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Interviewee: Samuel Dubois Cook
Interviewer: Susan Glisson
Date: June 27, 2002
G: This is Susan Glisson. It's Thursday, June 27, and I'm in Atlanta, Georgia, with
Dr. Samuel Dubois Cook. Thank you very much for your time.
C: Thank you.
G: We're here to talk about the Southern Regional Council. I'd love it if you could
tell me your story. How did you come to be associated with the Southern
C: When I came to Miami University to teach in 1956, I had known about the
Southern Regional Council for years. It was an outgrowth of the old Interracial
Council, if you will. They (a group of whites and blacks) were supposed to try to
go down and convince them in the legislation increasing the
consciousness of People from Atlanta like Dr. Mindy Maize
North Carolina, Dr. Frank Graham and Dr. Will
Alexander, who had a lot of influence and he lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
He had a connection with university by way of [the] serving president
and I had a portrait of him in my office, and I always referred to him as Uncle Will
who's watching over me. There was a group of courageous individuals, black
and white, working together to change the South and to eliminate the worst kind
of evils. They did not at that time, of course, assault segregation, or even,
confront it. They concerned themselves with more limited issues like lynching
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and trying to get a handle of that situation. Out of the old Interracial Council they
grew, they humanizing the men of the South and improving the
conditions within the framework of the course of segregation. Up to the North all
of them were opposed to it. It was sort of impossible to think of getting rid of
segregation, so they tried to educate people, white people, to the higher
possibility of a biracial society based on an essential equality. When I got a
chance to get involved in it, in the late 1950s and essentially meet Les Dunbar,
[I did]. I knew John Wheeler, who was very highly commended, who was
president. Les Dunbar was in his second track. So I knew of the great work of
John Wheeler and govern John Wheeler, a good friend of mine, had
gone to Moorehouse and built up a reputation There were others
involved like Wright in North Carolina, and several [other] people. It's amazing
that several people from North Carolina were there at the Southern Regional
Council. So that's how I got involved in the Southern Regional Council and got
involved in a variety of activities, and Les Dunbar, a good friend of mine, came
G: You were involved in your own specific work, but then also served on the
G: What was the work that you were doing at the time?
C: At that time, I was chair of the original science department at Atlanta University,
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G: So you're coming there, and you came in and you were on the executive council
starting in 1956?
C: I didn't start on the executive council. I was elected to the executive council in
the early 1960s.
G: Okay. You were sort of aware of SRC's work?
C: Oh, yes.
G: That's a pretty potent time. The Montgomery boycott has occurred [and] there's a
growing sense of mass activism by blacks. How do you think the SRC responded
to that growing activism?
C: I thought SRC responded in a creative way. It was not one to get in the streets
but it was quite supportive. It supported it.
G: How did it support it?
C: Moral support mainly, and I suppose some financial support here and there,
though it didn't any money. But mainly moral support and carrying this
vision of this genuine biracial society. This was always a motivating force in the
life of SRC and one of the reasons I always referred to it as a noble organization.
A noble legacy in heritage is to have that vision of a genuine humanistic child, a
genuine democratic child.
G: Do you think that there was any unease on the part of SRC that African-
Americans were seizing initiative?
C: I don't individually remember that, [although] I'm sure there was some. Those
were the days of great uncertainty. You didn't know what the next step would be
or what the views of the South would be, what the reaction would be, and that
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must be with one of great hostility in the mid to late 1950s. The Supreme Court
decision was outwardly, kind of an organizing, central point. So you had all this
massive resistance, schools closing, churches closing, swimming pools closing.
It's hard to imagine the kind of chaos that existed and how the political
leadership in the South just advocated it, and that's what was sad and sinister. I
remember Radley Hill saying to me, he says Samuel, I wonder how differently
modern, Southern leadership, had Virginia (which occupied a very special place
in history), had Virginia served any real leadership or created the leadership
instead of leadership creating this. Virginia lead a massive resistance
and all the governors of the south
G: I know a Mississippian who went up to Virginia to learn how to set up a separate
school so that white children didn't have to go to school with black children.
C: Yeah, Virginia was the leader in it. I remember seeing on television last year the
interviews on channel two in Atlanta [of] all the living ex-governors of Georgia,
George Busbee [1975-1983], Carl E. Sanders [1963-1967], Ernie Vandiver, Jr.
