Listen: 16204874_2003_1_20_mcdew_64

The civil rights sit-ins and voter registration drives of the 1960's were dangerous, sometimes deadly. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is Monday, Jan. 20th, and in a "Voices of Minnesota" broadcast, we hear from Chuck McDew and Willie Mae Wilson. McDew is a founder and the first chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. Wilson was one of the thousands of people who marched with SNCC organizers to end segregation in southern cities.


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TIM PUGMIRE: From Minnesota Public Radio, I'm Tim Pugmire. The Minnesota Senate plans to vote this week on a short-term budget fix. The Senate DFL plan eliminates a projected $356 million deficit in the current fiscal year and adds some money to the state's reserves. It's smaller than Governor Pawlenty's proposed budget fix, restores some of Pawlenty's proposed cuts to ethanol and rural programs, and uses more accounting shifts.

House Republicans say their plan will closely mirror Pawlenty's proposal. Majority Leader Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie says the Senate DFL plan does not make any permanent spending cuts.

ERIK PAULSEN: There's not enough on the bottom line. And this is a crisis. And they want to protect DFL values. But it seems like the D in DFL stands for denial. I mean, this is a problem, and we can't deny that we have to deal with as much as possible right now. Every dollar we save now is going to help us in the '04, '05 problem

TIM PUGMIRE: Senate DFLers say they don't want to rush through permanent spending cuts before getting public input. The Senate will likely vote on the budget plan Thursday. The House plan is still moving through committees.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals will decide whether city inspectors can enter an apartment without the permission of the person who's living there. The case pits the Western Minnesota city of Morris and the League of Minnesota Cities against two landlords, two tenants, and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. That issue is an ordinance in Morris that requires landlords to open up apartments for city inspectors, regardless of whether tenants consent or even are informed. The landlord tenant group lost their challenge in Stephens County District Court last July and took the case to the State Court of Appeals.

The state forecast partly cloudy in the North, mostly cloudy in the South, a chance for light snow or flurries in the Southwest. At last report, Saint Cloud 4, Rochester 7, the Twin Cities 6. I'm Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio.

SPEAKER 1: Programming on Minnesota Public Radio is supported by the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management Executive MBA program, an 18-month weekend program designed for schedules of advanced professionals. 800-922-3622.

GARY EICHTEN: Six minutes now past 11:00.


And good morning. Welcome to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Gary Eichten. Glad you could join us. Celebrations and memorials are being held around the state and around the nation today, marking the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday. Minnesota's official celebration is underway in Saint Paul. A march and rally are being held this morning in Saint Paul, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Mary Frances Berry, the US Civil Rights Commission are among the speakers on the program at Concordia University.

This afternoon, ceremonies will be held to mark the official renaming of Constitution Avenue at the State Capitol. It will now be known as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Today on Midday, we're going to hear some first-person recollections of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Over the noon hour, we'll be hearing from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Roger Wilkins. But this hour, we're going to hear two Voices of Minnesota interviews with Minnesotans who were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s-- Chuck McDew, the founder and first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC; and Willie Mae Wilson, president of the St. Paul Urban League. Here is Voices of Minnesota producer Dan Olson.


SPEAKER 2: I woke up this morning with my mind

ALL: My mind

It was stayed on freedom

Oh, well, I woke up this morning with my mind

My mind it was

Stayed on freedom

I woke up this morning with my mind

Stayed on freedom






DAN OLSON: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers rallied members with music, including Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom. Chuck McDew at first wanted nothing to do with trying to dismantle segregation. In 1960, the Massillon, Ohio, native was a first year student at South Carolina State College, a historically Black institution in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

McDew remembers enjoying classes taught by Black professors the first time he had seen African-Americans teaching students. However, the minute McDew and other African-American students walked off campus, they encountered a world where white people wrote the rules.

McDew teaches history at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul. We sat in his classroom. And he described his first encounters with Southern segregationists.

What happened when you walked off campus?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, the first time we went off campus my freshman year, we went to a party one evening. And my roommate and the other fellows drank, and I didn't. So I was the designated driver after this party.

And as we were driving home to his house, the police pulled us over. And I started talking with the cops. And what's the problem, officer? and so forth and so on. And then one of the cops said, where are you from, boy? I said, Ohio, why? He said, they never teach you how to say, yes, sir, and no, sir, to white men up there? I said, you have to be kidding. And he hit me.

