1954 was a clarifying point of convergence in American history. Among other things, it was the year that brought the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw racial segregation in the schools. Bill Moyers, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee tell the story of how the New Deal, World War II and postwar social changes set the stage for a long-awaited and hard-fought legal assault on the fortresses of segregation.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. There are certain years that can be seen with hindsight to have turned the course of events on its head, years that divide whole eras one from the other, although we didn’t know it at the time. Such a year was 1954.
Think about the straws in the wind. The French were beaten by Ho Chi Minh. And the United States moved in to take over the leading role in supporting his enemies in Vietnam. The shah of Iran settled on the throne in Tehran, restored, after a short exile, by US efforts.
At home, television demonstrated its power. It had helped to make Senator Joe McCarthy’s career. Now, it helped to destroy him when he took on the US Army before the cameras and lost.
A once-innocent habit lost its badge of nonchalance forever when cigarette smoking was linked to cancer. A once-impregnable barrier fell when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. And other barriers fell too, especially for American blacks.
Charles H. Mahoney became the first of his race to serve as a permanent member of the US delegation to the United Nations. And Willie Mays hit .345, starred in the World Series, and was MVP in the National League. Marian Anderson appeared with the Metropolitan Opera Company.
An obscure and youthful preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., was called to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And there was, above all, that ultimate landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court ruling unanimously that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. The decision carried the name of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. With it, the highest court completely reversed its own decision of 58 years earlier and gave a powerful new thrust to the second American Revolution.
BILL MOYERS: The second American Revolution, the struggle of black people to secure for themselves the rights ostensibly proclaimed for all Americans in the Declaration of Independence. But the Constitution of the new nation then denied for the moment, a very long moment, what the Declaration had offered. Blacks were slaves. And it would take a bloody civil war to free them. Years would pass before the Constitution would be amended and interpreted so as to render justice color-blind.
Blacks faced continued anguish in that long period between 1896 when the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson endorsed the doctrine of “separate but equal” and 1954 when Brown v. The Board of Education upset it. There’s plenty of anguish still. But if it’s true, as Thomas Hobbes thought it to be, that the law mirrors the public conscience, well, by the middle of this century, the American conscience was stirring. And the law was feeling the pressure. So we pick up our story of this revolution with the husband-and-wife team of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. They are, as I said last week, artists who are also participants, witnesses to those events where public and private dramas are transformed into history.
RUBY DEE: Often when I think about America and the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, I ask myself, do these words really apply to black people? Yes, they are some of humanity’s best-expressed aspirations, meant to guide and to protect us. Yet for black Americans, the Constitution has been little more than a leaky umbrella under which we’ve huddled.
OSSIE DAVIS: I’ve done a lot of thinking about America too — “my country, ’tis of the” — and my place in it, and about that phrase “separate but equal,” trying to explain it to myself, to make it make some kind of sense. But how can you make sense of something that means Jim Crow and riding at the back of the bus the rest of your life? What it really meant was putting black people down at the very bottom and keeping them there. But it did have a certain kind of crazy logic. I mean, suppose the Great White Fathers had really meant it when they said “separate but equal.” [LAUGHS]
RUBY DEE: You mean like a General Motors for them and a Chrysler and a Ford Corporation for us, a Harvard University for them, a Yale and a Princeton for us. And for every white bank, a separate but equal black bank, with white dollars in one bank, black dollars in the other. [LAUGHS]
OSSIE DAVIS: A Congress for them, a Congress for us. A Supreme Court for them, a Supreme Court for us. And just across the street from the White House, a separate but equal Black House. That’s what it said in the law.
RUBY DEE: What it really meant was lynching, and robbing, and no right to vote, where race and the color of our skin disqualified us from citizenship in a country where we till the soil, shed blood, and pay taxes.
OSSIE DAVIS: “Separate but equal.” It was mean. It was vicious. It was ridiculous. And it was impossible.
RUBY DEE: But when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education, “separate but equal” was dead, or so we thought.
OSSIE DAVIS: Some said it was a second emancipation. It had been a long time coming. And many people, black and white, had fought long and hard to make it happen. But I think it was the Second World War that set the stage for the 1954 decision.