[1959-1963], and a lot of them listened to it. I couldn't swear what they were
saying then or what they had said and done during the crisis. All of them, in
effect, said even though it was Atlanta they believed in (they never
said desegregation). [They said] they knew change had to come; they were
opposed to violence. I remember hearing Vandiver and all
on television saying we can afford to have integration But to hear
them, and they reenforced each other, you would think that the South never had
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any real problems, well Georgia, turning to desegregation. It was a time of the
brave to what was going on, a great deal of violence, people trying to
subjecting all kind of types, telephone calls, [and] threats. At SRC,
you know, I had to be moderate, and by moderate, I don't mean hedge on an
issue, but equality. But in terms of strategy types it had to operate within a
framework, a reasoned response, otherwise, we would've been eaten alive. It
was denounced, of course, as white trash, and called all kinds of names,
socialist, communist, a gash in the southern way of life. So it had to be, it had to
be. It wasn't my type of but it was very individual, very, very
G: So as there was increasing black activism and mass demonstrations, how did
SRC respond to those challenges?
C: I think SRC encouraged them. I remember _, except through
publications at the New South, which was a big voice. This is one of the great
strengths of SRC in trying to educate, some of the education _, and
trying to reach people through the media.
G: Of the print.
C: Through the print, yeah.
G: Did they use any other media to try to reach people? Did they use radio for
C: Not radio, but primarily the printed paper. [It was] not only the New South, but
there were all kinds of special publications dealing with lynching, dealing with
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voter registration, dealing with desegregation of the schools. The best thing was
[that] every time you turned around they were publishing something. [We] had a
lot of special projects.
G: Do you know what their attitudes were about non-violent, direct action?
C: Oh yes. They were strictly an issue of non-violence. I said Martin Luther King
joined He was my godfather and obviously and of course,
legal mediation, legal direction,
G: So SRC would have encouraged non-violent tactics?
C: Oh yes, absolutely. Larry tried to encourage of this country, but all
lawlessness on the part of the segregation forces. They were ready
G: And it did that how? It tried to curtail that how?
C: By warning against it inconsistent, you know how America can be. Of
course the segregation forces paid no attention and they were opening homes,
schools, and all, right and left. You didn't have to worry about lines, and liberal,
white forces in the South It's bad enough just that people believed that
moderate, non-violent resistance, peaceful change, and things like that, they
received enough hell just with even that. There was no chance of
whatsoever, and that's why I go later in the 1960s with the hot
summer of 1964 and some of these SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee] people _. shocked they're coming because no
one, Montgomery had succeeded, Martin King, Jr. and all the and find
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a way of non-violence and a way of bringing about social change. It's hard now
until you imagine the kind of atmosphere, lawlessness, threats, intimidation, and
all that. Being there are people killed just for advocating social change and racial
justice. It's hard to imagine. You know, in the midst of it with all that going on,
white citizens townspeople, Klan mentality, the Klan, you didn't know what the
would bring. The SRC was a voice of decency, a voice of justice, a
voice of harmony, and a voice of humanism. I knew that.
G: Did the SRC try to encourage compliance with say, the Brown decision or any of
C: Oh yeah.
G: Do you know what they might have done to try to encourage that?
C: They just advocated obedience to the law. The Supreme Court is open, this is a
nation of laws and of men, and this country believes in the rule of law
and all is chaos. you know it
G: Which is a more educational.
C: Yeah, an education. But the rule of law, that was a chief principle. Les Dunbar,
as I recall, was not only a political theorist, but also taught constitutional law, so
he was a great advocator of obedience to the law. We had the law on
our side, though sometimes it didn't mean very much. The atmosphere was so
terrible. Sometimes, and one of the reasons why I have so much respect and
admiration for the white liberals, Southern liberals, in the South was
they during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The races were harder on
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them than on blacks because for blacks they say, well I don't like them, well
they're victims so you'd expect them to do this so they didn't expect any better,
but the whites should know better. So they were really hard on them.
G: So they were harassed and vilified.
