KGOU

Decorated Educator George Henderson On Past And Present Civil Rights Movements

Jan 4, 2016

The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought forward concerns about voting rights, segregation, and proportional representation.  While the focus of similar racial protest has most recently shifted to aggressive policing and apparent inequities within the criminal justice system, University of Oklahoma educator and author George Henderson considers the current Black Lives Matter movement an extension of what he witnessed during the 1960s - with similar aims of ensuring  justice for African-Americans.

George Henderson (left) joins 'Race Matters' host Merleyn Bell in the KGOU studio.
Credit KGOU staff

A key difference, Henderson acknowledges, is the role technology has played in de-centralizing the movement.

“We needed central figures at the time when we started what we were doing,” Henderson said. “Now we don't. It is a people’s movement as we always wish that it had been.”

In this first episode of Race Mattershost Merleyn Bell and Henderson compare and contrast other aspects of the movements. Henderson also discusses his relationships with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, challenges to peaceful reconciliation, and his hopes for the future of race relations.

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Interview Highlights

On The Similarities Between The Current Black Lives Matter Movement And The Civil Rights Movement Of The 1960s

To disassociate what they (Black Lives Matter) have done with the Civil Rights Movement does the movement a disservice. I think it’s an extension of... When you talk about it, if we talk about it that way, it is like saying we have a post-racial society now.  We don’t have a post-civil rights society we have a continuation of that civil rights movement.

On The Differences

We needed central leaders in the 40’s or 50’s or 60’s or so forth, we don’t now. It is a different time. We're different people, and I think social media has made it a different time. It has helped. It has helped and perhaps we have taken that next step. We needed central figures at the time when we started what we were doing, now we don’t. It is a people’s movement as we always wish that it had been.

On The Appeal Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message

I read Gandhi as King had read Gandhi. Gandhi’s resistance movement was based on not fighting back for a very practical reasons. The British had all of the weapons... most of the weapons. They could have done to the Indians what the settlers did to our Indians if they had fought back. It was a practical reason, but it was also the right reason.

He (Gandhi) wasn’t a Christian as you know, but he always referred to some of the concepts and some of the things that Jesus said and love was one of them. He always focused on that so practically. He said, “If the Indians are going to get their freedom, they must get their freedom not through violence but teaching their enemies. You know you have won," he said, "not when you kill the person who is trying to kill you but when you kill in them the need to kill you." 

Non-violence was our way. Fighting? No. Love? Yes.

Turning the other cheek was not easy for me. The concept of love wasn’t easy to me when I grew up. The first gift my father gave me was boxing gloves. And so here I am, my mother is sending me to church. My preacher is telling me to be non-violent. My father is telling me fight back; I was torn but, doggonit, my mother said you never really win by hurting other people.

On The Prospects For Realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision Of The Future

I believe with every breath that I take, I believe it with every beat of my heart. It must happen, it has to happen. I was hypnotized by the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “One Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice—” It was that last word that got me,  a poor eight year old in special education reciting those words "—for all.” Not for poor people like me, not for segregated black people, not for on and on and on, for all of us. Yea, yea it is going to happen. It is going to happen because that is our destiny as a nation. That is our destination as human beings. There is only race of any significance from my perspective.  That is the human race.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERELYN BELL, HOST: I want to start by asking you for your thoughts on the most recognizable name and the current civil rights scene being Black Lives Matter which was founded three years ago by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors in response to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?

GEORGE HENDERSON: I think it's a continuation of something that was started in the 40’s, continued in the 50s, 60s and 70s. To disassociate what they have done with the Civil Rights Movement does the movement a disservice. I think it’s an extension of. When you talk about it, if we talk about it that way it is like saying we have a post-racial society now.  We don’t have a post-civil rights society we have a continuation of that civil rights movement. What they have done is courageous.  What they have done is to focus on a new kind of leadership, a kind of leadership that is very right for the 21st Century.

BELL: During the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s people rallied not only behind the cause but behind the men at the center of the movement, Dr. King and Malcolm X.  Black Lives Matter was founded by three women but they have made a concerted effort not to establish a central figurehead for their cause.  Do you think that this decentralized way of organizing helps or hinders their cause?

HENDERSON: It obviously is helping. We needed central leaders in the 40’s or 50’s or 60’s or so forth, we don’t now. It is a different time, we're different people, and I think social media has made it a different time.  It has helped.  It has helped and perhaps we have taken that next step. We needed central figures at the time when we started what we were doing, now we don’t.  It is a people’s movement as we always wish that it had been. It wasn’t so therefore we had our leaders.

