Holmes Norton,

Katz, Elliott




Mary Sue



INTERVIEWER: So you could you start off by telling me how you became involved in the civil rights movement?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, I grew up going to segregated schools in the capital of the United States of America. I therefore had elevated consciousness about civil rights and about what was happening to black people. My parents and others in the black community discussed these issues very often. There was no civil rights movement as such; it was... and at least in the Fifties, mostly a movement led by lawyers in the courts - if you can call that a movement - until the Montgomery bus boycott. I was at Antioch College, a senior, when the first real action that could be called movement action was ignited. We heard that students had sat in North Carolina. I was in southern Ohio. The first thing we did was to look for segregated places in southern Ohio. I mean, it really was that kind of action. Southern Ohio didn't have many segregated places. We heard of a tavern a few miles hence; went to that. They heard we were coming and integrated it before we got there, but at least they served us, so that there was no indication of continuing segregation. That summer, when I went home, of course I wanted to go further and to go to the South. By happenstance, I simply came to consciousness, I came to be a young adult at a time when the civil rights movement, as it were, broke out, and it broke out because of youngsters like me, people who were willing to sit in. My first sit-in was right here outside of Washington, in Maryland, which was then a segregated state. I'll never forget it, because instead of simply going to sit in, we went that Sunday morning to churches and asked the congregation - and these were black churches - if they would go with us. And so the students and the congregates went together, and sat down. I can tell you one thing: the County attorney never prosecuted that case, and I think it was in part because we had gone to get the people of the town with us. And the rest was a series of demonstrations while I was at law school, at Yale Law School, coming home in the summer and going south to Mississippi and involving myself in campaigns as a part of a movement that had spread everywhere and among virtually everyone.

INT: Were you ever frightened of actually sticking your neck out quite so far? Were you ever frightened of what repercussions becoming involved may have on you?

EHN: Well, I now know how young and foolish I was. When I went to Mississippi for the first time, in 1963, with the Student Non-Violent Co-ordination Committee, it was still terrorist country; to me it was a great adventure in justice. But the only civil rights group that was in the delta was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. , when I first came to Mississippi, the first day I was met by (Mega Avis), and at the time I was a young law student, and he wanted me to stay in Jackson, and I said, "No, I have told Robert Moses," who was the leader of the movement in the delta, "that I'm coming to the delta," and I was anxious to get deep into where the country was truly bad and racist. , (Mega Avis?) put me on the bus. Within a couple of days, (Mega Avis?) had been shot dead. And that was in Jackson. Where I was, was open field and open country, when I came and Bob Moses had gone north to raise money. And there were a bunch of young people, even younger than I, and the first thing they said to me was, "Well, we heard you were coming, and we've got some people over in jail, and the last people that went to get them, they put in jail," and they asked me if I'd go to get them, because I was then the oldest person there and I had just come. I got all the details - law student that I was - from what happened. Miss Fanny Lou Heimer, the great civil rights fighter, had come to Wynona, Mississippi, got off the bus, used the bathroom, and they put her in jail. The next SNIC worker went over to get her out of jail, Lawrence Guiard. He's now here in Washington. He then got put in jail. The next day, I come to town and they say, "Hey, you're the closest thing to an adult. Miss Heimer's in jail, Lawrence Guiard's in jail - can you go get them out?" Upon investigation, I found that the police chief in Greenwood was not a bad fellow and he stood out. He was a racist, but at least he wasn't involved in terrorist activity, the way some of the law enforcement officials were. I went to see him. I said, "My name is Eleanor Catherine Holmes" - then - "I'm about to go to Wynona to try to get some people out of jail. I want you to know it, and I wish you'd make the call over to them, tell them I'm from Yale Law School and I've called everybody up there, and I know a lot of folks." I didn't know anybody, but (Laughs) I certainly knew more folks than the poor youngsters around me knew. I went to get them out; I was not arrested. I think that was the lawyer in me who tried to take preventative action. But when I look back on it - this was 1963, when there was only a skeleton of a movement in the delta, and there was every reason to be afraid... the fact is that the white citizens' councils every evening circled the office of SNIC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, they circled it trying to make everybody nervous. SNIC workers would call Robert Kennedy's office to say, "They're circling again, and we want federal protection." And I want you to know that the Attorney General's Office consistently said, "I'm sorry, we do not have the legal power to protect you," and they took the position that there was nothing they could do for us. We can argue about whether they in fact could do something for us, and I say they could have, but there would have been political repercussions at a time when every committee of this House where I now serve, and of the Senate, was controlled by a southern senator or a southern member of Congress, because they generally had the most seniority and therefore chaired all the committees and were always the ones there. So I think that John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy knew that, and that there were genuine difficulties. Of course, the civil rights acts were passed as a result of the march on Washington - I was an operative of the march on Washington as well - and that was cleared away. But while I, at the time, didn't have sense enough to be afraid, looking back on it 30 years later, I have every rea

