C. Vernon Mason

Black on Black

VTR Date: January 10, 1988

Guest: Mason, C. Vernon


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: C. Vernon Mason
Title: “Black on Black”
VTR: 1/10/88

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Some years ago, when I wanted some way, somehow, to do something of my own to memorialize the contributions Martin Luther King had made to the ultimate realization of freedom and justice in our nation, I revised the basic American history text and documents I had structured much earlier to include Dr. King’s memorable “Unwise and Untimely” letter written from jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. When I did, joining it with John F. Kennedy’s historic civil rights speech of that same year (shortly before the young President was assassinated, as Dr. King would be, too), I was reminded forcefully of what the Black leader had said to me long before, right here on THE OPEN MIND. For what I included in my DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES was Dr. King’s eloquent insistence that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily … freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor: it must be demanded by the oppressed. For years now,” Dr. King continued, “I have heard the word ‘wait!’, it rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant: ‘never’.”

Well, that was in 1963, from the Birmingham City Jail. Earlier, here on THE OPEN MIND, when he and civil rights pioneer Judge J. Waties Waring joined a painfully young Richard Heffner on February 10th, 1957 for what we called a discussion of “The New Negro”, Martin Luther King had said much the same to me. It bears repeating:

Heffner: Doesn’t this raise the question of tactics, though? You say, you use the word ‘honesty’, you feel that honesty is important here, too. But as a matter of securing for the Negro his rights, do you feel that this aggressiveness, this self-assertiveness will get him more in the long run than going along with contemporary opinion and biding his time, taking step by step as he goes?

Martin Luther King: I think, I think it’s better to be aggressive at this point. It seems to me that it is both historically and sociologically true that privileged classes do not give up their privileges voluntarily. And they do not give them up without strong resistance. And all of the gains that have been made, that we have received in the area of civil rights have come about because the Negro stood up courageously for these rights and he was willing to aggressively press on. So I would think that it would be much better in the long run to stand up and be aggressive, with understanding good will and with a sense of discipline. Yet these things should not be substitutes for pressing on. And with this aggressive attitude I believe that we will bring the gains or rather civil rights into being much sooner than we would just standing idly by, waiting for these things to be given voluntarily.

Heffner: What about the ill-will that’s generated by the aggressiveness? Certainly your own experience in Montgomery … you’ve been the target of bomb attacks, you’ve been the target of verbal and other kinds of violence. What about the ill-will that is generated by aggressiveness?

Martin Luther King: Well, I think that is a necessary phase of the transition. Whenever oppressed people stand up for their rights and rise up against the oppressor, so to speak, the initial response of the oppressor is bitterness. That’s true in most cases, I think and that is what we are now experiencing in the South, is this initial response of bitterness which I hope will be transformed into a more brotherly attitude. We hope that the end will be redemption and reconciliation rather than division. But this, it seems to me, is a necessary phase of the transition from the old order of segregation and discrimination to the new order of freedom and justice. And this should not last forever, it’s just something that’s natural right now and as soon as we pass out of the shock period into the more creative period of adjustment, I think that bitterness and ill-will will pass away.

Heffner: Martin Luther King’s hope then was that bitterness and ill-will will pass away. Now, 31 years later, perhaps how to achieve the fallen leader objective will inform today’s OPEN MIND discussion with Black activist and civil rights attorney, C. Vernon Mason. And I appreciate your joining me here today, Mr. Mason.

Mason: Delighted to be here, Richard.

Heffner: In a sense to commemorate Martin Luther King’s contributions and I suppose the most appropriate way for me to begin this program is to ask whether you want, as Dr. King wanted, to contain aggressiveness sufficiently so that bitterness and ill-will will die away.

