Title: Steve Suitts [ SRC 8 ]
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00093158/00001
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Title: Steve Suitts SRC 8
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Language: English
Creator: Interviewer: Susan Glisson
Publication Date: June 28, 2002
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Volume ID: VID00001
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Full Text

Steve Suitts
18 pages Open
June 28, 2002

Pages 1-5: In 1977, Steve Suitts was hired as director of the Southern Regional Council (SRC).
Suitts states the SRC found itself in a deep ideological and financial crisis when he came on
board. Suitts describes the programs that suffered as a direct result of the SRC's lack of money
and focus. The SRC faced internal conflict as well, due to a lack of leadership and virtually no
fund-raising efforts. Suitts examines the causes and effects of the lingering turmoil at the SRC.

Pages 6-11: Suitts discusses his vision of the SRC as creating new ways to change people's
minds and government policies. Suitts re-focused the SRC on its goal of opening the
democratic process to historically dispossessed people in the South. Suitts recalls using
research and reports to spur action and re-establish the SRC. Suitts worked to obtain funding
from small foundations in New York, that not only gave money but also promoted the SRC to
other foundations. Suitts describes the various grants awarded to the SRC and the reports and
programs they funded. Suitts relates the SRC's involvement in legal reports and case studies as
ways the SRC was able to get its message across with little expense. Suitts recalls the SRC
working on projects like organizing black caucuses in Southern legislatures and protecting
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Suitts explains how these projects fit well into his notion of
the SRC as a conduit of information and expertise for community leaders and activists. Suitts
describes the process of again re-focusing the SRC in the early 1980s as it regained a more solid
financial and ideological condition.

Pp. 12-18: Suitts' strategy of reinvigorating the SRC began with affordable projects that would
both confirm the SRC's position on the issue and provide information to interested parties.
Suitts says the SRC's priorities began to shift as President Carter lost his reelection bid and a
new Reagan administration took control. Suitts remembers the SRC reporting on the dire state
of education in the "Black Belt," establishing a voting rights program Suitts, and taking steps to
make the electric co-ops in the South more democratic. Suitts summarizes the strengths and
weaknesses of the SRC during his tenure as director. The discrimination cases against the SRC
in the early 1990s are described honestly and openly by Suitts. Suitts examines the outcome of
the suits and the impact they had on himself and the SRC. The role of the SRC in the civil
rights movement is described by Suitts as being part of the "infrastructure of social change."
Suitts explains the SRC gave people the tools and knowledge, not available otherwise, to make
the changes that resulted in progress. Suitts believes the SRC both honored and worked for the
people at the forefront of the action. Suitts concludes that the SRC will be remembered more
accurately and more prominently by historians as time goes on.

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 1

G: This is Susan Glisson and I=m here with Steve Suitts. It=s Friday, June 28, [2002] in Atlanta,

Georgia and were talking about the Southern Regional Council. Thank you very much with your


S: Always glad to talk with you.

G: Tell me a little bit about how you came to know of the Southern Regional Council and what you

thought of its work.

S: I knew, learned about the council when I was in college at the University of Alabama because I sat

on the human relations council in Tuscaloosa when all the state councils and the local councils

were not a part of the Southern Regional Council as they once were. They still relied upon the

councils literature and almost as a spiritual figure in Atlanta, so I knew about it then. When I

worked for the Selma Interreligious Project, we would get publications from and occasionally see

somebody who worked at the SRC. I guess I also knew about it because once Leslie Dunbar had

gone to the Field Foundation, generally the Field Foundation supported some of the work that was

done by the Selma project and later for the Alabama Civil Liberties Union where I was at. One

knew about the council because he had been there.

G: In what capacity did you come on board with the SRC?

S: I was at the Alabama Civil Liberties Union and Southern Regional Council needed a director in

1977. Marjory Fine Noles who was on the executive committee at the Southern Regional Council

and she was in Tuscaloosa at the law school. She asked me if I would be interested in applying. I

was and I applied. I came over to Atlanta for an interview and they asked me to stay over the

evening, and I did. Then [I] went home, met with the executive committee the next day, came

home and got a letter from Julius Chambers offering me the job.

G: What was the general climate in which the SRC found itself doing work when you came on board in

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 2


S: It was an organization in deep crisis. Crisis of mission as much as a crisis of finances, both were

critical. I had started the Alabama Civil Liberties Union from a box of files in an office in the

backseat of my old Dodge that had push-button gears, it was that old. It was a technology that

didn't stay with us. In fact, friends used to call it my book mobile because I would have the books

in the back seat and all the ACLU files and this and that. A few people recommended that I really

needed to apply the Dewey decimal system to my back system, but I never got that organized. I

was not at all discouraged by the difficulties the institution [was] in and I was ready to see if I

couldn't craft some strategies that went beyond Alabama. Much of what I had done at the

Alabama Civil Liberties Union was trying to use litigation, design a litigation strategy that would help

change events and circumstances around that program. Even though the Alabama Civil Liberties

Union had just been involved in a major prison litigation that ultimately did some good and put the

prison system under federal court order, I saw pretty clearly that the role of litigation in creating

change in the deep South was coming to an end. I saw the council as a way of trying to muster

some new ways and new strategies from changing hearts, minds, and public policy. That intrigued

me. I remember when I was in the interview, one of the people on the interview panel I think Joan

Cassion who was from Alabama who I knew, she was from Huntsville and her husband John had

been the head of the National Democratic Party of Alabama which was a Black Mississippi

freedom party with a different name. Gwen Cherry, lovely, lovely soul, Gwen was the vice

president and she was the first Black woman to sit on the Florida legislature and certainly in this

century probably the first Black woman all together. Gwen, who was one of my dearest and

strongest supporters from day one, once told me, she said Steve, when you walked into that room

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 3

to the interview, I looked at you and I said to myself oh my God, how young and how White. Both

were quite true, but in the interview we talked about what ought to be the strategies and I was very

interested in, for example, finding ways in which non-profit groups could find legally permissible

territory and roles in trying to provide information to legislative units and to help create and solidify

Black caucuses and force in southern legislatures. It had been something that we had tried in part

in Alabama under what we called the constitution lobby and it was a coalition of groups and work.

