This episode of World of Ideas featured a discussion with author, sociologist and civil rights commentator Anne Wortham. They discuss her views on “social determinism” and her fears about civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision. She also explains her refusal to take part in the Civil Rights Movement and her reasons for doing so, as well as the “authenticity of the self” crucial to her philosophy.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. This was the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington. The civil rights movement of the ’60s has been around a generation; that’s long enough to create its own orthodoxies. Within the movement the conventional wisdom these days is still that only the federal government can lift black America to its next achievements. Such conformity prevails, that dissenting opinions from other blacks are rarely heard. In this broadcast and again tomorrow, we’ll listen to another story and another opinion. You’ll meet Anne Wortham. She’s been marching too, but to a different drummer.
[voice-over] Anne Wortham is like nobody you’ve ever met, and that’s a distinction she’s proud of. It’s the basis of her political philosophy, her scholarship and her self-esteem — that nobody exactly like her ever existed before, or will again. She is an individual, standing apart. But standing apart she is not silent, and her writings have made her a controversial figure, one who criticizes the civil rights movement, and its leaders, for promotion reverse racism and the welfare state. Born in Tennessee in 1941. Anne Wortham graduated from the all-Black Tuskegee Institute. She went to Africa with the Peace Corp, was the first Black to work for Esquire magazine, became Chet Huntley’s research assistant at NBC, went on to earn her PhD at Boston College, and teach at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She published a book called The Other Side of Racism, and is now a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, in Stanford, California. That’s where we talked.
[interviewing] You once said, “By most standards I’m not supposed to exist.” What did you mean?
ANNE WORTHAM: I encountered first, I guess, in the 1960s in undergraduate school, and then it became clear to me more in graduate school 20 years, or 15 years later, that there were in the world theories of what we call social determinism which views people as being not a product of their thinking, of their interpretations of the world around them — rightly or wrongly, mistakenly or otherwise — but as being solely a product of their environment, as being social products as it were, and I come out into the world and I meet these people — and most often I still do. They are surprised. At first, I was baffled by their surprise, then I understood the reason for their surprise. And I was not only baffled but angry and hurt. They had a vision of life among blacks in the South which did not match my own experience. So, both black and white Northerners approached me as a caricature — their version of what a black growing up in the South in the ’50s should be. That should be someone who was scarred by racism; who had certain pathologies; who was very race-conscious as a black; who was suspicious of whites just without any question. They were prepared. They had a script. They were prepared to love me unconditionally without any —
BILL MOYERS: Just because you were black.
ANNE WORTHAM: Just because I was black.
BILL MOYERS: Because you were a victim.
ANNE WORTHAM: Just because I am a socially defined historical victim. I mean, this is what — but, I am not vicious and when I say I’m not supposed to exist, the scenario, the history that has been written recently of blacks and women in America does not count on people like me.
BILL MOYERS: How did you challenge — how did the reality of Anne Wortham challenge their image of you?
ANNE WORTHAM: Well, for one thing I was innocent. The first of many of these encounters was that I didn’t even understand their script and they thought that I should have. As a victim I should have understood what my saviors were after and I didn’t understand what they were after. Then, when I did understand I just reacted very, sort of, you know, naturally, which is to refuse their offer of liberation. They wanted me to be their Martin Luther King and I didn’t even like Martin Luther King. I was scared of him. I was utterly afraid of that man.
BILL MOYERS: Of Martin Luther King?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ANNE WORTHAM: Because something told me he was saying things that were not right for me.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
ANNE WORTHAM: They were not — his vision, it made me as a black person morally superior, and that whites would be redeemed by their acknowledging me as an equal. And, I just didn’t think that I had to go through all those machinations.
BILL MOYERS: But hadn’t you been discriminated against when you were growing up in the ’50s?
ANNE WORTHAM: But, you see, this was two different things. I’m telling you now, having understood in retrospect why I was so miserable in 1962 and 1963, four, five. I was going through absolute hell because I had peer pressure from everywhere, right? If you are student you have got to go and march and do this and that. And I wanted, certainly, civil rights but I thought that something else was being asked of me in addition — and everybody else for that matter — that we were demanding civil rights but that we were asking our country to give us some kind of special recognition that required a diminution of other Americans —
BILL MOYERS: But all of-
ANNE WORTHAM: — that I just didn’t — at the time it didn’t sit well.
BILL MOYERS: But all that was being asked was that everybody stop discriminating against you.
ANNE WORTHAM: That’s not what I heard at 19, 20 years old. I heard something else.
BILL MOYERS: From the civil rights movement?
