Photo of Roy WilkinsIn this episode, we acknowledge Black History Month by exploring the Hogg Foundation’s own history on the intersection of race and mental health. Drawing from the archives, we’re sharing a mid-1970s recording of the Hogg Foundation radio show, The Human Condition.

Hosted by Bert Kruger Smith, a former Hogg Foundation program officer, The Human Condition ran from 1971 until 1983 and featured hundreds of notable guests discussing topics related to mental health and well-being. In this episode, Smith welcomes the late Roy Wilkins, civil rights icon and long-time leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to discuss “The Mental Bondage of Race.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

A Whole New World

Bert Kruger Smith: A “whole new world” for Blacks has been much the dream for Roy Wilkins for more than a quarter of a century. He has helped to bring a better world into reality. Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he came to Austin, Texas to receive the first Sale Award for Humanitarian Service. Welcome, Mr. Wilkins.

Roy Wilkins: Thank you, Mrs. Smith

BKS: When you received this award, you spoke of a “whole new world” for Blacks. Can you tell us what you meant by that?

RW: Well, I think firstly, out of deference to your primary interest, I meant a whole new world mentally, of mental health. I meant that Black people should stop being victims of themselves and of other predators, but [instead] be a cause of something. This creates a whole new world.

They ought to be initiators, innovators, thinkers outside of the realm of race, because they have a great many talents and abilities that one doesn’t associate ordinarily with [a person with] black skin. But their own mental attitude holds many of them back. Even if they give expression to it, sometimes it comes out wrong. It comes out as an expression of “I’m just as good as you are,” instead of “Let us do good for our city, or for our county or for our country and study out ways [of doing that]. This is what I meant by a whole new world.

Of course, I mean it as an eradication of the grosser forms of prejudice. Let’s not kid ourselves—prejudice is going to be with us for a long, long time to come. It’s a part of man. But the important part is not to have us become so diseased mentally that we think of ourselves as “the problem” and the only problem in the world, but to have us tackle these whole new worlds that we need to create by studying things that are not especially connected with race.

I met a Black tax consultant/attorney the other day and he was dressed in the typical “hippie” style and I would never have taken him for a tax collector or a tax estimator. He was employed by one of the leading corporations in town and his complaint was that he was only making “so much” money, and there didn’t seem to be any mobility beyond that figure. It was better than $13,000 dollars a year. Now, there could have been a time when that young man would have been on the outside looking in at that corporation, and here he was in 1973 complaining about a ceiling on [his income]. He thought I should have stopped all that I was doing to start working for his objective.

Between Militancy and Subservience

BKS: Mr. Wilkins, you’re saying, I think, we have come a long way, and you’re describing an approach which is somewhere between resignation and militancy. Can the Blacks do this alone? What does it take to bring about this new kind of attitude and action?

RW: Well, they can’t do it alone, but they certainly must start it. They certainly must help to keep it going. They must bring themselves to an attitude of helpfulness between militancy and subservience.

You can’t necessarily pound on the table all the time and tell a man in four-letter words that he is a no good “so and so”. You don’t get anything that way. It’s just like the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

We must have a middle way. I think Martin Luther King had something of that way and the NAACP hassomething of that way. It’s a militancy, but not a strident militancy and not a militancy that’s exclusive of everyone else and their problems.

BKS: In our current generation, segregation is outlawed and yet it still exists, as we know, in different degrees in different parts of the country. We see it in housing, we see it in employment.

Do you feel like Blacks are growing disenchanted and tired of trying, or if there are different methods they can use?

RW: I think they have varying attitudes toward this problem. They know that segregation does exist and sometimes it causes them to feel like throwing up their hands and not paying any attention at all, just considering the whole thing as unworthwhile, a worthless struggle.

But man has to struggle. He has to struggle. It doesn’t matter if he’s white or Black or gray or green—he struggles. He struggles against hunger. He struggles for competence. He struggles for his family, his wife and children and for a home. I think the majority of Negroes in this country believe that desegregation will come about, but they think the white people are taking an awful long time about it.

Housing segregation persists in this country because it’s all wrapped up with “home” and “mother” and all the things that we hold dear. The woman of the family wants to see whether where they live is an up-and-coming neighborhood and whether her husband has a future in his company. After all, how does it help your family if you live in a “mixed” neighborhood, when the people in that company who decide whether you rise or fall may believe in all-white neighborhoods?

I think the colored people are a little disillusioned. They ask, “Why is it that I have to endure this?” I recall one of the presidents in one of the local chapters of the NAACP lost his down payment on a home because of [restrictive neighborhood] covenant.

But I would like to believe, and I’ve devoted a great deal of attention and time to this, that all of America is drifting toward one society with no more than the usual segregation of individuals, where we talk about racism being impossible. Sometimes I do think racism is a mental disease.

We sometimes talk about racism being impossible [to overcome] and this whole society as pervasively racist, buts it isn’t racist. There are racist people in it unquestionably, but there aren’t any policies that will help.

BKS: Do you think that housing is, in a sense, the underlying problem? That if people lived together, many of the difficulties we’ve been having with busing children and integrating schools would disappear? Which comes first—the chicken or the egg in this instance?

