What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951
In these excerpts, Leonard H. Robinson, Jr. and Claudia Anyaso discuss what it was like growing up black in the United States in the 1950s and 60s and their work in the civil rights movement before they joined the Foreign Service. They were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in April 2003 and September 2009. Michael Pistor and William Woessner discuss how they met Martin Luther King in London and Berlin before King went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. They were interviewed by Kennedy beginning June 2001 and November 1999. Belcher was interviewed by Jack O’Brien beginning in September 1988. Charlotte Roe was interviewed in September 2005. You can also read about the experiences of Ambassador Terence Todman in a “lily-white State Department.”
“’Look, you are living in a segregated society and you have to adjust’”
Leonard H. Robinson, Jr.
ROBINSON: When we went to the movies [in Greensboro, NC in the 1950s], we had to sit upstairs. We couldn’t sit anywhere we wanted to. Segregation was clearly the order of the day. I remember the “white only” and “colored only” drinking signs for the fountains and the rest rooms. But my father again was quite extraordinary. In the summer time he would take us up to the Blue Ridge Parkway which was about a two- to three-hour drive from Greensboro, because he knew it was federal property and we could go into the restrooms, stay in the log cabins and motels like everyone else in the 1950s and 1960s. We did that in the summertime practically every summer. We were the only African-Americans up there….
There was segregation to be sure, but there were lots of grey areas, and because my parents were professionals, I think they took advantage of those grey areas to our benefit as we were growing up.
If you sit down and talk to any middle class black family who lived through the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, and even today, you will find families that were closely knit and cohesive; you will find them all over the country. The clarion call — the thing that would take place over and over in my head, hearing it from both my mom and my dad — was: “Governor you just have to be ten times better.” Always remember “you have to be ten times better.”…
The sort of central theme was, “Look, you are living in a segregated society and you have to adjust.” My parents were professionals; my father officiated football games and basketball games. They had a lot of contact with the other side so to speak – the majority community. My father was very much involved with the recreational department of the city of Greensboro. He had a lot of contacts with the city council. He sat on commissions and boards for the city as well as the state. My mom did the same thing.…My mother had white friends who were also professional associates and colleagues. So it wasn’t like “these people don’t exactly have the same skin color as I have and have different hair texture etc.” They were not strangers. There were plenty of contacts with white people….
My father had a presence. He was affable, as I said. I can remember going to a store where segregation was being strictly enforced. I could tell from my father’s face. His face would tense, and he would try to engage the person on the other side of the counter in some kind of discussion about this. Sometimes we got to use facilities that were not designated “colored only.” But essentially he didn’t like to do that. He overcame some of the prejudice because he was articulate and he had this great personality. Once when I was 11, we drove from Greensboro to Atlanta.
I can remember stopping in Athens, Georgia at a pretty broken down filling station. We both had to go to the bathroom and we had to use the “colored only” facility. We did it. It wasn’t a traumatic experience, but it is one that I certainly remember. But my father dealt with those issues with a great deal of dignity–that is the word that I would use. He confronted the prejudice. He never accepted the system, but he did not press the envelope to the point where he jeopardized the safety and security of the family. As I said earlier, because of segregation, extended families and friends were a very close knit bunch of people….
When I considered a historically Black college, [my father] dissuaded me from that. He said, “Given the era that you are evolving in, and given the fact that you have been in segregated schools all the way through high school, I really think, Governor, that you should go to a white university.” He said, “I know that you have a focus. There are some things that you want to do. You need to be prepared to compete in the white man’s world. They are in power; they are in control. Their institutions are predominant. At some point in time in our society, you are going to be a part of in integrated environment, an integrated society. To get ready for that, to get prepared for that, I strongly encourage you to go to a majority white university where you can learn how they think, be exposed to things that you haven’t been exposed to through us and through your educational experiences.”
He was very clear about that. In the final analysis, of all the colleges that admitted me, I chose Ohio State….