C: Oh yes, absolutely. I remember Margaret Holmes worked at SRC and was
better known to our college _, a really decent lady that worked up in my
office. She had a daughter she called Sissy who went to Tulane. She was
involved in a demonstration and a white Southerner at the demonstration called
her all kinds of names, and she was just a high school or college kid. It was an
atmosphere of incivility and meanness. When I remember people like Meghan
Roan, Pat Waters, who worked for SRC, Margaret came over from
G: I'd like to move now more toward talking about the Voter Education Project. Why
do you think that the SRC was considered well-placed to administer the VEP?
C: Through various studies that SRC had conducted in terms of voter registration, in
terms of black participation in the political process. I remember SRC engaged
two very distinguished political scientists, Don Matthew and Jim Kroker at the
University of North Carolina. They did a study concerning black participation in
politics and not in terms of registering for voting, but also in terms of
financial contributions to political leaders. They discovered that in proportion,
blacks had contributed more money to politically campaigning whites. This
shocked all of us, including me, that they had contributed this money. So SRC
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had a lot of knowledge of black political participation, but also we were very
centrally located in Atlanta, had already a black university __
and the geographical location. I remember the first got the grant, the first
of it, it was something like I suppose Les Dunbar named
the political science director and that he understood the special laws
of voter registration; how the political system influences in a cold culture. So
that's how we got involved in it. You had so much Negro-phobia up there with
races and in Mississippi, and you had towns in Georgia,
South Carolina. So clearly the political system was one that demanded
G: Tell me some more about that. What were some of the impediments to black
voter registration, and what did the VEP do to overcome those impediments?
C: They had a league of defamation and the literacy test, by which it is
impossible to go to the and hold the You had to interpret
the constitution say Article Three, but you had to interpret the
constitution in a way to satisfy the very afraid people who were determined that
you wouldn't satisfy. So it was an impossible task, this literacy test would
determine. I remember when I taught at Southern University one of my
colleagues Dr. went in to register and the registrar told him to interpret
the _, and the fellow told them no and denied them the chance to
G: He denied two professors of constitutional law? Amazing.
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C: So one was a literacy test. Another one, of course, [was] the poll tax, a big
hindrance at the time. To a lot of people it was Another one they had
[was the] good character test. In fact, VEP said that the South had more conflicts
with congressman, a way to disenfranchise voters, than any other system in
western culture. It was a good character test, literacy test, poll tax were the three
that were achieved. Of course, you know, the stubborn thing is inertia. Those
things guaranteed the whole system for it to minimize voter participation, not to
maximize voter participation.
G: What were some of the things that the VEP did to try to circumvent those
C: Voter education did a lot of that. We held seminars, all kinds of workshops,
and interpret the constitution.
G: Were the workshops with people who were trying to register to vote?
C: Yeah, and, given time, they were designed to help them to overcome inertia.
They hadn't been in school in so long, they had fears to go in the voting booth, or
we'd go down to register. And you had real fears because they didn't want you
to register. There were a lot of black people who lost their lives and lost their
jobs, lost their because of their very attempt to register to vote. I can
remember when I was teaching at American University ____ this is in the
early 1960s. There was a young lady in my class from Mississippi and she had a
major fear. Now, this is Mississippi, [but] it could've been Georgia, it could've
been South Carolina, anywhere in the South. Some of my students in Atlanta,
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said, Oh, register to vote I said, it is easy for you in Atlanta, whether
you can vote or not, you have taken the vote for granted and this and that. I had
sort of curried to somebody in Mississippi, You don't know the circumstances.
After all the blacks did not get to vote in Georgia until 1946, all kind of barriers. I
shall never forget this young lady So VEP wanted to design its parts
to encourage blacks to overcome this apathy, overcome this fear, and to realize
the positive fruits of voter participation. So they had all kind of around
G: What were some of the organizational challenges presented by running the VEP
project? How did they run it?
C: How did the organization run it? Proudly they would make grants.
Two organizations would say it's rural Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama
So they could buy gas to get people to register to vote. Of course
there were big staff members, too. It was a full time job. They had the support of
the job. They made grants throughout the South.
G: How did they decide which ones to fund?
C: You had to submit applications and show the feasability of it, how that money
would be used and there had to be something to convince people that the money
would be given to the fund and something would be done to get people
registered to vote. Some grants that I recall are __ as far as Kentucky___ ,
but the eleven states of the old confederacy had a lot of Ford
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G: Do you think there were any particular problems with the SRC having this kind of
power working role? You know, they're the ones that have the money and they
get to distribute it. Were there tensions with the people on the ground trying to
get the money?