RUBY DEE: Ever since Crispus Attucks, a black sailor from Framingham, Massachusetts, was killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre, black Americans have never hesitated to fight and die for this country.
RUBY DEE: It was about anti-Semitism and the master race. We knew what the master race was all about. We’d heard it before.
GRAND DRAGON SAMUEL GREEN (KKK): We don’t hate the negro. God made him black. And he made us white. And you will find this laid out in the 11th chapter of Genesis in which he segregated the races. And knowing that for 5,000 years the white man has been the supreme race, we, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, intend to keep it the white race.
RUBY DEE: Oh, yes, we’d heard it before. Adolf Hitler and his jackbooted, goose-stepping bully boys were making it perfectly clear that open, naked racism was at the heart of this war. Racism was something we knew about firsthand. It was people being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night. It was beatings, and burnings, and concentration camps.
RUBY DEE: We knew that if Hitler won, we’d be next.
OSSIE DAVIS: So when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I didn’t wait for my draft board to call me. I volunteered. And in June 1942, I landed in Liberia, West Africa, a soldier in Uncle Sam’s segregated army. Some of the men I served with lie buried overseas. And some lie buried here, in Arlington, in all their honored glory, black and white side by side, finally integrated. I’ve often wondered if the unknown soldier was a black man. Why not? The same Army, the same war. We fought. We bled. We died together.
Well, the Army in which I served was split into two separate but unequal parts. And only the whites were supposed to provide the heroes. The only hero I knew in the service would not be buried here at Arlington. I was a surgical technician in charge of a ward in the 25th Station Hospital. Our job was to evacuate the wounded coming down from General Eisenhower’s North African campaign against Rommel. We were a crack outfit with first-class medical officers all the way up, except for the very two top positions. We were pioneers trained to within an inch of our life and proud as hell, except for one thing, segregation.
OSSIE DAVIS: Now no white GI on the post could be housed in any ward with any of the black GIs. We had to put them in with the officers and treat them like officers, separate but better. Villages reserved for whites were off limits to us. They got the first and best of everything according to US Army regulations. They were even forbidden to fraternize with us, as if we were the enemy. All this in Africa, our mother continent, and in front of all the Africans who worked around the post. How did this differ from Hitler? they asked us. It wasn’t funny. And we didn’t laugh.
One Sunday afternoon, Big John Williams from Baltimore, a sergeant who was a patient on my ward, was feeling well enough to get a pass and go into the village. There was some kind of altercation there. And Big John was beaten by two white MPs and thrown into the stockade until he could cool down. They let him out. And then he went on a rampage. And he killed five people, including his commanding officer and, finally, himself.
Less than a week, integration came to the 25th Station Hospital. But for the longest time, all through the night in the barracks, we would argue about Big John and the violence and the bloodshed, and how much was one man supposed to take before he cracked? Right or wrong, it was one hell of a price to have to pay for a piddling measure of manhood and self-respect. But old Big John, he paid it. And he paid it in full. Thanks, man.
RUBY DEE: When Hitler was finally dead and the bomb was dropped, Japan surrendered. And we thought the war was finally over, that justice had finally triumphed. The forces of goodness, fair play, and brotherhood met in San Francisco to form the United Nations, swearing that it would never happen again. But then the Negro troops came marching home. I remember Nazi prisoners of war being ferried through the South on the railroads. They rode first class in the section reserved for whites only, while black GIs, many of them with heroes’ medals strung across their chests, rode Jim Crow.
BILL MOYERS: The war had the effect of a bulldozer on American life, knocking some things down, tearing others up, changing boundaries and expectations everywhere. Black veterans came home more impatient than ever with racism. If the Nazis could see them sufficiently to shoot at them, they weren’t going to come back and be the invisible man anymore, hurting but unheard. Surprisingly, they found someone in the White House who seemed prepared to listen. When an NAACP delegation visited the White House to report numerous recent incidents of anti-black violence and brutality, President Harry Truman was reportedly appalled. He said he wanted to do something.
And when asked why he would risk his political neck for black people, this border-state politician recalled happening upon a Ku Klux Klan rally in Independence, Missouri, just after World War I. “It scared the hell out of me,” Truman said. “And I’m still scared.” In June 1947, in a speech before the 38th annual conference of the NAACP, Truman made it crystal clear that he intended to do something about civil rights.
