Travels With Mr. Charlie
An Atlantic editor here chronicles some of the high and low moments of a journey of discovery, of hope and illumination. For him and most of his companions, the trip was their first real experience in the black ghettos.
The invitation is straightforward. A small group of “senior journalists" are to be given a seven-day, seven-city inside look at “the black American Ghetto.”Whitney Young, executive director of the Urban League, describes it as “a unique opportunity to get inside the ghetto and look outward at . . . America.”He says it will “sharpen our awareness of the ghetto experience at a critical time in our nation’s history.”
We meet in New York, the night before our departure, for dinner in The Board Room, on the forty-first floor of the Bankers Trust Building, Park Avenue and Forty-eighth Street. We have been good-naturedly threatened with soul food, but that will wait: tonight it is honeydew melon with prosc iutto slices, clear chicken broth, filet mignon with mushroom caps, and mint parfait. Wine, brandy, and cigars. I am effortlessly co-opted.
After dinner Whitney Young gives us a mild pep talk, speaking “as one who has not given up on the system.”He denounces “protest prostitutes.”"nonnegotiable" demands, wonders about the validity of black studies ("do we need black physics, or black medicine?”), and reminds us that the only tranplanted heart working perfectly is a black heart.
Young suggests that black migration to the cities may have reached a turning point, that a reverse migration southward may be in the offing, that Atlanta, in five years, may be “the most liberal city in the United States.”It is an argument I will remember seven days later in Atlanta.
Young complains that too many people see Rap Brown and Dick Gregory as representative of black leadership. He says ruefully, “I am the Bill Buckley of the civil rights movement.” Bill Buckley replies ironically, “Am I the Uncle Tpm. . . ?" Laughter obscures the rest of his sentence.
An editor’s wife asks in mild indignation why interest in race relations is such a one-way street. “Why don’t they take an interest in me?”
I think it is a foolish question. Later in the trip I will be asking it mysell.
CLEVELAND—Our flight reaches Cleveland in midmorning. My guide is a young woman, part Oriental, cheerful, but never very talkative. We ask her why she has volunteered to guide us around her city. “The money,”she says.
We drive to The House of Wills, described to its as Cleveland’s largest Negro funeral parlor. It is an immense pink stucco building in which, we are told, as many as seven funerals can be held more or less simultaneously. Our direc tions are uncertain, and I mistakenly wander into a small room where the body of a young Negro child rests in a casket surrounded by flowers. We have come here for a coffee hour with leaders from Cleveland’s black community. My sense of intrusion is already confirmed.
We go as a group to the offices of the Hough Development Corporation, housed in what looks like an old tenement. The front windows are cloudy or broken. We wind through narrow corridors into a rear basement room where the officers of HDC have gathered and are annoyed at having been kept waiting. The officers are introduced, and one of them angrily insists that we identify ourselves. He wants to know why we are there. I ask myself how I’d answer that question, and I’m embarrassed by my uncertainty. I am being sensitized, I remind myself. These men are hostile with good reason, suspicious because they’ve been taught to be. Our mission is explained by a representative from Cleveland’s Urban League.
We learn that HDC plans to resolve some of the problems of black people in the Hough area by arresting the flow of cash out of the community. This can be done, it is explained, by developing black ownership of the principal revenue outlets, and by exploiting the manpower reservoir that the larger economic system has ignored. An HDC spokesman wishes us to understand that he is not proposing a system of “black capitalism,”inasmuch as revenues from HDC enterprises are to be divided among stockholders in the Corporation, all of whom will be members of the Hough community. A portion of them, he says, will be reserved for welfare mothers to use as they see fit.
We drive through the slum centers of Cleveland. The physical realities are too familiar to be shocking. We see playgrounds littered with broken glass, swing bars without swings, deserted tenements, wretched apartment complexes, public-housing projects that are square, colorless, enveloped in Cyclone fences, cramped parking lots, treeless, scrubby yards.