“‘Why did you leave it to us to confront them?’”
The Congress of Racial Equality [CORE, of which I was a member] was pretty effective. The NAACP at that time was frowned upon because we all thought that NAACP hadn’t done enough — hadn’t been aggressive enough. This was the one time when I had a difference of opinion with my father….
I can remember saying to my dad one day, “Why didn’t you all do this when you were younger. Why did you leave it to us to confront them?” He sat me down and said in a tone that was very sobering to me, “We would have been shot down, lynched, brutalized in some way. You know,” he said, “the beauty of what Martin Luther King instituted is that it is non-violent. People opposed the sit-ins and marches and the picketing and all of that in Greensboro and other places, but by and large they have been not violent.” Bear in mind that my demonstrations were in North Carolina. I did it in Greensboro and Raleigh. We never went to a place called Monroe in North Carolina because that was the scene of some serious violence and confrontation.
None of us went to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi [with CORE]. I have never been in Mississippi and quite frankly I have no intention of going to Mississippi. There is just something about the Deep South that was seared in our psyche. A lot of African-Americans in the 1960s obviously went and were confronted with beatings and dogs and were killed. But that did not happen a lot in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In 1961-1962, I personally began to withdraw from the movement somewhat for two reasons. One, I began to see that the some of the people involved in CORE and other civil rights organizations were more interested in seeking the limelight — more interested in being in front of a reporter, in front of a TV camera, in front of a photographer to get themselves in the news. They lost sight of the objective, and that bothered me. Personal egos were emerging and substance was being pushed to the background. That frustrated me.
Secondly, as some of the opposition to the civil rights movement began to move toward a more violent posture, I was concerned my brother might be caught up in this. I began to think less of non-violence and more in terms of retaliation; so I thought it best for me to back off. I was about 18 or 19 years old at the time. I didn’t have much of a temper growing up. I think I sort of held it under control for lots of reasons….
Looking at the Sphinx, I said to myself, “ Robinson, you come from someplace”
In 1968, I flew through Cairo on the way from India to Washington on official business for the Peace Corps. I stopped in Cairo, and I took a car out to Giza, and I stood in front of the Sphinx. A very powerful feeling came over me which I have never forgotten and that was that the Sphinx was clearly carved in bas relief in the image of an African, a Nubian. Napoleon knew that at the time that he invaded Egypt; he used the Sphinx for cannon fire practice. I could see that the features of the Sphinx were carved in the image of an African. There has always been this debate about whether Egyptians are really Africans.
Looking at the Sphinx, there was no doubt. I looked at it and I said to myself, “ Robinson, you come from someplace.”
The image of the Sphinx is important because African-Americans are the only people on the face of the earth who cannot definitively trace their ancestry, their history, their culture, at least to the extent that everybody else can.”…Because of slavery, many African Americans do not know what their lineage is. Their knowledge ends at the water’s edge. I think that, psychologically, there is a big gap in the experience of African-Americans, which no other people have.
So when I stood there and looked at that Sphinx. I felt that power. I said, “We come from something.” That was very important to me….
“The government wasn’t your friend necessarily”
ANYASO: Baltimore was a border state. We didn’t have the problems like that. We didn’t have the Klan. I don’t ever remember being called a Nigger, the N word, but when I was in North Carolina, which is where my parents are from, that’s the first time I’d heard it. Certainly that summer after my freshman year and after we had been involved in these demonstrations I did go down to a meeting of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and then I really understood the enormity of the social change that was taking place.….
Q: Did you have any feel about the U.S. government behind you because this was when Lyndon Johnson was President and Bobby Kennedy was Attorney General?