That discussion obviously resonated with Gwen and I think it the group of people on the search

committee and on the executive committee at that time I think were both stars and activists as a

group who saw that they needed someone who wanted to do something and to do it in ways that

the council had not done in the past. That=s what people willing to look at someone like me, a

young White guy who has a few ideas and a lot of energy I suppose when they're in a time of

crisis. I am absolutely certain in my mind that had the Southern Regional Council not been in

financial crisis, it would have found somebody else to choose to be the director and so it was a

particular moment when my peculiar ideas and heritage and experience seemed to be attractive to

the institution at that time. The marriage of moment and convenience I suppose.

G: Could you talk more specifically, in a sort of comparative kind of way, about the strategies that

were in place, the program Maddock Focus that was in place when you came in, and then maybe

how that shifted under your leadership?

S: Some of the programs had just died on the vine because of the financial troubles that I think it=s

fair to say that for whatever reasons, the council had grown very quickly under George Esser=s

leadership, and George had a vision of the council and he had a mission there. One thing

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 4

happened or another and it simply found itself in a deficit or at least having far less money than it

had commitments. This staff of fifty, sixty people, seventy-five at one time, had to be reduced

down in a matter of a few weeks to something like thirty and then down to twenty-five and twenty.

There were some programs that had been alive and functioning that simply died because of lack of

money and I didn't inherit those. I guess the one program which showed the difference between

what was and what I tried to do was the southern governmental monitoring project which was in

place with some money, dwindling amounts, when I arrived. Its notion was that it would monitor

what governments would do and report on that to the general public and expose what was going

on. There were two differences. One is it did not seem to me that it recognized the historical

moment of the South, which was that we were in a period where finally, because of the Voting

Rights Act and because of the Civil Rights Act and because of decades of activism and some

hearts and minds changing, we were at a point where there was beginning to be a shift of power or

the opportunities for a shift of power in southern politics between those who had power and those

who hadn=t. The monitoring project while recognizing that the states at that time under the Nixon

administration especially had moved things to the state level a lot, did not appreciate well enough, I

thought, that it was more important to try to capture and facilitate that legitimate Democratic shift of

power to the hands of the poor and to African American citizens than it was to simply generally

report. Second difference was I truly believed that while good government was an important issue,

that the heart and soul of the issues of the South and the governments of the South revolved

around race and income and later I began to appreciate more so in some areas, gender. I thought

that reporting on such things as the Freedom of Information Acts in the South and the study of

those was a contribution and could be very useful and an important tool at times, but I didn't think

that really got to the real issues and it certainly wasn't the issues on which people resisted the

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 5

transfer of power or those who needed additional opportunities to influence public affairs. Those

were I think the two major differences. In a sense, George Esser, I don't know that George would

agree with this but I well find when I read this book, I think George really did have a belief in

Howard Odum=s original vision of the Southern Regional Council. That it somehow could

transcend the issues of race and the issues of income and be a regional planning and monitoring

organization that essentially got people to work somehow beyond those issues. I think for me it

was the time where the historically dispossessed of the South had a chance to capitalize on the

Democratic process. That seemed to me terribly important. That=s where I was trying to focus

and I think that was the differences that I saw in the program. When I talked to the executive

committee, I didn't really articulate it in those words. I will have to admit to you I later did as

documents will probably show. These were people who had been through a big crisis in their

organization and I appreciated the difficulty. What I talked about was not so much the difference of

what I was doing compared to what had been done, but that there were new opportunities

emerging that the SRC could be a part of. I said this was an organization that was in financial and

spiritual crisis. The spiritual crisis was... the real question was was there really a role for an

interracial group? There was one view, shouldn't White liberals get out of the way and let Black

folks do what they need to do? What good was there in interracial... I didn't have any qualms

about what role an interracial group had. I had grown up in a county that had only fifty-six Black

people in the entire jurisdiction, and I don=t think I had ever saw anyone who wasn=t White

skinned until I was at least in the third or fourth grade. But I had worked with Black folks in college

in the Black belt and I knew that out in the South, the real South, that when you knocked on a door

at John Horn=s little ole house in Hale County, Alabama and said John, I want to help you get

some folks registered to vote and 1=11 go get some students down here and well get some cars

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 6

and well make them pull out some gas money, John didn't care what I was only that I was

genuine and honest about it. There was an intellectual debate going on and it was a bona fide

debate in some ways, but that the real life of change in the South was out there where people were

willing to help and willing to be helped by anybody that will. Those folks were the people I had

been working with in Alabama, and in Mississippi from time to time, and I had trusted that that was

the South. The heart of Dixie was really what the South was. So I didn't have any qualms about

it and sometimes that got me into trouble and sometimes it freed me up to do what I needed to do.