We visit the offices of Hope, Inc., a nonprofit housing corporation serving the western Hough area and dependent for 40 percent of its funds on HUD’s Model Cities program. Morey Thorington and Vernon Thornton, Hope’s executive director and housing director respectively, are both black and utterly without the self-constious vanities of the men we’ve talked to at HDC. They describe a threephase program which will cost a projected $25 to $35 million, but their immediate goal is the completion of 250 housing units, many of them to be made available to low-income families, who will be supported, in turn, by the federal government’s rent supplement program.
Thornton estimates that there are 25,000 “substandard" housing units in the Hough area, and that the figure grows at the rate of 2.3 units per day. He says it will cost billions per year just to “keep abreast" of decay. And we are talking about only one slum community in one American city. The statistics are depressing. I am uncomfortably aware that Thornton lives with them every day of his life.
INTERROGATORIES: American magazine editor to girl guide: “How does it feel to be black in Cleveland?" The girl guide does not know how to answer the question. I ask myself, “How does it feel to be white in Cleveland?" I have the same problem.
DETROIT—We leave Cleveland in the late afternoon and go directly to Mr. Kelly’s, a bar in one of Detroit’s black slum areas. My guide is an affable young man who works for a downtown bank, as a “community relations expert,” and also assists Chris Alston, the leader of a community organization responsible for showing us around Detroit. The guide’s name is Henry, and he likes to mention, offhandedly, that he once played professional baseball for Kansas City. What he does not say, as often, is that it was the Kansas City Monarchs, not the Kansas City Athletics.
The Urban League has arranged for us to spend the night in what they tell us is a ghetto home. My hosts are Mr. and Mrs. Crawford, and they live in a creaky, gray two-story frame house in the middle of Forest Park, Detroit’s “most blighted” black slum. Mr. Crawford works in a machine shop and earns roughly $165 a week. That puts him well above the poverty level, but there is nothing about his house or life-style that suggests affluence. He has two sons, the younger a slow reader in a nearby elementary school, the older a bored high school junior.
The floors are covered with linoleum, cracking at the edges. There is one bathroom, just off the kitchen on the first floor; a broken washer in the sink faucet slows hot water to a trickle. A gaunt reddish-yellow dog is penned in behind the house, in a yard that is half concrete, half fenced-in garden. Virtually nothing is growing in the garden, though Mrs. Crawford says she’s tried.
At the top of the second-floor landing is a bookcase, with a full set of encyclopedias, several paperbacks, and a handful of hard-cover books, including Burn, Baby, Burn, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Mrs. Crawford says she bought the encyclopedias for her children, and also bought a special beginners’ set for the younger boy.
All the Crawfords are neatly dressed, direct, and hospitable. Mr. Crawford keeps a gun hidden where only he and Mrs. Crawford can find it, and they rely on that, and their dog, to protect them from the full range of community disturbances.
They complain that police rarely patrol their street, and appear only when there is a major disturbance. The Crawfords do not feel protected by the polite, and in saying so they counterpoint the more voluble community view that police action is invariably repressive.
At Mr. Kelly’s: I meet a black personnel officer from the Chrysler Corporation. He is handsome, in his late thirties, a former officer in the Army Corps of Engineers. He exudes understanding, of the black problem, of the white problem. I ask if he has any specific ideas about what can be done, or ought to be done. He talks, a bit evangelistically, about the power of Christian compassion. I ask if there isn’t something to be said for the more direct, Marxist view, that a shift in economic arrangements will alter social attitudes. He doesn’t think anything will work until white men get over their hang-ups. I sense that argument is futile.
I drift in the darkened bar, not sure who the “black community leaders are,” or how eagerly I want to pursue these fragmentary dialogues. I bump into Roger Stone and one of the Urban League aides (white) assigned to the tour. They are concerned about the fact that we, the white reporters and editors, are huddling in groups of our own, and the “black community leaders” are being largely ignored. They wonder, with some irritation, if we have the “guts" to take charge of the situation, whether or not they should cancel the rest of the cocktail parties scheduled for the tour.
I force myself back into the crowd, to talk to black doctors, and police experts, and newsmen, and community developers. I am introduced to a husky, heavily bearded black man wearing a warmup jacket with his name, Ditto, spelled across the back. He shakes my hand, turns his back instantly, and returns to the bar. I am told he runs a storefront youth center, where he trains a paramilitary force of young men who perform a sort of alternative police function in Forest Park. Several of Ditto’s “men” are in Mr. Kelly’s, dressed in army fatigues and army boots, with black or green berets. It is tot) dark to tell. They don’t talk, and I’m told later that they were upset by our inattention.
