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Interview with: Reverend William Lawson
Interviewed by: Veronica Perry
Date: August 12, 1974
(MI = unidentified male interviewer)
VP: First of all, Reverend Lawson, I guess we should start off by asking—when you say the black church, exactly what are we speaking of, in loose terms?
WL: Well, the black church, as a term, refers not so much to an institution as to a cultural phenomenon. When blacks were brought to this country, they came with African roots which were more or less systematically cut, or at least an attempt was made to systematically cut them. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on whose point of view you’re looking at, those roots were not really cut. They were instead driven underground, and they took institutional forms, one of them being the black church. The Africanisms that we were not allowed to express in other fashions were expressed in the metaphysical and in the religious spheres of our experience, and the growth of the black church came into being. I say that the black church is not an institutional thing because blacks who make up congregations of predominantly white churches did not really constitute the black church—Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians. It is not until there is an indigenous, congregation based, non-bishop, grassroots kind of an organization like Baptists, like some of the holiness groups, like Methodists, where blacks have almost a total program input into what happens that one develops a black church. And the black church has strongly tribal attributes; the white church has pretty well Puritan and fairly well Democratic-Republican type attributes. But when I say the black church, I mean that grassroots kind of congregation-dominated order of blacks which is black from the policy-making level to the constituency level.
VP: Well, what do you see is the role of that church in the black community?
WL: I think it has already played an extremely important role, perhaps an invisible role. It has been the primary custodian of culture and has kept the Africanisms alive. Had it not been for the black church, much of what we now know of the resurgence of interest in the African roots might never have emerged. But I think that the black church, which at least kept alive the feeling for nature and for neighbor and for the spiritual presence and for the preeminence of the chieftain figure—I think that these were part of the contributions being made by the black church all the time, long before there were such things as civil rights or social programs. So I would say that the black church, as a resident of the African mother cultures from which we came, played a very important part.
A second contribution that I think the black church has already played has been that it has already furnished an outlet for the necessary inbred rage of a slave people who had to, at some point, turn loose their reactions to the new and foreign background into which they were thrust. And I think that the black church prevented mass schizophrenia, perhaps even mass suicides, certainly mass rebellion. And I think that these are more or less invisible contributions of the black church. Now the more visible contribution would certainly be in the realm of civil rights, where the black church organized and specifically dramatized the problem of black people and protested against the oppression that was being imposed by the government or by the society. So civil rights would be the more visible contribution of the black church, but I think that those invisible contributions are perhaps just as great, if not greater.
VP: Speaking of civil rights—do you think that the church’s role has changed any since the death of Martin Luther King?
WL: That’s a difficult question to answer, because I think that the civil rights struggle itself has changed, and obviously roles have to be modified when the whole theater of operations changes. Civil rights originally was a matter of simply letting the nation realize that it had a problem, and the nation did not seem to feel this back in the days of the Niagara Movement and the birth of the NAACP, the first of the civil rights movements as any kind of organized expression. And so the simple recognition of the fact that there was, in fact, racial discrimination and that it had to be recognized as a social injustice was the first role played by the civil rights movement. Then the demand for equal privileges—not so much equal opportunity, just equal privileges—a fairly primitive form of civil rights which asked that we be allowed to drink out of water fountains or eat at lunch counters or have some kind of relatively minor social privileges, I think was a part of the civil rights movement. The CBS special—I think—the autobiography of Jane Pittman, was at least one good case in point where the civil rights movement started out simply asking for the simple privileges of inclusion in the social scene. Now civil rights moves toward a demand for policy-making rights, the penetration into the power structure, where it is no longer a matter of our wanting to be able to buy shoes at the local department store but now to hold office in the local legislature or indeed to have some fairly definite input into the policies established by the local utilities. I think that, now, penetration into power places represents the present theater of civil rights action, and it would be difficult to see the church not playing some shifting or changing role in all of that, depending on where civil rights is at the moment.
VP: When you think of Martin Luther King, you always think of the southern black church. Do you see any differences in the role of the southern black church and the northern black church in relationship to the community’s needs?
WL: A little bit, and it’s interesting that you should mention that, which means that you, who are black, and I, who am black, have both been fairly well brainwashed to believe that the racial problem has certain southern proclivities. I don’t think that the racial problem is quite as regional as that. I think that when one looks at it solidly one sees that the black church that started civil rights is the northern church, and I think at least in part because the agrarian south would not have been able to live with geographical segregation very well, where the servants had to be close to the bosses and you had to have workers in the fields or you had to have the kind of peppering of servants’ quarters in the midst of all of the rest of the people. This is the classic southern picture—a mixture geographically, although a very strong separation socially. While the northern pattern—which was an industrial pattern up until around the turn of the century or shortly thereafter—the northern pattern has classically been one of geographical segregation. When you moved into New York you went to Harlem. When you moved into Chicago you went to the south side. There were huge black belts that could be marked out as places where the black workers and their families lived. It was in these places where the kinds of churches that spawned the Malcom X’s and the W.E.B. DuBoises first came into being. In fact, it was very, very late that there even began to develop cities large enough—the Birminghams and the Atlantas and the New Orleans and the Houstons—so that the southern church had that much of a role to play in civil rights. So I would say from the outset that when you go back to the first spokesman for civil rights—even in modern times, Adam Clayton Powell would have been before Martin Luther King—you would have seen the black church as a cluster phenomenon occurring in the large northern cities long before you saw the black church as a cluster phenomenon growing out of some crisis in southern cities like the [inaudible] and Rosa Parks.
VP: We’ll bring it closer to home—what has been the role of the black church in Houston?
