Executive Times

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Book Reviews

 

My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience by Juan Williams

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

 

 

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Voices

 

Juan Williams presents the voices of thirty people in his new book, My Soul Looks Back in Wonder. These ordinary and extraordinary people tell their personal stories about the civil rights struggle. Some stories come from people you’ve heard of; others are from people you may never heard of. Photos remind readers of that turbulent time.

 

Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “Gentleman of the Press,” pp. 40-43:

 

In a career spanning 57 years, Vernon Jarrett has won nearly every major journalism award. At the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, he stood at the vanguard of journalists who wrote about the black experience. Jarrett devoted his professional life to writing for The Chicago Defender, the largest black-owned daily newspaper in America. And he made it his goal in every article to expose injustice.

 

My grandfather was a teenage runaway slave in the Civil War, but he was so illiterate he didn’t know where he was from. He used to make my brother read The Chicago Defender out loud from cover to cover. I was too young to read, so I just sat back and enjoyed it. We didn’t know until after he died that my grandfather couldn’t read.

My grandmother learned how to read by stealing it. She used to sit outside the home of this white family while they were being tutored. They had chalkboards, but outside the house she wrote in the dirt.

To me, journalism is a vehicle for taking a stand and doing the most good for our race. When I moved to Chicago and started working for the Defender in 1946, my first story was covering a race riot at the Air­port Homes project, where a mob tried to kill some black veterans.

Chicago had a legal provision called “restrictive covenants” — clauses inserted in housing contracts and deeds and signed by a majority of the members of a community—that committed them not to sell, rent, or lease said property to people of the Negro race (or, in some instances, to Orientals or Jews). The covenants were mostly directed at blacks, and because the community had made them con­tractual, they became legally binding.

Black people were therefore restricted to little pockets of the city, jammed on top of each other. Chicago was about to explode. Black people were moving out because they just could not take the torment. Panic usually struck when the first black moved into a nonrestricted block that was all white, or any community that was all white. The word would go out—“The niggers are coming!”—and a mob would gather in front of your apartment or your house.

Airport Homes was a collection of duplexes on the South Side that had been thrown up during World War II. It covered several blocks. The property had been turned over to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) because it was government-owned property. Rather than restricting access, the CHA director established a rule of first come, first served for war veterans, regardless of creed or color.

One black veteran—he’d had some ribs shot away in Italy—was about to move into Airport Homes, and I was out there the evening he turned in his lease. A mob gathered and chased the veterans and the journalists, white and black, up into the second floor of a duplex.

They had their little kids with them and they was chanting, “Niggers go home! Niggers go home!” They tried to set fire to the building. One black veteran got on the phone and called the police station. He said, “you got some cops standing around out here chat­ting with these people. They’re trying to kill us, and it’s getting dark!”

The veteran on the phone told the cops, “I’m going to my car to get my switchblade. If you don’t have these cops give me some pro­tection, somebody’s going to get hurt.” That’s when the cops standing there with the mob came up and led us through. They escorted us to our cars because they thought that veteran would really kill someone.

When we got in the car, I heard all the crap I used to tolerate growing up in Paris, Tennessee: “You niggers think you can come out here and get our white women!” In the South, nobody ever spit on me, but at Airport Homes, they did. Some white women were part of our group as observers; they had thought it would be a nice little thing. The mob was hysterical over that. They were shouting at those white girls: “Which one of these niggers you going to fuck tonight?”

Some of the crowd tried to turn over the car I was in. They bashed in the windows with a baseball bat. This was December, and it was cold. But it was a funny thing—all of us brothers who were out there, we were ready to fight. The black veteran whose story I was covering had been in Italy so long he spoke conversational Italian. He came out of the car, ripped open his shirt, and pointed to his scars: “This happened in Anzio!” Then he said it in Italian. And then he started crying.

The crowd just stood there startled. Some of the older guys felt guilty. The younger white veterans were there because their veter­ans’ organization had demanded that the project be turned over to veterans. They hadn’t anticipated black veterans moving in.

I jumped out of the car and stood up there with him. This little white boy, an ex-soldier, came up to both of us, trembling. “I know what all of you guys want. I was in England. I saw you with those white girls.” I said to him, “You didn’t see me in no goddamn Eng­land—I was in Hawaii!” Then a big cop came up and separated us.

One of their leaders looked like a pretty nice guy. He was Italian, but when this black soldier started talking in Italian, I don’t think the guy understood it. Louis Jourdan, the musician, wrote this song called “Caledonia” that went, “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?” On my next trip out to Airport Homes, the Italian guy was leading the crowd in a chant: “Caldonia! Caldonia! If you stay tonight, we gonna have fried nigger babies in the morning!”

It was my first glimpse of what shape America was in, in terms of race. It made you real mean, man. I haven’t lost some of that yet.

The white newspapers had an agreement with the Mayor’s Com­mission on Human Relations: They would treat this story as though it never happened. They were trying to avoid a repeat of Red Summer [in Chicago, 13 days of racial clashes starting on July 27, 1919, that killed 15 whites and 23 blacks]. The Deft nder was the only one that ran the story. The editors suggested our bylines not appear on most of the stories, but I didn’t give a damn—I was trying to change the world.

 

Death Does Not Discriminate

 

One of the first major civil rights battles happened in World War II, when black men joined the military in droves and encountered harsh racial bias. One gung-ho fighting man—David Dinkins, still 47 years away from becoming New York City’s first black mayor—had to move a mountain of prejudice just to join the Marines.

 

“The way to survive the war is to be well trained,” I thought as I watched newsreels of troops storming the beaches. “And the way to be well trained is to be a Marine.”

There was no recruiting office in Trenton, New Jersey, so I went to Jersey City, then Newark, New York, Camden, and Philadelphia. At each place I was told, “You have to go to the state of your residence” or, “We have our quota of Negro Marines.”

I was real little and naturally I thought I was bad because I’m small. Eventually, a recruiting officer in Philadelphia agreed to accept me. He wrote a letter to my draft board: “If this man passes the physical, put him in the Marine Corps.” That’s how persistent I had been.

Jim Crow hit home in a graphic way. White recruits were trained at Parris Island, South Carolina, while blacks were trained at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. When I went south I stepped off the train and was about to get on a bus when I was told, “You go ‘round back.” I had to go to the “Colored” window to get my ticket.

It was all so illogical. Here we’re going to fight this war to end all wars, yet we got second-class citizenship. As far as I knew, there weren’t going to be white bullets and black bullets. There weren’t going to be white graves and black graves. We were all going to be together—or so I thought. But when those Marines who may have thought Jim Crow was okay got pinned down under fire in places like Guam, boy—they just loved to see black Marines landing and bringing ammo. They were so relieved and delighted they hugged them.

 

There’s an absence of cohesiveness or selectivity to the stories, which made me think about Studs Terkel and his interviewing skills. Williams used a team to conduct these interviews, and the varying levels of interviewer skill show up in the final stories. Some voices soar; others seem to ramble. Nonetheless, My Soul Looks Back in Wonder allows for the expression of these voices and the opportunity for readers to hear first hand about important times from our past. The selected photos remind us of the times, and supplement the stories with images.

 

Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004

 

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

in the January 2005 issue of Executive Times

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