INT: You've touched on lots of themes I wanted to ask you about. Let's go to the march on Washington in '63. You were there. Could you tell me what your memories were, and why it was necessary?

EHN: Well, I was an organizer for the march. I worked straight out of the New York office lining up buses, trying to draw people. There had not been a mass march for anything in memory at the time of the 1963 march; there just hadn't been. Marches had fallen away in the Fifties, after the Thirties; those things simply weren't done any more. So there was great concern that we couldn't pull a march off. The brilliant organizer of the march was of course Byatt Rustin. The Kennedy's tried to warn us away from the march. They said, "Oh, there'll be violence, it'll be impossible to deal with. People won't even be able to go to the bathroom." We informed them that we thought we'd found a way for people to go to the bathroom, the same way that people who do construction jobs have these movable toilets, and we'd be willing to get those. We thought we could deal with the logistics. Yet there was skepticism that we could pull off a march with more than a few people, perhaps a few thousand people. I was left to close down the march office in Washington, so I didn't have to come on a bus or a train. Since I was the last one out, that's what I wanted to do. I could then fly. I had the extraordinary experience of flying over this crowd on my way to the march, and seeing what we had done, we all over the country had done. It was an extraordinary sight to behold from above, particularly when you had been a part of it from below, and when everyone had said you really couldn't get it done. And of course, I was there when John Lewis, also a colleague now in this House, was told that his speech was a bit too militant, and we all gathered to see if there were ways in which we could accommodate them. We changed it a bit - not a lot, but a bit - but I think we probably did the right thing, because the whole point was a spirit of coalition and reconciliation, coupled with non-violent militants, to be sure. And so the speech was given, and it was one of the great and memorable days of the 20th century in America.

INT: You mentioned the fact that through the Thirties and the Fifties there were no more mass movements, mass demonstrations. One of the things we're looking at is the whole narrowing of the political and cultural spectrum that happens in the sort of Cold War culture. ... Did the Cold War have a relevance to black people; did the black have an involvement in it? Were they particularly sort of suffocated by the strictures of society?

EHN: Well, there's no question that the Cold War atmosphere of the Fifties, particularly the Fifties, had a pervasive effect on life in America. It was the conformist period. I was in high school in the Fifties. It was a period that reinforced Puritanism. That's why the sexual revolution was kind of a breakout from the Fifties. , affluence, return of young men from World War II, seeking their fortune. But it was the period of the great flannel suit when there was a way to act and a way to be; and the Cold War, and the McCarthy period in particular, reinforced all of that. Now, the effect on the civil rights movement was that, until the courts did their job, it is hard to believe that the civil rights movement would have moved ahead at all in the Fifties. And what the court did, the Supreme Court, in 1954, was to hand down a decision effectively declaring that governmental discrimination was illegal and unconstitutional. In a real sense, that lay the groundwork for the development of a mass movement. Without the law that said that what was in place was constitutional, you were free to see what you could do to get rid of this system. Yes, the Cold War contributed to the atmosphere. But when the court spoke up - and remember, this is a court that was, in its own ways, at odds with the spirit of the Cold War; it was ultimately to flower as the war in court that would be a part of the Sixties, if anything - once the court said this was illegal, unconstitutional, that all of the old Cold War paraphernalia around the notion of protest fell away, and the people who led the way, and what now has become routine, the notion of protest were black Americans who had the most to gain, and who had lost most by not having a mass movement.

INT: One more, wider Cold War question. During this time of the Cold War, America is fighting for freedom, fighting for freedom abroad, fighting for democracy. Were you aware of the contradictions between your situation, or the situation of black Americans at home, and what America said it was standing for abroad?

