20 pages- Open
June 17, 2002
Pages 1-5: Charles Prejean worked on exposing adults to more formal education
opportunities. In the 1960s Prejean started a fruitcake business under the Southern
Consumers Cooperative, at the same time creating a lending institution. Prejean
describes how the Southern Consumers Cooperative got involved with the Southern
Regional Council (SRC). He examines how the SRC was involved with the civil rights
movements of the time and how it responded to other changes going on at that time.
Pages 6-8: Prejean discusses his interaction with the Voter Education Program (VEP).
The VEP evolved into an umbrella organization to satisfy community need, often
working with the same groups of people as the SRC. Prejean describes Vernon Jordan
and his strengths to the project, and John Lewis' involvement and the tensions he
created within the VEP. Prejean also describes Julian Noland's role in the VEP as
being similar to Lewis'.
Pages 9-14: Prejean describes how he came to be the executive director of SRC in
1967. Prejean examines how the SRC responded to some of the racial issues that
were going on at the time. The SRC was trying to make the transition to having more
blacks involved while undergoing insults and verbal abuse when the black groups
wanted it to happen quicker. Looking back, Prejean thought there should have been
more discussion about putting blacks into leadership positions so abruptly. No one
understood just how difficult it would be at the time. Prejean examines his feelings that
racism is still an issue, though more subtle than it was in the past. Prejean feels that
there is still a need for the SRC and the goals and mission that it represents.
Pages 15-20: Prejean recalls the shift in the civil rights movement in the 1970s and the
effect it had on the funding of the SRC. The shift in the movement included the Poor
People's Campaign, and Prejean discusses how he thought U.S. society was not ready
for that. Prejean examines how he felt the SRC could have increased its visibility
during these times. He describes SRC's major achievements and contributions during
the 1970s and 1980s. Prejean felt their major contribution was voice. Prejean
explains how he feels the role of the SRC has been unacknowledged. There was too
much emotion when all the movements were actually going on. Time is needed in
order for people to really understand all that went on.
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 1
G: It is Thursday, June 27, . This is Susan Glisson. I=m in Atlanta, Georgia, on West Peach
Tree, just around the corner from the Stork Hawks with Charles Prejean. We are talking about the
Southern Regional Council. Thank you very much for your time.
P: Thank you.
G: I would love to hear your story on how you arrived at the point where you were associated with the
Southern Regional Council.
P: I think maybe I ought to start off with the statement that yes my name is Charles Prejean, and
although it doesn't sound like a typical southern name I am a southern, that is if any state west of
the Mississippi can be classified as southern. Southern Louisiana, that's part of the South. The
question is how did I come in touch with SRC and how would I characterize my early experience
with the Southern Regional Council. Working Louisiana, working in the area of social justice and
social and economic empowerment issues in rural southwest Louisiana, first we started off with
community literacy training thinking that if adults were exposed to more formal education, they
would build on this and have opportunities for better employment. That was a difficult proposition
for adults because the classes were in the evenings and folks worked all day and retired at night.
They were more concerned with immediate results, short term benefits from doing the extra that
was needed. So we decided to respond to that by creating employment opportunities and income
generating opportunities. What seemed to be the model that was most appropriate for people with
little resources was the cooperative economic models, bringing folks together, pooling the limited
resources, and starting businesses that were labor intensive and could provide some immediate
employment. Credit unions were also an opportunity for mobilizing capital and using that for
business development. We started a group in southwest Louisiana under the leadership of Father
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 2
Albert McKnight, started mobilizing small communities and organizing them for this purpose and
in the early 1960s we incorporated Southern Consumers Cooperative. It was a cooperative in
principle, and it was established as a holding company with the idea that it would have subsidiary
businesses under. We decided to start a business that could utilize local agricultural products, so
we went into the fruitcake business and at the same time we created a lending institution that
would be a statewide lending institution based on credit union principles. We were not allowed to
establish... The bond was not common enough, we were told by the federal credit union
administration, to qualify for a state charter. So we organized a small factoring company with credit
union principles on peoples enterprise. During the course of organizing and mobilizing people
and employing folks and whatnot, we found that we could not raise internally the necessary capital
for those businesses, so we started seeking monies from external sources, especially from
financial people. Coming in contact with other regional type organizations like Southern Regional
Council, like the National Sharecroppers Fund, and the American Friends Service Committee who
were all active nationally as far as the American Friends Service Committee, but they were also
active regionally in the South. Our efforts to prevail against these benefactors and these groups
not knowing really how to respond to these requests for assistance, naturally guided us to
organizations that they were familiar with like the Southern Regional Council.
G: You=re talking about the national foundations?
P: Yeah, the national foundations. In a sense, Southern Regional Council, and these other well-
established organization who had been doing fine work for so long had standing with the
relationships with these national foundations. They were the natural groups to guide us towards.
The civil rights movement was in full force at that time, but there were elements of that movement
that had shifted toward economic issues. Voting rights were still very important and the public
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 3
accommodation issues were also very prominent and we were involved in those things, but we also
knew that there had to be something else as part of the civil rights movement. Some of us veered
more towards that issue of economic empowerment. It was new. [For] community based type
organizations who were self-determinative in nature, dealing with those kinds of important bread
and butter issues was somewhat new to these national organizations. Southern Regional Council
at some point in time decided, I guess in response to these national foundations to convene a
meeting and bring together these organizations that were requesting assistance and they were
bringing to spring up throughout the South.
