How Studs Terkel Documented the Fight Against White Supremacy and Segregation

Studs Terkel. (Photo: The Newberry Library)Studs Terkel. (Photo: The Newberry Library)Alan Wieder’s Note:

Living in 2016 amidst police in the United States killing young black people, one often wonders how anyone, in spite of the elections of Barack Obama, can ever refer to the present time as post-racial. Like the struggles during the civil rights era that included Malcolm and Martin and many other people, some whose names we know but many more whom we’ve never heard of, Black Lives Matter, and various other groups, have taken up the mantle of the struggle that continues. Like the past, there are leaders as well as people on-the-ground, who stand up everyday both confronting and documenting horrible acts of white supremacy — police killings, poverty, incarceration of black people, and endless other acts of oppression that exist in a world that still defines economic, social, and political realities racially. While many Americans are aware of Studs Terkel’s radio show where he held court for 45-years, and the 18 oral histories that he wrote between the ages of 57 and 96, and his support of unions and working people (underdogism), few are cognizant of the fact that he rose against and documented white supremacy throughout his entire life.

Greatly affected by Blues artist Big Bill Broonzy and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, both of whom Studs viewed as his teachers regarding his own soft racism, something he reflected on through their teachings. He was even more influenced by the great Paul Robeson, with whom he helped promote Henry Wallace’s 3rd Party presidential candidacy in 1948, and whom he had on his radio show in 1954 when Robeson was persona non grata in the United States — Studs acted bravely. He was the first radio broadcaster that invited Stokely Carmichael on his show and he had numerous on-air conversations with James Baldwin and Martin Luther King. His first book, Division Street America, and of course his 1992 book, Race, both directly addressed white supremacy in the United States. Studs was a vocal supporter of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. He spoke aside Gwendolyn Brooks at Washington’s inauguration. The excerpt selected from Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation provides detailed examples of Studs Terkel’s work addressing white supremacy.

The following is an excerpt from Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation:

This Train

Politics and racism were linked in Chicago. Correspondingly, Ida and Studs’ antiracism efforts included combatting Mayor Richard J. Daley. Partnering with friends like Leon Despres, a lawyer and anti-machine Chicago alderman, Studs fought Daley until the mayor’s death in 1975, twenty years against a racist political machine that employed both white and black soldiers to divide the classes and races. Studs was highly critical of Mayor Daley regarding many issues, but foremost was the mayor’s racism. He was especially irate in 1963, when in spite of the documented segregation and expansive black “ghettos” in the city, Daley proclaimed on July 4th that “there are no ghettos in Chicago.”

On August 27, 1963, Studs and Ida boarded an overnight train from Chicago to Washington with approximately eight hundred other Chicagoans en route to the March on Washington, a civil rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Making the trip on the “freedom train” was Ida’s idea. Timuel Black and Don Rose, the organizers of the Chicago contingent in the 1963 March on Washington, recall Studs with his tape recorder both on the train and in the nation’s capital. As always, Studs was a participant-observer. He presented the event in the WFMT documentary This Train.

The journey had begun in the late afternoon on Tuesday the 27th and culminated at 9 a.m. the next morning. As Studs recalls, “I wandered up and down the train, and at nighttime if people were only half asleep, even just a little awake, I’d join them. That was an incredible trip, being on that train, being part of something big.”Black people and white people, old people and young people, religious people as well as atheists united in conversation, song, and expectation.

WFMT first aired This Train soon after Studs returned from Washington. On the radio broadcast, Studs interspersed the music of Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Freedom Singers, as well as other musicians. He had conversations with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. He spent part of the journey chatting with actress and vocalist Etta Moten Barnett. With “We Shall Overcome” playing softly in the background, she told Studs, “I’m hoping the train is a metaphor for more opportunities for people.”

The same spirit prevailed for most of the people Studs interviewed before the train arrived in the nation’s capital. Studs’ program featured various people talking about their commitment to the civil rights struggle. Reverend Howard Schomer, the head of the United Church of Christ seminary at the University of Chicago, spoke with Studs just after the train disembarked from Chicago. There was joyful noise in the background as he asserted that the freedom train symbolized “more freedom for more people, a better life, a much better America.”

An older African American woman told Studs that she grew up in Indiana and that both her community and the schools she attended were integrated. She admitted that there was racial prejudice in her town, but she recalled that it was nothing like racism in Chicago. “Never say America is the land of free. America is the land of prejudice.” Studs then inquired about her thoughts on the young white people on the train. She replied, “I think they are wonderful. I think that if every white man and woman in America could get on this train and see the good fellowship he’d either have a stroke or he’d have a change of heart. But I have a soft heart for all young people, all youth. There’s hope there in them.”

Upon the train’s arrival in DC, Studs recalls marching toward the Lincoln Memorial. He was at 14th and Constitution Avenue, at the Washington Monument, when he heard the announcement that African American leader W.E.B. Du Bois had died the night before in Ghana. One of Studs’ interviewees cited the great African American leader. He was both serious and hopeful: “You know Du Bois died last night and as I look out there he keeps coming in my mind. It’s such an excitement I feel, almost nervousness. I can’t describe it. It’s like being part of something that you don’t know quite where it’s going but you know it’s going somewhere. … Oh, it’s time, it’s past time for this.”

