Now with a new foreword, this timely reissue features a remarkable collection of oral histories that trace three decades of turbulent race relations and social change in the United States for a new generation of activists.
One evening in 1955, Howard Spence, a Mississippi field representative for the NAACP investigating the Emmett Till murder, was confronted by Klansmen who burned an eight-foot cross on his front lawn. “I felt my life wasn’t worth a penny with a hole in it.” Twenty-four years later, Spence had become a respected pillar of that same Mississippi town, serving as its first Black alderman. The story of Howard Spence is just one of the remarkable personal dramas recounted in Black Lives, White Lives. Beginning in 1968, Bob Blauner and a team of interviewers recorded the words of those caught up in the crucible of rapid racial, social, and political change. Unlike most retrospective oral histories, these interviews capture the intense racial tension of 1968 in real time, as people talk with unusual candor about their deepest fears and prejudices. The diverse experiences and changing beliefs of Blauner’s interview subjects—sixteen of them Black, twelve of them white—are expanded through subsequent interviews in 1979 and 1986, revealing as much about ordinary, daily lives as the extraordinary cultural shifts that shaped them. This book remains a landmark historical and sociological document, and an exceptional primary-source commentary on the development of race relations since the 1960s. Republished with a foreword by Professor Gerald Early, Black Lives, White Lives offers new generations of scholars and activists a galvanizing meditation on how divided America was then and still is today.
Bob Blauner (1929–2016) was Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author who taught, lectured, consulted, and wrote on race relations. His work was funded by major groups such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. His other books include Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry, Racial Oppression in America, and Resisting McCarthyism: To Sign or Not to Sign California’s Loyalty Oath.
Gerald Early is Chair of African and African-American Studies and Professor of English at Washington University. He has written and edited numerous books, including This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s and The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.
The following excerpt is adapted from pages 72 – 74 of Black Lives, White Lives
Florence Grier, whose story continues in this chapter, became aware of the significance of social class—as well as race and gender—while still a young girl, but she did not become politically active until 1967, when she saw the Sacramento police use excess force to quell social protest. Her first political act was an attempt to protect black youths from police entanglement by urging their mothers to keep them off the street. Until then she had been something of a racial moderate, but in a period of only months she became more and more militant, embracing much of the radical mood of late-sixties black nationalism. Millie Harding, whose story follows Grier’s, had become politically involved as a teenager in the 1950s—perhaps that is one reason she maintained some distance and skepticism regarding the black militants, neither awed by their rhetoric nor swayed by the fads and fashions in black politics and culture.
“I’m tired of being scared”
Almost every night, Florence Grier has been on the streets, trying to keep things calm, or in the car patrol monitoring the actions of the police. Her community group has taken a leaf from the Panthers’ book. Once last summer she saw police arrest six young men for breaking windows at a place where they couldn’t possibly have been. She reported this, yet the authorities wouldn’t listen. She spent five weeks at the trial and testified, but the men were found guilty.
The interview begins on one of the car patrols. Hardy Frye has his tape recorder on as they drive around Oak Park, on an early spring evening in 1968.
I saw the Sacramento police lie through their teeth last summer. And even Officer Travis, the colored policeman, had to lie through his teeth, sitting right on that stand. Honestly, Hardy, I feel the way Mr. Muhammad feels, that they oughta turn every single black man loose. For the simple reason that he has not been treated equally! When you say to me that a colored man’s got a record, it just doesn’t mean anything to me. He’s got a record because he’s black.
We’ve got a little thing going over here at Sacramento High now because of the inability of the principal and the teachers to understand that you have double standards for Negro youngsters. About twenty youngsters got into a fracas about three weeks ago. The principal calls the police force. Takes down these thirteen to fourteen of your little boys to the police station. Immediately you get our boys’ names on the record as juvenile delinquents and it’s never taken off. Whenever they want to find out anything on ’em, you dig his high school record up. This is what he faces when he goes to get a job at the post office, this is what he faces when he goes to get a job on the garbage, this is what he faces all over. And I honestly feel this deep in my heart, the Negro male has got a long way to go to get justice from the white man.