G: The ones that were more focused on economic empowerment.
P: Right. And doing surprisingly similar kinds of things that we were doing and using that same model
of the cooperative economic model, or community based self-determinative type of organizations,
non-profit groups. I think the first meeting was convened and I figured now even in 1964, in
Edwards, Mississippi, Mount Bula, there was a place called Mount Bula there and we began
discussing our concerns and needs and the issues that we were confronted with. I think the
Southern Regional Council played a very important role in convening that part of the movement to
think through and talk through some of their needs. They were able to convey to the national
philanthropic sector exactly what we were talking about. I thought that was a beneficial role that
they did play in support of the civil rights movement in general and those groups that were moving
in the direction of employment betterment and economic empowerment activities. Southern
Regional Council, it was a regional organization with some decentralization. It had a staff in
resources in a number of souther states and so we did come in contact with these staff persons
and organization, Southern Regional Council representation at the state level. They had a sense
of what was going on in a number of states in the South and it was well respected. I should say it
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 4
was well respected in general, but it was respected in some circles that were concerned with
change and improvement and general betterment.
G: I just want to make sure that I=m accurately hearing. I have a sense that there are local
grassroots organizing efforts that are beginning to shift their attention in the mid-1960s to late
1960s from public accommodation work, voting rights work to economic empowerment, and
somehow SRC gets this sense that there is this shift and they respond to that by bringing people
together to see if they can help. In other words, it=s not SRC initiating a shift, it=s SRC
P: Maybe they did encourage a shift, but I=m not aware of that. It wasn=t so much a shift away from
public accommodations, but it was becoming more inclusive and incorporated that very necessary
issue of concern. From my vantage point, it was a reactive sort of response to that phase of
activity at that particular time. In my particular instance, Southern Regional Council was very
helpful in introducing us to a larger world that we needed to be associated with because as I said
before, we just could not mobilize the resources we needed internally within these community
groups. We needed to start establishing these kinds of relationships with folks who were
sympathetic with what we were trying to do and supportive of what we were trying to do. Southern
Regional Council sort of served as that bridge that introduced us to professional folks as well as
organizations, Ealy Micener types of organizations. It played that valuable role for us and for other
G: Those organizations wouldn't have been easily approachable without that mediary role for SRC.
P: Intermediary sort of role? I don=t quite understand. That would not have been approachable?
G: For you, for your organization, for the Southern Consumer=s League to go to Ford? You wouldn't
have been able to do that.
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 5
P: Right, right. They helped. There were some instances where we did have some contacts with one
or two foundations, but they were nase and they were just evolving and whatnot. Father
McKnight who was part of that leadership in southern Louisiana, although he had been there for
quite some time, he had some contacts up north. He was from New York and so he had
established some relationships with foundations in New York. Southern Regional Council sort of
complimented that or facilitated that.
G: Did you have any sense working on the ground that there were proscriptions or limitations then
placed upon you either by SRC or by those national organizations once they became involved in
P: Not in the beginning. I didn't think that they... We were very young and we had a lot to learn. We
took it one step at a time. We needed to forge good relationship and folks were offering some
assistance to us and that assistance seemed relevant to what we were trying to do, and we didn't
look behind. We didn't question their intentions initially. We were just at the talking stage and not
at the involvement stage, so those things don=t usually come out until you start working in close
relationships with organizations. We didn't see those proscriptions as you would say initially and
whatnot. We were naive and young and energetic and full of enthusiasm and we thought that
effort, the good effort would produce the good results.
G: Did that happen?
P: Not as easily as we thought or as quickly as we thought. The naivety blinded us to the
complexities of relationships and intentions. Other folks viewed what was happening and what was
really needed and whatnot. I think we offered also the possibility of community engagement and
positive and constructive activities. We were not calling for an overthrow of the government and
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 6
we were not rioting in the streets or anything of that sort. We were focused on economic well-
being, empowerment, and we wanted to use peaceful means to do that.
G: Did you feel like over time, as that relationship evolved, there were [proscriptions]?
P: I never felt that SRC directly was trying to guide us in a certain direction. The closer the
relationship got there were some disagreements in terms of emphasis and things of that sort, but
you must also [understand], as you probably do, there was a great deal of confusion during that
period in terms of the changes that were occurring and what to do once these changes occurred.
We didn't have all of the answers and I don=t think SRC had all of the answers either. Some of
us felt that with the coming about of the more egalitarian society with the passage of the Civil
Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the housing act and whatnot, that that would change
things automatically. But once that occurred, we realized that we still had a job to do. That didn't
change attitudes or anything. Looking in hindsight now, we realize that folks were regrouping at all
levels. Those who resisted change developed new strategies to deal with how best they can
remain in power and control the changes that were coming about. We didn't even consider those
things until we started feeling the impact of how the new leadership was organizing themselves and
relating to us.
