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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pat Cusick, June 19, 1989. Interview L-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Learning the value of passive, nonviolent resistance through his jail sentence

For Cusick, his jail term demonstrated that the sole force of the civil rights movement was nonviolent passive resistance. Because he refused to serve in a segregated jail, white prison guards taunted him frequently. Cusick discovered, however, that his passive stances helped to persuade other prisoners to a class-based, rather than a race-based, view of oppression.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pat Cusick, June 19, 1989. Interview L-0043. 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

PAT CUSICK:
Yeah, I had calmed down. By that time I had gone to Danville, Virginia. I was working with Kings' groups, and I came down to go to trial and planned to go back to Danville. And that's how some more organization got involved in Chapel Hill. Because when I got hung up there, some people from SNCC and from SCLC and stuff came in. The trial was very interesting. I was thinking of it the other day. I had jury duty here. I was in the jury pool all day. I had no prosecutor. I'll never serve on a jury in this country because they ask you if you've had any involvement, and prosecutors don't want you. But, you know, they ask the question, "Do you think that Negroes," because that was the term used then, "and whites, and whites who associate with Negroes have the same rights under the Constitution?" And so, of course, they couldn't get any jurors that would say yes. So we went through the whole jury list. Then we had a decision, do we make them spend money, because that was one of our tactics, and just keep on drawing a jury, or do we go ahead and just have a trial? We decided to have a trial. I guess over lunch, we were eating at the black high school in Hillsborough because there was no place else you could eat under the apartheid rules. So it was over lunch we decided, "Let's serve the sentence." It was in line with the nonviolent philosophy and what we'd been very much saying, "Go to jail without bail," and all this stuff. Then we naively thought though that if four of us went to jail, the chain gang, thirty days over Christmas, this would move the heart of Chapel Hill. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! But what it did do, which was right in line though with Gandhi's principles of nonviolence, when you do anything like that, or a fast or what, the biggest effect is on your own followers. So when we served the thirty days, that really kicked off the movement in a very big way in terms of our own supporters. It did nothing toward moving the heart of the Chapel Hill liberals, much less the establishment.
PAMELA DEAN:
But the black community and those few white supporters were moved?
PAT CUSICK:
That's right. Then it kicked off mass arrests and everything like that. That's when it really kicked off.
PAMELA DEAN:
When you were in jail in December…
PAT CUSICK:
Yeah, in prison.
PAMELA DEAN:
There were about 150 arrested in that period.
PAT CUSICK:
Right. So us moving the minds and hearts of Chapel Hill didn't happen, but it did move our own supporters.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's when you started getting the sit-ins in a lot of the businesses, Watts Restaurant, etc. etc.
PAT CUSICK:
Right. And it was very meaningful for me, almost a spiritual thing happened to me, I mean, I refused to cooperate. So I didn't eat or work, went on this fast, and that was just very heavy internally and all this type of thing. Also I was by myself. I mean, I wasn't surrounded by people in the movement or singing songs, and so it was a very heavy, heavy experience for me, which was good in the long run.
PAMELA DEAN:
When you said you were going too fast, the issue was that you wanted to be in an integrated facility?
PAT CUSICK:
Well, the issue was, which I did my best in my university manner to explain to the captain of the chain gang camp, was that participation in evil is evil. And we very much tried to practice that. Those of us who were white in the movement did not go into segregated facilities at all. So it dawned on me, this was not preplanned, but I was on my way to the Durham chain gang for thirty days, and it dawned on me this is a segregated prison. What should I do about it? So I announced in my best university manner, God help me, to the captain, that, you know, participation in evil was evil. I mean the whole nine yards. Of course, he was looking at me in utter amazement. So it was Saturday afternoon and the chain gang wasn't working, so when they brought me into the—I don't know whether you saw the movie Cool Hand Luke or not—but it was very similar. And when I saw that movie the first time, I said the writer had to have been on a North Carolina chain gang. I found out it was true. I went into this great big place where all the convicts were. Everyone's always interested when a new person comes in. Have they seen him before or whatever. So the guard, before opening the door to put me in there, said, "This is one of them nigger-loving demonstrators from Chapel Hill. And he just told the captain that he'd rather eat and sleep with niggers than you guys." Click, goes the door. [Laughter]
PAMELA DEAN:
Nice welcome. And how did they respond to you after that little announcement?
PAT CUSICK:
Well, I went over, I was scared to death, and was laying on my bunk, and all these bunks were very close together. They had an early supper, and so they rang the bell for supper and you were supposed to line up. Then you all shuffle over to this other place. So I didn't get off my bunk because I wasn't going to participate. So the guard came over and he said, "You either get your but up and eat, or no one in this camp eats." Oh God, so I thought, well, I won't make the decision here. I'll at least go over to the mess hall, and so I did. Talking wasn't allowed, but when you finished with your tray, what you're supposed to do is turn around and put your back to the table. And when everyone's back is to the table, everyone had finished, and you got up and went off. So I just immediately turned my back to the table. It was very obvious that I was doing. And it really, I think it saved my life, because that night they wanted to do me in, the guards did, but they wanted the convicts to do it. One convict came over, and he said, "You know, I really admire what y'all been doing. I'm really a socialist. I feel you should know that they're going to kill you tonight." And he said, "I'm not going to help you because I would get killed to, but I feel you have the right to know." So I thought, "My Lord, why did you tell me?" So I was scared. I started praying. I pulled my blanket up to my chin. Nothing happened that night. They roughed me up a little bit the next day, the convicts. Nonviolence, the whole philosophy has been greatly misunderstood, I think, in this country. And we read a bit of Gandhi. The [unclear] , the soul force, it's not just passive resistance. It is a very positive type of power. So what started happening, they started getting curious because I was bucking the system, the system that was oppressing them. And I started elaborating on some things that I'd never heard the civil rights movement addressing, at least not at that time. We were also after jobs for poor whites. [Laughter] When that started taking place is when then they called the major—in those days about five camps were supervised by a major—and they called the major out, and they had a little trial in the captain's office because of my non-participation. So they sentenced me to the hole. So I stayed in the hole a couple or three days. Then I guess the captain probably decided that this was not in his experience—he wasn't the most educated man on earth—so that's when he decided to pass the buck and send me over to the penitentiary at Raleigh. So then I was transferred to the isolation unit at Raleigh. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
PAMELA DEAN:
This is Tape 2 of an interview with Pat Cusick on January 19, 1989.
PAT CUSICK:
So for me it was a very different experience because I didn't have the solidarity of the movement around me. This was a very lonely, I mean, it was just me in there. The other three people that had been sentenced were different places. Mrs. Glover didn't serve time. She was a black housewife. Her kid was ill, and I guess Charleis Cotton was at the Hillsborough jail, and I've forgotten where VanRyker was.