BELL: I am glad that you mentioned the leaders because I wanted to talk to you about your experience meeting both Dr. King and Malcolm X in your memoir, Race in the University, you detailed your journey all the way from childhood that lead you to University teaching and while you were living in Detroit you had the opportunity to meet and work with both Dr. King and Malcolm X. So, I wondered if you would briefly tell us about your encounters with both men starting with Dr. King.

HENDERSON: It's always difficult for me to do what you are asking me to do because it was an association, it was a loss..and I... but it was a pleasant memory so yes I will respond to that.  We are contemporary’s, we are peers really, not much age difference between us. So, I was a follower of a peer.  Meeting Dr. King was a highlight of my professional life not for the reasons that many people think but to have him point me in the direction of what I must do.  I noticed when I first met him that in any meeting if it was a public meeting he would go immediately to the children to kind of bypass us older folks...older, I am his age...certainly the parents were there and he would go to the children.  One day I asked him—I was director of Community Services of Detroit Urban League in the early 60’s— why the children?  He said, "That's what we're about," and I still remember those words.  "It is not about you George, or me, it is about these babies."

BELL: Why do you think you felt that was the case?

HENDERSON: Because it was. He saw our future. He saw the possibility of not just focusing on the generation that was here now, the elders, but those who are going to be the elders tomorrow and what will they teach their children and whether you see where it goes.  Actually, it was a tactical stroke that was absolutely right, it was spot on.  It has always been about the children, that taught me for example, when I teach I tell my students this is not about me it is about you.  I learned that from him.  Why did he do it?  Because America had grown tired of watching men brutalize one another.  We even institutionalized it. We call it professional football, we call it boxing and wrestling, but America had never, never grown tired of people not brutalizing children and so therefore he put the focus where it should be.  That is why he did it.  It was for them.

BELL: So you met Malcolm X after Dr. King is that correct?

HENDERSON: That is correct.

BELL: And he recruited you, as you talked about in your memoir, he recruited you to join his movement. Can you tell us about that meeting and about the decision that you ultimately made after that meeting?

HENDERSON: Actually a decision my mother made for me before that meeting, let me explain that.  When I met Malcolm, also about my age, Malcolm was very, very clear about what he needed. He said, "I need the young black intellectuals,"—and I was one of them—“to be part of the movement. I need the teachers, I need the poets, I need the essayists, I need the story to be told in the classrooms and in the community through the intellectuals, would you join me?"  And I said no, I am committed to Martin.  Now this is how my mother came in.  When I was very young my mother would always say to me George you run with the devil six days a week.  Sunday is church time, this is not a discussion, I am telling you what you are going to do every Sunday. Initially I thought my mother really was being my social secretary, all the girls were there, and then when I got tired of chasing the girls in church I started listening to the sermons and always the thing that would strike me was when there was a sermon and my pastor would say that suffering is redemptive and we must love one another I was committed. I was committed to non-violence. I was committed to the concept of love and suffering being redemptive because of the ministers and Martin was one of them.  He wasn’t my minister but he had the same basic message. So I was ready for him...and, but Malcolm was, he was a gentleman about it. He said, "I understand that, but would you make me a promise?" I said, "What?"  "If you can’t help me, will you promise never to hurt me?" I said, “Of course,” and then I kind of cavalierly said, "And will you make the same promise to me?" and we both laughed. Because of that contact when the Henderson’s came to Oklahoma I was the only professor at the University of Oklahoma who had a contact with the Black Muslims in Oklahoma City. Theodore G.X. was from Detroit and I had met him and we kind of got together again. So I spent the early years between all of the things I was doing also working with the Black Muslim children in Oklahoma City.  That was a relationship. That was a relationship that Malcolm made possible.

BELL: Modern social justice movements are increasingly shaped by social media, as we have discussed. Black Lives Matter, for example, started out as a hashtag on Twitter. How do you think Black Lives Matter will be shaped by its continuing close attachment to social media?

HENDERSON: It will reshape itself.  It will change, it will morph because it has the ability to move to the next social media that is effective. I think it has the kind of dexterity that we didn’t have. In the early years of the civil rights movement we had a national press and we didn’t have the ability to reach the masses as they do now.  How will it change? Lord knows I am the person who said I would never see a black president, so you are asking the wrong person to tell you how it is going to change.

BELL: I want to go back to one of the teachings of Dr. King that you really embraced which is his encouragement toward non-violent protest.  Why did you feel non-violence was the correct tactic for achieving justice?

