Alex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay

(Alex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) was originally published in the October 1964 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Cassius ClayAlex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay (October 1964)

Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942) is now a retired American boxer and three-time World Heavyweight Champion, who is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight championship boxers of all time.

As an amateur, Clay represented the United States and won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He returned home a hero, bringing back a gold medal and a poem: “To make America the greatest is my goal. So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole. And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.”

Clay’s first major professional fight was against Sonny Banks at Madison Square Garden in 1962. He predicted a victory, claiming that “to beat me, you got to be greater than great.” Clay—now known as The Louisville Lip—predicted not only victory, but the knock out round. Sure enough, Sonny Banks fell in four; Lavorante went down in five. The only one Clay misfired on was Don Warner, who he KO’d in the fourth, instead of the promised fifth. He explained: “I had to. He refused to shake my hand at the opening bell.”

Mouthwise, Clay met his match against Archie Moore in 1962. The fight was stopped in the fourth. Clay was the victor. Clay’s last tune-up fight for Liston was against British champ Henry Cooper. Clay’s call: “After five rounds Henry Cooper will think his name is [astronaut] Gordon Cooper. He’ll be in orbit!” Cooper was a TKO in five. The biggest challenge of Clay’s early career came against the ferocious Sonny Liston. Clay wasn’t intimidated: “It’s my time to howl, rumble, man, rumble, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” ~ Cassius Clay.

A Candid Conversation With The Flamboyantly Fast-Talking, Hard-Hitting Heavyweight Champ

It wasn’t until 9:55 on a night last February that anyone began to take seriously the extravagant boasts of Cassius Marcellus Clay: That was the moment when the redoubtable Sonny Liston, sitting dazed and disbelieving on a stool in Miami Beach’s Convention Hall, resignedly spat out his mouthpiece—and relinquished the world’s heavyweight boxing championship to the brash young braggart whom he, along with the nation’s sportswriters and nearly everyone else, had dismissed as a loudmouthed pushover.

Leaping around the ring in a frenzy of glee, Clay screamed, “I am the greatest! I am the king!”—the strident rallying cry of a campaign of self-celebration, punctuated with rhyming couplets predicting victory, which had rocketed him from relative obscurity as a 1960 Olympic Gold Medal winner to dubious renown as the “villain” of a title match with the least lovable heavyweight champion in boxing history. Undefeated in 100 amateur fights and all 18 professional bouts, the cocky 22-year-old had become, if not another Joe Louis, at least the world’s wealthiest poet (with a purse of $600,000), and one of its most flamboyant public figures.

Within 24 hours of his victory, he also became sports’ most controversial cause cèlébre when he announced at a press conference that he was henceforth to be billed on fight programs only as Muhammad Ali, his new name as a full-fledged member of the Black Muslims, the militant nationwide Negro religious cult that preaches racial segregation, black supremacy and unconcealed hostility toward whites.

Amidst the brouhaha that ensued—besieged by the world press, berated by more temperate Negro leaders, threatened with the revocation of his title—Cassius preened and prated in the limelight, using his world-wide platform as a pulpit for hymns of self-adulation and sermons on the virtues of Islam. Still full of surprises, he then proceeded to appoint himself as an international goodwill ambassador and departed with an entourage of six cronies on an 8000-mile tour of Africa and the Middle East, where he was received by several heads of state (including Ghana’s Nkrumah and Egypt’s Nasser), and was accorded, said observers, the warmest reception ever given an American visitor.

We approached the mercurial Muslim with our request for a searching interview about his fame, his heavyweight crown and his faith. Readily consenting, he invited us to join him on his peripatetic social rounds of New York’s Harlem, where he rents a three-room suite at the Hotel Theresa (in which another celebrated guest, Fidel Castro, hung his hat and plucked his chickens during a memorable visit to the UN).

For the next two weeks, we walked with him on brisk morning constitutionals, ate with him at immaculate Muslim restaurants (no pork served), sat with him during his daily shoeshine, rode with him in his chauffeured, air-conditioned Cadillac limousine on leisurely drives through Harlem. We interjected our questions as the opportunities presented themselves—between waves and shouts exchanged by the champion and ogling pedestrians, and usually over the din of the limousine’s dashboard phonograph, blaring Clay’s recording of “I Am the Greatest.” We began the conversation on our own blaring note.

Haley: Are you really the loudmouthed exhibitionist you seem to be, or is it all for the sake of publicity?

Clay: I been attracting attention ever since I been able to walk and talk. When I was just a little boy in school, I caught onto how nearly everybody likes to watch somebody that acts different. Like, I wouldn’t ride the school bus, I would run to school alongside it, and all the kids would be waving and hollering at me and calling me nuts. It made me somebody special. Or at recess time, I’d start a fight with somebody to draw a crowd. I always liked drawing crowds. When I started fighting serious, I found out that grown people, the fight fans, acted just like those school kids. Almost from my first fights, I’d bigmouth to anybody who would listen about what I was going to do to whoever I was going to fight, and people would go out of their way to come and see, hoping I would get beat. When I wasn’t no more than a kid fighter, they would put me on bills because I was a drawing card, because I run my mouth so much. Other kids could battle and get all bloody and lose or win and didn’t hardly nobody care, it seemed like, except maybe their families and their buddies. But the minute I would come in sight, the people would start to hollering “Bash in his nose!” or “Button his fat lip!” or something like that. You would have thought I was some well-known pro ten years older than I was. But I didn’t care what they said, long as they kept coming to see me fight. They paid their money, they was entitled to a little fun.

Haley: How did your first fight come about?

Clay: Well, on my twelfth birthday, I got a new bicycle as a present from my folks, and I rode it to a fair that was being held at the Columbia Gymnasium, and when I come out, my bike was gone. I was so mad I was crying, and a policeman, Joe Martin, come up and I told him I was going to whip whoever took my bike. He said I ought to take some boxing lessons to learn how to whip the thief better, and I did. That’s when I started fighting. Six weeks later, I won my first fight over another boy twelve years old, a white boy. And in a year I was fighting on TV. Joe Martin advised me against trying to just fight my way up in clubs and preliminaries, which could take years and maybe get me all beat up. He said I ought to try the Olympics, and if I won, that would give me automatically a number-ten pro rating. And that’s just what I did.

Haley: When did you hit upon the gimmick of reciting poetry?

Clay: Somewhere away back in them early fights in Louisville, even before I went to the Olympics, I started thinking about the poetry. I told a newspaperman before a fight, “This guy must be done / I’ll stop him in one.” It got in the newspaper, but it didn’t catch on then. Poetry didn’t even catch on with me until a lot later, when I was getting ready to fight Archie Moore. I think the reason then was that he talked so much, I had to figure up something new to use on him. That was when I told different reporters, “Moore will go in four.” When he did go down in four, just like I said, and the papers made so much of it, I knew I had stumbled on something good. And something else I found out was how it had bugged Archie Moore. Before the fight, some people got it to me that he was walking around and around in the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, saying over and over, “He’s not going to get me in no four, he’s not going to get me in no four”—and the next thing he knew, he was getting up off the floor. I been making up things that rhyme for every fight since.

Haley: Your poetry has been described by many critics as “horrible.” Do you think it is?

Clay: I bet my poetry gets printed and quoted more than any that’s turned out by the poem writers that them critics like. I don’t pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim to about what they’re criticizing, they ought to be doing that instead of just standing on the side lines using their mouth.

Haley: As your own best critic, what do you consider your finest poem?

Clay: I don’t know. The one the newspapers used the most, though, was the time I covered the water front with a poem I wrote before my fight with Doug Jones. I said, “Jones likes to mix / So I’ll let it go six. / If he talks jive / I’ll cut it to five. / And if he talks some more / I’ll cut it to four. / And if he talks about me / I’ll cut it to three. / And if that don’t do / I’ll cut it to two. / And if you want some fun / I’ll cut it to one. / And if he don’t want to fight / He can stay home that night.”

Haley: How often have you been right in predicting the round of a knockout?

Clay: I ain’t missed but twice. If you figure out the man you’re up against, and you know what you can do, then you can pretty much do it whenever you get ready. Once I call the round, I plan what I’m going to do in the fight. Like, you take Archie Moore. He’s a better fighter than Sonny Liston. He’s harder to hit, the way he bobs and weaves, and he’s smart. You get careless and he’ll drop you. I guess he knows more tricks in the ring than anybody but Sugar Ray. But he was fat and forty-five, and he had to be looking for a lucky punch before he got tired. I just had to pace myself so as to tire him. I hooked and jabbed him silly the first round, then I coasted the second. Right at the end of the second, he caught me with a good right on the jaw, but it didn’t do me no harm. Then I started out the third throwing leather on him, and when I could feel him wearing down, I slowed up, looking for my spots to hit him. And then in the fourth round, when I had said he was going down, I poured it on him again. And he did go down; he was nearly out. But he got up at eight. A few combinations sent him back down, and then the referee stopped it. It was just like I planned.

Haley: In that fight, you were twenty and Moore was forty-five. It’s often been said that you got to the top by beating a succession of carefully picked setups. What’s your response?

Clay: I didn’t beat nobody that wasn’t trying to beat me. I don’t care who I fought fair and beat, but they said something was wrong. Archie Moore, yeah, they said he was an old man. Doug Jones, he was one of the toughest fights I ever had. He was one of them what-round calls that I missed. I had said just before the fight, “I’ll shut the door on Jones in four,” but it went the limit, ten rounds. When the judges and referee gave me the decision, everybody was calling it a fix. Then Henry Cooper in London, after he caught me in the fourth with a right that sent me through the ropes, I took him out in the fifth just like I had said I would; I had said, “It ain’t no jive / Henry Cooper will go in five.” But sure enough, people said that Cooper hadn’t been in shape. I’m surprised they haven’t been saying Liston was underage, or something, since I whipped him good.

Haley: To get back to Archie Moore for a moment: Do you give him any credit, as a master of self-promotion, for helping you develop your own ballyhoo technique?

Clay: I learned a lot from the old man, yeah. He showed me some proof of what I had already figured out myself, that talking is a whole lot easier than fighting, and it was a way to get up fast. It’s a shame he wasn’t fighting big time when he was in his prime. It would have been like a young Satchel Paige in the big leagues. I picked up quick how the old man would talk up a fight to make a gate, how he’d talk it up that the guy he wanted next didn’t want no part of him. But the big difference between the old man and me is I’m bigger and louder and better. He believed in whispering something to reporters for them to print—but I believe in yelling.

Haley: At what point in your career did you first put this yelling technique into practice?

Clay: Right after I had won the Olympic Gold Medal. One day, back home in Louisville, I was riding on a bus. I was reading a paper about Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. I didn’t have no doubt I could beat either one of them, if I had a chance to fight them. But Machen, Folley, Jones and all of them other bums were standing in the way, and I decided I wasn’t just about to stand around like them. I’d won the Olympic title, that was all in the papers, but hadn’t nobody really heard of me, though, and they never would as long as I just sat thinking about it. Right there on that bus is where I figured I’d just open up my big mouth and start people listening and paying attention to me. Not just talking, but really screaming, and acting like some kind of a nut. That day was when I started out after getting in the ring with the champion.

Haley: Even though you never fought him officially, you did have a run-in of sorts with Ingemar Johansson, didn’t you?

Clay: Yeah. Boy, I sure made him mad! He hired me as his sparring partner in Miami, and by the end of the first round I had him pinned against the ropes, all shook up and very mad. And he hadn’t put a glove on me at the end of the second round. You talk about somebody upset! He was so mad he wanted me to go to Palm Beach, where we could spar in private. Not me! I wanted the newspapermen to see me if I did anything great and sensational.

Haley: Do you feel that you could have beaten Johansson?

Clay: I just finished telling you I did beat him. The only difference between that and a regular fight was that we had on headgear and we didn’t have no big fight crowd, and I didn’t have no contract.

Haley: After you had scored victories over Archie Moore, Charley Powell, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, how did you go about your campaign to get a match with Liston?

Clay: Well, the big thing I did is that until then, I had just been loudmouthing mostly for the public to hear me, to build up gates for my fights. I hadn’t never been messing personally with whoever I was going to fight—and that’s what I started when it was time to go after Liston. I had been studying Liston careful, all along, ever since he had come up in the rankings, and Patterson was trying to duck him. You know what Patterson was saying—that Liston had such a bad police record, and prison record and all that. He wouldn’t be a good example for boxing like Patterson would—the pure, clean-cut American boy.

Haley: You were saying you had been studying Liston . . .

Clay: Yeah. His fighting style. His strength. His punch. Like that—but that was just part of what I was looking at. Any fighter will study them things about somebody he wants to fight. The big thing for me was observing how Liston acted out of the ring. I read everything I could where he had been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him, or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, to try to get a good picture of how his mind worked. And that’s how I first got the idea that if I would handle the thing right, I could use psychology on him—you know, needle him and work on his nerves so bad that I would have him beat before he ever got in the ring with me. And that’s just what I did!

Haley: How?

Clay: I mean I set out to make him think what I wanted him thinking; that all I was was some clown, and that he never would have to give a second thought to me being able to put up any real fight when we got to the ring. The more out of shape and overconfident I could get him to be, the better. The press, everybody—I didn’t want nobody thinking nothing except that I was a joke. Listen here, do you realize that of all them ring “experts” on the newspapers, wasn’t hardly one that wasn’t as carried away with Liston’s reputation as Liston was himself? You know what everybody was writing? Saying I had been winning my fights, calling the rounds, because I was fighting “nothing” fighters. Like I told you already, even with people like Moore and Powell and Jones and Cooper, the papers found some excuse; it never was that maybe I could fight. And when it come to Liston, they was all saying it was the end of the line for me. I might even get killed in there; he was going to put his big fist in my big mouth so far they was going to have to get doctors to pull it out, stuff like that. You couldn’t read nothing else. That’s how come, later on, I made them reporters tell me I was the greatest. They had been so busy looking at Liston’s record with Patterson that didn’t nobody stop to think about how it was making Liston just about a setup for me.

Haley: Would you elaborate?

Clay: I told you. Overconfidence. When Liston finally got to Patterson, he beat him so bad, plus that Patterson looked so bad, that Liston quit thinking about keeping himself trained. I don’t care who a fighter is, he has got to stay in shape. While I was fighting Jones and Cooper, Liston was up to his neck in all of that rich, fat ritual of the champion. I’d nearly clap my hands every time I read or heard about him at some big function or ceremony, up half the night and drinking and all that. I was looking at Liston’s age, too. Wasn’t nothing about him helping him to be sharp for me, whenever I got to him. I ain’t understood it yet that didn’t none of them “experts” ever realize these things.

What made it even better for me was when Liston just half-trained for the Patterson rematch, and Patterson looked worse yet—and Liston signed to fight me, not rating me even as good as he did Patterson. He felt like he was getting ready to start off on some bum-of-the-month club like Joe Louis did. He couldn’t see nothing at all to me but mouth. And you know I didn’t make no sound that wasn’t planned to keep him thinking in that rut. He spent more time at them Las Vegas gambling tables than he did at the punching bag. He was getting fatter and flabbier every day, and I was steady hollering louder to keep him that way: “I’m going to skin the big bear!” . . . “I’m the greatest!” . . . “I’m so pretty I can’t hardly stand to look at myself!” Like that. People can’t stand a blowhard, but they’ll always listen to him. Even people in Europe and Africa and Asia was hearing my big mouth. I didn’t miss no radio or television show or newspaper I could get in. And in between them, on the street, I’d walk up to people and they’d tell one another about what “that crazy Cassius Clay” said. And then, on top of this, what the public didn’t know was that every chance I got, I was needling Liston direct.

Haley: How?

Clay: I don’t see no harm in telling it now. The first time, it was right after Liston had bought his new home in Denver, and my buddies and me was driving from Los Angeles to New York in my bus. This was Archie Robinson, who takes care of business for me, and Howard Bingham, the photographer, and some more buddies. I had bought this used thirty-passenger bus, a 1953 Flexible—you know, the kind you see around airports. We had painted it red and white with world’s most colorful fighter across the top. Then I had liston must go in eight painted across the side right after Liston took the title. We had been driving around Los Angeles, and up and down the freeways in the bus, blowing the horn, “Oink! Oink! Oink!” drawing people’s attention to me. When I say I’m colorful, I believe in being colorful. Anyway, this time, when we started out for New York, we decided it would be a good time to pay Liston a visit at his new house.

We had the address from the newspapers, and we pulled up in his front yard in the bus about three o’clock in the morning and started blowing: “Oink! Oink! Oink! Oink!” In other houses, lights went on and windows went up. You know how them white people felt about that black man just moved in there anyway, and we sure wasn’t helping it none. People was hollering things, and we got out with the headlights blazing and went up to Liston’s door, just about as Liston got there. He had on nylon shorty pajamas. And he was mad. He first recognized Howard Bingham, the photographer, whom he had seen in Los Angeles. “What you want, black mother?” he said to Howard. I was standing right behind Howard, flinging my cane back and forth in the headlights, hollering loud enough for everybody in a mile to hear me, “Come on out of there! I’m going to whip you right now! Come on out of there and protect your home! If you don’t come out of that door, I’m going to break it down!”

You know that look of Liston’s you hear so much about? Well, he sure had it on standing in that door that night. Man, he was tore up! He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to come out there after me, but he was already in enough troubles with the police and everything. And you know, if a man figures you’re crazy, he’ll think twice before he acts, because he figures you’re liable to do anything. But before he could make up his mind, the police came rushing in with all their sirens going, and they broke it up, telling us we would be arrested for disturbing the peace if we didn’t get out of there. So we left. You can bet we laughed all the way to New York.

Haley: You said this was your first direct needling of Liston. What came next?

Clay: Every time I got anywhere near him, I’d needle him. Sometimes it was just little things. I had to keep right on him, because I knew he was confused. He had told different people, who got it to me, that he was just going along with my clowning because it would help to build up a gate that would make money for him. So at first I couldn’t get him really mad, because he had this idea fixed in his mind. But I kept right on working on him. A man with Liston’s kind of mind is very funny. He ain’t what you would call a fast thinker. Like I am.

