Capitol Hill Village Session on the Civil Rights Era
February 11, 2012
At the request of Capitol Hill Village, the Overbeck Project tape-recorded an informal session on February 11, 2012, that was organized as an opportunity for people with memories of the 1963 March on Washington to share their experiences. The event was held at the Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. About 40 people attended, including college students in American University's American Studies Program.
This transcript has been edited to remove references to attaching microphones. Other edits that appear in brackets represent corrections or clarifications for statements made at the original session.
TAPE 1/SIDE 1
KATIE MCDONOUGH: I wanted to thank you all for coming and driving through what was a temporary blizzard. It seemed very dramatic from the third floor of Hill Center. My name is Katie McDonough, I'm the executive director of Capitol Hill Village, and today is a very neat day, and how it came about was Julie [Maggioncalda, CHV Director of Volunteer & Social Services] and I actually made a visit to Pat Driscoll and were going over to chat with her about social work stuff and we got into this great conversation about what happened here on the day of the March on Washington. And it conjured up all these questions and stories that we thought, in honor of Black History Month, this month, that we would create a forum for folks to share, whether here or whether in other parts of the country, what was going on in their lives during the civil rights movement.
We also thought, as we do many times in that aesthetic, it would be wonderful to have this be an intergenerational exchange. Many of us who weren't around during that time hear about this only from textbooks, or other books that we read and most of us know that these are tumultuous times in history brought to live through individual stories. So we welcome today some students from the American Studies program who are here as a part of an internship program, they are here for a semester. Many of them are [college] juniors and seniors, they come from all over the country to do internships here, mostly in politics, rather than journalism. And we've been lucky enough at Capitol Hill Village to form a relationship with them over the years where they come and volunteer for us throughout their semester and many of them were actually at our pancake breakfast with the Rotary Club this morning and went home, took a rest, and came back to be with us this evening. So thank you again for coming, I am going to pass the baton over to Pat Driscoll, who is going to let you know what we'll be doing today.
PATRICIA TAFFE DRISCOLL: I'm hoping that we'll just be talking among ourselves about, to try to let everybody know what it was like here, and what it was like here in those days. I think what Katie was alluding to was my telling she and Julie that I didn't go the March. I stayed home and took care of a lot of kids, including Joan Keenan's kids, and I think the Parson kids, and the black family across the street, the Diggs kids, and we were here. It was a really miserably hot, hot afternoon, and we didn't have a pool or anything in the backyard, so I got one of those big galvanized washtubs out, and put water in it, and kids were splashing around in it, and . . . kids of various colors at various times, and the man who was head of the White Citizens Council who lived three doors down came out on his porch and looked over and saw an integrated pool, and yelled horrible things at us, told me I could not do that, to get that child out of there, or children out of there, because, "They'll pollute things." It was horrible. It was just awful.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you have a date and time?
PAT DRISCOLL: The date of Dr. King's talk. Yes, August 28th of 1963. Thank you for helping. I had that as a note to myself but I didn't remember. So this is 1963. And there was a bunch of people on the Hill, a lot of 30-somethings who had come in to work for the Kennedy administration and very idealistic and . . . and the schools at that point were still separate and unequal. And we got working, black and white parents, trying to make the schools equal. And good. And we worked quite effectively together on the tri-school plan and a couple of others. To make things good, so there were good feelings, and good cooperation in many areas, but there was also . . . the guy next -- two doors down, not next door.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What was the organization you mentioned? What was the White Citizens Council?
PAT DRISCOLL: White Citizens' Council. I don't know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I never heard of it.
PAT DRISCOLL: Count your blessings.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What -- I wanted to know what you did after the guy came out.
PAT DRISCOLL: He was obviously going to stay there, so Joan Keenan and I took the kids in, and we played inside, in a relatively unairconditioned house, and melted, but it was better than being outside. And I asked my now 52-year-old son what he remembered of that, and he didn't remember anybody yelling, but he sure remembered that big thing, that big tub, because it wasn't usually around, this galvanized thing, leftover from my mom, and he said, "I always wondered why we never interacted with those people very much like we did with the rest of the block." He said, "But I never knew the backstory." So he was -- so I think with that, it sort of sets what the tone was like -- enthusiastic and wanting to work together, wanting -- moving here because you wanted to live in a -- in an integrated neighborhood, and then . . . the very prejudiced people too. So I think it's important to get all different people's reaction to what things were like then. So, who would like to be next up?
JOAN KEENAN: [showing a framed photograph taken at the march]
This is very treasured in our family. My husband was on the March. One thing Pat didn't say, which I feel is sort of important to say because shows the time was very different, it was the moms who stayed home, and it was the dads who marched. But Frank was -- I can't remember the story of this, but he got this picture, now of course not framed, a day or two after the March, and then discovered that it was illegal to have been sold, because it's copyrighted by I suppose [UPI] or AP, and I have not ever seen this exact one myself. So this is a treasure from the March. From which I stayed home [laughter]. Marguerite, would you tell your White Citizens Council story?
MARGUERITE KELLY: Well, my husband was a -- I'm Marguerite Kelly, and my husband Tom was a reporter then covering the March . . . for the little Washington Daily News tabloid. We were always the "third-paper-in-town" people. And I wanted to go on the March, and he was not in favor of it. The OB was really not in favor of it, because I had a baby a week later, and he said I had to stay home, so under there, Katy, is that picture of you, many years ago. [Her daughter Katy shows the photograph.]
