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Biographical Details of Leadership
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Reflections on Brown
BOND: Dr. Butts, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
BUTTS: Thank you.
BOND: We very much appreciate your coming. I want to start with some questions about Brown v. Board. You were five years old when this decision was handed down, but do you have any memories of it or it being talked about it?
BUTTS: Yes, I have memories of the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, I was five, but I remember reading about it. The interesting thing is that I could read and read well at that age. I lived for a while with my grandmother in a small town in southwest Georgia called Fitzgerald and I remember attending school in a one-room house — this is literally the truth — with a potbellied stove in the middle and a pan of water on the top. It was a bunch of us, maybe fifteen, sixteen, twenty, in this little room and a woman whose name I cannot remember taught us how to read and how to count, spell, all of that, and so when the decision came down, I don’t know if it was Jet Magazine or if it was Ebony. It was something that I read that talked about this Supreme Court decision.
Moreover, there was a picture of I think it was the Rev. Brown and his daughter and I remember that vividly, but what rivets it to me is that in conversations, either when my parents would come to visit with my father’s mother or later when I returned to New York in our living room, when my aunts and uncles and friends of the family would come over, there would be these animated discussions about that case, about integration. Then there would be someone on the side who would say it’s not integration. You heard Adam [Clayton Powell, Jr.] say it’s desegregation, and so as I grew older, and particularly, as we approached the fiftieth year celebration, I could recall all of that and it is very meaningful to me because I think that was the first — that was before Dr. King became vivid for me — that was the first civil rights talk that I can remember hearing about.
BOND: Do you remember what people thought about it? Did they think it was something that was going to make instant change? What were their discussions about?
BUTTS: Well, if I remember the discussions in that small town in Georgia, it was not about instant change. It was about hope for change because we were still going to a segregated school. After I finished in that little house, that room, I went to the Monitor High School for the 1st grade. That was a school where they still believed in corporal punishment. If you were late, you had to get past the principal who had a switch, but it was segregated, and there was no immediate change, but there was hope that soon it would change and, of course, it did. Monitor High School is no longer there and many of the places across the South became integrated and the old “colored” or Negro high schools closed, but there was hope for change and it was meaningful.
Now, in New York, I had a couple of uncles, one in particular who was very militant and kind of nationalistic. He was a union organizer. He talked a lot about Clark — [Dr.] Kenneth Clark. I was thinking of John Henry for a moment. Kenneth Clark and how Thurgood argued the case and how we were going to move forward and how we were going to break down the barriers of segregation, particularly in education. Now, that became meaningful for me because when I left the 6th grade, something happened in New York called open enrollment. That means that I could take a bus from my community of Corona, East Elmhurst in Queens, and go across town to Forest Hills to a Russell Sage Junior High School which was predominantly white and that was an unfolding for me of Brown v. Board of Ed, and I could make the connection and that was not only happening for me. It was happening for African American students around the New York City. In fact, I remember reading in some papers in New York around that time that some students were going to Canarsie. They were in Brooklyn. They were going to Canarsie, Brooklyn, and they were met with racial epithets and almost riots and that wasn’t the Deep South. That was New York City. So, it stirred up a lot of hope and it made people even more — people of African descent and people of good will, more aggressive in either integrating or as Adam would put it, desegregating the schools.