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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Heightened awareness of racial discrimination and inspiration to join the movement

Fillette recalls his growing awareness of the civil rights movement and the systematic nature of racial discrimination during his years as a college student at Duke University during the mid-1960s. Fillette remembers that hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Duke was an especially inspirational moment in prompting him to join the movement. He briefly reflects on what it was like to be a white southerner supporting civil rights and indicates that his activism sparked a degree of tension with his parents. The passage concludes with Fillette's description of the efforts of African American workers to unionize at Duke in 1968.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. 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

What do you remember about the civil rights atmosphere in the Durham-Chapel Hill area?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, there was quite a bit going on, at least at Duke. I did not perceive that much going on in Chapel Hill, but I also was not there very much. But Duke had an amazing array of speakers that came to the campus from various parts of the civil rights movement. The most memorable was Dr. King himself during my freshman year, when I attended his speech and it was a pretty important life-changing event for me. Because he was not only eloquent, he was able to give the details about what living in a segregated society in the deep South meant on a daily basis for black people. It was more than just the symbolic injustices of the separate water fountains and the separate schools. It was the inability to get sufficient education and money to be able to live productive lives, to participate in the political system, and to be free from arbitrary police force, which was still the most important aspect. I mean the sheer force and violence of police activity in concert with private violence by the Klu Klux Klan or other groups was undeniable, unchecked by the whole power structure in the states of Alabama and Mississippi. After hearing about Dr. King, there were other people, students who went to Duke who had gone to the Selma march and came back and gave talks and workshops that revealed what had happened to them. It was pretty evident that white people who acted in concert with the black civil rights leaders were just as much at risk, physically at risk, as the black people. In some ways, I think they were maybe more at risk, because they were viewed as betraying the presumed racial pride that a lot of white people were supposed to have, by participating in civil rights activities. They were viewed as being traitors. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
SARAH THUESEN:
As you were gaining a new heightened awareness of issues of race while you're in college, what was it like going back home?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, it was very interesting, particularly trying to talk with my parents and my other relatives. Although my parents, they were not active racists in any way, I think they were what I would consider more passive racists. They viewed the state of the racial power relationships as being something that was given, that was wrong, but unchangeable, and that people who attempted to change it were stupid or taking bad risks. It made them worry that I was interested in some of these activities. I can certainly remember a lot of very heated discussions at the dinner table that would rival anything that was in the TV sitcom called All in the Family. We basically just disagreed about everything politically, about the Vietnam War, about the Civil Rights Movement, about the War on Poverty, the role of President [Lyndon] Johnson. I can still remember watching live the Democratic Convention in Chicago when the police turned on these protestors and beat the pulp out of them. I said, "That's the worst police brutality I think I've ever seen." My father, who had just watched the same thing I saw, said, "What police brutality?" So then I think I began to understand how people viewed the same occurrences very differently from the filter lens of their value system, as to even what happened. I had never really understood that before. But I think that became very important later as I began to try to understand politics and lawyering. I also remember that in my senior after the assassination of Dr. King, there was a great outpouring of distress and anger on the Duke campus. The black employees' union, that represented all the non-academic employees, decided to go on a strike and ask the students to join in the strike and to shut down the university. This was in April of my senior year.
SARAH THUESEN:
So right after King was killed?
TED FILLETTE:
Right after he was killed. The same thing happened at Columbia University and there was some national media about that. But I think unrelated to that, there were just some people at Duke that thought, "Well, this is the moment to try to bring the university's injustice to light and to try to get the black employees' union recognized by the university and have them pay better wages." And it was a way of, I think, channeling the emotions of the time into a concrete form of action. What that did was it divided the people on campus, because those of us that wanted to support the union and shut down the university were doing so at a time when their final exams and their last papers were becoming due. So there was a question right there that was very personal: Were we jeopardizing our chances of graduating from the university, from being expelled from the university? Then for the men, that meant: Would we be reclassified by the selective service system 1A and drafted? All of those were pretty important issues and for me, it was the first really important decision to make of whether I'm willing to make that kind of risk because of the importance of the political issue. When I told my parents that I was going to join the strike, they thought I was crazy. I was also the president of my fraternity and when I told the people in the fraternity that that's what I was doing, they thought I was crazy. But it was a very important time and there was some very important national speakers that came. Joan Baez came and other people came to support the strike. A lot of the faculty supported it. What ended up happening is that most of my professors accommodated the strike by letting us write papers in lieu of exams. So we were out there in a demonstration in front of the Duke Chapel for several weeks. It was an important local political event. I also remember the National Guard had helicopters that were circling the campus. I think that they didn't know whether there was going to be some kind of riot going on because of that. There were very fiery local black leaders that came to the campus to support the workers and support the strike. I think that it was a very emotionally electric time.
SARAH THUESEN:
How was the strike resolved by the time you graduated?
TED FILLETTE:
It was resolved by the university, I believe I remember, making an increase in their wages, but not formally recognizing the union. So it was somewhat of a compromise that the union decided to accept, because they thought they had made progress and they knew that when the students left for the season, they probably wouldn't have that much leverage. I was not one of the negotiators, so I was not privileged to the inside view of it. But that's sort of what I remember as the outcome of it.