Martin Luther King Jr.'s Amazing 1964 Interview With Robert Penn Warren

Six months after the March on Washington, he discussed the obligations of "the Negro" in an integrated society, non-violence, and having eggs thrown at him in Harlem.
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On March 18, 1964, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. in King's offices in Atlanta to interview him for what would become Warren's 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren, a Kentuckian who in the 1940s had been one of America's first poet laureates (then called the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress), was going around the country interviewing civil-rights leaders and grassroots organizers, such as King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and Ralph Ellison. The tapes remained in Warren's archives, and were scattered between universities for decades until a young scholar in 2006 sparked a conversation that led, six years later, to a unified collection of the tapes and other research materials for the Warren book at one university, in a digitized format that made them easily accessible online for the first time.

Housed online at the Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Oral History Project, which is part of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, and at the Vanderbilt University Library, the interview between Warren and King was publicly aired for the first time on C-SPAN Radio in October 2006, and was re-aired by C-SPAN Radio over the weekend in advance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

It's really a treasure. "I've never heard him just talk. You only hear (recordings of) King preach or give a speech," Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt, told The Tennessean when the digital archive finally went online in September 2012. "It's pre-YouTube and social media."

She's right. Even for those who have listened to King's speeches and read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and other writings, there's something to just hearing the man talk, to listening to his mind at work in real time, that offers a greater sense of who he is. In this interview, we get a glimpse of King not just as an orator preaching on behalf of civil rights and a more just society, but as a psychological observer, political tactician, and social-change strategist grappling with a wide array of opponents and personal threats with extraordinary clarity and sympathy.

It's worth taking an hour to listen to the full interview. I've excerpted some of the most illuminating passages, below:

* * *

On the obligations and responsibilities that would come after integration:

WARREN: Now, what problems, responsibilities, and obligations would you say the Negro would have in this relationship in this third phase?

KING: Well, I would think this would be the phase, or the responsibilities of the Negro in this phase would be in the area what Mahatma Gandhi used to refer to as "constructive work," his constructive program, which is a program whereby the individuals work desperately to improve their own conditions and their own standards. I think in this phase, after the Negro emerges in and from the desegregated society, then a great deal of time must be spent in improving standards which lag behind to a large extent because of segregation--

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- discrimination, and the legacy of slavery. But it seems to me that the Negro will have to engage in a sort of operation bootstraps in order to lift these standards. And I think by raising the, these lagging standards, it will make it much more, well, I, I would say much less difficult for him to move on into the integrated society.

* * *

On being accused of selling out:

WARREN: -- come to a point of pause there. Two weeks ago a prominent newspaperman said to me -- a Southerner by birth -- "Thank God for Dr. King; he's our only hope." He was worrying about violence. Now, this is very often said by white people. Dr. Kenneth Clark has remarked in print that your appeal to many white people is because you lull them into some sense of security. And I hear, too, that there is some resistance, automatic emotional resistance on the part of Negroes because they feel that your leadership has somehow given a, not "sellout," but a sense of a soft line, a rapprochement that flatters the white man's sense of security. Do you encounter this, and how do you, how do you think about this? How do you feel about these things, assuming they are true?

KING: Well, I don't agree with it. (laughs) Naturally. I think, first, one must understand what I'm talking about and what I'm trying to do when I say "love" and that the love ethic must be at the center of this struggle. I'm certainly not talking about an affectionate emotion. I'm not talking about what the Greek language would refer to as "Eros," or --

WARREN: -- yes -- 

KING: -- famile. I'm talking about something much deeper. And I think there's a misunderstanding.

WARREN: But now how can this misunderstanding be cleared up? I know your writings and I've heard you speak on, on that. But a misunderstanding somehow remains among a large segment of Negroes and among a large segment of whites.

KING: Um-hm. Um-hm. Well, I don't think it can be cleared up for those who refuse to look at the meaning of it. I've done it.

WARREN: I see.

KING: I've said it in print over and over again.