Coming from Massillon, a tough steel mill town, you didn't let people hit you without retaliating. So I hit him back. His partner grabbed me. And they beat me severely, broke my arm, busted my jaw, and just beat me bloody. And that was my first experience of going off campus and involving myself with the cities.

DAN OLSON: Later, you helped organize a sit-in at a lunch counter, I think, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Why did you do that?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, I kept running into the segregation off campus. Everything was segregated-- parks, museums, public library. In fact, I came to understand, if something said open to the public, that it was closed to Black people. And you could be arrested for going in them. That kept happening.

And I mean, there were rules about everything. I remember you'd see men walking down the street. Black men would step off the street into the gutter when they passed white people, and they'd always walk around staring at the ground.

Well, I came to understand that the reason they were staring at the ground was that it was against the law to look at a white woman and her face. It was considered a form of assault. And men went to jail for doing that, for assaulting white women, just by looking. And if you were accused, you were guilty. It was that simple.

DAN OLSON: What was that first sit-in like?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, by the time I came home for Christmas, I had been arrested six times. I had a broken jaw. My arm was in a sling. And my father was saying, OK, the noble experiment should end, you're going to get yourself killed down there.

So he took me back to the campus with the instructions that I stay there until he came back and picked me up at the end of the semester. Well, the end of the semester was in February. And on February 1, 1960, four students went to a Woolworth's 5 and 10 Cent Store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down at the lunch counter and offered to ask to be served.

And they were arrested for violating the segregation laws. Other students took the place. And they were arrested. And that started the sit-ins. A group of students on my campus came to me and said, Chuck, you've heard about what's happening in North Carolina. Yes, of course.

And they said, well, we want to do that here. I said, go ahead and do it, what's that have to do with me? And they asked that I be the spokesman for that group. Because by then, I sort of had a reputation of not backing down from people just because they were white.

And so I told them initially, I was not interested, that these white people were crazy and they were a little skewed, too, for taking what the white people were doing and refused to do it. Well, later, I was reading the Talmud. Talmud's Jewish book of laws. It speaks to how one should live their life. And there's a saying in the Talmud by Rabbi Hillel. It says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?"

I thought about those three sentences and spent all night thinking about it and went back to those who had asked me to be the spokesperson, apologized for my flippant behavior, and became the chairman, spokesperson of the Orangeburg Movement for Civic Improvement. And we started having sit-ins at the lunch counters. You go in, sit down-- I mean, buy something in other parts of the store and then go to the lunch counter. You could buy things, but you couldn't sit at the lunch counters.

And when we would sit, generally, the cops would appear and a group of the local white citizens. The local white citizens would pour coffee on you, snatch you, hit you, work you over. And after they had done that, then the police would arrest you. And that kept happening, lunch counters at the public library.

What the movement did initially was go to the areas and test the laws that said you couldn't go there. The only way to test those laws was really to be arrested. So we were arrested many times.

DAN OLSON: Why did you and some other students-- quite a few other students decline Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s invitation to join his movement?

CHUCK MCDEW: Oh, good question. We were invited to a meeting by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King's group, Easter weekend, 1960. And Dr. King wanted us to join his movement. But Dr. King's organization had a stipulation that if you practice nonviolence, that you should accept nonviolence as a way of life.

We weren't ready to do that. Many of our students argued that nonviolence worked for Gandhi in India, but it probably would not work here because you need to have a moral climate to make moral appeals. And we argued that the United States was an amoral country as regards Black people.

If a group of people in India lay down in front of a train as a protest, the train would stop. But if a group of people lay down-- Black people laid out in front of a train in the Deep South in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas, or Georgia, that the train would run over you and back up to make certain that you were dead. You cannot make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society.

And so since we could not accept nonviolence as a way of life, we declined the invitation to join Dr. King's movement and created one of our own.

DAN OLSON: Chuck McDew, a founder and the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. You're listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Dan Olson. With each month in the early '60s, the ranks of civil rights organizations swelled with volunteers. Network television cameras and newspaper photographers captured the images of marchers being taunted and beaten.