G: I don=t want to belabor the point, but I wonder if you could just talk specifically about the potential

internal crisis that presented for personnel and organizational ongoing activities?

S: It was a very difficult time. I joked with members of the executive committee who continued to

serve after I got to the council that I noted that they wisely failed to inform me of just how bad the

financial crisis was or to show me the books. It was a lesson I learned later on. I got there in July,

came over to Atlanta from Tuscaloosa and had a little U-Haul trailer that I put on to my Maverick

Ford and came over...

G: Had gotten rid of the Dodge by now.

S: Yeah, the Dodge died. Had to move up in the world to a Maverick Ford which I guess it would be

something like the Ford Motor company=s attempt to create a Civic, but didn't quite make it.

When I got here in July of 1977, I found out that there were people very dispirited, folks going

through the motions, people who felt they had no supervisor and some who didn't want a

supervisor, and that there had been essentially no fund-raising going on for some time. One of the

difficulties of all of this was that a good bit of the important people of the council had gone up to be

a part of the Carter administration. Peter Petkas who was the interim director between George

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 7

Esser and me had left to go to I think OMB. Wayne Clark, who was head of the governmental

monitoring project whom I fired went up to Washington afterwards. Patt Derian had gone up,

Connie Carter who had been on th executive committee, Ray Marshall who had been part of a

project. There was also a sense that the best had left the council, whether it was the staff or

otherwise. The sense of were all hanging out here because we have no other place to go. That

was a difficult situation for people to be in and not one that I really knew I had inherited. I have in

my filed at home on the council, I have a page from the CPA report for the year of 1978 and one

from 1976. As I recall, the council went from having in the first end of 1976 something in the

neighborhood of $2 million to having something around $55 million in 1978. The crisis of finances

had to do with both the fact that there had not been any fund-raising, there had not been any new

programs developed, there had not been any leadership, and for all intensive purposes many

people had decided the council was an agency who=s time had come to die. There were people,

in fact, in the files, letters from people, good souls like Joel Flashman from North Carolina, who

were council members who strongly advised that the council should fold. It was not only a lack of

money and a lack of program direction and a lack of ideas and a lack of mission and self-respect

by the people at the council, but there was also a general impression by funders and by several

members of the council that the end had come. It was a bleak time. Julius Chambers was the

president at the time and Ray Wheeler who=s position in Charlotte was past president which at

that time was an office, and Gwendolyn Cherry was the vice president. I don=t remember the

secretary or treasurer right off hand, but they were the people who were my working group in the

week to week effort to try to figure out what to do and how to turn the situation around. Even Leslie

Dunbar, who at the time was at the Field Foundation had lost faith in the sense that he was

unwilling to support SRC until it showed that it was in fact going to be able to survive.

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 8

G: That=s enough of a plate of stuff to deal with, but were any of those problems complicated by any

kind of lingering charges by Blacks that there weren=t leadership roles or by women that there


S: Yeah. One of the programs that was winding down at the council in 1977 was the leadership

development program which has actually always been one of my favorite programs, was then and I

had tried vainly to keep it going. It was headed up by a fellow of great spirit who I really liked was

K.Z. Chatus. K.Z. applied for my job. K.Z. was an African American man about at that time, I was

in twenty-seven and he was probably forty-seven to fifty-five, somewhere in that neighborhood.

There were others, other Black applicants, but he was the primary one and the executive

committee members told me afterwards that they didn't think... they wanted a new start. K.Z. was

very graceful about it, he was graceful in the way K.Z. was graceful. The first time I met him he

came in, shook my hand, and said you know I should be sitting behind that desk. I said well, that

was a decision neither you nor I could make. The decisions been made and we should make the

best of it I hope. He laughed and said well, that's a pretty good answer and we went on from

there. There were so many people, both White folks and Black folks who had to leave the staff,

that the drawer of complaints was very interracial. The letters written from men, women, Black,

Whites. There weren=t any Hispanics on the staff at the time. Al Kara who was the regional

officer for civil rights at the AFLCIO, he was a White man, was very put out with the council

because of the way it did in fact dismiss people from employment and he thought it was against

good labor standards and such. He had had a public dispute with Peter Petkas that had been in

the papers. There were lots of people who thought that the SRC had not proven that it was going

to... it had done things well or that it could do well. The time between when I accepted the job and

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 9

arrived at the job, the Atlanta constitution had a magazine back then, this was when Daley still had

their Sunday magazines, and they had a feature article entitled ALiberals Without a Cause@. It

pretty well, I thought it... I probably thought it was a little unfair occasionally, but it pretty well

captured the sense of where the organization was. It captured the racial tensions there, the labor

tensions. It was fairly good rendering and Brian should be sure to look at that one. Actually, that

wasn=t the one I kept in my desk. There was another one that Jim Fallows had written about

SRC, which essentially made the most damning of all assessments. He=d written it for something

up near Washington. This is before we became well known or the editor of the News and World

Report and such. Jim Fallows wrote a piece which essentially said here=s this agency, I think it

was in 1974, 1975, here=s this agency that is soaking up $5 [million] to $6 million, which was its

high point, a year talking about poverty and talking about problems in the South and doing very

little about them, while there are all these other folks who are doing God=s work and aren=t

getting hardly any support. I had been in one of those organizations that was doing God=s work at

the Selma project with the Alabama Civil Liberties Union, and I understood what the scarcity of

resources meant in that situation. I kept that article to the last day of employment as a reminder

that what the obligations for a regional organization is to make sure that it can always not only talk

the talk, but walk the walk.