CHICAGO—My guide is Abe Gainer, who taught in the Chicago schools for three years before going to work for the Urban League. We visit the Greater Lawndale Conservation Commission (GLCC), and talk to Danny Davis, its executive director. Abe says GLCC is “less militant ” than some other local organizations, including one with headquarters roughly a block away. One reason may be that most of its financial support comes from the white business community. That seems the perpetual hang-up of black leadership, and of black political adventurism. Everyone wants money, but no one wants any white strings attached. GLCC has committed the unpardonable sin; it has allowed white men to sit on its board of directors. That, Davis implies, will eventually change.
Davis is a black man in his late thirties. He has been on this job for only five months. We are the “responsible militants,” he says; “we believe in negotiation rather than confrontation.”
I ask him exactly what GLCC does. He talks, I think rather vaguely, about “taking an interest in” housing, education, social agencies, economic development. And he stresses that the emphasis is not black versus white, but haves versus have-nots. I wonder if the distinction is tactical or philosophical.
Outside the offices of GLCC and across the street are several blocks in a row that consist of nothing but leveled lots, covered with ashes, cement, and broken glass. They expose the rows of tenements behind them, where only 200 yards from Abe’s car a dozen small black boys are throwing a basketball through a dangling hoop nailed precariously to a handful of burned boards. “The riots,” Abe says, and the Ebony photographer asks him to pose on a flattened store site, with the tenements sweltering in the background.
Abe takes us to the southside headquarters of the Chicago Black Panthers. We are asked to enter one at a time, climbing two sets of stairs which are divided by a heavy metal screen door. At the top of the stairs is a small anteroom where a sergeant at arms frisks me for weapons and asks if I am carrying marijuana.
We meet what I take to be Chicago’s Black Panther leadership: Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party; Bobby Rush, his “Minister of Defense”; and Jewell Cook, “Minister of Education”—all in their early twenties.
Hampton is thickly muscled and short. He sits on a wicker chair on a raised platform directly in front of a black drape, as if in imitation of the popular picture of Bobby Seale, chairman of the Oakland Panthers. He delivers a brief, obviously prepared statement, in which the Panthers are described as the “only organization that has met the basic needs and desires of the people.”
Hampton outlines the Marxist basis of Panther philosophy, distinguishing between what he calls the “cultural nationalism” of “Papa Doc” Duvalier (who exploited black nationalism for his own purposes) and Lhe “revolutionary nationalism” of Mao Tse-tung (who genuinely serves the people) . He talks, uncertainly I think, about the “withering away of armed forces” under Mao’s enlightened leadership, and I ask why Mao’s Cultural Revolution has produced bloody clashes between the youthful Red Guards and elements of the Chinese Army.
The question is referred to the Panther ideology expert, Minister Rush. He seems the youngest of the trio, and is dressed in a U.S. Army overcoat and combat boots. He wears thin metal-rimmed glasses on the end of his nose, and wears his hair in an extravagant Afro bob. He looks like a youthful Rap Brown. He explains that there are always counterrevolutionary elements which must be repressed, but he does not answer my question about which element is counterrevolutionary, the army or the Red Guards.
We leave Panther headquarters with a burst of camaraderie. I give Minister Cook the black power handshake, affirm my solidarity with the struggle of the people, and leave with considerably mixed feelings. As we drive away I see a police car stop just beyond Panther headquarters. A patrolman gets out and begins to write a ticket for a car illegally parked. Several young Panthers gather around him, at a distance of live or six feet, and yell “pig,” and other random obscenities. The policeman ignores them.
