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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Practicality clashes with ideology in social justice movements

This passage dramatizes a split in Leftist political movements in the 1930s. When the plight of the so-called Scottsboro boys, a number of African-American teens sentenced to death for rape in an Alabama courtroom, drew national attention, activists argued over how to approach the situation. Some wanted to continue to focus on their ideological battle, but Green and others were more pragmatic: they wanted to save the boys' lives. As he considers his approach to progress, he remembers the desegregation of the University of North Carolina, and his similarly practical strategy for pushing the process forward.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, what is the difference between you and Ericson and Bailey and the people that would work with you on something like this and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences crowd?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, we were, they would say, more radical and we were for case action rather than a general program. For instance, I had a lot of correspondence with Theodore Dreiser about another case, the Scottsboro case where five or six Negro boys were sentenced to death for the so-called "rape" of a white girl, who was a sort of a tramp. We worked on that. Well, just the case.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why that strategy of focusing on particular cases?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, we finally got the ILD, the international labor organization from New York, they got into it somehow, I was opposed to that. I did all I could to prevent it. That took it away from a local control. As I wrote Theodore Dreiser, I said, "Good God, man, you are willing to execute these boys for this philosophy of socialism that you have. Well, I am interested in saving these boys. Then, if you save the boys, that has more impact for your general cause." Odum and his people were for the big front, for the movement that they were behind and they felt that if they got involved in special cases, that would obscure it and maybe then hold them up and make them possible of derogatory action, whereas if they got a big general truth that they were promoting, that would ultimately overwhelm the ignorance and help lift the individual cases. Well, that was two philosophies. My philosophy was to save the guy. Just like it is a hellish thing to me to send boys out to die for a cause, I say, "Save that boy and to hell with the cause." Like Mr. Ford last week, at Arlington, and he gets up and there are all these white crosses of boys that have died and what does he say? He says, "We must keep our military might," is saying "We must have more of these." He didn't say a word about the character and ethical nature of this nation and what a pity that these men had to die. Save the boys and the cause will save itself.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It is interesting because clearly you were more radical than Odum and that group and yet, when you describe your strategy for dealing with injustices and social issues, it could be seen in another light as being less systematic, kind of piecemeal social work thing, the approach that a social worker would take to problems. Really, a feeling that you could never change the social system as a whole, you can only ameliorate individual cases. What is the difference?
PAUL GREEN:
No, I'm saying that the real way to change it is by exhibits, statistics. You can pull a fellow out … We appealed this Burlington thing right on up to the State Supreme Court. They sent down some Jewish lawyers and we met with them and I told Bill Couch, "Listen, these guys are going to ruin the whole thing if we let them get up and plead this thing." So, we talked with them and they promised that they would go to the hearing but that they would say nothing.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did you think that they would ruin it?
PAUL GREEN:
Because for one thing, we had a local North Carolina Supreme Court and it was just like the University here. As long as we have got good North Carolina boys running it, the President and the Chancellor, good fellows and all, we don't have a single voice that has a nationwide clarion call as a great educator, we are all administrators, good fellows. We've got some good teachers, but … I knew those members of the Supreme Court and I used to always find it easy to go to the governor and talk, but not go as a representative of the Civil Liberties or the NAACP. I went not as an institutional man, but as a simple citizen and I was always welcomed by every governor going way back to Angus McLean, Gardner, Hoey, Broughton, Ehringhous, right on back even Luther Hodges. As soon as we had this ruling from the Supreme Court, Alex Heard and I had a little caucus and we said, "Now is the time to hit" and we went to see Luther Hodges, he was the governor and we said, "Now Governor, we've got the backing of the Federal United States Supreme Court and we have already talked to Mr. Davis at Chapel Hill and he is ready to move to let the students enter Chapel Hill and we can have a pilot project right off to start it." Well, to my surprise, I was in school with Luther and he said, "Paul, you can't do this." And then he used that phrase that infuriates you, "You can't do this overnight." [Laughter] I said, "Luther, it has been three hundred years." Alex and I put up a plea and he wouldn't do it. He stopped this; we already had a decision and he helped reverse it, and got the Pearsall Plan and I wrote a letter, sent a wire and a copy, a long wire, to the state papers. He got my wire … I told him that I was going to do it and he said, "Now, don't do it." I said, "I'm not going to concur in this, we've got a chance here to move forward." I, as a thousand, times, urged that we take the lead in the South in abolishing capital punishment and again, they said, "Paul, you can't do it overnight." Well, I was on my way to Manteo to do something about that show and I got a call from Luther. He said, "I just got your telegram and I am very sorry that you sent it." I said, "Well, I'm not. We have a great chance here to take the leadership in North Carolina and to my surprise, Governor, you are stopping us." He said, "No, my ways are right. I'm going to appear on television next Tuesday and I want you to listen. But don't send this wire, please, to the state papers." I said, "I've already done it." "Oh," he said, "well, it is too bad."