Haley: What do you mean by the “kind of mind” Liston has?

Clay: He’s got one of them bulldog kind of minds. You understand what I mean. Once he ever starts to thinking something, he won’t let hold of it quick.

Haley: And you feel that your mind is faster?

Clay: I know it is. What I did to Liston proves it. I’ll tell you another way I know. Nobody ever could have conned me the way I did him. If I know a man is going to get in the ring and try to beat me, and take the title, then anything he does outside of regular training, I figure he’s got some good reason, and I’d sit down and give his actions careful examination. Liston didn’t never even think about doing that. Neither did nobody around him, all of his advisors and trainers—didn’t even none of them think about it. Even if they had, they sure couldn’t have never told him that I represented danger. He was too fixed in his thinking. That’s what I mean by his kind of mind.

Haley: What other direct confrontations did you have with Liston before the fight?

Clay: Well, another time was just before we signed to fight. It was in Las Vegas. I was there to be on David Brinkley’s Journal, and it didn’t take me no time to find Liston at a gambling table. People was standing around watching him. He was shooting craps, and I walked up behind him and reached and took some of his chips. He turned around, and I said, “Man, you can’t shoot dice!” But he was good-humored. Maybe it was because the people were watching, and maybe he was seeing me helping build up a gate for the fight we were about to sign for—or maybe he was winning something for a change. I don’t know what it was that put him in good spirits, but I just kept right on him. I’d snatch up the dice from him. I could see I was beginning to get to him a little, but not enough. Finally, I had to shoot a loaded water pistol on him. That did it. But he still played it cool, trying to show the people he was trying to humor me. Naturally, the word had spread and people were piling around us. But then very suddenly, Liston froze me with that look of his. He said real quiet, “Let’s go on over here,” and he led the way to a table, and the people hung back. I ain’t going to lie. This was the only time since I have known Sonny Liston that he really scared me. I just felt the power and the meanness of the man I was messing with. Anybody tell me about how he has fought cops and beat up tough thugs and all of that, I believe it. I saw that streak in him. He told me, “Get the hell out of here or I’ll wipe you out.”

Haley: What did you do?

Clay: I got the hell out of there. I told you, he had really scared me.

Haley: Did you consider giving up your campaign to rattle him?

Clay: Oh, no, I never did think about that. Soon as I got time to think about how he had reacted, I saw I had started for the first time to really get under his skin, and I made up my mind right then that by the time we got to Miami in training, I was going to have him so mad that he would forget everything he knew about fighting, just trying to kill me.

Haley: Was the scene you made at the airport, when Liston arrived in Miami, part of the plan?

Clay: You know it. They were making such a big thing of his arriving, you would have thought the Cubans was landing. Well, I wasn’t just about to miss that! Liston came down off the plane, all cool, and the press was ganged around waiting for an interview. That was when I rushed in the scene, hollering, “Chump! Big ugly bear! I’m going to whip you right now!” Stuff like that. Police were grabbing for me and holding me and I was trying to break loose, and finally I did. I could see I was really turning Liston on. I got up close enough to him and he gave me that evil look again, but I wasn’t even thinking about him. “Look, this clowning, it’s not cute, and I’m not joking,” he said. And I nearly threw a fit. “Joking? Why, you big chump, I’ll whip you right here!” And people were grabbing me again, and somebody had rushed up one of them little VIP cars they have at airports. They got Liston, his wife and his bodyguard in it. Joe Louis and Jack Nilon were trying to calm things down. I saw the little car taking off down the tunnel. So I broke loose and took out after it. I was waving my cane, and hollering at Liston. In the tunnel, I guess he told the driver to stop, and he hopped off. Was he mad! He hollered, “Listen, you little punk, I’ll punch you in the mouth—this has gone too far!” Then people was rushing in and hollering at both of us, and I was throwing off my coat and shouting, “Come on chump, right here!” Finally Liston swung at me, and I ducked. He didn’t know he’d had his preview of the fight right then.

Haley: Who won?

Clay: I bet you it went on two hours before it really got settled. There weren’t no more swings, but Joe Louis and Jack Nilon and the cops and bodyguards got Liston in the airport lounge, and they were guarding the doors to keep me out. I was banging my cane on the door, hollering, “Free! I’ll fight you free!” I knew everybody inside could hear me. They couldn’t hear nothing else but me. “Free! You think I’m jiving, chump? I’ll fight you free, right here!”

Haley: And, of course, it was all an act?

Clay: Completely—and it was also building the gate. At least, if it hadn’t been for the reporters, it would have been a better gate. But right then I didn’t want nobody in Miami, except at my camp, thinking I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t want nobody never thinking nothing about I had any fighting ability.

Haley: Why do you say that if it hadn’t been for the reporters, the gate would have been better?

Clay: They made people think that Liston was so mean and I was so nothing that they would be throwing away money to buy a ticket. There was over sixteen thousand seats in that Convention Hall, and it was only about half full. I read where the promoter, Bill MacDonald, lost something like three hundred thousand dollars. But he sure can’t blame me for it. I was the one that let him get seat prices up as high as two hundred and fifty dollars. I was the first fighter who ever talked a fight into being bounced off Telstar to fifty nations. I got more publicity than any fight ever had. I’m colorful when I rumble. But the people listened to the so-called “experts.” If they had listened to me, that Convention Hall would have been overflowing even if they had charged twice the prices.

Haley: But the reporters’ attitudes, you have said, were in the best interests of your strategy.

Clay: It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. They still made me mad. But, lookahere, I wasn’t nearly about done with Liston yet. I mean, right up to the fight I was messing with him. Everybody in my camp carried canes and wore jackets with bear-hunting across the back. Guys from my camp went into Liston’s camp, standing around, watching him training, until Liston quit to personally order them out. We put out the word that we was going to raid Liston’s camp. He got so jumpy and under strain that every day, different reporters would come telling me, serious, “Stop angering that man—he will literally kill you!” It was music to my ears. It meant if he was that mad, he had lost all sense of reasoning. If he wasn’t thinking nothing but killing me, he wasn’t thinking fighting. And you got to think to fight.

Haley: The press was generally unimpressed with your workouts, and the Liston camp knew it. Was that part of your plan, too?

Clay: You ain’t so stupid. I made sure nobody but my people saw me really working out. If anybody else was around, I didn’t do no more than go through motions. But look, I’m going to tell you where Liston really lost to fight. Or when he lost it. Every day we had been leaking word over there that we were going to pull our raid that day. The Liston people got to the mayor and the police, and we got cautioned that we’d be arrested if we did it. So we made a court case out of it. We requested legal permission to picket Liston’s camp, but we were told that a city ordinance prevented carrying signs. We had paid, I remember, three hundred and twenty-five dollars for signs like big ugly bear, bear-hunting season, too pretty to be a fighter, bear must fall, and like that. So we taped the signs all over my bus. It wasn’t no ordinance against signs on a bus. And we loaded the bus up with people from my camp, and screaming teenage girls, and we drove over there and caused such a commotion that people left off from watching Liston train, and we heard he nearly had a fit. One of his men—I know his name, but I guess I better not call it—even pulled a knife on Howard Bingham. Joe Louis run and asked the guy what in the world was the matter with him. But that’s the day Liston lost. We heard he went to pieces. It wasn’t long before the weigh-in, where they said I was the one went to pieces.

Haley: One doctor described your conduct at the weigh-in as “dangerously disturbed.” Another said you acted “scared to death.” And seasoned sportswriters used such terms as “hysterical” and “schizophrenic” in reporting your tantrum, for which you were fined twenty-five hundred dollars. What was the real story?

Clay: I would just say that it sounds like them doctors and sportswriters had been listening to each other. You know what they said and wrote them things for—to match in what they expected was about to happen. That’s what I keep on telling you. If all of them had had their way, I wouldn’t have been allowed in the ring.

Haley: Had you worked out a fight plan by this time?

Clay: I figured out my strategy and announced it months before the fight: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is what I said.

Haley: We read that. But what specifically did you mean?

Clay: To start with, I knew that Liston, overconfident as he was, and helped by reading what all of the newspapers were saying, he never was going to train to fight more than two rounds. I don’t know if you happened to read it later that some of his handlers admitted, after the fight, that this was exactly what he did. So that was my guide how to train, to pace myself. You know, a fighter can condition his body to go hard certain rounds, then to coast certain rounds. Nobody can fight fifteen rounds. So I trained to fight the first two rounds, and to protect myself from getting hit by Liston. I knew that with the third, he’d start tiring, then he’d get worse every round. So I trained to coast the third, fourth and fifth rounds. I had two reasons for that. One was that I wanted to prove I had the ability to stand up to Liston. The second reason was that I wanted him to wear himself out and get desperate. He would be throwing wild punches, and missing. If I just did that as long as he lasted on his feet, I couldn’t miss winning the fight on points. And so I conditioned myself to fight full steam from the sixth through the ninth round, if it lasted that long. I never did think it would go past nine rounds. That’s why I announced I’d take him in eight. I figured I’d be in command by the sixth. I’d be careful—not get hit—and I’d cut him up and shake him up until he would be like a bull, just blind, and missing punches until he was nearly crazy. And I planned that some time in the eighth, when he had thrown some punch and left himself just right, I’d be all set, and I’d drop him.

Listen here, man, I knew I was going to upset the world! You know the only thing I was scared of? I was scared that some of them newspaper “experts” was going to quit praising Liston’s big fists long enough to wake up and see what was just as clear as day to me and my camp; and if they printed it, that Liston’s camp people might be able to get it into his skull. But I was lucky; that didn’t happen. Them newspaper people couldn’t have been working no better for me if I had been paying them.

Haley: Then the fight went about as you had planned?

Clay: Almost. He came in there at two hundred and twenty pounds, and untrained to go more than two rounds, and as old as he is—too old—against a kid, and I didn’t have an ounce of fat on me. And he didn’t have no respect for me as a fighter. He was figuring on killing me inside of two rounds. He was a perfect setup. If you remember, I didn’t throw many punches, but when I did, they made their mark. I have vicious combinations, and just like I had planned, I hurt his body and I closed his eyes.

Haley: But Liston did do you some damage, too.

Clay: You don’t expect to fight no fighter without getting hit sometime. But you don’t want to get hurt bad, and knocked out—that’s the point. Yeah, he hit me some damaging punches. With all the talking I been doing, ain’t nobody never heard me say Liston can’t hit. He got me in the first with a right to the stomach. In the second, I made the mistake of getting maneuvered on the ropes, and he got in some good shots. And in the last of that second round, after I had cut his eye, he really staggered me there for a minute with a long, hard left. In fact, he did me more damage with that than any other punch. In the fifth, when that stuff—rosin, I guess it was—was in my eyes, and I couldn’t see, he hit me with a good left hook to the head.

Haley: Would you be able to give us a round-by-around account of the fight from your viewpoint?

Clay: Yeah, I guess I could. The first round, I beat him out, dancing, to keep from getting hit. He was shuffling that way he does, giving me that evil eye. Man, he meant to kill me, I ain’t kidding! He was jabbing his left—but missing. And I was backpedaling, bobbing, weaving, ducking. He missed with a right hook that would have hurt me. I got away from that, but that was when he got me with that right to my stomach. I just kept running, watching his eyes. Liston’s eyes tip you when he’s about to throw a heavy punch. Some kind of way, they just flicker. He didn’t dream that I’d suddenly stop running when I did, if you remember—and I hit him with a good left and then a flurry of lefts and rights. That was good for points, you know. He nearly flipped, and came after me like a bull. I was hitting and ducking at the same time; that’s how neither one of us heard the bell, and was still fighting after it. I remember I got to my corner thinking, “He was supposed to kill me. Well, I’m still alive. “Angelo Dundee was working over me, talking a mile a minute. I just watched Liston, so mad he didn’t even sit down. I thought to myself, “You gonna wish you had rested all you could when we get past this next round.” I could hear some radio or television expert, all excited, you know the way they chatter. The big news was that I hadn’t been counted out yet.

Then, at the second-round bell, just like I knew he would, Liston come at me throwing everything. He was going to make up for looking so bad that I had lasted one round. This was when he got me on the ropes, where everybody had said he was supposed to kill me. He hit me some, but I weaved and ducked away from most of his shots. I remember one time feeling his arm grazing the back of my neck and thinking—it was like I shouted to myself—”All I got to do is keep this up.” And I got out from under and I caught him with some lefts and rights. Then I saw that first cut, high up on his cheekbone. When a man’s first cut, it usually looks a bright pink. Then I saw the blood, and I knew that eye was my target from then on. It was my concentrating on that cut that let me get caught with the hardest punch I took, that long left. It rocked me back. But he either didn’t realize how good I was hit or he was already getting tired, and he didn’t press his chance. I sure heard the bell that time. I needed to get to my corner to get my head clear.

Starting in the third round, I saw his expression, how shook he was that we were still out there and he was the one cut and bleeding. He didn’t know what to do. But I wasn’t about to get careless, like Conn did that time against Joe Louis. This was supposed to be one of my coasting, resting rounds, but I couldn’t waste no time. I needed one more good shot, for some more insurance with that eye. So when the bell rang, I just tested him, to see was he tiring, and he was; and then I got him into the ropes. It didn’t take but one good combination. My left was square on his right eye, and a right under his left eye opened a deep gash. I knew it was deep, the way the blood spurted right out. I saw his face up close when he wiped his glove at that cut and saw the blood. At that moment, let me tell you, he looked like he’s going to look twenty years from now. Liston was tiring fast in the fourth, and I was coasting. We didn’t neither one do very much. But you can bet it wasn’t nobody in there complaining they wasn’t getting their money’s worth.

Then, in the fifth, all of a sudden, after one exchange of shots, there was a feeling in my eyes like some acid was in them. I could see just blurry. When the bell sounded, it felt like fire, and I could just make it back to my corner, telling Angelo, “I can’t see!” And he was swabbing at my eyes. I could hear that excited announcer; he was having a fit. “Something seems to be wrong with Clay!” It sure was something wrong. I didn’t care if it was a heavyweight title fight I had worked so long for, I wasn’t going out there and get murdered because I couldn’t see. Every time I blinked it hurt so bad I said, “Cut off my gloves, Angelo—leave me out of here.” Then I heard the bell, and the referee, Barney Felix, yelled to me to get out there, and at the same time Angelo was pushing me up, shouting, “This is the big one, daddy. We aren’t going to quit now!” And I was out there again, blinking. Angelo was shouting, “Stay away from him! Stay away!” I got my left in Liston’s face and kept it there, kind of staving him off, and at the same time I knew where he was. I was praying he wouldn’t guess what was the matter. But he had to see me blinking, and then he shook me with that left to the head and a lot of shots to the body. Now, I ain’t too sorry it happened, because it proved I could take Liston’s punching. He had found some respect for me, see? He wasn’t going so much for the knockout; he was trying to hurt my body, then try for a kill. Man, in that round, my plans were gone. I was just trying to keep alive, hoping the tears would wash out my eyes. I could open them just enough to get a good glimpse of Liston, and then it hurt so bad I blinked them closed again. Liston was snorting like a horse. He was trying to hit me square, and I was just moving every which way, because I knew if he connected right, it could be all over right there.

But in the corner after that fifth round, the stuff pretty well washed out of my eyes. I could see again, and I was ready to carry the fight to Liston. And I was gaining my second wind now, as I had conditioned myself, to pace the fight, like I was telling you. My corner people knew it, and they were calling to me, “Get mad, baby!” They knew I was ready to go the next three rounds at top steam, and I knew I was going to make Liston look terrible. I hit him with eight punches in a row, until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like, “Yeah, you old sucker! You try to be so big and bad!” He was gone. He knew he couldn’t last. It was the first time in the fight that I set myself flat-footed. I missed a right that might have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before. I knew he wasn’t due to last much longer. Then, right at the end of the round, I rocked back his head with two left hooks.

I got back to my stool, and under me I could hear the press like they was gone wild. I twisted around and hollered down at the reporters right under me, “I’m gonna upset the world!” I never will forget how their faces was looking up at me like they couldn’t believe it. I happened to be looking right at Liston when that warning buzzer sounded, and I didn’t believe it when he spat out his mouthpiece. I just couldn’t believe it—but there it was laying there. And then something just told me he wasn’t coming out! I give a whoop and come off that stool like it was red hot. It’s a funny thing, but I wasn’t even thinking about Liston—I was thinking about nothing but that hypocrite press. All of them down there had wrote so much about me bound to get killed by the big fists. It was even rumors that right after the weigh-in I had been taken to the asylum somewhere, and another rumor that I had caught a plane and run off. I couldn’t think about nothing but all that. I went dancing around the ring, hollering down at them reporters, “Eat your words! Eat! Eat!” And I hollered at the people, “I am the king!”

Haley: Despite your victory, the fight ended under a cloud of doubt about the genuineness of Liston’s arm injury. What’s your own opinion?

Clay: Eight doctors said his arm was hurt. I ain’t going to argue with no eight doctors’ opinion. And I don’t mean that I think nothing different at all. You take a man punching with the strength and force Liston has in a punch; if all he connects with is air—because wherever he hit, I wasn’t there—then, yeah, I think it explains how he could have torn a muscle.

Haley: There was another controversy about the honesty of your failure to pass the three Army preinduction qualification tests that you took shortly after the fight. Any comment?

Clay: The truth don’t hurt nobody. The fact is I never was too bright in school. I just barely graduated. I had a D-minus average. I ain’t ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month? But when I looked at a lot of the questions they had on them Army tests, I just didn’t know the answers. I didn’t even know how to start after finding the answers. That’s all. So I didn’t pass. It was the Army’s decision that they didn’t want me to go in the service. They’re the boss. I don’t want to say no whole lot about it.

Haley: Was it embarrassing to be declared mentally unfit?

Clay: I have said I am the greatest. Ain’t nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest.

Haley: What is your feeling about the fact that your purse was withheld after the fight?