Mason: Well, I think first, just in paying tribute not only as a Black American but as a husband and a father, 1 had the privilege, Richard, of attending Morehouse College where Dr. King graduated. As a matter of fact, he is our most distinguished alumnus. And Dr. Mays, who was President at that time, was also the President when I attended. And the kind of soil that we were taught in at that institution is something that is still there. I mean the legacy not only was international and national, but it certainly was focused there in Morehouse College. And on a personal note, as well as, I guess, a political and spiritual note, he was someone who we have always held in the highest of esteem. As a young boy, growing up in Arkansas, I will never forget when he began his ministry in Montgomery, Alabama. And I was nine years old when Rosa Parks decided not to give up her seat. And from that time those of us who followed Dr. King were inspired by the kind of positions that he took in Montgomery and Selma and Birmingham and all those places. And he leaves a kind of philosophy and that was … it was an aggressive philosophy. I think people tend to not remember how aggressive he and his movement was in all of these places. You know, nobody in Montgomery, Alabama on the establishment’s side thanked him for what he did. Birmingham, Alabama, when you think about Bull Connor, when you think about Sheriff Jim Clark, none of those people threw out the red carpet for Dr. King. But I do think that it is extremely important, as we begin a different phase, say in New York and around the country, that we remember the kind of philosophy that he taught us. And try to do in terms of our freedom movement to continue that kind of philosophy because I think that it is, as King realized, something that is very, very important, ultimately in the transformation, that even though it will be resisted, that if we plan and strategize around a philosophy of brotherhood, around a philosophy of non-violence, that that ultimate goal of freedom and justice can be realized.

Heffner: To what degree do you think that Dr. King’s objectives have been realized in this country, at this time?

Mason: Well I think if you look at the South where I grew up, he transformed … mean the movement, the civil rights movement in the South was very, very successful. In terms of elected officials, in terms of public accommodations, if we look at my home town, Little Rock, Arkansas, now has a Black woman Mayor. When 1 was there, you may remember in ‘57, the Central High School with Ernest Greene and all the problems with Faubus and Dwight Eisenhower was the President. But if you look at any of those states, Birmingham, Alabama that used to be called “Bombingham”, Alabama and four little girls who were murdered there and Bull Connor was the Sheriff, or the Police Commissioner. Birmingham now has a Black Mayor. University of Mississippi, Black quarterbacks playing football at a place where James Meredith was not permitted initially to even come to school. So, if you look at all of those states … we look at the most recent nomination of Robert Bork, we can trace the kind of commitment and the kind of results that King’s movement had to those several White Southern Senators who voted against Bork. They lead that fight. That would have been unheard of thirty years ago. To have a Senator, I think it was Howell Heflin, from the state of Alabama to stand up in the Senate and to say that Robert Bork was an extremist. And that … I think numbers of those things, if we look at the transformation in the South, was as a result of the kind of movement that Dr. King inspired and lead.

Heffner: You’re a Southerner.

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: I’m a Northerner.

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: And I’m interested that you put your emphasis upon the progress that was made in the South.

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: Does that mean that you feel that progress has not been made, in equal steps, in the North?

Mason: I think the factual reality of that is that that is the case, Richard. I think that if we look at one of the comments that Dr. King made when he came to the North and we went particularly to Chicago and Cicero, Illinois, was that he had never seen the kind of hostility in all parts of the South that he’d met in areas of the North. We still have a ways to go, a long ways to go. Right now in New York City we have a movement which has a long ways to go in terms of, it’s different, it’s not the same. You know, when we look at public accommodations in the South, numbers of people came from the North to assist in that movement. People literally gave their lives, Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, Schwerner and Goodman from New York, literally came down and devoted their commitment, and some of them lost their lives in that struggle. But when we look at, well particularly New York City, it is something in which we have to address in that same kind of way. We have met with the same kind of resistance. But I am very optimistic that if people understand as they commemorate Dr. King, if they understand that these kinds of things are resisted and that some of the same kinds of names that he was called, “rabble-rouser”, “agitator”, the same kinds of editorials that are written, say in major papers, were written back then. But I don’t think we have made the same kind of progress, especially in New York where I reside, that was made and that has been made in the South.

Heffner: You know on other programs here on THE OPEN MIND, long since Dr. King’s time, there have been those Black friends who have said, “It is your objective, Heffner, to talk and think in terms of integration

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: … but not mine”, says one or another. What’s your point?

