Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INT: Just out of interest, did you ever get arrested for any of your activities?
EHN: Yes, of course.
INT: Could you tell me...
EHN: A good example is the example I gave you in Maryland here. When we went to the congregations to get black people to come with us, and we sat in, we were arrested and taken down to the station house, the students (Laughs) right along with the older black people from the congregations. Ultimately, the charges were not pressed, and I think in part because the town, which was a small town, saw that their own friends had been involved and didn't see any reason to prosecute this group. But we certainly were arrested.
INT: Just to sort of jump around a little bit here, could you tell me - in '65 the voting rights were established - why was it necessary for the struggle to carry on after the right to vote was established?
EHN: Well... the right of vote is not established because Congress passes a law. Once the Voting Rights Act was passed, you needed to get people registered, you needed a movement that would be there when the resistance of particularly white southerners developed. The law needed to be implemented: it wasn't going to be implemented unless a movement continued to make sure that it was more than a law written on the books.
INT: What did you see of the sort of resistance of white southerners?
EHN: Well, I mean, the resistance to voter registration continued, and continues to this day. There were people who died and were killed even after the Voting Rights Act was passed. Without a federal presence, which meant a movement that goaded the Federal Government, we could never be assured that the Voting Rights Act was going to be anything but just that: a Voting Rights Act. The fact is, though, ultimately it became, if anything, the most successful of the civil rights movements; and today, the body in which I serve has 41-42 people, half of whom probably wouldn't be there except for the Voting Rights Act.
INT: Did you know Martin Luther King, did you ever have any contact...?
EHN: Yes, I knew him, but not well. I was a student and in the student part of the movement.
INT: Do you have any particular story you might like to tell me (Overlap)...?
EHN: (Overlap) No, I don't.
INT: Did you welcome his anti-Vietnam and non-violent stance, however? That was an important part of the movement, it seems to me.
EHN: The students particularly welcomed the anti-Vietnam position of Martin Luther King, and his devotion to non-violence was the modus operandi of our movement. It was his great influence on us was seen in the very fact that we would sit in and, without violently resisting, allow ourselves to be carried off. If anything, the students had an effect on Martin Luther King, because he was such a pacifist, an ideological pacifist, that he was not always certain that sitting in and that kind of resistance was consistent with pacifism. Though I was not among the students who were involved, it is certainly the case that the students had to press King, and he was the first to concede that they had, and had justifiably pressed him to understand that non-violent resistance was non-violence and non-violent resistance were not inconsistent, that to sit in, to be carted away, to defy the police by being dragged away, was not inconsistent with non-violence. He was not sure in the beginning, because he was such a principled pacifist.
INT: So could you tell me about how the movement became slightly tarred by being labeled as a sort of communist front and by the involvement of some of the white new left, if you like New Labor students, who were helping out?
EHN: Well, inevitably, in the Cold War atmosphere, the McCarthyite atmosphere of the 1950s, anybody who was engaged in protest must be a commie. After all, nobody had been engaged in protest, at least... in the kind of protest that we were involved in; and I'm sure there were people who had left associations - not necessarily communist associations, by any means - who would naturally have gravitated toward the movement. Of course, everybody knew that the movement was centered in the African American Church, and there was no getting around that when you saw who the movers and shakers were. The only way you could get to a communist theory of the movement, would be to be ensconced in the McCarthyite atmosphere of the Fifties, or, like J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, to believe that anybody who protested America as it was, was un-American. The movement really never got tarnished that way. There were one or two people that they said were around Martin Luther King who had, quote, "communist associations". Nobody ever said that the Communist Party ever made any inroads into the civil rights movement; and frankly, I don't think they even tried. They saw where the leadership was. The Communist Party had been rendered impotent by that time, the McCarthy period had so shaken what was left of the Communist Party. I must tell you: I never found communist operatives in the South. I basically found students and preachers.
INT: But it was a good way of sort of tarnishing the whole movement and getting (inaudible) to attack. What did you see of FBI surveillance or FBI...?
EHN: I never saw... I mean, FBI surveillance frankly was not anything you saw. The surveillance you saw would much more likely be racists. The FBI types were doing phone checks of one kind or the other. But students did not go around looking for FBI agents, and... the FBI, I think, was mostly concerned with leadership like Martin Luther King, and of course they did most of their spying on him, on the telephone.
INT: Why was it particularly important for black Americans to be anti-Vietnam, to protest the war in Vietnam?
EHN: It was no more important for black Americans to be anti-Vietnam than for other Americans (Laughs) to be anti-Vietnam. The war was wrong. African Americans, of course, were involved in their own set of issues. The Vietnam War distracted from those issues. And there were large numbers of African Americans who understood what Martin Luther King said and meant with his own moral attack on the war. At the same time, it must be remembered that black youngsters served disproportionately in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was for most of the time a war of draftees. Those of us who went to college were not (Coughs) much troubled for a while there. The people who got drafted, that's what it was: working-class whites and working class blacks; and that's what most blacks were, were working class. So the element of concern also came from knowing that those who were dying disproportionately in this war at this time, when there was not full freedom in this country, were also African Americans.