Clay: I don’t understand it. I’m not involved in any tax problems. How can they justify holding up my money? But let me tell you something: Money and riches don’t mean nothing to me. I don’t care nothing about being no rich individual. I’m not living for glory or for fame; all this is doomed for destruction. You got it today, tomorrow it’s gone. I got bigger things on my mind than that. I got Islam on my mind.

Haley: Speaking of Islam, the National Boxing Association announced that it was considering the revocation of your heavyweight title because of your membership in the Black Muslims, which you announced just after the fight. Have you heard any official word on their decision?

Clay: It just fizzled out. But until it did, the N. B. A. was going to condemn me, try me, sentence me and execute me, all by themselves. Ain’t this country supposed to be where every man can have the religion he wants, even no religion if that’s what he wants? It ain’t a court in America that would take a man’s job, or his title, because of his religious convictions. The Constitution forbids Congress from making any laws involving a man’s religion. But the N. B. A. would take it on itself to take away my title—for what? What have I done to hurt boxing? I’ve helped boxing. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t bother with nobody. Ain’t it funny they never said nothing about Liston? He’s been arrested for armed robbery, beating up cops, carrying concealed weapons, and I don’t know what all. And how come they didn’t lift Gene Fullmer’s title? He was a Mormon. His religion believes Negroes are inferior; they ban Negroes from membership. But I guess that’s all right. The N. B. A. don’t have no power noway. They can’t stop nobody from fighting. And even if they could, it wouldn’t matter, because I don’t put that much value on no heavyweight crown anyway. Time was when I did, but that was before I found the religious convictions that I have. When I started getting attacked so bad because I am a Muslim, I had to decide, if it would come to me having to give up one or the other, what was most important to me, my religion or my fighting. I made up my mind that I could give up fighting and never look back. Because it’s a whole pile of other ways I could make a living. Me being the world heavyweight champion feels very small and cheap to me when I put that alongside of how millions of my poor black brothers and sisters are having to struggle just to get their human rights here in America. Maybe God got me here for a sacrifice. I don’t know. But I do know that God don’t want me to go down for standing up.

Haley: What or who made you decide to join the Muslims?

Clay: Nobody or nothing made me decide. I make up my mind for myself. In 1960, in Miami, I was training for a fight. It wasn’t long after I had won the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal over there in Rome. Herb Siler was the fellow I was going to fight, I remember. I put him on the floor in four. Anyway, one day this Muslim minister came to meet me and he asked me wouldn’t I like to come to his mosque and hear about the history of my forefathers. I never had heard no black man talking about no forefathers, except that they were slaves, so I went to a meeting. And this minister started teaching, and the things he said really shook me up. Things like that we twenty million black people in America didn’t know our true identities, or even our true family names. And we were the direct descendants of black men and women stolen from a rich black continent and brought here and stripped of all knowledge of themselves and taught to hate themselves and their kind. And that’s how us so-called “Negroes” had come to be the only race among mankind that loved its enemies. Now, I’m the kind that catches on quick. I said to myself, listen here, this man’s saying something! I hope don’t nobody never hit me in the ring hard as it did when that brother minister said the Chinese are named after China, Russians after Russia, Cubans after Cuba, Italians after Italy, the English after England, and clear on down the line everybody was named for somewhere he could call home, except us. He said, “What country are we so-called ‘Negroes’ named for? No country! We are just a lost race.” Well, boom! That really shook me up.

Haley: Was that when you joined the Muslims?

Clay: Not right then, no. Before I joined, I attended a lot of mosque meetings in different places I went. I never did come out of a meeting not understanding something I hadn’t known or even thought about before. Everywhere I looked, I started seeing things in a new light. Like, I remember right in our house back in Louisville, all the pictures on the walls were white people. Nothing about us black people. A picture of a white Jesus Christ. Now, what painter ever saw Jesus? So who says Jesus was white? And all my life, I had been seeing the black man getting his head whipped by the white man, and stuck in the white man’s jails, and things like that. And myself, I had to admit that up to then, I had always hated being black, just like other Negroes, hating our kind, instead of loving one another. The more I saw and thought, the more the truth made sense to me. Whatever I’m for, I always have believed in talking it up, and the first thing you know, I was in Muslim meetings calling out just like the rest, “Right, brother! Tell it, brother! Keep it coming!” And today my religion is Islam, and I’m proud of it.

Haley: How has it changed your life?

Clay: In every way. It’s pulled me up and cleaned me up as a human being.

Haley: Can you be more explicit?

Clay: Well, before I became a Muslim, I used to drink. Yes, I did. The truth is the truth. And after I had fought and beat somebody, I didn’t hardly go nowhere without two big, pretty women beside me. But my change is one of the things that will mark me as a great man in history. When you can live righteous in the hell of North America—when a man can control his life, his physical needs, his lower self, he elevates himself. The downfall of so many great men is that they haven’t been able to control their appetite for women.

Haley: But you have?

Clay: We Muslims don’t touch a woman unless we’re married to her.

Haley: Are you saying that you don’t have affairs with women?

Clay: I don’t even kiss a woman. I’m ashamed of myself, but sometimes I’ve caught myself wishing I had found Islam about five years from now, maybe—with all the temptations I have to resist. But I don’t even kiss none, because you get too close, it’s almost impossible to stop. I’m a young man, you know, in the prime of life.

Haley: You mention temptations. What are they?

Clay: All types of women—white women, too—make passes at me. Girls find out where I live and knock at the door at one and two in the morning. They send me their pictures and phone numbers, saying please just telephone them, they would like to meet me, do I need a secretary? I’ve even had girls come up here wearing scarves on their heads, with no make-up and all that, trying to act like young Muslim sisters. But the only catch is a Muslim sister never would do that.

Haley: Did you have any other religious affiliation before Islam?

Clay: When I was twelve years old, and didn’t know what I was doing, I was baptized in the Centennial Baptist Church in Louisville.

Haley: Have you given up Christianity, then?

Clay: The Christian religion has just been used to brainwash the black man here in America. It has just taught him to look for his heaven in the sky, in the hereafter, while the white man enjoys his heaven here on earth.

Haley: As the owner of four Cadillacs and the recipient of a six-hundred-thousand dollar purse earned largely from white patronage of your fight with Liston, do you think that assertion is entirely true in your own case?

Clay: Have you heard anybody complaining he didn’t get his money’s worth? No! All of the noise is about my religion, something that has nothing to do with fighting. They didn’t mind my being champion until they found out I was a Muslim. Then they didn’t want nothing to do with me. White people, they worry more about Islam than they do about the championship.

Haley: Don’t you feel that whites have some reason for concern that the heavyweight champion belongs to an organization that is alleged to teach hatred of whites?

Clay: Look, the black man that’s trying to integrate, he’s getting beat up and bombed and shot. But the black man that says he don’t want to integrate, he gets called a “hate teacher.” Lookahere, now Chubby Checker is catching hell with a white woman. And I’m catching hell for not wanting a white woman. The followers of Mr. Elijah Muhammad, we’re not trying to marry no white man’s sisters and daughters. We’re not trying to force our way into no white neighborhoods. It look like to me that the white people who are so against integrated schools and restaurants and hotels ought to be glad about what Mr. Muhammad is teaching his followers. The only way for peace between the races is a separation of the races.

Haley: Are you against the Civil Rights Act, then?

Clay: I think that the Civil Rights Act will lead to bloodshed. It already has. It won’t change people’s hearts. But I don’t call it hate. I call it human nature. I don’t think that white people hate colored people. You just don’t never see a rabbit eating with a lion. I think that all of this “integration” started backfiring when it put the white man on the spot. It ain’t going to go on much further. I think that the black man needs to get together with his own kind. He needs to say, “Let’s don’t go where we’re not wanted.” You take Sonny Liston. He was the champion of the world, and that’s supposed to include America. But when he tried to buy a house in a segregated neighborhood in Miami, he was turned down. The white people don’t want integration: I don’t believe in forcing it and the Muslims don’t either.

Haley: Is that why you’ve chosen to live in Harlem?

Clay: Right. I could be living all exclusive, downtown, in some skyscraper hotel. I could be living right up in the hotel’s penthouse, with my friends in rooms all around me. But I don’t want none of that. I stay right in the heart of Harlem, in a place that a workingman with a good job could afford. I’m just used to being around my own people. I like being around my own people. It’s just human nature to enjoy being around your own kind. I don’t want no trouble. I am up here in the heart of blacktown. I can’t find nothing wrong with that, but it seems to bother everybody else, it looks like. I been around my own people all of my life. Why would I want to try to leave them now? You have to be all the time putting on an act when you’re trying to live and hang around somewhere you’re not wanted, or they just put up with you for your money. I’m at ease living among my people. I’m never all tensed up; I don’t have to be a side show all the time. I’m around unity, rhythm and soul. Our people are warm people. I don’t like to be around cold people. I go out every morning early and walk up and down in the streets, and I talk to winos and the working people and everybody. I stand where they go down to the subway, and I say hello. I’m different from when Patterson was the champ. He wasn’t anywhere near as popular as I am—not among our people, anyway.

Haley: What do you have to say about the fact that many Negroes, including several Negro leaders, have said that they have no desire to be identified with a heavyweight champion who is a Black Muslim?

Clay: It’s ridiculous for Negroes to be attacking somebody trying to stand up for their own race. People are always telling me “what a good example I could set for my people” if I just wasn’t a Muslim. I’ve heard over and over how come I couldn’t have been like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well, they’re gone now, and the black man’s condition is just the same, ain’t it? We’re still catching hell. The fact is that my being a Muslim moved me from the sports pages to the front pages. I’m a whole lot bigger man than I would be if I was just a champion prizefighter. Twenty-four hours a day I get offers—to tour somewhere overseas, to visit colleges, to make speeches. Places like Harvard and Tuskegee, television shows, interviews, recordings. I get letters from all over. They are addressed to me in ways like “The Greatest Boxer in the World, U.S.A.” and they come straight to me wherever they’re mailed from. People want to write books about me. And I ought to have stock in Western Union and cable companies, I get so many of them. I’m trying to show you how I been elevated from the normal stature of fighters to being a world figure, a leader, a statesman.

Haley: Statesman?

Clay: That’s what I said. Listen, after I beat Liston, some African diplomats invited me to the United Nations. And because I’m a Muslim, I was welcomed like a king on my tour of Africa and the Middle East. I’m the first world champion that ever toured the world that he is champion of.

Haley: Is it true that you incensed Nigerians during your tour, by reneging on a promise to fight an exhibition match there, and by making the remark, on departing for Egypt, that “Cairo is more important than Nigeria”?

Clay: It was a whole lot of confusion going on. We had planned a week in Nigeria, then a week in Ghana. But when we got over there, somehow with all kinds of this and that functions calling for me, our whole schedule got messed up. One Sunday I come back from Ghana to Nigeria to fight that exhibition. It was arranged for us to get to Cairo that Wednesday. Then my exhibition fight date got put forward. I figured it would make us disappoint the Cairo government that had bumped people off planes for us, things like that. So I said how important it was to get to Cairo on time. But when somebody got done quoting it, it wasn’t told like I had said it. Any time you hear about me insulting black people, it’s a lie. Anyway, wasn’t nobody over there mad at me because of my religion. Somebody told me over there that I got the biggest welcome ever given to any American.

Haley: You met both Prime Minister Nkrumah of Ghana and Egypt’s President Nasser on the trip. What was your impression of them?

Clay: Well, I looked at Prime Minister Nkrumah, and it come to me that he looked just like so many Negroes in America—except there he was, the head of a country. And President Nasser, one of the six most powerful men in the world, he welcomed me as a Black Muslim, just as friendly as if he had been knowing me all my life.

Haley: Apart from influential friends, what do you feel you got out of the trip?

Clay: Well, it showed me what Mr. Elijah Muhammad’s teachings had taught me: that Africa is the home of Original Man, the black man, and that Africa, where the slaves was stolen from, has all kinds of rich history. And it is the richest continent on earth. Everybody knows that the biggest diamond ever found was found in black Africa. And let me tell you something—it wasn’t just seeing the new buildings and cars and stuff; it’s what you feel in Africa. Black people that’s free and proud—they don’t feel like that over here. I never have felt it here except among my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Haley: Your Muslim activities will soon have to be interrupted long enough to defend your title against Sonny Liston in your upcoming rematch. Now that he’s familiar with your strategy and skills, do you think he’ll be a tougher opponent?

Clay: I know one thing: He would have to think he could put up a better fight than he did the last time. Liston has been through quite a bit.

Haley: Do you think he’ll put up a better fight?

Clay: Maybe, but I’ll have the edge again. Liston will be fighting a comeback. He’ll be in the position of having to prove he can beat me. So he’ll come in that ring scared he’s going to lose. A lot of people still refuse to accept it, but Liston knows he was whipped by a better boxer. Another thing, don’t never forget that boxing is for young men. How old is Liston?

Haley: According to published reports, around thirty-two.

Clay: Well, I hear he’s pushing forty. He ain’t physically capable of forcing a body that old through four and a half months of the strong training a fighter would need to meet a young, strong fighter like me.

Haley: Doug Jones has been touted as another possible contender for your title. What’s your appraisal of him?

Clay: He’s a good, strong man, a good boxer. He’s fast, and he’s got determination. He’s the possible champ after I quit.

Haley: How about Patterson? Do you think he has a chance to regain his title a second time?

Clay: Patterson! Don’t make me laugh. I’m a natural heavyweight, and he was never anything but a blown-up light-heavy. He could never take my punches. I could play with him, cut him up and take him out whenever I got ready. And he knows it. That’s why he always ducked me when he was champ. He ain’t no fool. You know, at the Olympic games in Rome, I told Patterson, “Two, three years from now, I’m going to take your title.” He said, “You’re a good kid, keep trying, kid.” Well, I bet you he has since thought that over many a day.

Haley: If he knows he couldn’t beat you, how do you explain his recent campaign to meet you in a title match?

Clay: Only reason he’s decided to come out of his shell now is to try and make himself a big hero to the white man by saving the heavyweight title from being held by a Muslim. I wish you would print for Patterson to read that if he ever convinces my managers to let him in the same ring with me, it’s going to be the first time I ever trained to develop in myself a brutal killer instinct. I’ve never felt that way about nobody else. Fighting is just a sport, a game, to me. But Patterson I would want to beat to the floor for the way he rushed out of hiding after his last whipping, announcing that he wanted to fight me because no Muslim deserved to be the champ. I never had no concern about his having the Catholic religion. But he was going to jump up to fight me to be the white man’s champion. And I don’t know no sadder example of nobody making a bigger fool of himself. I don’t think three more weeks had passed before it was in the papers about him trying to sell his big, fine home in a so-called “integrated” neighborhood because his white neighbors wouldn’t speak to his family, and white children were calling his children “nigger” and a white man next door even had put up a fence to keep from having to even see Patterson. I ain’t never read nothing no more pitiful than how Patterson told the newspapers, “I tried to integrate—it just didn’t work.” It’s like when he was the champion, the only time he would be caught in Harlem was when he was in the back of a car, waving, in some parade. The big shot didn’t have no time for his own kind, he was so busy “integrating.” And now he wants to fight me because I stick up for black people. I’ll tell him again, he sure better think five or six times before he gets into any ring with me.

Haley: Are there any other active heavyweights, apart from Doug Jones, whom you rate as title contenders?

Clay: Not in my class, of course. But below that, after Jones—and Liston—there’s Ernie Terrell. He’s a tall boy, a good left jab. He moves good, but he tires easy. He doesn’t have enough experience to take me on yet. But he’s a good kid. And Cleveland Williams. If he even dreamed he fought me, he’d apologize. He needs a lot more experience. Liston knocked him out twice. Williams, if he’s pressured, will quit in a minute. I can’t see any more after these. I don’t really even watch fighting much, except films of the greatest.

Haley: Just you?

Clay: Just me.

Haley: Are you the greatest now fighting, or the greatest in boxing history?

Clay: Now, a whole lot of people ain’t going to like this. But I’m going to tell you the truth—you asked me. It’s too many great old champions to go listing them one by one. But ain’t no need to. I think that Joe Louis, in his prime, could have whipped them all—I mean anyone you want to name. And I would have beat Louis. Now, look—people don’t like to face the facts. All they can think about is Joe Louis’ punch. Well, he did have a deadly punch, just like Liston has a deadly punch. But if Louis didn’t hit nothing but air, like Liston didn’t with me, then we got to look at other things. Even if Louis did hit me a few times, remember they all said Liston was a tougher one-punch man than even Joe Louis. And I took some of Liston’s best shots. Remember that. Then, too, I’m taller than Louis. But I tell you what would decide the fight: I’m faster than Louis was. No, Louis and none of the rest of them couldn’t whip me. Look—it ain’t never been another fighter like me. Ain’t never been no nothing like me.

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the October 1964 issue of Playboy. © 1964 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)

(Alex Haley Interviews Jim Brown was originally published in the February 1968 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Jim BrownAlex Haley Interviews Jim Brown (1968)

James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown (born February 17, 1936) is an American former professional football player who has also made his mark as an actor and social activist. He is best known for his exceptional and record-setting nine-year career as a running back for the NFL Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. In 2002, he was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever.

“Alex’s final assignment in the Sixties was his outspoken interview with football great and action hero Jim Brown (February 1968). Not easily impressed. Brown remembers Alex as a man worthy of his trust for the way in which he conducted the interview, and worthy of respect for his immortalization of Malcolm X in the Autobiography, which was already considered required reading among serious students of black history.” ~ Murray Fisher—former editor of Playboy.

“I’m just being myself; that’s all I know how to do. I’m sure not taking anything away from any of those you named—and others like James Earl Jones. But there’s a crying need for more Negro actors, because for so long, ever since the silent screen, in fact, the whole world has been exposed to Negroes in stereotype roles. Have you ever been to any Negro theater with a movie going, with a Negro in it? Well, you can just feel the tension of that audience, pulling for this guy to do something good, something that will give them a little pride. That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of, and respond to, and identify with, and feel real about, instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen making a fool of himself. You’re not going to find any of us playing Uncle Toms anymore.” ~ Jim Brown.