So a gal named Jane Horton lived down the street, was with -- her husband was the AA for a Georgia congressman, so she and I decided to have free lemonade for freedom marchers. And we baked a lot of cookies, and bought some freezer wrap for my daughter Katy here, and she painted "Free Lemonade for Freedom Marchers" and my husband hung it out the second floor window and hung the flag and the neighbors were unhappy, some of them. One neighbor didn't speak to us for two years, in fact. And all day long we gave out cookies, and they quickly ran out, and kept buying cookies and buying cookies. This was the picture of the kids -- Kate made two signs, isn't that nice? That's Kate now, that's where she was -- there [laughter].
But let me give you a little picture of what the Hill was like, because we came here in -- I was 21, in 1953, and realized that we had to take care of Tom's parents, so we moved into the house and paid the rent there instead, and took care, and I stayed home and it was -- I grew up. And it was a white -- mostly white -- neighborhood, the little ladies, mostly older, about my [current] age, wore white gloves and a hat to go to Grubb's and the National Capitol Bank. They were very proud of my husband's father, who used to have a bar downtown, and they said, "It's wonderful that he stopped drinking," and I said, "He didn't drink, he owned a bar, you don't own a bar and drink, you know." "Oh yes, he did." I said, "No, he had a shot of Irish every night." "Oh no, he drank. He was Irish, you know." [laughter] So this was the family that cracked the block, right. And every house on the Hill with the exception of Friendship House, which was washed brick, at Sixth and D [SE], and the house I live in now at Fifth and Constitution [NE] was [un]painted. Every other house was dark red dirty brick. Every house. And when we -- after Tom's parents died, we painted the front of our house gray, and another neighbor stopped speaking to us for two years, like, "Isn't it good enough for you?"
I mean it was -- it was really something, and the Restoration Society, which was basically a group started by a couple of key realtors, they got -- let me think how it went . . . it was all white, I was the secretary for one year, and I brought -- and this was maybe 1959? And I brought a friend of mine to the meeting, she asked if she could go, and wanted to join, I said fine, I signed her up, and she was black. And I was never -- that was in October, and I was never called on for the rest of the year, could wave my hand no matter what. It was not a pretty scene, really.
But there was so much hope, and so much enthusiasm, that we're going to fix this, and we're going to fix it right now. Joan [Keenan] was so active in League of Women Voters and Brent School, but we couldn't get anything going at Peabody School next door. I mean, and we went down to the -- I remember some of us went down to the city and said, to the head of elementary education, "Fix all of our schools." And we could only do one at a time. Garfield Park, the street that divided it white and colored, had been closed, but Marion Park was still divided, white and colored. And we had to do a petition to get it -- to get the street closed, to get the street closed, it used to be open.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The street was closed? [uncertain meaning; possibly "was Fifth Street SE open through Marion Park at one time?"]
MARGUERITE KELLY: Yeah. Marion Park.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: One was white, one was black?
MARGUERITE KELLY: Well, that's what -- that was what it was originally done. And of course there were two schools for everything, the community garden on Sixth Street at Constitution was a school [Hilton]. For the -- it was a colored school. Peabody was the white school. I mean, it was -- we had left New Orleans without jobs, because I said, "I don't want to live in a segregated city." We came to Washington. [laughter] But I'd like Katy to talk about what it was like growing up as a kid here.
KATY KELLY: I'd like to say I don't let my mom cut my hair anymore. [laughter] The day of the March, I remember it a lot like your [Pat Driscoll's] son, from a -- totally from a kid's point of view. I was seven. And I remember -- and you can see we were pretty scrappily dressed -- but all these people in church clothes, like gloves, pocketbook, tie, the men in jackets, hats. And it was so hot, it was unbearably hot, and even to us, with water and in skimpy clothes. And it just seemed like it went on and on and on, and I think it did, forever, until we were running out, and some -- every so often, and we, naturally, because we took it . . . free lemonade! And lots of people were really nice and thankful and some people, you know, would have nothing to do with us, so there was also -- obviously a lot of anger, in there too. But it was -- it was a really interesting -- kind of -- I mean I certainly was much older by the time I . . . put it together.
It also reminds of my dad. His was good perspective, when he was three, his first sort of public memory, was the KKK marching down the front of the same house, because he was born in that house. And his -- someone knocked on the door, and his mother, who had a brogue, right, and the man wanted water, and he was a marcher, and she gave him water, and she was scared. And she gave him water for that reason, I guess, and she -- but she shut the door and she said, "You'd have to give water to a dog on a day like this." And then my father's whole takeaway was you should give water to dogs [laughter]. But he also, you know, obviously didn't -- it's the looking back, and I'm sure it is even, you're 52 [laughter].
But yeah, it was just such a . . . different time, I mean people did dress more then, but it was such a serious -- and ladies were walking in these high heels that would kill you, you know the style of the times, pointy shoes and stiletto heels, and children. But mostly adults, lots of men. Anyway, it was -- I felt, looking back, really lucky to have been in that place at that time, and glad Mom didn't get to go to the March because you probably wouldn't have taken us and then it would have been really hot at the Driscoll's house [laughter] but it was really -- I mean I can picture it in my head to this day, it just, exactly like -- and mostly in the middle, purses . . .
MARGUERITE KELLY: Can you remember going to -- getting taken out of school to go see Hubert Humphrey, who managed the civil rights conference or . . .
KATY KELLY: There were a few Hubert Humphrey times. I remember being with you when the District could first vote, and you were passing out stuff at Hine. And I always thought I got to stay out of school for that, but I think now looking at it, it probably was election day and schools were closed, but I felt very lucky about it [laughter]. But anyway -- it just, looking back, it is such a different time and it's . . . such a different time, from even . . . I don't feel that old, but . . .
