Race in the 1960s

March 16th, 2011

When I read the POV by Tom Bale '63 in the July/August issue about his involvement with the NAACP, I let it pass without comment ("Lessons in Prejudice"). But, after seeing the comments in the September/October issue (Mail Room) and his November/December response ("On Prejudice," Mail Room), I want to clarify both the status of the civil rights movement at Brown in the 1960s and the nature of the relationship between blacks and whites there at the time.

A group of us, mostly white graduate students, felt that the NAACP was ineffectual, and so we established the Rhode Island chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a much more radical organization. This proved an exercise in realpolitik. Although I was elected president, I refused the office, and pointed out that without a black leader we would have no credibility. But black leadership was hard to find in Rhode Island at that time. We eventually recruited a charismatic Baptist teacher, who cut a fine figure (he even went to Selma to march with Martin Luther King) but contributed little to local activities.

And these local activities were nothing like the dramatic events you see in movies. I was in charge of fair housing, which meant spending a lot of time in a squalid office waiting for blacks, usually couples, to come in with complaints that, after answering an ad for an apartment, they'd been told it had just been rented. I would then send out a white couple, carefully selected to appear no more desirable, to check on the same apartment's availability. We documented hundreds of cases of discrimination in this tedious way and sent them off to legislators.

Our main diversion was for three or four of us to get on the phone and plan massive demonstrations. Then, at the designated time, we would stroll down to the specified location and find policemen waiting in ambush. Our one spectacular event was a hugely successful occupation of the galleries at the State House during a debate on fair housing. We had all seats filled, mostly with blacks, who had smuggled in huge banners calling for "fair housing now." Was this effective? I can't really say; I think it was about two years later that the first legislation finally got passed. But we were active, and we mobilized the community, and I think that in the long run our efforts made a contribution.

As for prejudice and interracial relationships, it is ironic that, although white civil rights workers were often called nigger-lovers, social relationships between them and blacks were strained and seldom close. We saw racism as a white problem that was the responsibility of whites to solve: blacks were the victims. We weren't doing what we did for blacks; we were trying to clean up the wrongs of our own community. Of course we wanted to help disadvantaged members of our society, but that was not our primary motivation. As a result, there was almost no interracial social interaction.

As for CORE, it blew up in the mid 1960s after the national leadership went wildly anti-Semitic and pretty well drove all Jews out of CORE. I left Brown in 1964 hoping that we had done some good, but also knowing that the work we had done was over.

Bill Silvert '58, '65 PhD
Bras de Alportel, Portugal


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Related Issue
March/April 2011