WL: Not much, and I think that that’s not so much because of Houston as it is because of Texas. Now that’s a different story altogether. Texas is one of three states in the entire United States which does not have a specific state history. Texas, Alaska, and Hawaii have always been more like nations than like states, and the history of the state, of course, makes them in that sense unique. One has to recognize then that there is an odd mixture of a state mentality and a nation mentality in Texas. The nation laughs at it as “Texas brag,” but I think that there is really something here that marks the Texan as being a little bit different in his own self-image. Now Houston churches, therefore, share in some of that. In Houston the civil rights movement never really produced a major crisis, never really produced a riot, never really produced the kind of charismatic leaders that came out of some of the other southern states; even though we would not have to be able to boast a Martin Luther King, it would certainly seem that we could have boasted at least as much as the state of Mississippi would have, but we never also turned out a Medgar or Charles Evers. And I think part of that is because Texas generally tends to want to solve its own problems, and Houston shares in that, and that desire to solve its own problems may have a great deal to do with the tendency of people to establish negotiations without allowing Congress to say much or without allowing very many other people—our school system is a problem that grows out of the fact that we decided to tell the courts how we would desegregate rather than let the courts tell us, and we made a mess out of it. But it was once again that same kind of “let me do it myself” mentality that I think one can find in the Houston churches. So, in Houston the churches have shared very, very little in an organized civil rights organization because the crises that would have arisen have been fairly well dealt with at an indigenous level before we had to call in Jesse Jackson to help or Martin Luther King to help. If they came in they were almost as unwelcome among blacks as they were among whites but, as I say, that’s a whole different bag of sociology.
MI: I would like to clarify one point that you made. Are you saying then that black Texans have in common with white Texans the quality that they wish to do things on their own?
WL: I think so. I think that—and I’m right now trying to respond to her question about the black church as I know the black church, and I’m thinking now of the black grassroots church, not the black Catholic priest. But as I know the black church, these are men who by and large will not generally follow the patterns set by other states in the handling of their sermons, in the setting up of their own church administrations, in their dealing with social problems. There are some great models that have been given to us, and they fall flat in Texas. OIC, for instance, which came out of Philadelphia, has been planted and has grown fertile in almost every other state in the union until it came to Texas. And OIC can simply not really find ground in Texas. There is an OIC in Houston right now, but it’s basically Chicano. It’s very hard for blacks to accept what was started by a black preacher in another state, and I think that that means that the black churchman in Texas thinks very much like the white Texan, in that sense.
VP: In those terms, has there been any cooperation at all between the white churches and the black churches?
WL: Yes, there has, but the kind of cooperation that has existed has been ephemeral, surface, more or less cosmetic. No really solid major civil rights movement between white and black churches has ever existed. In 1963—I think it was 1963—there was a march from Selma to Birmingham, and there were white and black churchmen who joined that march. When they came back, the general feeling was that the civil rights legislation that then-President John Kennedy was trying to push through Congress—not very successfully, by the way—would be boosted by churchmen of both races and of all disciplines, and it was pushed. That’s at least one example where there was a certain kind of collaboration of local pressure on federal politicians.
In 1966, when Operation Breadbasket was born in Chicago, it came to Texas largely through some collaborative efforts of white and black clergymen, but it fairly quickly left the line of clergymen, was picked up by one of our local photographers, Gloria Marshall, and to this day is still led by Gloria Marshall rather than by any of the clergymen. But it started out—it was first brought here by white and black clergymen, so there are some times when one can see this kind of, at least cosmetic cooperation, collaboration between white and black clergymen. There will be forums or there will be voter registration drives or some such thing as that, but they are usually temporary, and they are almost always right on the surface. There has not been any major push for open-housing legislation. There has not been any major push for equal employment opportunities or for affirmative action. There has not been any major push between white and black clergymen, for instance, for any kind of correction of the school situation. When one talks about those places where human survival is touched at its most basic level, I don’t see that kind of cooperation. Not yet.
VP: Your role—you know—as a community leader certainly seems to be different from the role of the black churches as you have been expressing it. How do you relate your two roles, both as a religious leader and as a leader in the community?
WL: Veronica, I don’t think that I am odd; I think that I have been, once again, sometimes used. The press has given a platform to me that it has not given to my counterparts, and therefore people may take it for granted that I am somehow unique because they haven’t seen or heard from the counterparts, but they are very definitely there. Otherwise I couldn’t still be here. I think that I do have support from quite a number of black churchmen who, in their own way, likewise see the church as a—in an African sense—as not separate from the state but as a goad, as a kind of conscience, as a prick for the state. And so the church, continuing to have a meddlesome moral value for the state, pushes its way into state affairs in direct violation of a constitutional notion that there should be a wall between the church and state, which is a European notion and not an Eastern notion, but those who are involved in that are, as I am saying, not very frequently highly publicized, but they are there, and I think that the simple fact that they are there has given to me the platform. If there were not that kind of support, I would have been pulled off and thrown out of town a long time ago. And my hope is that the time will come when people will start to recognize the sometimes quiet and—you know—but pretty generally very effective churchmen. There are others.
VP: I was reading an article about you, and you were saying that you felt that the militants in the black community at that particular time made up about 15% of the people in the black community and that most people—well, a lot of people—in the black community weren’t really open to the movement. What do you think leaders could do to activate people in the black community?