MARGUERITE KELLY: There was a reason, though, that there was so much anger in the city on the part [of] blacks. I was a ward leader, for the Democrats, it was my proudest moment, and I did a piece for the Washingtonian in '67, and I'd quit, the riots were clearly coming, and we had caught the Safeway upping the prices on welfare day, the first of the month, lowering them on the 15th of the month, upping them on the first, on -- stores without chain competition. And when I drove through the riots I was getting to go on H Street and the first store that went up -- Safeway. There was just such -- I would have to go across town to buy chickens and milk, because everything was dated by code, it was dated by code. And I did a story breaking the code after the clerk told me, "Oh, well you know how it is. Well, yeah, your chicken goes bad the next day, because, well, when it's getting old we just soak it in baking soda and water overnight and then we rinse it the next morning and we wrap it up and we weigh it again, because it weighs a little more, and sell it." And it was . . .
KATY KELLY: That wasn't happening in Northwest?
MARGUERITE KELLY: That's -- no, I think we got the old chickens.
KATY KELLY: [Laughing] Bare chickens.
MARGUERITE KELLY: And the old milk. I mean, the milk would go bad in two days. I had to go across town to get kids' books at Cleveland Park Library. They had a lot of children's books at Northeast, but there were only 40 titles -- there were a lot of copies of Pell's New Suit, for instance. Remember Pell's New Suit?
JOAN KEENAN: That's a great book. [Laughter]
MARGUERITE KELLY: It gets really boring after a while. And -- I mean I would just get rigid with anger and I wrote this story, and it was very long and I'm sure very tedious, and I -- the Washingtonian wouldn't run it. The publisher said, "Well, I walked down the street, and I looked at my public school, and it was perfectly fine." And he lived on Foxhall Road. And it was such hope, in 1963, when we had that March, and by '67, it just seemed like . . . despair, you know, it would never change. It was just waiting for the riots, I thought.
KATY KELLY: I'll sit down right after this, but the riots that -- when Dr. King was assassinated . . . I was older then, and Mom picked us up at school, and she drove the carpool. We went to school in -- up at Tenleytown, and Mom drove the carpool, which was not really a carpool, because she was the only driver, but there were tons and tons of kids and . . . not, you know, I think we may have even had seatbelts in that car, but it wasn't something anybody thought of actually putting on. So we were already like 13 kids in the car, and the -- in coming home, and you know the smoke was coming up and stuff, and there were lots of black women at bus stops who -- government workers, maybe? Dressed up, and you know, working people, and, so, Mom put us all in the back, in the little three-seat, you know back of the station wagon, and then the ladies came in and lap-sat, so tight -- I mean the illegalness of that car must still be a record, that so many people were in it. And then, and of course in the front, with Mom, and I imagine Nell. But, anyway, Mom dropped us off and drove them up to Benning Road, and . . .
MARGUERITE KELLY: The District line, we didn't -- it wasn't -- they weren't taking people anywhere in the suburbs. And they all lived in the suburbs. And they drove into the city, to the District line, and took a bus in. They were trying to get to their cars.
KATY KELLY: So, anyway -- it was -- that stuck with me, and Mom was so casual about it I didn't take the whole riot thing -- this is very Mom, for those who know her, she said, "Well, watch the other kids and make a pecan pie" [laughter]. So I did. Things are always better with pecan pie. I think we all know that. [Laughter.] But anyway. So I did. But -- and relatives, our relatives, are calling in hysterics, all of Mom's brothers, and her sister. And Aunt Louise, and oh, it went on, you know, we had to go to Falls Church for safety, and Mom said that was nonsense, we were staying at our house.
MARGUERITE KELLY: You know, they said there would be a Molotov cocktail put in my car . . . I was this white lady coming into town, and something bad would happen . . .
KATY KELLY: Anyway, I'm so -- I feel really lucky that I have those memories.
BILL DRISCOLL: I'll offer my impressions of having been at the March and down on the National Mall. I'm going to give some impressions about having been on the March and having been at the Lincoln Memorial for the speech itself, but some of the things people are talking about of the atmosphere, particularly at the other end of this period, the day of the riots, also struck me, you might be interested in. [There] was a short-lived organization here on the Hill called Capitol Hill Community Council. And one of the things, one of the objectives, we thought, was to kind of bridge the difference between the Citizens Council and the Civic Group. And we were having a meeting up on D Street NE. It was purposed, you know. The people from the Civic Group and the Citizens Group. And it was in 1968. And about halfway through the meeting someone reports that Dr. King had been assassinated. Total silence, people just folding up their papers, just left. And of course the next day, we all know what -- what went on the next day. And it was so different, as I'm sure you'll hear from some of the other folks, so different from the atmosphere in August of 1963.
PAT DRISCOLL: I'm going to comment on that, too. I was at a meeting, just a very quick note, I was at a meeting too, we had the Babysitting Co-op, and they were taking care of our children, and I was at a different meeting, a schools meeting, and again we were meeting in a black woman's home in Northeast. On the day that Dr. King was killed. And we had started the meeting and were talking about this tri-school plan and how we were going to make it work and we found out that Dr. King had been killed, and nobody knew -- you couldn't work anymore, that was it. But we all said an Our Father for Dr. King, and everybody left. It just -- we figured that was a common prayer that everybody could say, and then just -- everybody left with tears in their eyes.
BILL DRISCOLL: I don't know whether it's since I'm on my feet, or that people want to hear about the March itself, and I'm sure that the others here . . .
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1
BILL DRISCOLL: Well, on that day I had been working in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, and I was a government employee like so many others. And I think many of us, in this neighborhood particularly, but throughout, had been involved in Resurrection City, in the Poor People's March, and activities like that, and had heard about this guy, this preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., and I think some of us were pretty curious to see, because here was an opportunity to see him firsthand, face to face, and hear what he had to say. And so, without any by your leave, people just kind of took the afternoon off.
