David: It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally.
GP: I’m just humbled that you considered me to be a part of what I think is a wonderful discussion. We need more of it.
David: Now, you’ve spent your life battling against ideas that you thought were unfair.
GP: Well, you have to remember, first of all, I come from a very race-conscious family, from what you would call black middle class. My granddaddy, in particular, had his own construction company, and my father, as a youngster, teenager, would accompany my granddaddy Patton to the bank ‒ you know, to get money for construction projects. And my father was constantly humiliated by the bank. We’re talking about, now, the Forties… the late Thirties and the Forties.
David: How was he humiliated?
GP: First of all, lots of times they had to stand up to talk to the bank president. They were not allowed to sit down. My grandfather had cultivated – which my father later learned – a survival mechanism of ‘Yes Sir, no Sir.’ And questions would be: ‘Nigger, are you just building stuff in the black community?’ Which meant there was a limitation. And my grandfather would reply, ‘Yes, Sir’, and my father was just humiliated by that. You know? That kind of interaction.
And my father finished a year of college at Alabama State, the Blacks’ college, and he would always tell my brother and me: ‘If a white man hit me in Detroit, I could hit back. If a white man hit me in Montgomery, I just had to bow and scrape’ ‒ because it was always a life-and-death situation.
David: Was it really that bad here? Even in the Forties and Fifties?
GP: It was really that bad. My uncle, whom I never saw – was just part of my folklore – was shot and killed by a policeman in 1943, September. He had been shot and killed by the policeman because you could not be in certain neighbourhoods.
David: When did those ideas which your generation… the ideas of…
Ard: Freedom and equality.
David: When did those ideas…?
GP: Germinate in me?
GP: I’m eight years old ‒ it’s 1952 ‒ I will never forget it, and I’m down here visiting. And across the street from my Mommy’s home – if we can keep my lineage together – there’s a bus stop, and every Sunday after Sunday school and church, the treat for my brother, my first cousin Al and me was to ride the entire bus line to the end of the route and come back. And Mommy always told us to sit on the back long seat and look out the big back window and see the world going backwards. That was such a wonder. I never knew we couldn’t sit in the front of the bus.
So one Sunday – being the elder of my brother, my cousin – they wanted an ice-cream cone, and I decided we would stop downtown at the Court Square and go on to a drugstore called Liggett’s drugstore, which is part of the Rexall chain, to get an ice cream, get ice cream cones. And I drink a lot of water, always have, and I wanted a cup of water, and I paid three cents – at that time we had paper cone cups ‒ and I just sat on a counter stool to drink my water. And soda jerk, which is not a pun, called me a ‘piccaninny’, and told me to get up. Now I’d never heard of the word ‘piccaninny’, but I knew it was an insult. And she would turn red as a beet. And I poured my cup of water on the counter.
David: And you were eight years old?
Ard: Eight years old?
GP: I’m eight years old, and we stamp out of there, come home, and Mommy would always be at the bus stop to greet us, to meet us. And I told Mommy about it, and Mommy hugged me and said, ‘No, you’re beautiful,’ reaffirmed, and that when God made me, he didn’t make none other like me. I’m sure a whole lot of folks are happy that happened.
But then I had to tell her why I had to ask. Why would she say this to me? I’m a little girl. So Mommy then had to tell me we couldn’t ride in the front of the bus, and all of what the mores were. And I wanted to know why, so that began to germinate in me.
Meanwhile, I’m getting older. My grandmother, Mommy, canvassed the neighbourhood to get people to go down to attempt to register to vote. So I grew up with that. And I was an obedient child, but also very curious and wanting answers.
David: Do you think there was… Do you think ideas have a power to change people?
GP: Oh, yes, oh, yes ‒ ideas are powerful. That’s why they didn’t want us, the white class, powers that be, didn’t want us to get educated. You know? Don’t you educate them little negroes. And you have to understand I learned much, much later about the midnight school during antebellum slavery days. But our parents instilled in us to get an education.
GP: To be smart.
GP: And now we got the Montgomery bus boycott, which I’m completely conscious of. And I become, really, the youth: go-get-me, go-bring-me, go-fetch-me, in the summer.
David: During the boycott?
GP: During the boycott. The summer of ’56. One night the family church on my daddy’s side was bombed.
David: Was bombed?
GP: In ’57, yes.
David: Who bombed it?
GP: The Kluxers.
David: The Ku Klux Klan?
GP: Yeah, along with all of the other bombings that were going on. So I was very much a part of… organically a part of the struggles, and I grew up that way.
David: The boycott, for those who don’t know, that was simply that you refused to get on the bus?
GP: Yeah, we refused to get on the bus and we walked everywhere. Now you have to understand, too, our tradition. You know, we weren’t that far removed, but we did a lot of walking anyhow; as African people we walk. The rural people, we walked as part of our own tradition.
Ard: And how did you feel when the bus boycott started? Did you…?
GP: I was just absolutely electrified. We’re gonna win this.
Ard: You felt… You already knew you were going to win?
GP: Yeah, we were gonna win this.
Ard: Why did you think you were going to…?
GP: However, coming from my granddaddy’s side, why are we fighting about sitting in the front of the bus? Why aren’t we fighting about owning the bus or the bus company? And then that’s when I began to really start doing some deep thinking. But you have to remember this struggle for human rights and dignity had been going on ever since we were first enslaved. And the fear! See, part of the vote, fighting for the vote, people were just afraid to go down to the Registrar’s office.
You have to remember the Dred Scott decision: a black person had no rights that a white person was bound to respect. You really have to understand that indelible… that fear. And then you try to avoid being insulted: you try to minimise that, so you kind of withdrew. And part of that withdrawal also cemented the black community to be reliant upon each other. And then it found its fullest magnification, organisationally, during the Montgomery bus boycott. You know what I mean ‒ this community was organised.