Less visible, but equally dangerous was the work being done by civil rights workers in small towns as they attempted to register Black voters. Chuck McDew says the people brave enough to register took their lives in their hands.

When you created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, what was your strategy? What did you try to do?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, initially we were just going to do what the name said, coordinate the activities of the various student groups. But there were some problems with that, problems being students concerns. That is, many of them had to have jobs in the summer. Many of the campus closed down, just about most people went away.

So to sustain a movement with students leaving all the time was difficult. So what we decided to do was through SNCC, some of us felt we would have to devote full-time to organizing and running programs. And in running those programs, we would try to speak to the needs that really were beyond student concerns. That's how we got into the voting program, for example.

DAN OLSON: When you went to the small towns in Mississippi to try to organize voters and get them to register to vote, what was their reaction to you?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, initially, there was some fear, but there was a welcoming sort of thing also. It was like we were filling a need that was always there, but nobody stepped up to the plate to deal with it. I remember over the years thinking, one of the most interesting phenomena was that there were people who had been paying poll taxes for years but who had never been registered to vote. You had to pay a fee like $10 or $25 to vote, and that was called a poll tax.

So there were a lot of people who had already paid those poll taxes. You had to pass a literacy test, which meant that you had to be able to read, write, or interpret sections chosen from the constitution or the state constitution. They had something like 26 questions in Mississippi and 20 in Alabama and same sort of thing in Georgia and South Carolina.

So we started holding classes to teach people how to pass the literacy test. And then the response was quite good. When we started, there were two Black elected officials in the country, in the United States of America-- Adam Clayton Powell in New York, Representative Charles Diggs from Michigan. And there weren't any others. There were no mayors, no city commissioners, no county commissioners, no governors, no lieutenant governors, no senators, anything like that.

In Mississippi, Mississippi today has more Black elected officials than any state in the union. When we started, there were none. When we started, there were just two lawyers, for example, for the whole-- two Black lawyers for the whole state of Mississippi. Now that's changed. I spoke to the Mississippi Bar Association a couple of years ago and the Black Bar Association. Now over 800 members. There were 10 women judges, Black women judges.

And it worked. We feel we changed the face of American politics. And when we started out, our concerns were very simple. In fact, we didn't even think initially about having Black people elected. We just felt the need to exercise the right of franchise.

And the way this would work was, as you know, given our system of government, the people who have the most political power are chairmans of committees. And they were all white. And they were all male. And most of them came from the Deep South and came from areas that were predominantly Black. But Black people didn't vote and couldn't put them in office.

So we took the position that if you got enough Black people to vote, and you had two white candidates running for office. And, say, candidate A was a longtime official, say, like Senators Bilbo and Talmadge, all that crowd, have been in the Congress for years. And they were heads of powerful committees. Education, appropriations, and everything was headed by Southerners.

So we said, if you take candidate A and his opponent candidate B is as much a racist as A, that's OK. Vote candidate B. Because when he goes into office, he goes in as a junior senator and doesn't have much power. So we figured if we could upset that, that was the strategy in the whole voting rights effort. And if we could change that and send these new senators to Congress, we could, in fact, change the balance of power in the United States' Senate and Congress.

DAN OLSON: When you and the other SNCC workers were making the rounds of the small towns in Mississippi, where did you live physically? Where did you stay?

CHUCK MCDEW: We stayed with the Black people in those communities. One of the really wonderful things is once the townspeople found out that we were there, they welcomed us into their homes. We stayed. They fed us. They took us in. They gave us money for gas and incidentals and office supplies and food and all of that.

DAN OLSON: What was the sign you saw as you drove from SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, crossing the state line into Mississippi?

CHUCK MCDEW: And yes, when we came into Mississippi, the first sign we saw was the Imperial Wizard and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan welcome you to the sovereign state of Mississippi. And then it said, niggas, read and run. If you can't read, run anyhow.

And that gave us pause. Although we had set out from Atlanta going to Mississippi, when we got to the Mississippi border and saw that sign, I remember we stopped and said, woo, I mean, what are we going to do here? And then we proceeded on into Mississippi.

DAN OLSON: Amite County, Mississippi, you were dressed in a shirt and tie on a sunny day. What happened to you that day?

