Jan Rehmann (JR): Willie, I will not enumerate all your activities here, nor your manifold writings and responsibilities. Let me confine myself to just a few selections. As a youngster, you were a black student organizer in Los Angeles and worked closely with the local branch of the Black Panther Party; you then became a national organizer of the Union of the Homeless (1986–1991); then the director of education of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (1991–2005); a lead organizer of the March of the Americas (1999); cofounder and lead organizer of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign; co-coordinator of the University of the Poor, since 1999; and, from 2004 onward, scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary, with the mission to inform students and faculty about the realities of poverty and the experiences of the poor, not only about their plight, but also about their fight and insight.
Let’s transition to the interview. Willie, you were born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1948, and when you were five, in 1953, you immigrated with your family to Los Angeles. From then on, you grew up in Watts, one of the poorest neighborhoods not only of Los Angeles but of California. In 1965, when you were 17, you got involved in the famous Watts uprising, and this involvement awakened and politicized you. Would you like to tell us something about your family, and how you folks lived in Corsicana, Texas?
Willie Baptist (WB): I left Corsicana at the age of five—that was more than half a century ago—that’s a long time to remember what happened to me at that early stage of my life. But there were certain things that struck me that I still remember—the main one being the prevalence of child labor in the planting, chopping, and picking of cotton. My parents, like other parents, would fashion cotton bags for children, and we’d be out there in the cotton field picking along with our parents. That was a very excruciating effort, especially for children. If you’ve ever experienced the cotton plant, the cotton fibers grow within a hard prickly shell, called a boll, that constantly pierce your skin as you attempt to separate the fibers from it. This excruciating activity has left an indelible impression on my brain. There’s nothing romantic about it. Plus the dire heat there in that area—upwards of 110 degrees, even in the shade.
JR: Could you inform us of the role of the cotton economy and its impact on poverty?
WB: I wanted to have people look at the map here [Fig. 1.1]. This map shows the area of the South, the so-called Black Belt, in which cotton was planted, chopped, and picked. When people refer to the Black Belt today they usually think in terms of black people, where they reside. While it’s true that this is where you had the enslavement of the bulk of African Americans, what “Black Belt” originally referred to was the soil. A major geological feature of this region is the deposit of black alluvial soil left by the Ice Age thousands of years ago. It’s a soil rich with mineral nutrients, which makes it conducive for cultivating the rigorous cotton plant. The high grade of cotton and the conditions that it required in terms of mineral nutrients could only be produced in this swamp laden, mosquito-infested area called the Black Belt. I think this is very important to understand if you’re going to understand the requirements of production.
Figure 1.1 Black Belt and Border Territory
Source: J. Allen, “Black Belt and Border Territory,” in fThe Negro Question in the United States.
For years, especially after the early merchant period of United States development, the cotton crop contributed the most value to the economic system. On into the 1860s, on the verge of the Civil War, you have tremendous profits being garnered from this crop, alongside other Southern crops—rice, sugar, tobacco—but “cotton was king.” The North participated in the process in terms of procuring the cotton and helping to distribute it worldwide. The cotton industry became the base of the first major industrialization of the worldwide economy. The end of the Civil War and the end of one human being owning another human being—slavery—did not end the fact that 55% of the world’s highest grade of cotton, the most lucrative cotton, was produced on less than 5% of the earth’s surface.
The question remained after the war: How you still procure this valuable crop without slavery? The answer took the form of sharecropping, a semi-slave form that lasted into the 1930s. As W. E. B. Du Bois has shown in his excellent study “Black Reconstruction in America,” the temporary attempts to create a true “abolition democracy” in the South were soon undermined and defeated by an alliance between the industrialists of the North and the Southern planters—”the appeal of property in the South got the ear of property in the North.” The economic elites of the North needed to get that cotton. They had used black people as a battering ram in terms of Reconstruction in order to beat back the political influence of the planters, to set the stage for Wall Street and railroad capital to penetrate that area and take advantage of that lucrative crop. Black labor was again reduced to unlimited exploitation, and the old plantation politics of dividing the poor along color lines and having the poor blacks policed by poor whites was reinstalled.
W. E. B. Du Bois on “Plantation Politics”
The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of the poor whites. . . . It would have seemed natural that the poor white would have refused to police the slaves. But two considerations led him in the opposite direction. First of all, it gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own “niggers.” . . . The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white.
Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. (New York: The Free Press, 1998) (Originally published 1935.)
