yes, we did, and it was sort of the normal thing to do. My commitment, ah, to the struggle began when I was a boy in Waycross, Georgia; and my parents, you know, were involved in trying to get schooling for us, trying to get votes, and, ah, you know, trying to do things that would better the lot of black people. So, even as — and, and, and the high school that I went to, our teachers, you know, felt strongly about the question of freedom, and they, they used to instill in us that everything we did – the way we spelled a word, the way we walked down the street, you know – had some, um, ah, resonance in the outer community, and they spoke to the condition of black people. So, you mustn’t do anything to cast aspersion on black people. On the other hand, one of the things that the white community would listen to was us as we sang, or they would watch us as we danced. So, our arts, even in those days, were ways of making a statement to the community about who we were. So, I grew up in that, ah, surrounding, and it was a natural part of my training as a human being. Ruby grew up in Harlem, but her mother here was roughly involved in the same kind of thing: a member of the NAACP, um, trying to get better schools, concerned about what was happening in the outer world. When I came back from World War II – this was before I met Ruby – already the response to the returning black soldier was of grave concern to the black community. Black soldiers were being lynched. And, ah, there was a soldier in North Carolina who had his eyes gouged out, gouged out: Isaac Woodard. And two soldiers in Georgia walking with their wives were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Another young man in Georgia trying to vote was killed. The NAACP in, in New York was active and, ah, agitational and concerned with these things. And we, as members of the theater, were approached by the NAACP and by the Urban League to make ourselves involved, to help them raise funds, to help them spread the word, to take part in the pageants that they put on, so it was sort of a natural progression. And to take a part in those pageants was not just to be able to do something in the cause of, ah, liberation, freedom for black folks. You’d be on the stage with a Paul Robeson or a Lena Horne or a Canada Lee or some of the others. And of course, who — that alone was sufficient to get us involved. But, the theaters from which we came were dedicated in their own way to trying to improve the lot of the actors, and was — that has a civil rights aspect to it. So, coming into the theater was the result, we thought, of struggle, and when we got in, we had to do something about all those lynchings that were taking place, particularly in the south. Um, there was no federal anti-lynching law, and Robeson was active in trying to get one. And whenever there was a crime in the south — if a Willie McGee, you know, was in trouble or a Rosalee Ingram and her sons in Florida or the Martinsville Seven being accused of raping somebody or a Harry T. Moore – somebody put a bomb under his — in his room at Christmastime – we were a part of that reservoir of workers and actors who would spring into action. So, it was just a part of being in the theatrical, theatrical community, as far as I was concerned, you know? It took no persuading. It took no deciding, ‘I must do this.’ It was being done, and I just participated in it.”
Paulson: “My co-host today is John Seigenthaler, a highly respected journalist who also served as special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the Civil Rights Movement. After retiring from newspapers, John went on to found the First Amendment Center. John and I are delighted to welcome a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist whose recent book, called The Children, focuses on the work of courageous young people in the Civil Rights Movement and whose earlier book, The Best and the Brightest, was the definitive study of American policy in Vietnam, David Halberstam. [Applause]
Paulson: Of all places on the planet to go to, to begin your career, you go to West Point, Mississippi. What were you thinking?
David Halberstam: I learned so much. A small town, completely different experience, having to learn how to deal with ordinary people and seeing the complexity of ordinary people and working in alien circumstances — something that served — anybody who covered civil rights well and later, Vietnam, well. I mean, it was an extraordinary year. And then was lucky enough to work on what I think, and John would agree, was the best-known national newspaper in the country and probably the best newspaper in the south, the National Tennessean, for four years. We had a great tradition on that paper, and we had made that state different from other states, and that sense that we would stand apart from conventional racist attitudes, that we would, you know, be willing to be unpopular, uh, and stand — and fight off social ostracism, which was a very powerful thing in the south, and most editors in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and the, and the deep South gave in to it. You have to understand that places like Mississippi and Alabama in those days were soft police states. They really were. So, that, if you were a politician or an editor or a minister who went against the regular attitude on race, if you sort of said that the Supreme Court decision on Brown was right, they would drive you out of the state, either by fear, by cutting you off from all of your friends, by cutting your wife off. I mean, they just made—so, I mean, in effect, they snuffed out freedom of speech. So, freedom of speech was a very real issue in this thing — whether an editor had the right, the willingness, the courage to say the things that, in his heart — I should say ‘her’ ’cause Hazel Brannon Smith in Mississippi, in Holmes County, was just so ferocious and, and so courageous.