David: I want to ask you another question, which just picks up again on what someone else said ‒ you talked about how it’s important to have a movement. Do you think one of the things that made the movement, the black movement here, strong, was that you stuck with each other, that you cooperated with each other?
GP: Competition is the downfall of humanity. Again, I wanna be the only A. All that that’s about is competition. I’m gonna cheat… I’m gonna take from you. You know it’s that needless competition. I consider it needless, unless competition is about advancing yourself and your community. If that’s not the purpose, then it becomes horrific, dangerous, frightening.
David: And what’s better than competition?
GP: Cooperation. Cooperation makes you whole. You know, where I had my strength and innate talent. You know, born talent or spiritual-given talent. And like, in another, and you have it, then let’s cooperate and bring it together for the uplift of all of us. And that’s part of the equation.
Ard: And in the Montgomery bus boycott, is that what made you strong?
GP: Yes, knowing that my relatives who had cars would go and grocery shop for people of my community, that made me feel strong. And to know that my neighbours are walking because they had no cars, that kind of determination made me strong. Yes, we’re all interdependent. And I think that’s also very natural. Cooperation to me is natural, not competition: that’s unnatural.
And then when the bus boycott ended, and I get on the bus – ’57, I reckon it is – with my maternal grandmother who put me on the bus back in ’52, and she always went to the back. And I would always sit up front, because I thought that was the victory. And don’t let a white person be up there. Oh, my Lord! I would squirm and scoot, and all of that. Get a reaction, or, as we would say, to get a rise.
And so one time there were no white people on the bus, and I decided I’d go all the way in the back and sit with Mommy. Not all the way in the back seat, but in the back. And I finally asked Mommy, I said, ‘Mommy, why do you sit in the back of the bus? You know, we walked over a year and… Why? You know what I mean?’ And she was always very proper, and she said, ‘Gwendolyn, it was not about sitting next to white people on the bus, or even sitting in the front of the bus, it was about sitting anywhere you please.’ And I was not able to conceptualise the word, but I knew there was a word, that I later learned was called self-determination.
Ard: Was there any sense in which you just thought, well, actually it’s wrong. And that’s why we’re right and we’re going to win, because we’re just right.
GP: Well you’re bringing in the moral dimension. You have to remember that the church is very much a part of the coalition, and we were moving towards liberation theology with Dr King, though I did see the limitations and I’m still struggling with that.
How do you deal with the mindset? Through centuries they’ve been programmed to feel superior. You know, how do you change that? You know, which is a real, even to this day, still a question.
Ard: So do you think that from Dr King and others, the idea that we’re all created equal, was really important?
GP: Yes. We’re all God’s children. I’m very religious, by the way.
Ard: So you sensed that you were all God’s children?
GP: We were all God’s children.
Ard: And do you think that gave you an extra push in these kinds of struggles?
GP: Yeah, and it gave us an argument. And then my whole thing was, well, if we’re all God’s children, and we really understand that all of our gifts and our talents come from the Lord, and you’re not using them, then are you not sinning?
See my granddaddy, on my daddy’s side, was a bible scholar and he prayed: we got up every morning at four o’clock.
GP: Got on our knees and prayed as a family, and he would give these great long prayers, you know, and blessings, and all of that kind of carrying on. And so part of my upbringing, along with my young uncles, was the Scripture and learning the Bible stories, and what some might call Aesop, the parables, the morals: that the Lord has blessed you with this, you know, these talents, and you’re not using them, then are you thumbing your nose at the Lord? Are you blaspheming? You know, the whole story around talent.
Ard: And your whole family was involved in the struggle, and that kind of scriptural basis played a big role?
David: Do you think people are born with a moral compass, though? Or do they have to learn it?
GP: I think both. You know, you’re kind of born knowing what’s right from wrong, what hurts and what doesn’t hurt. I think we’re born with a set of emotions that we really don’t have any control over.
GP: You know, we’re born with that.
David: So it’s a mixture of having a moral compass and what you’re taught?
GP: I think we’re all born with a moral compass, I really do. I think it’s a natural… a natural reality, a natural phenomenon in human beings.
David: So why didn’t the white people see that what they were doing was wrong?
You were eight, you could see it.
GP: They were just totally unconscious, and they had been programmed and brainwashed until they started believing that foolishness. You see it with little kids. As the story goes, when little black kids and white kids are playing together and having fun, and then they get to a certain age, then they say, ‘Oh, no, you’re superior than little Tommy’, and they begin to believe that.
I think we’re all born with a degree with a whole: not a degree, but with a wholeness of innocence ‒ I really do. Again, I think you’re born with that. I mean, don’t you feel perhaps God, your spirit, your inner being, tells you that? And you believe that. It depends on your belief system. But people who have no purpose ‒ no meaning ‒ do not even understand the essence of being. What is the essence of being? How do you define that? And that has to be defined, to me, through purpose, meaning… whatever you’ve done to help somebody, yourself, your community, your family. And I think you get a sense of reward.
David: When I listen to you, it’s obvious that those notions for you of moral right and moral wrong have a really firm foundation. For you that seems to be God, as you said. I don’t believe in God, so I think, well, where do I get mine from?
GP: Whether you believe in Him or not doesn’t matter, to me. There has to be some kind of, however you want to define God, okay? There has to be something that says, ‘I want my better angels to manifest, and help me, not only to tamp down, but to obliterate the bad angels, the worst angels.’
I think we’re all born with that, if you want to get to it, good and evil, you know? Unless you’ve been so desensitised, and I think much of the world has been – people in the world – you don’t get a good feeling when you do something ugly, you really don’t.