G: So you come in this self-described bleak situation. How in the world do you marshall resources

and turn that around? What steps did you take?

S: There were days that I didn't think I would do it, when I really didn't. There were even moments

before he died, Ray Wheeler and I, I guess even in 1979 said maybe we should... People just

aren't going to respond. We had hoped that the Ford Foundation, which had been a long time

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 10

supporter would give this money actually on faith. It did not. We had hoped that the Field

Foundation would give us money on faith, especially since Leslie had been willing to support some

things I had been involved in in Alabama, but he too would not. In all, I could understand the

reasoning. What we essentially had to do was to find a way in which to have some inexpensive

ways of signaling what we can do, spend a little money to have as large an impact as possible,

both for budgetary reasons and to signal what our concerns were and what our new style was.

One of the things that we did because the laundering project essentially folded, the leisure

development project folded. We were in 1978 with very little money, and depending... I love Leslie

Dunbar dearly, but let me put it on the record that while Leslie was not willing to give us money on

faith, the foundation down the stairs from him in New York on 85th Street, 86th Street, David

Ramage of the New World Foundation did. I think it=s because David was a... went to seminary,

trained Presbyterian and I think he thought giving on faith was a pretty natural way thing to do,

actually he did. Of all the people who I have to credit for keeping us alive, it was this small

foundation and especially David Ramage who not only gave us money, but promoted us and

talked about us to other small foundations in New York that kept us able. David was the first

foundation person to come see us, I just remembered this story, and he came in 1977. I came

here in July of 1977, my wife and I married in Alabama in August of 1977, and I came back from

our honeymoon in the beaches of South Carolina early because David Ramage was going to be

here. I am White and I blister, sunburn very easily. So even though I had gone to the beach in

August, had been on the beach under an umbrella with a towel over me, with long pants on and

sun screen on, I still got sunburn all over. I was miserable. So here I was having cut my

honeymoon short, coming back blistered from sunburn all over to meet David Ramage. He was

such a great spirit when he learned that I had done that and was very supportive emotionally and

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 11

otherwise. I have always truly been eternally grateful to him. He went on to Chicago to visit the

two head of the seminaries there and I lost touch with them. He headed up this chair of the ward,

People for the American Way a few years back. Tried to trace him down last time I was in

Chicago, but didn't do it. With that little foundation support, the small foundations that kept us

alive, what we did was we issued some reports on what we called the segregated governments of

the South, all of the regional boards, the different kinds of groups. We essentially tallied up how

many all White governing boards, advisory boards and such still existed. The State Board of

Transportation and the State Board of... how many were still completely all White and it was a

shocking number. We did and it got a lot of play, didn't do a lot to tell you the truth, but it did

signal what our issue was. It signaled that we were alive and well, and did at least put the issue

into public discussion.

G: And that you weren=t going to retrench from racial issues.

S: That=s right. Then we started doing a series or the courts. This was the time when President

Carter had set up a system for the appointment of federal judges. One of the reports that Leslie

had done when he was at SRC was looking at B this was right before the Civil Rights Act was to be

passed B looking at the federal courts and the patters of employment and racial discrimination in

the courts. The real reason for that original report was to try to establish a basis for helping to

assure that the southern federal courts were not given jurisdiction over section five of the Voting

Rights Act, and it did make a contribution to that. I was intrigued by that, to look at that, so we did

a report on the employment practices in the federal courts of the South, which did in fact create a

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 12

good bit of publicity. We then pursued it in other ways. There were hearings held by Don

Edwards of the subcommittee on civil rights in the House on this, and that subcommittee

proceeding, I was going to ask to testify on it, [our report was] the basis for the inquiry B they

looked more broadly at other courts in the country B and it was the basis of the judicial conference

passing a resolution establishing the first affirmative action plan for the United States courts in its

history. That report, which I wrote and which we sent out to the local print shop and stapled

together one night, counting the amount of salary time must have cost us $5,000 to do. That was

about the kind of expense we could afford, but it again signaled two things. It signaled that we

were trying to find ways of using information that in fact shaked a change of practice, and secondly

that these were still historic issues in the South. I did papers for the council and for the executive

committee talking about my before all of this happened, about what should be the mission and

what about the historical role and such, but those were not terribly important except to solidify the

council. The work of it was far more important showing what people in foundations were really up

to. That we were carrying out, and then we did some others on judges in segregated clubs and

also prompted a judicial conference of the United States to adopt a resolution holding that

membership in a segregated club was a violation of the judicial canons of ethics, which we pressed

hard for. At the same time [of] the judicial conference meeting shortly after the election of Ronald

Reagan in 1980 revoked that resolution. So that wasn=t sustained all that long. Then we did a

couple of case studies on the judicial process and how essentially the good ole boys system was

continuing even under the Carter administrations newest rules to exclude a lot of Blacks and

women from serious consideration for federal judgeships. It clearly was an effort to try... we didn't

focus on the judiciary because of any independent reason, but we did so because it gave us an

opportunity to take what little resources we had to perhaps have an influence on the important

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 13

branch of government across the region or nation, and to keep our issues focused and alive. While

all of that was going on, I was working hard with the help of Gwen Cherry and Julius and

Raymond in trying to develop some of these newer approaches that we had to enforcing the

Voting Rights Act and to creating what became in the late 1970s our Southern Legislative