G: Do you have a sense that SRC=s role or it=s strategies changed as some of these passages
P: Yeah. There was a point in time with Black militancy that SRC was confronted with... confused
SRC, and did not realize what all of this meant and why they were being attacked in the fashion. I
think some elements within the movement, the more radical and frustrated aspect of the movement
just painted all Whites generally with the broad brush of well you played a role, but now it=s our
time to play a different role. That transitioning sometimes was awkward and hurtful, and I don=t
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 7
know if SRC at that point had thought about how it could continue to play a role within the changing
circumstances of the region.
G: When they were being attacked by Black militants, did they allow that kind of control to switch?
P: I think they resisted that. They didn't think that that would necessarily be the best thing for
everybody. I think there was some resistance in their part and there was some hurt on the part of
those who were in that leadership during that period. There was hurt because of the confusion and
because of not knowing exactly the knew role that they were going to have to play. I think for so
long, SRC was in charge of guiding and encouraging the change. It was a question of how their
leadership would go forth and how it would share leadership responsibilities also. I don=t know
exactly how that was done in terms of Black/White sharing of leadership within SRC, but I suspect
that for a long time, White southerners were in the leadership positions guiding the effort. I must
say when you think and read and understand the role that SRC played in those early days, those
folks were very courageous in their efforts and they were subjected to all kinds of problems. They
played a very courageous role, but things were changing and I don=t think SRC changed as
quickly as was necessary during that time. SRC really played some very basic roles in helping
community groups to structure themselves and organize themselves firmly and pointed in the right
direction. There was not that overwhelming desire on their part to control those organizations=
day to day activities. I think they wanted to maintain some kind of relationship and they struggled
to try to learn what that type of relationship would be.
G: For the most part, that kind of relationship worked fairly well until some of these other transitions
began to occur, and then in your assessment SRC didn't necessarily handle those transitions as
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 8
P: Yeah. As I said, here you have an organization being in existence for what twenty, thirty years by
that time, I think it started in 1940s.
G: Yeah, and it grew out of that commission so it had an even longer history than that in another
P: I don=t know if it resisted that, it was just in a state of confusion. From my view, how to transition
when so many other circumstances had obtained by that particular time.
G: From your vantage point, you weren=t necessarily aware of the internal workings? If there were
personalities changing from White to Black?
P: No. I was not that close to SRC, I was only on the fringes. I was not part of the internal evolution
of that leadership. When I came onboard, Dunbar had already left and Paul Anthony was the
executive director of Southern Regional Council. Vernon Jordan was still here VEP. I remember
VEP started as a department within Southern Regional Council and I remember hearing
conversations and discussions about the need for it to become an independent operation. There
was some conflict involved with that transition, I guess, or change, but I was not internally a part of
those discussions. All I knew was that a certain point in time, Voter Education Program was an
G: Did you have any interaction with the VEP project?
P: Oh yes. VEP was working in some of the same communities... By that time, we had started a
regional organization, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which grew out of those initial
meetings that SRC convened in the National Sharecroppers Fund and American Friends Service
Committee. Out of those discussions grew the community groups needed technical support, they
needed financial assistance. Some of the problems were common problems so why not create an
organization that will deal with those problems in an umbrella organization to facilitate the response
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 9
to satisfying technical and training and advocacy and mobilization of capital. That organization was
created and was working in ten of the southern states in communities in those southern states, and
in many instances, those were the communities SRC had projects in those communities too. So
that was a working cooperative, a collaborative relationship with the Voter Education Project. We
were dealing with the same people in some instances.
G: How would you assess VEP=s role in the movement?
P: I think it played a valuable role in provided resources and information to those groups, and
encouragement and some legal assistance for folks who needed that kind of assistance, who were
thrown in jail because of their voter activism. I thought VEP played a very valuable role in that
G: It had some pretty amazing personalities that were associated with it like the Vernon Jordans and
the John Lewises. What strengths do you think, or how did their roles affect the project?
P: I thought Vernon=s personality, his grasp of the situation, his contacts that he had not only in
philanthropy, but also in those communities, in those states and whatnot. Vernon Jordan had the
good relationships with the Black leadership and the southern liberal leadership in many of those
states. He was well respected and I thought that went a long way in the effectiveness of his work.
He was very articulate about the need within those communities, and represented those needs well
with foundations. I thought he was a very effective leader in the area of voter registration and
participation. It was the thing that was needed and he provided staff and other resources to those
G: What about John Lewis?
P: John Lewis= efforts, again... There were community groups that were forming at the local level and
coming into their own, and was able to do more things independently of a regional body than
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 10
before. There were some tensions, I think, during John=s administration, but those were good
tensions and it was very exciting to see people assume responsibilities at the local level and
wanting to move pretty much in their own way, and who were beginning to forge direct
relationships with national groups and whatnot.
G: Could you talk more specifically about what those tensions were and why you felt they were good?
