Norman Thomas and Lillian Smith discuss dissenting ; part 2
BROADCAST: Nov. 11, 1961 | DURATION: 00:31:18
Content Warning: This conversation includes racially and/or culturally derogatory language and/or negative depictions of Black and Indigenous people of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. Lillian Smith's father taught her that we're all human beings and that no one was better than another person. Smith attended church as a young child, and it was at those services when she'd ask a lot of questions about why this or why that. Smith explained her questions were gently unanswered. She was the 1st person in her family to speak out against segregation.
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Norman Thomas And some people make the journey so fast that they aren't so much dissenters as they are new orthodox, and there's no one much harsher against a dissenter than in the newly orthodox. For instance, Lenin was a dissenter without doubt within the meaning of the word "dissent," but let Lenin get power, and to last, well, you remember as Lenin is a dissenter. You'll remember him as the totalitarian.
Studs Terkel Miss Smith, we were just speaking, Mr. Thomas was speaking of beginnings, and we came to a--what made him, what made him the dissenter he was, and he spoke of general observations, general life itself forced it upon him. We think of you, Lillian Smith, who was sort of a minority of one for many years in her Georgia town.
Norman Thomas She's had a much harder, you see, I have been singularly fortunate, let me say this now, before Miss Smith stops me from saying it. I, I've been so much luckier, I think a great deal luckier than she. That is to say, the circumstances of my life were such that at no time did I feel cut off from, from friendship and from some degree of support in my family, among my friends and so forth. In other words, if Miss Smith doesn't mind my saying so, I never tried to live in Mississippi. I won't say Georgia.
Lillian Eugenia Smith I've never tried to live in Mississippi, either, and although I managed it in Georgia, I'm not quite certain that I could manage it in Mississippi. You know, it's a strange thing, though, about--oh, I cut you off. When I wrote "Strange Fruit", and, you know, I had a little magazine, "South
Lillian Eugenia Smith And then I wrote "Strange Fruit", but I was not cut off from my old friends by "Strange Fruit" because here we come, now, you see, it was a big financial success, so everybody jumped on the bandwagon, so to
Lillian Eugenia Smith
Studs Terkel And some people make the journey so fast that they aren't so much dissenters as they are new orthodox, and there's no one much harsher against a dissenter than in the newly orthodox. For instance, Lenin was a dissenter without doubt within the meaning of the word "dissent," but let Lenin get power, and to last, well, you remember as Lenin is a dissenter. You'll remember him as the totalitarian. And so it is the dissenter of the past entering the new orthodoxy may be the most conforming of all. That's right. Yes, it's settling for small answers, isn't it? Yeah, that's settling for small answers. Miss Smith, we were just speaking, Mr. Thomas was speaking of beginnings, and we came to a--what made him, what made him the dissenter he was, and he spoke of general observations, general life itself forced it upon him. We think of you, Lillian Smith, who was sort of a minority of one for many years in her Georgia town. She's had a much harder, you see, I have been singularly fortunate, let me say this now, before Miss Smith stops me from saying it. I, I've been so much luckier, I think a great deal luckier than she. That is to say, the circumstances of my life were such that at no time did I feel cut off from, from friendship and from some degree of support in my family, among my friends and so forth. In other words, if Miss Smith doesn't mind my saying so, I never tried to live in Mississippi. I won't say Georgia. I've never tried to live in Mississippi, either, and although I managed it in Georgia, I'm not quite certain that I could manage it in Mississippi. You know, it's a strange thing, though, about--oh, I cut you off. When I wrote "Strange Fruit", and, you know, I had a little magazine, "South Yes, I used to read it. And it was a dissenting magazine. It certainly was. And then I wrote "Strange Fruit", but I was not cut off from my old friends by "Strange Fruit" because here we come, now, you see, it was a big financial success, so everybody jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak. You mean they respected you for the commercial success For being a success. Even though they may have disagreed with you as far as ideas And they could, they could-- That's sad, too, Save That's
Studs Terkel "Killers
Lillian Eugenia Smith Which is, you know, just been republished now, it's revised and I added a new forward and a totally new last chapter, next to last chapter. And this is where I told autobiographically how it was to have been brought up as a--
Lillian Eugenia Smith An American, you remember in a segregated culture, and so in telling this life that was everybody's life, I hurt. I hurt people deeply, and, and they loved it. Many Southerners love it. Oh, many people love it everywhere, especially in India. I thought that might interest you, how they like this book in India.