HENDERSON: For practical reasons. I have never really been an idealist, per say. I read Gandhi as King had read Gandhi. Gandhi’s resistance movement was based on not fighting back for a very practical reasons. The British had all of the weapons, most of the weapons. They could have done to the Indians what the settlers did to our Indians if we had fought back. It was a practical reason but it was also the right reason. But Gandhi was also impressed by, he wasn’t a Christian as you know, but he always referred to some of the concepts and some of the things that Jesus said and love was one of them. He always focused on that so practically. He said, “If the Indians are going to get their freedom, they must get their freedom not through violence but teaching their enemies. You know you have won," he said, "not when you kill the person who is trying to kill you but when you kill in them the need to kill you."  It is true, it is absolutely true we could not have won that one. Oh, when I was much younger I said to my colleagues, "I have got an idea! Let’s declare war against the United States. We will lose, they will bomb out our houses and everything, but we will rebuild them like they did in Europe and Japan." I was tongue in cheek. No, they wouldn’t rebuild them, we have yet to rebuild the slums. Non-violence was our way, we had to go. Fighting? No. Love? Yes. Turning the other cheek was not easy for me. The concept of love wasn’t easy to me when I grew up I was taught the first gift my father gave me was boxing gloves. And so here I am, my mother is sending me to church my preacher is telling me to be non-violent, my father is telling me fight back; I was torn but, doggonit, my mother said you never really win by hurting other people. That is why.  Dr. King was telling me the same thing. If you are going to die, die peacefully, and it is your choice, it is not your enemy’s choice.  Fighting back is your choice they want you to do that.  You mentioned the new student movement. We needed the media to see cruel people doing some very ugly cruel things to non-violent people so that the world would say: "Enough." But we also—and this is something that we never really discussed openly; it was almost as if it was a given but none of us really wanted to talk about this—we needed martyrs. We didn’t want them but we needed martyrs.  Men are not martyrs, women and children are martyrs. Lord knows that this is something that we didn’t want to talk about. It wasn’t accidental therefore that the babies and the mothers the women and the children were frontline, that wasn’t accidental.  If the world saw that, which they did, being prodded like cattle prods and beaten and gassed...and the world did say: "Enough." It also embarrassed President Kennedy.  He wanted to talk about democratizing Europe and other places in Cuba. And the spectacle of us here, not really having our freedom, he wanted us gone as second class citizens so he could get on with his agenda. I am so glad that he decided that he had that other agenda. So that is why I it worked.

BELL: This is Race Matters. I’m Merleyn Bell. If you are just joining us I’m speaking with Dr. George Henderson about Black Lives Matter and the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Henderson, how has the increased ability for people to photograph and film interactions between the police and the public, and then distribute them widely via social media, changed the nature of the conversation about race?

HENDERSON: It has changed the nature of our reality. Public events—it is an oxymoron. There are no public events per say anymore, because in every public space someone has the possibility and the probability of filming you. So, that is how it has changed the face of it.  Let’s face it, you can do this now with your cell phones. The cameras that we had were archaic, you know, good gracious you take a picture and you wait a few days for it to be printed. It is instant now. It has changed, it has absolutely changed the nature of relationships. It allows the good things and the not so good things to be seen instantly.

BELL: Now that we have the knowledge that we do thanks to these advanced technologies do you think it makes it harder to still advocate for non-violent responses?

HENDERSON: Harder?  It doesn’t make it harder to advocate for it, it makes it more difficult now. On the one hand we, through the media that we have, we have young men and young women seeing things that are sometimes very cruel, very harsh. It makes it harder because we don’t have the buffer effect and the buffer effect happens to be this: The reason that we are so successful with keeping, minimizing the violence was that you would then...we would go to a church and we would have someone talk about what are we going to do about this situation?  Now we don’t have the opportunity to bring people together and say, "What are we going to do about this situation?"  So, consequently what it does it means that we have more individuals who are likely to feel that they want to strike out as opposed to being non-violent and we don’t have an opportunity to tell them why. Why that is not the best way to proceed.

BELL: In a recent interview with the Oklahoma Daily you spoke about your experience fighting for civil rights in the 60’s through the 80’s and one thing you said struck me. You said: “We were waging war and we declared victory, but we had only won some battles.” Why did you say that?

HENDERSON: Because the war is never over if it is a war against bigotry until these things are true: the right to be free implies the right to be different.  None of us is truly free until all of us are free. We won some victories initially for black men, make no mistake about it. The Civil Rights Movement, the successes that we had were mostly for people like me, black men. Think about it, 1963 march on Washington there were ten major speeches given, all men. Mostly black men and a couple of white men. Coretta Scott King was furious. She said, "Martin, why can’t you at least have a female as a major speaker?"  Response: "We are not ready for that yet." So, I guess I am saying it was progress. We had won a lot of victories for men. We left behind victories for women, for people of other racial and ethnic groups, for individuals who had gender differences, we left a lot of folks behind and most of all we left the poor behind.  Martin was bankrupt as a leader towards the end of his life. Malcolm was climbing as a leader. Their lives crossed in some interesting ways. Towards the end of his life Martin was almost bankrupt, towards the end of his life Malcolm was indeed perceived as a young bright star. Martin wanted to have a poor people’s march, which happened, but you know...I don’t remember hearing anybody saying that this is what Martin would have wanted. We did it. I guess the reason I say that we didn’t win the war, we would have won the war if we had then won the war for poor people because that includes all of us. Poverty is an equal opportunity afflicter. We won the war, as I repeat again, for black men.  We lost, incidentally, in some of those battles, we lost white women towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement because they said, "What about us?"  And arrogantly some blacks, Civil Rights leaders, said, “Your time will come but now we must take care of the men.” They said, “Fine, we will take care of the women.” And they did. That is why I said we won many things but we didn’t win that war.