And going from, I'd say, Dupont Circle neighborhood down to the Memorial. And the atmosphere was really quite interesting, it was not so much holiday, but it was good-natured, you know. For the most part, these were white folks coming downtown but the group kind of broadened and solidified, and it was just good-natured, you know, it was sort of a holiday thing, and just the opportunity to be together and to hear this was something I think that really energized a lot of the people. We got down there and of course, for some unexplained reason, I was really -- wound up on the top of the steps pretty close to the dais there and of course there's people all over down there around the Reflecting Pool. And I was -- I'm sure I wasn't as close to the speaker as I remembered being at the time [laughter] but I guess my only reaction at that time was that I was aware that I was really present for a remarkable moment in American history. It was pretty rewarding.
BERNADETTE MCMAHON: I have a question. Did people know in advance that this was going to be a historical moment?
BILL DRISCOLL: I think -- I think yeah, I think a lot of people felt that way, yeah, absolutely.
IDA PROSKY: I was working for the Washington Post, and I was told not to come to work if I was scared, because many people were -- because they thought the city would explode. And when I got to work, you know, it was very quiet. There weren't too many people working at the Post that day, but, you know, it was easy to get a bus, there were not too many people on the bus, and there was no problem at all. I mean, what I had been told by people at the Post is that those black people are going to come in here, and you don't know what's going to happen, because they don't know how to behave. That really was the attitude of that paper. It was a surprise. Bob was home, he was working at Arena [Stage] by then, and he heard the speech, and when I got home, he said, "You really missed it. That was really a remarkable speech. You know, people are going to be hearing that forever."
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Did you go to work?
PROSKY: I went to work, yeah. You know, I was the working person in the family at that point. [laughter] He was -- he was at Arena, but he hadn't got the salary yet.
PAT DRISCOLL: This is Mr. Larry Pearl, who was there.
LARRY PEARL: If you're Monty Python fans, you remember they would start the show sometimes with "Now for something completely different." [laughter]
I'd like to think that I would have gone to the March if I had a choice. My first wife and I lived in Brightwood, which was an integrated neighborhood, which we had moved into intentionally. There were blacks and whites on our block. We had a three-year-old and a four-month-old. So perhaps I wouldn't have gone. However, in 1959, when I graduated from law school, I was 25, and in those days you were subject to the draft until you were 26. This was before Vietnam, so there really wasn't much of a risk of being drafted, but I worked in a Washington law firm, and one of the people in the firm, not a lawyer, worked with the National Guard, actually volunteered with the Guard, I think it was in the band, actually. And he told me that he could get me into the Guard, he could get me into the headquarters detachment, which meant a clerk's job, instead of a grunt's job, and I said fine.
And I went to Fort Knox, in the end of '59, six months active duty, and after you do your active duty you go to weekly drills, down at the Armory, and then you have five-and-a-half years of service. Let's see now, five-and-a-half plus '59 . . . the only time we were ever called up was August 28, 1963. They gave us nightsticks, and sort of told us what to expect. The Guard was integrated in those days, as the military were going back to -- going back to the 40s, Harry Truman, 50s I should say. And what I remember -- we were stationed on the very edge, it wasn't even the edge of the crowd. The gentlemen was talking about the Reflecting Pool, we were way beyond the Reflecting Pool, in fact, we were on the east side of the Washington Monument, and if I remember correctly, we were on the east side of 15th Street. So what we saw was people going to the March, mainly.
And the most exciting thing was telling them where the port-o-johnnies were [laughter]. But what I remember was the white police. Remember the metropolitan police in those days were basically all white? And they were on duty with us, and the comments they made, and the racist, obscene comments they made, I will never forget. Now, I worked in civil rights at HUD for more than 30 years in fair housing, subsequently, so I like to think I would have been involved in the March voluntarily, but instead that's the way I was there, and that's what I remember.
PAT DRISCOLL: I think Margaret Hollister and her son were also there.
PAUL HOLLISTER: So, I was 13, and just to say that it was not the case that in most -- in all -- families the woman stayed home and the man went, because in our family the man stayed home and the woman took me along with her and went. My mother was very active and I remember later seeing Dick Gregory, and anyway, there was a little bit of talk about danger here before the March. I mean, I think that some people picked it up. There was -- I think that was some of where my father was coming from, is, there's a danger of being hurt out there, you know, and as soon as you came to the March that dissipated pretty quickly, but there was that tenor in the air, and I, you know, don't remember that much, most of it's probably coming from the accounts later, but even as a 13-year-old, you knew something big was happening. You knew that something that was new was happening. We were very liberal of course, but the idea that, you know, blacks and whites would actually be together in a major crowd doing something together was just totally new. That didn't happen, blacks and whites together in a big crowd doing something together. Even as a 13-year-old, that struck me as very new, so it was very exciting. Mom, you want to tell a little bit about your experience at the March?
MARGARET HOLLISTER: Paul has always been a hard act to follow. [laughter] Thank you. At that time I was a social worker at the Christ Child Institute in Maryland. And the word was out that nobody should go to this March. It was just plain too dangerous. Or it was the danger of the unknown, basically, as you point out, it was a totally new feeling to be getting up there and speaking or being there, even, to say hey, you know, things have to change. But there was a little uneasiness in the air, in fact, a lot, and as you walked up toward the Lincoln Memorial, you were waiting for something to happen, just plain happen. Because you were there under -- with some risk, and a lot of people were there walking, stepping sort of purposely toward the monument.