P: It was a question of who would be the spokesman for the local group. Whether or not local groups
would assume more of those responsibilities than the regional group, and I thinks Lewis says, who
will speak for them? You need the regional organization to represent them, or how would you
involve the local groups. I think those questions, those tensions rose out of the leadership issue
and how to involve local communities in leadership responsibilities as advocates for the local group
and representation of what was going on at the community level. That=s my sense of some of
those tensions. There may be others, but what was important to me and exciting to me was to see
people assume responsibilities for their own lives and their own betterment and whatnot. Again,
there was an adjustment. Prior to that, you had the original organization serving as a spokesman
for all kinds of reasons. It was safer for them to do that, and now the local leadership represented
talent that was prepared to assume responsibilities and courageousness on their part, they were
becoming more courageous about risks and things of that sort. In the early years after the Voting
Rights Act, there was still fear on the part of your local community. I remember before I left
Louisiana in 1967, there was a local election and we tried to recruit community people to offer for
office, we call them parishes, at the parish level especially in this election. We couldn't find
anyone so some of us had to run just to open the door. Afterwards, folks felt encouraged by this
and then subsequent elections offered at the parish level and at the city level. They just needed to
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 11
see somebody do it and live. I think you saw that occurring in any number of communities in the
South. It was that evolution that I think caused some healthy tensions between the role of the
regional organization and the role of local organization.
G: What was John Lewis= particular take on all that?
P: I think John appreciated that evolution and I think towards the latter years in office, his interests began
to change and he wanted to become more directly involved in electoral policies on a personal level. I
think that's the reason why he decided to offer first for the fifth congressional district seat and when he
was unsuccessful, he took the job with the Carter administration temporarily. But his passion was to
become an active participator in electoral politics and he came and ran for city government and the city
council and won a seat, and then from there ran again for the fifth congressional district and won. I
think John adjusted well and he accepted those changes and he encouraged them to a certain extent.
He also knew that the efficacy of the organization was transitioning as folks assume more and more
responsibilities at the local level. I=m not saying that there wasn=t a need anymore for the regional
VEP, but there was a need to reassess it=s efficacy.
G: What about Julian Noland?
P: In terms of his relationship with voter education? I think it was similar to John. Julian played the
supportive role and the representational role for the regional organization well, and I think Julian would
have encouraged the participation and the more independent participation on the part of the local
organizations and leadership. There were other factors. You had your local leadership trying to
establish itself, its independence, looking around to see how it could evolve relationships with the
broader institutional society within their local communities too. That search had to be done by the local
groups to see if there were opportunities to establish good, mutually acceptable relationships at the
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 12
local level. I don=t think the regional organization could play that role better than the local groups
because of the view of outsiders coming in and defining how things should be at the local level.
G: Is there a point, because you mentioned leaving in 1967, did you cease to have an interaction with
SRC at that point or did you...
P: With Southern Regional Council?
G: Oh no. As a matter of fact, Southern Regional Council, National Sharecroppers Fund, and the
American Friends Service Committee was still involved. It took us about two years to create the
regional federation of southern cooperatives. There was that relationship. When the organization was
incorporated in March of 1967, that is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and we looked for an
executive director. I was the founding chair of the organization and the first official chairman of the
board once it was incorporated. John Lewis had just returned from the North, I think he was doing
some work with the Field Foundation, and he took a job that was held by Al Olmo, which was a
community development project. I forget the official name of that project, Al Olmo was running that
project and was leaving and John came to take over thatjob. Southern Regional Council through John
Lewis and Al Olmo were very involved with the evolution of the federation and the incorporation of the
federation. They put us in touch with lawyers and other contact persons that we needed. They also
agreed to help us in the search for an executive director. So they traveled the region communities,
African communities, and ended up in Lafayette, Louisiana to report that they could not find anyone
they had thought would be better than me. Here I was in the midst of a local campaign and what not.
To make a long story short, I decided to take the job on a temporary basis because I really wanted to
work at a local level. I accepted the offer and then they persuaded the board to consider me and the
board of directors chose me for its executive director in the Fall of 1967. I took it with that qualification
that I would get it started and get it pointed in the right direction. Of course that never happened, I
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 13
stayed for almost about twenty years or something. Coming to Atlanta, SRC helped us to find office
space and to structure the operation. The little money that we had, they served as an intermediary for
us, it was very little, not even enough to pay my salary. They provided that very necessary assistance
for the organization and very fragile that new organization. We retained that relationship with SRC as
a fiscal intermediary until we were able to get our own 501C3 status which occurred four or five months
after I was here. They were always very supportive of me when I first came here. We were in the
same building with them so there were discussions and what have you.
G: You talked a little bit about the responses to the rise of Black militancy, and then next there=s sort of
the backlashes of that which is the Wallace campaign, the more majority, that sort of Black
conservative retrenchment. How do you think SRC responded to some of that?
P: SRC=s strength was in its ability to deal with that radical aspect of racism or conservatism in terms of
its contacts through the media and national circles. I think it played a strong role in encouraging the
changes and attitudes and likes that needed to occur to deal with the new egalitarian society because
now we had voting rights and civil rights laws. I think it still played a role in that regard. I know I=m
groping for the right thing to say right now or the good response to that question. I still saw it in the
1970s as successfully leading the discussion in terms of moderation with the evolution of those new
politicians who were moving in that regard, the Bumpers, the Winters, folks in South Carolina, to
some extent Jimmy Carter, but that new group of southern politicians who were moving already from
the policies of racism into the policies of more moderation. This new generation of politicians I think
the Southern Regional Council was involved with that to some certain extent. It was sort of laying the
blueprint out there for consideration. I didn't know how directly their influence was, but they helped to
lay their blueprint out for folks to at least think of and serve as some guidance for their thinking. I was
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 14
trying to think of this other organization, but I can't think of it. There was some kind of elite think talk
G: Where was it based?
