In 1964, as the civil rights struggle unfolded across the American South, novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren recorded interviews with leaders of the movement, assembling insights that would inform his book “Who Speaks for the Negro?” the following year. The book included excerpts from his interviews, preserved in transcripts that eventually ended up at the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Free All Along: The Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Interviews, edited by Stephen Drury Smith and Catherine Ellis, reproduces many of the transcripts for the first time in book form.
Arriving in the same month that Americans celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday, this book is a timely reminder that King, the iconic agent of change, didn’t accomplish that social transformation alone. “Free All Along” features foot soldiers along with high-profile figures such as Malcolm X, Andrew Young, and Roy Wilkins. Here we also meet the movement’s literary lions, including James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.
King seems surprisingly vulnerable as Warren sat down with him on March 18, 1964. We tend to think of King today in mythic terms. When Warren met him, “King seemed busy,” we learn in an introductory note, “and Warren guessed that he was skipping lunch to make time for him.” The interview’s key insight is that King, for all his innovative genius, grew from a tradition of activism that included his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. In 1939, long before the years typically associated with the civil rights movement, the elder King had led a sweeping voter registration drive in Atlanta and worked to improve pay and conditions for black laborers. It was all radical stuff. “He was working in the area of civil rights before I was born,” King told Warren of his father.
King’s exchange with Warren also underscores how controversial his philosophy of nonviolence was back then. Many of King’s fellow civil rights leaders felt his message of love was too soft given what African-Americans were up against. King told Warren that by love, he didn’t mean a passive gesture, but something that requires tough resolve. “I’m talking about something much deeper,” said King. “I’m thinking of a very strong love. I’m thinking of love in action. Not something where you say, ‘Love your enemies,’ and just leave it at that. You love your enemies to the point that you’re willing to sit-in at a lunch counter in order to help them find themselves. You’re willing to go to jail. I don’t think anybody could consider this cowardice or even a weak approach.”
Even so, as several of Warren’s interviews make clear, some within the civil rights movement doubted that King was on the right track. “I don’t think he’s a politician, nor does he think like one. You have to, because we’re playing in a game of power, and we have to understand the dimensions and the implications of it,” Ruth Turner Perot, a Cleveland educator-turned-activist, told Warren. Perot was among several women in the movement that Warren interviewed.
The book’s first interview spotlights a lesser-known African-American minister and activist, the Rev. Joseph Carter, who in 1963 became the first black person to register to vote in more than half a century in the rural Louisiana parish of West Feliciana near Baton Rouge. When Carter showed up at the courthouse to register, he was arrested, humiliated, and threatened. After his release, when his terrified wife said she’d pack up and leave him if he tried to register again, he was undaunted. “I said, ‘Well, you can get your clothes and start now, because I’m going back. I’m on my way back tomorrow,’ ” he told Warren.
To read such stories is to recall that the civil rights movement wasn’t animated only by speeches and mass demonstrations, but by thousands of individual acts of courage.
Warren, at first glance, seemed an unlikely messenger for the movement. A native of Kentucky with Confederate ancestors, he had defended segregation in an essay published in a 1930 anthology of writings by Southern agrarians, “I’ll Take My Stand.” Over time, his views became more progressive, and what he heard in these interviews no doubt affirmed his growing conviction that the status quo was untenable.
How these interviews originated is worth noting, too. They began as part of an assignment for Look magazine, which assumed that a feature by Warren, who’d won a Pulitzer for “All the King’s Men,” would be an attraction. It was a time when magazines could bankroll this kind of journalism. Given the economics of today’s media, a project like Warren’s – a great Southern writer traveling and talking with the founders of a revolution – might not happen.
Look is gone now, and the interviews in “Free All Along” just might be its best legacy.
Danny Heitman is a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”