A Candid Conversation With The Football Superstar Turned Actor And Civil Rights Activist

Among professional-football fullbacks, Jim Brown remains the legendary standard by which all others are measured. At six feet two and 230 pounds, Brown was the most powerful and elusive running back ever to play the game. With a massive neck, steely arms and thighs thicker than most men’s waists, he could drag tacklers with him as he ran, send them flying with a straight-arm, sidestep them with his misdirective footwork and out-distance them with his flashing speed. During nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, this gut strength and incredible agility—combined with a juggernaut determination to win—netted him 15 NFL records that most sportswriters agree won’t be topped easily or soon. Before a budding alternate career as a movie actor and militant involvement in the race struggle provoked his abrupt resignation from pro ball in 1966, Brown had crashed his way to a record lifetime total of 126 touchdowns and led the league in yards gained for eight of his nine seasons, piling up a whopping 12,312 yards in the process—also an all-time record.

Because repeated and jarring contact with bone-crushing opposing linemen is one of the position’s occupational hazards, injuries have sidelined every other notable running back in pro-football history. But Brown’s superb physical condition and playing ability made him a unique exception to that rule—despite many a lineman’s rapacious attempts to put him on the bench, if not in the hospital; and he gave them plenty of opportunity to try, by carrying the ball in roughly 60 percent of all offensive plays. An adept ball carrier off the field, too, he led the 1962 revolt of Cleveland players that successfully brought about the ouster of their brilliant but inflexible head coach, Paul Brown. The following year, as if to vindicate the uprising, Jim Brown became football’s sole runner to pass the mile mark in a single season—a feat veteran sportswriter Myron Cope called “perhaps the most incredible sports statistic of our time.”

Brown’s phenomenal prowess led the editor of Sport interviews to label him the “Babe Ruth of football,” who “sits alone, indestructible, superhuman.” It also gave him the additional—and more tangible—honor of taking home the biggest pay check in pro ball, an estimated $65,000 a year. But the crown didn’t rest easily on Brown’s head. Despite lavish kudos from the press and considerable nationwide attention, his natural reserve remained undented; to the public and most teammates alike, he remained icily aloof. The first rumblings of his eventual abdication came as early as 1964, with the publication of his autobiography, Off My Chest. In it, Brown demonstrated that his hard-driving, no-nonsense brand of football was a graphic metaphor for his lifestyle: He appraised various football personalities with a brutal candor that left many bruised and angry; and he revealed an attitude of racial militance—further explored here—that added a facet of passionate social commitment to his already complex image. Unwillingly and briefly, Brown adopted yet another persona in 1965. In the period of a few months, two girls accused him of molesting them. One refused to press charges, but the other took her case to court. After Brown was acquitted, she tried again with a paternity suit—and lost that, too.

Not surprisingly, today’s controversial Jim Brown is the product of a diverse and paradoxical background. Born on an island off the Georgia coast, he spent his first years in the care of a great-grandmother. At the age of seven, he moved north to Long Island to live with his divorced mother, a domestic worker. Always big and strong for his age, Brown applied his talents more in the street than in school and soon fought his way to “warlord” status in the Gaylords, a teenage gang. If local officials hadn’t quickly recognized his rare athletic abilities, the Jim Brown story might have been another “Rebel Without a Cause”; but they turned him on to sports, and by Brown’s senior year, athletic events at Manhasset High School were drawing overflow crowds who came to see him in action—in football, basketball, baseball, track and lacrosse. Shattering records in nearly every sport he tried, Brown was graduated with full-scholarship bids from 42 colleges. Ironically, he selected Syracuse, where Brown claims he wasn’t really wanted—for reasons that had more to do with race than with football. Still on the fifth-string team after his freshman season, he crashed the varsity ranks as a sophomore, went on to become a Syracuse legend—and began to be called the greatest all-round athlete since Jim Thorpe. Then, turning pro with the Cleveland Browns, he set—even in his rookie year—new professional records.

During the off seasons, Brown began to dabble in the myriad pursuits that finally lured him away from football. He tackled show business, first as host of a modest daily radio show in Cleveland, then as a Negro cavalry trooper in Rio Conchos, a movie Western. He broke into the business world by traveling and interning as a marketing executive for the Pepsi-Cola company. And in a move coinciding with occasional outings as a commentator on closed-circuit theater telecasts of boxing matches, he allied himself with Main Bout, Inc., a sports-promotion agency. Main Bout eventually handled the fights of the controversial and racially militant Muhammad (Cassius Clay) Ali, and Brown’s association with the firm gave further flower to his own growing image as a hard-line racial activist: Some of his colleagues at Main Bout were Black Muslims. Brown disclaimed membership in the sect but said that he felt its views voiced the true feelings of most Negroes.

Amid the national controversy in 1966 that saw a Muhammad Ali fight blocked out of arenas across the country, Brown quietly signed to play a role in his second motion picture, The Dirty Dozen, to be filmed in England that summer. He planned to return in time for fall football practice; but in England, heavy rains kept delaying the filming. Soon the Cleveland Browns were at practice—without their star fullback. Pressed by sportswriters, team owner Art Modell announced a daily fine until Brown returned; but Brown finally flanked the penalty with the bombshell announcement that he was quitting the game. Fans refused to believe it, thinking he would join up again once the film was finished. Though Brown did come back to Cleveland after completing the movie, it was only to reaffirm his retirement and announce that he intended to spend his time helping his race—by heading the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union, an organization he had founded. More motion-picture offers were in the works as well, he added. Jim Brown was done with football for good—but not with the limelight.

In the following months, he enlisted nearly 100 famous Negro sports figures to help him with his fledgling N.N.I.E.U. and opened offices in several cities across the country. When The Dirty Dozen opened and Negroes in unprecedented numbers flocked to see him—aptly cast as a racially militant soldier—it became clear that Brown’s burgeoning screen fame showed every promise of rivaling his legend on the gridiron. At this point in his new career, we sent Alex Haley to interview the many-sided athlete-actor.

“When I met him in Cleveland,” reports Haley about the first of their many encounters, stretching over several weeks, “I soon discovered that his life now is probably more strenuous than when he was playing football. Between movies, he hustles through a 16-hour day that includes time at home, in his N.N.I.E.U. office, at public appearances and on the golf course—where he chafes if his scores reach the upper 70s. To keep up the pace, he burns a tremendous amount of fuel: I saw him consume two pounds of barbecued ribs as an appetizer while a four-pound T-bone broiled. Dessert was a quart of ice cream topped by a can of peaches.

“Brown tried to concentrate on my questions, but his Cleveland schedule—and his characteristic initial wariness—made it impossible. We agreed to meet again later in California, where he would be filming his third picture, the $8 million Cinerama production Ice Station Zebra, in which he co-stars with Rock Hudson. During our meetings in his dressing room, he proved appreciably warmer and more candid. Returning from camera calls, he relaxed as easily as he once did upon leaving the field after a game. Dropping his well-known mask of impassivity, he became amiable and animated, especially when he was talking about football. When racial matters came up, however, he turned dead serious and often punctuated his pungent remarks with a baleful glare and a meaty forefinger jabbed in my direction.”

“Despite the long shooting days, Brown rarely went out at night, choosing instead to stay in his room and study his script. On weekends, though, he roamed, visiting friends like Lee Marvin and Bill Cosby, going into Los Angeles ghetto areas to talk to the kids there and putting in as much time as possible at his Los Angeles N.N.I.E.U. office. One day we got to the office and found a small crowd there being regaled by Muhammad Ali. Ali playfully made a lightning feint as Brown entered; in mock seriousness, Brown—who had once turned down an offer of $150,000 to become a fighter—invited him out back. Muttering dire warnings, Ali followed Brown outside, where they touched fingertips and whirled into a flashing, furious, openhanded bout. Head down, Brown would probe for an opening, while Ali danced, dodged and swatted back. Then they stopped as suddenly as they had begun, both sweat-soaked and laughing. In spite of the schoolyard levity they maintained throughout, I couldn’t help feeling they were testing each other, secretly wondering what might happen in a ring.”

The interview ended when Brown left for San Diego to do scenes parachuting from a plane to rendezvous with an atomic submarine for his role in Ice Station Zebra. He would fly next to Bombay to film The Year of the Cricket. Beyond that lay a three-year contract with MGM that involved several more motion pictures. In one of them, Dark of the Sun, which premieres next month, Brown co-stars with Rod Taylor as a black mercenary involved in the Congolese uprising. No other athlete in history had ever managed such a successful transition to show business. We began by asking him about it.

Haley: What’s your reaction to Lee Marvin’s observation about your performance in The Dirty Dozen: “Well, Brown’s a better actor than Sir Laurence Olivier would be as a member of the Cleveland Browns”?

Brown: That’s great! I never heard that one before. Lee’s wild! I love him! But about what he said: Look, my parts so far haven’t really demanded too much of me as an actor; I know that and I’m not trying to rush myself. What I feel I’m not ready for, I stay away from. At this point I’m relying upon my presence; I’m concentrating on acting natural; and I’m soaking up every technique I can handle from the pros. I think everyone I work with can see that I’m trying to apply myself, and they go out of their way to teach me new things. So you might call it on-the-job training. Of course, I’ve always tried to be good at anything I get involved in. That’s another way of saying that eventually I hope to be regarded as a good professional actor—I mean by other actors. They’re the best critics.

Haley: As a longtime pro in another field, how did you feel about being the rookie of the cast in The Dirty Dozen?

Brown: I felt that was to my advantage. Everybody knew I had everything to learn, and they knocked themselves out helping me; so I probably learned faster than most rookies in films. The role I played helped me, too. I was Robert Jefferson, a college-trained soldier condemned to death for murdering a white racist who had brutally assaulted me. I strongly identified with Jefferson. I could feel and understand why he did what he did. I just made myself Robert Jefferson in my mind. And Bob Aldrich, the director, gave me every break he could. He rarely talked with me, but when he saw me getting uptight, he would say things that were constructive and calming. Even so, the pressure would build in me—you know, the doubts about whether I was really good enough to be there with them. But when Kenny Hyman, our producer, brought me a script for another movie, offering me a part, that was a sign of approval that meant a lot.

Haley: While the picture was being made, a rumor circulated that you weren’t getting along with several members of the cast. Was there any truth to that?

Brown: None. I got on with that cast as well as I ever have with any group in my whole life. Went out socially with most of them; never any arguments at all. That story must have been manufactured by press agents. I’m beginning to find out that press agents are an occupational hazard in this business—their imaginations. This particular story got started in Leonard Lyons’ column, that Lee Marvin and I left a party at Sidney Lumet’s and that we had a bloody fight to the finish outside. It was completely fabricated! In fact, Lee and I had a beautiful relationship.

Haley: Marvin has said there is an acting void that you can fill, especially among Negroes: “He’s seemingly more believable to the average Negro than guys like Poitier.” And director Robert Aldrich has said, “There isn’t another Negro actor around quite like Brown. Poitier, Belafonte or Ossie Davis aren’t Brown’s style.” Do you think they’re right?

Brown: I don’t know; maybe I am shaping a new movie personality. I’m just being myself; that’s all I know how to do. I’m sure not taking anything away from any of those you named—and others like James Earl Jones. But there’s a crying need for more Negro actors, because for so long, ever since the silent screen, in fact, the whole world has been exposed to Negroes in stereotype roles. Have you ever been to any Negro theater with a movie going, with a Negro in it? Well, you can just feel the tension of that audience, pulling for this guy to do something good, something that will give them a little pride. That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of, and respond to, and identify with, and feel real about, instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen making a fool of himself. You’re not going to find any of us playing Uncle Toms anymore. In my first picture, Rio Conchos, I played a cowboy who fought not only Indians but white guys, too. And I played a realistic Negro in The Dirty Dozen. And in this picture I’m shooting now, Ice Station Zebra, I play a Marine captain on an atomic submarine. It’s not a part written for a Negro, or for any race in particular; it’s a part with no racial overtones whatever. That’s why I can say, before this picture is even released, that a lot of Negroes are going to come to see it.

Haley: How did you get the part?

Brown: Robert O’Brien, MGM’s president, was very happy with my Dirty Dozen performance and he discovered that unprecedented Negro audiences were attending. He said, “Hell, this is beautiful all around!” He called me about five one morning and said if there was a part I could play in Ice Station Zebra, he’d have me in Hollywood the next day. A white actor had been tentatively slated for this part, but he wasn’t signed, because he was still negotiating for something else; and the next day I was in wardrobe. In fact, they went over the whole script to be certain that no racial overtones would occur because a black man was in the role. I dug the part not only for that reason but because, again, I could personally identify. Marine Captain Anders is my kind of officer—a man, self-sufficient as hell, bad, uptight, ready to do a hell of a job. He doesn’t care who likes him or who doesn’t, so he doesn’t try to be liked. He’s a terrific soldier, very tough on his men, but fair, and anything he asks them to do, he can do better.

Haley: Have you gained any more confidence in yourself as an actor since Dirty Dozen?

Brown: I think so. It’s just like football: I had to get that first play under my belt before I’d stop trembling. I still get keyed up, but I keep it under control. And when I’m called to go before the cameras, like I used to do before a game, I just cut off my emotions and go act out whatever the script calls for me to do. The only difference is that in football, we didn’t have a specific script; the other side wouldn’t have followed it, anyway.

Haley: What made you decide to quit football so abruptly at the height of your career? Was it the movie offers?

Brown: Look—I loved playing football. It did a lot for me; it changed my life. Otherwise, I could have been some kind of gangster today; I led a gang when I was kid, you know. But, taking a realistic look at my life and my ambitions, at the things I wanted to achieve, it was time for a change, see? I find this new career just as satisfying, and even more rewarding financially, and something I can keep at far longer than I could have lasted in football. Besides that, my other activities are benefited, especially working to increase Negro participation in the country’s economic life. That’s very important to me. Sure, sometimes when the weather’s crisp outside and I’m watching a game on television, it’s hard not to be out there with the ball. But still, leaving the game when I did is probably as lucky as anything that ever happened to me. Of course, I had some concerns about giving up football’s certainties for the movies’ uncertainties. But the hard fact is that I feel I quit just in time. I go out still in my prime and without any injuries. I got out before I ever had to do like I’ve seen so many guys—sitting hunched over on the bench, all scarred and banged up, watching some hot young kid out there in their place; and, worse than that, just wondering if they’d slowed down so badly they’d never be called to go into the game anymore. You see, I believe a man grows up. He discovers there are other worlds. Basically, I’m a guy who has to progress or I feel I’m stagnating—I don’t mean just materially, but as a person. My interests have expanded in various areas—in racial relations, my various investments and, of course, my new movie career, but most of all in my sense of responsibility to my people. For the rest of my life I am committed to taking part in the black struggle that’s going on in this country.

Haley: Another of the factors involved in your decision to retire, according to reports, was a contractual dispute with Browns owner Art Modell. Four years before, he had supported you in yet another dispute—against Cleveland coach Paul Brown. Acceding to an ultimatum from you and several other players, Modell finally fired Brown at the end of the 1962 season. Why did you insist on his dismissal?

Brown: Well, first of all, it wasn’t any vendetta, at least no personal kind of thing against Brown. At one stage in his career, Paul Brown was a genius; he set new trends in the game. But the man’s ego was such that when other coaches openly stole his ideas, and added new twists, Paul Brown simply could not, or would not, change and adapt to the new styles of playing. And we players increasingly saw this. Our professional lives, our careers, were involved. We happened not to be the brainless automatons he wanted his players to act like. So we did what we had to do—in what we saw as the best interests of the players, the owner and the fans. And later events proved us right. That’s really all there was to it.

Haley: What were some of the adjustments you felt Paul Brown should have made but didn’t?

Brown: Well, the major thing, we felt, was that Paul immensely favored a ground game, with intricately devised through-the-line plays. And in passing, he liked only short passes. That’s just two major areas where his refusal to change cost us games we could have won. The game had accelerated very fast, see, until any coach not utilizing long passes or frequent touchdown-run threats was bound to become obsolete. Paul would only very rarely approve our trying the long-bomb pass, which other teams used often. And I was the Browns’ main runner. Man, I loved to run—especially on those outside sweeps; that was my major touchdown potential. But Paul refused to give me enough wide-running sweep plays. When we saw ourselves continually losing when we knew we could have won, it just took heart out of us. We lost that burning desire to win that a team has to have if it’s going to win. How do you think we felt coming off a field beaten, and all of us there in the locker room knowing that the tremendous power we represented simply wasn’t being used to its capacity? I don’t like to knock the man, but truth is truth, that’s all. If he had just been willing to compromise, to adjust only a little, he could have remained the top coach in pro ball. Anyway, some other players and I finally told Art Modell that unless the coaching methods changed, we’d either insist on being traded or quit. Well, any owner of a team is first and foremost a businessman. That next January—this was 1963—Art announced that Blanton Collier was replacing Paul Brown as head coach. We went into the new season a thinking, working team again. I had my best year and we took second place in the Eastern Conference. Then, in 1964, we won the league championship.

Haley: And you won the Hickok belt as the year’s best professional athlete. In your entire pro career, you accumulated 126 touchdowns among your 15 all-time NFL records. Do you think anyone ever will equal or better those records?

Brown: I think every record I’ve ever made will get wiped out, ultimately. Once people declared that my Syracuse records would never be broken; then Ernie Davis—the late Ernie Davis—broke all but three of them; and then Floyd Little broke all but one of Ernie’s records. Records are made to be broken. You remember the four-minute mile? The 10-second dash? The seven-foot high jump? Always, you’re going to have young guys coming along and improving. That’s great, the way it needs to be, because that’s progress, that’s advancement. My personal records were never that important to me, anyway. As a matter of fact, I almost hated to break a record when I was playing, because I always felt I was becoming more and more a statistic in people’s minds than a human being. But I never dwell on what I did; it’s history now. I have a lot of pleasant memories of a game that was a good part of my life.