P: I don't know where it was based. It was named after somebody that... some kind of classical name.
I=II probably think of it a little later. SRC, I=II tell you this southern liberal Black radical problem was a
scary kind of thing. You had that frustration on the part of the Black groups who really expected more
changes and didn't see those changes, and also understood the leadership role that your southern
liberals played. There was a need to factor more Black leadership into that and some of us felt that
that was being resisted and it just was an awkward time to make the best transition with the changes
that were occurring. Is that the Christian way to say it?
G: Talk a little bit more about that.
P: It hurts to recall the pain that occurred and the insults, the verbal abuse we visited upon each other
during that time.
G: Could you talk about, if it=s not too painful, sort of how you felt about what was going on at the time
versus how you maybe feel about it now? Those might be the same thing.
P: You have a person like a Pat Watters and some of the other guys who came in from, I don=t know how
many, became a part of SRC but had the experience at the Journal of Constitution. These were good
guys who also did not know exactly what to do and what role they would be playing in this whole thing.
They were just as confused as some of us were. I felt that there was a need to accept Black
leadership. I thought I knew how that should occur then, but I=m not so certain in looking back that we
needed just to make the transition as abruptly as some of us thought it should be occurring.
G: You thought it should=ve been...
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 15
P: I thought there should=ve been more discussion, it should=ve been more gradual. We just did not
know the full ramifications of what was going on and the complexities of our society, even the evolving
society, and how important relationships were and how to define or delineate the roles that people
could best play in dealing with these changes. In hindsight I can see that, but then it was like who=s
going to be in the leadership position and who was going to be in the fellowship position. We were
saying it was your day to lead, now it=s our day to lead kind of thing. And not knowing what we were
getting ourselves into. You see things figuratively in black and white terms, maybe even literally, but
figuratively. This is the problem, this is the solution, and not looking more closely to see all kinds of
shades of the problem and shades of the solution. I=ve come overtime, and I=m not just saying this
for the record, but to appreciate the value of the role since were talking about southern White liberals,
and they played a very important role in bringing about the change. I don =t think we can attribute the
changes to one person or one group. Changes were occurring for generations and it just reached a
point where all of these contributions, historical contributions, provided the force that was needed to
bring about the change. Certain people were in leadership positions at that particular time. I think
there is a role that groups like SRC or southern liberals could play and we ought to be more supportive
of that role and not feel threatened by it. [End of Tape A, side 1] I was saying that just in hindsight, I
began to understand the value that the different groups played and how important it is for groups to
play the role that they can best play to bring about the desired result. I guess maybe age and
understanding and experience and other training, if one is open to become wise, one can become wise
and understand these things in a fair way and all of that.
G: If SRC has had this sort of stigma in some circles as being gradualist, not What do you
think about that?
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 16
P: Yeah. I didn't understand that at first because we wanted change, a transformation to occur
immediately. Certain things cannot change as quickly as usefulness would want it to change. I=m not
so certain that SRC gradualism could not have been a more rapid motion in all of that, but I think folks
resisted that, as I said earlier because that was how they interpreted reality and defined reality and
their response and their practice of what they believed in. I=m not so certain we all can say that we
purge ourselves of all of our prejudices and racist tendencies and we are in touch with all of that too,
and I =m not going to pass judgement to say that they were racist. They had not purged themselves
and that's what the resistance was, I just think that's how they understood the reality and how they
could best respond to it. They were in the leadership position too. I =ve been in their position and had
to give it up and resisted having to give it up and finally giving it up and still having these second
thoughts and adjustment problems with folks not deferring to me. I can place myself in their position
too. I =m trying to be fair with my responses. I= m not certain that my perception of what went on is all
that accurate as an outsider to some extent with SRC, and as a participant in life in the South during
that period that's what it seemed to be.
G: I want to ask the overarching questions. Can you in the wisdom of time now describe how the racial
climate might have evolved from this period when you began to be involved in the mid-1960s to the
early 1980s through the real act of the civil rights movement through Black militancy through the Black
backlash of White conservatives. Can you describe how the racial climate might have changed if it
changed in the South?
P: It=s changed somewhat, but I don=t think we=ve had the sweeping change or expected change.
Racism evolved over hundreds of years, racism in the United States. It=s going to take a little more
than a half century or forty years for us to try to transform ourselves. I see resistance and prejudice
and racism being manifested most subtly in society. It=s not the type of racism we had during the
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 17
period of the segregated society. You can just look at your neighborhoods, you look at the structure of
the economic system in other institutions in society and whatnot and you must raise the question about
the lack of diversity in those institutions. It=s easy... One certainly would have to study that and I
would resist making the generalization at this moment to say that's a direct result of racism, but you
have to wonder about that.
G: So really you would say that there=s this underlying racism still there?
