Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, August 12, 1983. Interview F-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Social justice leaders with flaws

Although Burgess was a New Yorker, his understanding of history allowed him to connect to southerners, and his understanding of the cyclical nature of life allowed him to weather defeats. After briefly reflecting on these themes, Burgess discusses the "feet of clay" of Buck Kester, H.L. Mitchell, and Franz Daniel.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, August 12, 1983. Interview F-0006. 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

Second I think that the it gave us some view those of us, and I was sort of a Yankee in a sense though I was able to adopt a southern accent very quickly, and never was accused of being a "God damn Yankee".
DALLAS BLANCHARD:
It probably saved your life.
DAVID BURGESS:
It might have. But it gave us a sense of southern history. I mean that book, C.J.Cashin book of the south was an eye-opener for me, the way Tom Watson is the tragic figure. But I never realized that the black cause really did not come in til late in North Carolina until the 1890's to kill of the whole black/white proletarian relationship, and that he was the Vice-Presidental candidate with Bryant. This gave me a very deep sense of history. I think this helped some of us who came into the south. And the Southern Fellowship sort of strengthened it. In other words since you were a part of history, you weren't just there doing your thing in Rockford, South Carolina or somewhere down in the south. I think that is another. Then third as I mentioned before, the biblical connections, the relevance of the old testiment of the prophecy in particular. And Buck's favorite passage was that serman in Nazarath of Jesus quoting Issiah. That was sort of his text as it were. And I have used it and reused it, which I think was important. But I think finally that this it is hard to put it into words, but the ability of an individual in difficult situations to pull strength from other people, sources, to realize that you had to regularly recycle to be effect. But this defeat is never the final defeat or this victory is never the final victory. This is a double thing. You are thankful for small victories, but it is not the ultimate victory. You are sorryful for small defeats, but it is not the pitts. At least in my life this gave me a great sense of power, and recessitation, and renewal. I think it was very important. Another person indirectly related to us although I don't know how prominent is Alex Herd. Whom later became chancellor of Vanderbilt. He was sort of a theoritician, political science over in University of North Carolina when I was around.
DALLAS BLANCHARD:
I didn't realize that.
DAVID BURGESS:
But I don't know if he has any connections. But I knew him from we worked for a year in Washington together. I knew the friendship after it went bad. Then I think that the final thing in my own personal life is that you never can put your faith in man or an institution. I discovered, I went to the south with the three heroes in mind. One was Buck Kester, one was H.L. Mitchell, and one was Fronz Daniel. I discovered in the fullness of time that everyone had clay feet. Fronz was a labor leader who in the later thirties was considered the coming labor leader. He suffered one defeat after another. He went through a difficult period with alcohol and next with the divorce later in the sixties. But he came out of Highlander, Union class of 1929. And I remember when he was drunk once in Cordeve he said to me "Dave the trouble with you is that you have a sustaining philosophy." This is just after he lost an arrogant election. And we had to take him home when he was at a convention in Atlanta. And we had to take him up to his room and so forth. He was railing and rioting. He was jsut a bear. But he was very easily hurt and very easily insulted. Heart of gold. He had the toughness of becoming the organizer of opportunity, he cracked. Buck Kester, I would say that I loved him, I admired him. We were close. But there was a wistfulnesss for bygone days, never feeling that he had reached his culmination for wishing in this life. I din't know him later. I didn't meet him after 1955, so I have no comment. H.L.Mitchell is the one who is sort of a survivalist and he made a real lecturing about becoming the former President organizing the Southern Tennant Farmers Union. He now has his own thing going. But it was something he never had a religious point of view, but something very enduring about the guy. Up and down he still persisted, he still had a delegation seeing so and so. He organized the fisherman down in Louisiana and Texas. He helped Cheves start, and other people. And he has been all over the lot and he still has a sense of humor. A secularist. And we're corresponding regularly. He is trying to get me to court Monday. He has come across something. But anyway. But he had feet of clay. He wasn't terribly a good organizer, he wasn't proficient. He did not know how to develop leadership within the common sense of the word. All sorts of factionalism within the union, which I was very much aware of. But you never got into it. I discovered that you can not build your life on three fine guys. You have to find your own. You can still learn something from it. And I did. I have.