Haley: Among the records you set, none seems likely to last longer than the 12,312 yards you gained in nine pro seasons—a large proportion of which you amassed in the spectacular sweep runs you made famous. Was the sweep your favorite play?

Brown: Well, like I said, I loved those long sweeps—but any play that gained yardage was a good play as far as I was concerned. Most plays, you understand, aren’t for long runs; they’re just after a crucial few yards, maybe one yard, maybe even inches, for a first down. That’s your power plays, which can be just as important as some flashy run. But you say I made the sweep runs famous; that’s very flattering, but the fact is that I never would have been able to make them without a lot of company—without guys like John Wooten and Gene Hickerson, the Browns’ guards, to clear a path for me. Once they did, once I was through the hole and into the other team’s secondary, that’s when I was on my own. Then I had a man-to-man situation going—me against them: that’s when I’d go into my bag of stuff. They’re in trouble now—I’m in their territory; 55 things are happening at once; I’m moving, evaluating their possible moves, trying to outthink and outmaneuver them, using my speed, quickness and balance. I’ve always had very good balance. I’m ready to use a straight-arm, high knee-action or shoulder-dipping. There’s the full or half straight-arm, or just the forearm, then the shoulder. In the leg maneuvers, I’d “limber-leg,” offering one leg, then jerking it away when somebody grabbed. Or high-stepping would keep a pair of tacklers from getting both legs at once. In that secondary, it was just a step-by-step thing, using brainwork and instinct; but sometimes it got down to just out-and-out strength and brute force.

Haley: The great linebacker Sam Huff was once asked how to stop you. He said: “All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.” Detroit’s tackle Alex Karras was even more graphic about it: “Give each guy in the line an ax.” Why did they have so much trouble tackling you?

Brown: I’m the one that had trouble getting past them. You just don’t run over guys like them; I had to try and fake them some way, like maybe drop a shoulder and struggle to get by. Some guys, of course, if they were small enough, I’d just run over them. When we hit, I’d dip a shoulder, hitting his pads, and cross either with a straight-arm to the helmet or a clubbing forearm.

Haley: Speaking of that forearm, Matt Hazeltine of the Forty Niners has said: “Brown really shivers you. I wonder how many KOs he would have scored when there were no face masks.” Did opposing players ever try to retaliate for all the clubbings you dealt out on the field?

Brown: Oh, sure. If you’re a successful, aggressive back, a scoring danger, roughings are a routine part of the game. But it still got pretty hairy sometimes. The biggest thing I resented was guys going after my face—fingers under my mask, after my eyes. That’s the only thing that ever brought me close to turning chicken. I would get up, not dizzy, but I still couldn’t get my eyes clear. You know how you blink and your eyes still won’t clear? One time I remember, a Philadelphia Eagles defense man jammed his hand up under my face mask; I felt him clawing for my eyes and I got my teeth in that hand. Man, I tried to eat it up! I’ll bet it hasn’t run under any more masks since then. Later, there was a protest about my biting him. I said, “Look, I can’t bite anybody through a mask, can I? Any hand under there was under there for some purpose, right?” There was no fine.

Haley: On two occasions, you became involved in fights on the field. What made you blow your usual cool?

Brown: Well, once was when the Giants Tom Scott and I punched it out that time in Cleveland Stadium; the reason, again, was my eyes. In a Giant game two weeks before, I’d been hit and gouged in the eye seven or eight times, until I was half blinded for the next couple of weeks. I went to the eye doctor and got drops and stuff, and I made up my mind that if anybody ever again came deliberately close to my eyes, I would retaliate in spades. So when I felt Scott’s fingers grabbing for me, I just swung on him and we had that little scuffle. It really wasn’t much of a fight, but we both were put out of the game. The only other time I swung on anybody was with Joe Robb of the Cardinals. He hit me twice. I didn’t mind being hit; that’s part of the game—but he hit me for no reason, no reason at all, and that I did mind. So I hit him back. But generally, I felt that my best retaliation on some guy was to run over him on the next play and make him look bad. That could hurt him worse than a punch. Most things didn’t upset me too much, though. It’s natural for the players to get emotional and fired up in a game. In fact, sometimes funny things happened.

Haley: Like what?

Brown: Well, like sometimes guys would get all excited and call somebody a name. Once in 1963, we were playing a preseason exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On a third-down play, I fell pretty heavily on Lou Michaels, who’s now with Baltimore. He was real mad about it, and when I got up, I was moving off and I heard him holler, “Why don’t you go back to the Mafia, Brown?” I stopped and hollered back, “Mafia? You’re mixed up, you dumb chump!” Lou was all flustered for something to say, and he finally stuttered, “I mean the niggers!” Man, it was so funny, it cracked me up!

Haley: In the course of your entire football career, despite all the fights and roughings, you were never sidelined by a major injury. Most sportswriters consider this almost miraculous. Did you really manage to avoid getting hurt or did you just avoid showing it?

Brown: A little bit of both—plus a lot of pure luck. It’s true that I was never hurt badly enough to miss a game, but I did get a lot of what you might call small injuries at different times—cuts, bruises, sprains, and so forth. That’s part of the game. Look at my hands; see those scars? I still can’t shake hands with much grip: can’t even get an ordinary grip on a doorknob. I got hit on a nerve once. And though most people never knew it, during the 1962 season I played all the way through with a badly sprained right wrist. It was tough for me to shift the ball from hand to hand in open field, as I liked to do when running. Of all the blows I got, though, there’s one I’ll never forget. It was either 1958 or 1959, against the Giants. I had to hit the line, just one yard, for a touchdown. The Giants did a lot of submarining; and whenever I met submarining lines, if the gain was vital, I’d try leaping over their line—which can get you hurt. Well, we had to have this touchdown, so I went up to the line, expecting to jump, but then I saw just this little sliver of daylight and I decided to go against all my principles of caution and just drop my head and take a chance of getting a hell of a headache and go through somebody’s stomach. Well, I stuck my head in there, and Vrooom! It was like I’d been caught in a vise between their tackle and end; then a Mack truck crashed against my helmet. Sam Huff! I had made the touchdown, all right—but, man! Bells ringing, afraid somebody was going to have to help me up and all that. I finally got myself up, slow, the way I always did. But it was like, Jesus! I was addled, you know? Nobody’s used to blows like that. I played it cool, though, walking off like I was all right, because I didn’t want anybody to know. But I guess the worst one-game injury was later that same year, also against the Giants. I drove into a charging line and in the pile-up, I got kicked in the head. My memory was knocked out; I stayed in the game, but I couldn’t remember anything—even having come into the stadium to play the game. Our quarterback, Milt Plum, explained my assignments in the huddle and I carried the ball by instinct. That was in the first half; but even in the second half, I was still dreamy. Nobody knew it, though, but my teammates. Every tackle, whether I’d just had a brush block or I’d really been clobbered—like this time—I always reacted the same way. I got up slowly and I went back to the huddle slowly, without expression. It kept people from knowing if I was hurt, because I never acted any different, see? Even if my head was ringing, I could make that slow rise and walk. That’s the main reason I had that no-hurt reputation.

Haley: Didn’t your physical condition have anything to do with it? Dr. W. Montague Cobb, a Howard University anatomist, has said, “Jim Brown’s bone structure must resemble forged vanadium steel—the hinging of ankles, knees, elbows; the ‘crawl’ of muscles, the dynamism of effort easily tapped are all in immediate evidence.”

Brown: He’s looking at the wrong part of my anatomy. I’ve always made it a practice to use my head before I use my body. I looked upon playing football like a businessman might: The game was my business; my body and my mind were my assets, and injuries were liabilities. The first basic was to be in absolutely top-notch physical condition—even more than any coach would ask you to be in. I always tried to train harder than anybody else. I even developed my own set of extra calisthenics, things I could do in a hotel room if I had to. And over the years, I made for myself a careful study of what things usually cause injuries and, as much as I could, I avoided doing those things. For example, you’ll see backs constantly jumping into the air, over a line; they think it looks so dramatic. Well, it can work—in fact, I did it myself, as I mentioned earlier, whenever I felt there was no other alternative—but sooner or later, somebody’s bound to catch you up there in mid-air and break you in half. Another invitation to disaster is to use your head as a battering ram. If you do, pretty soon you’re going to get it unhinged, like I did with Sam Huff. You’ll also see some backs trying those fancy crossover step maneuvers—the left-leg-over-the-right-leg bit; I used to do that kind of thing at Syracuse; I was a regular fancy Dan. By pro-ball time, though—playing against guys who outweighed me by 60 or 70 pounds—I had learned better. I learned that if I was going to make it with the pros, I was going to have to develop something extra, something more than sheer muscle and flashy footwork. I was going to have to outthink the opposition. I would say that I credit 80 percent of the success I enjoyed to the fact that I played a mental game. The purely physical part—keeping in condition, running, passing, stuff like that—I’d credit with no more than 20 percent. It’s just common sense: Physically, many guys in pro football are more than my equals—big, strong, fast son of a guns. But some simply don’t get as much out of themselves as others. Why? Their mental game doesn’t match their physical capacity. My game pivoted on having planned ahead of time every move I intended to make on the field. The nine years I was in pro ball, I never quit trying to make my mind an encyclopedia of every possible detail—about my teammates, about players on other teams, about the plays we used, about plays I knew they used and about both our and other teams’ collective and individual tendencies.

I know you’ve heard that I was supposed to have a reputation for being distant, aloof and hard to get along with, especially in football seasons, most especially close to gametime. Well, maybe I was. Maybe I was rude to people and had very little to say to anybody. The reason is that I was focused mentally on that coming game. I was concentrating, visualizing things that I knew could happen and what I would do if it went this way or that way. I knew I had it working right when I started seeing plays in my mind almost like I was watching television. I’d see my own line in front of me, the guards, the halfbacks, the quarterbacks, and then the other team over there—especially big Roger Brown and Alex Karras, two of the best tackles in football. Both of them are quick, agile, smart, fast and big, and they like to hit hard. Notice I don’t just say they hit hard, but they like to hit hard—that’s mental; that’s positive thinking, see? I’d walk around in the locker room, seeing Roger Brown in my mind—for some reason, not his face or hands or shoulders, but those thighs of his. Massive thighs, like some huge frog. I always envision Roger hopping up in the air, jumping over blocks—all 300 pounds of him. And Alex Karras—in pro football, he’s just a little cat, just 250 pounds, but he’s built like a stump, with a boxer’s sneering mouth. I hear him growling; he actually growls when he’s charging. Positive thinking again, see? Anyway, I’d be watching them mentally across the line and sizing up the moves they might make against me. I’d see plays running and things happening—see myself starting a run and having to make spur-of-the-moment changes of strategy and direction. Every play I ever ran, I had already run a thousand in my mind. Right now, I can see a sweep run. I’m starting—my first three steps are very fast. Then I’m drifting, to let my guard in front of me get into position. There he is; now others are throwing their blocks; my guard is blocking their halfback to the outside. Now I accelerate and I shoot through the gap. That outside linebacker is my greatest danger now. I can see the order in which the tacklers are going to come. I’m looking for that end first, or maybe that outside linebacker, since no one could get to him right away. I see myself making all kinds of instantaneous adjustments, step by step, through their secondary—and then into the clear and all the way for a TD. Do you see what I mean? You get a jump on the game when you visualize beforehand not only the regular plays you run but also the hundred and one other things that might happen unexpectedly. So when you’re in the actual game, whatever happens, you’ve already seen it in your mind and plotted your countermoves—instantly and instinctively.

Haley: You’ve been talking only about plays on which you were the ball carrier. One of the few things for which you were criticized as a ballplayer was your alleged refusal to block for your teammates when someone else was carrying the ball. How do you—

Brown: Who said that about me?

Haley: Washington Redskins coach Otto Graham, among others. He has also said that the Browns would have been a better team without you.

Brown: Well, I never saw that quote, but I’ll assume it’s true, because Otto has made a lot of other comments disparaging my playing ability. I think maybe it’s time I reveal something I haven’t before that might cast a light on his real reason. See, Otto and I had always been good friends, and we were playing in a pro-am golf tournament at Beechmont Country Club in Cleveland, when Otto had a bad break. He drove a ball off the second tee and hit a man in the nose. Maybe two years later, this guy decided to sue Otto. I was busy practicing for a game when Otto’s attorney came on the field asking me a lot of questions about the event. I told him I remembered the man was about 25 or 30 yards away when the golf ball hit him, and I didn’t really remember too many other details. Evidently, the lawyer reported to Otto that I didn’t wish to be cooperative. Well, shortly after that, I read the sports headline that Otto Graham said I couldn’t or wouldn’t block and the Browns would maybe do better without me. I’ve always refused to fire back at him, feeling that he said it in the mistaken belief that I didn’t want to testify in his behalf.

Haley: But many others—coaches, players and fans alike—have made the same charge about you.

Brown: Look, in the Browns’ system, I simply wasn’t cast to do blocking; our offense was geared for me to run. I think I had only five or six blocking assignments in our whole repertoire of plays. I’d have been the league’s best blocker if the Browns had another guy doing the major running. But there are many, many great blockers in pro football and relatively few very good runners. If I had started blocking like the best guard out there and doing less running, we’d probably have won considerably less and my salary would have gone down by around $25,000. In fact, since the team depended on me running, I could even have lost my position. I always tried to satisfy the coach I worked for, and running was what they always asked of me—even in college. I always took Glen Kelly’s point of view: He said he wouldn’t hitch a race horse to a milk truck.

Haley: Throughout your first year at Syracuse, the coaches didn’t even want you as a starting player on the freshman team, let alone as its star fullback. Until your sophomore season was well under way, in fact, you were relegated to the fourth or fifth string on the varsity team. Why?

Brown: I was black, that’s why. You see, before I went to Syracuse, a Negro named Avatus Stone had been a great ballplayer there—a quarterback, a great punter. They wanted him to play end, but he refused and finally left and went to Canada. But the real rub was that Stone had been very popular among white coeds—which made him very unpopular with white males. So when I arrived, the only black man on the team, the coaches had nothing to say to me except, “Don’t be like Avatus Stone!” My whole freshman year, I heard so many sermons about what I should be like, I got so many hang-ups, that my attitude became as bad as theirs. In practice, I was snubbed and ignored until I got to where I’d just sprawl out on my back during drills and nobody said a word to me. I was as sullen as they were, and the freshman season ended and the sophomore season began with me on the fifth string. But I hustled like mad when sophomore training season opened; and when the games began, they had moved me up to second string. I got in a few games, but nothing spectacular happened until, finally, in the fourth game, against Illinois, we had a lot of injuries on the team and I started. We got badly beaten, but I carried 13 times, averaging five yards, and the fans caught that. When I was on the bench, they started hollering, “We want Brown! Brown! Brown!” Man, that made me feel 10 feet tall! Then came my really big break—against Cornell. We lost 14 to 6, but I made a long touchdown run, over 50 yards, as I remember; and altogether I gained about 150 yards. Then, in the next game, against Colgate, I made two touchdowns. That did it; overnight, the fans made me a campus celebrity and, man, did I love it! In my junior year, I opened thinking I had it made and Pittsburgh bottled me up for 28 yards in 12 carries and the coaches demoted me to second team. That made me so mad I saw fire; and in the next practice scrimmage, I left first-string tacklers lying out all over the field and ran four touchdowns in five plays. After that, they left me on the first string. That’s how I got accepted, you know? I mean accepted as Jim Brown, not Avatus Stone. And I’m saying nothing against Stone, because he’s a beautiful cat. I’m just saying my personality was my own and I didn’t happen to feel that white coeds had any monopoly on desirability for me. Anyway, once the coaches made up their minds, they were men enough to realize they had been wrong and they became fair in dealing with me, and then I gave them all I had. I think maybe having to fight my way up the way I did taught me more about being a man, too.

Haley: Did you have to contend with race prejudice in pro ball as well?

Brown: Of course! Every Negro in this country, I don’t care who he is, is affected by racial prejudice in some of its various forms. Athletes probably enjoy as much freedom as any black men in this country—but they’re by no means exempt from discrimination. The relationship with white players is much better now; they respect whoever can help them win that championship bonus check. And the fan reaction is greatly improved, because so many Negroes are starring and there are now even black team captains. The problems arise off the playing field—and I’d say that the major problem area is related, in some way, to white women. It’s a major factor why black and white players don’t socialize, because sooner or later they are going to be in some situation involving women. The black athlete who is desirable to white women is going to run into all kinds of trouble. If he gets anywhere around white men with her, fellow athletes or not, pretty soon that black man is going to get reminded that he is not free, that he’s still black in white men’s eyes, star on the field or not. It’s one of the reasons black athletes no longer particularly try to socialize with, or even get along with, white teammates. When the game is over, the whites go their way and the blacks go theirs, with very few exceptions.

Haley: According to the Cleveland press, that separatism didn’t apply to white women, at least in your case.

Brown: I see I’ve got to remind you I’m married—married to a black woman. I think I’m no different from the vast majority of black men: I’m not dying to have a white woman. Stokely Carmichael uses a good statement in this area when that subject comes up. He says, “The white woman can be made! OK, we’ve got that settled—so let’s go on to something important!” When I was in college, I dated both black and white coeds. It didn’t matter to me. I’ve never seen any difference in white or black women. It’s a question of individual characteristics, personality, habits and tastes. All that mattered to me was pretty girls. I always went after the finest-looking, the real foxes! I have a nickname, “Hawk,” which comes from having very good eyesight. Visually, I appreciate anything that I consider beautiful—if it’s a car, if it’s a suit, a painting, a woman or what have you. And the woman I appreciate most is my wife, Sue, who seems to be happy and very much in love with me. I have never denied her and I have never denied those three big babies we have at home in Cleveland. So I’m sure that I’m doing no big damage by looking.

Haley: Speaking of babies, you were once the defendant in a paternity suit filed by an 18-year-old Cleveland girl. Though you were subsequently exonerated, it didn’t exactly enhance your public image. What were the details of the case?