CHUCK MCDEW: The sheriff came up to me and was saying, well, what are you doing? So, what do you mean, what am I doing? He said, down here, niggas don't wear shirts and ties during the week unless they're teaching or preaching, you better show me textbooks or a Bible or don't ever let me see you walking in town during the week in a white shirt and tie.

Your life was totally governed that way. Black people could only-- they couldn't drive new cars, for example. Could only drive certain models of cars. And life was totally regulated.

DAN OLSON: Who was Herbert Lee?

CHUCK MCDEW: Herbert Lee was a farmer in Amite County. He was one of the first people, one of the first Black people who attempted to register and vote in that county. County was about 80% Black. There had not been a record of any Black people voting since the Reconstruction.

And one person voted during the reconstruction. And of course, we never found that poor devil. But Lee attempted to register and vote. His neighbor, who was a state representative, a man named EH Hurst-- Mr. Hurst, Senator Hurst, told Lee-- met him one afternoon at the cotton mill and told Lee that, I heard that you've attempted to vote, and I want you to know that niggas don't vote down here. And you either promise me that you will never try to vote again, or I'll kill you.

Lee said he would not make such a promise. He was a veteran of the second World War. He had fought for his country, and he wanted to participate in the governing of his country. And he would not promise that he would not go back and attempt to register.

When he wouldn't make the promise, Hurst pulled out a gun and shot him, killed him right there on the spot. Mr. Lee had a wife and 10 kids. I remember we went through some interesting times in SNCC, in the organization, asking ourselves whether we could continue asking people to be involved when it might mean their deaths.

And we decided that not only could we, we had to, that the only way that things were ever going to change was that there was a blood price that was going to be paid. And since we were willing to pay it, we had the right to ask others to join in that too. And Mr. Lee was the first person in the voter registration program that was murdered.

DAN OLSON: You're listening to a Voices of Minnesota interview with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Chuck McDew. A turning point in the civil rights movement came in 1964 with the murders in Mississippi of three civil rights workers, two white and one Black. The search for their bodies in Neshoba County, Mississippi, drew intense media coverage.

By this time, Chuck McDew had been organizing voter registration drives and sit-ins in the Deep South for three years. Finally, McDew recalled, the pressure took a toll. He left the United States in 1965 for Europe, returning seven months later. I interviewed McDew the day after President Bush announced his opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy.

You, among others, watched as authorities searched for the bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers killed by Neshoba County, Mississippi, white residents. What did you see?

CHUCK MCDEW: The FBI was dragging the Natchez river looking for the bodies. And they fished about a dozen people, Black males, out of the river who had been killed. And one of the bodies that I saw really impressed me was the body of a child, a boy. And his legs were tied with barbed wire. His hands were tied behind his back with barbed wire. And his head had been chopped off.

And the FBI agent there said, he probably was killed because of the T-shirt that he had on. And the T-shirt the little boy had on said, one man, one vote. And the FBI said, that's probably why he was killed.

But that whole practice of Black people, quote, "stepping out of their place" and being murdered as a result of that was very common. In fact, that time when they were searching for Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, they stopped dragging the river because they were finding all these bodies. They weren't doing them any good because it was not the people that they were searching for.

DAN OLSON: When did you discover you had reached a point where your civil rights work was at an end, where you needed to take a break?

CHUCK MCDEW: I had been arrested and I was in prison in Louisiana, charged with criminal anarchy, high treason against the sovereign state of Louisiana. Three other people had been charged in the history of our nation-- or two, Sacco and Vanzetti, and they were hung.

I had been in prison in Louisiana, and it was very rough. I've been in solitary for several months. When I got out of there, when I got out of Louisiana, I sort of said to God, one of the prayers that-- the one prayer, I think, that was totally serious-- as a kid, you make prayers, oh, God, don't make me do the dishes, and I'll be good or something like that.

But I said to God that if you get me out of this place, out of Louisiana, I will never, ever again in life come back here. When I finally got out of prison in Louisiana and had survived that place, I told my friends that all I wanted was a ticket on the first thing leaving the country. And people were asking, where are you going? I would say that they had to understand I wasn't going to, I was going from I just wanted to get out of the United States of America.

DAN OLSON: Since then, you've been back to Mississippi. In fact, perhaps you still go back to Mississippi. I seem to recall reading you're active on a board there.