The crowd of over two hundred thousand people and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was awe-inspiring for Studs as well as those in attendance. Later, when Studs first interviewed Reverend King, he opened the show with “‘I have a dream. I have a dream in which the valleys shall be exalted, in which God shall be revealed, and all the flesh shall see it.’ The man said this at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a glorious August afternoon last year.” Studs spoke with an African American woman who lived in Washington before talking with white onlookers. Their dispositions were dissimilar. The woman had two sons who were both in the service, one in the United Kingdom and the other in Vietnam. She spoke about American racism and her experience of having to explain to her children when they were younger why they were not allowed to eat at certain restaurants in the nation’s capital: “You know it’s hard to explain to a child. It’s hard to explain … and you see I have two boys in the Air Force and when they serve their country they should come back and have the same freedom as everyone else. So I’m going to march because we’ve been waiting a long time…

The last interview Studs conducted before returning to the train brought a message of hope and solidarity. He conversed with a man who knew him well enough to call him by name: “My feeling is one of overwhelming gratitude, surprise, joy, pride. It almost reduces me to tears. It’s almost a religious experience, Studs. This is one of the watersheds of history. I think things in this country will never be the same…”

In 1963, besides airing This Train, Studs welcomed Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dick Gregory, and Stokely Carmichael to his show. Charles Cobb joined Carmichael and they discussed civil rights, specifically the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Jackson’s words were particularly heartfelt as they joined the political and personal:

When I’m on the stage and on television and working with white people, they just hug me and love me and say I’m so wonderful and I’m so great. And then, when I’m walking down the street like an ordinary citizen, they don’t recognize me. And when I go into the department store in the South, I can’t get a sandwich. I can’t get a bottle of pop. I can’t even get a cab. And I’m just the Mahalia Jackson that they got through saying how wonderful I am. What I don’t understand is, what makes people act like that?

Selma-to-Montgomery March

Before departing for the Selma-Montgomery march in late march 1965, Studs presented a special broadcast called “Joy Street” that aired in five segments between march 8 and march 12. This project, another collaboration with Jim Unrath, focused on children and youth in Chicago. Studs interviewed a ten-year-old girl at the newly built Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. When he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered, “How do I know I’ll grow up? My life wasn’t promised to me.”

Studs often repeated this story. For him, it was an archetypal example of the human reality of poverty as well as the ability of the uncelebrated, in this case a child, to articulate fear and trepidation. Similar truths would be portrayed in Studs’ many books in the four decades to come.

In late March 1965, urged by Ida and also Virginia and Clifford Durr, Studs traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, for the culminating rally of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. During his stay in the city, Studs spent time at the Durrs’ house. Studs had met them in the 1940s and like himself, they were both investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Clifford was a lawyer who had worked for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during FDR’s presidency. He relinquished his government position under the Truman administration when he refused to sign a loyalty oath. Studs’ impression was that “they didn’t court trouble; neither did they run away from it; naturally, they were always in trouble.” Both Virginia and Clifford made multiple appearances on “The Studs Terkel Show” and were portrayed in his oral histories. Studs dedicated his book, Hope Dies Last, to the Durrs and also wrote the preface to one of Virginia’s books, Outside the Magic Circle.

The Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. On Sunday, March 21, about 3,000 marchers set out for Montgomery. They walked twelve miles a day and slept in fields. By the time they reached the Montgomery capitol building on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000 strong. King addressed the thousands of people in the crowd: “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”

Studs arrived in Alabama with a group of other political progressives from Chicago. Frank Fried remembers Studs asking him to bring some of the musicians he worked with to join the march. Timuel Black, who was also part of the Chicago contingent, recalls: “Studs was in the line when we were about to be attacked and the Catholic women stepped in front, and because it was being televised they were not going to beat those Catholic women. … Studs was in that line with the rest of us.” Civil rights leader CT Vivian was also in the line. Montgomery sheriffs beat him on the steps of the statehouse. Vivian talked about his Studs interviews: “He wasn’t running from nobody. He wanted to create a total picture of whatever it was he was dealing with. So that you got the sides, because you got these personalities that he was dealing with, right?”

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With tape recorder in hand, Studs walked with the marchers. He spoke with civil rights protesters and white supremacists alike. He was able to touch the humanity, or sometimes the lack of humanity, of the people he met. There were performances on the evening of March 24. Studs cites a rousing talk by Dick Gregory.He bemoans the absence of Mahalia Jackson, who was ill in Chicago. He recalls his introduction to civil rights heroine Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by white supremacists just after the march.

Studs observes the spirit being very high — there were great expectations of the event. Yet, as a counterpoint, he recalls his conversation with two local barbers. In particular, he remembers one of the men saying:

I won’t say everyone, but the majority of the thinking people or the educated people, they feel that the colored man has been abused to an extent, but I feel that they think that this could be worked out locally and not on a national basis. … I’ve had people in my shop who sympathize with them and I’ve had people in my shop who tell me that they could kill Martin Luther King like a snake and never have any second thoughts.

The barber continues asserting his respect for Martin Luther King Jr.’s intelligence but then adds that he also respects tradition. The second barber was quieter than his friend, but more intense about the tradition of segregation in Montgomery. He explains to Studs: “The interest here is to keep separated in schools, in churches, in homes, in restaurants, in places we go. It’s a custom, it’s a tradition, it’s an old tradition.” After their conversation the men went to the hotel bar where Studs was staying to have a drink. Management and a local detective took issue with Studs talking with the barbers and they were harassed and then asked to leave the bar.

Later that night Studs reflected on the evening and on white supremacy in the United States. In conversation with his tape recorder, he said:

I talk now in my hotel room and have the strangest feeling, a feeling I had in South Africa two years ago, a feeling that what I’m saying may be heard, that the room may be bugged, it’s a horrible feeling. It’s probably not true, undoubtedly not true, but the feeling nonetheless is there. There’s a terrible fear, and the fear is the fear of the detective who flashed his badge at me. I was a Northern man with a tape recorder.

Studs continued to interview people as Martin Luther King readied to speak to the crowd in Montgomery.

Copyright (2016) by Alan Wielder. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Monthly Review Press.