In the map of poverty in the United States [Fig. 1.2], you can see that the former areas of the cotton crop along with the former areas of the slaves coincide with the highest rates of poverty. There is a concentration of poverty in the South as a whole, but the Black Belt area of the South has the highest, longest, deepest area of poverty still to this day. You can see in the wage system that the white worker in the South makes less money than the black worker in the North. The white worker in the South makes more money than the black worker in the South, but he makes less than the black worker in the North. There is a tremendous wage differential that reflects the continuity of poverty coming from slavery.
JR: Now, what happened, when the mechanical cotton picker was put to work on a mass scale? Did this affect your family?
WB: In the early 1940s International Harvester successfully tested the commercial mechanical cotton picker, which was soon produced on a mass scale. It could outpick fifty sharecroppers, rendering our labor superfluous, both black and white. As a result millions of black and white sharecroppers were turned off the land. Some of the poor whites had the option to get into the textile industry, but most of the blacks did not. This gave rise to what has been called the Great Migration out of the South [Fig. 1.3]. Some estimates have it that in the second wave of the Great Migration between 1950 and 1970, 11 million migrated, including about 4 1/2 million blacks. This map shows the earlier period, between 1916 and 1930, but the patterns are the same. You can see how the streams of movement developed. The people from the Carolinas and Georgia basically went to Philadelphia, New York, Newark. Out of Mississippi, they went straight up to Chicago. They call Chicago “Up South Down South.” The reason you have Blues coming out of Chicago is that a lot of it comes out of that plantation area in Mississippi. Because of the racist housing covenants and other similar measures the Great Migration of blacks found themselves concentrated into the inner-city ghettoes. Whereas Southern poor whites were more dispersed.
I came out of the Black Belt—Navarre County, Corsicana; we migrated to California. Because of the fact that my father had been involved with casual labor in cotton production and other jobs that surround that economic activity, there was this whole effort to try to find a better and more secure living standard for the family. In 1953, the whole family spent that last year picking cotton. After it was all said and done we had $100 and we were able to purchase a jalopy. We made our way to the West Coast by way of this jalopy through Dallas, then on Highway 20 to Los Angeles. My uncle and my auntie had moved there earlier and encouraged us to come, saying there was much more stable employment.
JR: How did you and your family experience [the Great Migration]?
WB: One of the things that I noticed as I was coming up in Corsicana, which was primarily rural, is that our family and other black folks were very scattered. Our churches were very small. We had a very isolated community. When we were picking cotton we lived in a shack that belonged to the plantation owners. We knew the other black folks that were around, and we saw white folks, too. But for the most part, I didn’t see the kind of concentration of black folks until I moved into Watts, a community in South Central L.A.
Urban churches in L.A. were much larger than churches in the plantation areas of the South. I went to Paradise Baptist Church, a huge church to me. Seeing all these people—the concentration of black people—that’s the thing that I remember from that age. Looking back on it, you can see how the Klan’s influence was effaced, because the Klan is not built for that kind of concentration of black people. What I noticed was that the fear of the Klansmen ceased to be a factor. The Klan’s position in terms of control and intimidation was taken over by the police. That kind of concentration could only be managed by a standing police force. A lot of the Klansmen became policemen. Because of the economic conditions in the Watts ghetto, the relationship between the police and the black youth was very tense all the time. I remember that any time we had an encounter with the police, it seemed like every policeman was a southerner. He had the southern accent, and I don’t care how many times you gave him your name, your name was “nigger.” Those were the kind of encounters we had and which eventually ignited the uprising.
My father worked as a dishwasher for a while, went to different kinds of casual labor, finally got into the construction trade and worked himself up. Both my mother and my father only went to the 8th grade, so for him to pursue that and get that kind of promotion was a significant accomplishment. But it was only over time, after I was grown up and out of the house. My mother worked as a domestic laborer for some rich white folks in Beverly Hills. When we first arrived we went from one relative to another until we could finally settle into a home. We kept moving from one home to another. I remember we were living in and around the train tracks.
JR: How would you describe the social conditions in Watts that finally exploded in the uprising in 1965? Was it a revolt out of poverty and unemployment or primarily against the unremitting racism, especially at the hands of the police? Or both together?
WB: At that time I thought it was only the issue of race. But on further reflection, you could see that at the same time as blacks were coming into the area a process of automation developed in the various industries and services, not only in the L.A. area but also throughout the U.S. economy. When the economy was restructured, blacks were among the first fired. That’s when the slogan “last hired, first fired” evolved. Because we were among the latest immigrants to arrive in the region, we were “last hired” into these plants, and when they restructured, especially when they developed new technologies, we were the “first fired,” since we represented the unskilled and semiskilled laborers. That’s where African Americans predominated, so we were laid off temporarily and often permanently; so you had concentration of unemployment especially affecting the youth, with unemployment rates reaching 70% among the black youth.
