McLaurin Oral History Interview with John L. LeFlore
Dr. McLaurin: This is an introduction to an oral history project carried on by the University of South Alabama department of history. This project is to supplement and add to information contained in a collection of manuscripts at the University of South Alabama's library donated by the local chapter of the NAACP. These records begin in August of 1938 and continue through 1962. This material is primarily material of the local branch of the NAACP. It also includes various manuscripts, letters, publications from branch and national offices of that organization. Included in the collection is material from other civil rights organizations, particularly the Non-Partisan Voters League. Most of the material from the Non-Partisan Voters League dates from the early 1960s. Much of the material is also in the form of personal correspondence between Mr. John Leflore, who was the executive secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, (that is the Mobile chapter of the NAACP), and was also chairman of the Southern Regional Conference of the NAACP for several years during the early 1950s. Mr. Leflore has also served as the director of case work for the Non-Partisan Voters League from 1960 until the present – July 3, 1970. Much of the material then, will be in the form of correspondence between Mr. Leflore and various and sundry civil rights organizations, heads of transportation, railways, bus companies and so forth, other governmental agencies and any other correspondence. Also there is some material that is extremely hard to classify – that is, neither the material of the Non-Partisan Voters League or the NAACP – but includes private correspondence of people writing to Mr. Leflore, sometimes as a well known individual civil rights worker, sometimes as a member of either of the two organizations. The material amounts to approximately 10 linear feet of boxed documents.
[The NAACP papers referred to by Dr. McLaurin are now part of the John L. LeFlore papers at The McCall Library. Thanks to a donation in 1995 from Dr. Walker B. LeFlore, the NAACP materials now cover the period 1930-1956. The Non-Partisan Voters League records are also at The McCall Library and have been expanded by a more recent donation. They cover the period 1956-1986.]
Dr. McLaurin: Persons working on this project are myself, Dr. Melton McLaurin, assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama, BS and MA from East Carolina College 1962 and 1963 respectively, PhD in American History from University of South Carolina 1967. The other persons working on the project will now identify themselves on tape.
Ms. LaVorne: I’m Margaret LaVorne, a student assistant working on the project with Dr. McLaurin and John LeFlore. I will do most of the questioning of Mr. LeFlore in future sessions about the material in the file.
Mr. LeFlore: My name is John LeFlore. I’m a native Mobilian and I've lived here practically all of my life. I was born some years after the turn of the century and have witnessed what appears to be significant change in the economic and social strata of American life. We have also witnessed some very important changes in race relations. At the time that I was born, and for a long period thereafter as an example, lynchings [sic] were a pastime in our country, especially in the Deep South where it was not unusual for the state to lynch as many as 75 or 100 blacks a year (one of the southern states). And I do recall that it has not been so long in the past that a woman was lynched from a bridge at Shubuta, Mississippi. This struggle has been most significant I believe, when one retrospects [sic] and can see the contrast that exists in our country today.
I was educated in public schools of Mobile under trying circumstances. Later in life I was able to go to college at night. My other education was acquired, if I may class it as such, by extension work at the University of Chicago at a time that institution was offering such opportunities to students who could not do residential work.
At an early age I became interested in the NAACP. This developed because of an incident that occurred here on the city street car, when I had an unfortunate fisticuff with a white person that was not provoked by me. But being young, and perhaps willing to meet any kind of challenge at that time, when I was set upon by the gentleman, I responded in a like manner and I think he was worsened in the brawl. Both of us were arrested, he was released on his own recognition and I had to stay in jail until someone came to sign my bond.
At that particular time (it was in the 20s), the Ku Klux Klan was a power not only in the South but in other parts of the nation as well. The Klan was running rampant in Alabama and it was during the term of Governor Bibb Graves. Of course there are some certain rumors that persons in high political office in Alabama were very friendly to the Klan and that you had to belong to the Klan back in that day to hold certain state jobs. That did instill in me not necessarily fear, but a feeling of apprehension that I needed to ally myself with some protective organization that had as its motives, or its designs, the protection of the rights of minority peoples. And the NAACP was my choice.
Along with Mr. W[iley] L. Bolden and Mr. Bibb Johnson, we founded [a branch of] the NAACP in Mobile in 1925 and made it an important factor, not only in the life of black people in Mobile, but throughout the state and throughout the South. We were interested primarily, just as people are today, in the question of opening jobs, of social justice, equal education and the other facets of public life which are important to all people in their struggle upward for equality under the law. We had difficult problems as I mentioned. Oh, incidentally, may I state that I was executive secretary of the Mobile branch of the NAACP from the time we founded it in 1925 until it was put under injunction by then Attorney General John Patterson, later Governor of Alabama, in 1956. When the NAACP returned to the scenes locally and throughout the state of Alabama in 1964, I did not actively participate in it because we were doing similar work through the Non-Partisan Voters League and the Citizens Committee.