Lillian Eugenia Smith And she said, I've finished it at four o'clock in the morning just before dawn, and she said, "I lived your life with you, but I felt strangely enough that I had lived my own in the caste system, in the walls, the barriers, you know, that I--
Norman Thomas Much more. She remained the patrician very much and markedly so. In the second place, she was, if you like a dissenter from many things, including caste in India to some degree. But above all, she was dissenter against a common enemy.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Oh?
Studs Terkel One of the subjects of his book, "The Great Dissenters", is Wendell Phillips. And before you came in, Miss Smith, [you see?] what is it made Wendell Phillips become the dissenter among his own people, patrician as he was in Boston. Now, here were you in Georgia, a respected woman. What led you to become the dissenter? What was the seed that made you do what you did?
Lillian Eugenia Smith You know, it's very hard to know. In this book, "Killers of the Dream" I tried to find out. It was in a sense of search through to the deepest roots of my own life, to see if I could find when the moment was when I made the decision, I must turn away, and look for something different, something else. I think that one thing, as I think about it, my own family, it seems to me that this happened in my family. My, my father, my mother, were quite sincere in believing in human dignity, in, in democracy, in the Christian beliefs of brotherhood, fellowship, love, mercy, justice, that sort of thing. And yet, at the same time, they accepted the--what I call the ritual of segregation. Just as though it were something immovable, and you had to be as decent as possible, you know, within this immovable something, and so I would go to church and as a small child, and I was a rather critical small child, and I'd hear about Christian brotherhood, and, of course, and none of my little Negro friends were at church, and I would come home and say, "Why? Why?" And always the questions were gently unanswered. There was never any--
Norman Thomas That's
Lillian Eugenia Smith There was nothing ugly said, never, and you see, right in the midst of all of this, my father, I remember once, he owned mills, and he had white people and Negroes working in these big mills. These were wholesale lumber and naval stores, mills. And here we had colored mill town, and we had white mill town. We had a church for the colored community. We had a church for the white. It was just like a theatrical stage set, you know, for segregation. Then a commissary for, for all where prices--where everything was sold at a high price, you see. But with--at the commissary, there was no segregation. Everybody could come and buy, you know, in the same store. And even as a small child I saw that and I remember once at public school, I came home and I made some little slighting remark about a white mill child who attended the public school I attended. Of course, there were no Negroes in that school, but there were the very poor, very ignorant mill children, and my father said, "I want to talk to you about this. I want you to know that you are a human being, and only a human being. And therefore you are as a human being no better than anybody else in this whole world. And therefore I cannot bear to see you show pride and insolence and arrogance." And I was just overcome by the rebuke. I really was, and yet it was not very long before I saw that this didn't really apply to the, the Negroes. It did in a way my father was himself personally, always kind, always courteous. But those signs, you see, and when I would say, "Why, why?" And say it too much, they would say, "When you're older, you will understand." Now, that was the part where it began to really work in my mind. And I began to feel that part of my mind was segregated from another part of my mind. There was a great split there, you see. A great chasm had already entered my mind. And so I was believing something, and I was not living it. And, and that began to disturb me very much. Although in many ways I was just a kid, just a, you know, a gay, funny, a ridiculous child. But in many ways, I was asking what I always speak of as the great questions: Who am I? Where am I going? What is death? Who is God? Why am I here? And sometimes I think I worried my mother very much because I said, "Mother, why are you my mother?" And sometimes my voice was a little accusing, I'm thinking, you know, why are you my mother? But when I get to, and I remember in Sunday school, I asked the Sunday school teacher so often, "When does eternity end?" That she told me I couldn't come back to Sunday school if I didn't stop asking.
Lillian Eugenia Smith When I was a youngster. But you know where I intellectually changed, where I got my big shock was when I went to China when I was 23 years old, and I taught in Hu Chao, in Chekiang province, where Chiang Kai-Shek was born. I taught music.