ANNE WORTHAM: I heard something else from the civil rights movement. Now you have to remember me on the side. Look at me as a young 19, 20-year-old black kid who’s grown up in a very, relatively sheltered environment in Jackson, Tennessee whose sense of morality has been very straightforward and so forth —
BILL MOYERS: By a Christian father.
ANNE WORTHAM: — by a Christian father. I worked as a maid when I was in high school. I worked for whites so, then, I knew whites intimately, though most Southerners do. The relationship of whites and blacks in the South is a very complex one, and now you’re asked to do a different kind of thing.
BILL MOYERS: When you go north?
ANNE WORTHAM: No, this was when I —
BILL MOYERS: During the civil rights movement?
ANNE WORTHAM: This is the civil rights movement. 1962, ’63. All of the students are participating in the movement. To be a good citizen as a student you must be an activist student.
BILL MOYERS: You refused?
ANNE WORTHAM: I refused. My problem was how to do it without incurring the wrath of my peers. And, I just sort of snuck into the way in the background. I didn’t like myself for doing that. Well, I’ll tell you a story. One day out on the campus green at Tuskegee, and this was about 1961 or ’62, anyway, this student was urging students to march, to go down to the town of Tuskegee and show our solidarity with all the student marchers. The tension in the air was electrifying. It was thick. You felt as though everything you stood for was on the line, that you now had to do something. I was standing there — it was hot — this young lady student came over to me. She said, “What are you going to do? Are you going downtown?” Now, here’s one of these moments of your life where a choice has to be made, okay? She said, “What are you going to do?” She said, “I don’t know what to do.” I said, “Look, what I think you should do, both of us, we should go up to our dorm rooms and we should let down the shades and we should keep the lights off and we should think in quiet and we should decide up there.” I said, “I don’t think we ought to decide out here.” Now, at that time I had no grand theory about the mechanics of being an individual maintaining the truth of one’s identity within the larger society. I didn’t have any sort of theory about it or, even, any great understanding. I was just going on gut reactions about what do you do, and the thing you do is that you don’t give up your own story. You don’t give up your own, not importance, you don’t give up the authenticity of your self —
BILL MOYERS: What’s sacred to you?
ANNE WORTHAM: — which is sacred. It is the one thing that is yours.
BILL MOYERS: Your story.
ANNE WORTHAM: Your story. Your life. It is the thing that you die for ultimately if you have to. It is the only thing that you die for.
BILL MOYERS: Was the civil rights movement — if you had gone out and marched on the streets and protested, would you have been giving up your story? Would you have been giving up what’s sacred to you?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes, I would have. Now, perhaps someone else wouldn’t have. What I wanted was an understanding from that other person who might have thought their story was to be an activist, a civil rights activist, to understand that I had for myself a different life vocation. That my story was to be written differently, which didn’t deny the validity of some of their things that were being done in that movement. That one doesn’t always have to be an activist to contribute to society or to have a good life.
BILL MOYERS: But what was it that caused you not to join? What did you think they were asking of you that you didn’t want to give to the civil rights movement?
ANNE WORTHAM: They were asking me to condemn all white Americans. That’s what I felt at the time, and I couldn’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but what about those whites in the South, where I grew up, who kept your father from being a first-class citizen; who would have kept you from being a first-class citizen if they could have; who discriminated; who persecuted; who wrote the laws to keep you an outsider?
ANNE WORTHAM: Absolutely. They were wrong, absolutely wrong. You see, it depends on your definition of your situation. Everything I say begins actually with this. When I left home and went to Tuskegee I met black students from the deep South — not only me but others from Tennessee and the upper South, met deep South students whose relationships with whites were totally different than ours. Now, a lot of Northern whites don’t know this but we down South know this and the intensity of anger, outrage and so forth, is colored by these personal experiences. In our household, whites were people some of whom were very bad and did horrible things, and the government — my father hated the government — Uncle Sam is what he was known as in our house.
BILL MOYERS: For?
ANNE WORTHAM: And the government was the one who gave whites the power to do all of these things, these horrible things, and the government was not only doing those sorts of things but the government was a real chronic stealer; taxed, and took their money. And he would always say, “Watch out for Uncle Sam. He’ll get in your back pocket any minute.” I used to grow up with this. If there was any sort of real down-home animosity, it was towards the government. The strategy was, you should rely on your-self, be as creative as possible, to get around segregation, discrimination.
BILL MOYERS: What was it —
ANNE WORTHAM: It was terrible but you’ve got to live. You’ve got to put your kids through school. You can’t waste psychological energy on feeling downtrodden. Man, you’ve got to get up in the morning. He would always tell us, you know, “You’ve got to get up and get out there!” This is what I heard.
