Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INT: And the Black Panthers - did you welcome their arrival on the scene?
EHN: The Black Panthers were a West Coast phenomenon, rather spottily found; and they got the kind of attention they got, not because they were a national phenomenon but because they in fact were willing to carry guns. I'm not sure they used them very much, but for Americans to see black people who were willing to carry guns, as we in the civil rights movement had not been, was itself a revolutionary act - leave aside whether you were ever willing to shoot a gun. But I must tell you that the Black Panthers were few in number, and not a national movement.
INT: As a woman... how was it for you to be active and a woman through this period?
EHN: I think I had an unusual experience. When the student movement really began full force, I was in the last year of college; and when the student movement became a national movement, I was a law student. There were very few blacks who were law students, and there were almost no women who were law students. So there was a kind of respect I got just by being a lawyer who was assertive and was not about to be treated (Laughs) like anything but a full-fledged member of the movement. , my sense is that black women generally, at least in the student movement, had quite equal roles. , but the fact is that I cannot name for you a single black woman whose role was the equivalent of John Lewis, for example, who led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or of Roy Wilkins, who led the NAACP. So that while in fact black women, I think, always have had more assertive roles... sexism was a part of the civil rights movement, as of everything else in America, and I must say in the world. But I do think black women had, and were received perhaps in, stronger roles than would usually be the case in this country.
INT: Did you welcome the emergence of the feminist movement in the late Sixties, early Seventies?
EHN: Well, I was one of the few and first declared open black feminists. I mean, the analogy from the civil rights movement was just clear to me. There was confusion in the black community: what were these white women, privileged people, doing marching in the streets? Who were they? "Isn't this Miss Anne?" Or... "I don't understand - where's the relationship between these middle-class white women and us? Is this a white women's movement?" People still talk about it that way. , I believe that people like me ought to get up and talk about why black women belonged in this movement. And it was very important that we did so, because ultimately black women emerged in the movement and felt and saw that they themselves, with their own civil rights movement, had, if anything, strongly influenced the development of feminism in America. They were not black women who chose that role. One woman that everybody owes a debt to is Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in the Congress of the United States, because she had no doubt who she was: she was black and she was a woman, and proud to be both. That, it seemed to me, was the message that had to be carried to the community; and when carried by black women themselves, when you engaged in conversation and dialogue with your own people, you could make that point understood.
INT: Wonderful answer. I just have a couple more questions... The first: do you think there was a sort of vested interest in the Cold War, in maintaining the sort of hierarchy of society and the established structures?
EHN: The Cold War maintaining it? Who are you talking about...?
INT: Well, I'm thinking about the Cold War culture in the 1950s and the sort of establishment - was there a vested interest in keeping these sorts of movements at bay, down?
EHN: This was not a country in the Fifties that welcomed movements of any kind. You were particularly in defiance of the prevailing culture when you even used the word "movement". (Laughs) That's not what the Fifties were about. , the Fifties are known for conformity. Movements are about the opposite. And certainly black people engaging in a movement is not only about the opposite: it's about what they had never been before in this country. Think about it. Black people had been in this country since 1619 or some such date. , there had been a civil war; there had been the formation of the NAACP and the Urban League; there had been court cases; there had been, sometimes, uprisings, small; there had been occasional riots in big cities. There had never been a mass movement until the 1960s. After World War II, people came home to recover their lives, not to join movements. And the spirit of the Fifties, with its quintessential president in Eisenhower, the military man who would come to lead the country and civilian life, bringing with him the culture of the military, beloved President, had certainly done nothing to indicate that it was time to spread out. Eisenhower deserves great credit for sending the troops into Little Rock, but what could he have done? Allow a southern governor to essentially overcome the great power of the United States of America? I remember a Jules Feiffer cartoon about Eisenhower when I was in college - I will never forget it, because it may be the funniest political cartoon of my life. It meant to describe the essential centrism of Eisenhower, and I remember that last panel had Eisenhower saying, "I'm against extremism on both sides: those who want to close the schools and those who want to keep them open." (Laughs) That you know, the chronic middle-of-the-road... that was America. Now somebody had to say, "Hey, it's all right, when something is wrong, to say it's wrong. And in a democracy, if something's wrong and you say it's wrong, you can gather to petition your government to tell them it's wrong. And you know what? If you do, they might do something about it!" That's essentially what the civil rights movement was about.