HARRY TRUMAN: Our immediate task is to remove the last remnants of the barriers which stand between millions of our citizens and their birthright. There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or color. [APPLAUSE] Many of our people still suffer the indignity of insult, the harrowing fear of intimidation, and I regret to say, the threat of physical injury and mob violence. There is much that state and local governments can do in providing positive safeguards for civil rights. But we cannot any longer await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.
BILL MOYERS: The next year, he issued an executive order outlawing segregation in the armed forces. And later, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, his insistence on a strong, uncompromising plank on civil rights so offended and outraged Southern sentiment that 38 delegates walked out of the convention and formed the States’ Rights Party. They nominated Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina, as their candidate for president.
STROM THURMOND: Well, ladies and gentlemen, if we are true Southerners, if we stand for the principles of our forefathers, and if we place principle above party, I say to you that we will forget our political futures. And we will fight these things to the last. And we will defeat any man that has attempted to stab the South in the back, as has Harry S. Truman.
BILL MOYERS: There were other splits in the party that year. And the Progressive Party nominated Henry Wallace. But despite these defections and the dire predictions of even the optimists, Harry S. Truman won that election in a stunning upset.
It was a close call. But the president’s victory over the Dixiecrats was a signal to a particular group of black Americans, now armed with statute books and court reports, who were hungry to win some victories themselves.
RUBY DEE: When Mordecai Johnson became the first black president of Howard University in Washington, DC, he sought advice from the experts on how to make the university all that it could be.
OSSIE DAVIS: One of the people with whom he conferred was Louis Brandeis, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. The justice was appalled. “I can always tell when I get a brief from a Negro attorney,” Brandeis told him. “You’ve got to get yourself a real faculty out there, or your law school will always be fifth-rate.”
RUBY DEE: Johnson called on Charles Houston, a graduate of Harvard, to come and organize the law school. And when he was through, what had started out as a night school in a little brownstone in Northwest Washington with a spare-time time faculty fast became a fully accredited, respected school of law.
OSSIE DAVIS: It was at the Howard University Law School, under that same Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, William Hastie, James Nabrit, Walter White of the NAACP, Constance Baker Motley, to name only a few — it was there that civil rights law was said to have been invented —
RUBY DEE: —where the grand strategy was mapped, the legal research done, and all the groundwork laid to launch the final campaign.
OSSIE DAVIS: A campaign with one simple single aim, to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the decision which, with its phony doctrine of separate but equal, had made life a segregated hell on earth for black people.
RUBY DEE: They used to meet in places like this, sitting around shooting the breeze, being judge and jury, trying their cases before each other, searching the transcripts, citing the precedents —
OSSIE DAVIS: —quoting the documents over and over.
RUBY DEE: Yes, and drilling the witnesses over and over, sleeping too little, smoking too much, decisions, decisions, and still more decisions —
OSSIE DAVIS: —on whether or not, in the light of Truman’s big election victory, the time hadn’t finally come to force the issue, to go flat out, whole hog or none.
RUBY DEE: Some argued, no, no, no, it’s too soon. Some said, it’s too late. Others said, no, no, we need more time, more cases, more victories under our belts.
OSSIE DAVIS: Then everybody turned to Thurgood Marshall, the big man who had the final say. “My dear and learned colleagues, we’ve got these jokers exactly where we want them. Let’s go for broke.” The strategy was not to attack head-on, but rather to pick those cases where segregation could easily be shown to be ridiculous, expensive, and burdensome to the states. And the pickings were easy.
BILL MOYERS: If there had ever been any remote intention to make separate accommodations truly equal, it had been eroded by time and custom, and by outright sabotage. Black schools and colleges everywhere were blatantly inferior. For years, the gap between what the law required for equality and what was actually provided was so vast that the time had come for the NAACP attorneys to fire a fusillade of arguments against that status quo. Three cases in particular made history.
BILL MOYERS: Heiman Sweat, a black postal worker, applied to the University of Texas Law School. Rather than admit him, the Texas legislature appropriated $2,600,000 to build a law school just for Negroes. The courts ruled against the state, saying that equal treatment meant more than mere duplication of physical facilities. Mr. Sweatt could not be refused admission solely because he was black.
