In 1964, Robert Penn Warren was commissioned by “Look Magazine” to interview the leaders of the civil rights movement and that he did. Free All Along is an edited compilation of about a third of his interviews. Warren seemed to have a set of questions that preoccupied him. He wanted to know people’s opinions of the double consciousness from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” though he called it a split psyche. He was fascinated by the movement’s nonviolence and asked about positive and negative nonviolence. Another frequent question was about the idea of revolution when there is no intention to destroy and replace, only to synthesize. Other revolutions change the power structure completely with regicide, imprisonment, or expulsion. African Americans sought a revolution of thought within the existing society, overthrowing racist ideology without replacing the government and constitution. He asks if such a revolution is possible.
He interviews all sorts of people. Some I have never heard of before and others are known to all, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the variety, the breadth of his interviews that make this such a valuable and fascinating series. The most interesting interviews, I thought, were with Robert Moses, Aaron Henry, and Wyatt Tee Walker. Robert Moses addressed that question of the split psyche by arguing that the struggle goes beyond racial justice to the humanitarian struggle and if that happens, the split disappears. I loved Aaron Henry’s way with words such as saying “Mississippi is not a mutation in America.” to argue that racism is not just in the South, not just in America, but in all of Western culture. He also said, “Because we realize that freedom is a peculiar kind of a commodity. You can only keep it by giving it away.” William Tee Walker expressed frustration with white liberals, “We are afflicted with worn-out white liberals who, fifteen years ago, could have been killed for what they were saying [against segregation]. But they’re saying the same things now that they were saying fifteen years ago, and as [American poet] James Russell Lowell has said, “Time makes ancient good uncouth .” We are at a different moment in history.” Reading the interviews, it is clear that the leadership was broad and deep with many strategic and brilliant thinkers.
I liked Free All Along very much. It introduced me to civil rights leaders who were new to me. the interviews were deep and philosophical. It’s only a third of the people interviewed, but quite likely the most interesting interviews. I found the archive of all the interviews that includes appendices and communications about the project and the eventual book he published “Who Speaks for the Negro?” The Robert Penn Warren of the book is much nicer than the one you find in the archives, the one who actually wrote that black people have rhythm and that King’s claims to nonviolence were sophistry since the demonstrations inspired violence by police and racists. Yup, he held black protesters responsible for white people beating them.
As Black History Month opens, this would be a good time to dive deeper into the wisdom of the civil rights movement and its leaders. It is obviously fascinating to me as it inspired me to go searching for more.
I received a copy of Free All Along: The Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Interviews from the publisher through NetGalley.