And fortunately we got there early so we were sort of in the front, and I still remember walking into the sort of circle near Martin Luther King. Things changed. Things changed at once. It was as if the tension were gone and you were completely absorbed in the occasion with this man standing here, with his guards behind him, and Lincoln behind it all, and like Paul, I can remember the feeling that something big was happening, and it was important to be there whatever happened. And walking into the presence of Martin Luther King is one of -- I'm 94, and it's one of the major experiences of my life, is just being there and watching that man be himself. It didn't matter what he said, it was the fact that he was talking to a lot of people who were there for him. And for each other. And I would have to say that I don't think I've been to any public event as consequential as that one.
PAT DRISCOLL: This is Joe Cooney, who marched at Selma, and did a lot of things.
JOE COONEY: Oh, well, you tell me. I can talk forever [laughter]. I subsequently worked for Dr. King but let me put something in context if I may. I'll tell you a little bit about myself. I came to Washington to law school in '55 and found it an absolutely segregated city. A law student -- a black law student at Catholic University, where I was, he had us pretend he was a Puerto Rican so he could go to the movies on the first floor, all blacks had to go to the balcony. So it was pretty bad. So I ended up going to the seminary after two years of law school for a lot of -- for, that being one of the reasons. This country was divided, really, it was terribly divided.
I came back here in the 60s and I ended up with what was Interracial Conference, was clerics, mostly, Catholics and Protestants here in the city, New York Presbyterian, and I was in the seminary after the Dominicans and the Jesuits. We participated in various things in the city going on at the time, including, I remember picketing the Justice Department and so forth.
So I missed the March in '63, but let me tell you why, put that in context. In the 60s, there was a real dilemma in the black community of how to respond to the situation. We had SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced "snic"], we had Malcolm X, we had Stokely Carmichael, we had a lot of people who were saying the only justice is out of the barrel of a gun. There was a real division going on. And there was other people like Dr. King and a lot of ministers who said no, we have to go the nonviolent route. He had been trained partly by the Quakers in a place in North Carolina that the whites all considered communist. So he was trained in nonviolence, and he -- there was a struggle going on in the black community between violence and nonviolence. You have to put in the March on Washington in that context. At that time, I recall, who was it, I think it was Stokely that said, "We should burn down Harlem -- move out of Harlem into Central Park and burn down Harlem." And all this demagoguery. Oh, it was pretty bad. And don't think it wasn't, it was really bad.
And along came the March, that was an opportunity for really Dr. King and the nonviolent side to indicate to the whites and to get some power, to really show, as you said, something happening. And the thing about the March on Washington, it was the blacks and whites together. That's what really worked.
So I wasn't here, but what I did was, subsequently, in '65, Dr. King and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] had a project that was called Community -- yeah, it was Community Organization and Political Education [full name: Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project, in Atlanta, a project of the SCLC]. In the south, at the same time SNCC was organizing in the south. And I don't know if you would remember this, the operations going on with SNCC, and there were a lot of other things, the Freedom Rides were going on, there was a lot of violence in the south, and the question was what to do about it. So the -- here's the nonviolent side, Dr. King representing the ministers, and the whites, on both sides, as I said here in Washington, DC, most of the religious community, blacks, whites, I mean the Cathedral and the Presbyterians, the Catholics, the Jewish congregations, everybody, the Quakers especially, were all behind this nonviolent approach.
And one of the things, though, in the south, that Dr. King had this volunteer organization going around to try to get blacks to register. There was all -- they were excluded. No one knew when to register. At that time there was no Voting Rights Act at all, so anyway, guys like me ended up -- I was still a cleric, okay, and we ended up going down, meeting Dr. King at Clark College and the whole area there near Morehouse -- and we went and we were trained for about three or four days with Bayard Ruskin and Dr. King and Andrew Young and so forth. They trained us all in nonviolence -- this whole business.
And did I skip -- I skipped something here. I skipped the fact that I was in Selma, too. The -- before that, all right, the -- what happened then, I don't know if you know, when you first march, when John Lewis started the first march, all right, he went from the black community and tried to go over the bridge, Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery, and that Sunday the police met him and there was the horrible -- you've seen the pictures, and -- of the violence that occurred, the state police, the highway patrol. Now, what happened was that day, Dr. King was not in the first march, that was led by John Lewis.
That day, Dr. King called the Interracial Conferences in the north, the people who had been in the March, in '63, the people who really were interested in doing something, he called as many as he could, and, including the people here in Washington, and Interracial Conference people that I knew, I was particularly, I was a young guy and there was a guy by the name of Richard McSorley who was a Jesuit chaplain over at Georgetown University. He wanted to go with Baroni [Msgr. Geno Baroni, Roman Catholic priest and social activist] and other people including Ralph Dwan who was in -- he recently passed away on the Hill, who was a cleric at that time. Dr. King was asking the people to come down to Selma to march. And that's when the -- Daugherty, I think his name was Daugherty -- the pastor of New York Presbyterian and Baroni and a lot of others went down, flew down, and I ended up asking my superior at that particular time, who happened to be available, if I could go, and lo and behold he said yes. He paid my way, here I am, a nobody, as far as clerics are concerned, and he paid for me to go down there.
What I did, I flew down there and we rented a car and went over there, got there about -- this was on Tuesday, immediately this was the -- after the Sunday, Tuesday, this was called, Tuesday, the second -- the third day, one, two, three, how you look at it. And we went over there, went over the bridge and got to Brown's Chapel [Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL], and this whole area where it actually was a segregated part of town, and we were mingling around and I don't know how -- there wasn't -- Brown's Chapel was just about filled at that time. I think not much more than that, it couldn't have been more than, I don't know, it couldn't have been more than about 200 people, and most of them were somehow associated with church groups. They were the only ones who could really take off and just go. They weren't working [laughter], it wasn't Sunday or whatever, or Sabbath.
