Talking with activists in Montgomery, Alabama

Fifty-one years ago this month, Studs was in Montgomery, Alabama talking with people who had just marched from Selma to Montgomery, others who were joining the movement in Montgomery, and Montgomery natives both for and against the march.

Abernathy family with Dr. and Mrs. King leading the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Abernathy family with Dr. and Mrs. King leading the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Studs recorded nine programs’ worth of interviews in Montgomery, capturing the candid voices of a nation undergoing a great change.  Reminiscent of today’s campaign trail interviews, these Montgomery interviews include voices of hope and voices of hate.

Today we’re featuring the second program in the series.  Studs is at the home of his unnamed host (well, it slips out partway through, but we get the feeling it’s not supposed to), a bustling place that sounds full of people with even more calling every few minutes.  He first speaks to Rachel and Sarah, two college students who joined the march and were arrested and sent to jail for their trouble.  Next, he speaks with a middle aged woman who has returned to her home in Alabama after living many years in California.  She is familiar with the perspective of upper-middle class Montgomery citizens, and gives some insight into it.  In fact, she is so closely tied with that world that she decides not to attend the final rally: “I would alienate myself from my family… I would lose my job… and I would be criticized by my friends.”

Finally, he speaks with the host.  This man had a career in Washington, D.C., including time spent on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.  He is a proud Southerner, and offers a thoughtful account of Southern identity as well as a broader view of the problems in the South.  What it all comes down to, he believes, is passivity and fear: “We got afraid to think anymore.  Not only to express our opinions, but soon we got so we can’t think.”

Photo credit: By Abernathy Family (Abernathy Family Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Rosa Parks & Myles Horton

December 1 marked the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest, and December 5 will mark the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.  To mark these important dates, and to honor those involved, we’re sharing a very special interview.

“What you do is the thing that says to people what you believe,” said Myles Horton to Studs Terkel in 1973.  Mr. Horton and Rosa Parks were in Chicago receiving honorary degrees from Columbia College, and they join Studs to discuss the events that led up to the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.  Mrs. Parks tells listeners in her own words exactly what happened to her on December 1, 1955, and in the days following her arrest.

Mr. Horton was the founder and director of the Highlander Folk School, and knew Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Mrs. Parks was working for the NCAAP in 1955, and by 1973 was on the staff of U.S. Representative John Conyers.

Their conversation is educational and inspiring, and a glimpse into a time in our history that cannot be forgotten.

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A Justification For Racism: Voices From Montgomery Alabama

Just this week, Chicago announced that it had paid over 5.5 million dollars in reparations to victims of police brutality since 2013 and San Francisco has just announced that at least one police officer is facing termination from last week’s texting scandal.  The march from Selma to Montgomery that took place 50 years ago were the beginning of the end of institutional racism in America. At least that was the hope and yet stories such as Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland and Ferguson have become so routine that some people aren’t even surprised when it happens in their towns.  An entire movement #BlackLivesMatter has been born to address this issue and it has once again become a major talking point amongst Americans.

Back on March 25, 1965, Studs risks personal peril when he went to Montgomery, Alabama to speak with the citizens there to find out what they were thinking and feeling during this momentous occasion. From a 110 year old reverend, born in slavery to white citizens defending segregation with Biblical teachings, these interviews will inspire and shock you. No topic is too controversial for Studs as he discusses Governor George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King highlighting the disconnect between white and black America.  Fifty years later the question becomes; is racism over, and if not, what can be done to fix the problem once and for all.

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Studs in Montgomery: March, 1965

In this next installment of Studs’s journey to Montgomery, Alabama, he speaks with three women: a journalist, a German emigrée who has lived in the States for eighteen years, and a friend of his whose family has been in Montgomery since the early nineteenth century.

The journalist expresses her bewilderment over what has taken place in her city, and she and Studs have a fascinating conversation about the difference between abstract and specific experiences, and the difference between knowing and liking a single person and dealing with the demands of a group of thousands.  Studs and his friend cover a wide range of topics, (including an interesting few minutes on stereotypes that link sexual prowess and skin color); and her thoughts on media, globalization, the relationship between money, power, and race relations, and the future of a multi-racial world are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

But it was the German emigrée whose voice really stood out to me. Continue reading →

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Studs’s First-Hand Reports on the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches of 1965

In light of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 and the release of the film Selma, we’ve been diving into the seven remarkable radio programs Studs Terkel recorded during his visit to Alabama to chronicle the movement. The range of voices and sounds from these programs is some of the most gripping in-the-moment oral history in the entire Studs Terkel Radio Archive, and a thrilling immersion in the raw emotions of a huge social movement unfolding in real time.

Below is the first of Studs’s seven Montgomery programs. The fifty-minute recording features dozens of voices; it starts with the remarkable voice of 104-year-old Reverend William Franklin Paschal (born in 1861!) sitting on the steps of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church watching the march and sharing his philosophy of life. It moves on to the voice of a 19-year-old white taxi driver resentful of Martin Luther King’s presence in Alabama, and then on to a philosophical barber.  The recording ends with a dramatic late-night scene in the cocktail lounge of the Greystone Hotel in which detectives hover, eyeing Studs’s tape recorder suspiciously; fellow reporters trade notes over bourbon; and Studs is given a remarkable confession by Colonel Al Munson, one of the leaders of the National Guard charged with protecting the marchers.  Please note that this recording contains offensive language.

Many of these situations are also described in Studs’s 1977 memoir Talking to Myself in the chapter “Oh, Freedom.”

We will be sharing other installments from Studs’s Montgomery, Alabama programs in the coming weeks.

Selma to Montgomery march, halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge (Tuesday, March 9, 1965)

Selma to Montgomery march, halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge (Tuesday, March 9, 1965)


Photos: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974), Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

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