P: Oh yes.
G: It=s just become more subtle.
P: I would think so. To be fair about this interview too, I would be the first one to say that we brought
some problems to the table too in terms of not doing maybe some of the things that we could =ve done.
We bring some problems to the table too. By we I say... it=s not just all the problems and all of the
mistakes we made in regard to the White folks in this society. We have to do more things and we
could have done more things and things better too. We made some mistakes and those mistakes are
also part of the reason why more progress hasn=t been made. We need to be fair about this stuff. I
could've worked harder than I did, I could've made better decisions and better judgements about
things. I could=ve been more careful about the generalizations I made too.
G: Given that the evolution has been, evolution may be too strong a word to describe racial attitudes, and
then factoring in what you talked about as SRC=s strength in being to appeal to, talk to, that sort of
really retrenched racist strategy. How would you characterize SRC=s work over that period of time.
P: I think it struggled to try to play a meaningful role in the changes that were needed and in preparing
people for those changes in both societies. I still think that there is a role for a Southern Regional
Council, what it stands for, its mission and goals and whatnot. More work needs to be done in terms of
race relations. There are more discussions, structured discussions that need to take place in a
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 18
peaceful, respectful environment. That=s not the only thing it should be doing, but I think that kind of
role that it played historically, that aspect of it=s role that it played historically is still a need role to be
played. We need the view of circumstances and occurrences, matters that have to do with politics and
economics and justice issues and all that. We need an articulation of those views from their
perspective too. You put that on the table along with other perspectives and you may come close to
reality when you put them together. I think we ought to encourage that type of understanding and
representation of reality from both camps. There is a value for an organization. I think it might have to
redefine the particulars of that role given the society that we currently live in, the contemporary society,
but I =m sure that can be done. Some of my friends got angry at me when I talk like this and I say we
need to support White southern leadership, liberal leadership. They are our allies. Certainly they
cannot play the role that they played in the 1940s, but there is a role for them to play that's compatible
with our roles [that] we have to play. We should support the leadership of those organizations. This is
getting a little off the subject too, but in the general sense, I think it has some relevance to what we are
discussing. I thought, in hindsight now, and I saw a little of that when it was occurring, but not as full
as I understand it now, with the structuring... As I said, I didn't understand these transitions that were
taking place, I referred to the new egalitarian society with the changes that are occurring, how those
who had the institutional power base in this country also had to transition, and they made their
transition much more rapidly than we were able to adjust to the changes that occurred. To be a
forceful player in this new society. We find ourselves more reacting, not to the changes that occur, but
to the way other folks had reorganized themselves and restructured themselves. I think that's the
situation, same people who had power and control in the segregated society were able to maintain
that. For instance, even the civil rights movement, it=s your private sector that's the strongest
advocates, Coors Light Beer, Budweiser, the advocates of the approach that Dr. King used and his
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 19
contributions, it almost makes it seem as though they were with them in those days. That=sjust a very
simplistic example of what I =m talking about, how they were able to co-op that whole thing and make it
part of the institution influence in our society. I don't know how valuable that view is and whether or
not it is relevant to reality.
G: Do you have sense of, at least this is a sense that I have, that some of those kinds of corporations,
they're doing some good things, they have coopted that work in some ways, but in a way that shows a
certain amount of progress, but still leaves the same folks in charge? It=s not like a radical
redistribution of wealth, it=s sort of the sugar
P: Our ideas and understandings and insight, and I think what it does to a certain extent, it inhibits the
genius of a large group of people within our society. I think we=ve misused or did not use all of the
talents that we could have used to make this society a better society because certain people were not
a part of a certain power click and all of that. That bothers me. I think we have the solutions to our
problem, but we need to engage much more of the genius of the people than we have used. Don=t get
me wrong, everybody, were all human and we all bring problems and bring our own inadequacies to
situations. I=m not one who would say poor people know it all. There=s a lot of things, and I=m very
respectful and certainly differential and would still willingly be guided by their needs and their issues,
even being part of a policymaking structure that encouraged and I in a management position and in
being led by that as I always because I think eventually people will grow and understand more
precisely what it is they can do and will prepare themselves. We have to encourage that type of
evolution, which is the type of relationship that I had with the organization that I ran. I think you have to
trust that in time people will make responsible decisions and judgements, but that's part of a larger
point that I =m trying to make is that we do not use our talent as well we can use. You seem to see in
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 20
many instances people who are in positions of influence identifying people that are like-minded only
and they have abilities but they think the same way and it prevents constructive tensions.
G: I wanted to revisit this period and then maybe move forward with a few more questions. I=m
fascinated with talking about the strength of the SRC to reach out to Whites essentially. Do you know
how that manifested itself? What mechanisms or technologies did they use to...
P: Reach out to the White community? I=m not that familiar with it because I think Steve Suitts when he
was the director of Southern Regional Council I thought was making some forays in that area,
especially in Appalachia, and confronting the electrical coops and the negative impact that that
business was having on the communities. I =m not that familiar with that. I don=t know the extent to
which even the earlier SRC and the role they played in those communities. I know they were in
Appalachia doing some things, but I don=t think I can answer that question that well. I just have a
general sense of them trying to bring the two communities together. There were some meetings that I
attended that were opportunities for that type of interaction.