So we ended up there, and there were still -- you could still smell the teargas from the previous Sunday, and anyway . . . we ended up -- it was all confusion, no one knew what was going on, there were people singing things, you know, black and white together, and Climbing Jacob's Ladder and everything, talking from the stage in this Brown's Chapel, and we were waiting for what's going on, no one knew what was going on, we were just there, and finally -- and they had people there who were saying "don't come to the march unless you're prepared to not use violence," and so forth and so on. They had people going around, they had white armbands on these were . . . so, but anyway, finally Dr. King and others who just, were going to lead the march, they came out to the stage and insisted to everybody, no violence, no violence, stay away if you're going to fight, and can't put up with this, so we ended up going out and going down the street, and, you know, they had these guys with white armbands on on either side, every ten people, supposedly, to make sure that they don't react, and so forth and so on.
I remember one thing I thought was the funniest thing. There were some guys there that had kind of Red Cross stuff. And they had a hearse with a red cross on it that was supposed to be an ambulance. But anyway, so, we're proceeding there, and there were a lot of white guys there at this particular time, who -- I didn't know what was going on. But anyway, we ended up going down, very quiet, much, you know, much -- a lot of tension, everybody. So we ended up going down and Dr. King gets to the bridge, and he kneels down, and everybody kneels down, and they start praying, and everybody's "what's this about?" you know. So finally, Dr. King gets up and he turns around, and leads us all back to Brown's Chapel.
Well, you're saying, "what's going on here?" "we're down here to march," and you know, so forth. Well, it turns out, of course, that one of the white guys that we're watching is John Doar, I don't -- you know who John is, who at that time is in the civil rights section of Justice, very impressive Republican from Wisconsin, I think it was, who, about 6'2" or 6'3", and he had, they had been negotiating all day with the White House, and Johnson himself, they say, arranging that if you don't go over the bridge today, we'll provide the Army when you do go. So subsequently, when they did have the march, you know, they have the United States Army there, and they had helicopters even, on the way into town.
But I wanted to put this in the -- at that time, there was lots of tension going on, I think, [Viola] Liuzzo, she was a volunteer from Detroit who was shuttling people back and forth, was killed, and Reverend [James] Reeb, and I think that's about it at that particular time. But there was a lot of tension in the south. And the real thing, the real question, for us, as far as I'm concerned, was what side are you on? And are you going to participate? You're going to be a part of the problem or you're going to be part of the solution. Just whatever it is you can do, just go in. So after that, I end up going down, since I was still a student, I end up going down before I went back to law school to finish my third year, I ended up going back and working in the south for SCLC, that's when I met, personally met Dr. King and Bayard and Reverend [James] Bevel, and who else, somebody, a couple others, and working for the whole summer.
If you can imagine traveling -- my assignment was in Georgia, traveling around, it had lots of funny things, mostly a lot of tensions, a lot of bravery on the part of the people that hosted myself and others. I can tell you one story, for example, about the tension. I became a cleric by this time, and the Archdiocese [of] Atlanta knew where I was, and the football team, the Catholic football team in Atlanta was out illegally practicing at this state park, and during the summer and -- the chancery says we're not sending anybody out there to save Nashville, we'll have this guy out there. So myself and a guy I was working with at the time, Dr. [Bill] Vogel, who was from Clark College up in -- somewhere in New England -- and I snuck into the back way, into the park, and, anyway, we slept over in our sleeping bags that night, and then, in the morning, I, you know, do the liturgy, and I see this guy up on the top of the hill looking down and so forth, and when I finish, I go over . . . the coach of the football team was a giant, as far as I was concerned, they were trembling, he says, "You have to leave, you have to leave!" The policeman says he can't protect the kids while you're here.
That kind of stuff was going on. The whites were afraid of getting killed and so forth. So I went back there and worked around trying to get people to register, going down to -- if you can imagine, trying to get blacks to go down to register in the courthouse, it was really quite dangerous for a lot of reasons, and the abuse that I got was out of sight. And the FBI had to come in at least two times for me, and we used to march every Sunday to the city hall and have some sermons and preachers and stuff like that. And looking back now, it's very interesting. It's very much a contrast between the peaceful situation here in Washington and when we were marching down there. There were no feds around, there were no policemen. In Columbus [Georgia] it was pretty interesting. So I was there two summers.
But then what I want to say to anyone here, is Washington was a really bad scene. Really bad scene. Don't let anyone tell you differently, as far as I'm concerned, because in '68 when Dr. King was killed, I was living up here on 11th and Lincoln Park, and there was no one white -- hardly anyone white east of Eighth Street, or Sixth Street. And, you know, it was pretty bad. They burned a lot, I don't know, you can see the pictures about that. But one of the things I was -- myself, we had opened up a legal services at that time right there, University Legal Services. Our neighbors wrote "SOUL" on the side of the door. So no one bothered us. And I drove around in a pickup truck with a cross taped with masking tape on the side of the door.
And they had, here in Washington, DC, they had a curfew, actual curfew, police. And they had at Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill, on the Capitol stairs -- around the Capitol, they had the Marines, and they actually had sandbags with machine guns. It was really that bad. Not only that -- our place, we were right there, was, after they started to burn and everything, our place was a distribution point for food in the neighborhood. They knew we were there. At five o'clock or after five o'clock one day, when we were unloading the food that the city had given us to distribute, and I'm there in my T-shirt, and guys are helping me, all black, and I turn around and look into the barrel of a shotgun. Policemen with helmets on, and a jeep with a busload of police with -- and the paratroopers from North Carolina were patrolling the city, and I -- we were . . .