In yet another case, GW McLaurin applied to the University of Oklahoma’s Graduate School of Education and was accepted. But once inside, he was forced to sit in a special seat cut off from the rest of the class by a rail marked, “Reserved for colored.” The courts ruled that his rights to an equal education had been violated.
A third case was that of Elmer Henderson, a black employee of the federal government who had to ride a Southern train from Washington, DC, to Georgia. According to railroad regulations, Negro passengers had to eat at a table at the end of the diner, separated from the rest of the car by curtains. The courts held that such regulations were unconstitutional.
BILL MOYERS: These three cases were all decided on the same day. And now the NAACP was encouraged to go for broke. The time had come to ask the Supreme Court to reverse the decision of their earlier brethren and, in effect, to declare Plessy v. Ferguson unconstitutional.
RUBY DEE: It wasn’t just one case that gave the NAACP the chance it wanted. There were five. And those five could easily have been 5,000.
RUBY DEE: Linda Brown had to walk across a dangerous rail yard every morning on her way to school. There was a white school near her home. But when her father, Reverend Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her there, he ran head-on into “separate but equal.” The NAACP took Linda’s case and four others and laid them in the lap of the United States Supreme Court.
OLLIE DAVIS: Reverend Oliver Brown wasn’t the only parent who had tried to protect his children from the effects of racism in American education. I remember once, our eldest daughter came racing home waving her examination paper in high enthusiasm. She was a French honors student. And the assignment had been to read and report on a novel in the original French.
And she had chosen Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. And we were so proud, doubly proud, because the author she had chosen, Dumas, was a black man. And I can remember the astonishment on her face when we told her that. You mean Alexandre Dumas was a black man? We said yes and told her about how his family had come over to France from Martinique.
We thought she’d be happy. But she wasn’t. Why didn’t my teacher tell me that? Why wasn’t it in the books? We tried to laugh it off, to explain to her that racism wasn’t only about lynching and beating people. Sometimes it was quite subtle and could even happen between friends. And she’d always thought of her teacher as a friend, but not so much after that. It’s not easy trying to explain segregation to your children. And I wondered how the nine men in the Supreme Court were going to explain it to the nation.
BILL MOYERS: What the NAACP set out to prove was simple and straightforward, that forcing children to attend schools restricted to their own race was not only unfair but damaged them psychologically. And two of the witnesses for that position were unusual to say the least. Can you imagine what some historian in the far-away future would think to find two dolls like these packed away in an archive along with the records of the Brown case? Small, silent witnesses. But in the hands of doctors Mamie and Kenneth Clark, husband and wife and both psychologists, the dolls helped the lawyers to demonstrate how segregation adversely affected the self-esteem of black children.
KENNETH CLARKE: We put them on a table, two white and two brown dolls, exactly the same in every respect except color. We put no clothes on them except a diaper. And we asked the children a number of very simple questions, starting out with, show me the white doll. Show me the colored doll. Show me the Negro doll.
And after getting the answer to those questions, which would tell us whether they perceived a difference in these dolls, we then asked them preference questions, such as, show me the doll you’d like to play with. Show me or give me the doll that’s a nice doll. Show me the doll that’s a bad doll. These were questions designed to determine whether the children had some differentiating responses and attitudes to these dolls, which were identical in every respect except color. And we found that the majority of black children at that time did in fact ascribe the positive characteristics to the white doll and the negative characteristics to the brown doll.
KENNETH CLARKE: And I’ll never forget — because Mamie had to be home with our first child. So I did the fieldwork on that. The last disturbing question, after they had indicated their preferences, which in a sense were a rejection of the brown doll — I then asked the question, now show me the doll that’s like you. Some of those children looked at me as if I were the devil himself for putting them in that predicament.
I remember — in the North this happened, not in the South, interestingly enough. Northern black children, some of them would run out of the room when I asked them that last question. The difference in the South was that I remember that the black children in the South, for the most part, would look up at me. And some of them would smile.
KENNETH CLARKE: And I remember one young boy, about six or seven years old, when I asked him — after he had indicated that the white doll had all the good characteristics and the brown doll had all the bad characteristics. And when I said to him, now show me the one like you, he looked up at me. And he put a curious smile that broke into a laugh. And he said, ah, that’s a nigger. I’m a nigger. And that’s the way he handled the jolt of self-esteem, by accepting the definition of himself as a nigger with all of the characteristics.