Lillian Eugenia Smith No, no, no, no. I'm not boasting about Chiang Kai-Shek. I think it's rather ironic that at time or another, you know, we were very close together. And it was when I was in China that I saw colonialism for the first time. Once in Shanghai, I saw a British policeman lash a Chinese coolie. Really lash him brutally. Now the irony of this is, and the thing that disturbed me the most, was that this British policeman was a Sikh from India. So here the British were using one people--
Norman Thomas Less smart than that, a somewhat parallel experience, not about my whole life, but about my attitude toward imperialism. I was brought up to see that, think the British are doing a pretty good job in India, and I was in India. This is a long time ago, and I saw an Indian driver of a streetcar, I think it was, I forget in Calcutta. Hit an Indian for going in the wrong street--seats.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes. But don't you feel, don't you think this is true? You know, I came--I was born and brought up in a family of nine children. And so we were sort of a United Nations ourselves. And there were some rejected ones among us and some, you know, who were highly thought of. But I realized even as a child, that when a child is rejected, that child immediately tries to bully somebody else.
Studs Terkel There's something here in what Miss Smith has said, Mr. Thomas, I was thinking, both of you, it's interesting that both of you, becau--by means of your own personal observation and your growth, seeing a certain truth and you hew to that truth the rest of your lives, if there's something Miss Smith said earlier, is intriguing about her father and her mother, and the schizophrenic way we have of living, they are basically decent, good pe--she used the word "ritual." That intrigued me. The father--the ritual accepted, without question. The ritual of the split between races. That is the way it is, you don't question that, yet the lives. Aside from that, these are basically decent people.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.
Norman Thomas Yeah.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, but he hadn't quite moved on around the corner. I think that one of the things that kept disturbing me was really caring for my mother and father very much, and recognizing this quality of mercy and compassion which they had made me want good values, you see. And yet around me, I was surrounded by laws, by local laws and state laws that made it impossible for me to live the life that my mother and father were always telling their children they wanted us to live. I remember about the word "hate." My father always said that no one could afford an enemy. He said you got [psyche clear for it?], an enemy. If you hate someone, than that hate will destroy you and not the enemy. He was a very wise man and I was brought up, you know, hearing these things every day. Therefore, the spiritual struggle was exacipated--exacerbated in a way, you see, because they kept holding this marvelous ideal up. And they themselves living such warm, kind, thoughtful, considerate lives within their prison. And so when I was, really 12 and 13 years old, I realized that the white man in segregating the Negro, had segregated himself, and he was in a prison, too.
Norman Thomas You extended your father's teaching in a sense, and I don't want to press this far, I had a similar experience. My mother was a very marvelous woman and within the ordinary circumstances of life, when I was young, she lived up, she and my father came very close to the ideal. But when it came to my challenging war, these very remarkable people were very--not at all sure that I was in--after all, they were good Presbyterians, and Presbyterians had never been notable pacifists, as you may remember, so I know something about how you feel.
Norman Thomas No, I want to be fair. My, my father and mother would never have said to me, "This is Anglo-Saxon. They would say, "Christian." Never, and they would never say "white." My, my [maternal? paternal?] grandfather had gone down to start a, help start what's now Judson C. Smith, and--
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.
Norman Thomas And my mother had been ostracized by white girls, it occurred, quite a [pitiful? considerable?] time as a little girl, so they didn't say that, but it's when we came to, the [part that the war had to play?].
Studs Terkel There's something occurs to me, and I'm very moved and deeply moved by both what Mr. Thomas and Miss Smith are saying, and there's a parallel here that I think is quite revealing, and I'm sure this can extend to the world we live in today. In Lillian Smith's case, the small girl, the good, decent people, yet caught in the ritual of segregation. Norman Thomas, young Norman Thomas comes from a good Christian family, yet caught in the ritual of acceptance of war is inevitable. You see, the idea that that is--
Norman Thomas Acceptance of war and on the whole, an acceptance of the economic order, which my father would, wouldn't hesitate to criticize here and there, but a general acceptance of that. Oddly enough, he--who died pretty far back, he accepted my earlier deviations from his orthodoxy rather better than my mother, who--