RW: Well, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say. We used to say that if people lived together, they understand each other and begin to understand what [integration] is all about.

The federal government came to a city in New Jersey and tore down a lot of old houses where families, white and Black, had been living for fifty years. They all lived in the neighborhood together. Then the federal government came along and said, “We’re going to erect these houses for whites or “We’re going to erect these houses for Blacks” and arbitrarily separated them—those people who had learned to love each other and understand each other as human beings, not as Blacks or whites.

I may be accused of saying this because I’m in the [southern United States], but I believe that the South, for all of its excesses, is showing more truly the exploratory manner toward a new world that we talked about earlier. They are willing to forget, or at least put out their minds, for the time being, their old attitudes and the attitudes of their parents and grandparents and try to make a new world. They’re willing to meet the Blacks more than half-way.

BKS: Do you think some of this is coming about because of forced integration in the schools as children meet one another? Do you think this is a successful procedure?

RW: I wish I could say that whole-heartedly. I can only express it as a wish, because I find that the behavior of Black children in schools that were formerly all-white takes on something of the idea that, “I’ll show you that I’m as good as you are.” This is not the way race relations should be imposed or cooperatively worked out. It isn’t a question of how much noise you can make and how you can strut down the hall and how loud you can yell over the din of somebody else. That isn’t the thing.

I would say that our young people who are in integrated schools are learning to live together because they must come together every day and they must understand their parents and teachers. Some of them are Black teachers and some of them are Black principals and they talk about them just as they would anyone else.

I would say that both the Black students and the white students have a duty that perhaps is too heavy for their shoulders. They may be too young for it, but they have a duty to carry out the dignity of their race in a little better fashion than they are carrying it out [now].

BKS: Are you saying that this is a mandate for those of us who are parents or concerned citizens to work with our children in integration?

RW: Yes, I think parents have a very definite role and a very helpful one. I think community organizations have a definite role. Black parents and their organizations have a definite role.

BKS: In your opinion, are middle-class Blacks involved enough?

RW: Well, I sort of wish you hadn’t asked that. Because I believe the middle-class Blacks are pulling their share of the load. I think many of them have become frustrated and disgusted. I think many of them have been turned off on the path of earning money the best way they can, by any method they can, short of illegality.

I also think they have a secret sympathy with the criminal element. I don’t mean that they approve of it. They certainly don’t approve of it because it might turn on them. But they defend criminal Blacks by saying, “Well, they have terrible troubles in the ghetto, and they have ‘this, that and the other’.” I’m so sick of hearing these excuses that I don’t know what to do! You’re either a decent human being or you’re not a decent human being. I don’t care what color you are.

I think of that poor woman in Boston who was set on fire by those young, Black hoodlums…there is no excuse! I don’t care if you were the last man in the ghetto or whether you suffered—there is no excuse for taking a human life!

Changing Attitudes

BKS: Mr. Wilkins, you have been an example for many of us, Black and white, for a period of years. Do you feel from your vantage point and from all your time working in this field, that attitudes are changing?

RW: Well, I wish I could say quickly and enthusiastically, “Yes.” They are changing. They’re not changing fast enough, perhaps, but they are changing pretty fast.

For example, the [Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court] decision of 1954 certainly upset the whole plan of life in the South and yet white people have adjusted. Some people have adjusted rapidly to it. Some are reaping the rewards of an integrated society, and some are still holding back and declaring they will never give in, but I think attitudes are changing.

I think Black people are changing their attitudes. I think these young Black high school and college students are going through a phase and they will have a different attitude too. One college student in California said to me, “I studied Swahili. I thought it would get me a job, but I found out that it wouldn’t get me a job, so I’m through with Swahili.” Only as a cultural attitude toward our Black brethren in Africa would I study Swahili. Like studying the Chinese language, or any other foreign language—I study it because I think it will open up new worlds to me.

BKS: Do you think there will be fairly total integration in our lifetime?

RW: Well, I don’t know. I’m more than seventy years old and I don’t know whether it will be in my lifetime or not. But I think this phase of separatism that we’re going through now, the “I’m as good as you are” business, and refusal to have any truck with white people, and so on, is only a passing phase. It’s only a transition and I do think attitudes will change.

There is among Black people a very real feeling that integration means amalgamation. And although you explain until you’re blue in the face (and that’s difficult for me to do) they continue to [believe it]. Even when you explain that integration means an equality of your group and the other groups within the United States’ population, and that you want to be treated exactly as those other groups are treated, condemned if you do wrong and rewarded if you do right, they are still skeptical. And although attitudes are changing, I think it will take a long, long time.

BKS: It would be a shame to end this discussion on a point of pessimism if we’re talking from the standpoint of mental health…Could you reflect a little bit on what you said earlier about there being “no one way”? I thought you might tell us some of the approaches that we as individuals can take toward bettering the human condition of Blacks in our culture.

RW: I don’t know that I can, but there is certainly a better way than violence and there is a better way than hatred. There must be many, many better ways and more helpful ways that are easier on the mental health of people. And I would hope that people will start out with that, that white people and Negroes will start out with [those better ways] as a lifetime commitment.

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