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Oral Histories: Not the Unvarnished Truth

ISSUE:  Summer 1978
My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered. By Howell Raines. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.$12.95. The Way Out Must Lead In: Life Histories in the Civil Rights Movement, By William R. Beardslee. Center for Research in Social Change, Emory University. $10 hardback, $5 soft.

These are oral histories, people who lived the Southern civil rights movement telling about that great, courageous upsurge of the late 1950’s and 1960’s which liberated all Southerners, whites as well as blacks, from the worst evils of racism.

We seek truth beyond truth in oral history, the past preserved authentically in the words of people who are not writers or historians, but who were there. Oral history is oracle, and something of a fad and cult built upon the beautiful, sensitive, humanistic works of such practitioners as Dr. Robert Coles, Studs Turkel, and Oscar Lewis (who really, if one thinks about it, are respectively oral psychiatrist, oral sociologist, and oral anthropologist).

Mr. Raines and Dr. Beardslee follow in the finest tradition of those three masters, and avoid such excesses common to lesser practitioners as lack of organization; and of being so mesmerized by the tape-recorded material that no word is lost, no repetition pruned, and long spates of spoken words, babbling interspersed with profundity, are indiscriminately rendered into the written word verbatim, down to the last italicized /laughter/. Soon, surely, some bold owner of a tape-recorder will make the innovative plunge to preserving in print other non-verbal characteristics of speech: /grunt/, /yawn/, /throat-clear/, /sigh/, /groan/, /belch/, /stomach-growl/ . . . etc.(Smile)

No, these two works reflect masterful organization and shaping of taped interviews, and each, in its own way, accurately conveys realities of the Southern civil rights movement. But the two, covering from vastly different perspectives, the same events and even, in some instances, interviews with the same people, give us widely divergent views of their subject.

Mr. Raines is a journalist, one of the better in the South, He looked about him in 1974 and felt a sensitive white Southerner’s pride in the great changes in race relations evident all about him, and awe for “the sacrifice and unfathomable courage” of the people of the civil rights movement who made the changes happen. Here, he writes in his introduction, was “a story that had not received the telling it deserved” and one that “would be best told by the people who had lived it.” So Mr. Raines sought through oral history for the story of the movement.

Dr. Beardslee is a psychiatrist. In his student days, he was of the movement, one of those white, middle-class Southern youth who got caught up in the just cause and effective action of black Southerners. He did volunteer work in a black slum in Atlanta and, during college vacations, traveled the South for the Southern Regional Council and the Voter Education Project, intimately involving himself in movement work and with movement people.

His interest was in such people. He sought out ones who are still of the movement, still struggling after the movement’s goals of real equality—some in small, local endeavors, some in larger ones, some in the few remaining civil rights organizations. What had happened to them since the great days of the last decade, and what did they carry within them of those great days to keep them going now?

“I wondered how they had dealt with the trials of the ensuing years,” he writes in his introduction.”I wondered how they had been affected by the profound disillusionment that gripped so many of my generation. This, combined with my interest as a doctor in how people cope in a healthy way with difficult situations, led me to the project.” So Dr. Beardslee sought through oral history to find the effect on people of the movement experience.

It is no wonder that the two came up with different impressions of the same subject. But the fact that they did should give us pause in our readiness to accept as the pure and untainted truth utterances of people who participated in or were acted upon by mighty events. Oral history is oral all right—much fascinating talk. But is it history?

Mr. Raines set out to get the story of the movement in 1974, asking people to look back a decade and more to what happened to change the South so greatly. The people he found who worked within the ranks of the movement organizations were most of the key ones. He also talked with black political and civic leaders, lawyers of both races, police, news reporters, and white racists who were, all, intimately involved in movement history. More than 75 interviews are presented in the book, reflecting the diversity of the people and personalities who made the movement’s history.

Some of the more interesting and little known material has to do with origins of the movement—James Farmer on the beginnings of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), E. D. Nixon and Mrs. Rosa Parks, among others, on the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, John Lewis and others on early study of nonviolence in Nashville, the participants later becoming key people of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), various people on the beginnings of SCLC and SNCC, a participant in the first sit-in which occurred in Greensboro, NC.

Organization of the book is superb. Mr. Raines threads the interviews, various people appearing and reappearing, through the origins, the Montgomery boycott, the sit-ins and freedom rides, the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, and

the Mississippi Freedom Summer, with other chapters on white resistance, college desegregation, various court cases, newsmen, recollections of Dr. King by various people, including Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton, ending with Dr. Ralph David Abernathy’s moving account of Dr. King’s last hours before he was murdered.

The quoted material, coming in appropriate order, is brief, to the point. Most of the important developments are covered—from the great early victories to troubles with the FBI to disillusionment among movement workers and final collapse of the once coordinated effort among the organizations attendant on the rise of the “black power” ideology and rhetoric.

Some of the black people talk of their own struggles with hatred of whites that built with the brutal white resistance to the movement, and a few address the separatist implications of black power. One of the more eloquent is Charles R. Sims, organizer of the armed Deacons for Defense and Justice in Bogalusa, La.: “How can you work with a son of a bitch that every time you look up he’s throwin’ up his fist talkin’ ‘bout Black Power? I don’t wanna live under Black Power. I don’t wanna live under white power. I want equal power, and that’s what I push.”

Some of the interviews, as might be expected, are self-serving, but nearly all are factually accurate. Yet in the net effect of all these recollections, to one like this reviewer who covered many of the events recollected, something is missing. It is the spirit that prevailed in the great days, the very genuine religious, even mystical, fervor and strength of the movement’s people, followers, and leaders, without which all the campaigns and strategies would not have won the movement’s victories, Instead, there is a brittle, almost harsh tone to many of the recollections—expression of an us-blacks-against-them-whites spirit that was not there, or certainly not so bluntly, in the great days. Much is said about the bond of community among blacks, but very little about Dr. King’s beautiful belief in and effective expression of redemptive love for whites, or of the early SNCC’s devotion to the concept of a “beloved community” of blacks and whites working together against evils beyond racism in American society.