ANYASO: The government wasn’t your friend necessarily. The face of the U.S. government that we confronted was the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. Now Hoover felt that Martin Luther King and all these people, the rabble-rousers, King was a Communist, he knew that and he did everything he could to make that a true reality. When we were in the South the local media played into that and so the stories were about outside agitators and things like this. I went to this meeting in Atlanta [in the summer of 1963] and stayed in the South for the whole summer.…
I became a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and I made about $18.26 a month. [We] helped to organize voter registration and mass meetings…I was assigned to Gadsden, Alabama, which is not very far from Birmingham, Alabama. The Congress on Racial Equality had started the Freedom Rides and Anniston and Birmingham were places where these buses were going and these busses were burned. So we knew it wasn’t risk free what we were doing but we felt that people had a right to vote, people should be citizens of their country, etc., etc.
I was involved with voter registration. We would have classes and we would educate people on their rights and on U.S. history so that they could pass a voting/literacy test. Very often in the South you had to pass these exams so that you could vote and we wanted these people to pass their exams so we were tutoring them on that….
You had universities in Atlanta so that made it a very pleasant place but when you left Atlanta to go to somewhere like Gadsden, Alabama, that was a whole different kettle of fish. More rural, people were less educated and I ended up working with a small newspaper there and I did a little research with the editor of that newspaper just looking at education there. For Whites I think the average level of education was fifth grade and for Blacks it was fourth grade so we’re not talking high levels of education….
I remember coming home one day in the afternoon and there was this White man, old person, sitting on the steps and you know they chew tobacco in the South and spitting this stuff. I learned later that he was a member of the Klan; he was just checking to find out what was going on, what Pauline [her host for the summer] was doing with these people in this town. She never waivered, she and her children stayed involved.
I remember we had a mass meeting one evening at one of the churches and this is where you didn’t go to schools or community centers or things like that. There were only three gathering places; one was the church, one was the drug store owned by a Black doctor, it was a pharmacy, and one was the bowling alley. The mass meetings were at the churches and so we went to the mass meeting one evening and all of a sudden the local authorities decided to come, the local police decided to surround the building.
These very hefty patrolmen and policemen and we had no idea what was going to happen to us that night; it was just very scary and very intimidating when they came into the church and that kind of thing.
Marlon Brando and the Limousine Liberals
Many of the leaders of this local movement would stay in a motel and we understood that there was a bomb scare and that they were going to bomb the motel. It was very much like that motel in Memphis where King was assassinated; it looked like that and we were really frightened at this point.
Now in comes these, what do you call them, limousine liberals. Marlon Brando, of course, who was a friend of all down-trodden people, American Indians as well as African-Americans and I didn’t know this but he flew in along with his pal Tony Franciosa who wasn’t as well known. But he was an actor. (Photo: Corbis)
So they were coming to give us hope, to bring some attention to the cause and the cause is voter registration and desegregating the lunch counters and facilities, the bus stations and such places. I think they were a little afraid too that things were getting out of hand. Now the local media were talking about Communists, outside agitators and the temperature was rising.
So what happened at that point was that they began to arrest some of us when we had marches and they arrested some of the men, some of the boys — they weren’t students they were boys. They took them to the local penitentiary and we heard that they would run them down the railroad tracks and shoot over their heads and all kinds of things that would intimidate people.
They had also begun to use the cattle prods, which were these electric things that were like wands that had two little plugs and they would move cattle with these prods. So they were moving us, they interrupted a couple of marches and demonstrations. I had some Sunday school kids out for one of the marches and they arrested us for trespass so we had to go to jail. The poor little kids.
They didn’t have to go to jail but the older ones had to go to jail and they kept us for a while because I think the judge with whom we were to be arraigned had gone fishing or something so he wasn’t available and we had to stay in jail for a while. You know, it’s the South so lima beans is what we ate most of the time and cornbread. I tell you your systems get really clogged up on that diet but finally I think the leaders were able to get us out and we got out and went back to doing what we were doing which was voter registration. The elections weren’t in the summer so I didn’t stay to see what happened during that time.
