Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Standing Up in the Segregated South

BOND: Talk about your father for a minute. You wrote that you’d never seen your father afraid even when a white policeman pulled him over in Tennessee in the middle of the night, so he must’ve held a standard of behavior for you.

DAVIS: I think so, I think so. Yes. My father was quiet and I liked to think that I inherited that sense of calm and sense of quiet even though, of course, I’ve had to speak out in ways I never imagined I would have, but my father was a figure who spoke rarely but when he did speak, it was important and you listened and this incident in which — I was convinced that we were going to be killed. I was convinced that we were going to be one of those stories in the newspaper of, you know, black people disappearing in the Deep South and as I recount the story in my autobiography, my father — my father liked to drink I think it’s Canadian whiskey or something like that.

BOND: Canadian Club?

DAVIS: Something like that, yeah, but you couldn’t buy it in Birmingham. And so he had bought a case of it somewhere along the route from New York to Alabama and we were nearing Alabama when we went through this dry county and were stopped by the sheriff who said that when he saw the whiskey, he said, “You know, this is illegal and the judge is out of town so I don’t have any choice but to put you in jail until the judge comes back and I have no idea when the judge is coming back.” And so finally he said, “I tell you what. I’ll treat you like I treat my boys.” And he said, “Follow me.” And my father followed him to this old warehouse in an area of town that we were absolutely unfamiliar with and he got out and asked my father to come into the warehouse and so my mother and I were sitting in the car. They were driving me back from Brandeis. My mother and I were sitting in the car trembling and, oh, my God, what is going, what are they going to do to him? And then finally he came out laughing and he said, “All he wants is the whiskey and a hundred dollars.” Yeah, but that was a very frightening moment and I appreciated how my father dealt with that situation.

BOND: Tell us about the — your sister and you pretending that you’re from Martinique and going into a downtown shoe store in Birmingham.

DAVIS: Yeah. Well, you know, we were so used to this segregated character of the city. You know, you go into a shoe store and immediately, if you’re black, you know you have to go to the back and hope somebody will wait on you. They might not even wait on you, so both my sister and I had learned French by this time. I had been away for a while and so we decided to walk into the store speaking — pretending that I could not speak English at all. My sister spoke some English, but she would have to translate for me and so the people were so impressed that they asked us to take a seat in the front of the store and brought out all the shoes we wanted and, of course, at the end, we revealed that it was a big joke. We started —

BOND: What was the reaction of the people in the store when you revealed who you were?

DAVIS: Oh, they were so angry. They were — I mean, they realized that they had been had had. But we ran out of the store. We knew that once we did that —

BOND: The jig was up.

DAVIS: — we were definitely not going to go to the back of the store.