Norman Thomas On account of my father, was more, more perturbed then he was. Did you ever notice that? My mother would, would be very careful as we grew older, never to say, "You must do this or that," but she would make appeal to our personal affection not to do this or that, or not to say this or that. And that's one of the hardest things there is to fight.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, you know that something else in the Smith family, these nine children, mother and dad, uh, our civil liberties were highly respected in my family. Everybody had the right to question anything, anything in the world, and we had the right to make the statement, "We don't believe. We don't agree." Or whether it was with our parents or with each other. We could do it. We could read almost anything in the world. Mother, mother held out on a few things, and no, it's rather odd because there was a library upstairs. My father, who was not a well-educated man, he was born at the beginning of the Civil War and during Reconstruction. He was a poor boy then, and, and he had to do with about three grades of school, and but he became very well-educated on his own. Now, my mother came from a more fortunate family whose father had once been a Jesuit priest up in Quebec, and at just before he took his final vows, he left, and he was born in New York City. He came South and fell in love with grandmother at a ball at a rice plantation. He married her and fought on the Southern side for, for the political reason that he agreed with England, you know, that the South had its point, but he did not believe in slavery. He believed in states' rights, you see, of something of the sort. But afterward, during Reconstruction, as something happened in my family that I think must be almost unique in the South. In that grandfather, when the Northerners came down to reconstruct the South and they were having, you know, a pretty rough time of it, they would come over to gra--to grandfather's house, sit down, eat supper with him, and tell him all of the troubles they were having, and Grandfather with great intelligence and tolerance would try to help them work it out. The next night, Mother said, there would be a Negro eating supper with us, with her, with them at the table. And he was telling Grandfather Simpson what the trouble the Negroes were having. The next night it would be a white Southerner. Now, that must be a rather extraordinary situation, and once you've had that kind of grandfather and you see, the South had a pretty hard time, and schooling was bad, so Mother was proud of the fact that her father spoke six languages and was a great scholar, and she was proud of the fact that Dad--Grandfather always took "The New York Times" when, you know, most people couldn't read or write, or didn't care much about anything. So you see, all of these things have a great deal to do with family lives. You know, I'm a great believer in family culture anyway, I think it's the only way to offset the outside culture.
Lillian Eugenia Smith No, I'm not either, you see, having gone through this and, and, and Dad would often say, "Say whatever you want to. You may not be right, and I'll argue with you. But say it if you want to."
Studs Terkel As you're talking, Miss Smith, just before you came in, I was asking Mr. Thomas a question, and this comes right to it. You speak of family life, individual human relationships. I was asking Mr. Thomas, who is obviously, as you know, very colorful, as you are, indeed, and there's a moral here. I wonder if some of the color today--you spoke of outside influences. We think, of course, of the new machine television, or of radio or of CinemaScope or of so many things that make us spectators rather than participants, and I'm wondering has this drained some color out of our tradition? Out of humans? Because you two
Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, I feel a great deal, you know, because we happen to be a very colorful family. Nine dissenters, I think you could say, and I do want to tell you this, although I was the first member of my family, the children, the nine, to speak out against segregation, within one year, every one of them was not only speaking out, but acting and doing, and all of their children do, so we have 55--
Studs Terkel The point I was coming to, before me--I know Mr. Thomas has another engagement, before he has to go. I'm a base--I was a baseball fan, you know, for a long time. And there's a new home run hero named Roger Maris. You may have heard of him--
Studs Terkel And yet there's a difference, no, between Ba--this is no reflection on Roger Maris, the difference between Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, the difference not only of time, but there was a difference in the--again the word "color" I come to, a certain aura, and I wonder if this doesn't reflect--this is a sports figure, the whole world itself and I'm not a Chartist, I'm not for the destruction of machines, but I wonder whether the technological age we live in or what, or the, perhaps the means in which it's being used hasn't drained--
Norman Thomas To some extent, yes. To some considerable extent. I'm not sure that Maris and Ruth are [predicting your figures? particular figures?] of it because you could find some screwballs in baseball, uh, who aren't too famous, but who were there. But I think the machine, the mass, the general mass pressure tends to make an equalization of manners and so on good, bad and indifferent. And I think that specifically the invention of loudspeakers, valuable as it is, does much to destroy good public speaking. And then there is a kind of a curious wave of things. We have gone usefully out of the spread-eagle style of oratory, but as so often happens with human beings and Americans, we've gone too far, and there are people who would be ashamed to play golf in public who haven't the slightest compunction of reading a speech written by a typist as a fifth-grade boy oughtn't to do it.