WARREN: Yes, you have. Yeah.

KING: But I do not think violence and hatred can solve this problem.

WARREN: Yes.

KING: I think they will end up creating many more social problems than they solve, and I'm thinking of a very strong love. I'm not, I'm thinking, I'm thinking of love in action and not something where you say, "Love your enemies," and just leave it at that, but you love your enemies to the point that you're willing to sit-in at a lunch counter in order to help them find themselves. You're willing to go to jail.

WARREN: Yes.

KING: And I don't think anybody could consider this cowardice or even a weak approach. So I think --

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- that many of these arguments come from, from those who have gotten so caught up in bitterness that they cannot see the deep moral issues involved. That you're --

WARREN: -- or the white man, caught up in complacency.

KING: Yes.

WARREN: Refuses to understand it.

KING: Yes, I think so. I think both.

* * *

On whether movements need centralized leadership:

WARREN: Let me try something else, another general question. All revolutions, as far as I know, in the past have had the tendency ... to move toward a centralized leadership --

KING: -- um-hm --

WARREN: -- to move toward a man who has both a power and symbolic function.

KING: Um-hm.

WARREN: Now you are stuck yourself in a very peculiar role by a series of things, personal qualities and God knows what else, you know. But still there is no, this revolution, if we call it one, does, is not following that pattern, though we see the tendency to focus on single leadership. Can a revolution survive without this symbolic focus, even if not without, even without a literal focus under single leadership?

KING: I think so.

WARREN: You, you know the question. I mean I'm might not, I'm not putting it well, but you get what I'm driving at?

KING: Yes, I think, I think I do. I think a revolution can survive without this single centralized leadership, but I do think there must be centralized leadership in the sense that, say, in our struggle all of the leaders coordinate their efforts, cooperate and, and at least evince a degree of unity. And I think if we, say, if all of the major leaders in this struggle were at, at war with each other, then I think it would be very difficult to make this social revolution the kind of powerful revolution that it's proved to be. But the fact is that we have had on the whole a unified leadership, although it hasn't been just one person. And I think there can be a collective leadership. Maybe some symbolize the struggle a little more than others, but I think it's absolutely necessary for the leadership to be united in order to make the revolution effective.

* * *

On the explosions to come in Detroit and Chicago and other big urban centers:

WARREN: There's a problem that many people now talk about, from now on as more and more activity occurs in the big centers like Harlem and Detroit and Chicago, desperate wondering as to whether any leadership now visible or imaginable can control the random explosion that might come at any time --

KING: -- um-hm --

WARREN: -- the random violence,

KING: Yeah. Well --

WARREN: -- that is stored; it's being stored up because we know it's stored up.

KING: Um-hm. Yes.

WARREN: Is that the big central problem you all are facing now?

KING: Well, I think it's a, it's a real problem. And I think the only answer to this problem is the degree to which the nation is able to go; I should say the speed in which we move toward the solution of the problem. The more progress we can have in race relations and the, the more we move toward the goal of an integrated society, the more we lift the hope, so to speak, of the masses of people. And it seems to me that this will lessen the possibility of sporadic violence.

On the other hand, if we get setbacks and if something happens where the Civil Rights Bill is watered down, for instance, if the Negro feels that he can do nothing but move from one ghetto to another and one slum to another, the despair and the disappointment will be so great that it will be very difficult to keep the struggle disciplined and nonviolent.

So I think it will depend on the rate of progress and the speed, and recognition on the part of the white leadership of, of the need to go on and get this problem solved and solved in a hurry, and the need for massive action programs to do it.

* * *

On how whites are also hurt by segregation:

KING: Wherever schools can be integrated through the busing method, and where it won't be just a, a terrible inconvenience, I think it ought to be done because I think the inconveniences of a segregated education are much greater than the inconveniences of busing students so that they can get an integrated quality education.

WARREN: Are you referring to white and Negro students both, in this matter of --

KING:  -- that's right -- 

WARREN: -- of inconvenience? Both are being short-changed, as it were?