SAN FRANCISCO-Our first stop in San Francisco is the downtown headquarters of the San Francisco State Black Students Union, the second floor of a nondescript storefront building. We walk into the first of two connecting meeting rooms. A pipe-smoking white student sits silently behind a desk. He wears a tweed jacket, cotton trousers, thin steel-rimmed glasses, and does not lift his eyes from the book he is reading—Quotations From Chairman Mao. To his left, in a rocking chair, sits a slender dark-haired girl, also white, her hair tightly braided. She is wearing a red print cotton dress, and she too is silently reading Quotations From Chairman Mao. In the next room are the BSU leaders, though joining them are two unrelated Oriental students named Wong, and three white students representing various Third World groups and the “Joe Hill caucus of SDS.”
After a few general remarks about the corruption of racist education, and the determination of black militants to seize power, then control their destiny, the BSU spokesman demands that we all answer a question before he will continue—“What is a relevant education?" The question is deceptively simple, and a few of us attempt, in absolute sincerity, to answer it. We are hooted down. An answer is demanded of Bill Buckley. He defers: “I didn’t tome here to lecture you, and my views are well known.”
The assault takes a violent turn. We are described as stupid motherfuckers, and worse. A black woman from the Urban League, who is evidently in charge of our San Francisco tour, tries to intercede, saying that “you” are making it difficult for the next group. The blacks think she is talking about them, and derisively call her a white whore. She explains that she was talking about us. But the affair has gotten out of hand, and one or two indignant journalists have drifted out of the building.
The white radicals develop their critique of capitalist economics, in some heat and with considerable agitation. One of the Wongs says he’s had enough of our shit, and walks out. The Mexican-American representative, who ran for a student-council position as a conservative before being radicalized during the past year, speaks eloquently of the injustices of a racist society. Someone says there is no point talking with us as the “cats who run the country control what you write.” The meeting is adjourned.
My guide’s name is Bill Middleton. He is twentyseven, a graduate student at Berkeley, and teaches international relations at San Francisco State, where he studied as an undergraduate. He has a wife and three children, a battered 1962 Falcon, and he turned down graduate fellowships at Stanford, Harvard, and Pitt to stay in the Bay area. He is a member of the BSU, associated with the Black Panthers, the editor of a slum community newspaper, a director of several community welfare organizations, and a vice president of California’s Young Democrats. He is an extraordinary mixture of militance and industry, and he is a patient and perceptive friend during our tour of San Francisco’s Fillmore area.
I’m traveling with John Herbers, a veteran civil rights reporter for the New York Times. Bill takes us to the “Black Man’s Free Medical Clinic,” where Fillmore residents get free medical care three evenings a week and on Saturday afternoon. All equipment has been donated; manpower is voluntary; and roughly twelve M.D.’s, mostly white, take turns manning the clinic’s two examination rooms.
Bill takes us to meet Mrs. Mary Rogers, the mother of twelve, an embattled holdout in an apartment building condemned for urban renewal. She is handsome, direct, formidable, and beyond all doubt immovable. Until two years ago she was an army wife. Now she has settled in San Francisco with ten of her brood and is determined to extract from the city housing accommodations suitable for a family her size, and within the range of her income. She says her apartment, and the building that contains it, could be remodeled at modest expense, and that Urban Renewal refuses because it doesn’t want black people in the neighborhood, and does want middle-income families to move back into the city. Whatever the truth of her circumstances, she is clearly right about the urban redevelopment program as it affects poor black families that live in properties earmarked for demolition and reconstruction. Mrs. Rogers has been offered nothing that meets her basic requirements, and will permit her to remain in her present neighborhood. She rests her case on her “rights as a tenant,” a concept that chills the hearts of redevelopers everywhere.
It is not that tenants have no rights, or that in reconstructing our cities we should be deaf to their interests. What Mrs. Rogers is asserting as a right, however, is the privilege of remaining where she is because she likes it there, and because the alternatives are almost certain to be less attractive, and quite certain to remove her from the thin fabric of her “community.” Slum clearance extracts its hugest price from those whom the slums have most abused. It is difficult to take satisfaction in new cities that have buried, still alive, the inhabitants of the old ones.
LOS ANGELES—We visit Ron Karenga’s headquarters, the Black Congress, in south Los Angeles. The decor is the familiar red, green, and black, the colors of black liberation. We are met at the entrance by a young girl in a form-fitting dashiki. She painfully recites a rote speech of welcome and identifies a few artifacts in the lobby and then in two interior offices. There are posters applauding Arab guerrilla forces in the Middle East, and commemorating the exploits of Chaka, a Zulu chieftain who slaughtered several thousand of his own warriors in order to discipline his troops, and who imposed upon his army a year of continence as a tribute to his deceased mother.