Mason: Well, I think that there’s been a great deal of misunderstanding. When I look at the school systems that existed in the South when I came up, those systems were segregated, but I had incredibly talented Black teachers. But for those Black teachers, I would not be … I would not have been able even to get to Morehouse and to Columbia and Indiana and other universities that I have been privileged to attend. But in a new system, numbers of those Black teachers were not hired, a number of those Black principals were not hired and I think that there was a tendency to believe that that could happen, segregation could go from integration and it would be fair and it would be equal and persons would be hired on the same basis. It’s another kind of struggle, Professor Heffner, and it is something that has to be addressed both in the South and the North. In terms of the ultimate concepts, what are we talking about in terms of democracy in America? All of us have to believe in that, all of us must strive for those ideals. One of the greatest legacies that King left us was to show clearly, say, the contradiction between how we had to live in the South, in particular during that time, and what the Constitution said. What the ideals of democracy when we were, say, fighting for democracy in World War II. One of the analogies that he made about people fighting, dying together in Vietnam, but they could not come and live together in America. And so I think that it is that constant tug between the ideals of the nation that I think we have to all address.

Heffner: But when I have spoken about integration as one of those ideals, I’ve been dismissed as a forties and fifties liberal. And that, indeed, integration was just a word, a phrase, a rallying cry that may not meet contemporary needs and I do wonder what your feeling is about that?

Mason: Well, if we look at … say something that strikes me as something that has to be dealt with and that is, housing. One of the problems that we’re experiencing, say in New York right now, is the fact that the neighborhoods that we have in numbers of places in this city, and this is around the country, are segregated. I mean segregated to the point where, if you walk in those neighborhoods, you may be at risk. That was the case with the Howard Beach situation. And, so I think that those barriers have to be broken down. We have to insist that the laws dealing with housing in desegregating neighborhoods, that that is something that we must insist upon as an ideal. When we look at the school systems around the country, it is not a matter of … a number of people got confused about this, whether or not there was the notion of being in the same, say educational environment. One of the thrusts that we had particularly in the South was, we didn’t have the same resources, financially. I think people confused integration, and I think a number of Southerners did also, Richard, I mean to be very fair about this – they confused integration with some of the objectives that people had in mind which was to get in the same environment where you would have equal access to equal resources. I don’t think it is a concept that should be discarded.

Mason: As a matter of fact, 1 think that in any pluralistic society that we live in, the ideal, the goal that we should be striving for, is not … is one in which all of us will appreciate our various backgrounds, our various cultures and that should be a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, pluralistic society and that best …. the best environment for nurturing that, is one where we’re all able to be together and to respect each other on an equal footing. I think there’s been a lot of confusion as to whether or not, if we’re talking about, say, my background or people of African descent’s background, meaning that if you are integrated you will lose all of that. That’s been one of the rubs, that’s been one of the sources of conflict. I don’t think that that’s necessary at all; I think that it is very, very positive to encourage the kinds of cultural diversity that we find in this country.

Heffner: Well you know when Tony Brown was at this table, I hadn’t met him before, but I guess, to him, I spoke like one of those old-time liberals who had not kept up with needs. And when he was through with what he said, I went back and watched our program, I read our transcript and I thought to myself, “this man is making a great deal of sense”. But he was moving away from an emphasis upon integration and as I though about it further, and I wonder what your comments would be

Mason: Sure.

Heffner: … it sounded more and more like “separate, but equal” was acceptable. And I wonder whether it is to or, are you saying, “in some part, at some places, as a stepping-stone, that notion is acceptable”?

Mason: No. I think that that may be the source of confusion. I know and respect Tony Brown greatly. I don’t think that that’s the point — separate, but equal. As we know, you know Plessy versus Ferguson was never a reality. There was never separate, but equal. I mean the Supreme Court said that, but I can tell you as a product of the environment in the South that our schools, the resources, were not equal to the White schools, and I think everyone understood that and that’s the way it was. I think what is being said, say in a place, schools when we look at Black schools, Morehouse College, and not just because I went there, not just because it has produced numbers of college presidents, Ph.D’s, preachers, doctors, lawyers. Not because of any of that but because it has shown in those other Black schools that we talk about in the United Negro College Fund, those schools have shown that they are able to take people such as myself, from little small towns in Arkansas and to be successful in teaching us, whereas other schools may not have been able to do that at all. What that says is we should not, say, in this thrust toward an ideal, dismiss those schools, dismiss those things that have worked, but that kind of positive input, those kinds of schools, those kinds of institutions have made tremendous contributions to this country.