Research Council. They developed it in different ways. Bernie Charles who was the program

officer at the Carnegie Corporation who I saw just a few weeks ago and [is] now doing other things,

gave the council it=s first large grant under my term. It did not come until I think 1979. I don=t

remember the amount, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 to create the

Southern Legislative Research Council, which would help provide the kind of research and analysis

that legislators at that time were not getting unless they were part of the leadership. It was not only

to the Black members of the legislature, but to both Blacks and Whites. The way we framed it

conceptually was those who represented or supported the interests of Black and poor voters. We

actually were trying to empower those representing that constituency of voters in the legislative

process and carefully crafted it so that it would be within the tax laws of that time. That was a time

when only Florida and South Carolina and very recently afterwards, North Carolina, had provided in

the South any office space. Most of the state legislators at that particular time in the late 1970s

didn't have office space, didn't have secretaries. They could put in a request for a research

service, but it would generally be way down on the line. It was providing some pretty basic stuff.

Part of what we moved on to do was to in fact help create Black caucuses. We actually paid for it.

I was up visiting members of the South Carolina legislative Black caucus about education recently

and none of the original members were there, but we actually paid the check for the incorporation

of the Black caucus in South Carolina. We helped to get legal papers drawn up for other Black

caucuses so that they could begin to not only... they could begin producing fund-raising on their

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 14

own on the 5013 side, which is the reference in the tax codes provision for taxing certain groups.

That began to move. What we wanted to do in the voting rights area was essentially to begin to

make section five, which was the provision for preclearance, a real administration process that

community groups could use effectively. We began to make progress on it getting a few small

grants, as I recall, in late 1978, early 1979, and then into 1980. The Voting Rights Act that had

provided for this administrative preclearance, it had been going on but regulations for it had not

been adopted until I think 1971, and the procedure was very informal to the Carter administration.

Drew Days, at that time, was in the justice department actually and my colleague Lynn Huntley

was in the justice department in another division. But Drew Days was the head of the civil rights

division of justice and they were good people, honest people, and they understood was section five

was supposed to be. Our role was to begin to support community groups in preparing submissions

to the justice department in a timely way, being able to figure out how to monitor what changes

were being proposed. The old technique then was, of course, to submit things and never let

anybody locally know about it so that there would be no public comment and no objection. [End of

Tape A, side 1]

G: You were talking about preclearance and some of the ways you responded to that.

S: That project also fit my whole concept of what the council ought to be doing because the notion of

being able to provide information and expertise to community leaders who were activist and

concerned about things, the justice of their own communities, and to do that in a way that they

could have some influence on what in fact, at least it was not done, it was mischievous, we

couldn't affirmatively do anything, but you could stop a lot of stuff. In the late 1970s, that was still

a very important strategy. We began doing that with the support of a group of small foundations

and it was not until the early 1980s when people like my colleague here at SEF, Lynn Huntley, got

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 15

to the Ford Foundation that the Ford Foundation began to see the virtue of this work. It was not

until the early 1980s that the Ford Foundation returned to be a major supporter, but it did. It

supported the full growth of our voting rights program to begin to not only provide this assistance to

community groups, but to begin to provide expertise in examining voting changes and ultimately

preparing redistricting plans, and eventually beginning a national training fellowship program for

training fellows to do this kind of expertise across the country. What it also did at the time was put

us back in touch with activist and local leaders who had been or were continuing the struggle

across the South to change that balance of power. If not change the balance of power, at least

move a representative amount of political power and political influence and clout to people who

hadn=t really had representation in southern governments since the disfranchisement.

G: Just to sort of summarize in my head, you started with some inexpensive projects that both

cemented your commitment to particular issues and yielded some impact in the way of providing

information to parties in order to make some policy changes. That did two things, it began to

reintroduce you to some of the foundations that had perhaps lost faith and to some of the activist

communities that you had also lost touch with.

S: That=s right.

G: That=s a pretty nifty trick.

S: It was what seemed to be the occasion. It wasn=t a one man band by any measure. We had

some people at the council who helped greatly and fondly. The challenge, of course,

came in the 1980s when Jimmy Carter lost his reelection and Reagan came on and we had a

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 16

whole different set of people in Washington, a whole different climate in the country. We didn't

see that there was going to be any change in two of our major programs which was the Voting

Rights Project and the Southern Legislative Research Council. In the early 1980s, as our funding

at least became more reliable and more substantial, we began an internal review of now that we

are out of the proverbial woods, where do we want to be going as far as we could. That internal

process led us to the same places and a few more. Our head notes, as Mary Francis Derfner

who=s another great woman on the council who died prematurely, Mary Francis used to call these

sort of our case notes and as we were looking at the court house, the state house, the school

house, and... oh my, I=ve forgotten our great head notes, she would be ashamed of me.