WL: The most valuable job that could be done would be to tie the problems of our society and the kind of solutions that we have to work on for those problems—to tie those with basic metaphysical ideals. I think that one of the reasons why the average husband or housewife or student has not gotten into the movement is because they have to deal with their own survival with the everyday problems of kids and groceries and rent and car notes, they really are not that much into carrying signs and going to jail. I think that if there can be given to them a sense of role, a sense of involvement, and if that sense of involvement can include their own basic ideals, which is why I see the black churches have some real value. Most people don’t mind contributing toward the programs of a black church. There are many people who have some problems with making contributions toward the Black Panthers or making contributions towards some specific kind of a movement where a good number of deleted expletives are going to be used all the time. I think that if the woman who doesn’t have a husband but who has four kids can feel that what her contribution is going to make the whole social order better, she will make that contribution whether it is volunteering so many hours a week or putting so many dollars in or—you know—letting her son or her daughter volunteer for 10 hours a week, I think that she can feel a part of it if it is tied to the ideals and the principles in which she believes already.
VP: Well, obvious question—why do you think it hasn’t been done yet?
WL: It takes a lot of talking, it takes a lot of programs, it obviously takes a good deal of money in order to keep things like that going. It also takes a certain kind of broadcasting, and that’s—that, it seems to me, is where the media could be used. The media has not been used very much. The media has frequently picked out one charismatic individual and said, “Let’s look and listen to that one charismatic individual.” So it has heard the Jesse Jacksons. It may have ignored all of the other little guys who are doing much the same thing but who don’t have the same eloquence. I think that part of what does have to be done is that there needs to be one for the general public—a place of forum—that takes us into another area. When is it going to be possible for the commercial media or for cable television or for something else to make possible an interior dialogue where you can hear from many, many more voices? Now you are listening to one right now, and you may take it for granted that there is something, as I said, unique about that one, but if there were some way in which there were 20 channels on TV—or—or if it were possible for out of the 800-some odd hours of normal television that is played each week here to at least include much that needs to be said by many, many people, I think that the attitudes which are shaped regularly by the media right now could be shaped toward justice. And I don’t think they need to be just black voices. Sometimes we simply play the voices of the oppressed minority, and we don’t play the voices of the fairly disgusted majority. The reason that President Nixon is not in office right now is because the entire nation was turned off on whatever kind of chicanery it though Nixon was involved in. I think there is a whole lot of drive toward justice, but I think that drive toward justice needs to be aired much more than it is right now. Local churches could not do it; they don’t have the money, they don’t have the manpower, they don’t have the expertise. But I think that churches in collaboration with other institutions like the media could do it.
VP: I think, in that same particular article, you mentioned that if the black community does not become involved in that type of movement it will withdraw into itself. What do you see as the consequences to that withdrawal?
WL: Further oppression. A kind of return to the dark ages of 1890 to 1915, part of which is happening already.
VP: If the community also has a great potential as a political force, do you think the black community is living up to that potential?
WL: No, because the black community has not yet been convinced that it has any kind of potential. Our major job is to get people to vote and to feel as though their vote counts. They’ve been told for so many decades, so many scores of years, that their vote doesn’t count that they’ve got a built-in self-contempt for their own political power. And it’s very difficult to get them to realize that if they do anything in a block that they will be heard. So, most of all we have to try to build up a kind of self-esteem for people’s own political clout.
MI: A moment ago you mentioned a return to the black ages for the blacks by this—by turning in, and you said it’s happening now. Can you elaborate a little on that?
WL: All right. In the days when Martin Luther King was speaking, he would give them the kind of press where at least the entire nation, white and black, learned of some of the problems. When Richard Nixon came into office, he was advised by sociologist advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan that the best way to stop the riots or to stop the constant pressures for better jobs and that sort of thing was to use a philosophy of benign neglect and simply not give the air to so many people like Martin Luther King. At that point there were many people who, shut off from any kind of outlet for their feelings and that sort of thing, went back home and just simply stopped trying. There were certain kinds of things done that seemed outwardly to be compliments to them. We would get a black state legislator or we would get a black city councilman. Because redistricting would make it possible for districts to be predominantly black, or at least black and liberal, we would get a black legislator. Then we would find out—and here the case of Justin Robertson, locally, for instance—we have a black councilman, a city councilman who has wide contacts, but he runs on a citywide ticket. He is not really responsible to a specific district, which means that Justin Robinson can spread out so thin so he can be less than effective.
I think that what I see right now is a kind of abuse of the sort of political clout that could develop. There is a certain kind of counteracting of this that’s being done right now by the clustering of black politicians. Almost every place where there are black politicians there are black caucuses. And the failure of the Texas state constitution to pass was in no small measure due to clustering of that sort—blacks, browns, labor people—and they would pull together coalitions, and I think, really, coalitions of blacks, browns, and labor. I think that those kinds of coalitions, that this clustering of power, this sort of use of the block feeling, has gotten through to certain sophisticated blacks who can see it at the upper level. To the grassroots blacks this still does not exist. They don’t know what it means that the Texas state constitution never came to the people. The only thing that they know is that it failed, and as they listen to news commentators, the state legislature is being criticized for it. They don’t understand that their own power in no small measure had something to do with it. The very fact that there were black legislators and brown legislators and labor lobbyists working together in Austin made it possible for this thing to be held up. They don’t even know what the constitution was that was trying to pass; frankly, I’m glad that it didn’t. But I think that the cluster pattern is something that needs to be made available to many, many more people and that the very notion of Moynihan’s benign neglect has made it almost impossible to get the word to people. Most of them don’t know because there aren’t the voices that there were on the press in the ’50s and ’60s.
VP: Speaking of city administration and the clout that black people have as a political force, we certainly know that the black community has a lot to do with the previous election, but do you think that administration is aware of the needs of the black community, and is it responsive to—?