So we wrote that up. You can see why we were reluctant to publish it and had to be forced to publish it. But it was the beginning of psychologists’ understanding of the terrible damage that’s done to human beings by racial rejection.
BILL MOYERS: The Clarks’ testimony was accepted as evidence by the Supreme Court in its findings about the harmful effects of segregation in public education. The court asked, “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” And the court answered, “We believe it does.”
RUBY DEE: The Supreme Court decision of 1954 was a victory. We felt it in our bones. Plessy v. Ferguson was dead.
OSSIE DAVIS: But we didn’t dance in the streets. We didn’t shout out loud. Instead, we waited. We held our breath. We kept our fingers crossed, holding our hallelujahs down to a bare minimum.
BILL MOYERS: The Brown decision hit the South like the earlier sound of shots at Fort Sumter. Oh, a few governors spoke favorably. And some school boards made plans to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” as the court had instructed.
For a moment, it seemed that the moderates might even prevail, while the extremists fumed in disarray. They, the moderates, kept hoping that President Dwight David Eisenhower would speak out in support of the court’s decision. He was a popular figure, the hero of World War II, and had even carried four Southern states for the Republicans in 1952. His authority, they said, might have made the difference, might have stirred the center to hold.
But no affirming word came from the president. To the contrary, he did not conceal his private opposition to government intervention in such affairs. Soon the first White Citizens’ Council came to life in Mississippi to foster open resistance to the court’s decision. And 96 Southern congressmen signed a ringing manifesto to preserve the segregated status quo. It wasn’t Fort Sumter. But the South had, for all intents and purposes, declared war on Brown v. The Board of Education. There would be no equal opportunities or integrated schools without a fight. But who would lead it?
OSSIE DAVIS: Presidents may fail us. Congresses may organize against us. The courts may raise our hopes only to dash them again. There’s always been one institution to which we could turn come what may, our refuge, our rock of ages, our shelter in the time of a storm, the black church.
RUBY DEE: And here at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, December 1955, the winter of our discontent, we found Martin Luther King, Jr.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: We are involved in a movement which causes us to sing over and over again that we are not afraid.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: We are not afraid of the threat of arrest. We are not afraid of police dogs. We are not afraid of the Nazi Party or the States’ Rights Party because as we march, we know that we do not march alone. Now let me say to you finally that undergirding our whole struggle is a philosophy deeply embedded in our religious traditions. And with that philosophy goes an articulate, meaningful, eloquent method. And that is the philosophy and method of nonviolent resistance. Let us be willing to turn the other cheek with the realization that it is better to go through life with a scarred-up body than with a scarred-up soul. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
RUBY DEE: He was young, strong, eager, and dedicated, a veritable Moses. But it took the tired feet of Rosa Parks and the righteous indignation of E.D. Nixon to show our Moses the burning bush.
E.D. NIXON: December 1, 1955, was on a Thursday. I was in — I had an office downtown at that time. And I had left the office for some reason. And I came back. I found a note sticking under my telephone. It said, “Urgent. Call home at once.” So I called home. And my wife was on the telephone. I asked her, what’s happening?
She said, they arrested Miss Parks. I said, for what? So she said, I don’t know. Go get her, just like I could go down there and get her. And, of course, I called down there to find out what the charge was, I guess. And they said she was charged with violating Alabama’s segregation law. I said, well, I’m going down there to make bond for it. And I made a bond. And after we got her out, I came back to Miss Parks. And on my way over there, I was thinking about this thing. And I said, well, it look like Jim Crow done just dropped what I wanted in my lap.
So I came home. And I got here at about 11 o’clock at night. And I told my wife, I said, well, I believe I got what we’ve been looking for. She said, like what? I said, Miss Parks’ case. I said, I think the best thing to do is to boycott the Montgomery City Lines. And she said, what do you mean by “boycott?” And I said, stay off of it, keep the people off of it. Let them walk. And she said, man, don’t you know that people ain’t going to walk, cold as it is? I said, well, one thing, if we can keep them off when it’s cold, we won’t have no trouble getting them off when it’s hot. She looked at me and shook her head. She said, my husband, my husband. She said, if headaches were selling for a dollar a dozen, you just would be the guy to walk in the drugstore and say, give me a dozen headaches.