Brown: Actually, I was sued for assault and battery. Then the same party sued me for paternity. I figured, hell, I’m strong enough to fight it out publicly, and that’s what I did. I sat a week in that hot courtroom, missing a number of important commitments. It never would have gone to court if I had been guilty; I would have dealt with it the way a man should deal with a thing of that nature. Anybody who doubts that doesn’t know me.

Haley: Quite apart from paternity suits, it’s fairly common knowledge that you’ve long been the target of demonstrative admiration by many female football fans. Is it just coincidence that most of them happen to be white?

Brown: You’re just tipping around the edges of the big question at the bottom of the mind of every white man in this country: “What about you blacks and white women?” Right? Well, OK, let’s talk straight about that. I’ll tell you the very first thing that always knocks me out about that question. Why is there always the implication that the white woman is just mesmerized, just helpless, if she’s with a black man? Everybody knows the smart, hip, 20th century white woman is in complete control of herself and does exactly what she damn well wants to do and nothing else. So what’s the reason the white man has her pictured in his mind as hypnotized and helpless with a black man? The other thing that bugs me about that question is the assumption by the average white man that any black man he sees with any white woman has got to be sleeping with her. To me, that instant assumption tells me a lot more about that white man than it does about the black man—or the white woman. Let’s assume he’s right that a lot of white women are either openly or secretly attracted to black men. It happens to be true—but let’s ask ourselves why. Well, the answer is that the white man himself has made his woman this attracted to us.

Haley: How?

Brown: For generations, he has painted the black man as such an animal that it’s not only natural but inevitable that the white woman’s mind occupies itself with this big, exciting taboo. And, yeah, a lot of them do more than think about it; they decide to find out. And when they do, they find that the black man isn’t the gorilla the white man has painted; that he may be as much of a gentleman as any man she has known and may even pay her more respect than her own kind. You can’t blame her for responding—and you can’t blame him for responding to her, because he’s the same man who for 300 years couldn’t open his mouth or he would die, while he saw the white man having sex as he pleased with the black woman. Let me tell you something interesting to do. Every time you see a Negro from now on, just take note of his complexion. See how few are jet black and reflect how all the Africans brought over here were jet black. It might help you to do some thinking about who genetically changed the color of a whole race of people, diluted them from black Africans not into black Americans but into Negroes; even the word is a white man’s creation, a stigma, a kind of proper form for “nigger.” Historically, there’s been about a thousand times more sex between white men and black women than between black men and white women—and a thousand times more black man-white woman sex goes on in white men’s minds than ever does in fact. And I’m not in the least criticizing where it is fact. I believe that whatever any two consenting adults—black or white—do in their own privacy, without causing harm to any other party, is entirely their own business. The white man may consider it his business; in fact, most do; but I don’t feel that it’s mine!

I know, and I accept, that certain exposures to white women will likely encourage and develop friendships. I use the expression “friendships” because I don’t want to be guilty of doing the same thing that I accuse people of doing to me—just see me talking with some white woman and instantly they assume, “There goes sex.” I can’t tell you how many times that has made me sick in this country. I can’t remember once when someone wasn’t waiting to see me outside the stadium after a game—different friends, some of them from college days, some of them white women. Half the time, their husbands and children would be standing off to one side and they would run up and hug me. It was a very warm thing between the two of us; after all, we hadn’t seen each other in years—at least it should have been warm. But I can’t remember one single time when, before I got through the crowd, I didn’t catch some white faces giving me that frowned-up, dirty look that was saying, “Him and white women again!” Something beautiful and completely platonic disrupted by somebody who didn’t even know us. Hell, it didn’t even have to be a grown white woman! I’ve known it to happen with little girls! The autograph crowd is around, say, everybody excited and happy—and all of a sudden there’s this little girl, under 10, say, whose parent tells her, “Go tell Jim Brown hello.” OK, I bend over and the little girl, with instinctive affection, starts to reach up to hug my neck and kiss my cheek. You know? But I’ve been that route before. I anticipate the impulsive intent of a sweet, innocent little child—and I have to maneuver somehow to prevent her acting natural. Because too many times before, see, I had straightened up from a child’s embrace and caught the disapproving white facial expressions. Finally, I began to feel that I’d just rather not see my old friends in that kind of situation. Which meant that I was becoming prejudiced. Many a time since then, I have walked on through a crowd, not speaking to anybody, and it helped to build my “mean and evil” reputation. But this kind of bitter experience isn’t unique with me, or even with black athletes; it happens to every black man and woman in America.

Haley: Though you’ve certainly experienced many of the injustices familiar to all Negroes, isn’t it also true that you enjoy, as a celebrity, certain privileges that are denied to the average Negro?

Brown: Well, I do have some of what you might call “back-door advantages.” Numerous doors and opportunities have opened for me personally, for the individual me. I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, and a home, and my family eats and dresses well and I drive a good car. When I consider that my forbears were slaves, I know I’m lucky to be where I am and have what I do. But to me, these are always a reminder of the fact that the same doors are not open for all black people. Although I appreciate the advantages for selfish reasons, this constant awareness of inequity makes them mean less to me. And there’s something else a lot of people don’t realize—that the more successful a black person is, the harder it is for him to live with the things that still go with being black. Let me give you an example, just one of the common examples. You’ve earned the money to buy yourself a better home in a better residential area, and you haven’t even signed the papers before the word leaks out and white people start running before they’d live near you. The poor, ignorant type? No! Your better-class white people. The people who in another setting would smile to see their kids rushing you for autographs. How is one supposed to feel about that? I never will forget being bluntly refused an apartment in Cleveland soon after I moved there. The landlady looked me in the face and said. “We only take whites.” I wound up buying the home we have now, in a nice, modest, predominantly Negro neighborhood. At the other place, I hadn’t been eager to live around white people; I had just wanted a place near the field where the Browns practiced, which would be more convenient for me. It wasn’t integration I was after; I just was bitter about being segregated, you understand?

Haley: Have you encountered any other kind of overt discrimination since you became well-known?

Brown: Are you kidding? I don’t even like to think about it. But I’ll give you just one example. There was nothing really uncommon about the incident itself in the average Negro’s experience, particularly in the South. But it had me choked up and bitter for a long time after it happened. It was in 1957 and I was in Army training down in Alabama. Three buddies of mine and I were in my convertible, with the top down, driving to Tuskegee. We had just gone through this little town, enjoying ourselves, when all of a sudden this police car roared up behind and barreled past us, cut us off and stopped; and, baby, I’m looking at this cop getting out with a drawn gun. “Get out, niggers!” We got out. “What are you making dust all over white people for?” Just about then, another car pulled up and stopped and another white guy got out. The cop was saying, “You hear me, nigger?” Well, my emotions were such that I hardly trusted myself to speak. “I don’t know what a nigger is!” I said. Then he jammed the pistol right in my stomach. “Nigger, don’t you know how to talk to white folks?” One of the guys with me said, “He’s not from down here; he’s from up North.” The cop said, “Nigger, I don’t care where you’re from. I’ll blow you apart! Where did you get this car, anyway?” I said, “It was given to me.” He said, “Given to you! Who gave you a car?” I said, “It was given to me at school.” “What school?” I said, “Syracuse University.” Just about then, the other white man came over closer and he said, “That’s right. I recognize this boy. He plays football up there.” That was my reprieve. The cop took the gun out of my belly and said, “I’m going to let you go, but you better drive slow and you better learn how to act down here, nigger!” So we got back in the car and drove on. I don’t know why I even told you that; it’s not good to dredge that stuff up in your mind again. But you see, you don’t forget a thing like that, not if somebody handed you every trophy in football and 15 Academy Awards. That’s why a black man, if he’s got any sense at all, will never get swept away with special treatment if he happens to be famous, because he knows that the minute he isn’t where somebody recognizes who he is, then he’s just another nigger. That’s what the Negro struggle is all about; that’s why we black people have to keep fighting for freedom in this country. We demand only to live—and let live—like any ordinary American. We don’t want to have to be somebody special to be treated with respect. I can’t understand why white people find it so hard to understand that.

Haley: If you feel as strongly as you say about winning equal rights for Negroes, why didn’t you ever join the Negro celebrities who participated with Dr. King in such nonviolent demonstrations as the Selma march?

Brown: I felt I could do more by giving my time to my own organization—the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union—than by flying to Alabama and marching three days, another celebrity in the pack, almost a picnic atmosphere, and then flying back home a so-called hero because I’d been so “brave.” I’m not knocking those who did; I’m just saying I felt differently about it. That kind of demonstration served its purpose well; but it finally outlived its usefulness.

Haley: In what way?

Brown: I’d compare Dr. King’s methods with Paul Brown’s brand of football. Like King, Brown was a genius in his time, but he refused to change and finally he became outdated. I think the sit-ins, walk-ins, wade-ins, pray-ins and all those other -ins advanced the movement tremendously by awakening the nation’s conscience—making millions of white people aware of and sympathetic to the wrongs suffered by black people. When the white population was at that point, I think the movement’s direction should have been altered toward economic programming for Negro self-help, with white assistance. Think what could have been accomplished if the nation’s black leaders, at that time, had actively mobilized the goodwill of all the millions of white people who were willing, even anxious, to help the Negro help himself. We could have had millions, white and black, working toward that goal, with tremendous results. That was what I felt and what I tried to do, in forming my National Negro Industrial and Economic Union. But no one listened—not in the movement and not in Washington. What happened, instead, was that the marching went on and on, getting more and more militant, until a lot of white people began to resent it—and to feel threatened. Whenever any human being feels threatened—it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong—he starts reacting defensively, negatively. We lost the white sympathy and support we’d fought so hard to win: Badly needed new civil rights legislation began to die on the vine; existing laws were loopholed, modified or ignored; poverty funds dried up. On the threshold of real progress, the door simply closed in our faces. The inevitable consequences of that frustration set fire to Watts, Detroit, Newark and two dozen other cities.

Haley: Police authorities in several cities have claimed that the riots were fomented not by frustration but by “Communist agitators.” Do you think there’s any truth to that charge?

Brown: If by “fomented” they mean planned, like some kind of revolutionary battle strategy, they just don’t understand the explosive state of every ghetto in this country. The average ghetto Negro is so pent up and fed up with white lies, hostility, hypocrisy and neglect that riots don’t need planning. All they need is a spark to set them off, and the cops usually provide that without any help from the Communists. Once a riot gets started, of course, the Communists, along with a lot of others, will be out there fanning the flames. Communist money and people are working in every ghetto, especially the major ones. It’s no big secret that the Communists’ main objective in this country is to attract a large following of Negroes. You’ll hear black kids standing around on corners talking defiantly about “feudalism” and “capitalism” and “man’s exploitation of man” and all that stuff; they don’t even know what the words mean, but it sounds hip to them, you know? If there’s anything the vast majority of Negroes in this country have proved, however, it’s that they aren’t Communist-inclined. They don’t need Communist indoctrination to tell them that they’re second-class citizens, and they don’t need Communist help to become first-class citizens. They can—and will—do it on their own, no matter what it costs. Black people are demonstrating that they’re willing to die for total freedom. There’s not going to be any turning back now. It’s going to be either total freedom or the concentration camps I hear they’re getting ready for us. If there’s anything the black man has learned thoroughly in his history in this country, it’s that begging, appeasing, urging and imploring has gotten him nowhere. He just kept on getting slapped around, and only when he started to slap back did he begin to get any kind of respect.

Haley: Are you an advocate of Negro violence?

Brown: Don’t talk to me about Negro violence. The greatest violence this country has ever known has been on behalf of the various vested interests of white people, demanding whatever they were convinced were their rights. You could start with the American Revolution. Then the Indian wars—outright criminal violence, depicted in the history books and on television as heroic! Then the Civil War, in which the black man wasn’t really the true issue; he was nothing but the excuse. And on down the line to the labor movement. Heads got split open, people shot down, property destroyed all over the country. If you want to talk about race riots, the Irish, not black people, fought the bloodiest riot ever seen in America; in the late 1800s, they went looting and burning and killing down Lexington Avenue, which was then the richest, most fashionable part of New York City. There’s no point in dragging this out forever, if you see my point.

Haley: You’ve strayed from our original question: Are you an advocate of black violence?

Brown: I am a 100-percent advocate that if a man slaps you, you should slap him back. I know that if a man hits me, I’m going to try to hit him twice—harder—because I want him to do a lot of thinking before he ever hits me again. I am an advocate of freedom for everybody, freedom that isn’t something handed out at one group’s discretion and taken away if someone makes that group angry. The law is the law; that’s what I believe, and I believe right is right. We’re all supposed to abide by this country’s so-called laws—not only the laws against civil disorder but the laws for civil rights. There’s a very simply stated way to eliminate the race problem: Just enforce the same laws and the same standards for everybody, black and white alike. That’s the only thing the black people are after. Am I personally an advocate of black violence? I’m an advocate of stopping black violence before it starts—by facing the facts, by curing the reasons black people engage in violence. I’ve gotten frantic calls from high places when riots were in progress. begging me to “do something,” and my reaction has been. “Later for you! When I was trying to tell what our N.N.I.E.U. could do to prevent riots, you didn’t want to listen. Well, now you’ve waited too late!” Whatever I think, or any other black personality thinks, isn’t going to make any difference once riots get started.

Haley: Can they be stopped, or do you think they’ll escalate, as some predict, into a race war?

Brown: If nothing is done to prevent riots—and I don’t mean with more tanks—race war is a very real and immediate probability. Too many black people who have been kept methodically at the bottom of the ladder for centuries don’t really care what happens. They figure, what have they got to lose? The building up of police forces, the various thinly veiled threats, like concentration camps, have no deterrent effect whatever. All it does is make the blacks madder, and that will send them out in the streets quicker than anything else. As of right now, only a very small percentage of Negroes have actually rioted, or even have thought about physically participating in rioting. But the number grows with every threat. And there’s one thing in particular that I’d think about a long, long time if I were any city’s police chief or mayor or a state governor—and that’s the curfews that get slapped down whenever there’s trouble. After the Watts trouble, which involved only a few of the Negroes in Los Angeles, suddenly a “riot area” curfew was declared that went far beyond the locale of the rioting—all the way to the borders of the total black community in Los Angeles, excepting only the handful of so-called upper-middle-class blacks who happened to be living in so-called integrated high-income areas. With that single act, hundreds of thousands of Negroes—be they criminals, hoodlums, preachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, schoolteachers, firemen, policemen or politicians—discovered that it made no difference, that what really was being put down was black people! Nobody caught in that curfew net ever will think the same again. It was very obvious to them what was being said.

Haley: You said the riots may escalate if nothing is done to prevent them. What do you think can be done?

Brown: First of all, these mayors’ and governors’ offices have got to drop this implied revenge attitude I was talking about—building up police forces and beefing up the National Guard. That’s just working toward the concentration camps. There’s got to be, somehow, some truly sincere understanding achieved between Negro leaders and the concerned state and city administrations. And by Negro leaders, I don’t mean the Martin Luther Kings and the Whitney Youngs; I mean the people who have followings in the ghettos. They’ve got to be listened to, and worked with, and given respect, and urged to help with programing where money and other aid will actually filter down to the lowest level of the ghetto, where you find the people most prone to riot—those who are most bitter and alienated and frustrated and suspicious. So much has been done to them, it’s pins-and-needles job to make them believe anybody actually will do anything for them. But if the city governments are willing to listen to and work with these real Negro leaders, I think there is a tremendous chance of quieting racial disorders. I say this because I head up an organization—the N.N.I.E.U.—that offers, free, some of the greatest black talent in this country, most of it never used before. I can call upon 50 or 60 of the top black athletes in this country to run summer programs and work directly in communities with these young kids. But when I can’t get the Vice President’s committee to fund such a summer program, I think something is radically wrong.

Haley: Considering the mood of Congress in the wake of the riots, isn’t it unrealistic to expect the federal government to allocate funds for a program implemented by ghetto gang leaders who many whites feel were instrumental in starting the riots?

Brown: It was unrealistic, it seems to me, to expect that the people sealed up in these ghettos would remain quiet in them forever. If you’re trying to stop riots. I call any man qualified, street hoodlum or not, if he controls the people who riot. I know what I’m talking about; I’ve seen what can happen with these people. You’ve got to persuade the black men who are respected in their area to go in and crack the door, crack the ice. I’ve been able to do this myself a few times in a few places. The ghetto people know I’m straight, that I speak up and stand up and I wouldn’t betray them. I’ve gone into ghettos and talked with the toughest cats. I’ve told them, “Now, look I think you know I’m my own man. Now, here’s what seems to me a hell of a program, but it needs your help to get wide community support behind it.” In most cases, these guys will give 100-percent support. Give the toughest cats a certain respect, because they have respect from the people you’re trying to reach with help, and they’ll work with you. Sure, they’re hostile and suspicious, but they’ll talk sincerely with you if they figure you’re with them. You find their greatest disappointment and bitterness come from promises, promises that proved later to be some political sham or that just weren’t followed up. Whatever program there is has to be followed up, day to day. And the best people to monitor that is these tough guys: Give them jobs doing it. All they want is decent salaries; they have to eat, to live, just like anyone else. But I find that city administrations don’t like this idea. They’re still after political points. They want to dictate the terms, and the ghetto people resent anybody bringing them any program with white strings, so naturally it gets nowhere. And that’s why we’re likely to have more black uprisings, which lead to more white “revenge” talk, and threats, and the vicious cycle continues. I hope that black freedom can be won peaceably. That’s my hope. But things I keep seeing make me skeptical. Historically, great battles for freedom have seldom been won peaceably.

Haley: Have you read the polls that show that a large majority of Negroes think the whites would lose in a race war?

Brown: Yes, I have. That’s emotionalism. Because, without a doubt, black people couldn’t win any mass encounter. How could they? Outnumbered 10 to one? With a handful of guns, some homemade Molotov cocktails, sticks, rocks and switchblades? Against the white man’s jets, tanks, chemical warfare and H-bombs? That’s just plain silly. I think anybody who doesn’t realize this simply isn’t being a realist. But this is just one of many facts of life about which black people, especially the extremists, aren’t being realistic.