But it was a typical Southern kind of crazy place. The sheriff, I think, probably was a member of the Klan and he had a Black mistress. It was the usual kind of mixture of — it was crazy. When August came I had about had it, it was stressful.
“We weren’t very happy about Martin Luther King at the time”
Everybody was going to get into cars and drive to Washington for the March on Washington because there was going to be this big rally and John Lewis was going to be there, Martin Luther King was going to be there and it was a big deal, the unions were organizing buses to be there.
At this point I was just totally exhausted and so I said, “You know what? Drop me off in Baltimore, you go ahead to Washington but I don’t think I can make it.” Now, of course, it was almost 100 degrees that day when they were having the March on Washington and so I went home, my parents had been worried sick and they wanted me to get ready to go to school in the fall so I watched the March on Washington on television in the comfort of my home and air conditioning…. (Photo: Getty Images)
I’m a coward, I think, at heart but they realized that nothing was going to happen unless blood was shed, the society at large wouldn’t get excited unless blood was shed. They realized that some people would have to die. Some did in Mississippi….
It was a very different world. But when you have people who believe in what they are doing certainly — I think all of us did. Julian Bond was doing public relations for SNCC and he was writing poetry. Marion Berry and John Lewis I think I met them around the same time I think they came out of a Tennessee group. I always thought Marion Barry was an unprincipled person, amoral even at that point….
Q: How did you feel about Martin Luther King at the time?
ANYASO: At the time, you know, we really were on the firing line as students in these little communities. We felt that Martin Luther King was interested in publicity. He wasn’t in the communities doing what we were doing. Oh, he would show up and give a great speech but you know we were there everyday, we were the ones going to jail. Now he did go to the Birmingham jail, he did that.
But more or less he was up there and we were the ones really doing it and he was getting the credit for it so we weren’t very happy about Martin Luther King at the time, the NAACP and all this legal stuff, we considered them Uncle Toms we were the ones, it was SNCC.
Q: You were the foot soldiers.
ANYASO: We were, we definitely were.
Q: When you went back in ’63 to school how did your studies go? Was it hard to settle back down?
ANYASO: It was like going to outer space you know and the reentry; it was that kind of a feeling it was so different from what I had just experienced. I just couldn’t get used to it and it took me about six months or so to adjust. In fact, my first impulse was to get out of there and go back to the movement but I stuck with it and gradually settled down and studied so it wasn’t bad.
Q: Did you see a change in your parents or how were they as far as to what you were up to and the movement?
ANYASO: Well. they didn’t do what we did and they really didn’t understand what we were doing. In a way they sort of bought a lot of the propaganda against King at the time, that he was a Communist and he was doing all these bad things. You know people could get hurt and they weren’t really willing to go out and create problems and to start trouble.
But we as students decided this was the thing to do and they wanted to support us and they always supported us. There were rallies at the churches in Baltimore, Cornerstone Baptist Church being a favorite place and when King would come to town he would go to Cornerstone whose pastor was a Reverend Kearse. So the Black community even though it wasn’t fully on board with the civil rights movement, they felt they had to support it they could not ignore it.
Dr. King and “Crowd Warmer” Andrew Young
Michael Pistor, London, 1964
PISTOR: It was called Student Affairs Officer, with an office in USIS [U.S. Information Service] separate from the regular USIS program in the U.K. The program was directed at African, Asian and Middle Eastern students getting their degrees and further education courses in the UK, at universities and institutions there….
I had a big break when I first got to London, because we arrived in September and in November I learned that Martin Luther King, who was on his way to [Oslo] to accept his Nobel Prize, had been invited by the Dean of St. Paul’s to read the lesson or give a sermon in the Cathedral, which no foreigner had ever done. (Photo: Terry Disney/Getty)
So I called USIA and said, “If Dr. King is coming here, is there any chance of our getting him to meet African students?”