WL: You’ve actually asked two questions. It is aware. It is very much aware. And you’ve also asked, “Is it responsive?” No, it is not right now, and for perhaps good reason. It is sometimes difficult to accept the harsh realities of politics, but the harsh realities of Hofheinz’s politics are that Fred Hofheinz, who depended on the black vote for the almost successful runoff in 1971 and for the finally successful runoff in 1973. The harsh realities of Hofheinz’s politics are that he drew blacks, he didn’t draw whites. That means that he has to spend two years trying to build a Hofheinz machine, and he can’t build it on blacks; he knows that. He’s got to somehow draw to himself those whites who were disillusioned with him, who were not necessarily in favor of Louie Welch but who very greatly fear Hofheinz, partly because of the name—he was the son of Roy Hofheinz, and they’ve got some fairly good memories of Roy Hofheinz—and partly because the kinds of associations, the strong black support that he drew said some things to them about what happened to a city which is really controlled by major industrial families rather than by recognizable political groups. So Hofheinz, while he knows what the problems of blacks are, had better not get on a stump at this stage and begin to speak on behalf of blacks too loudly. He can do it in a fairly soft way, and he will do it in a fairly soft way, while blacks criticize him all the way. He will name a [unable to verify first name]Shell and he will be in charge of all of the city employees. Very probably—while he will not say anything about it—he will name somebody fairly high in Parks and Recreation. It may very well be the number two spot, which is a very strong spot and which involves the spending of millions of dollars. But if he gets up and says too much about blacks right now, he will kill the job that he’s got to do in these next fairly few months of drawing to himself a white power base. Now those kinds of politics also frustrate me, and I think that they probably frustrate most people, but I can understand part of what he’s doing.
MI: How would you evaluate Mayor Welch’s administrations with regard to (inaudible, both speaking at once.)
WL: Mayor Welch was, at first, fairly responsive to blacks but unintelligently so. Mayor Welch thought that what blacks needed most of all were privileges. He came along at time when the civil rights movement was strong, and he first made bids for black followship, and most of what he did was to make it possible for blacks to eat in the top floor of the Rice Hotel and to go to the restaurants and that sort of thing. What he didn’t realize is that during those early years of his own administration the whole focus was shifting, and the blacks were not satisfied eating in the Rice Hotel, that they were now beginning to ask for somebody to be employed by the city or to be employed by the county or to be employed by industry, and he was not quite ready to offer that. Well, he called to himself a black cabinet, and the black cabinet was made up of old and trusted friends of his, and they misled him pretty badly. Ultimately he drew off into his own puritanical shell. Louie Welch was a—you know—he was a grassroots Protestant, I think Church of Christ, and very, very strongly Puritan, which meant that he would have to go back to the notion that white is right and nonwhite is a threat. And this is finally where he ended up. He lost black support. But I think that it also has to be said that Louie Welch was one of the shrewdest city administrators we have had. He gave a good solid economic base to the city, robbed us a little bit, but he also brought a good deal of money in. City employees themselves and—you know—when you start talking about a city basically you’re talking about a staff and a budget, that’s finally what you’re talking about, $200 million a year—and the city employees loved him. You could talk to garbage men or firemen, and they really liked Louie Welch. Even the black ones frequently liked him. So while he was not a very good figure for blacks in general; in fact, he tended to be fairly repressive—he allowed the Herman Short years—he was, nonetheless, a good big-city mayor, maybe almost like a Dailey.
MI: It’s been said by another black who I recently interviewed that the city authorities tried to either buy off or intimidate black spokesmen. Could you comment on that? Do you think it’s a valid assessment?
WL: Oh, yeah. That’s true. And I think that this is always a danger. A salary or an official appointment or a grant can quite frequently silence people. Or a threat, in case you’ve got a skeleton in the closet that could be rattled. This does happen all the time. This is also one of my reasons for very strongly believing—and this takes us back to where we started—that the black church needs to maintain a certain kind of integrity in that the churchman does not stop being a churchman. I have no intention now or ever of running for public office or of accepting public appointment. I will stay a preacher operating with a congregation, because the only power base that I’ve got is a group of friends that will listen to me, and if I leave them to become allied with a given administration or with a given funded program, I’m in trouble. We have a daycare center here. We strongly resisted taking Head Start funds, and we haven’t. Our daycare center is run by the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. I think that that happens; I think that it happens a great deal. I tend to get silenced every once in a while, but at least I can say that I’m being silenced because the pile-up of work right here keeps me too busy. Now maybe they’ve learned that, and they’ve learned to pile up the work, but it is not possible, at least, to shut me up as long as my only power base is a black church. It would be possible if I set part of my bulk on wheels that rolled in the power structure.
VP: Okay, and in interpreting what you say would I be correct in saying that those people who have been appointed to positions in city government, for instance, are not really addressing themselves to the needs of the black community but they’ve simply been silenced by those—?