That environment was ripe for this kind of police relationship that was constantly antagonistic and would frequently erupt in some form. There were a lot of rumors, many of them true, about what police had done. There were cases of girls as young as 15 that were taken into the back of police cars and raped. There were a number of stories where African Americans were asked to get their identification and when they reached into their pocket to get it they were shot in cold blood, dead, under the pretext of having been reaching for a gun. There were bad relationships, but underneath that were the economic factors of unemployment.
One night I was hanging outside and fell asleep next to a tree. I was woken up by this helicopter from the LAPD 77th precinct. The whole street lit up like daytime and I was surrounded by all these policemen who were yelling, “Nigger, get up,” and “Nigger, wake up.”
And I said, “What’s up, man?”
They said, “Get the hell up,” and “What are you doing here?”
I asked, “What did I do officer, I live just across the street. What did I do? Why are you calling me all of these names?”
And they said, “Shut the fuck up,” et cetera. “They called into our office saying you had robbed something.”
I said, “I didn’t rob anything, I’ve been right here. I live right across the street.”
These are the kinds of incidents that created rage within the community. These incidents ignited the movement.
In terms of what happened in August of ’65, the rumor we heard was that the uprising was incited at Nickerson Gardens housing projects, where there was a concentration of unemployed youth and people on welfare.
So the night the riots started, this younger man Frye was pulled over and told to walk the line. He said he didn’t need to walk the line. They had a little scuffle. His mother came out of the project saying they shouldn’t mess with her son. The police ordered her to stay out of the way, but she refused. She insisted on them leaving her son alone. One of the cops took his baton and hit her in the stomach with it, and the rumor that went around was that she was pregnant.
Stories of that went throughout the community and you had something like 60,000–100,000 people hitting the streets after hearing about the incident. Within a couple of days, the police force was paralyzed. The police basically operated on the principle that became famously discussed in relationship to the Rodney King incident: You concentrate a whole force against a small force. That’s basic military strategy. When there was some kind of bust the police would assemble in a vacant lot in the area and then ascend on one spot at the same time. When you have 60,000–100,000 people on the street at one time, that nullifies the police strategy. So they brought in the National Guard.
JR: How did you yourself relate to the uprisings?
WB: As a way of protecting me and my brother, my father had started a Little League baseball team, and that saved my life. People I grew up with went through and sustained a lot of death over time as a result of going to Vietnam and also because of street activities. I was involved in a baseball Little League and I went on through intermediate, into senior and semi-pro. That’s where I got my name, Willie. At that time Willie Mays was the man, so if you played baseball and your name was William, Wilbur, or anything that suggests Willie, they’d call you Willie.
When the Watts uprising took place my father was concerned not only about me but also about the other players in the team and their parents. He made an effort to keep his sons from getting out there and getting into the fray and getting killed or something like that, as well as calling to make sure other people on the team were cool. He tried to keep me under wraps, but he had to go to work during the day and I snuck out on two days. At the first occasion, I went out to an area just watching stuff. You could see the situation just turning upside down in the midst of all this danger, the looting, sniping, the police play and stuff like that. You had this kind of festival atmosphere. At the corner this wino was drinking some Ripple or something like that—a bottle of very cheap wine—with a bag on top of it, and he directed traffic. I’ll never forget that. People identified places where they had bills they couldn’t pay and they would take the furniture and clothes from those stores.
Another day while my dad was working my friends came by and said, “Hey, man, come on out here. We’re having fun.” I didn’t want to be a poop-butt sitting home protected by momma, so I found my way out there. When I got out there I acted timid—I wasn’t trying to die out there. I saw tanks going up and down the community. I saw the sheriff’s department riding in long car caravans with their shotguns sticking out the windows to intimidate people. When we got to the area where some of the looting was taking place, we were trying to size up what we were going to do and before we knew it, here come the helicopters, like from Vietnam or something—that was all we could think about. The helicopter started chasing people with the microphones out saying, “Stop what you’re doing,” and “Freeze,” so we got the hell out of there. As we ran, my group split up and went all different ways, and I unluckily got caught with some other brothers that the police were able to round up by way of the helicopters. They pointed machine guns at us and had us get down with our face in the ground. I will never forget that experience. If that don’t wake you up to the social realities that this thing involved more than just your own individual situation, I don’t know what will. That this is a situation of the society and its military forces having to come down on a community left an indelible impression on my mind and helped shape my understanding today about the social character of these struggles we are currently involved in.