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
TAPE 2/SIDE 1
JOE COONEY: H Street [NE] was burning, and so was upper Seventh and 14th Street [NW], and over in Anacostia. There was smoke all over the city. And I actually took a flight out to Atlanta to the funeral, and when I got to Atlanta, everything was different. People were at the airport and shuttled us into town without -- nobody paid, and the city was wide open. People were there for a funeral. And I met my friends, who I'd worked with out in Crawfordville [Georgia] and we went and we were across the street from the church, and when they buried Dr. King it was interesting -- I don't know if you've seen the pictures, they actually had a farm cart pulled by mules, and then Young and all of the leaders of SCLC were in coveralls, bibs, overalls with bibs, because of course -- they wore that at the funeral, but during most of the marches when Dr. King was marching, he actually wore a blue denim bibs, coveralls, because so often they would manhandle him, and manhandle other people in the crowd.
The important thing about it is, after that, that time, you know, we went backwards in the city, I think, in many ways, the blacks and whites weren't able to work together because there was an uprise of violence in this community and so forth. But you all don't remember the Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and all of that, there was a potential violence there that -- so, I think it's a time of hope now, and certainly no one would believe, I don't think even Dr. King would believe that Obama would ever be elected at this -- I certainly never thought it would happen in my time. So there are miracles. And I think that's one miracle that has helped American society, and I'm happy that my story illustrates it because here we're black and white together here, that's my wife Marie over there. So thanks, it's a pleasure to talk to you.
PAUL HOLLISTER: I wonder for the benefit of some of the other folks, what the various initials were you were using.
JOE COONEY: Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC is Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
MARGUERITE KELLY: That's a very, very -- the first time I met him, he was with SNCC here, and he had a T-shirt, and he only wore that T-shirt.
PAUL HOLLISTER: CORE?
JOE COONEY: Congress of . . . Racial Equality. And you should also know about the Deacons. You didn't know -- you probably never heard of the Deacons, but that was a black organization in the south that believed the only solution to violence was -- to white violence, was black violence. The only way. So that was -- it was real. I don't know, I guess I'm speaking to the younger folks here and not so much us.
MARGUERITE KELLY: But I remember so vividly as a volunteer at Bobby Kennedy's headquarters, and the local group, and I got home -- everybody is at the National Cathedral, the president, the vice president, every member of the Cabinet, every member of the Supreme Court, and almost every member of Congress. And I had a phone call and said, "I'm down at 14th and U, lady, will you send a speaker? We have a riot." And it was nobody in charge of the town. They were all at the National Cathedral. Including people who ran my office. And it was astonishing, it took me two hours to get me from what is now the Vietnam Memorial to the National Gallery.
JOE COONEY: Oh yeah, well the -- you all probably don't remember, but there was also barbed wire around the gas station and National Guard and paratroopers. The city was -- they also had some -- whites wanted to come in from outside and straighten things out when Murphy, who was the police commissioner at the time. And what he did was standard operating procedure. He got criticized for it later, but when the riot begins, you take your individual patrolmen, your ones and two patrols, you take them back and you reassemble them into larger groups, because the way you control crowds or anything larger than an ordinary crime situation is intimidation. Because you have to have overwhelming force or the rioters will over --
MARGUERITE KELLY: They were so out of control, I was coming in on Maryland Avenue, delivering people home, and there were all these kids running over to the gas station filling up Coke bottles . . . and throwing them over my car so I rolled up windows, I locked my doors . . . and then cop cars would go out and say, "Stop doing that," but they didn't slow down because they needed them and they were so outnumbered. And I was sort of like Mardi Gras. It was . . . the kids were laughing but there wasn't any sound because I couldn't hear the damnedest thing. And the -- it was a beautiful day, and there was so much smoke in the air, thousands of feet. There was so much smoke in the air that the Capitol and the Washington Monument were blind to the District.
LARRY PEARL: If you can imagine smoke over -- burning, it was burning two days, two or three days.
MARGUERITE KELLY: And we couldn't go -- I had various precinct captains, and one of them [Ray Gamble] had one [child] and seven foster children and they lived on G Street [NE]. And I called [him] and said, "Can I pick you up and bring you back?" The family said, "Not yet," and back and forth, every half hour. I called John [Anthony] and he finally called me at 10:30 and said, "It's okay, the firemen stopped the fire at my back fence."
From our back bedroom, my husband was staring at H Street where he hung out as a kid, and they were coming down. At one point, we were sitting there talking, [heard] banging on the door . . . I go down, and there was a very large black man there, and that was the first time I was scared, because it was just out of context, it was 11 at night. And he puts up a peace sign, he was a precinct worker, and he said, "I just wanted to make sure you're okay." And I said, "Have you eaten?" He hadn't eaten, and we had meat, and we hadn't eaten, and we had one TV in our bedroom, and so we all sat on my grandmother's four-poster bed and ate sandwiches and watched TV at two in the morning. And then he went out and said, "I have to go check on the others." But I said, "We can't, it's curfew," and he said, "I have to go."
PAUL HOLLISTER: I remember that pretty soon after the March on Washington, it didn't start getting to what you refer to as -- I think that was in '64. And that was clearly another thing -- it was taking another turn here. This -- in the 60s, it was all integration, we're all together, and then they quickly moved on and that -- I was a young liberal and I was like, wait a second. That sounds scary. So I mean, I think that, from '64 on, it was already, there was a . . . you know, it wasn't always together and stuff, there were some different approaches coming out.
MARGUERITE KELLY: Particularly by '67.
PAUL HOLLISTER: And by '67 for sure.
JOE COONEY: Yeah, if you go down -- I don't so much recently but several years ago you would go down H Street, and there were a lot of empty -- vacant lots. And that's where there used to be buildings and businesses and so forth and it used to be that way up on Seventh Street and other places. And now some of the newer places you see are -- indicate that they were burned down.