Economic... the marketplace. We went to the marketplace. Probably storefront would be better,

who knows. Economic issues, political process, the education. The council had a long and

honorable history in education. It wasn=t first on the list because I didn't think at that particular

moment that it had presented the greatest opportunity. What we did realize was that with the

emergence of a growing concern about educational achievement at that time with the nation at risk

and stuff, we too realized even before that report that there was still a strong pattern of segregation

in the schools, that the achievement levels were unusually low, suspension rates and drop rates

were skyrocketing for the poor and Black kids. So we needed something in that. In that kind of

development, it didn't take the rocket science there. It was not a process of rocket science to

realize how important that was. Having realized the importance, the real question was what are the

strategies there? In education what we decided to do was to focus first on the Black belt. The

education broadly speaking in the Black belt from the majority Black rural counties. From Lor, from

the coast of North Carolina sweeping through to the delta, and to try to find ways in which, we

didn't believe that we were going to get any federal assistance in those fields because of the

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 17

Reagan administrations position, but felt that we could begin to affect some changes by first

reporting on just how unrepresentative were the school boards and the people making the

decisions, and then to push our voting rights program into those areas to try to push to that the

people making decisions in those areas about what scarce resources would be spent or what

policies would be adopted would at least be school boards that were representative of the

population. At that point, we sort of merged two of our programs in a way. We actually merged

another one which was in the economic field. We again decided to focus on primarily rural

communities. The reason for the rural area was that there was a growing sense on our part that

this was a forgotten part of the South, that Atlanta and even by that time Birmingham and

Memphis, they were the New South and people were forgetting that there was still a reality that

wasn=t quite measured by Andy Young getting elected by Willie Herndon leading the school

board in Mississippi and such, and that it was a much more primitive problem and a problem which

could be solved. It was a sense of need and a sense of being able to have a useful impact with

folks there. In the economic development field, what we also did as I said concentrating in rural

areas and trying to make real the promise of democracy in shifting the control of rural electric

cooperatives which were in the South and still are, generally exempt from regulation by the

regulatory committees, the public service commissions, on the theory that they were

Democratically controlled. Analysis showed pretty clearly that they were in fact the largest

economic units in the rural South as a region, as a subregion. Bringing those to Democratic control

again merged our belief in democracy and that the whole notion of helping that Democratic process

promote the direction of an economic institution that really should be serving in a better way the

people who were their constituencies. Those strategies trying to make the electric coops more

Democratic, trying to recreate the Democratic control of school boards in the rural South became

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 18

for three or four years the driving strategies. This whole notion, as Jeff Norell said in his paper

looking back over that period sort of promoting democracy was in... you see our annual reports

where that was then our theme time and time again. Thomas Jefferson must have certainly

moved in his grave hearing him quoted so much in democracy and maybe Sally I think so too, but

anyway, somebody moved I=m sure in their grave listening to all our rhetoric about the South and

its Democratic heritage and its Democratic promise and its Democratic needs. It all boiled down to

a simple notion which was B it didn't take a great deal of analysis to understand, just a lot of good

experience B that in the South the Democratic control offered more power, more opportunities of

influence for people who had been historically dispossessed than anything else, it generally

wasn't that folks don=t have that much money, it was that that's what the Democratic process

was all about. It=s a simple notion of saying this is where you=re most likely to get some changes.

We made a lot more progress in the school boards than we did on the electric coops. We never

could get the rural electrification administration in the U.S. Department of agriculture to really get

tough on these coops to mischief with the Democratic process. We kept after them for years and

years and it=s one of my disappointments that we did make so little progress. I had hoped when

the Clinton administration came in 1992 that we had a little window there. I suppose if Bob Nash

who I mentioned earlier had stayed at agriculture as an associate secretary and if I had stayed at

the council, we might have finally been able to get something more than the piecemeal progress

we got on that. In education, once we had pretty well spent that strategy or at least got as far as

we could with it, we then began trying to do things with the schools and school leaders and set up

a principals institute in the delta and help Bob Moses get into the South...

G: With the Algebra Project.

S: Yeah.

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 19

G: I didn't know that.

S: Yeah. Started the Algebra Project and get it rooted it in the South. So our education program got

more to the whole notion of dealing with the problems of achievement in the schools and

leadership and teacher preparation and such, all of which was needed. But we began on our

strength and again on what we thought was... if you didn't change the people making the

decisions to be at least somewhat representative of the people who were sending their kids to

school, then you could do all the teacher preparation you wanted to and it wouldn't do it.

G: Did you all have a position on bussing?

S: Yes we did. Julius Chambers was our president when I came and Julius was the lawyer in the

Charlotte case, the last case in which the supreme court approved bussing as a remedy to

desegregation. So we didn't have... I had my line about it which was that there were only fifty-six

Black folks in my county, in Winston County, but in that fifty-six, there were apparently according

to the census in those years about ten or twelve who were kids of school age and I never saw

them. The reason I never saw them was because in the 1950s they were bussed, they were

bussed to some place else. So bussing wasn=t anything new, it was just who was going to have

to do the bussing. We all fought over that issue. Bussing, as we all know, wasn=t the fight, it was

just how much people cared about the issue of desegregation and whether bussing was the most

effective remedy. It didn't take us long on that issue.

G: I just have some concluding questions just to sum up from your experience on the SRC what would

you list as its strengths and its weaknesses?

S: During my term?

G: In your term, and more broadly if you want to address that.

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 20

S: 1=11 stick to my term, the better part of discretion. I think that our strengths were that we designed

and tried to carry out programs with whatever resources we had that answered the question that

we would ask ourselves at almost every staff meeting that wasn=t about the routine business and

that is, but for what we did, how is this really making a difference in the lives of people? We didn't

demand that every day that somebody came back from the trip that they would somehow show the

difference, but what strategies do we have? Are they realistic? Can they really make a difference

if we succeed? And when we came to the conclusion that they would, then the strength of what we

were is that we knew that the only thing that separated us from making a real difference and

helping people in some kind of enduring change would improve the South was our ability to make

that happen, our ability to succeed. I think there was a very strong programmatic drive that we had

and that people like Jenny Montez who came to head the Southern Legislative Research Council,

that my old friend Jerry Wilson who we had better disputes over who inspired a staff rebellion

against him. So when Carter and Ken Johnson and other people who headed up the major

programs in the Washington board, they came to accept or brought with in the same philosophy I

had which was we must be our own harshest critics and really understanding if we succeed, can

we really make a difference? Not just in one school, but a difference that sets a ripple effect as a

regional organization, that is our challenge. I think we had, for lack of a better way, strong

emotional and intellectual commitment that drove always an analysis of what were doing and why

were doing it. I=d say the second strength we had was a strong appreciation for the council=s

history and the history of the South. In some ways, the Lillian Smith Awards was nothing but a

celebration not only of writing and the power of the word, which we were in the business of, but

also a celebration of our ability to admit that we weren=t always right. Lillian Smith was right and

the council was often wrong, probably not as much as some historians would portray the issue of