We are ushered into a larger auditorium by a fluttering group of female acolytes, who serve us coffee and coconut-covered doughnuts. Folding chairs have been arranged in front of a large table, flanked by floral decorations. The smell of burning incense fills the air.
Karenga enters the room, a short pudgy man with a cleanly shaven skull, a Vandyke beard and mustache, black boots, black trousers, and a black jerkin. To his right nestles a lovely girl he introduces as his wife. To his left, at an unflinching parade rest, stands a muscular teen-ager plainly infatuated with his role as bodyguard.
Karenga complains that he is not getting enough attention from the press, and hopes that we will report his remarks faithfully. He welcomes us to his “sacred spot,” explains that women, in his scheme of things, are “complementary” rather than equal, or in opposition. He delivers a monologue about his movement, studded with obscurities, deliberate paradoxes, and painfully boastful proclamations. (“We have developed the only ideology of the black-power movement.” “We seek, in our revolution, to gain spate, not land.” “Marx is meaningless.”) His acolytes applaud each shaft of wisdom, the women tittering in adoration, the men honing their steely stares. The lecture drifts occasionally into Swahili, which Karenga translates.
We are invited to ask questions. The questions are ritualistic, the answers more so (Can Mr. Karenga amplify his plans for economic development of the black community? Can he tell us more specifically what is in store for America during the coming “year of the guerrilla”?). I marvel that professional reporters think there is more information to be had. Why are we here? Does Karenga have a plan for redeveloping his or any other black community? Will he find jobs for the unemployed? Homes for the poorly housed? Is he offering anything other than the illusion of involvement, the placebo of witless devotion to one man’s megalomania?
WATTS-We check into the only motel in Watts, the highly publicized slum community in the southern reaches of Los Angeles. Our rooms have no phone or television, often only cold water. But each bed stares up at a mirror mounted on the ceiling. I wonder what we’ve done to Watts’ extralegal economy.
We have been invited to a community supper at the Watts Community Workshop, a two-story clearinghouse for the full range of community redevelopment projects, with emphasis on new housing and economic growth. Unlike the cocktail parties we’ve been to, this one has attracted community rank and file. I am led to a table surrounded by four grandmotherly black women who plunge me instantly into the deficiencies of public education in Watts. They are articulate and unsparing in their criticism of hiring practices, curricula, and the fate of high school graduates (one says only 5 percent go on to college).
I reminisce with one, over a supper of fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and corn bread, about rural Arkansas, where I spent most of my adolescent school days, and where she was born. Neither of us is altogether generous in our recollections. It is a warm, sentimental, satisfying gathering, and it ends quite abruptly. I am asked, along with the other visiting journalists, to move into the larger room next door where members of the community wish to ask us some questions.
The introduction is mild, but the questions are not. We are asked why we are here, where we have spent the day, what we hope to find out that hasn’t already been recorded a dozen times. One of us innocently mentions the visit to Karenga headquarters. The announcement produces an angry query, Why have we wasted our time with Karenga? The answer is simple, but we are mute. The harangues continue, from a fulsome welfare mother, an ex-con who operates a rehabilitation home, a self-made manufacturer, an aging printer who thunders at the waste and cynicism of white analyzers, sociologizers, and reporters, who dutifully note the misery of Watts, then move on, only to be replaced.
Venom aside, the message is one of frustration and bafflement. The destruction of Watts was the public spectacle of 1965. Most of the lots whose buildings burned to the ground are still vacant. The unemployment problem is still severe. Public transportation is still expensive and capricious. Much housing is still substandard. The schools, it is believed, are still crippling the minds of black children. No black community, however, has been more conspicuous than Watts, and to the members of no community, one suspects, has the promise of regeneration been so persuasively tendered. Yet, and this is the refrain of our accusers, “nothing has changed.”