WL: Not in all cases. It depends fairly well on their own personal strength. I have some real sympathy for Judson. I have some real sympathies for Vince. I know both of them. I know that they know where some of the problems are. I also know that their hands are tied in part. Vince has inherited a huge and a rather inefficiently organized civil service structure. He can’t change that all of a sudden. He can’t fire all of the Klan cops. He can’t kick out all of the racist firemen. He can’t bring in a whole gang of young guys who were carrying picket signs five years ago But I think at the same time that insofar as both Vince and Judson—and these are just two of them—but insofar as both Vince and Judson have their own power base, Judson was independently wealthy before he ever went in to city council, so he doesn’t really depend on the city for income. Contact, yes, but not really for income. If Judson gets ready, he can speak out whenever he wants to. Perhaps the classic example was that of one of the county judges, the criminal courts of appeal judge Andrew Jefferson, who recently made a ruling that forced the grand jury to throw out some indictments, and they were mad as hops. Well, he is an elected county official, and if they wanted to they probably could put the squeeze on him. But Andrew Jefferson was a reputable lawyer before he ever went into county politics, working with Exxon Oil, and if he ever decides that he doesn’t have to stay on the bench he can always go back. His strength made it possible for him to make that decision that he’s not going to be a civil rights leader, so he won’t be constantly making speeches in favor of blacks and browns or anybody else. But I think that depending on that person’s own strength. I saw another man whose strength was far too little. He was an assistant to the mayor, and I watched them dismantle him, and finally he had to leave city government. He didn’t have his own power base, and so he was helpless.
MI: Who was this person?
WL: This was Art Jones, who was taken out of his office as an assistant to the mayor, dropped down into Parks and Recreation. His secretary was given a higher position, making more money than he was making, and so she leapfrogged over him, and he was left down there driving a old, white city car. And the last I heard of Art Jones, he has now taken over the job of city manager for a new housing project called The Woodlands. But his was a sad case. Art Jones did not have the kind of power base that a [unable to verify first name] Shell out of Foleys or an Andy Jefferson out of Exxon had.
MI: Law enforcement happens to be one of my pet projects, and you made a comment that I would like to follow up just for a moment. You used the term “Klan cops”—is there really evidence that there are Klansmen in the police department?
WL: All right. That’s kind of a stereotype. Basically what I mean is redneck cops, fellows that have been imported in, sometimes, or who generally have the feeling that, given the uniform, the badge, and the gun, they can be judge and jury on the street, and that happens quite frequently where they will show an automatic respect to a well-dressed white matron who drives out of River Oaks and would show automatic disrespect to a young black with his pimp hat and driving the car with the heart-shaped—you know—top. I think that this general attitude indicates some personal stereotypes that they have already made. I think that when I speak of Klan cops, I speak basically of men who don’t have strong guidelines by which they have to operate. Herman Short allowed his officers to do a lot of things that I don’t think Carrol Lynn will allow. Carrol Lynn doesn’t have the same kind of spectacular personality. He doesn’t have the same kind of—well, the same kind of articulateness. Herman Short was fairly monosyllabic, but he was articulate. Carrol Lynn is a man who does not express himself well, so you may get the impression of weakness, but evidently he is not a weak man. I don’t think that he is the ideal police chief, but I think that at least he does have some rules and regulations that he imposes on the force that Herman Short did not have. So, at least the citizen feels a little bit safer with the average policeman, hoping that he will remain within his own framework of law enforcement, and if you’re speeding he’ll give you a ticket and he won’t pull you out of the car, search you, and kick you in the groin. You don’t have any guarantee of that, but at least there is, it seems to me, a little bit less reason to stereotype Houston police as Klan cops.
VP: So basically you are saying that that relationship between the police department and the black community has undergone some change, at least mentally. It’s not in actual facts since Chief Lynn took over.
WL: Very little, but there is some change. I think that there does need to be a major kind of redrawing of the patterns in the minds of many blacks. I think that there are still many of them who, while they know Short is not there, know that Lynn was an instructor under Short’s administration, so they—they really don’t know very much about Lynn either.
VP: Okay, getting back to one of your other pet projects, school [inaudible]. What—I know you were involved in the PUSH organization earlier. Exactly what was the organization?
WL: It was an ad hoc thing growing out of the NAACP back in 1964. The acronym PUSH, at that time, stood for People for the Upgrading of Schools in Houston. The NAACP under the leadership of E.M. Knight and Francis Williams at that time had sent a request to the school system to desegregate more than one grade a year, which had been set up as the pattern in 1960, and the school system had fairly well ignored that request. In fact, as I recall, at that time they had only desegregated four grades or something like that. So the NAACP had asked them to go ahead and desegregate the rest of the public school grades, the other eight grades, and they were not only not given any response, they were simply flatly ignored, and their request was dropped into a hopper of the citizen relations—community relations committee. So we decided in a meeting of the NAACP that we would put together a march and that we would publicly demonstrate that we were dissatisfied, and the march was to be headed up by about five people; Barbara Jordan and Curtis Williams were two of them at that time, and I was one of the five. And we were each supposed to do our separate thing, and I was supposed to have gotten together young people, and somebody else worked on labor people, and so on, and we would bring this march together. The others did not do very much towards gathering people, and on the day of the march we had a south central YMCA full of kids, and most of us were frightened at that time of what would happen if you carried over 1000 kids downtown and there were not the laborers and the housewives and the preachers and all the rest of the folks who were supposed to have gone with them, and it turned out that the NAACP had some fears of marches. This was an SCLC tactic, and the NAACP had never been very much involved in public demonstrations, so they had soft-pedaled it and had left me out in front, and this is what happened. So the press fairly quickly picked up the notion that I, with the kids, was probably the one who had organized the march, which was no more the case than it was the case that King organized the march on Washington in 1963. But, in any case, that was the start of PUSH. We had no intention of starting a civil rights organization, so we fairly quickly let that thing die less it should become something competitive to the NAACP. Later on we did bring SCLC into the city. I didn’t see very much point in starting another movement, but this is one more case where the press literally created a movement.
VP: As I understand, there was also another group called Concerned Citizens for Harris County. Was this a part of the PUSH—an outgrowth of the PUSH group, or was it—?
WL: Was this the group that involved Dr J. B. Jones?