And so, anyhow, I had a tape recorder. And I recorded a number of people’s names on the tape recorder. And then I got up the next morning and started calling these people. The first person I called, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, I told him what had happened and everything. He hadn’t heard it. I said, I’m calling you because I’m going to ask everybody to stay off the bus until people decide to treat people right on the bus. He said, I’ll go along with you. Then I called the Reverend HH Hubbard, the second man. And of course, naturally, he’d go along with me because he’s the pastor of the church where I attended church service at. So I knew he would go along with me.
And the third person I called was Reverend King. He said, Brother Nixon, let me think about it a while, and call me back. And of course, when I called him back, he was number 19. And I told him — he agreed and said — he told me he agreed to go along with me. I said, well, I’m glad to hear you say that, Reverend King, because I’ve called 18 other people. And I told them to meet at your church this evening, downtown. And I said, it would look kind of bad if you weren’t there.
OSSIE DAVIS: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 17,500 black people simply refusing to ride Jim Crow. No more darky jokes by white, arrogant bus drivers. No more being insulted and pushed around, and then smiling as if it really didn’t matter. Nobody was ever again going to tell us to go to the back of the bus. We said it. We meant it. And 381 days later, the Supreme Court backed us up. The Constitution was alive and well. We had put the documents to the test. And they had worked. And we had learned an important lesson about struggle.
RUBY DEE: But nobody was going to hand us freedom on a silver platter. We had to fight for it and keep on fighting, just like the people here in Montgomery, not only in the courts, and the churches, and the schools, but also out in the streets if we had to. Taxi cabs were pressed into service. People with cars shoved over and made room for their neighbors. The buses were all but empty. What the black vote had not been able to do, the black dollar did. And we took our struggle to the streets.
OSSIE DAVIS: And so it began, the relentless hammering away at Jim Crow, the absolute determination to take the Constitution and make it work for us and for everybody else.
RUBY DEE: Not only the people themselves, in their hundreds and tens of thousands, but sometimes just one or two heroes, heroines, and some cases, martyrs putting their safety on the line again, and again, and again.
OSSIE DAVIS: In 1957, we integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine teenagers, led by Daisy Bates, field secretary of the NAACP, tried to enroll in the all-white school. There was a swift and violent reaction. President Eisenhower, whose sworn duty it was to uphold and defend the Constitution, was forced, finally, to send in federal troops to escort the youngsters to and from their classes.
RUBY DEE: In 1960, the sit-ins were born at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, started by four black students from a nearby college campus.
OSSIE DAVIS: And in less than a year, the movement had spread to almost every black college campus in the South.
RUBY DEE: One of the key people behind the scenes was Ella Baker, who taught the students about the courage, the discipline, and the history of nonviolent resistance.
OSSIE DAVIS: In 1961, we sent Freedom Riders deep into the South to test segregation in interstate transport. The Freedom Rides brought allies in from the North. They were met by burnings and beatings, bullets and bars. Our purpose was to prod the Justice Department into enforcing the law of the land. The strategy worked.
RUBY DEE: In 1962, we integrated the University of Mississippi. James Meredith, a veteran of the United States Air Force, did not hesitate to walk the gauntlet.
OSSIE DAVIS: In 1963, it was the University of Alabama and George Wallace’s infamous stand in the doorway.
GEORGE WALLACE: As governor, I am the highest constitutional officer of the state of Alabama. I embody the sovereignty of this state. And I will be present to bar the entrance of any Negro who attempts to enroll at the University of Alabama.
OSSIE DAVIS: Wallace’s adamant stand, made, he said, in the name of the Constitution of Alabama, was seen by many as an open invitation to violence. But violence under any circumstance is always a threat to law and order. In the end, the Alabama police had to intervene on our side, something we had very seldom seen before in the South.
RUBY DEE: The situation threatened to get out of hand. And that could call for federal intervention, something George Wallace did not want to happen to him.
