Listen to Tapes of a 1961 Interview with Leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement

 

On June 8, 1961, a journalist for The Protestant Hour, a long-running and widely syndicated weekly radio program out of Atlanta, sat down with four leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement to discuss their work in nonviolent direct action. Two reel-to-reel tapes were created as a result of the interview.

One, nearly an hour long, is the full unedited version, while the second is 29 minutes long, edited and rearranged, and is preceded and followed by test tone. The tapes were ultimately mailed to “Mrs. P.Q. Yancey” of Atlanta: Clothilde Labat Yancey (1914-1972), wife of Dr. Prentiss Quincy Yancey, who was a founder of the Atlanta Junior Voters League, and had just a few months prior been named Atlanta’s “Bronze Woman of the Year” according to Jet magazine, February 16, 1961.

 
One of two reel-to-reel tapes of an interview with organizers of the Atlanta Student Movement. Estimate $800 to $1,200. Lot 206 in Printed & Manuscript African Americana.

The two tapes will be offered as lot 206 in our forthcoming Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction. Below we feature a few short segments of the full-length reel-to-reel tape, which ultimately was labeled “Human Rights Interview.”

 

While the name of the interviewer is unknown, the four interviewees, then students or recent graduates of Atlanta colleges, all went on to distinguished careers in politics and activism. They were Herschelle Sullivan (later Challenor) of Spelman, Benjamin Brown of Clark, Atlanta, and Charles Black and Lonnie C. King Jr., both of Morehouse.

   

“. . .they’re only asking for the things that the Constitution guarantees. . .”

 
 

About seven minutes into the interview, the journalist asks if direct action versus court action may have an impact on “good relations” between the races in the South. Lonnie C. King responds:

“. . . The good race relations that has existed in the South is a myth. Any time that we have had good relations in the South . . . is a situation wherein the Negro is subservient to the white person . . . If America, White America, were to really take a second look at what the students and negroes that are active in this protest are doing and are asking for, they would realize that they’re only asking for the things that the Constitution guarantees and they’re only doing the things that American people did at Boston, when they threw the tea into the river there. Are we endangering things? No, I don’t think so, in the long run.”

Lonnie C. King
   

“What is the relationship between CORE, NAACP, SCLC and the [Atlanta] Student Movement?”

 
 

Around the sixteen-minute mark, they discuss the relationship between CORE, NAACP, SCLC and the Atlanta Student Movement. Sullivan describes SNCC as “one central clearing house” for the Southern Student movement or”the executive body of the student movement,” but says “CORE, NAACP, SCLC, along with the National Student Association send representatives to this body. However, our activities are not coordinated. We are all autonomous groups. You will find that the NAACP, for example, stresses a court action program, while we are a direction action group.” She clarifies that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “is not the leader of the Atlanta Student Movement and insists on taking a back seat. He never calls on us, but is always there if we call on him.”

“. . .the way you solve your problems in Charlotte, North Carolina or in Nashville, Tennessee, is not necessarily the way that you would solve your problems in Atlanta, Georgia . . .”

With regard to the coordination that does happen, it is added by another interviewee that the SNCC will have a meeting, and “the various protest groups decide that they will cooperate on a nationwide basis. This tends to make the nation think we have an executive body that sends out orders and everyone . . .obeys, but this is not the situation at all. We feel that the thing that has kept the movement moving has been the the autonomous part of it, in that each community has its own complex problems. And the way you solve your problems in Charlotte, North Carolina or in Nashville, Tennessee, is not necessarily the way that you would solve your problems in Atlanta, Georgia. . .We are not condemning litigation. This is not a condemnation of litigation. The students feel that we can fuse litigation and direct action together as a well-working unit. You can’t litigate all the time, you have to act as though you want to be free.”

 
 

Some of the questions from the interviewer feel somewhat hostile. Halfway into the interview, the interviewer asks “Do your tactics of nonviolence generate violence in others?” The answer, in part: “If nonviolence does bring about violence, this more than anything else points up to the nation and the world the injustice that negroes have to suffer. We don’t intend for nonviolence does bring about violence, but if it does happen, this is where our training sessions come in, and this is where the person’s mind takes over…”

   

On Integration: “A child never learns to walk unless they attempt to take that first step.”

 
   

Toward the end of the hour, the interviewer says, “You mention freedom” what about “the responsibilities of integration?” They discuss the responsibilities of integration:

“A child never learns to walk unless they attempt to take that first step. We will never know if we can assume the responsibility totally, unless we’re given the opportunity.. .”We want to be able to walk the streets of America, of the South, in dignity, to be able to live in dignity . . . to live as human beings and not have to worry about night riders coming to get us out of our beds and to put KKK across our backs. This is all that we’re asking for, and please take that second look.”

 

Throughout, the principles and tactics of non-violence are a main point of interest, with Lonnie King explaining that the goal is “replacing hate with love,” causing the “opponent that is inflicting the violence to question his own conscience.” Black cites Gandhi as the main inspiration, adding “it has been perpetuated here with our own Martin Luther King.” Sullivan addresses a common misconception about training sessions for these sit-ins: “We don’t have torture sessions in Atlanta. . . . We do not slap students around to see what their reaction will be. . . . We want to condition the mind.” However, a colleague adds that participants are told of the dangers, including death: “We plead with them that they shouldn’t go into this if they are seeking publicity.”

   
 

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