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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 >>

North Carolina posed legal strategies to preserve segregation, as the North's racial progressivism ignored its own racism

The jail sentence and probation Cusick received because of his activism prevented him from grassroots organizing in North Carolina for a prolonged period of time. He reveals the extent to which the state fought to preserve segregation. Cusick ironically illuminates northern racism.

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

PAMELA DEAN:
How did you feel when these sentences came down? More people were sentenced than you expected, much, much harsher sentences, even bizarre sentences.
PAT CUSICK:
In prison, the lifers and all those folks would say, "Like, all you got is a year? I could do a year standing on the top of my head." I mean, that was regarded as a joke. It was no joke to me. When I heard him say twelve months of hard labor, my heart literally sank. I mean that seemed forever. And having been in before, I knew it was not going to be a picnic. I think we were pretty shocked by the length of the sentences.
PAMELA DEAN:
It wasn't only the sentence itself, the active sentence. Long probation with these conditions.
PAT CUSICK:
Oh yes, I have a copy. I happened to be going through some stuff last night. Did I ever remember to bring the, yes, this is the original. [Gets out a paper] The judgement was a year at hard labor for blocking the way to a public [unclear] place of worship, and then two years for resisting arrest, which was going limp. And the judge asked, "Will the defendant consent to a suspended sentence on the two years and be placed on probation?" And I turned to the attorney and said, "What does this mean?" And he says, "Let the record show that the defendant refused to answer." So I then went back to another room, and they had this probation agreement, which we will look at, for me to sign. [interruption] This very paper. So I said, "I'm not going to sign this. I'm not going to sign this." Actually, it's a moot question whether it is a violation of my rights, but at the time I said, "I think this is a violation of my rights." So, I said, "I'm not going to sign." And so they said, "Well, you have exactly two minutes, and if you don't sign, the judge will make this an active sentence, and you'll have three years to serve instead of one." So I took almost two minutes and decided I would sign. I said, "Give me the pen." That very signature. So that was a surprise. But, of course, everyone was placed under that same prohibition, and that was designed, of course, to effectively block, stop, the movement in Chapel Hill.
PAMELA DEAN:
So not only were they putting you away for one year, they were insuring that you couldn't do anything connected with the civil rights movement anywhere.
PAT CUSICK:
That's right. But also, there were subsequent trials and stuff, and there were people that didn't serve any active time that still had that judgement. So it meant there could be nothing. And as you notice, that's for any cause whatsoever, or for associating. So things looked pretty grim. But you know, we really believed in what we were doing, and we really thought we were going to change the whole fabric of this country. We didn't do that but it's a good thing we thought we were though, I think.
PAMELA DEAN:
After the sentences, did you think that anything was going to happen then?
PAT CUSICK:
Well, I thought that in Chapel Hill the movement had been temporarily stopped.
PAMELA DEAN:
[unclear] despair?
PAT CUSICK:
Oh no, I wasn't in despair at all over the movement. Because I thought the movement would succeed, and it would only be a matter of time in Chapel Hill. It's just like I feel about Beijing today. They clamped the lid on, and it will be very effective for a while, but obviously that movement there is not over. So, you know, it was a lot of cold water dashed in your face on that thing. And then I was in prison when Cheney, Goodman, and Shwerner were killed. And Goldwater was nominated and gave his famous—what was it?—extremism in defense of liberty is not … whatever. So it was kind of a frightening summer. But we weren't in despair, not happy, but it did look like the movement was effectively stopped in Chapel Hill. But I had no doubt that throughout the South, we were going to get something. It was just too widespread. I had been to Danville and different places and met too many of these young students that—so very optimistic, though temporarily not liking where I was. They also did other things too. I mean when I went full-time with the movement, I owed Sears some money, and all of us were in debt. We were served with additional stuff the first day in, additional time, if all these things weren't paid off, and Floyd McKissick paid them off. They kept coming out with additional warrants to every creditor on earth. We had pled for parole, and by this time John Ehle was becoming an advocate of ours to try to get us out.
PAMELA DEAN:
And he had connections in the governor's office.
PAT CUSICK:
Right. He's quite an idea person. He's the one that came up with the idea for the North Carolina School of Performing Arts and different things which had worked. But the word came back that we were not going to get parole unless we agreed to go north. By that time, I was alone—they had split us up—and I said, "Well, I'm not going north. I mean, I'm a tenth generation, or whatever, southerner. I'm not going north." And so then they came back with a probation officer to talk about the terms of the probation, and they laid some additional ones down. The one that really got me, when I really saw the handwriting on the wall, was they had to approve of my employment and all of this. So it certainly meant I wasn't going to be a movement organizer, at least not on the surface. But they told me that I would not be able to operate a motor vehicle, nor ride in a motor vehicle, in the state of North Carolina during this five year probation.
PAMELA DEAN:
In other words, don't come back.
PAT CUSICK:
So I saw very clearly that if I did not leave, obviously I would be in prison. Because there is no earthly way you can honor that in a southern state. I mean, it's not like Boston. You must at least ride. So that's when I said okay. Then John Ehle had gone to work for the Ford Foundation. They were funding a new agency in Boston called Action for Boston Community Development, the CAP Agency, before the Economic Opportunity Act passed. Ford was the sole funding source. In order to get to the North, we had to have a job and a place of residence and be accepted by a northern state. So Ford called up this agency—they were the only funding source—and said, "We need to get this person out of prison." So that's why Boston was for me. John had also seen the computer centers and Harvard and MIT, and there was a job waiting for me there, which I refused to take. John Ehle wanted the book to come out right, in his view, which was that we would all go back to doing what we were doing prior.