KING: That's right. Oh, yes. Yes, exactly.

WARREN: It's not just the Negro being given a chance to be with a white child or going to a better school, it's the question of the white child's own relationship to himself and to Negroes, too?

KING: That's right. In other words, my, I feel that when a white child goes to school only with white children, unconsciously that child grows up in many instances devoid of a world perspective. There is an unconscious provincialism, and it can develop into an unconscious superiority complex just as a Negro develops an unconscious inferiority complex.

And it seems to me that one must, that our society must come to see that this whole question of, of integration is not merely a matter of quantity, having the same this and that in terms of a building or a desk or this, but it's a matter of quality. It's, if I can't communicate with a man, I'm not equal to him. It's not only a matter of mathematics; it's a matter of psychology and philosophy.

WARREN: Well, he isn't equal to you either if he can't communicate with you.

KING: Exactly. It's the same, the same thing.

WARREN: It cuts both ways.

KING: It cuts both ways, exactly.

* * *

On looking to Africa and to America:

KING: I think one can live in American society with a certain cultural heritage, whether it's an African heritage or other, European, what, what have you, and still absorb a great deal of this culture. There is always cultural assimilation. This is not an unusual thing; it's a very natural thing. And I think that we've got to come to see this. The Negro is an American. We, we, we know nothing about Africa, although our roots are there in terms of our forbearers. But I mean as far as the average Negro today, he knows nothing about Africa. And I think he's got to face the fact that he is an American, his culture is basically American, and one becomes adjusted to this when he realizes what, what he is. He's got to know what he is. Our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.

* * *

On the urgency of the moment:

KING: We have lived so long with this idea with people saying it takes time and wait on time, that I find it very difficult to, to adjust to this. I mean, I, I get annoyed almost when I hear it, although I know it takes time. But the people that use this argument have been people so often who, who really didn't want the change to come, and gradualism for them meant a do nothing-ism, you know, and the standstill-ism, so that it has been a revolt, I think, against the idea of a feeling on the part of some that you can just sit around and wait on time, when, actually, time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively.

* * *

On getting egged and stabbed in Harlem and the bitterness of black nationalists:

WARREN: Let me ask you one, one more question. How do you interpret the assaults on you in Harlem?

KING: That, you mean --

WARREN: -- the two assaults, yeah --

KING: -- the two, the --

WARREN: -- yes, yes.

KING: The stabbing and the --

WARREN: -- two, stabbing and the, the throwing of things. These two experiences must have been ghastly shocking, of course, to anybody --

KING: -- um-hm.

WARREN: But as a special extra shock in --

KING: -- yes --

WARREN: -- your case.

KING: Yes. Yeah. Well, the first one, I, I don't know if we'll ever know what the cause or basis was because here you had a demented mind who really didn't know why she was doing it. I, I really don't, really don't think, it may be that she had been around some of the meetings of these groups in Harlem, black nationalist groups, that have me all the time as a favorite object of scorn --

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- and hearing this over and over again, she, she may have responded to it when I came to Harlem. Or it may be that she was just so confused that she would've done this to anybody whose name was in the news. We, we'll never know. But now on the other one where they threw eggs at --

WARREN: -- yes --

KING: -- eggs at a car, I think that was really a, a result of the black nationalist groups, and a feeling, you know, they've heard all of these things about my being soft and my talking about 'love the white' man all the time, and I, I think a real feeling that, that, that this kind of approach is far from, it, it's a cowardly approach. And they transfer that bitterness toward the white man to me because they began to see, I mean, they began to fear that I'm saying love this person that they have such a bitter attitude toward. I think it's, I think it grows right out of that. In fact Malcolm X had a meeting the day before and he had talked about me a great deal and said, told them that I would be there the next night and said, "Now, you all are to go over there and let old King know what you think about him."