EHN: Well, no Americans could have been more aware of the contradiction between the pronouncement of American ideals abroad and realities at home, than black Americans, and particularly black Americans where this black American lived, in the seat of the leading democratic power in the world. Those contradictions were not contradictions we simply lived with: it was contradictions we spoke about all the time, and tried to embarrass our Government about. They were very powerless. You didn't even have home rule in Washington at the time, with our own government; the Congress of the United States, two commissioners, governed the capital of the United States, and in the rest of the United States there was legal segregation in public accommodations and in schools and everywhere else. So the notion that this was the land of the free and the home of the brave was a contradiction that black people pointed up at every opportunity.

INT: Great answer. To go backward - sorry - in 1963, you said the movement was still very small, very sort of skeletal. How did it organize itself, and how did it grow?

EHN: Well, the first catalyst for the movement was the Montgomery bus boycott, when Rosa Park just said, "I'm not getting up to give my seat to anybody." That was a very important catalyst, because it activated adults working through the Church, the one center for organization, the most obvious center for organization. The interesting thing about the mass movement is that it did not truly become that until the sit-ins occurred. The churches organi... After the Montgomery bus boycott, there was also a march on Washington in 1957. As a particularly conscious student, I went to the march on Washington all the way from Ohio; we drove both ways. Basically who participated were black ministers from the South. There were figures there, like Adam Clayton Powell and Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, but... we had very few elected members of Congress, and there were a sizeable number of people there, but nothing like the 200,000 or more that we had in the march on Washington. What that says to me is, while there was growing consciousness, you could not say there was a mass movement, because it was centered in congregations in the South. You did not have activists in the West and in the Midwest and in the North, all involved in protest around segregation and discrimination. But once the sit-ins occurred, you had an act of defiance that caught fire with young people all over the South, and the catalytic effect of the sit-ins is what produced a mass movement. So that about the time we were ready to organize the 1963 march on Washington, the sit-ins - before that, the Montgomery bus boycott - had prepared people to believe that this was what they were supposed to be a part of, and so it became far more easy to organize it than anyone had imagined, and certainly than official Washington thought would be the case.

INT: Now you went down to the South, to Mississippi, in '63 and '64. Was that on voter registration work? And if it was, could you describe for me a little bit about what your work involved, what the point was?

EHN: Yeah. I went in to Mississippi in '63 in order to prepare the way for the big '64 summer, when students came from all over the country to do voter registration and voter education; and I went down to simply do a prototype of what those students might do in the following year. And basically, what I did was education of young people about registration, about how to get others to register, about the Constitution... here I was, a law student; very few blacks went to law schools at the = time... work with the notion that what I was doing with small groups of people could be done all over Mississippi if we simply brought students in, and then they would not only be doing voter education: they would help people get to the polls. In '64 after I took the bar, I was on my way back to Mississippi when Bob Moses said, "We need you to help write the brief for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party," where we were challenging the Democrats, on the theory that black Democrats had not been allowed into the caucuses where you elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention. And so I worked on that brief in Atlantic City, where the Democratic National Convention was held, organized the groups, and went out to try to get other delegations to support us. That led to... that effort to bring democracy to the Democratic Party, so the delegates could be chosen free of race, is what led to the conventions we now see, where you have large numbers of people of color and of women who now are included in all of the delegations to the Democratic National Convention. That all started with the challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to become part of the Democratic Party.

INT: You mentioned that in '64 there were a number of students coming in from all over the country. Could you tell me... we've been talking to a number people, actually, who were particularly active in Berkeley... could you tell me whether you welcomed the support of white liberals, and whether you had any particular contact with any of the Berkeley students?

EHN: Well, actually I had spent six months in Berkeley, just before my graduation from Antioch. Antioch had the work-study, and I had a long study period in Berkeley, and I was very familiar with the student activism. The notion of the involvement of white students in our movement was a given. We welcomed students and people of every race and color. We could not make a revolution to overturn discrimination without the involvement of people of all colors and backgrounds. Moreover, the guru of the movement was Martin Luther King Jr. To be sure, SNIC later on - and at a time when I was not affiliated with it, I must say - turned far more to black nationalism. Stokely Carmichael, a good friend of mine, was not in the beginning a black nationalist: he was a follower of non-violent resistance to prejudice. The development of a more black-centered movement occurred near the end of the Sixties. At its height, the civil rights movement, including the student movement in Mississippi, was very well integrated with people of all backgrounds, and most of the students who came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 were white students.