Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Subtle Resistance

THEUS: The town itself was segregated even though it was North -- north of the Mason-Dixon line, of course. But we were not welcome in any of the little cafes, the main street. We could not go into the movies except for a loft, even up North. However, and interestingly enough, there were some enterprising young black Americans who knew that if you were not an American black person, then you would be accepted. And so some went to the point of learning enough French that they would go to the theater and ask, "Deux billets, s'il vous plait?" And they were immediately sold the tickets to the main floor and they were ushered in. Others went so far as to -- I didn't see this personally, but I was told about it -- that they learned how to wrap a turban.

BOND: Yes, yes. Students I was in school, in college with, used to put on turbans to go to the drive-in movie theater.

THEUS: Yes, exactly, and then they were accepted.

BOND: The idiocy of turning this person down because he's a dark American and accepting this person because he's a dark non-American -- I mean, just incredible.

THEUS: Well, we encountered that. We encountered that and this was not only Blue Island -- all of the surrounding communities that were now predominantly white. In fact, they were all white. You were just not accepted out there unless you were there working for some reason or other. And of course most of the jobs were all outside of the community. So you could travel out to work, but you saw to it that you weren't there for any social or recreational reasons.

BOND: Do you remember this tension breaking between the black community, the surrounding white community which on the one hand extends at least a welcome to school children if it does discourage them from extracurricular and expressing their ambitions -- did this tension ever break into violence of any sort, do you remember, as a kid?

THEUS: I do recall several instances of violence where one of the friends of our family was at the edge of the borderline of one of the communities. And he was attacked without provocation. Another -- a group of fellows decided that they would go to this town and seek revenge. And of course they were beaten pretty badly. But -- there were these little things, but it was so rare, I think that it was a case of most of the individuals in Robbins, most of the blacks did not seek to break down the barriers. More of, perhaps, an acceptance of the situation. And it was not a priority to break down these barriers.

BOND: Do you remember your mother, or other adults in the community giving you and your siblings instruction as to how you were expected to behave in this challenging world where "here things are fine, over here they're less fine"? I'm always interested in how this knowledge of race relations is transmitted from generation to generation.

THEUS: I don't recall a specific briefing on this. I think that we learned more from association with those in the community. We learned from seeing what happened when people were caught, shall we say, away from the community. There was one town in particular -- Cicero, Illinois.

BOND: Oh, yes.

THEUS: Cicero was particularly bad.

BOND: Yeah.

THEUS: And this was a town where you heard from others that you shouldn't be caught in that town at all. You should pass through quickly. I think the old saying that some -- "How do you visit Cicero?" "Quickly." "How do you go through it?" "As fast as you can." That sort of thing. So I don't remember being specifically told that you're expected to do this and that. Maybe an off-hand comment back and forth, but not any specific instructions.