Some of this bleakness in the recollections reflects, of course, the perspective of our own bleak time and the bitter years that have ensued since the events occurred. Some, too, may reflect the perspective of the person doing the interviewing, the man asking the questions, a skilled journalist intent on understanding the winning, the losing, the conflicts, the strategies of the movement, the news of the movement in retrospect.

Dr. Beardslee began his quest also in 1974. Inevitably, his approach did bring forth testimony to the spirit of the movement. He presents interviews with fewer people—eleven in all, and all but one of them black. They tell, in effect, the story of their whole lives, and the book presents them, one by one. These accounts are longer, more personal, psychological, philosophical than those in Mr. Raines’s book.

The people (Dr. Beardslee uses the real names of only three of them) are John Lewis, courageous leader of the old SNCC, at the time of the interview director of the Voter Education Project, now a human relations official in the Carter administration; a 76-year-old woman, thoroughly radical, who has participated in all the civil rights movements of the century, including work with SNCC kids, and now acts as gadfly for black rights in her community; a minister who, ever since the days of the demonstrations, has struggled to build and keep operating a communal farm in an area of severe black economic depression; a man who was an organizer during the movement years and kept on with the work in his community until it got to be too much for him, hoping now to get back to it; a young man who participated in demonstrations during his mid-teens and now works for a large civil rights organization; another movement veteran who works in a Southern community without real hope of accomplishing what is needed; a woman in her fifties who continues her movement days in a Headstart center; Ken Dean, a white minister who continues, as he did during the movement days, to work not only with blacks, but with whites who hate them; a 57-year-old minister, jailed and beaten many times during the movement years, who works through the church and community projects still for movement goals; a woman who moved from the plantation to her involvement with the movement and now works for a national civil rights organization, battling to keep her emotional balance; Thomas Gilmore, who led the movement in Greene County, Ala., and is now its first black sheriff, carrying out his duties in the spirit of the movement.

These are strong, resilient people. For them, the movement—with its sense of community, selflessness, striving— became a way of life they can’t leave. Some have had to struggle with personal problems—overdrinking, shot nerves, depression—that destroyed many who did the movement’s work. But these people have endured and still embody the spirit of the movement.

The life stories they tell have common themes. Usually some strong adult shaped in them as children the will to stand against segregation and work toward its end. Religion for many was a strong motivating force. In the movement, they found full expression of themselves as whole people. This and the satisfaction of the bond of working with others have sustained them, kept them going on.

The struggle is still formidable. They no longer face the dangers of violent opposition that once they knew. Now they face the frustration and wearing discouragement of a society’s not responding to their efforts to improve the lot of their people. And within them are the psychic scars of having seen Dr. King and other revered leaders slain, along with the dissolution of the movement as a cohesive entity.

Yet they work on. The 57-year-old minister, after recalling beatings, betrayals, and the death of leaders, summed it up: “. . . To be able to come back and keep going, you’ve got to have faith, You’ve got to be tough enough to know why you are fighting, to know what your goals are and to know when you reach your goals. If you don’t know that, you can be sidetracked at any point. I try to look over and above the immediate obstacles. I just believe.”

Some of those whom Mr. Raines interviewed have also stuck it out in movement work. Of those in other pursuits, among ones this reviewer knows, the movement spirit is still strong. But the old spirit does not speak out in Mr. Raines’s book as it does in Dr. Beardslee’s.

Both authors interviewed John Lewis. He told Mr. Raines the chilling specifics of his being beaten during a freedom ride and on the Selma confrontation at the Pettus Bridge, and of his dismayed inner feelings each time. He spoke of these to Dr. Beardslee, also, but then he told how the movement tried to handle brutal response from whites:

“We didn’t concentrate on the violence that was done to us. . . . Somehow, we had to take our minds off particular incidents and concentrate on the goal. I think that was a sort of moving forth, knowing that we might have temporary suffering or physical pain or violence, but that we were there to bring about a desegregated and open community, a loving community in a redeemed society, . . . We felt that if we were striving and struggling for the beloved community, then we would not use violent means to arrive at a nonviolent end.”

The spirit reflected in that quote and other moving ones in Dr. Beardslee’s book was, in my own opinion, the most important thing about the movement, and his book will be valuable to future historians for capturing so much of it. On the other hand, he did not attempt to show, as Mr. Raines so beautifully did, the dramatic development and ongoing sweep of the movement to change the nation in a few short years. That is Mr. Raines’s major contribution to future understanding.

Together, the two books provide a balanced, comprehensive picture of the movement years. Unfortunately, it is not likely that many people will get to read both. Dr. Beardslee’s book is available only through Emory University. The media were unable to capture much of the movement spirit when it lived and held out the hope of basic reform beyond race. Commercial publishers apparently are still not interested in a subject so abstract and, in the real sense, radical,

Meanwhile, the comparison of the two books at least suggests that oral history is not the end-all for finding the truth of what really happened in the past. Testimony of the people who were there is simply that—testimony, a version of what transpired. Like documents, news accounts, and the other conventional sources available to historians, it is but one more bit of raw material, subject to verification and corroboration. Its great value is in providing perspectives that conventional sources might not of the truth of what happened. But it is not the unvarnished truth itself, as enthusiasts seem to suggest.

Mr. Raines and Dr. Beardslee, both of whose daily work involves hearing variant versions of what happened in the past (no two eyewitness reports are ever exactly the same), would probably be the first to agree.


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