MARGUERITE KELLY: The Shakespeare Theatre [now the Lansburgh Theatre, home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, then the Lansburgh department store]. I watched it go up in flames.
JOE COONEY: And over at Lincoln Park, there used to be a drugstore there.
MARGUERITE KELLY: Peoples.
PAUL HOLLISTER: And you know, SNCC . . . in particular started to be critical of Dr. King. Very much. There was a strong split that developed near the end of the black movement itself, you know, so things were starting to get . . .
KATIE MCDONOUGH: What was the nature of that split?
MARGUERITE KELLY: Violence and nonviolence.
PAUL HOLLISTER: I think it was violence and nonviolence and I think it was also integration versus a sort of black -- black power. That blacks would have to do it themselves. We don't want to get integrated into your system, in a certain sense. I mean, that was just one little split going on there.
JOE COONEY: Yeah, the second summer I worked, for example, down there in Georgia, we had what was called freedom of choice. They were trying to integrate the school systems. Now, the funny part about it is that the beginning of that year, that was '66, summer, they distributed these freedom of -- supposedly, you had to submit to the Department of Education an integration plan, because the schools were separated in Crawfordville, they had two primary schools and two high schools, one in both -- you know, they were absolutely segregated. So what they would -- freedom of choice, they didn't give the choice forms to the blacks. But we somehow -- the guy who I worked with, Turner, who was a school principal, got one and he duplicated it, and went around and got blacks to choose the white school. And what happened was, and they didn't abide by that because when they submitted them they accused him of forging them -- he was also a notary, he notarized -- you had to notarize choice. Well, it's crazy.
And there was another doctor from Clark working with us that second summer, a guy by the name of Vouval. Very similar to the other guy I worked with name-wise. They were both PhDs from Clark. Wonderful school. And he got arrested and I had to go back and I was -- I became a prison chaplain at the end of '66 so . . . but it was really tension-wise, so for young folks, the only thing I can say to you is when you look at what's happening in society, try to find counter -- the forces that are playing and how they intertwine and how they are effective, because that's what was going on at that time, and it was -- I think we avoided racial warfare at that time.
PAT DRISCOLL: There were a lot of different things going on, on many fronts, but certainly in the context of the war in Vietnam and the September -- when Hearst was, what's her name, Patty Hearst . . . there was just a lot going on.
PAUL HOLLISTER: Just one thing about that whole period. I heard John Lewis speak about a year ago, and as a result of that I read his autobiography [Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement]. I really recommend that, particularly to younger people. Because he was there for almost all of this, as you mention, for Selma, he was working for Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in '68, and, more to the point, going back to '63, he was the assistant to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and they were given a chance to speak at the King rally. And so he wrote his speech out and the speech got circulated, which he didn't expect. And the then-archbishop of Washington was a guy . . . I don't remember the name, you might . . .
JOE COONEY: Hickey. [Patrick O'Boyle was Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington in the 60s]
PAUL HOLLISTER: And Hickey was going to give the invocation. And when Hickey saw the speech . . . when he saw the speech, he saw that Lewis was going to say "We are impatient, we have lost patience, and want that revolution." And Bayard Ruskin, who was the head of the March, said, "You know, you're going to have to change that because the Catholic religion is all about patience." [laughter] So Lewis -- this is in Lewis' book -- Lewis was very understanding and he took that part out. And he spoke at the '63 March. But really he was there at so many places, and of course he's still in Congress today, as most of you know. It's really worth reading.
KATIE MCDONOUGH: It's a fantastic speech, too. I mean, when I first read it -- I mean, even comparing it to King's speech, it . . . not many people have heard or read it, and it's very powerful.
PAUL HOLLISTER: Well, and some of the speeches that -- to really understand that period, it's good to hear some of the speeches that Malcolm X gave. He had a whole different take on the March on Washington as we know. That was an important -- very interesting for the young people, again, if you get a chance to look at any of Malcolm X's speeches -- I mean, all of it right now, of course, it's all together, it's happy . . . with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but at the time, it was a different take.
PAT DRISCOLL: Is there anybody who still has something they'd like to say, to add? Or a question?
L. MARIE GUILLORY: My name is Marie Guillory, and I'll only speak because there are young people here, and for the rest of you, you know, your experience and mine are similar and we've all grown to be what we are, but for young people who didn't live through this time, I do have something to say. And it is this: I grew up in the segregated south. I went to segregated schools until it was time for me to go to college and I had to leave the south in order to get out of the segregated system. And let me assure you that it was never equal. Plessey v. Ferguson: separate but equal. The separate part was always enforced. The equal part never happened.
And part of that segregated system was also a reign of terror. You know, you can relate to terrorism today, not because we experience it in this country, but because there are other parts of the world where there is terrorism. But in the south, we lived with terrorism. I remember the day my father was registered to vote for the first time. That was 1953. He couldn't vote before then. He couldn't register to vote. In 1951, the first blacks in our county registered to vote, and one of the men who went to register was killed. So I guess I could talk for about five hours, but I won't, but I just want to leave the young people in this room with that sense that all of this was necessary. It was necessary. And a lot of blood was spilt. Besides Dr. King's blood, there were many other people who died. And I have great admiration for the elders who are here who understood that moment when it was necessary for them to stand up. So I want to thank them.
PAT DRISCOLL: Thank you to everybody for -- thank you for coming out and participating so well, and I hope it's been useful for you young folks, and useful for . . . [applause] . . . thank you. Thank you.
END OF TAPE 2/SIDE 1
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|The Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, Washington, D.C.|