Haley: You were affiliated, as an official of Main Bout, with the Black Muslims who ran the organization. Do you feel that the Muslims’ extremist philosophy of separatism is realistic?

Brown: No, I don’t. Like many, many Negroes—maybe 90 percent of us privately—I agree with much of what they say, but I don’t personally accept their separatist philosophy, and I’m not a member. My business relationship in Main Bout with Herbert Muhammad and John Ali was a very pleasant and compatible one, however, and I respect the organization for instilling black people with pride in their race and for teaching black people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and take care of their own. I also respect the Muslims’ right to practice their own religion—a right legally recognized by the government, if not by the white press, which I feel has grossly misrepresented them. The main reason they’re so disliked by whites is that so much of what they say about the black condition is the truth, and white America doesn’t like to hear the truth about its own bigotry and oppression.

Haley: Do you feel the same way about such black-power firebrands as Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown?

Brown: I feel there is a need for them. Unfortunately, the average white seems to need a good scare from the Carmichaels and Rap Browns before he’ll listen to less dramatic requests. Speaking for myself, I think it’s too easy to just go out and threaten Whitey. What is that doing to help black people? At the same time, I’ve been turned down by so many administration officials, seeking money and support for our self-help program—and not just turned down but suspected of being “subversive”—that I’ve been tempted to take the easy way, too, and start hollering against Whitey myself. As long as administrations refuse to sponsor programs that give black people constructive alternatives to violence, I can’t really blame these guys for their extremism. I think they symbolize a lot of those their age who are sick of passive resistance, who are really fighting for freedom—young Negroes with great pride in themselves and their race. They are not trying to be assimilated; but they believe there should be, and must be, equality. Like them or not, they are what the white man is going to have to deal with more and more. They’re brash and fearless and they’re going to fight in any and every way they feel necessary to be respected and to win their freedom in this country. Where I disagree with guys like Stokely and Rap is that it was a mistake for them to get identified with merely defining and defending black power. It has deflected their energies from effective programming into sloganeering.

Haley: How would you define black power?

Brown: First and foremost, I’d define it as a creation of the white press. From the moment Stokely Carmichael used the expression in a speech two years ago—though he quickly explained that he meant it in the sense of political and economic power—the press, and millions of white people, instantly interpreted those two words as an ominous threat of black mass uprising. It says more to me about the interpreters than about the two words. To me it says white fear, white guilt seeking a justification, a target. It was whites, not blacks, who turned it into a hate thing and used it to label exponents of black power as advocates of racial violence.

Haley: Would you call yourself an exponent of black power?

Brown: I’m for black power the same way I’m for Irish power, Jewish power, labor power, doctor power, farmer power, Catholic power, Protestant power. I’m for all the special vested-interest groups using their economic and political strength to demand that others pay them respect and grant them equality. Only I call it green power. That’s my idea of what needs to become the black people’s special interest. I want to see black people pooling their monies, their skills, their brains and their political power to better themselves, to participate more fully in the mainstream of American life. And that requires white support. The black people simply don’t have the money to support the programs needed to train them in what they can do for themselves.

Haley: When you say you need white financial support to help Negroes help themselves, does that mean you share the deepening cynicism of such militant Negro groups as CORE and SNCC about the direct personal involvement of white volunteers, however sincere and committed, in the civil rights movement?

Brown: Speaking for my own organization, the one I’ve founded—which is the only one I can really speak for—we know that there are many, many sincere and truly committed white people, and one of our major efforts is to get more and more of them to help us. But we no longer want or need the same kind of help they’ve offered in the past: We don’t want them to march with us anymore, because marches are a thing of the past; and we don’t want them to work with us in the ghetto anymore. We want their moral and financial support—as long as there are no strings attached to either—but we want them to work with their own kind and leave us alone to work with ours.

Haley: Why?

Brown: Simply because the people in the ghetto just don’t trust whites, no matter how sincere or well intentioned they are; hell, they don’t even trust the average so-called accepted black leaders—which is to say, the black leaders approved of by the white establishment. The suspicions and hostilities, born of 300 years of white bigotry and betrayal, run too deep. But that’s where we can use all the help we can get from concerned whites: in uprooting racial prejudice where it originates—in the hearts of other whites.

What it comes down to is: Who can work best where? For the same reason a white man would last about five minutes preaching brotherhood on a Harlem street corner, black people can’t run around in white communities trying to change white attitudes; they’d get arrested for “disturbing the peace.” Sincere white people have got to go to work upstairs, downstairs, next door, down the block—talking, teaching, reasoning, organizing, whittling away at white prejudice wherever they find it; and they’ll find it everywhere. Our job, the job of sincere and committed blacks such as the athletes in my N.N.I.E.U.—who may be the only kind of guys the toughest street cats will accept and listen to—is to work inside the ghetto to eliminate the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination by helping black people acquire the green power they need to make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a tangible reality rather than an empty catchphrase.

Haley: How did you evolve this strategy of liberation through economic self-help?

Brown: Well, when I was with the Cleveland Browns, as you know, for some time I had a summer-season job with Pepsi-Cola. I had access to much of their internal operational program, and they had me do a lot of traveling to various places, as a representative. In the process, I began to get a pretty good understanding, better than any I had before, of how economics is the very foundation of this country. When I say white people have got to face some hard truths, I also believe that black people have got to face some hard truths; and the most basic of these truths is that, for all the crimes committed against him, the black man in America still has not begun properly to take advantage of even the limited opportunities that he has had. We have become a consuming people and we have produced almost nothing. Therefore, automatically, what few dollars we make don’t circulate among us, to help us; they go into other pockets instead. We’ve wasted too much time hollering and complaining that we don’t have this, we can’t do that, and so forth—all because of Whitey. We’ve squandered energies that should have been spent focusing upon what we could have and could do with what we do have! As a race, we suffer from a terrible mistrust not only of the white man but of each other. That’s why we’ve never really been able to get together, why we haven’t had more cooperative business ventures. For another thing, we’re just not economically oriented by nature; we’re too impulsive, impractical, unpragmatic and emotional about money. It’s the sad truth that we continue to drink the best imported Scotch, to wear the finest shoes, to drive the biggest Cadillacs, and we don’t own one single distillery, shoe factory or Cadillac agency—at least not to my knowledge we don’t. Right now, for instance, there are thousands of jobs going begging that industries are offering to black youth. The message in that fact for black people, I think, is loud and clear: Get off the streets and into the schoolrooms and the colleges and the libraries.

Now, in saying all this, by no means am I letting the white man off the hook. He has sinned; he has held the black man down for centuries. I’m just saying that the black man, in hard fact, hasn’t done enough to help himself. We’ve used our being a minority as a crutch. We’re said to be 10 percent of the population; but the Jews are only about three percent, fewer than 6 million, and they came here with far less than black people now have in resources and they met all kinds of prejudices. But they worked together; they used their brains and the law and money and business acumen, and by now you can’t find any ethnic group in America commanding more respect. Commanding it! Do you know that once Jews weren’t wanted in Miami? So they bought it. Same with the Catskills. I rarely give a speech today without suggesting the Jews as a model of what black people need to do with themselves economically.

Anyway, this was the trend of the private thinking I had been doing for a long time—about how the black people could truly become a part of American society and share in its good things. Well, the Pepsi-Cola experience gave me the insights and the know-how I needed to put that thinking into action—by getting others who feel as I do to help me form an organization to help black people help themselves economically. The first thing I needed was a staff to whom black people would listen, from whom they would take advice and guidance. And I knew of one ideal group—black athletes. It may sound immodest, but it’s a fact that we tend to be heroes among black people, especially black youth. Something that’s haunted me for years is that look I have seen so many times in some of those black teenagers’ eyes looking at me up close: For just an instant, that animal hipness and suspicion leaves the face and you see a look in the eyes that seems to say, “For God’s sake, for just a minute, will somebody care?” It gets to me, because I was that kid once, see? So it’s one of those “There but for the grace of God” things with me—and it’s the same for all the other athletes I know. So among my own teammates, and wherever we played, I filtered the idea around. And that’s where I got my first major encouragement. They just snapped it up! It was funny, man! On the field, cats were trying to run over each other, break each other in half; then the evening after the game, we’re all huddled together excitedly discussing this new project. Guys like John Wooten and Walter Beach of the Browns, Bernie Casey of the Atlanta Falcons, Brady Keys of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bobby Mitchell of the Redskins, Leroy Kelly, Bill Russell, Curtis McClinton, Timmy Brown, lots of others. We mapped out an organization that would sell memberships to anybody and everybody for from $2 to $100, to raise money to finance good ideas for small black businesses, because so many good black ideas can’t obtain financing. And we decided to make use of black professional people—these “middle-class Negroes” we hear so much talk about—to draw them in with us, to lend their talents to young Negroes in all the various ways they could. And we decided to use the image value of black athletes in personal-contact programs with black youth, especially in the ghettos.

We all put in some of our own money to get it started. I personally donated more than $50,000. Then we hired a secretary and rented an office in the ghetto area of Cleveland, where people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable coming to see us. Well, we’ve been almost two years now working, researching, recruiting, opening another office in Los Angeles and operating limited programs in four other cities. With more financing, I think we have the potential of being one of the most meaningful and effective programs anywhere in this country.

Haley: How many Negro athletes are involved now?

Brown: About 100, at least, from stars to rookies, from old-timers like me down to young kids like Lew Alcindor. He works for us like a Trojan in his off time. Quite a few white athletes have come in with us, too, as investors in black business ideas. And you wouldn’t believe some of the nonathletes who have volunteered to come and work with us for nothing but subsistence! People like Spencer Jourdain, a Harvard graduate, who quit a great job at Corning Glass to work full time for us, just for subsidy, because he’s so committed to our idea.

Haley: With so little city, state or federal support, financial or otherwise, how much have you been able to achieve?

Brown: Well, aside from a couple dozen new black businesses now in operation, I think we could rightly claim some major credit for the fact that last year, Cleveland didn’t prove to be the nation’s number-one riot area, as had been predicted by the so-called experts. We got together with the city administration and with the Greater Cleveland Foundation and persuaded them to cooperate, through the N.N.I.E.U., with those who were truly in control of the ghetto—the kind of people who really control every ghetto, people your average sociologists couldn’t even talk to, because they don’t know their language, even. The really tough cats, you know? The kind who are the most dangerous people in any society. Like this young man called Ahmad, who has a very sizable following and influence in Cleveland’s ghetto. We got together with him and we got him to agree to serve on a committee to discuss ghetto needs, to offer plans, and we saw in Ahmad a very changed attitude—because suddenly this guy was given some respect, see? Now he works to do constructive things for the area. We were also able to get the Greater Cleveland Foundation to fund a youth center for us. One of the first things we did was establish courses in black history, business administration, economics and many other such self-help subjects. We offer entertainment, too—dancing, theater, talent night; the kids love it. And we’ve developed a job-procurement program. We involved everybody we could get our hands on, with special emphasis on redirecting into constructive channels the energy of special groups who were capable of starting trouble. One young fellow, who had been viewed generally as a prime troublemaker, we were able to turn into a crackerjack director of our youth center; we have six Cleveland Browns athletes doing volunteer work under him. We’re headed into the 1968 summer now. The popularity of our youth center has so overflowed it that we’re asking the Greater Cleveland Foundation to fund five more of them for us. I truly think that if we can expand, we’re capable of conducting special programs simultaneously in at least six major cities. We want to open formal offices also in Washington, New York, Boston and Chicago. Given more city-administration aid and cooperation, I know we can prove what we can do. If anybody else wants to help us, or just find out more about us, would you be good enough to print that our N.N.I.E.U. headquarters address is 105-15 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44106?

Haley: Gladly. On another front, how do you feel about the election of your former N.N.I.E.U. legal counsel, Carl Stokes, as mayor of Cleveland—and about the victories of several other Negro candidates for high city office throughout the country?

Brown: Cleveland—and the country—will benefit. Carl won not because of—or despite—his being a Negro, but because he’s a takeover guy who’s going to produce a positive, dynamic administration for black and white alike. As for other Negro mayors and city officials in the North, like Hatcher in Gary, it simply had to happen, because otherwise, with the big Northern cities becoming more and more Negro-populated as white people rush to the suburbs, we wouldn’t have representative city government. But the most heartening sign to me is the fact that Negroes are competing with—and winning against—white candidates on the basis of personal qualifications rather than skin color, and winning with white support.

Haley: You seem to be much more optimistic about the racial situation than you were a few years ago—and much less cynical about the prospects of white cooperation. Why?

Brown: The only change is that once I dealt with the negative aspects; now I deal with what I see as positives. I’m working now trying to do something about what ails us black people. Now I have an organization. I have responsibilities toward the people who believe in me. We’ve talked, talked, talked about discrimination for years. Now I’m trying to help get rid of it.

Haley: With the kind of movie schedule you’ve been keeping, do you feel you’re giving all the help you should?

Brown: Not nearly as much as I’d like. But the other athletes carry on full time when I’m away, as their schedules permit. And whatever success I earn in the movies is going to be invested in building and promoting the N.N.I.E.U.; so I don’t feel like I’m neglecting my duty. What bothers me more is that I haven’t been able to be at home with Sue and the kids more than a few weeks at a time for about 18 months now. I don’t think the kids will suffer too much because of it, thanks to the great job Sue is doing in keeping them well adjusted; but I’d like to be there more, all the same. I’m getting older, you know, and I want my family ties to be as strong as the ties to my people. The best way I can see to strengthen both of them, in the long run, is by doing what I’m doing: trying to become a good actor. I may not make myself any more popular by saying some of the things I’ve said to you today, but I’d lose respect for myself if I told anybody just what I felt they wanted to hear. Just about whenever I’ve stood up and spoken my mind about situations that bothered me as a black man, somebody I thought I trusted, somebody I thought knew and understood me, has advised and urged and all but begged me—with the best of intentions—not to express my objections publicly. “Jim,” they tell me, “it’ll hurt your image. It’ll alienate the goodwill of your public”—meaning the white public. Well, I don’t need that kind of concern for my welfare. I’m not going to be anybody’s little boy. I’m a man, a black man, in a culture where black manhood has been kicked around and threatened for generations. So that’s why I don’t feel I need to take too much advice about how I’m supposed to think and act. And that’s why I have to tell the truth like I see it. Maybe some people will holler; maybe they’ll hate me for it. But I’ll just stick it out, walk tall and wait for the truth to be vindicated.

Haley: How long do you think that will take?

Brown: I can’t say how long; I can’t worry about that. That doesn’t even matter to me. All that matters is to see more and more black people mobilized and working toward constructive self-help goals. I want more black people to realize the hard fact that unless we do this, all the other gains aren’t going to make any difference. If in my lifetime I can see that this idea really has taken hold, then I will have the satisfaction of knowing that true freedom—as black men and as black Americans—will finally be within our grasp.

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the February 1968 issue of Playboy. © 1968 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)

(Alex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson was originally published in the December 1967 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Johnny CarsonAlex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson (1967)

John William “Johnny” Carson (October 23, 1925 January 23, 2005) was an American television host and comedian, known as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years. Carson received six Emmy Awards including the Governor Award and a 1975 Peabody Award; he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

“I interviewed Johnny Carson—a very collected, cool person, difficult to reach. We were at the Bel Air Hotel and he was giving his conventional responses, but then we got to talking about his having left Nebraska and that got him to open up. He was in school there and was peripherally running a little radio station—he was everything from general manager to janitor. He told me how he used to spin records and how he would think about wanting to do television shows. He said one day he was writing out a sketch for a show he thought might work on TV and a great revelation came to him—that what he wanted to do was not in Nebraska. Once he realized that, within two weeks he left Nebraska and starred to California with his wife and children. As he was telling me this he became nostalgic. He began dragging his words, remembering. Then Johnny stood up and walked to the window and looked out on Sunset Boulevard as if he was almost seeing a mirage and said, ‘We drove right down there on Sunset.’ He was playing it back to that time. And then he told me about his big break, where he landed a job as an assistant to Red Skelton who, during a rehearsal for his TV show, went through a breakaway door that didn’t break. Skelton was knocked out and Carson had to go on in his place and that was the beginning of the big road in front of him.” ~ Alex Haley.

A Candid Conversation With Television’s Foremost Host, Clown Prince And Raconteur

There are few television personalities as engaging—and none as paradoxical—as Johnny Carson, the suave, boyish, 42-year-old star of NBC’s Tonight Show. Five nights a week, for 90 minutes—under the scrutiny of nearly 10 million viewers and a studio audience of 234—Carson wittily and assuredly converses with guests ranging from Bobbie Gentry to Bobby Kennedy, in a style so ingratiating that the average viewer, according to one psychologist, feels he belongs to the Tonight Show’s “family” and is taking an active part in the proceedings. Out of the camera’s range, however, Carson maintains a passionately private life that has earned him an unenviable reputation as an uptight, lonely misanthrope. The puckish star, who often affects a whimsical naivete while on the air, also proved himself to be an exceedingly tough hombre in his celebrated walkout last April; convinced that NBC had violated his contract by showing reruns during an AFTRA strike, Carson refused to go back to work when the strike ended and won a new contract that reportedly guaranteed him an income in excess of $4 million for the following three years.

Despite occasional charges that the Tonight Show is “verbal Muzak” or that Carson deliberately skirts controversial subjects, the program attracts a hefty 40 percent of the late-evening audience. Recent challengers, such as Joey Bishop on ABC and Bill Dana on the short-lived United Network, have run far behind Carson not only in the Nielsen ratings but in the judgment of the critics. Time has called his show “the most consistently entertaining 90 minutes to be seen anywhere on television.” The main drawing card of the program is Carson himself; a gracious, tolerant host and a quick-draw, sharpshooting ad-libber, he is able to eke laughs even out of mishap—as when a mechanical device refuses to work or when a guest fails to maintain the lively, cocktail-party repartee that is the Tonight Show’s stock in trade.