G: Do you have a sense that the SRC believed there was a sort of silent majority out there, that if they
could just reach them?
P: Yeah, I felt that. It=s almost like the early labor movement in the South too. People cross racial lines
at the same problems and it=s a populace sort of movement and I think there=s an element of that
idealism that is in SRC that drives them to want to bring people together with common issues and
problems to resolve those problems. I just was not that involved in that part of SRC=s operation.
G: Do you have a sense of what their interaction might have been with the administrations post-Lyndon
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 21
G: What about their relationship with southern liberal politicians and southern African American politicians
in the post-1960s? You mentioned the way Winters and...
P: As I said earlier, I think the fair understanding of the new society, they tried to create a framework of a
direction that we should take and issues that are important. Employment, economic issues, and other
general social issues that I think they shared with like-minded groups and politicians in the South and
they took a leadership role in that area.
G: Do you know what their opinion was bussing by chance?
P: No. For some reason, I want to say that they were at best, or at worst nebulous about... I think there
were some who... I don=t know.
G: Do you think that once this sort of highwater mark of the civil rights movement began to wane, that
SRC had difficulty finding the funding that it had been able to find? Do you think the support of those
national foundations went elsewhere?
P: That that was a reason for the demise, if you wish, of the civil rights movement because of SRC
inability to attract resources? I think the national foundations made a conscious decision on their own
to stop funding new radical organizations. Whether or not had they given this money to SRC it would
have deterred the radical tendencies in those organizations, I don =t think that would =ve stopped it at
all. You had a shift, now were going to talk about a shift of emphasis within the civil rights movement
when King started about his economic...
G: The poor peoples campaign.
P: The poor peoples campaign in Washington and what not. I don=t know if the U.S. society and the
institutions therein, foundations included, were ready for that. I don=t think they have gotten together
because I think there is a close working relationship if you will, among the institutional society here.
Ford Foundation does not support activities that hasn=t resulted from some understanding of what
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 22
other institutions are doing in those regards. That economic issue, I just don't think the private sector
in particular was ready to be confronted the way I think King probably would=ve confronted them in
your face kind of like thing. We were still in the Cold War period and Birmingham was hurting our
standing in the international society and these other places too. We needed to maintain our interest in
the underdeveloped world and we couldn't do that as well under these circumstances with Russia
showing the pictures to all of these folks, especially in Africa and Asia. You would have had another
round of those activities, confrontations and whatnot...
G: Around economics.
P: Yes, around economic issues. And I don=t think we could deal with that. When you put the question
about SRC=s inability to raise money, I think yes that's true, but I don't think they were ready to give
up that much more money anyhow. They did give some money towards economic development, but
also realized that things were changing too and some of the monies went to local groups and state
groups. You did have monies going through other channels in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I=m
not so certain SRC, the extent to which it wanted to move in this new direction. They continued to
concern itself with justice issues and voting rights had for a long time considerable involvement in voter
education issues and voter registration issues even while VEP was sort of descending in its importance
I guess. Sometimes I thought there was some kind of competitiveness between those two
organizations that I didn't quite understand.
G: Do you have a sense that SRC felt particularly embattled or marginalized in the 1970s as these shifts
began to occur?
P: Yeah, I really felt that. I don't think it understood its value the way we didn't understand its value at
that particular time. It was almost like a pain that they were experiencing because they didn't
understand the rejection. They thought that rejection was unfounded and so they were, if you will,
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 23
almost like in mourning because of that. Put yourself in their position, they had done these courageous
things, taken the risks, they were ostracized in the broader White community, and they had done all of
this for us, and now we were rejecting them. I guess the human thing to do is to mope around.
G: Do you know what efforts might have been made to increase its visibility, to expand its grassroots
appeal in the 1970s and 1980s?
P: I think SRC should have played a stronger role in forging relationships with these new evolving
community groups. In looking more towards peer type of relationships among equals, I think it had
begun to do some of that and should have done more in those regards and allowing those other
groups to ascend to the leadership role in those forums. I thought it probably spent too much time
trying to understand how to maintain the traditional historical leadership influence rather than looking
maybe about the possibility of more collaborative and horizontal relationships rather than the
hierarchical arrangement that they had in the past.
G: How would you characterize SRC=s major achievements and contributions in the 1970s and 1980s?
P: Just to remain in existence because those were difficult times for the SRC in the late 1970s and the
1980s in trying to regroup. I feel strongly about the fact that just being able to stay alive to allow its
ideology or philosophy or commitment to justice and whatnot to... The opportunity to regroup and to
rebuild itself and to refocus itself is important. If you study organizations or human society, there are
ups and downs and there is sometimes this hiatus that an organization will go through because of rapid
changes and all of that and they have to regroup. Resisting being destroyed is important and the
ability to prevent being destroyed is important and I think for that reason... So what is its major
contribution? I think it was a voice. It retained a voice for the ideals of justice within society and as an
advocate for the poor and as an advocate for changes in the public sector and governments. They
kept folk=s feet to the fire, they kept the institution =s feet to the fire, and to elevate the contributions of
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 24
people in literature and in the work that folks were involved in. I think their publication is a valuable
publication in allowing folks to express their ideas and the ideas that are expressed in that.