PAMELA DEAN:
[unclear]
PAT CUSICK:
I couldn't go back. I did not want to go back to math and the sciences, so I took the job at ABCD as a coding clerk. The entrance to Boston was something. I had five dollars. I had a shoebox marked "North Carolina Department of Corrections," a toothbrush. Leaving was interesting, they would not let me get near Chapel Hill. They made that very specific. So Lavert Taylor, they allowed him to drive a suit over to Greensboro, and they brought me into the Greensboro airport under armed guard in my prison outfit. By that time though I was getting out, and my sense of humor was very near the surface. I just thought [unclear] the looks of people. You can imagine. So I enjoyed that. I mean, I'll be honest, I enjoyed that. So I went in the bathroom and changed the suit and got on the plane and—culture shock—was in New York an hour or so afterwards. John Donne was already there in John Ehle's apartment on Washington Square. So I spent the night in New York, and then John Ehle came up here with me, and we went to ABCD. Then I saw my parole officer. Parole officer said, "You did some good things in the South. I have a lot of admiration for these southern negroes, but the negroes in Boston are really awful people and not like the ones in the South, and you can't associate with them." He said, "You can't go into Roxbury." I didn't know what Roxbury was. "You have to live someplace like the backside of the hill or whatever, but you can't go to Roxbury." And I said, "Oh, Lord." It was then a couple of weeks later that I got this document in the mail, and they told me that they were going… Yeah, so I had the parole to serve out for a couple of months, and then this was going to take place. So I had to deal with both the parole and the probation people. The parole and probation in North Carolina weren't working in concert, and I guess I got permission from one and not the other to go back because I pressed the case. What about my degree? I had one course short, and so I'm not allowed in the state. Yet you're requiring me to have to take the last course there. So I went down to talk to them about that. And then all of a sudden I was almost arrested on Franklin Street. I was scared to death. Whichever one of these departments wasn't in concert with the other—they may have been playing games anyway. Then this came up here. I told them downtown—Ed Brooke was attorney general and he was black—and I said, "I'm not going to agree to this thing." And they said, "Well, we have one-to-one treaties in all the states, and we're not going to jeopardize the treaty with North Carolina. So we're going to extradite you if you don't agree with this." So at the same time I thought this would be a good place to challenge this, because I'm not under the gun like the people down there. So I broke the rules, and went immediately out, and got a plane, and went to New York, and got the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to write for my materials in the South, and institute a suit against the commonwealth. When they finally wrote telling the commonwealth that they had advised me not to agree to this and that they were thinking of entering a suit, then they had a fit down here. They didn't want that.
PAMELA DEAN:
This was over the issue of your going back to North Carolina without clearly getting permission?
PAT CUSICK:
Oh, no, no. I was saying I'm not going to abide by that.
PAMELA DEAN:
You're not going to abide by the probation conditions.
PAT CUSICK:
So they said, "We'll extradite you." But they didn't want a lawsuit. So they called me and they said, "Well, look, we're advising North Carolina—you do have to notify us, though, twenty-four hours in advance of going to any civil rights meeting and any civil rights activity or going to any meetings in Roxbury. Or at least in the morning if the meeting's at night." So I had an opportunity to really break their back on that, which I did. Actually, we were upset. We really wanted to get this into court because a probationary sentence is a sentence. It's a relaxed sentence. Instead of being inside the wall, you're outside the wall. So whether these are real violations of rights or not, you can make an argument either way. So we very much wanted to get that into the courts because the people in Orange County were under that same provision. So we were disappointed that we weren't going to get to challenge it, and that Massachusetts was relaxing. That was at the time, though, that a white minister, Reverend James Reed, went to Selma and was killed in Selma. So there was a sympathy march here of 60,000 people on Boston Commons. One leg came from Cambridge, one from BU, and one from Roxbury, the black community. I was an assistant coordinator of the march because I had gotten active here. So I had a car full of what would have been regarded as real tough Roxbury teenagers because I had a youth group here. For some reason I always was good with teenagers. We were going between all three legs to march. Well, Massachusetts Probation Department had a car full of people and were trying to follow me. The week prior to that, every morning I would call him and say, "I'm picketing the federal building at noon and tonight I'm going so and so." And they would send people down to walk around the building with me. Two days after that march—the people in the car behind me, who were observing, were very frightened—they called me in and said, "We're notifying North Carolina that we don't have the time or the personnel to supervise you the way they want. So just don't get arrested and report every thirty days," which I did.
PAMELA DEAN:
[unclear]
PAT CUSICK:
I found out half way though that it's the custom here, or the practice rather, that if you serve half your probation, because of the big clog in the courts, and if you haven't gotten into any trouble, they go ahead and dismiss you, just as an administrative thing. So I found out about that and I went down and asked them. So they requested, they said, "We have to ask North Carolina." So, of course, North Carolina said no, no way. So I'm probably one of the few people who served a full probationary sentence here.
PAMELA DEAN:
So you were on probation the full five years?
PAT CUSICK:
That's right. Every thirty days I went.
PAMELA DEAN:
But it didn't stop you from being involved in civil rights. People weren't getting arrested up here the way they had been in Chapel Hill.
PAT CUSICK:
And it was a whole different type of involvement.
PAMELA DEAN:
Not throwing yourself under the wheels of a car.