My stoicism is exhausted. I have been called a lying, insincere, worthless white racist motherfucker for several days, on several occasions, and I no longer feel like a disembodied “representative” of the white, dutiful, uncharitable middle class. In Jesse Jackson’s words, I am somebody, and I am the somebody who is being attacked with such gracelessness and so little curiosity. They want a white man to hate, I think, not a faceless metaphor of white society. And if there is value in the confrontation, I am determined to share in it, by accepting it.
George Leonard, of Look, is also aroused. He throws his glass across the room and says he’s heard enough. He’s been writing about the movement for years, he says, and the evidence of how he feels, and where he stands, is in his work. He asks each of his attackers, individually, to read the next issue of Look, in which will be found his most recent article, on white and black confrontation therapy.
Leonard shocks the gathering, and it begins to melt away. I’m left talking with Mrs. Mildred Walker, a sensitive, charming, and deceptively mildmannered black writer, the widow of a man evidently revered for his activities with CORE in preMcKissick days. Mrs. Walker doubts that there is serious interest in the work of angry, truthful black writers. The easy replies fail me. I realize we are working on different sides of the fence. And I am aware, uncomfortably so, that the fence is durable.
The next day is divided among several projects. I learn from a Bell Telephone executive that a Watts Industrial Park of some 45 acres is to be developed over the next few years, providing 5200 new jobs for people of the community. A Lockheed plant with 300 job openings will open by January 1, 1970. Later I learn the industrial park is being built in Lynwood, an adjacent suburb. Thus Watts will not benefit from the new tax base, even though it will gain, in theory, a great many new job opportunities.
We see the site of the new Martin Luther King Hospital, and I’m told that the homes torn down to make way for hospital construction were forcibly bought at “market value” plus 5 percent. The “market value” of small houses in Watts is not very high, and the dispossessed have difficulty finding suitable replacements, it is a familiar refrain. Short of massively constructed and subsidized public housing, there seems little solution. Public housing in Watts, for the most part, is grim, unimaginative, and predates the 1965 riots.
I visit the offices of Watts Redevelopment, a HUD-financed agency empowered to supervise a new housing project which will take as many as ten years to complete. Mrs. McKinney, a “relocation specialist, says the first phase of her program awaits only the necessary funds from Washington. The “first phase,” I learn, involves the wholesale purchase of homes in a two-block area near Watts’s business district. Each house has been appraised twice, and a sales price consisting of fair market value plus an adjustable amount up to $5000 (depending on family income) will be offered to the homeowners affected. An additional cash disbursement, up to $200 for an eight-room house, will be paid to cover moving expenses of the families concerned. Mrs. McKinney says that houses are available for all of these families, within a ten-mile radius of their present location.
The Jordan Educational Complex embraces seven separate school units which have been granted $1.5 million in federal funds to develop models for improving slum schools. An advisory board, consisting of interested members of the community, many of them with no formal background in education, has been working with the Los Angeles School Department in shaping this program. I see only black administrators, mostly black teachers. The school buildings are fairly new, and strike me as cheerful and well designed. Everyone seems to agree that the problem lies in curriculum design, finding a way to tap the resources of slum children instead of turning them off with middle-class irrelevancies.
My antagonists of the night before say that nothing is happening in Watts. I think they are wrong, but it may be several years before they see tangible signs of the changes that are already beginning. At the very least what is happening in Watts is that a good many of its citizens are learning the organizational and theoretical lessons of cultural and political change. The violent antagonisms of the night before seem to me residuals of the past. There is hardly time for hatred in the urgency of what is under way for the future.
ATLANTA (which Whitney Young told us might soon be the most liberal city in America) —To quote Jesse Jackson, not any time soon. Our accommodations, in any case, have taken a drastic upward swing. Paschals’ is a munificent four-story, black-owned motel on Hunter Avenue, a thoroughfare not far from Atlanta’s burgeoning midtown action, and only a few short blocks from one of Atlanta’s shabbiest black slums.
I have two guides: Webster Brown, who describes himselt as “a typical college student,” from Oglethorpe University; and Dale Evans, the wife of one of Atlanta’s most experienced and engaging community organizers. Both are black and in their early twenties. Webster is one of the few black students in a white university, and the son of a wealthy black businessman. His ambition, he declares, is to get rich enough, soon enough, to retire at forty-five.