CHUCK MCDEW: Yes, I'm the head of a board, the chairman of the Mississippi Community Foundation. And the Mississippi Community Foundation is a group generally made up of ex-civil rights workers who was dedicated to telling the story of what happened in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. So I still go back quite often. It's changed a whole lot.

DAN OLSON: What's the state of race relations today between African-Americans and whites?

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, I think it's better than it used to be, but it's not as bad as it's going to get. I was here in class last week, our first class. I teach African-American history at Metro State.

And during the first class, I was talking about the dismantling of the affirmative action program. I was talking about that there was a very small period of time where progress had been made in civil rights about 20 years after the reconstruction and about 10 to 20 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1964. And that is being dismantled all over the country.

And I said the one day, probably the president, President "Weed--" you call him Bush. The president would one day start speaking out against affirmative action. I said that Tuesday without an inkling of the fact that it would happen so soon, in which, as you know, yesterday, on Wednesday, he spoke out against affirmative action. The president gave voice to what Trent Lott and his fellows have been saying all along, that one day, the South and the attitudes and. practices of the '40s would be reinstituted.

I think the president did more towards helping that happen with his statement yesterday than Trent Lott did with everything he said in the past. I think Senator Lott was just expressing the things the good old boys talk about all the time. President Weed brought it out for all the country to look at and examine and support.

And I think that pushed on against affirmative action is going to close the door, again, just as the Jim Crow laws that were initiated after the civil war, during Reconstruction, closed the door on Black progress.


DAN OLSON: Chuck McDew, thank you for your time. A pleasure talking to you.

CHUCK MCDEW: Well, you're very welcome, Dan. Thank you for the interview.


SPEAKER 2: I'm preaching and teaching with my mind

ALL: My mind it was

Stayed on freedom.

Oh, well, I'm preaching and teaching with my mind

DAN OLSON: Chuck McDew, a founder and the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was one of the groups in the forefront of the 1960's civil rights movement. McDew teaches history at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul.

You're listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Dan Olson.

SPEAKER 2: (SINGING) I'm singing and shouting with my mind

ALL: My mind it was

Stayed on freedom

Oh, well, I'm singing and shouting

DAN OLSON: Willie Mae Wilson was one of the thousands of college students recruited by SNCC organizers to end segregation. Wilson is the president of the Saint Paul Urban League. She's a native of Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham became a focus of civil rights workers. The city's segregation laws were brutally enforced by the city's director of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor. He authorized the use of high-pressure hoses and attack dogs on civil rights demonstrators.

This was a city that was highly segregated, I am told, at the time. Is that right?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Yes, at the time that I grew up in Birmingham, it looked a lot like South Africa in terms of having the colored in the white signs. I had to ride on the back of the bus. The bus was divided into two sections. White sat in the front. Black sat in the back.

Housing was segregated. We had limited employment opportunities. We had no participation in city government whatsoever, I should say, in city or state government at that time. And we were very limited in terms of what we could and could not do.

Of course, Bull Connor, the famous Bull Connor was the city commissioner at that time. He was head of our police. He, of course, was very harsh in terms of how he dealt with African-Americans who lived in that city. And at that time, we were called "colored."

So I grew up in the very, very segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama, and was taught as a child to work hard, get a good education, and then leave. Because no one had any idea at that time that there would be-- the civil rights legislation that would come along and provide opportunity and rights to African-Americans in the city. So we were all taught to get a good education, work hard, and get out of the South.

DAN OLSON: How was it communicated to you as a child, that there were certain places you could not go or, if you went there, you had to behave a certain way? I mean, when you're six or seven years old, how was it communicated to you?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, basically, by my mother-- I mean, your parents knew where you could and could not go. And so you were taught as a child to read the signs. The signs were very prominent. They were posted at the entrance. They were posted on the fountains. They were posted everywhere that said colored white.

DAN OLSON: And what was the consequence, for example, for taking a drink of water from a water fountain that had a whites-only sign?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, you could be arrested for doing that and taken to jail. And as we grew older, if you were a male, you could be attacked on the streets at night. They could say that you were what they would call an uppity type of colored person, which meant that you, quote-unquote, "did not know your place" in the Birmingham society.

So they would assume that you had to be taught a lesson. And so night riders would come by your house if the white society decided that you were too big for your britches, so to speak.