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 21

segregation. That sense of history said you=re not always going to be right, but if you=ve got a

commitment and you have a sense of good will and a strategy, then ultimately it=s more important

for this organization to be in there doing something than it is for it to fold in and give someone else

the day. I think those were our two major strengths. I think the weaknesses were that we never

were able to establish an economy of scale that let us get our staff outside of Atlanta. To have

people in different parts of the region who would be working as council members. We never could

quite manage that level of resources nor that scale of economy to work. Being in Atlanta has great

advantages in the South, but it had the disadvantage of not really having presence like our human

relation councils did in the 1950s. I think it was disappointing that we were stuck with being an

Atlanta based organization that was entirely Atlanta based. I think the second weakness was that

we were unable to keep well attached to the new succeeding generations of southerners. We

couldn't find a way to really speak to them and to engage them except in a very minimalist way as

the new southerners, as the new constituency, as the real New South. I don=t know the Southern

Regional Council ever could be what the college campuses now routinely refer to as being post-

modern, but I think we were not able to keep the kind of edge that I would have like us to have had

with younger people. We became a fairly older lot. On a personal note, I think the saddest part

was not really the staff rebellion which was painful, emotionally painful, but was really seeing there

were three women in the council who died prematurely and I miss them, even today. When Mary

Francis and Jenny Montez, great people, great people. Even today I can shed a tear over them.

That I think, once when Lottie Shackelford who was a great woman, Lottie became president of the

council and the first Black women to actually lead, and the second woman after Pat Darig. I talked

to Pat afterwards and said did you know Lottie was president? She had been a little out of touch

with the council. She said yes, she said it=s about time which is traditional, standard for Pat. Pat

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 22

had gotten so disconnected with the council at that time that she hadn=t even known that Gwen

Cherry and Mary Francis Dearthner, both of whom oddly enough died two months before they

were supposed to become president of the council. The great thing about remembering people is

a sense of sorrow of their passing, the premature passing, is that there=s a sense of joy about,

what you=re missing is the joy you had in their lives and relationships. They were women who

were very influential in life, my life.

G: How do you think historians should incorporate the SRC in the civil rights movement story?

S: That=s a good question. I=ve got a chart at home which I did before I left SRC and had my

colleagues do, which sort of was that measurement of what have done in these seventeen or

eighteen years for the South? The few thousand jurisdictions had been redistrict for the

election of candidate of choice for Black voters and the school district. I tried to measure it as

much as possible to sort of see what had really been the role. I came away with a sense not of

satisfaction, but it was enough of a sense in the broader world of what was going on in the South

and the change from a huge portion of our population being powerless in this democracy to having

some stake in the powers and decisions. I did not leave the council dissatisfied, which is about as

good as I get. I think the SRC should always be remembered, and I considered this then and still

look back at that time, as being part of the infrastructure of social change. That we helped create

the mechanisms of empowerment, helped support the process of empowerment, helped create

capacity, and that is not the same as being on the front line whether you=re a state legislator or a

community activist or a teacher. It is I think the best role the council has ever played, not

necessarily the role that the institutions... I=m not saying that, let me qualify, clarify that. The

council over its entire history has played its best role when it has been a part of that infrastructure,

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 23

when it has been the support mechanism not just for good people to feel a sense of good will, but

for people to really be more able to change the South, to improve the South. To make good James

McBride Dabbs remarks about Lillian Smith, that she cared enough about the South that she

wanted to change it. What the councils best role over the many decades is helping giving people

tools and abilities and opportunities to make those changes that they would not have had had the

councils strategies and programs not been in place. I think that's an important role, but it=s not

the primary role. Both are essential. But if you were to look back over the people who we

recognized as our life fellows during my term B I tried to mend a few old fences and make right

some errors the council may have participated in, or at least I thought they did, over the years;

when we honored Anne Braden that was an emotional moment for me and for others B what we

were trying to do is honor people who had given their life to being on the front line, and those are

the people both we honored and for whom we worked. I think that was our role and I think that's

how history will rightly remember it.

G: Why do you suppose that role has been relatively unacknowledged?

S: I think it=s two reasons. One is, were just now getting around to acknowledging the role of many

of the people who were in fact in the front lines. The sad fact of the matter is, in the eighteen years

it took to make the circle being broken did break new ground in recognizing local people who

should have been recognized years and years ago, decades ago. Despite a lot of growth in the

scholarship, we=ve been late in recognizing the importance of people in this field wherever they

had been and certainly the people in the front lines. The second is, the council is not... how can I

say this without being offensive to historians?

G: Don=t worry about that.

