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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, October 7, 2003. Interview O-0037. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Promoting understanding of the black power movement

Barnes explains how he tried to promote understanding about the motivations and purposes of the black power movement as part of his work with the North Carolina Fund during the 1960s. According to Barnes, many people in the South did not understand the growing frustrations of many African Americans as the civil rights movement evolved mid-decade. Because the North Carolina Fund, and the War on Poverty of which it was a part, was aimed at involving impoverished people in community action programs, Barnes explains that the black power movement demonstrated the importance of involving people in decision-making processes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, October 7, 2003. Interview O-0037. 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

ELIZABETH GRITTER:
One of the things that I saw with the Fund was that later on, as it seemed like the Fund went on, and when the Black Power movement came up, that part of your job was to explain that to people—.
BILLY E. BARNES:
Hm. Hm.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
And I think you said in an interview before to show that it wasn't nefarious, the reasons behind why this would happen. And I thought that was really interesting and, in a way, quite radical to take that position of the time. So, if you could tell me about—
BILLY E. BARNES:
Tell me a little more about what position you're talking about.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
In terms of, you know, a lot of the whites or whatever felt really threatened by this Black Power—.
BILLY E. BARNES:
Hm. Hm.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Movement. And, that you actually looked at, like, the roots of it, or, you know, explaining it to the public, that that was part of your job. I was wondering how you went about that.
BILLY E. BARNES:
How I went about explaining it?
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Yeah. Right.
BILLY E. BARNES:
We tried to get them to understand the difference between the blacks in other parts of the country who were almost anarchists and didn't mind blowing things up or—. I don't remember any of them killing people. But we tried to get them to understand that the Black Power Movement was a logical extension of the Martin Luther King movement and we tried to understand how that tied in with the War on Poverty. It was not easy to get people to understand the connection there. I think white folks, myself included until I was educated in such things through experience, thought of dealing with the poor as taking them a turkey at Christmastime, not letting them have a slice of the big power pie. I felt like my job was to answer questions people had in my mind as to why are these black people shaking their fists and having rallies and marching and trying to take matters into their own hands? I didn't say this publicly but I always thought it must have been very similar to what it was like when they were slaves. Why, I think white people had the notion that, you know, if we're feeding these people and giving people a place to live, what more could they want? We're benign dictators to them and benign slaveholders, and why aren't they happy? You know, they play their banjos and dance and sing at night. You know, all the old myths. I think there was a lot of sentiment among white people in North Carolina and elsewhere in the 1960s that said, "Look the Supreme Court said our kids have to go to kids with black people and we're slowly integrating the schools and some of them have got better jobs than they ever had before. Why aren't they delighted?" They did not understand power sharing. They did not understand how helpless you feel if they give you a hard time at the voting booth or precinct level, how you feel if you're a Christian and you're excluded from worship from a big Methodist church uptown. Or, how they feel when they go to the county commissioners and ask for something and the county commissioners [are] all white, and, at that time, all male. I ran across a photograph about three days ago of my mother who was the first woman in Forsyth County to ever serve on a jury. And there was a picture of that jury and - actually there was two black men on it - not only was it a jury [but also] a bunch of whatever they call the jurors who are impaneled and aren't on the jury but they're substitutes. What do they call them? Anyway, you know what I mean. They were all men. Two of them were black. Everybody but my mother was male. So, I think women must have felt the same way in those days. Just a few decades ago, women couldn't even vote. You know, "We don't have any power. What's going on here? Why are we left out?" So, that is what I and my staff people tried to say about the Black Power Movement. It was all a matter of: If you're going to help the poor on a permanent basis, poor people of any color, you've got to involve them in the decision making process. Instead of imposing stuff on them that sociologists thought up or that the county commissioners thought up, you've got to talk to them about what their needs are and you've got to give them a vote in deciding how this money is going to be spent. And that, in fact, was a requirement. Because Lyndon Johnson and Sarge Shriver and those people understood that, they tried their best to make it a requirement that before you could get a community grant that you have low-income people and minority people on your board who were active in making these decisions. So, I don't know to what extent we succeeded. But, we tried to answer people's questions. I felt my role was to create materials and to hire people who could either send stuff out or go out into the community and answer these questions that people had: Why is this happening? Why are you going out and organizing black people and poor people in the mountains, poor white people especially in the mountains, into groups to raise Cain and demand stuff? Why can't we just have some nice welfare programs for the poor and let it go at that?