Studs Terkel No, no, no, no. I was talking, I was talking about the oratory of the past. Mr. Thomas, you have to go now, and may we just mention the name of Norman Thomas's book again, "Great Dissenters: From Socrates to Gandhi", and it's Norton Press. Thank you very much, sir.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, yes, it is, in a rather peculiar sort of way. Much of my own personal life, that is the people I have particularly loved, the humiliations I've had just as an individual, the shocks and the marvelous experiences, some of those things are not in this book. This is the autobiography of me, as I think most Americans who have lived in the Deep South have experienced it. And I think what I have experienced in the Deep South is pretty much what every American has experienced on one level or another. And I think we can take it a step further and say that what I say here applies to most Westerners, even Europeans, seem to understand this book, and, and seem to know. You know, one thing that I have thought about greatly--but let me say this first. "Killers of the Dream", just a few people who have seen the title, they have felt that this title is an indictment of others, and I say, "No, is it--it is an indictment of me. It is an indictment of all of us who again and again and again have killed our dreams," you see, from the time we were small children, is an indictment of Russia, is an indictment of Khrushchev, is indictment of every human being--
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes!
Studs Terkel Extends
Lillian Eugenia Smith And must be committed, and must be engaged. And the way I have felt about these matters, somehow I have never been afraid of uncertainties. I've never felt, for instance, that I needed to have proof that God is, oh, any more than I need to have proof that a great Picasso is a great painting. It can't be proved to me that it is, there's some things that are outside of the realm of proof, and some of the things that mean the most to us. For instance, you fall in love with someone, where there's no way in the world you could prove that this is the person you should be in love with. But you are. You exist. You see, the relationship itself exists, and you go on from that, and, and--but during these years of thinking about segregation, probably first in terms of racial because of the color white, Black, white, Black, which I've seen all of my life in the South and the signs, and then thinking of segregation in terms, in terms of those splits, which I felt when I believed one thing and couldn't act it. Or when I heard the people I love say they believed in two different things, like democracy and white supremacy, and I knew they couldn't believe in both, you see, and then in thinking about segregation, it occurred to me years ago that segregation is really a much more profound word than that. There are three prototypes of all segregation. One is the first time we were segregated was when we were born and we were separated from our mother, the--we are segregated by death when we die or someone else dies, these are segregations that are built in to the human condition, and nobody can do anything about that. This is, this exists, birth exists, death exists. It is, and we have to deal with it that way. And then I think the third great prototype of segregation is the segregation from certainty, from absolute knowledge. We can't have it. Yes, I think existentialists would say that, too. But I think Socrates would have said that, too. He said, "Know thyself," but he didn't mean literally that you could know all of yourself, but know as much of yourself as you could, and so when we think about segregation in this big way, somehow racial segregation becomes awfully small and superficial and something that could be changed very easily because here now we all ask, children ask, and the Greeks ask, and existential philosophers ask, and every thoughtful person, "Who am I?" Well, I say as a Deep South Southerner, that you can't settle for, "I am a white man." It just isn't
Studs Terkel Really, I think that, that picture, that celebrated photograph, the little Negro girl going to the school, the National Guard about and her being cat-called by others. Yet she knew who she was. Whereas the sideliners who were doing the jeering didn't seem to know who
Lillian Eugenia Smith No, they don't know who they are, and it's a very sad thing to me and tragic, you know, that this has happened. I think that segregation is a kind of twisting, frame, distorting frame. Oh, I would say that the colored child, whether he lives in Africa or lives here, is twisted on one side of the frame, but the white child is twisted on the other side of the frame and so, what happens is that we all are distorted by, so it's very hard for us to be human beings. Therefore, I think we lose a vision of the human being, the image, and that's when I say the dream. And so when I say because of the dream, I would say we have all been killers of the dream, because we again and again destroy that vision we have of what human existence might be. You know, what men might be as men, and oh, I have, oh, wanted to say many times to people, don't think that I am accusing anybody when I use the title "Killers of the Dream", I'm accusing myself as much as anybody
Studs Terkel But you are even more of a rare figure today than perhaps in other days, because in this day of the great machines and the events that seem so cataclysmic, the individual thinks of himself as so helpless. What can I do? Spirit pervades. Yet you come along. The individual.
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes!
Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, we can't. We can't let ourselves accept this guilt, we have to, to go ahead and do, and be by doing and be by saying often, I, you know, one thing I loved about this new revision of "Killers of the Dream", is that Norton, who's--they are wonderful publishers and they love this book. And so when they asked me to do it over again, they permitted me to do a new forward, how I felt after 11 years, when I went back and read the book that I had just sort of pulled out of me by breaking my heart, you know, to talk about these things. And then I wrote, the last chapter is new, and I--