Our first major stop, on our tour of Atlanta, is a tiny, virtually rural slum on the literal outskirts of town. It is called Plunkettown, and it falls halfway into Atlanta, and halfway into neighboring Clayton County. Plunkettown consists of no more than a few hundred people, and probably no more than fifty or sixty largely dilapidated houses. It is a favorite point of departure for tours of Atlanta slum conditions, and Dale warns us that the people have become weary of curious journalists.
Several Plunkettowners refuse to speak with us, others seem literally on the verge of stoning our car. We finally locate a man who will talk, but he doesn’t want to be identified. He built his own home here several years ago, and it is a solid-looking, two-level, whitewashed cinder-block house with green shutters, screen doors, indoor plumbing, and a bit of modest shrubbery. It is by no definition a hovel.
Our informant lives on the Clayton County side of Plunkettown, and says that county officials refuse to pave the street that runs by his house, or extend a nearby sewer line 500 yards to connect with his plumbing system. He says he has visited the Clayton County courthouse and has been indifferently turned away. The needs of other Plunkettowners are more elaborate, and we see several decaying wooden structures with weathered outhouses and sagging roofs.
Plunkettown is serviced by electrical and telephone utilities, however, and Mr. X says a school bus picks up his children every morning. A police substation is only a few blocks away, and police cruisers drift through the area at irregular intervals, though Plunkettowners complain that responses to police calls are dangerously slow. A serious problem is that there are no fire hydrants anywhere in Plunkettown. Though most of the houses are separated by yards, a major fire in any of the wooden frame dwellings would almost certainly be hard, if not impossible, to control.
I ask who Plunkettown’s political representatives are. I am told there aren’t any. It may be a case of figurative, if not literal, truth.
We meet Maynard Jackson, the black candidate for vice-mayor of Atlanta. He is thirty, and finished law school before he was twenty. He runs a nourishing law practice for both white and black clients and has organized a Legal Aid counseling service on the side. He is tall, quite heavy, with straight handsome features. His speech has a ministerial mellifluence which reminds me of Senator Frank Church. I think he is bright, enormously ambitious, and probably realistic about the prospects for black men in Atlanta politics. “When you’re talking about black people,” he says, describing the official city hall position, “there is no commitment to do what needs to be done.”
“The office of vice-mayor has been largely ceremonial,”says Jackson, but as a nonvoting member of city commissions and committees he hopes to take a more active role than his predecessors. I will meet Jackson again at supper, where he is gently patronized by the more militant among Atlanta’s black leaders. They prize him nonetheless as one of theirs. And within the rules of the game, that is what he is.
The office of R. Denis Jackson, “cultural therapist.” Dale Evans describes him as a psychiatrist, a black belt judo expert, and a man seriously interested in the welfare of the black community. The doctor greets us amiably and invites us to sit with him in his reception lobby. He has immense shoulders, a deep chest, a thin mustache. He is, I would guess, in his early forties.
Jackson introduces himself as “the first cultural psychiatrist in the United States,” and guesses that we didn’t know he was the source of “black power” as a political slogan. He guesses right.
“I see the basic problem of the black man in America as a mass neurosis,”he says, citing Wilhelm Reich as the source for his theories about the debilitating consequences of “the suppression of the capacity for love.” “A satisfactory sexual climax,” says Jackson, is the answer to mental health, and the key to good sex is “powerfulness,” as opposed to “powerlessness.”
What follows is a remarkable, and increasingly manic, diatribe against the white man in history. “Western civilization developed the ‘hate for work concept,’ ” says Jackson, while “the black man was the only industrious group to come to this country.”
On discrimination: “Jews are persecuted because they have never built a physical power to keep other people off their backs.”
On body odor: “You project all the things you hate about yourself to the scapegoat group. Thus body soap, toothpaste, were invented by white Europeans, to disguise the stench of white men. So white men say the Negro smells.”
On Hitler: “Hitler was a white liberal before he came to Vienna, and changed.”
On George Washington: “A thug, a traitor, a murderer, slaveholder, an uncivilized barbarian, a bastardizer.”