Heffner: What you’re saying then is no matter what did exist in most instances in the South, it seems to me you are saying that separate, but equal can in certain instances be a productive, positive notion or experience.

Mason: Well, I don’t know if I would use the term. “Separate, but equal” has a tortured history.

Heffner: I know.

Mason: (Laughter) I don’t think I would call it that. I think what I would suggest is, is this. In this country, we have numbers of institutions that are, say, ethnically oriented, such as we have in New York City, Hofstra University, Yeshiva University. What I’m saying is this. That state—supported institutions, certainly those institutions must be integrated, they should be integrated. I’m saying at the same time, we should not dismiss cultural institutions, we should not dismiss Black colleges. I think Black colleges are one of the realities of 1988, is that most of the college graduates, Black college graduates who have been graduated even within the last ten years, have gone and graduated from Black colleges. A number of White institutions and universities have allowed entry, but they have not produced those graduates. And I’m saying we should reward those success models. Black church is another prime example, Richard, and that would be this, that in terms of that, I see absolutely no inconsistency between maintaining an institution, Black churches, that have been the only independent institutions in our communities for centuries, and having a culturally diverse society. Or a society who’s ideal is integration.

Heffner: Mr. Mason, I don’t want to draw a red herring

Mason: Sure.

Heffner: … across this trail, but I do need to ask you what your sense is of the charge that this America is still essentially a racist nation, however you want to interpret that.

Mason: Well, I think what we have to look at is if we look at the history of slavery. People don’t like to talk about this at all, they dismiss it as something that has no relevance to today. If we look at the fact that the vestiges, you know, it’s impossible, if we think about the fact that my people were, say, enslaved for almost two hundred and fifty years. It’s impossible to say, well, in 1988 we can all look at each other as if that did not happen. Then another hundred or so years and as a historian, you already know this, but another hundred years of really very, very intense segregation and discrimination. And then the civil rights movement, the really heavy movement that Dr. King led back in the fifties and on until he died in 1968, there are still very, very fundamental problems. There’s the problem of economic disparities, which is very, very great in this country. There’s the problem of, in the North in particular when this … in this city in particular, in New York, the economic oppression is there, the political differences in terms of elected offices that we don’t have, but I think if we look at what Dr. King was talking about, and I think this is where we’re able to transcend and to really transform a society, his concepts and notions of making democracy real, of really, actively trying to have the ideals of the nation be accomplished, not only in the South, but throughout the nation, then we have an incredibly sound philosophy to work with, toward not, say, beating the nation to death, or talking about … this is a … that goes without question that there is institutionalized racism in America, that there is racism within the criminal justice system … in all aspects of life in America. But there is also, say, unlike South Africa, we have a Constitution, and I think Justice Marshall made this very, very clear with his speech about the Bicentennial, when he talked about, we had amendments, we had the Civil War, but there is the notion of the evolution of a democracy. And I think those are the kinds of things that we need to look at and to focus on. Ring appealed to the best in us, Ring appealed to the best in the nation. Unfortunately, after his death, there seemed to almost have been a collective national nervous breakdown about those ideals, about those notions.

Mason: People even began to look at this, and people in high government, in particular, as out—dated, as obsolete. We’ve had some administrations in Washington that did not feel that these things were important at all. But the basis is there, the Constitution is there. The notion of an evolution in terms of the judiciary is there. And, so I think that the elements that are necessary to continue the unfulfilled dream of Dr. King remain very, very vibrant and it’s a matter of connecting those things, and one of the arguments that Eve been making in recent years, the religious community, the same thrust of that letter from Birmingham jail, addressed the notion of why the religious community was not more involved in this social transformation. And I think if we’d look at that – we have churches, we have people who remember these philosophies, and we have notions that we can and, I think, it is imperative that we must take these steps to really be active … or active participants in the legacy that he left.

Heffner: Mr. Mason what an up-beat note on which to end. And I afraid we have come to the end of our program. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Mason: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.