And he had said a great deal about nonviolence, criticizing nonviolence, and saying that I approved of Negro men and women being bitten by dogs and the fire hoses, and I say, say go on and not defend yourself. So I think this kind of response grew out of the build up and the, all of the talk about my being a sort of polished Uncle Tom. I mean this is the kind of thing they say in those groups. Now my feeling has always been, again, that they have never understood what I've said, I'm, I'm saying --

WARREN: -- same old story?

KING: Because, yeah, they confuse, they don't see that there's a great deal of a difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.

And certainly I'm not saying that you sit down and patiently accept injustice. I'm talking about a very strong force, where you stand up with all your might against an evil system, and you, you, you are not a coward.

You, you, you are resisting, but you've come to see that tactically as well as morally, it is better to be nonviolent. I can't see anything but, even if one would, didn't want to deal with the moral questions, it would just be impractical for the Negro to talk about making his struggle a violent one.

WARREN: On that point, the, this Brinkley survey and the Post survey in Harlem came up with an astonishing fact, that a large percentage of the population of Harlem do not think of a Negro as being a minority.

KING: Is that so?

WARREN: Don't even know it.

KING: They don't even --

WARREN: -- that even though it's factually been done.

KING: Yeah.

WARREN: And other, others feel it, emotionally don't feel it because they see so few white people around.

KING: This is a, that's right; they never go out of Harlem.

WARREN: So, the tactical appeal doesn't apply to them.

KING: Um-hm. Yeah.

WARREN: They say, "We're the majority."

KING: Yeah. That's right. That's right. I think that's --

WARREN: -- that's dangerous fact, isn't it?

KING: Right. That's a dangerous fact, yes. And you see many people in Harlem never go out of Harlem. I mean they'd never even been downtown. And you can see how this bitterness can accumulate. Here you see people crowded and hovered up in ghettos and slums with no hope, you see. They, they, they see no way out. If they could, you know, look down a long corridor and see an exit sign, they would feel a little better, but they, they see no sense of hope. And it, it's, it's very easy for one talking about violence and hatred for the white man to appeal to them. And, and I have never thought of this, but I think this, this is quite true, that if, even if you talk to them about nonviolence from a tactical point of view, they can't quite see it because they don't even know they're outnumbered --

WARREN: -- that's right --

KING: -- you see.

WARREN: Emotionally, they can't grasp it.

KING: That's right. They can't grab it.

WARREN: Let me ask one more question. When you were assaulted, and it's very hard, I know, to reconstruct one's own feelings, what did you feel? What were your first actual reactions at the moment they threw the, well, say the eggs and so forth, say that, that, not the mad woman, but the, the other. Can you reconstruct that?

KING: Well, I --

WARREN: -- was it significant to you in a, in an emotional way what you went through in that moment?

KING: Yes, I remember my feelings very well. I, at, at first this was a very, I guess I had a, a very depressing response because I realized that these were my own people, these were Negroes throwing eggs at me. And I guess you do go through those moments when you begin to think about what you're going through and the sacrifices and suffering that you face as a result of the movement, and yet your own people don't have an understanding and are seeking, not even an appreciation, and seeking to destroy your image at every point.

But then it was very interesting. I went right into church and I spoke and I started thinking not so much about myself but about the very people, the society that made people respond like this. It was so interesting how I was able very quickly to get my mind off of myself and feeling sorry for myself and feeling rejected, and I started including them into the orbit of my thinking that it's not enough to condemn them for doing this, this, engaging in this act, but what about the society and what about the conditions that are still alive which made people act like this?

And I got up and spoke and mentioned this, and the people were almost, they didn't, I told them about the experience because many of them in the church didn't know about it and I got up and told them, and they were, they didn't quite know how to respond when I said, I told them what happened and I said, "But, you know, the thing that concerns me is not so much the, those young men. I feel sorry for them. I'm concerned about the fact that maybe all of us have contributed to this by not working harder to get rid of the conditions, the poverty, the social isolation, and all of the conditions that cause individuals to respond like this."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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