GEORGE WALLACE: My friends, we cannot win this fight if we resort to violence, if we resort to bombing, if we resort to harming the hair on a single person’s head in this state. I ask you to join with me in keeping the peace in this state. If you want to stand with me in my fight, I know that you will do just that. There are people, there are Communists, there are left-wingers, there are people who despise all the peoples of this country. There are peoples who have pledged their allegiance to a foreign government who would like to exploit and use this situation. But if you are an Alabamian, or a Southerner, or an American who stands with your governor, then I can tell you that the resorting to violence in any form will only help defeat our cause in the long run.
OSSIE DAVIS: On June 11, 600 Alabama National Guards were called in to keep the peace. Two black students would attempt to register at the University of Alabama. And the federal government stood behind them.
RUBY DEE: Alabamians were urged to stay away. 825 state troopers, game wardens, and revenue agents were standing by. All was quiet.
OSSIE DAVIS: Governor Wallace was ready to carry out his pledge to stand in the schoolhouse door. A member of the faculty said, “This is just like the Late, Late Show. You know how it ends. But you can’t go to bed.”
RUBY DEE: George Wallace, representing the state, took his place in the door of the last totally segregated state university system in the country.
OSSIE DAVIS: Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, representing the federal government, served Alabama, in the person of George Wallace, with an order to integrate their university system forthwith. Wallace refused.
RUBY DEE: President Kennedy, within moments, federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered Brigadier General Henry Graham of Birmingham to remove George Wallace from the schoolhouse door so that Vivian Horner and James Hood could enroll.
OSSIE DAVIS: General Graham sadly said that it was his duty under the order of the president and of the Constitution of the United States to ask the governor to step aside. The battle between states’ rights and the authority of the Constitution can only have one ending. Governor Wallace, realizing the futility of his gesture, finally agreed.
RUBY DEE: There were no cheers. But also, there were no jeers. Some Alabamians seemed ready to accept the change.
1st ALABAMIAN: I think Alabama prepared for it. I think that’s why it was so peaceful.
2nd ALABAMIAN: I’m glad that it’s over with. I think it should’ve been done a long time ago. I don’t see any reason why they should keep any qualified nigger out.
3rd ALABAMIAN: I really don’t mind going to school with them here. But I think all this is silly, to have to take all this much trouble to enroll two people to go to school.
RUBY DEE: In May of that same year, we marched against Jim Crow through growling dogs and cattle prods, through water hoses in Birmingham.
OSSIE DAVIS: To this day, of the sacrifices, the dedication, the endless courage of boys and girls, men and women, people of many races who gave themselves to this great chapter of our history, the half has never been told.
RUBY DEE: 1963 was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. That called for something special.
OSSIE DAVIS: In August of that year, we held our biggest protest demonstration ever, the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. It was a masterpiece of logistics, organized, planned, and rehearsed down to the last detail.
Bayard Rustin, who had masterminded of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was in charge of operations. And he’d asked Ruby and me to emcee part of the program.
RUBY DEE: Bayard called us all together the night before the march for a meeting in a small hotel conference room.
OSSIE DAVIS: This march was supposed to be the biggest and most important thing for us black Americans since Marcus Garvey talked about going back to Africa. All the civil rights leaders were there, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young. Jim Farmer was still in jail down in Plaquemine, Louisiana. We didn’t know if he’d make it. But John Henry Lewis was there, A. Philip Randolf, Martin Luther King, Jr.
While out in the hall, who should we pass talking to a television reporter but Malcolm X. That was a surprise.
RUBY DEE: Now to many people, white and black, Malcolm X spelled trouble. He didn’t believe in the march. He didn’t believe in integration. And he didn’t trust white America.
MALCOLM X: We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary. [CHEERING]
OSSIE DAVIS: This kind of passionate declaration made him a perfect target for the press. He and the Black Muslims represented dangers that America was not prepared to tolerate. His doctrine of love was certainly different from that of Martin Luther King.
MALCOLM X: We are peaceful people. We are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.
OSSIE DAVIS: The first time I heard Malcolm, he scared me, too. Now all of us knew that he was brave. And all of us, from time to time, had felt exactly what Malcolm had felt and thought exactly what Malcolm had thought. But Malcolm was saying it out loud. What was he trying to do, this brilliant, young, black fireball, get us all killed?
RUBY DEE: So Ossie and I invited Malcolm over to the house to sit down with a few friends and talk.