BELL: Do you feel that there is still an opportunity for the rights that you sought at the time for women, for the poor, for other people whom weren’t black men, to still be gained now through the Black Lives Matter Movement or other movements?

HENDERSON: Of course. If I didn’t believe that I have no reason to get up in the morning. I might as well just keep my eyes closed and check out of this world. Of course I believe it. I must believe that. That is the reason that I still breathe, because I will do everything that I can to push that agenda forward. But make no mistake about it: I am realistic enough to know that when Martin Luther Jr. told us, "I have been to the mountain top and I will not be with you much longer," he was talking about his journey, but he was really telling the rest of us old men now, "You are going to take the same journey." Yes, I believe it is going to happen but I don’t think that I will be there to see it happen. But then we become the equivalent of Moses, we can take them up to and point them in the direction of that promised land, but we are not going to go there with him. So, yes I believe it, I believe with every breath that I take, I believe it with every beat of my heart. It must happen, it has to happen. I was hypnotized by the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “One Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice—” It was that last word that got me,  a poor eight year old in special education reciting those words "—for all.” Not for poor people like me, not for segregated black people, not for on and on and on, for all of us. Yea, yea it is going to happen. It is going to happen because that is our destiny as a nation. That is our destination as human beings. There is only race of any significance from my perspective.  That is the human race.

BELL: In your memoir Race and the University, you talk about dehumanizing effect of ambivalence. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

HENDERSON: I have lived with you; I have worked for you; I have built for you. I have taken care of your children; I have taken care of my children. I have fought in wars; I have died for you. I have done all of these things, and you still are ambivalent about whether I should be free? "I too am America’s," Langston Hughes wrote.  And it is that kind of ambivalence, but doggonit, the children that I see now, my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, reflect the world that I think we are moving towards. My family is multi-racial, multi-everything. You think of a social problem I have got to represent it, they're all there in my family. So, you can say I am selfish, I want all of our children to be taken care of, or you can say that I am an idealist. I believe that they will be.

BELL: What do you say to people whose ambivalence comes from their lack of understanding about what they can do to fight racism, to the person who does recognize other people’s humanity., who does feel like black lives matter but feels tied, they don’t know what to do?

HENDERSON: There is always something all of us can do. We don’t have to think globally, we don’t have to think locally on a broad scale.  Each of us can do whatever we can do in our homes, on our playgrounds, in our work places, what I can do so, in our neighborhood, it doesn’t matter you can do something. But my question to them always is this: "And don’t agonize about what you can’t do. Tell me what you can do and do it." Don’t sit here and say, "If I had more money and more time or more influence—" use the money or time or influence that you have and do something with it. So, that is how I deal with that.  No, I may not have an opportunity to make broad strokes and create a beautiful picture but I can make a small stroke and start painting that picture.

BELL: Can you give us an example of one of those "small strokes" that you'd recommend to someone?

HENDERSON: I just finished teaching a class and one of the students said, "When I entered this class I was determined that I wasn’t going to say anything because I can’t make a difference."  She says, "I am leaving this class now knowing that when you told us that we must exercise and use our voice, and when I did this," she said, "I understood. I made friends in this class that I thought I would never make. That is the first step isn’t it?"  That is what it is. We do it one person at a time, one household at a time, one neighborhood at a time—that is how we do it.

BELL: You mentioned earlier that you are not expecting huge leaps and bounds within your lifetime regarding the progress of civil rights in the country, but are there smaller steps that you hope to see us take as a nation?

HENDERSON: I have seen more things happen than ever I thought would happen, but I am an impatient person. Someone asked Martin once, "Well, what do you want?"  He said, "I want it all. I want it now." I still have that kind of patience, and I realized that if we discount the gains that we have made we trivialize them. And, they are all building blocks and they are all foundations to the bigger house that we are building. So I count the little things that have happened to me, and other people said they are big things...I don’t know. Whatever we do, if we are better people today than we were when we woke up yesterday that is progress.

BELL: Dr. George Henderson, thank you so much for joining me today.

HENDERSON: Thank you for inviting me.