(Glass of water offered, etc. Cut.)
INT: So why did Martin Luther King adopt an anti-Vietnam position?
EHN: Well, Martin Luther King was motivated by two elements, I believe. One was his revulsion to the intervention of the United States in a civil war, a war where we had no business, and of course his own sense that non-violent ways were preferable: as far he was concerned, were the principal way by which so... our conflict should be solved. He, of course, saw the nexus to the black struggle, saw blacks deeply involved in the war, and did not believe that the presence and importance of a civil rights movement meant that he should not be concerned with other injustice. In the same way, he was involved in an anti-poverty movement which overlapped with the civil rights movement, was not the same thing. Now there were a whole set of black American leadership who thought he was wrong to venture beyond classic civil rights concerns. We who were in the student movement, we who were young adults, thought he was doing just the right thing.
INT: Did you welcome his Great Society reforms?
EHN: Well, the Great Society reforms were...
INT: Or did you welcome... the War on Poverty?
EHN: Well, the War on Poverty was one of the most important developments in the second half of the 20th century in America. Out of the War on Poverty and the Great Society reforms came Medicare and Medicaid and aid to higher education, what it is that helped to create a larger middle class in America. This was a logical extension of the New Deal, and one that is permanent. When the Republicans have tried to scale it back, they have had their heads handed to them in the last Congress.
INT: What did you make of his skills as a politician in getting some of those reforms through...
INT: ... about legislation... Johnson, in getting some of that legislation through?
EHN: Probably, the great reforms of the latter half of the 1960s could not have taken place without the ultimate deal-maker and intimidator and visionary, and that happened to be one man who had all those qualities, so was able to move the New Deal to the next step of medical care for the poor and expansion of aid to education, at the same time that he was the logical person to produce the civil rights legislation that transformed this country in racial terms.
INT: And was that legislation as relevant to black people, or more to black people, than it was to whites?
EHN: Which legislation?
INT: Some of the Great Society legislation, the Medicare and the War on Poverty, and so on and so forth.
EHN: Well, the great thing about the... Great Society reforms is that they were in fact like the New Deal reforms without color, and spoke to those who needed to be brought into the great middle class. The War on Poverty, of course, had a special effect in the African American community, and was very important to catalyzing local communities to help themselves and to providing empowerment to people who wanted to escape poverty and racism.
INT: And were the reforms... the success ultimately stopped by the war in Vietnam? Did the war in Vietnam actually get in the way, to some extent, of the ultimate conclusion of some of this legislation?
EHN: (Overlap) The war in Vietnam short-circuited some of the War on Poverty. Part of the problem, though, was that Johnson insisted upon going full-scale with two wars: the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam, and built up a tremendous inflation that ultimately meant that the country had to retrench.
INT: ... Just to jump about a bit: you mentioned before the emergence of sort of black nationalism and black radicalism. Why did that happen?
EHN: Well, I think the emergence of black nationalism, oriented in a racial way, was probably inevitable. And if you look at almost any revolution, as it achieves its great results, it then usually does fall into the hands of those who are more radical than those who made the revolution. I mean... it's almost the revolutionary cycle and how it operates. Part of the reason is the raised expectations endemic in revolution itself. We used the language of revolution, we declared that we were about the business of revolution, even though we worked with non-violent tools. People heard us and they said, "Is this a revolution?" and "Let's really make it a revolution." When we got lost and we thought that that had mostly produced the substance of what we were after, the next question became: but the reality hasn't changed - there's still poor people, there's still prejudice. So then the next step, again in what has become, I think, in history a kind of classic revolutionary cycle, moves on, and people say, "Well, how will we take this revolution in our own hands?" And of course, the black people's revolution had meant - at least for young black people had meant - "Well, we'll take it into our own hands, because we will make it very black." And again, I think that as revolutions go, when one considers how they are moved and what their own cycle is, that's how they go: they go from radical to extreme. The fact is that, with all of that, the black revolution never became a violent revolution, and that is the miracle.
INT: Where did you stand on it? Did you join the progression into sort of black radicalism?
EHN: No, I don't consider myself a black nationalist.
INT: But were there particular figures who you respected within that? Stokely Carmichael...
EHN: (Overlap) The two men who most influenced my personal philosophy on race are Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X after he came back from Mecca, when he declared himself still a black radical but one who believed in the brotherhood of all people. That is my Malcolm X. I have a picture in my office of Malcolm X shaking hands with Martin Luther King Jr. That summarizes my life in the movement.