John Seigenthaler: And so punished.
Halberstam: Punished. I mean, they just stripped her, and they set out to crush her economically, as they did so many other people. So, I mean, these were, these were very nice, genteel, soft police states.
Seigenthaler: And, Ken, I would just say that, that it was an accident, I think, that David Halberstam came to work for the Tennessean at the moment a very bright, a very, um, very courageous group of young African-American students had enrolled themselves in four local institutions of higher education: Fisk, Meharry, Tennessee State, and American Baptist College, and those young students really, uh, began there and then went on, uh, to the Freedom Rides in Montgomery and then, finally — and not finally at all, because they went on to do great things in the country professionally — but, but then to Selma and to Edmond Pettus Bridge for that crucial showdown there. David found them, and they found him, and the dynamic on this paper that gave voice, uh, and coverage to the movement — it was, it, it was an electric moment when David Halberstam began to report on that sit-in movement that had its genesis, ah, in that city.
Halberstam: We’re talking about the importance of the First Amendment on this, and it’s, it’s extraordinarily important to the young people who are doing this, because they are maybe going to die, and they’re taking this risk, but one of the things they said was, ‘Black people have been taking risks for forever’ and being killed and lynched, and no one had paid any attention. The newspapers had bottled it up, not covered it, or put it back on page 38 with two paragraphs. And people complain about political correctness today. Well, the old political correctness was the ability of the mayor of the town and the police chief talking to each other and to the head of the chamber of commerce and to the district attorney so that anything blacks did to protest their particular plight got sanitized and not in the paper. And what they were saying — and the role of the media in a free society is so critical, ’cause if they were gonna take these enormous risks to challenge the existing authority, the most important thing was that the rest of the world know, the rest of the country, the rest of Alabama. Now, there was a lot of control of the press in the deep South. What changed it was the coming of national television and local television, because new — television wanted the story. It was good film – there was not video then – and they were gonna run with it, and that involuntarily — the Civil Rights Movement and the coming of national television – ’57, ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61 – the nation is being wired. Those two things come together, and the capacity of local southern papers to suppress and censor local indigenous news ends. But they understood, the kids did, the importance of the media. They would take this risk, finally, because they were finally getting coverage, as those who had gone ahead of them for 200 years had not been covered.”
Paulson: “Today we’re joined by Elizabeth Catlett, a talented sculptor, painter, and printmaker, who many have described as one of the most prominent African-American artists of the 20th century. Thank you for joining us. It’s an honor to have you here.
Elizabeth Catlett: Well, I’m glad to be here.
Paulson: To what extent has racism affected your career?
Catlett: Oh, please. [Both laugh] It’s affected my career from the beginning. Uh, I’ve had difficulty exhibiting, except in black institutions. And my work hasn’t been accepted when I knew it should have been, many times.
Paulson: Well, there was always — I’m sure there were times when you had to wonder, ‘Is this exhibit not being accepted because of my race?’ But then there were also issues of, of politics. You’ve been politically active, much of your life.
Catlett: Well, it was the kind of work I was doing, I guess.
Paulson: Can you talk about that?
Catlett: Well, there was, there was a gallery on 57th Street that the director invited me in to talk about having a one-woman exhibition. She had seen my wood carvings, and I said I was having a show in New Orleans. The show in New Orleans developed because there were two black women there who worked with the board. And she said, ‘Well, I’ll come to the show,’ but she didn’t. And when I came back, the Studio Museum had a banquet in one of the big hotels, and she was there. And she said, ‘We can’t talk about your exhibition here, but we’ll talk about it tomorrow.’ It was Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and me, and we had about ten minutes to speak about what our, what our art consisted of, what was our purpose as artists. And when I finished with mine, I was no longer a candidate for, for her gallery. I went the next day, and she had me sitting for a long time, and then she came over, very embarrassed, to tell me that she had associates and that she didn’t think she could take me on.
Paulson: What was your message that, that so bothered them?
Catlett: Well, I said, ‘I’m a black artist. I’m first a woman and then a black woman and then an artist, and my work is principally for black people, to show them the, the dignity and beauty that they have, that we have.’ And I went on from there, and it didn’t sound at all commercial. [Laughs]“
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