VP: I just—I have a notation of a group called Concerned Citizens for Harris County in 1966. I think it started in June of ’66.
WL: No, I think that was a thing that was part of what was later to be SCLC. In June of 1966, this was the time when Breadbasket was born in Chicago, and those of us who were in Chicago at the time that it was born came back to Houston with the idea. I think that that Concerned Citizens of Harris County was the name that we had. We were led by Dr J.S. Scott, who was a minister out in Sunnyside, and Reverend Bob Felder, who is no longer in this area. And, as I recall, this was the name of it. Reverend Sherman Douglas over at Holman Street was one of us, and Reverend F. N. Williams out of [unable to verify term[ Homes . There were several ministers, several clergymen who went, and I think that that’s probably what that was. Now that was not for the school situation; this was to bring to Houston SCLC and Operation Breadbasket.
VP: Getting back to the school situation, do you think that the presence of blacks on the school board has made any real difference?
WL: Oh, yes. Very definitely. No black is ever totally happy with all of the input of all of the blacks who have been on the board, but nobody can in any sense demean the contributions that have been made by the blacks on the board. Mrs Charles E. White, who was the first and most notable of those, was a woman who did her homework so well that she embarrassed her opponents to the point of pulling school board off of television. Asbury Butler, who was kind of an unknown factor, nonetheless drove them into getting a parliamentarian so that they could handle the legal questions and legal entanglements that he would get them into. We’ve now lived through the years of Dr Herman Barnett and Dr Gurney Pearsall, and we can recall the conflicts between Barnett, Pearsall, and Everett, but all of these have made very significant contributions. They have been in no small sense responsible for the coming of blacks into some policy positions. There would never have been a J. Don Boney, for instance, had there not been a Mrs White, an Asbury Butler, a Herman Barnett, etc. I think that there probably would not be people high up in personnel like Mrs Jean Jones had there not been some of these people who were there. So some changes have been made. The changes have been far too few, and the changes have not involved the public school building at the neighborhood level anywhere like we would like to see them. E. L. Smith is still a rundown shack. Ryan Junior High School is still an embarrassment to the school system, and the crossover system is still a tragedy, but there have been some changes made, slow and not at all what they should be, but I think in no small measure because of the blacks who have been on the school board.
VP: Speaking particularly of Everett, whose presence and some of the things he did caused a great ruckus in the black community, how would you respond to that, especially to that vote on the Garver ousting?
WL: Reverend Everett is a good example of a black churchman with a power base who does not have the kind of political experience that might have made him much more capable of handling an expanded constituency. He did have enough of a power base to get into office. He had a fairly strong power base in terms, for instance, of the Baptist Ministers Association so that he could multiply his own voice. He did make the mistake of not keeping regular contact with his people, and here you see the Nixon-Ford syndrome. Nixon was a man who had very little contact with the press, and most of them were hostile contacts with the press, and in that era of secrecy he more or less undid himself, creating an almost implacable attitude of suspicion. Gerry Ford has started out already with speeches and with press conferences and with disclosures and with counseling sessions which at least indicate that even though he will make some serious mistakes—he is not the astute politician that Nixon was—but at least he will stay in touch with his people enough so that he will probably get support even when he makes errors. He will get counsel when he makes errors. Everett is the kind of man who does not like to consult a grassroots constituency very often, so he failed to inform the grassroots constituency of the evils George Garver represented, and he did not realize that Garver had a platform—the press—which gave to the public an image of him that no one, at that time, was seriously contradicting, not even Everett. And when, seemingly on impulse, he called for the firing of Garver, the only people who were with him at that point were those few who were privy to the problems that Garver was creating, certain of the Baptist ministers to whom he spoke and many misguided black militants who would like to be separate from whites at all costs anyway. The larger mass of black people were simply left confused, and so they became prey to whichever was the most persuasive voice. One of those voices was Judge Andrew Jefferson, who called for Everett to come to Texas Southern University and explain to the people why he did what he did. Everett never did come to Texas Southern University, but at that point he found himself in a crack between blacks who were pretty well demanding to and blacks who were saying, “Well, we’re just glad that he went, now let’s name a black Superintendent of Schools.” Later on, Everett did make a statement, in a church, about 2 or 3 weeks later. Jefferson’s remark at that meeting was a very telling remark. When Everett laid out all of the things that Garver had been and had not been doing, Andrew Jefferson in the public forum that followed simply said, “Reverend Everett, if all of these things that you have said are true, you have done your people a great disservice never to have told us these things before you took your action and to have split the black community as you did.” There is a difference between having the power and having the expertise. Everett had and still does have the power. He still has not explained many of his actions.
There were many people who favored kicking over the old CGS, which was neither liberal nor conservative, but so mixed up between blue coat and gray pants that it was being shot at from both sides. But, on the other hand, there are many people who still cannot accept going with the old care slate, which takes us back to the days of Mrs Cullen and Joe Kelly-Butler and the classic segregationists. Now, in fact, Everett is playing some fairly strong politics. Segregation and separation are different, and he is now part of a separatist, not a segregationist, slate. Segregation means that you are separate, and there are white policy makers. Separation means that you are separate, and there are mixed policy makers. And Everett has gone with that one. So, as president of the board and now with black school administrators coming up higher and higher—now Caldwell and Angle and that sort of thing—Everett does have a mixed-policy group, but he still has not explained that to the general constituency, which means that you still have got a lot of people who have questions about Everett. He does not have as strong a support base as he needs to have because he simply does not believe in public disclosure, but that’s the chieftain aspect and one of the difficulties of being a black preacher. You understand that.