OSSIE DAVIS: We tried to pull his coattail. Say, brother, do you really believe that all white folks are blue-eyed devils and that most civil rights leaders are Uncle Toms?
RUBY DEE: I remember Malcolm laughing, putting us at our ease. His strategy, as he explained it, was to shake up white America, to scare them so much with his talk against Martin Luther King and that principle of nonviolence that they would gladly give the civil rights leaders whatever they asked for.
OSSIE DAVIS: We never met a more gentle, courteous, witty, humane individual than Malcolm X, in spite of all his anger. Now much of Malcolm was rhetoric. But none of him was bluff. And nobody was ever more serious. America could settle its differences with black folks by one of two methods, with ballots or with bullets. And whichever way they jumped, Malcolm planned to be ready.
RUBY DEE: So when we saw him that night in Washington, we understood the passion and the twinkle in his blazing eyes. We understood the game plan. So we went on into the meeting to do our part.
BILL MOYERS: The march made history. It made headlines. And it made the evening news. That was significant. Suddenly, the whole of America was involved in the struggle that appeared on the great national looking glass of television. 250,000 Americans gathered in all their massive glory at the Lincoln Memorial. Washington, DC, had awaited the day in nervous apprehension. Monuments and landmarks were closely guarded. The entire police force was on alert. The bars were closed. And the sale of liquor was forbidden.
They needn’t have gone to the trouble. It was one of the most orderly and peaceful demonstrations Washington has ever seen. It became apparent that day that this was no longer just a movement of black people. It was an American movement. Americans of all colors and classes, all denominations, from labor, the campuses, from every walk of life were now in motion.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERING] I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream —
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERING] —that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERING] When we allow freedom rings — when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
[APPLAUSE, CHEERING, AND WHISTLING]
RUBY DEE: We came from slavery with the strength of true believers in our God, in our country, in our great documents. And we tried to get a toehold to heal the old wounds and be made whole again. But America has met us with a false face, with a racism that has made rage the basic rhythm of our lives, a racism that has trampled self-esteem and numbed hope. Racism, that cancer on the bosom of our nation that gnaws at the psyche of black America and keeps us screaming and shaking for relief. It hands us upward mobility on rungless ladders, backdoor trap shoots to disillusionment and oblivion.
Be patient, the country tells us. Be clean. Be thrifty. Be industrious. Be, and be, and be, and be.
So we keep struggling for definitions, organizing, snatching at possibilities in the country, in the city, in the courts, on the streets, everywhere. But those who try to overcome in spite of all link us to survival, to hope, to ourselves. And so we must keep on telling the stories of our heroes and heroines, sung and unsung, as best we can because it is they who urge us to hang on, to join hands, to move relentlessly toward greater understanding among all people, to move toward justice and toward love.
OSSIE DAVIS: Jackie Robinson was a great American hero much beloved by blacks and whites alike. And yet when he came to the end of his days, he was a bitter and a disillusioned man, finding it impossible, he confessed, to say the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” And I have seen my own children stand and stare straight ahead for as long as it took the rest of us to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and never open their mouths.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Words, the young folks say, only words, as if words alone no longer mattered. And I understand.
I, too, have been embarrassed by those words. And yet words live not only because they are written in documents, hung on walls, or carved in stone. Words live in the living hearts of men and women only as we, by our actions, make them live.
And so it is, in the darkest hours, it’s still good to know that the words are there. And at those times when I find it impossible to understand or to accept the contradictions in my country, I still can’t find it in my heart to be a cynic. I hear the words. I still believe.
BILL MOYERS: This brings to a close our two broadcasts on the second American Revolution. We began at the turn of the century. America today is radically different. Jim Crow is dead. Blacks vote and hold public office. Many have entered the middle class. None of this would have happened without a struggle. Only when Afro-Americans themselves took up the fight was there progress, even then, grudgingly and at a cost I don’t know how we will ever reckon.
For all this, the struggle has not resulted in racial equality. The law may no longer discriminate against color, but people do. We remain a deeply divided society poisoned by segregation, prejudice, and poverty.
If civil rights are to be followed by economic justice, there will have to be a third American Revolution. But someone else will have to tell that story in a century to come. I’m Bill Moyers. For Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, goodnight.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.