DAN OLSON: Who were the night riders?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, they were-- the KKK was very active. And the KKK operated under the cloak of the sheets. And they were hooded. So you didn't really get a chance to see who they were. But we knew that they were white people who disagreed with us trying to exercise any type of liberty there in the city.

DAN OLSON: What would they do?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: As I say, they would come by at night, and you would be attacked. Men and boys would be taken off the street, and they would be beat severely-- or beaten severely. I can remember in 1963, a man was taken off the street and castrated during the time that Dr. King was trying to integrate Birmingham. So there were very harsh penalties imposed upon us for trying to exercise our rights there in the city.

DAN OLSON: Even so, were there still people, ministers, other folks trying to make inroads on desegregating the city even before Dr. King?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Oh, yes, there was a group of ministers in Birmingham, one of which was very prominent and went on to national recognition. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was very, very active there. And he was doing some organizing among the churches before Dr. King came there in 1963.

So there was a branch of the NAACP there. At the time, my grandmother belonged to the NAACP. There were people fighting to have voting rights. But at that time, they had it set up so that if you didn't own property, you could not vote. And so that's how lots of African-Americans were disenfranchised because we didn't own property there. And so they had poll taxes and a number of things put in place to keep us from exercising our rights.

So yes, there was a movement there. And it was active through the churches. The Black church has always been very prominent in terms of the civil rights movement here in this country and especially in the South.

DAN OLSON: What did your grandparents say to you about their motivation for being members of the NAACP?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, my grandmother, who was born in Selma, Alabama, she came from Selma. And she lived on the Pettus plantation down there in Selma. Interesting point about that, when I was a child and I would see people walking across the Pettus Bridge, I thought, wow, that bridge is named after my family, is named after my grandmother. At that time, I did not know that what it was was that Pettus was a big slave owner in Selma. And my grandmother's family had been a slave on that plantation. But I had it all turned around.

But my grandmother was very well educated, and she knew that there were places in the world where Black people were not disenfranchised. For example, she took the newspaper from the Chicago Defender. She told us about people and how they had rights in Chicago. She told us about places in Africa, where there were emperors. She talked a lot about Ethiopia and Haile Selassie and what he was doing there.

So she was giving us a vision to know that there were other places in the world where we could go and not just be held down permanently in the South, because she knew that there were other places where we would have a better opportunity and a right to get an education. So that's why she was active in the NAACP.

I can remember that on Sunday nights, we would listen to the radio. And we would listen to programs that were produced in the North and what was being said. So she exposed us to all of that. And as I say, she taught us that we did not have to remain in the South and be disenfranchised.

DAN OLSON: When you graduated from high school, why didn't you consider attending college at the University of Alabama?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, at the time that I graduated from college, we could not go to the University of Alabama. George Wallace was standing in the door in 1963, making his famous speech, "Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever." And so they were not admitting African-Americans into the University of Alabama.

And I was not a part of the organization that was going on at that time to force the desegregation of that school. And so as a result, I was taught to go North to get an education and encouraged by my high school principal to go to the same college that he attended in Knoxville, Tennessee.

DAN OLSON: Tell me about this expression that apparently some of your teachers used when they asked you, do you want to spend the rest of your life going over the mountain? What does that mean?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Birmingham is down in a valley. And it's called Jones Valley. And most of the white people live in the mountains that surround the valley. And that's where the wealthy whites lived. And so people who worked as domestic workers, maids and so forth, caught the bus in the city in the morning. And the bus would carry you up over the mountain to work.

As a matter of fact, I worked as a maid to earn money, you know, during the summers so that I could pay my way through college. But I never told the white people that I, in fact, was a college student. Instead, I simply got up, went out, and joined the group, got on the bus, went over the mountain, worked as a day worker or a maid or whatever you might call it, and got back on the bus and came back over the mountain at night. And so going over the mountain means going to work as a maid or as a janitor, a domestic is what it meant.

DAN OLSON: Saint Paul Urban League President Willie Mae Wilson. You're listening to a Voices of Minnesota interview on Minnesota Public Radio. When Wilson graduated from high school in Birmingham, she went to Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Now you have been described-- maybe you've described yourself as a conciliator, not a confronter. However, I seem to recall reading that you were, in fact, as a young woman involved in lunch counter sit-ins. Is that so?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Yes, I was involved in the lunch counter and movie demonstrations in Knoxville, Tennessee, because Knoxville was segregated also. And so as students, we would go down on Sunday afternoons and sit at the counters and do what we could, try to get in the theaters to promote integration.