VP: Right. Speaking of the constituency, at one point you advocated neighborhood-controlled schools. What—you know—exactly what do you mean by neighborhood control—?
WL: Okay, what I mean by neighborhood control is, first of all, decentralization of school administration, which in some sense they are trying to do now, the area superintendents are doing now, to the neighborhoods. The other thing that I think of is that school advisory councils ought to be made up of the people who live in the area rather than just the teachers. At the moment the school advisory council is made up of teachers. Well, if 2/3 of the teachers in a ghetto area are white, then that means that that advisory council is going to be largely white. And you’ll be told what’s good for that school by people who don’t live in that neighborhood. I do believe in some mixture of parent and teacher input in every one of the schools. I recognize some of the danger of that, and I recognize that you can’t control power if I gets too decentralized and that there are too many sovereign neighborhood groups having input. But I think that it is also a much healthier thing, and so I would hope that there could be some sense in which the school would be reflective of the neighborhood where the school is. In a neighborhood like Phyllis Wheatley High School, which is 99.9 black, it’s difficult for me to see 66-2/3 percent white teachers. It certainly is difficult for me to see decisions made for Wheatley by an area superintendent who is back out in the 3600 block on Richmond, or even by a faculty council which is made up mostly of white teachers and with very few black parents involved. So when I say neighborhood-controlled, I mean basically the kind of input that finally filters up to administrative decisions.
VP: I know when you made the statement, certain black leaders felt that this wasn’t the way things should be. Is that—what was that fear or their mistrust of neighborhood-controlled schools?
WL: At that time I was arguing against people who had the classical view of racial integration. In 1954, when the classical view was expressed, what they were saying is that people ought not to be separate because it would be beneficial if they were together. I have never believed that simple proximity solved problems, but I think that the idea then was not that there should be a cross-fertilization of whites and blacks but that there should be an absorption of blacks by whites, and that really was what was meant. Whenever schools were closed down they were black schools. Whenever there was some kind of consolidation it was white policy that finally ended up being made, and integration as we think of it simply ended up with an increase in the suppression of culture forms of blacks and an increase in the imposition of white forms and white standards. So whenever integration really means cross-fertilization, then I would favor integration. As long as integration simply means, “Let’s get rid of that obstreperous black minority by absorbing it into the white majority,” I do not favor integration. And I was arguing against NAACP people, like Weldon Berry, who had filed suits back in the 1950s and the 1960s, most classically the Dolores Ross case, and it’s difficult to completely shift philosophies when you’ve got litigation that’s been on the books for 10 or 15 years. So they were arguing in favor of the old-fashioned racial integration, busing, the—you know—some kind of an attempt to force schools to have a racial balance without changing neighborhoods, and my belief is schools still have to reflect neighborhoods. The kid lives in that neighborhood, and his school ought to be more like his own neighborhood. Now if there needs to be integration it needs to start at an adult institution level rather than at a juvenile institution level. It ought not to be imposed on kids because grownups don’t want to make the changes, and this is a different kind of a thing. That’s what I was arguing then, that racial integration as it had been defined in 1954 was false integration and really was simple racial absorption.
MI: A few moments ago I detected a negative attitude on your part with regard to Dr Garver. Can you explain what that negative attitude is based upon?
WL: All right. I didn’t know Garver as a school administrator. It was obvious that Garver did not like kids. To me, any school official has to love children. Garver never showed up in schools. Garver never regularly called his principals in. Garver never regularly explained to the constituency any more than Everett did what he was doing, and most of his programs were based on experimentation. He would start schools that were more or less designed to test tube children. And I watched kids in schools being more or less crushed. I mentioned Phyllis Wheatley High School, which is one of the largest and in many ways one of the proudest of our old black high schools where kids have come regularly out of poverty to excellence in sports and in academics and so on. I was there on an honors day two years ago when Garver was still superintendent, and on honors day all of the top students are named. And I watched the five top students named that day—top 10th, 11th, and 12th, top valedictorian, and salutatorian. All five white. Now at Phyllis Wheatley at that time there were close to 3000 students, and there were fewer than a dozen whites. And to me that meant that in that school morale had been sufficiently crushed so that blacks were no longer trying. And I knew Wheatley and had known Wheatley for some time. That said something about a school administration that few other things could say. So I wouldn’t argue about what his policies in personnel were or what his policies in instruction were, I could simply see that George Garver didn’t like kids, and if you don’t like kids, whatever other excellences you may have, it takes you out of a school theater.
VP: Basically you said that school integration hasn’t worked in Houston thus far. How do you think more can be accomplished?
WL: Well, I go back to a statement that you made a little bit earlier. I think that there still needs to be a kind of an open forum that does allow for a certain amount of neighborhood input. I think that there is some school integration that is occurring in Houston. I think there is some excellent school integration. There are some white teachers who genuinely love their kids and who are working well in ghetto situations and who are there because they want to be; there is no court order that is imposed on them that makes them there. This is where they want to be. There are some black teachers working in pretty much predominantly white neighborhoods who are doing an excellent job and who are not forced to be out there, because they want to be out there. I think that there is still a need for the youngster who aims at Harvard; if he wants to get out of the Yates neighborhood and to go to the Bellaire neighborhood and to get himself ready for the kinds of lines that are natural between high school and Harvard—nothing wrong with that. I think that’s perfectly all right. But I always think of integration as being something that is not externally imposed but internally invited. And I think that it would be fairly easy for us to make possible the kind of arrangement where schools could have integration and where that integration can be much more natural. I don’t have any desire to see people forced together in the name of integration or of anything else. I do have a desire to see the walls pulled down and the limits taken away. It used to be that you couldn’t go to Bellaire because you were black and that was a white school. If the door is open—you know—if then Bellaire becomes 1/3 black, great. And if only three go to Bellaire, that’s okay as long as there is no longer the wall there.