C: Not in a serious way. I'm sure there was a role there, go there with
money and were giving it out and whether they say yes or no. But that was not a
big problem. The situations were so very desperate, and so important, that the
G: Was there a benefit to the SRC being the mediator between the foundations and
the local projects?
C: Oh yeah, there were benefits. They could get in class and have them pay some
salary. It gave SRC more visibility. They kept the foundation, too
G: Could the local groups have gotten the money from the Ford Foundation by
C: No, we'd have had to have a lot of cops to _, and the SRC had the
G: Right. Because it had existed for so long and done a good work?
C: Yes. SRC always had a very good reputation _, good people. It was
unique. You did not have another biracial integration in the South at the time.
You had one of the Mississippi projects But the only thing we had
going for us in integration, and with some of the management of the SRC.
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Individually we imitate that committee It had a lot of clout (is the word
I want to use.) It had a good reputation.
C: Credibility, that's the word.
G: How would you summarize the changes in the mood or the personnel or the
philosophy of the SRC as the Civil Rights' Movement gathered momentum in the
early 1960s? Did you see any change in attitudes, or did it bring in new people or
get rid of old people? Were there any changes as the Civil Rights' Movement
gained momentum within the SRC?
C: I don't think there was any basic change in philosophy. As it became more
activists-oriented as circumstances commanded and required, sit-ins,
it became more activist-oriented. But in terms of the basic change in
philosophy [there was none]. But there was no change in direction
of SRC, as I recall. Les Dunbar, was a very reflective individual, scholarly,
reflective who would think before he speaks. Most of us [think] and hopefully,
it'd come out. Les is a philosopher. All of us are different and have a different
style, but no difference in philosophy.
G: What about in terms of personnel racial board by gender? Did that change as the
Civil Rights' Movement gathered momentum? Were there more whites working
for the organization and African-Americans were brought in, or were there more
men and women were brought in? Were there any of those kinds of changes,
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C: That was a letter that caused some concern about having more blacks in
decision-making positions and SRC made progress on that. That was a
challenge for the SRC, and the SRC was They don't want a
secretary as decision maker. This is why voter education was very important to
G: It could involve both.
C: Voter education from VEP you had blacks that could vote.
G: Were there mostly males in charge?
C: Mostly males, yeah. Even in terms of the board, most were male.
bring more blacks into the decision making in the SRC.
G: But you felt like they made an adjustment?
C: They did make an adjustment. You always would have the feeling like you were
working for people who were very genuine, very decent. You might differ here
and there, but you knew that the thrust level was in the right direction.
G: This is a little more complicated question. There are some scholars who suggest
that after a period of relative impotency the SRC became revitalized, but became
revitalized because of this newly emerging dynamic Civil Rights' Movement. So
[they're saying] that the SRC becomes more dynamic as it responds to a
dynamic movement. How did you see that description of the SRC as being
reactive rather than proactive? Do you think that's accurate?
C: For the factor, and that's to be expected, that an organization operates within a
given social context. An organization is a fluid vibe, but goes home externally in
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the socially, orderly, political system. When you have a movement [that's]
dynamic and energetic, the organization would be foolish not to take advantage
[of it], to learn from it, get involved in it. But it's a reciprocal relationship. Just as
the pool men sit around outside I think the SRC also influenced the
movement through its publication writings, through its annual meeting, which was
but the annual meeting with the SRC was very, very special.
You always got a feeling, and there was nothing else in Atlanta to
compare with the annual meeting, to give _, to change society to bring
about more decency. You had a feeling of good will. Here again the sense of
nobility. My wife and I would always look forward to It provided a lot of
hope, and that's one of the major contributions of SRC. As you think about it, as I
think about it, it provided a chain for a hope of betterness, that change would
come to pass. It kept a lot of hope in the air. moral and
G: Which you can't underestimated.
C: That's crucial.
G: Would you argue that he SRC should be given more credit for the emergence of
the Civil Rights' Movement?
C: Oh yes, there's no question about it. SRC helped capture the better ground, so I
certainly would. I have to single out Les Dunbar for his contacting, writings, and
invitations. I think Les Dunbar is on the side in As I have said
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numerous times before, he was one of the great architects of the Civil Rights'
Movement and the New South,