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 24

S: I know, but I do. I don=t think John Hope Franklin has ever had any problems understanding the

important role of the Southern Regional Council. I don=t think Stephen Woodward had any

trouble understanding the role of the Southern Regional Council. Certainly Paul Gaston didn't. In

the coverage of southern history in the civil rights era, it takes experience or a sense of

understanding the South or how change really occurs to come to the conclusion that the Southern

Regional Council was, over the decades, an essential institution. I think historians are coming to

that level of sophistication about social change. Sometimes I=m discouraged at the Southern

Historical Association meetings, but other times I=m quite encouraged by them. I think both

because when time allows for everyone else to have gotten their due, the council I think will have

its due as an institution. In the story telling of events, George Wallace understood that both

popular culture and history would find it much more interesting to talk about the Standees

Willhouse store than trying to figure out how to make electric coops more Democratic, or taking a

computer program and developing a way in which community activists can draw their own plans in

being able to develop a way in which Black voters for the first time could elect candidates of their

choice. The election of that candidate, that candidates campaign, the difficulties of the White

community accepting it, that's a much more evocative story, a much better story for story telling

than is the story of how that district got created. I=m not sure that given how late it=s been to

recognizing the drum majors of the different communities that the council should have had

recognition any time earlier than the twenty-first century. Whether it=s with the Osgood project or

with someone else, the council will be given its due and historians will understand ultimately,

people will understand for sure that in this process of change, it did matter how early you came out

against segregation when the council was not one of the first to come out against segregation.

That wasn=t the decisive matter as to what organization truly helped to change the region. Who

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 25

stayed on, who tried to make a difference? And why, actually, they did. I think it will come. I=ve

never been worried about the fact that we haven't had book written about the SRC or even that it

hasn=t been given it=s due. There=s a Chinese proverb I quoted when I made my last speeches

at the council annual meeting about the true definition of leadership is whenever you=ve convinced

people that they not only can help people to a certain point that they can not only do it for

themselves, but they think they=ve done it on their own and they have the confidence to continue

to do it on their own, then you=ve done what you should do. That=s really what the council should

have done in my time, did before my time, and it=s truly its real mission.

G: Is there anything that I should have asked you that I did not?

S: You probably should have asked me about the council being sued for sex discrimination, race

discrimination, and age discrimination during 1992, 1993.

G: What happened?

S: There was a trial.

G: Who brought the suit?

S: Former employees.

G: Under your leadership?

S: They were privates of rec and I was the director. You all can decide whether you want to put it in

or not. It=s all a matter of public record and I think I discovered that my old friend Jerry Wilson

who was the director of the voting rights project had been regrowing plans and had been working

with litigation groups to do so as was his job, and that the litigation groups had filed in cases they

had won for reimbursement of cost and fees and that Jerry had been receiving money personally

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 26

rather than that money coming back to the Southern Regional Council. SRC later had an out of

court settlement with Jerry about this, but we sued him and we settled after I... Unfortunately one

of the terms of the settlement is that I not be informed of the terms of the settlement, so I don=t

know exactly what happened in terms of the settlement, but I don=t mind, the facts were absolutely

clear. From that point on as that began to unravel, it became clear that there were other similar

problems that had begun to occur. The short-long is that several people got fired for cause and

several people sued the council and me. The EOC complaints were filed and all were disposed of

in favor of the council. We were sued in federal court and went to trial in early 1995 and the jury I

think was out for about forty minutes and came in with a verdict for the council. I was bothered by

the experience. It wasn=t so much being accused. In my years of working I had been accused of

every violation of federal law for which civil rights covers because when you=re in this business,

people generally think the one Achilles heel that you have is that you don=t live by the same rules

that you promote and that that's your weak spot, and it is if you don=t. I never had any

administrative or other judgement. It=s interesting because Delores Pringle who you have on

your list to interview, Delores did not sue the council although she testified on behalf of the

plaintiffs who did sue. The irony of that was that when we hired Delores I was sued by a White

woman who alleged racial discrimination. It comes and goes in life. There were some people

there, Jerry included, who I truly considered friends and who I trusted with not only the councils

money but with the councils good will who decided to misuse that trust and that's always a

painful experience. It was not a celebratory conclusion. From 1992 to 1994 that was going on, my

wife and I had our second child and I had pneumonia, so it was not a particularly easy period of

time by any means. I wanted to make sure that that matter was settled. By the time I became in

early 1995 a consultant, the lawsuit was tried in January of 1995, it was concluded. There was a

SRC- 8 Suitts, page 27

search committee, a search process going on. There was a triumvirate of people, Ken Johnson,

Ellen Spears, and Marsha Pinboard who were responsible for the administration so it was in good

hands. The council had $900,000 in the bank, it had commitments of a little over $1 million from

grants to be paid, so I felt that all was in good hands and that I did what I said I was going to do

when I promised myself in 1979 that I would leave the council only in an orderly fashion with

adequate resources to continue. I felt that I had done that so I felt I could leave. Nobody really

should note my tenure without my bringing to their attention that towards the end, there was a

period of time in which the council was accused of every violation of employment law except a

violation on religious grounds, and that we prevailed in all instances.

G: I appreciate your honesty about that.

S: Sure.

G: Thank you.

S: Well thank you. It brought back a lot of old memories that I hadn=t even thought about in a long


G: I didn't mean to upset you.

S: No, no. I=m glad. My ability is to say a tear of remembrance is a tear of joy, and I=m glad to

remember those people always.

G: Good. We will conclude. This is Susan Glisson with Steve Suitts.

S: Thank you.

[End of interview]

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