As I mentioned a little while ago, there were difficult problems – and of course you have some difficult problems now facing blacks, but not nearly the same kind of situations that you had thirty or forty years ago. As an example, we had a dual system of laws that were almost inflexible. It was one kind of justice for whites and another kind for blacks. And whites generally back in that day were intransigent in their viewpoint on the race question. Those who showed any degree of moderation were usually classed as Negro lovers and they were very strongly ostracized in white society. So as a consequence, you had only a few white people who were willing to speak out. And we believe that much of the change that has been brought about in recent years has not only been viewed to what we class as aggressiveness among blacks – because blacks have always shown an aggressiveness – perhaps not to the same degree, but you have found folk who have always believed in freedom, who have always been willing to stand up and even die for it. And what we believe makes the difference now is that you find many whites who share the same points that blacks have today and thirty or forty years ago you just didn't find those people, or the few who were on the scene were afraid to speak out.
Blacks in our judgment must not forget that they have not carried the ball alone in the last ten years, which have perhaps registered the more significant changes. One cannot forget that Andy Goodman and Max Swerner died with James Chaney out at Philadelphia, Mississippi for black freedom. And Andy Goodman and Max Schwerner were white. We cannot forget that in the early sixties, less than ten years ago, that whites joined by the hundreds, the thousands, in helping blacks to achieve a better stance in American society. For any of the blacks today, including myself – if I were to be that ridiculous in my viewpoint – to say that we've done all of this alone certainly does not represent the truth, and it is a reflection I think more of emotionalism than of fact. Throughout this nation's history whites have helped, and whether we wish to admit it or not, much of what transpired to bring on the Civil War was due to the question of slavery. Now in 1937, as an example about the educational situation in Alabama, this state was spending only twenty-nine cents for the education of a black child for every dollar spent for the education of a white child. However, it appeared when blacks could not measure arms with whites in a competitive status in our society, of course the blacks were branded as being inferior, inherently so, when it is our judgment such is not true.
We did take an active part in trying to bring about a change in the educational system
in Alabama. And in 1941, we were given – I’m sorry, I should say “I” because – and
I do owe my listeners an apology – because I have such an abhorrence for the word
“I” that I usually say “we” when I mean “I.” In 1941 I was given an award by the NAACP
national conference in Houston as one of the ten persons in the United States who
had done more for civil rights in a given year. The award was given by Walter White.
In 1946 at Cleveland, the National Alliance of Postal Employees bestowed a similar
award on me, and Herman Marion Sweatt, who was the author, we may say, of the University
of Texas Case, for being the two postal employees who had done [the] most for civil
rights in the U.S. In 1953 the Mobile branch of the NAACP won an outstanding award
at the NAACP convention in St. Louis for its significant contributions in the civil
rights struggle. And so it has been throughout the years that we have attempted to
do our bit, and we've done our bit, the black people have, under the most trying circumstances.
Mobile has made a significant contribution. Very few of the people would know that
some of the changes that have been brought about in the South were brought about through
cases that were handled by the Mobile branch of the NAACP and the Southern Regional
Conference of branches under my leadership, or under my direction – I have a repugnance
for the word leadership – under my direction at the time I was chairman of the Southern
Conference of NAACP branches. This has been an important struggle. It has been not
without, we would say, blood. The shedding of blood has not been without persecution,
but nevertheless, the gains that have been made have surely justified whatever sacrifice
that any individual may have given for this particular cause.
Other positions that I have held in addition to my NAACP connection: staff writer, staff correspondent for the Chicago Defender for ten years and was also staff correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier. I worked for the Chicago Defender from the period 1942 to 1952. I worked for the Pittsburgh Courier for five years of that period. In other words, I was staff correspondent for the two newspapers. During that same period I would sometimes write articles for the newspaper PM that existed at that time and was regarded as one of the liberal newspapers of the nation. PM was a tabloid which was printed in New York. I have written stories for the Crisis magazine. I am presently the associate editor of the Mobile Beacon and also a free-lance writer. I am a member of the Mobile Housing Board whose [sic] term will expire in August of 1970. I went on the Housing Board in the fall of 1966. I am a member of the Alabama State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. I'm also a member of the Alabama State Comprehensive Health Council. I am a former postal employee. Incidentally, I'm retired at this time – retired under pressure because of my civil rights work before reaching the maximum retirement age. I was a postal employee, believe it or not, for forty years. I went into the post office at an early age. I am also a radio commentator, having my own program known as "Today's World" which considers social and economic problems and where we have a discussion on other controversial subjects. At the present time, "Today's World" is a public service program of radio station WMOO. It did not originate with this particular station, but it is now a part of their public service format. I have covered investigations for various agencies, and two years ago I served on a regional committee for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to discuss health problems in the city of Atlanta. I have given time to almost any kind of public request that has been made of me in connection with surveys, one of which we just recently made concerning – and I don't want to get chronologically ahead of my story – but one which we recently made in connection with the matter of white doctors who maintain segregated waiting room facilities for black patients. This survey of course covered five states and it came up with an outstanding kind of report that more than two thousand of such doctors in five states still maintain segregated waiting rooms or refuse to serve black patients at all. It is an indication that we still have a long way to go in our race relations.
I'm still active – in fact we have a rating of doing more civil rights work today than any organization in the state of Alabama. In many circles, such as newspapers circles and government circles, our office is regarded as a source of statistical information and which reflects that we are felt to be quite confident in discussing questions involving civil rights.
[End of first session]