We were organized at that time by some organizers who were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. And we were, interestingly enough, led by Marion Barry, who went on to become the mayor of Washington, DC. Well, Marion Barry was a student at the University of Tennessee, which is across town from Knoxville College. It was an all-white school, and he was there working on his PhD.

So he and a few other African-American students at that school would come across town to Knoxville. And they would talk with the Black students at Knoxville and tell us why we should be doing different things. And actually, they were part of a national movement, if you will recall, with Stokely Carmichael and everybody.

So he would organize us. And we would go down town. And we would really work hard. I mean, we were taught that if people threw anything on you or you got spit on, you didn't start a fight. But nevertheless, we went down there. And of course, eventually downtown Knoxville also became integrated. But it was an interesting time, just being a part of those demonstrations and the marches and the singing of the songs and the rallies. It was very inspirational.

DAN OLSON: What did happen to you when you went down to the segregated whites-only movie theaters and lunch counters? How were you treated?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, we were not admitted. And we encountered whites along the way who did jeer, who did insult us by calling us bad names. They called us niggers, go back where you came from. We really encountered some very harsh, I would say, types of reactions to that.

Because Knoxville is up in the hills of Tennessee. And you would get white folk coming down from the hills, and they were not-- I don't want to use the wrong term, but they were not maybe as urbanized as people in the city. And so it would get pretty rough in terms of dealing with people that were called, quote-unquote, "hillbillies" coming down to really chase us away from what we were trying to do.

So it was very harsh. And it was very dangerous. But we persisted in terms of going. And we didn't get into any serious bloodbaths with anybody there. But it was not an easy going.

DAN OLSON: What did this do to your attitudes about human relations, about whether or not you could get along with white people?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, our attitude, we believed always that we could get along with white people. We always felt that we could rise above all of the things that were being said and done. As a matter of fact, all of our ministers and churches always said, turn the other cheek.

And so that was the objective was that we did believe in an integrated society, a pluralistic society in which all people can live together in harmony and unity. And so we did believe that we could live in harmony and unity with white people. We did not believe that the only role that we could play would be as a servant to white people by being the maids, being the nannies to their children, cooking their food, cleaning their houses, things like that.

We did not accept that, and that's why we challenged it. And so we did have that vision that we could live in harmony and we could get along.

DAN OLSON: But how--

WILLIE MAE WILSON: We just have to teach white people. We had to teach white people that the reverse was also true, that we were human beings, and that they could live in harmony with us without seeing us as human beings that did not belong or deserve the opportunities that are available to other people in our society.

DAN OLSON: I gather there were deep divisions among organizers over how the protesters, how the demonstrators should behave. And I think one of the schools of thought was that the demonstrators should, obviously, be dressed well and should behave very politely. How did you manage your anger when people were shouting epithets at you and disrespecting you? How did you manage your anger?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, the demonstrators, we were taught. We would have meetings before we left to go on demonstrations. The organizers would really, really stress that we don't want to have a bloodbath. And so if people spit on you, they throw water on you, do any of that thing, you keep going. Don't stop and engage them. Because then, of course, it would not have been a peaceful demonstration.

And it was extremely important that the demonstrations be peaceful as much as possible. And so you have instances where if you look back at some of the film that occurred where people were throwing coffee, hot water, I mean, just all kinds of things that they could on demonstrators as we marched-- and so thank God the organizers held us together.

I mean, there were lots of organizers that would be walking alongside the group and trying to keep us together so that we didn't wander off or get out of line so that-- we could be attacked by the white people that were there jeering at us.

DAN OLSON: You're listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. Willie Mae Wilson arrived in Minnesota in the early '60s, assuming there'd be less racism here. However, she was still called names and denied housing when she tried to rent an apartment.

