Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Knoxville Segregation

BOND: When you talked about moving to Knoxville to go to school you said your parents had given up one child for integration and that was your good luck. Good luck how?

GIOVANNI: I grew closer to my grandmother. And I -- we were living --of course, I'm sixty so we are still a part of the extended family. But I would never have gotten to know Grandmother and Grandfather in the way that I did had I not lived with them, had I not been the only grandchild there.

BOND: What about the change between the semi-integrated situation you're leaving in Ohio and the segregated system you're finding in Knoxville?

GIOVANNI: Cost and benefits. I had a segregated -- and of course, Grandmother, my God, the day -- oh God, I'm laughing but it was very sad to me . The day that the children were bombed -- this was in '63 -- the day that the children were bombed in Birmingham, there was a mass meeting in Knoxville. I could tell you eighty million stories about this, but there was a mass meeting in Knoxville. My grandmother, actually was three years younger than I am now, right. Grandmother goes to the mass meeting. Of course she's sitting down front because she's one of the community leaders and there are others in Knoxville, but she was sitting down front. And they decided to have a march, right? Grandmother is the first person on her feet. She said, "John Brown and I are too old to march. But my granddaughter Nikki's here and she will march for us." But I hadn't gone because the children were not invited at that point. You remember. It was only a when we got to Birmingham -- as we got into the Birmingham campaign the children became so prominent. So Grandmother came home and she said, "Hah! Got good news for you." I'm looking at her because I'm not a fool. I knew what had happened. I thought whatever she's got it cannot be good news for me. She said, "I was the first person. I told them that John Brown and I are too old to march but you'd be there for us." She said, "I'm gonna get you up in the morning and fix breakfast and we'll be up in a cab to watch you."

I think I would have been a very different person without knowing that woman in that way.

BOND: So that was a benefit?

GIOVANNI: Oh, my God yes, because -- well Grandmother --grandparents are so different from parents in both their expectation and in how they approach you. Grandmother's like, "Isn't this wonderful?" and I did -- I mean I had to go picket because it was -- whatever was uptown -- in Knoxville, Tennessee that was Gay Street. Whatever was on Gay Street was not as formidable to me as me telling Grandmother I couldn't do it. But you know Julian, when you look at the civil rights movement you're still looking at grandparents and grandchildren because that parent who was saying to all of us, I think -- I'm not speaking for you in any way -- but the parents were saying, "I don't want you hurt. I sent you to school to get an education. Don't do that. Let somebody else do that." It was the grandparents -- it's like, "Yeah, let the boys say what -- " It was the grandparent. Another aside if I may for just two seconds --

BOND: Sure.

GIOVANNI: I'm a big sports fan. In looking at the NBA, just for example, if you look at the NBA right now. Again you've got this phenomenon of grandparents rearing grandsons who've gone on to be superstars. And I know that there's something to that grand -- that grandparent experience that's very different. We have so many parents who for -- and I'm not -- have nothing against that -- but for a variety of reasons, drugs or no jobs, or any number of things, have not been able to rear their children. They've taken them back to their grandparents. You look at all these superstars. You're looking mostly at grandsons. It's a phenomenon. I wish I was a sociologist. I would study it. I'm a poet so I'm just interested.

BOND: Yeah, it's a phenomenon that also has cost and benefits.

GIOVANNI: But real good costs.