They said, “Well, we can’t do anything about it. Why don’t you call the Southern Christian Leadership people down in Atlanta?” They gave me permission to jump over the government, and we got an agreement from Dr. King and his people. He had a very tight schedule. He was going to stay at the Hilton, and he wouldn’t have any time except the morning after his arrival, and any meeting would have to be in the hotel.
So I hired the ballroom of the Hilton and got a lot of little gold chairs and went through the National Union of Students and the African Student Union and got the president and the secretary of every African student organization in Britain that I could find, a couple of hundred people. They packed the room for Dr. King to come in and see them.
Dr. King’s organization was not tightly run, and it was hard to find a way to get him down to the ballroom. His traveling companions were up in a room, in a suite, trying to phone back to Atlanta for something and he was tied up, but I was up there in the corridor trying to see when he would come down to see my restive 200 people.
There was Dr. King, there was Dr. King’s father, there was Mrs. King, there was a whole host of people, and there was one young guy who said to me, “I know you’ve got a problem, so I’ll come down and I’ll warm up the crowd a little bit.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He walked downstairs, went to the ballroom. We had a table set up for Dr. King to sit behind. This man came and sat on the front of the table and talked a little bit about the history of Dr. King and the movement, and he was absolutely superb. I’ve never heard anybody better than this young man was, just so relaxed and talking confidentially to these people.
Then Dr. King came in and gave kind of a version of “I Had a Dream,” a wonderful rip-roaring thing but very different from the informal approach of the “crowd warmer,” who, it turns out, was Andrew Young [later Ambassador to the UN and Mayor of Atlanta]. He gave a marvelous start my tour as Student Affairs Officer, and I’ve never forgotten it.
“The regime didn’t dare try to stop him”
William Woessner, Berlin, 1964
WOESSNER: A particularly exciting event was the visit of Martin Luther King to Berlin. He preached in the West and then he went to the East to preach. By this time, I had very good contacts in the church and elsewhere. He got to Checkpoint Charlie and he had forgotten his passport and they let him go through anyway. He went to the church in the center of Berlin that had been the main church of the bishop, who had been banned by the East Germans from coming over to hold services there. The church was overflowing. They were crowded outside.
As he was fighting his way through the crowd, I managed to say to him, “Dr. King, you see the size of this crowd. There is another church about six blocks from here and that is also filling up because word has gone out that you’re going to go over there. Is there some way you could do that?” He did.
He gave a sermon and they smuggled me in the back so I was hiding behind the altar. There was no room in the church. He used Biblical allusions, walls coming down, walls separate people. It was a powerful service and was well received.
Q: It was translated?
WOESSNER: Yes. The choir sang Negro spirituals. Then sure enough, when he left the church there, he went on across town and spoke at the other church. The regime didn’t dare try to stop him. They had even let him come through Checkpoint Charlie when they had perfectly good grounds for stopping him. That was one of the highlights of my tour in Berlin.
“The assassinations felt to me like a death in the family”
ROE: During the heyday of the civil rights movement, we registered people to vote both on campus and in low-income parts of Boulder [at the University of Colorado]. I spent my third year of college in France at the Sorbonne, eventually dropping out of classes to join the jazz scene. I had planned to stay in Paris through the summer of 1963. Then I heard about the murder of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham bombings, and Kennedy’s decision to send troops to buck Bull Conner in Birmingham. With that news I returned to the U.S. in June. I attended summer school and helped organize a busload from campus to participate in the March on Washington. I heard Dr. King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall. It was a stirring time. ….
The Kennedy brothers both imprinted my life. I was skeptical about the Democratic party, but I liked their frankness, their mixture of idealism and existential realism. It was a time of great hope for change.
The assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King felt to me like a death in the family, a black hole. I count among my sacred places the shrine to JFK and RFK at Arlington National Cemetery, the Mall in front of the Capitol where King spoke and the Lincoln Memorial with the words of the Gettysburg Address etched into the stone. The lives and sacrifice of those leaders were so closely connected.