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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, July 22, 1990. Interview A-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

White liberals did not always understand the needs of the black community

Johnson describes author Lillian Smith's position on segregation to illustrate how white liberals did not always understand the needs of the black community. To Johnson, segregation did not affect black people a great deal on a daily basis, and activists like Smith misrepresented black Americans as being in a constant state of frustration and anger.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, July 22, 1990. Interview A-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN EGERTON:
You subsequently asked the SRC to invite Lillian Smith to become a board member, and they agreed, unanimously agreed, and she was asked but she turned it down.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Yes. I had mixed feelings about Lillian Smith. I thought she—how shall I put it—well in some ways she was rather naive, in that she ran in a rather confined atmosphere without putting down some roots in different places. Maybe what I'm trying to say is she was not in a position of responsibility.
JOHN EGERTON:
She had no institutional base.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
She had no institutional anchorage, just sort of a loner. She was not very good at taking part in the details of any organiational work.
JOHN EGERTON:
You described them [your feelings] as mixed feelings though. What about her was there that you liked or admired?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Oh, I had considerable admiration for her fiction, well, her work in general, you know. What do they call that little journal?
JOHN EGERTON:
It went through several name changes, North Georgia Review. Did you meet her, know her personally?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Yes, but not closely. I remember going one night, this would have been in late '44, I think, she had been asked to speak at Atlanta University. I went out there and listened and then later I was invited to, I guess, President Mays's home where a group of about ten or fifteen sat on the floor and carried on a discussion with Lillian. I was leaving the building where she had spoken and was going over toward the president's house, and they were various other, you know, students walking through. A couple of boys were coming along right behind me. I could hear them talking with some animation, and just as they passed me one of them said, "Well, it was all right, but, good God, that women's more race-conscious for me than I am for myself." [Laughter] And I think in a way, that's sort of describes it. I had once before come to the conclusion that for most blacks the burning [Laughter] issue of the day may not be what some of these white liberals think it is.
JOHN EGERTON:
You think maybe it was not segregation?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Oh, I'm sure segregation was involved, but I mean, how much did it actually bear on them in their daily lives? That's where I was concerned. And to listen to Lillian Smith talk you'd think they were just burning constantly with resentment and frustration, and I just thought that on the whole, no, they lived more normal lives that that. [Laughter] They looked on this whole business with a certain amount of amusement and detachment. But they don't seethe all the time. That was my thesis.
JOHN EGERTON:
I see. Would you say that that was, as you perceived it also, the feeling of people like Charles Johnson and Benjamin Mays and Hancock and P.B. Young and the others who were involved?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Yeah. They were people, you know, who—they had work to do, and my golly, and they were going to do it. Try to make a success and find ways of manipulating these white people [Laughter] . So that they didn't have to feel like they were burning inside all the time.