G: How do you think that historians should incorporate the story of the SRC, the role of the SRC in the
African American freedom struggle or in a ?
P: I think they played a very important foundational role in preparing folks for participation in the civil rights
movement and encouraging their participation in the civil rights movement. I think they prepared the
way, they helped to prepare the way for leadership roles on the part of African Americans. It recruited
some good people, it prepared them and positioned them for valuable roles in the civil rights
[movement]. Wiley Branton played a very important role in the evolvement of the Voter Education
Project and registration project and in running that organization even though it was a short period. It
identified some key leaders in those communities and provided them with some of the sustenance and
the resources that they needed to do what they were doing in their communities. I think that's a very
important historical role. Also, they were able to communicate with other influential leaders whose
positions or whose understanding and ideology were close to theirs or even far away from them. At
least they were able to communicate those ideas and perhaps influence the thinking of people in
power. They=ve always had some relationship with the power structure in Atlanta. I don=t know if
they did it on the golf course, but at the commerce club or places like that where these big shots often
meet. They had access to people that some of us were only beginning to have access to, the movers
and shakers, if you will, in society. Some of us, not me necessarily, but Blacks who are in the private
sector and in the church sector and in the governmental sector are rising and having discussions and
relationships with people who make decisions. I don't know if I=ve answered your question well, but
to say that it played a valuable role in helping to launch the civil rights movement is a general way of
putting it, but I think that is a valuable role that they did play. I would think those people who assume
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 25
certain kinds of, Black folks, who assume those leadership responsibilities would have been able to do
it had they not been nurtured and launched.
G: Why do you think that role has been unacknowledged or even misconstrued?
P: I don=t know. Maybe folksjust didn't getting around to writing it right, telling the story right. Certain
things you need time. Time needs to occur for folks to understand fully. You need emotional
disinterest to view on it. I=ve been saying I wanted to write about the history of the federation of
souther cooperatives. I =m perhaps in a much better position now than I was let=s say five, ten years
ago. There was too much emotions and all that. Time is necessary for certain things to be revealed
properly. Ignorance of the particular roles, the private roles that it played in discussions with the
national leadership. I just learned recently how connected Flemings and Dunbar were to our national
government and to the leaders in the private sector, Coca-Cola and people like that, what=s his name,
that big guy that died several years ago that's responsible for Coca-Cola to really take... Robert
Woodruff and those kinds of people, and in government too. They have contacts with them. I think the
Voter Education Project grew out of the relationship that they had with the Kennedy administration.
They played a very influential role in all of that. You have children?
P: After you have children, read you adolescents and early adulthood, like Mark Twain that said he didn =t
realize that his father wasn=t as stupid as something. He realized how, whatever it is.
G: It=s about how much his father knew that he didn't realize he knew.
P: Yes. It=s the same thing with children, generally with children if you experience that. In a sense you
can characterize the relationship between Blacks and SRC as one of that type of evolution. The
growth of that relationship somewhat in the same sense. As we learn more wanting to do things more
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 26
independently not realizing the value that that parent organization could still provide us even with our
broader world view that we were gaining.
G: Julian Bond even said about Ella Baker when I interviewed him about her. He said she was paving the
way for us and we never even knew it, never understood.
P: Yeah. But you know, experience and other forms of training just have their greatest benefit to you over
time. You just don=t have as broad of an understanding or a world view, if you will, as a twenty-four
year old or a twenty-one year old as maybe a fifty or sixty year old. Of course, that doesn't always
follow. Sometimes folks get dumber as they get older.
G: I just have one last question. Is there anything that I should=ve asked you that I didn't?
P: I don=t think so. I can=t think of anything right now. I probably will think of a number of things as I
reflect on this. I=11 let you know. I thought you asked some of the good questions. I could not answer
all of the questions about SRC that you wanted to ask me because I only had a fringe relationship to
the formal organization and I had personal relationships with people who worked with SRC and got to
know SRC in that fashion. Playing poker or smoking a cigar or something with what=s his name?
Chuck, used to work for the ACLU, ran the ACLU before McGloklin did. I don=t know. You=re going
to see those folks also? Like McDonald? Lochlin McDonald who runs the ACLU over here?
G: He=s in Atlanta?
P: Lochlin McDonald. Patty McDonald works for refugee services here. When you talk to Connie, as
her about Lochlin. He=s a southern liberal and a good guy, just a naturally good guy. He certainly is
a very competent lawyer and a committed one in the ACLU tradition.
G: I think were done.
P: I hope this has been useful.
G: Very much.
SRC- 6 Prejean, page 27
P: I want to thank you too. The visit was not that painful. In fact, it got a little exciting as we started
talking just to reflect some of the stupid mistakes that we made and some of the good things that we
did. I still think we have to find a way to allow our talent to blossom and to be utilized in dealing with
the issues that we have.
G: My interest is really in learning those lessons in order to keep doing that work so I think there are
valuable things to be learned. I very much appreciate your time. Susan Glisson concluding an
interview with Charles Prejean.
[End of interview]