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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, December 16, 1974. Interview B-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Black newspaper mistakenly accused Guy Johnson of opposing equal voting rights

The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper published an editorial accusing Guy Johnson of harboring prejudice against black Americans and opposing equal voting rights. The editorial misquoted a speech Johnson had made about the poll tax in North Carolina.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, December 16, 1974. Interview B-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

I said, "For example, this black professor found that in Virginia two years ago, 39,000 Negroes paid their poll taxes and should have been qualified to register; [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: . . . and how many of them registered? 13,000. One-third." And so, you see, I was plugging for some kind of adult education program to get out there and stir up the masses. To do more for themselves and to do more to take advantage of things that were open. Well, I went on from there to New York and started working for Myrdal. And then the following weekend, I happened to get ahold of one or two of the Negro papers, and here again, I always took four or five of these things and read them, all through my career . . . I felt that it was very important to do this and I had my students read them. So, here the Norfolk Journal and Guide had a tremendous blast at me on the editorial page, a very distorted write up on the front page of the speech, and the headline said "Commencement Speaker Says that Negroes Should Not Vote." Something crazy like this, you know. Well, and then an editorial written by a friend of mine who was the editor . . .
P. B. Young? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: P. B. Young, the same one. It just roasted me. Well, the Chicago Defender likewise. They had an editorial, the same fake write-up, the Baltimore Afro-American, the same way. I just hit the ceiling. Well, a few days later, Walter White . . . (he had probably been trying to get me down here and he found out that I was up there in New York) and he called me and said, "Look, we heard about your speech down in Virginia and we are going to have a special feature on this in the next issue of Crisis." I said, "Look, don't take this newspaper stuff for the truth. It's the worst distortion that I have ever read. I will get this thing typed up and bring you a copy." "Well," he says, "We've already got this thing written up and I guess that we will go on with it, but if you will hurry, maybe we can get your response in." So, well, I did, I wrote a response, and I wrote to these editors of the papers and I should have known that for all my high regards for the Negro press, it was and is, after all, a special group. No matter what, they sometimes engage in some pretty yellow journalism . . . or in this case, black journalism. I had occasion several times where something had been written up that I knew about, and it had no relation to what actually happened. So, I shouldn't have been too surprised. But, I sent these papers copies of the address and asked if they would please read this and tell me where in it there was anything that had any resemblance to what the young reporter had written up. And the reporter was a man . . . he was working for Young in Norfolk. Now, he never came to me, I would have been glad to talk to him, to let him borrow the mansucript for awhile, you know, and to make accurate excerpts. This, again, this is sorry journalism. You know, you've studied journalism, you've covered a speech and if so, you very likely go to talk to the speaker. Well, most of them didn't even answer it. And even my friend, P. B. Young, said, "Well, we have confidence in this young man, and so we will have to consider his report fairly accurate." I had a crazy letter from Carl Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American. I'm sure that he didn't read the speech, but he wrote me and said, "Dear Mr. Johnson, we consider the sources of the newstory concerning your commencement address to be fair and reliable and we shall consider them to be the truth. We oppose your choice as a commencement speaker at Virginia State for the following reasons . . . " He had had a very nasty editorial . . . He said, "One, you are a southern white man. Two, you work at the University of North Carolina, where you know damned well that if you open your mouth for any kind of equality between the races, you would be kicked out at once. Third, the Negro will have to fight his own battles and certainly without the help of a prejudiced white man like you. And Fourth, Adolf Hitler . . . " This was 1939, just two months before the war . . . "Adolf Hitler and the Irish Republican Army cause a lot of grief and criticism, but you have to admit that they get what they go after. Sincerely yours, Carl Murphy."