BILL MOYERS: This was pure Booker T. Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute. What was it he said? “If you learn to do something better than someone else you’ll make your way in the world.”
ANNE WORTHAM: Absolutely. Of course it was.
BILL MOYERS: And that was taught to you?
ANNE WORTHAM: I was taught this. In fact, my father used to say to us -not knowing that it was Booker T. Washington who spoke these words: “Cast your bucket down.” He also used to say, “Knowledge is power,” not knowing from where that expression came. So, my view of whites as I mentioned to you, I worked for whites on Saturday to get spending money — but, my view of them was not that they were so all-powerful as individual people. They never became a stereotype in my mind. I never gave them the power that it seemed the civil rights message had to impute to them in order to make its redress. I felt that I was being asked to somehow diminish myself by attributing to just another human being who was doing terrible things. That he was somehow much more powerful, and a different kind of human being and I was not going to make whites that important. They aren’t that important. They never were that important.
BILL MOYERS: They were important enough to exercise state power over you.
ANNE WORTHAM: They were that important, to have power, but they were not important to define who I am. And this was — I thought I was hearing this. Of course later, I saw that I was.
BILL MOYERS: Was slavery an evil?
ANNE WORTHAM: Oh, absolutely. It always is. It always will be.
BILL MOYERS: Is racism an evil?
ANNE WORTHAM: Absolutely. Racism is evil in whatever form it takes. It is, however, not something that whites have a monopoly on. Blacks also are racists — some. My grandmother was.
BILL MOYERS: She was? In what sense?
ANNE WORTHAM: On certain days.
BILL MOYERS: How did that manifest itself?
ANNE WORTHAM: I remember her sitting on her front porch and she would, you know, sometimes go on about those “crackers,” and I’ll tell you something. You can get —
BILL MOYERS: A “cracker” we should say for people who don’t know —
ANNE WORTHAM: A “cracker” in the South is a lower class of whites —
BILL MOYERS: White trash.
ANNE WORTHAM: What are called white trash. Sometimes called redneck. It’s really sort of funny because you could have your white gentry demeaning white crackers just as spiritedly as you could have any black demeaning them, and blacks look down on white crackers. White crackers look down on blacks, too. But, you know, they have this mutual thing. And my grandmother was sometimes — of course, she also was down on the uppity-up upper-class blacks, so, you know.
BILL MOYERS: How did you react when Rosa Parks sat on the bus and the movement began to swell in the streets and Martin Luther King emerged and suddenly there was, finally, a movement of black Americans to protest this power of coercion?
ANNE WORTHAM: Well, I was like a lot of black kids. History doesn’t say this, especially history as told on TV, but I had lessons to get. Mrs. Johnson in my English class said, “You must have those papers in by Friday and if you don’t get an A that’s it.” The ethos in our school, in our segregated black school, was without your high school diploma forget everything. When the civil rights movement came along it was wonderful that this thing was happening — and, I say this sort of in the way that it seemed — there was this event that was going on that was related to our everyday life, but it was not central to the business of everyday life. Now, there are a lot of people who would be very upset by my disclosing this very mundane aspect of getting on in the world. But, this is what was going on. We were not all running out in the street joining movements. I knew very little about the details of the early civil rights movement. Most of it I learned after I had gotten to college, and some of it was imparted to us in classes — not very much, mind you. In fact, the most I learned was when I actually began to formally study race and ethnic relations. I didn’t know that, in fact, a lot of what was happening was happening in Arizona or Arkansas —
BILL MOYERS: But you were bent on getting up and out?
ANNE WORTHAM: I had lessons to get. Also, raising my sisters, my sisters and my brothers, I had —
BILL MOYERS: Your mother died?
ANNE WORTHAM: My mother died when I was nine. I had a house to clean. My father had to get up in the morning and go to work. He was breaking into the business of being a salesman, an independent salesman. He had to deal with the segregation and the prejudice of the day. So, the civil rights movement was a current event. This really is what it was. It was not just that way for my family. It was that way for a lot of families.
BILL MOYERS: If everybody had been like you and your father, do you think the change would have come that finally liberated blacks?
ANNE WORTHAM: Oh, no, no. You must have activists. No, I’m not now setting up a kind of model that some people would do. This is why the part of the history that I am now imparting isn’t told because there is a mistaken belief by a lot of people, genuinely want the history of recent black history told, who believe that one must make the choice; that you must put this face on the history, which is a very sterile, very politicized view of black history, and that’s not what we were doing. There were those activists in our community who were marching. There were some who didn’t like people like my father, mind you, and my father didn’t like them, either. He didn’t like the N.A.A.C.P. in our I town.