I seem to recall reading it was a chance to come to Macalester College on an exchange program that brought you to Saint Paul. You were the first in the exchange?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Yes, I came to Minnesota in 1962. Macalester has always been a very liberal college. And they had gotten the idea that they should promote integration through the church, the Presbyterian Church. And so they set up a relationship with predominantly Black colleges in the South through the church, Presbyterian colleges in the South, such that they could exchange students. They would send Black students here to go to Macalester. And then after I came, they sent white students to South Dakota to all Black colleges.

So I came here and worked very hard. I'd never been this far North before. My mother was somewhat reluctant to let her only child come to someplace called Saint Paul, Minnesota, to promote integration. Now, mind you, this was at the time when James Meredith was being shot at in Mississippi. And a lot of things were going on.

And so my mother said, I'm not too sure about sending my only child off to work on this. So I came. And it was just a wonderful experience. After I came-- and I came by myself. Nobody else would come. And I found out what it was like. Then I returned-- or I began to write back to Knoxville College to tell everybody else what it was like.

And so the next year, then two students agreed to come to Macalester. And two students from Macalester agreed to go down to Knoxville, Tennessee, because they had never been South before. And they had never had the experience of going to an all-Black school.

So that started it. And then eventually, teachers began to exchange teachers. And so it worked very well. It was just a wonderful program that Macalester started.

DAN OLSON: I think you explained earlier that you were taught how to exist, coexist, and live with white people. What would be your advice for white people in terms of coexisting, getting along with people of color?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: I think that white people should pay particular attention to that and to try and make that happen. In the 1960s, we had a lot of activity going on in terms of training that occurred. I think today they call it diversity training, but human relations training.

I mean, people really were interested. White people, they wanted to know what they could do. They wanted to better understand our culture. They wanted to know how not to use insensitive language, language that would be insulting to people of a different culture and a different background.

So I think that that has to be continued. I don't sense that there is as much interest or activity in that area as there used to be. I think that people think that the problem is solved, the problem of race in America. White people think that has been solved. And so there's no need really for us to put any more energy into know, trying to make sure that the bridges of understanding and communication are there between the communities of color in the white society. But that's remains as a tremendous need and something that should be addressed.

DAN OLSON: What perpetuates that view among white people, do you think, that race relations have been solved, the problems have been eliminated?

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Well, I'm not exactly sure, but I think the fact that we have made some limited progress has given the white society the impression that the problem has been solved. It is true that there are some Black millionaires, there are some Black this and that. And they tend to look at those people and say, well, the problem has been solved. I mean, they're making a lot of money.

They don't really hear about the man that's making the $0.60 for every dollar that they're making. They don't really see the statistics that say that in the African-American community, that we're underrepresented in terms of home ownership. They may hear something about the education gap. But they look at the areas in which there have been some gains, and they just assume that that's happened to the whole mass of people.

And that's not true. I mean, there have been some breakthroughs. But there are still thousands of people who are, as we say, being left behind. I mean, you still haven't-- you haven't closed that gap, but that's their perception because they might see-- well, they might see me. And I've got a nice car. I've got a home. And they'll say, well, the problem's solved. There aren't any more poor people or homeless people or people who are unemployed. They make that type of, I think, judgment.

DAN OLSON: Willie Mae Wilson, thank you so much for your time. Pleasure to talk to you.

WILLIE MAE WILSON: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

(SINGING) Oh, talk, talk, talk, talk, because it ain't no harm to keep your mind

Stay on freedom

Oh, well, it ain't no harm

DAN OLSON: Willie Mae Wilson, president of the Saint Paul Urban League. You've been listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Dan Olson.


ALL: Stay on freedom






GARY EICHTEN: This is Midday coming to you on this national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I'm Gary Eichten. Glad you could join us. And we hope you'll be able to stay tuned. We have some news headlines coming up next. And then we will continue our special coverage. We're going to hear from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Roger Wilkins with some personal reflections on Martin Luther King right after the news.

SPEAKER 1: Programming is supported by The Business Journal, delivering the latest breaking local business news and information to the Twin Cities every Friday. 612-288-2100.

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GARY EICHTEN: You're listening to Minnesota Public Radio. We have a cloudy sky, 10 above windchill, 2 below at KNOW FM 91.1 Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Cloudy through the afternoon with a high, maybe hitting 15 degrees today. Partly cloudy tonight with overnight low 3 to 8 below 0. Partly cloudy tomorrow with a high temperature, again, 10 to 15 above.


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