On the American flag: “I consider the American flag toilet paper.”
“I’m the man who coined ‘black is beautiful.’ I’m the father of black pride.”
Later, Dale wants to know what I think of Doctor Jackson. I say I think he is a dangerous man, who needs hate to fortify his own faltering sense of adequacy. She says he’s running for election to the Atlanta School Board. As if Atlanta didn’t have enough problems.
Our last day, in Washington, is a disaster. We are joined for breakfast by Whitney Young, who wants to know what we think about what we’ve seen. Our responses are largely without surprise or ingenuity, and Young listens to them with Rotarian patience and solicitude. Our audience at the Executive Office Building, with Pat Moynihan, OEO Chief Donald Rumsfeld, Agriculture Secretary Clifford Hardin, and other Administration notables, is a waste of time for everyone. Osborne Elliott, of Newsweek, has reluctantly agreed to attempt a summary of our impressions, which Moynihan works manfully to absorb with grace. After an hour of good-natured banalities, we leave our last scheduled meeting and drift away, individually, into the midday traffic of downtown Washington.
What was the worth of it all? What did it mean to be one of a group of white (except for the writer/photographer team from Ebony) mildly or exceedingly prosperous writers, editors, and columnists, all essentially liberal or humanist in outlook, dipping briefly in and out of the smoldering tension of our black metropolitan slums?
Some of the temptations are obvious. It was a chance to affirm our conventional disappointments with modern industrialized society—the slums were overcrowded, greenery scarce, houses barely habitable, schools badly run or committed to irrelevancies, policemen tending toward indifference or zealousness, economic opportunities scarce or suspiciously transient.
But what, in our truncated sessions of hit-or-miss investigation, could we sensibly conclude about the efficacy of federally supported poverty programs in Chicago’s inner city? About the exact dimensions of Cleveland’s housing shortage, or the intricacies of Negro/police relations in Detroit? Could any of us, in the day allotted, come to a useful understanding of why, after four conspicuous years, the Watts landscape is largely as barren as it was a few weeks after the 1965 riots?
What we could do, as men trained to record the truths about unpleasant facts, was to extract from a welter of fleeting and abrasive impressions a sense of where we are, what a society painfully wounded by prejudice and self-interest has done or might do to resolve its inconsistencies and erase its trauma.
What we might have learned, from our talks with the men and women who have assumed positions of leadership in the black community, is that our well-intentioned liberal rhetoric has extravagantly oversold the intricate system it purports to defend. The civil rights movement is all but dead, not because our courts didn’t bend eloquently to the protection of civil equality, but because we have not, as a people, found a way to honor our own convictions. And the Great Society, for all its principled grandeur, is so far from the realities of life in our large cities that we are in danger of losing a vital portion of our citizenry to paranoia and violence.
In the slums we met black people of astonishing resourcefulness, perception, and intelligence. They have organized medical clinics, begun the reform of their schools, opened factories, planned parks for their children, and seized upon the rudiments of organized political power. A great many of them, ordinary citizens like the Crawfords in Detroit, still cling bravely to the minimal expectations of an orderly and just community.
These skills and ambitions, as well as the tolerance that sustains them, are resources too valuable to abuse. They are more durable than the chauvinism of black separatists, or the inchoate postures of adolescent Maoists. They deserve our honest respect. We don’t help them by conceding philosophical principle, or by relinquishing our sense of individual dignity. If we believe in the values of a civil democracy, we can’t ignore the distortion of those values, no matter how intensely we wish to identify ourselves with the justifiable grievances of black people in America.
If there is an answer to these grievances—and there must be if we are to preserve any of the values of a civil democracy—it will come from the deliberations of men, black and white, who can distinguish between skepticism and paranoia, between ambition and adventurism, between democratic procedure and pressure-group extortion. In moments of candor, the people of Watts admit that their community wasn’t much to start with, that their program of rehabilitation is less an act of reclamation than an expression of confidence in the future. It is a confidence they are entitled to, an ambition that is inescapably crucial to everyone’s hopes for America.
Mr. Curtis, who grew up in Arkansas and graduated from Cornell, is an associate editor of this magazine.