MI: Where does this leave you on the question of enforced busing—forced busing?
WL: Of course, I have never favored that because I likewise think that there is no answer in forcing kids into proximity. The whole notion is if they are near each other, then those superior white kids will influence those inferior black kids to be better kids. I think that that’s where the error is.
MI: There was one question that we ran across, or at least Veronica did, in her research, that your home had been fire-bombed or an attempt was made to fire-bomb it. When did this occur and why?
WL: It was five years ago and, once again, that’s the press. I have a hard time living down the press. When the fire department came—this was about five years ago—and we went home one day and found that our house had been set afire, and some neighbors had called. And when we went home, it was obvious to me that the house had burned because it was built in 1932; at that time 220 wiring had been put into it, and it was the old-fashioned Romex cable, and the wiring had pretty well deteriorated, and a fire had started. This is what was obvious to me. When the firemen came in, because I was involved in civil rights and had become a public figure they made a great deal out of the fact that the fire was burning in two places at the same time, which to them sounded incendiary. Any kind of a wiring fire can start in 10 places at the same time. But, in any case, it did get into the news that way, that I was being fire-bombed. I doubt very seriously that. There were not the usual agitations leading up to it. There was nobody who called afterward who said, “All right, this time I just got your house; next time I’m going to get you.” There were none of the usual kind of accompaniments with which I’ve lived for years, and threats I know. The kind of crank response to things I’ve said or done I know. That didn’t give any impressions of it. I think that that was just kind of an ordinary fire with some lousy housing—with some lousy wiring in an old house. And the insurance company paid for it, and there were no further investigations. And we had asked the fire department, “Don’t waste your manpower and time looking for somebody, because I don’t think you’re going to find anybody.” I think they did look for a while, but they finally gave that up.
MI: You have come under threats, though, in the course of your work?
WL: Oh, yes. And this is normal. I guess almost anybody who takes any kind of a public stance, even if he holds a public office and is very highly respected has the usual kinds of crank letters and threats. And every once in a while the phone is bugged or some such thing as that, but even then it isn’t always bugged negatively. The Justice Department has called us and has told us that during this time, while you’re getting ready for some kind of a march, we are going to have to put a line on your phone from the federal building, and we just wanted you to know so that if there are problems that you have then we’ll be there to offer protection. So I don’t even think of that as being a major problem. I would not be of the kind of stature where I would need to worry about somebody shooting me from a motel balcony, but I think that most of the threats that I have had have been relatively small things from some guy who just pretty well decides that he is going to have to be the spokesman for all of the—you know—all of the middle Americans, which is what they frequently call themselves, who don’t like uppity niggers. But I haven’t faced too much of that sort of thing. There is still a kind of national conscience that accepts moral statements by a preacher while they might not accept civil rights stands by somebody else.
MI: During the interview we’ve touched on several problems facing the black community at present and in the past. What do you see the major problems, now, to be?
WL: I think at the moment it is in the area of the distribution of funds. Blacks have a hard time getting decent jobs. I think that probably is a key problem for us. The funds that come in through revenue sharing or the funds that come in through federal grants or the funds that are spent in the school system per child or the funds that are spent in the city per neighborhood—I think that the distribution of funds is still our major problem at the moment. Maybe because we are still a capitalistic society, because we are largely determined economically in a capitalistic society, I would think of this as being the major problem, but I think that until there is an equitable distribution of funds the youngster who wants to go to Harvard will have to leave the Yates community and go to the Bellaire community. I think that until there is an equitable distribution of funds there will be brown OICs and not black OICs. There probably should be a Manpower program funded by the United States Department of Labor that didn’t depend on OIC at all. But in any case, I think that right now, while there is still some tendency to spend more money on street repairs in Tanglewood than in the 5th Ward, that we will have problems.
MI: What is the solution to this?
WL: Blacks in the power structure. I think that as blacks penetrate the power structure, as they get on the city council and as they get onto the county commissioners’ court, as they get into places where offices are held, but even more than that as they get into places where real decisions are made—one case in point: We got a job for a fellow who was a Rutgers law student at Fulbright and Crocker, a law firm. I am a strong believer that the power structure is not what you see, like city council, it’s the Elkins Law Firm or it’s the Jones interests, or it’s the board of directors for the Texas Bank of Commerce—you know—the power structure is someplace else, and if we can get people into that power structure, we’ll do some good. So this young fellow who is a first-year law student at Rutgers who is now part of the Fulbright and Crocker firm opened the door. In that firm of close to—I guess— close to 170 lawyers, it’s the first time any black has been there. That’s the firm out of which Leon Jaworski came. And now because he was there, the door has been opened to a second, and he’s the son of a local black lawyer—you know Aloysius Woodcliff—his son, Aloysius Junior, is the second young black lawyer there. If we can get blacks into the power structure, both the elected power structure and the silent power structure, then it seems to me that many of the problems of blacks will be solved. So we don’t need to make speeches and we don’t need to [inaudible due to background noise] and we don’t need to be seen on television. Most of all, we need to penetrate the power structure of the people who make decisions, and that, it seems to me, is still where it is going to be at for this stage of the game. I think that public civil rights is pretty much past us. The nation now knows that it has a problem, so we don’t need to dramatize the problem. We now need to work at the nitty gritty area of trying to solve the problem. That’s going to take a long time.
MI: Thank you very much, Reverend.