BILL MOYERS: What you’re saying is the blacks who lived.
ANNE WORTHAM: They were uppity.
BILL MOYERS: The civil rights people were uppity?
ANNE WORTHAM: The N.A.A.C.P. people were all those doctors and all those teachers that he wanted us to grow up to be. He was striving by proxy to outdo them. He didn’t like them. He also thought that they were very unrealistic. In fact, at one point he actually wrote a letter to them and said, “Look, you people want us to boycott the supermarkets. We should be trying to figure out how we can have our own market.” This is my father who just — he just figured this out in his own commonsensical way.
BILL MOYERS: When you finally encountered these northern Yankees —
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes, the northern Yankees.
BILL MOYERS: What actually happened that made you convinced, what convinced you that they saw you as a stereotype?
ANNE WORTHAM: Well, first it’s the whole love business, and as a young early 20s person you encounter it in intercollegiate settings; other young 20-year-olds with their guitars and their “We Shall Overcome” anthems, and their Pete Seeger lyrics, and so forth. I liked it, all that, you know, I liked the good feeling; the brotherhood. I liked all this. But, they wanted me to give them a story, and the story they wanted was that I was in chains; that I wasn’t getting, you know, my essays written for Mrs. Johnson; that my segregated high school actually was terrible and that I was getting an inferior education. Actually, we now know that my education behind those walls of segregation was far better than an integrated education of most kids in the urban slums today. But, besides that — this is not a justification of segregation, I’m applauding Mrs. Johnson. They wanted the story, and I didn’t have it to give them. They also wanted me to be angry. Later, as I moved into the professional world, and job interviews — the black power movement is now in its height, this is mid to late ’60s — I met people, personnel directors, people in broadcasting — I worked at NBC and ABC and so on — and I met people who wanted a black power pose, and I didn’t have it. Not only did I disagree with the black power ideology but I just don’t have it in my personality. So, in the most subtle relations where you are required to have certain tacit understandings between you, the typical northern Yankee always wanted to be seen as being more understanding toward me than I required of him. AU I required of him was his respect. I didn’t require his compassion. I required his respect.
BILL MOYERS: And respect means?
ANNE WORTHAM: Respect means that you leave me alone.
BILL MOYERS: That I lead a particular life.
ANNE WORTHAM: That you don’t build up in your own mind scenarios for my salvation. That you respect me enough to trust me to be an idiot, to be wrong.
BILL MOYERS: And to say so if you are an idiot.
ANNE WORTHAM: Absolutely. And if I’m an idiot, tell me. Disagree with me.
BILL MOYERS: Did you find these Northerners that wanted to love you, to embrace you, that they were asking more than you could give them?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What were they asking?
ANNE WORTHAM: They were asking for my sanction. I was the altar before which they stood and they were asking me to redeem them. Which is what Martin Luther King promised them that I would give them.
BILL MOYERS: And you didn’t want to give them?
ANNE WORTHAM: I can’t.
BILL MOYERS: You can’t?
ANNE WORTHAM: I cannot. Nobody can. We cannot give this to each other. I cannot give you a sense of the importance of your life. I can confirm it. I can nod my head and say, “Yes, I am me.”
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what they wanted you to do.
ANNE WORTHAM: But, I cannot make it soul for you.
BILL MOYERS: And you can’t do it. If I understand-
ANNE WORTHAM: That you have to do for yourself. I can’t do it for you.
BILL MOYERS: And if I understand Anne Wortham, you’re saying, “I can’t do it at the expense of not being what I am. And if I played it your way, if I’d been the beat upon, beaten down, put upon little person that you thought I should be, I would have been betraying myself because I wasn’t that person.
ANNE WORTHAM: I would have been betraying myself. They would have had a fine old time of loving me and being compassionate and so forth, but the contradiction of that is that they would have nullified that by disrespecting me. You see, this compassion can also sometimes be disguised in such a way that it requires this disrespect. And if we have to ask of any other human being that for us to love him, he must be something that is closer to our view of him, of our grand scheme of how human beings ought to be, then, our only obligation to him is simply not to love him. That is the way to respect him. If he doesn’t earn our love then just don’t love him. Not harm him, don’t force him to do anything, just walk away. But, there are some people who can’t keep their hands off other people. They just won’t. It takes a lot of courage to leave other people alone. You see?
BILL MOYERS: From the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, this has been a conversation with Anne Wortham. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.