INT: What was the impact of the death of Martin Luther King on the movement?
EHN: Well, the murder of Martin Luther King was a turning point for the movement. I am not sure that he could have sustained the non-violence, the essential integrationist posture of the civil rights movement in any case, because already then we had begun to see riots, the raised expectations that neither he nor any human being could have met. But certainly when he died, there was no replacement of any kind, and his central philosophy, the moral force of his personality, was simply irreplaceable. What that meant is that the movement was up for grabs, and it was grabbed in a number of different directions, including black nationalism. At the same time, it ought to be said that black nationalism has never been a force, and is not now, and was not then, a force. Black pride, however, became a real force. That was not inconsistent with the spirit of King. I have to tell you that I bear the evidence of what black pride was, because until "black is beautiful" began to resonate... and then when it was first raised, King didn't know how to accept it; he thought that it might mean black nationalism. "Black is beautiful" was absolutely necessary, because black was ugly; and as long as black is ugly, then people don't have the kind of self-confidence it takes to move ahead and get control of their lives. But one of the ways in which black became beautiful is that people like me didn't have to straighten their hair anymore, and this afro that I wear now was completely verboten until black became beautiful somewhere in the mid-Sixties. I will never forget when I got it: my hair had a chemical in it, straightened like everybody else's, and one day I said, "I'm going to do it," and I went and I got it all cut off, and I came home to my young husband, who was... we then were going to dinner at my mother-in-law's house, and walked in the door, and they said, (Gasps) "Wow!" And once I discovered how easy it was to have your hair this way, it became more than black pride, (Laughs) it became the world's ultimate convenience, and I said, "God, why has it taken me so long?" There are all kinds of... I say that my children... I can see it now that they will probably, when I am dead and gone, say, "My..." say things like, "Oh, my mother, you know, was in the movement in the 1960s; and long after all of us had gotten over this black pride stuff and had begun to do anything that we wanted to do with our hair, because we had no need to make a statement anymore, and most of us were straightening our hair, my mother died at 92 and she still had her afro." (Laughs)
INT: Good story. One last thing I want to ask you: what was the importance of the Watts uprising?
EHN: The Watts uprising was important largely because then you had ... Detroit... it's very hard to know whether [it was] Watts or Detroit or Newark, to name three uprisings that occurred, that were powerful and extraordinary. (Hesitates) It was Watts because Watts occurred, I guess, first. But what it really meant was that non-violence was not guaranteed. It really meant that you could not hold down the emotions and the impulses that had been released by the movement. Some of them were wonderful, and some of them were not so wonderful. And the riots, which were seen, I think romantically, by many of us as rebellions instead of what they often were, which was people stealing from blacks virtually, because they occurred essentially in the black community the riots were an indication that blacks were ready to move much more quickly than the country was able or willing to move. I mean, I don't believe the country could have moved fast enough for people locked in the great cities. It just couldn't have. It waited too long to move, because it waited to move until 1960, essentially. It waited too long. By waiting that long, till the second half of the 20th century, there came to be a steamroller. The great miracle of this country is that, having waited so long, a Martin Luther King emerged, a non-violent student movement emerged. I don't know what would have happened if the assault weapons that are now available in the streets had been available then. They weren't. And there was the kind of leadership that made it unnecessary. It's a miracle of black leadership, and it says a lot about the Constitution of the United States and the willingness of the law to lead the way, because that's who led the way. It wasn't the body in which I now serve, the Congress of the United States, that led the way. It wasn't even the President who led the way. Who led the way was the Supreme Court of the United States, the branch least accountable to the people. And once that occurred, the way opened not only for the other two branches, but for a protest movement itself.