Carson’s mastery of his craft is the polished product of almost three decades as an entertainer. At the age of 14, as “The Great Carsoni,” Johnny was earning three dollars an engagement for entertaining the Elks and Rotarians of Norfolk, Nebraska—his hometown—with card tricks and other feats of magic; in high school, he was class historian—and an imaginative practical joker. After a two-year stint in the Navy (he once entertained Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for several hours with his card tricks), Johnny entered the University of Nebraska, where he earned money off-campus as a comedian and radio announcer, met his first wife, Jody Wolcott, and wrote a thesis on comedy. Following a year in Omaha, where he acquired local renown as an offbeat radio personality, he moved to Hollywood and hosted a Sunday-afternoon television show called Carson’s Cellar. In 1954, while writing gags for Red Skelton, he got his first major break: Called upon to substitute for his boss after Skelton was injured in a rehearsal, he won plaudits for his performance—and his own night-time-TV show on CBS; but The Johnny Carson Show lasted only 39 feverish weeks. The producer attributed its failure to Carson’s lack of “power”; Johnny felt that too many people had been trying to give him advice.

After this setback, Carson acquired a manager, Al Bruno, and was promptly hustled off to New York. In the course of the next five years, as host of a daytime quiz show, Who Do You Trust?, he learned to improvise risqué but socially acceptable double entendres and to coax humor out of lady wrestlers, snake charmers and the matrons who comprised the bulk of his viewers and guests. The rest of his time was filled with a heavy schedule of personal appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Dinah Shore shows, stints as a guest panelist on What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth and even feature acting roles on Playhouse 90 and The U.S. Steel Hour. When Jack Paar decided to step down as ringmaster of the grueling Tonight Show in 1962, he named Carson—who had successfully subbed for him on several occasions—as the only man who could fill his shoes. NBC agreed, but many observers wondered if the new man was really up to Paar. He was—and then some; since he took over Tonight, Carson has eclipsed his predecessor’s popularity; the show is the biggest money-maker on television, with both advertisers and studio tickets S.R.O.; and its host has become the biggest star in television.

In the opinion of many, however, Carson’s success has made him cocky; and his reputed highhandedness has led colleagues to refer to their boss only half-humorously as “The Prince.” True to the image, when he secured his prodigious salary hike last April, he also demanded—and got—a free $1 million insurance policy and more autonomy in the production of the show. One of his first acts after returning to work was to fire producer Art Stark, a friend for 11 years, whose ideas were reportedly too conservative for the star’s taste.

Whatever else success has done to Johnny Carson, it has not made him sociable. In the past, he occasionally went out on the town and—according to some reports—showed up for work hung over from what an associate called “insecurity binges.” Today, however, he and his petite second wife, Joanne, rarely leave their $173,000 duplex in the United Nations Plaza Tower—a posh co-op that also houses such public personalities as Robert Kennedy, David Susskind and Truman Capote. They dine out about twice a month, see an occasional play and attend Giants games during the pro-football season. Carson’s remaining offcamera hours are spent in pursuit of a multitude of extracurricular interests—astronomy, archery, motion-picture photography, scuba diving and flying; he also plays guitar and drums. Recently, to acquire a short film clip for the Tonight Show, he even spun around the track at Indianapolis in Andy Granatelli’s turbine-powered racing car, allegedly banned from the “500” because it was too fast for the competition. On vacations—which add up to a quarter of the year—he plays to record nightclub audiences at a reputed $40,000 a week.

Reporters, eager to capitalize on the irony that such a willing performer should be such a reluctant celebrity, have often characterized Carson as a withdrawn, unaffectionate, even hostile man. One Tonight Show guest has bluntly called him a “cold fish.” Even his old friend announcer Ed McMahon has said that he “packs a tight suitcase.” Though others have risen to his defense—notably, Mrs. Carson, who explained to a writer at some length that Johnny cares very much about people but doesn’t find it easy to verbalize his feelings—few succeed in glimpsing his private life, let alone in reaching him on a personal level.

We decided to interview Carson early this fall, when he was riding high on the wave of public interest that followed his dispute with the network. Always wary of reporters, he regards the public’s curiosity about him as a tiresome irritation that “just goes with the territory.” But during his conversations with Playboy interviewer Alex Haley—which were conducted daily, over the course of a week, both at Carson’s home and in his NBC office—he overcame his reticence and provided us with by far the most candid interview he has ever granted. “At first,” Haley reported, “he was evasive, but by the end of our talks, I had come to like and respect him as a man with the guts to be stubborn about his convictions in a profession where the most common concern is to swing with the ‘in’ crowd, whatever the personal compromise.” Haley opened the discussion by asking Carson about his offscreen image as a loner.

Haley: Recent newspaper and interviews articles about you have focused on the contrast between your affable television image and what they claim is your dour, antisocial personality in private life. Writing in TV Guide, Edith Efron even went so far as to say that “Johnny Carson is a dual personality; pure sweetness and light on the screen—and offscreen, plunged into some Dostoievskyan murk.” How do you feel about this kind of armchair psychoanalysis?

Carson: I couldn’t care less what anybody says about me. I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with that, that’s his business. Whatever you do, you’re going to be criticized. I feel the one sensible thing you can do is try to live in a way that pleases you. If you don’t hurt anybody else, what you do is your own business.

Haley: Of course. But off the air—even to many of those who know you well—you seem withdrawn and even hostile. According to reports, longtime associates on the show say that you scarcely speak except as business demands, that you have almost no friends in or out of show business, that you hardly ever go out socially, that you shrink from your own public. Why?

Carson: I think I owe one thing to my public—the best performance I can give. What else do they want from me? As for being sociable, I hate the phoniness in the showbiz world. I know this will be taken wrong, but I don’t like clubs and organizations. I was never a joiner. I think most groups are hypocritical, restrictive and undemocratic. I don’t run with anybody’s herd. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like going to fancy places. I don’t like the whole nightclub scene. Cocktail parties drive me mad. So I do my job and I stay away from the rest of it. Isn’t that my right? Am I not entitled to prefer the enjoyment of my home? Am I not entitled to a private life? I can’t go anywhere without being bugged by somebody. I’d love to just hike out down the street, or drop in a restaurant, or wander in the park, or take my kids somewhere without collecting a trail of people. But I can’t. When you get successful, you just have to quit going out in public as often as you used to. Wherever you go, some clown grabs you and demands an autograph: It’s a pain in the butt. I’ve had a guy in a urinal ask me for an autograph!

Haley: Don’t all entertainers have to put up with that kind of thing?

Carson: Of course. But it doesn’t stop there. Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me. If I ask a guy what time it is, he’ll sing it to me. Everywhere I turn, there’s somebody’s niece who plays the kazoo or does ballet with skin diving flippers. I’ll never forget coming out of a restaurant one night, when this hand reaches from an alley and literally turns me completely around. It was this woman. “I want you to hear my son sing,” she says. And out she shoves this kid—”Sing, Albert!” And he did—right there in the street. I’ve had cab drivers pull over to the curb to tell me about some relative who ought to be on the show. That’s why I’ve got cabophobia—the fear of being talked to death in an enclosed space. But you haven’t heard the worst of it. One night, Ed McMahon and I dropped into a nightclub; we wanted to catch an act there. We had barely sat down when some drunken bruiser comes over and hauls me up by the arm. Right there, I was ready to rip into him; I didn’t care how big he was—but I kept saying to myself: “Don’t!” I could see the headlines if I did. He all but drags me to his table of maybe 15 or 20 friends and he yells to the band to stop so I can entertain them. I told him I was sorry, I was very busy. I had to get up early. Now he’s insulted. “Come on—I promised my friends.” Well, I walked away; Ed and I had to leave—and I’d made some enemies. You can’t win. So you stay away from public situations.

Haley: Have you changed since you became a star, or have you always felt this strongly about guarding your privacy?

Carson: In other words, has success spoiled Johnny Carson? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s you that changes with success—it’s the people around you who change. Because of your new status, they change in relation to you. Let me give you an example. I loved the towns I grew up in as a boy, and after I became a celebrity, I went back several times. I would have had the time of my life seeing the old places and the old faces again, but the attitude of those same people was, “I guess you’re so big we bore you now.” What was I supposed to say to that? Agree with them? They’d be furious. But if I said I was enjoying myself, they’d say I was being condescending. You see what I mean?

There was a “Johnny Carson Day” for me at the last Nebraska Centennial in Columbus, Nebraska. I went. I enjoyed most of it. It was a great honor, and I sincerely mean that. But I have since decided not to go back home again. It’s just too much of a strain. My folks will have to come to New York to see me. I guess people will find all kinds of things wrong with my saying that; they’ll say I’m conceited and egocentric—but I’m just being honest.

Haley: To be honest, are you conceited and egocentric?

Carson: Find me any performer anywhere who isn’t egocentric. You’d better believe you’re good, or you’ve got no business being out there. People are brought up to think, “It’s nice to be modest. It’s nice to hide your light under a bushel.” Well, bullshit! I’ve never bought that. In my business, the only thing you’ve really got is your talent; it’s the only thing you have to sell. If you want to call that conceit, go ahead. I don’t know where you’ll hear that word more than in show business—but it’s often not conceit at all. Often it’s a public compensation for shyness. That’s certainly the case with me. From the time I was a little kid, I was always shy. Performing was when I was outgoing. So I guess I am a loner. I get claustrophobia if a lot of people are around. But there’s a big difference between being a loner and being lonely. I’m far from lonely. My day is full of things I enjoy, starting with my show. Any time my work is going well and I have a relationship with a woman that’s pretty solid, that does it for me.

Haley: Last April, you won a healthy pay raise by going on strike against NBC. Is that one of the reasons you say your work is going well?

Carson: Since when has it been wrong to ask for a pay raise? Have you seen carved in stone anywhere that it’s unfair to bargain for a better deal for yourself? It was made to look as if I’m Jack the Ripper. Some of the columnists figured I was too greedy for a nice, small-town Nebraska boy. Like one letter asked, “How can you do that with people in the world starving?” What in the hell is the logic of that? I explained, time and again, carefully, why I stayed out—but nobody wants to believe you when you take a personal stand about something. The whole thing got written and talked far out of proportion. Look—the reason was simple; at least to me it was. Tonight was and is the biggest money-making show NBC has. It brings in $25 million a year, cold cash; but NBC treated Tonight like some bastard stepchild. We had a ridiculous budget. I hadn’t liked that setup long before the strike. But that still wasn’t the specific issue with me. The specific issue was that NBC directly violated our contract during the strike: They used reruns of the Tonight show without any effort at all to negotiate. My contract stated clearly that any reruns would be negotiated in advance in good faith, to arrive at equitable fees. They knew why I stayed out. They sent me a check for the reruns and I sent the check right back. But finally, NBC and I came to terms. I’m satisfied. I think they are. The show’s doing fine. That’s that.

Haley: Not quite—if you don’t mind our pursuing the subject a bit further. It’s been reported that your new contract will earn you more than $4 million in the next three years. Is that true?

Carson: I won’t tell you—for two reasons. One is that a term in the new contract specifies that neither NBC nor I will make public the details of the contract; I intend to abide by that agreement. Another reason is that in Nebraska, I was raised to consider that it’s not good manners to ask anyone, “How much money do you make?” All I will say is that the new contract calls for an increase in the monies that I receive for doing the show.

Look—do you know that Dean Martin makes a lot more, maybe half again, at least, than I do? But all that means nothing whatever to me. I have no use for eight houses, 88 cars and 500 suits. I can’t eat but one steak at a time. I don’t want but one woman. It’s silly to have as one’s sole object in life just making money, accumulating wealth. I work because I enjoy what I’m doing, and the fact that I make money at it—big money—is a fine-and-dandy side fact. Money gives me just one big thing that’s really important, and that’s the freedom of not having to worry about money. I’m concerned about values—moral, ethical, human values—my own, other people’s, the country’s, the world’s values. Having money now gives me the freedom to worry about the things that really matter.

But I wouldn’t call myself a great deal happier now than when I was earning $47.50 a week in Omaha. You could live on that in 1949 in Omaha. The guys at the station and I used to sit around and yak about how great it would be if we could earn $150 a week. We couldn’t have believed what I make now. We couldn’t have believed where I live now, the job I have—none of it. But I’m still sleeping in a bed; it cost a lot more, but I don’t sleep any better than I did then. And I still like hamburgers—but in all of New York City, you cannot buy one as great as I used to buy at the Hamburger Hut in Norfolk, Nebraska. You see what I mean? Believe me, it’s all relative.

Haley: During your year in Omaha, you often worked six and seven days a week almost around the clock. Doesn’t it please you to be earning a great deal more than you did then, for a great deal less work?

Carson: Maybe it looks easy to a lot of people, but sitting in that chair will take more out of you than if you were chopping down trees all day. I spend seven and a half hours on the air every week. I think anyone who does this show ought to get an Emmy just for showing up. I’m serious. It’s not the physical strain: It’s debilitating mentally. In fact, I’ll tell you something: My biggest anxiety is about the day I’ll know I’ve reached a point where I can’t bring the show anything more that’s new. I was 42 this October, see? Physically, I have no concerns; but mentally, it’s one of those shows where you’re working from wake-up in the morning until you go to bed, and then even in bed. The pressure is to keep it from getting dull. I believe we give more honest humor and entertainment in one week than most prime-time shows in a season. But think about trying to keep that up, five nights a week, and maybe you’ll appreciate the strain. And that’s just strain about the overall planning; then you add the strain of each show when you’re on the air. When that red light goes off at the end, I get up from that chair already planning the show for the next night. If it looks easy, I’m doing my job. It both bugs me and pleases me when people tell me how relaxed I make the show look. Great! Maybe the public figures I’m getting well paid for it, but it’s the toughest job in television. Listen—understand that I’m not complaining. I love the show; otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I’m just saying it’s tough.

Haley: You said your workday begins when you wake up. Would you describe a typical day for us?

Carson: Well, I get out of bed at nine or 10 in the morning. And I’m not one of those who spring up yelling, “Yippee! Another day!” I’ll grumble and sulk around a couple of hours, reading newspapers and trying to pick out an idea I might do something with on the show. But I don’t really start functioning until noon or later; then about two I go to the studio and the pace begins to quicken. Planning the time slots for this guest, that guest, rehearsing the skits, trying to anticipate what could go wrong with some physical participation I want to do—like the time I dueled with a fencing master. Or the time I did a snake dance with Augie and Margo. Or when I try out gadgets or toys. Or the times I’ve done exercises with Debbie Drake. She’s great fun. One of my good lines came with that. Debbie and I had just lain down on the exercise mats, side by side, and it popped into my head to ask her, “Would you like to leave a call?”

Haley: Are all of your ad libs spontaneous and unrehearsed?

Carson: Very few of them are. Ad-libbing isn’t very often the instant creation of a good line. More often it’s remembering something you’ve used before and maybe making a quick switch to fit a fresh situation. Once I had Red Buttons on and he was getting into an involved analysis of politics, so I told him finally, “You’re kind of a redheaded Dr. Schweitzer tonight, aren’t you?” and Red started being his funny self again. Now, that’s a situation bit I’ve used many times. Every comedian has a bag full of them. I remember once a woman on Who Do You Trust? telling me at great length, too great length, about a pregnant armadillo. She was about to bore the audience, so I asked her, “How come you know these things if you’re not an armadillo?” They’re usually old bits, but they work like brand-new if people laugh. Like the time we had this Latin Quarter showgirl on the show. She walked on in one of those poured-in dresses, with her hair done up in some exotic style. I said, “I suppose you’re on your way to a 4-H Club meeting,” and the audience cracked up. That’s the humor of the ludicrous, of extreme contrast. I’ve used it many times before and I know I will many times again.

Haley: Apart from the skits and your participation bits and, in a sense, some of the ad libs, how much preparation is involved in each show?

Carson: The minimum that’s safely possible. That’s part of the formula. I have little or no advance contact with guests, for instance, unless they’re involved in some skit. And the writers prepare my opening bit—that first 10 minutes after I walk on. But I edit what they give me until I’m entirely comfortable with it, using something topical I’ve found in the papers, if I can. Then the necessary staff people and I plan a rundown of the show. By the time all this is done, it’s six p.m., and we start taping the show at 6:30. Then I’m on my own. So the objective is spontaneity within a planned framework; but for the most part, we’re winging it. My job isn’t to hog the show. Ideally, I’m the audience-identification figure, the catalyst. When I’ve got a guest who’s going great on his own, I let him go. If he looks good, I look good. Sometimes, of course, the chemistry isn’t right, or something will go wrong, and I’ll have to change the pace or pull a switch during a commercial or a station break. Like one time Peter O’Toole came on. I think everyone was sure he was drunk. I thought he was, too. I’d ask him a question and he’d reply something incoherent or completely unrelated, as if he was off in some other world. So I put on a commercial, and while it was running I asked Peter if he was OK, and I found out the trouble. He had just flown in from London to do the show and, because of that long haul, he was just blind with exhaustion. So while the commercial was still on. I said, “Well, Peter, why not just cut?” He agreed and left without another word. When I came back on. I explained it to the audience and everything was OK. But that sort of thing is a rarity, thank God.

All too often, though, a guest will either clam up or be vapid and bland, and I’ll have to cut it short and come on next with a bullwhip demonstration, or some skit I can do on a moment’s notice, to wake us up—or wake up the audience. Sometimes I can get us going again by coming up with a good gag keyed to what a guest is talking about. Like once during the New York World’s Fair, I got off one that the Moroccan Pavilion had a belly dancer, but the Fair’s business was so bad she had a cobweb in her navel. Another time, Mr. Universe was on, explaining the importance of keeping yourself fit and trim. That sort of thing can get deadly dull, of course, and I was feeling for a good gag when he told me something like. “Remember, Mr. Carson, your body is the only home you will ever have.” And I said, “Yeah, my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman come in once a week.” Can you imagine the mail I got on that one? But nearly anything you say, you can’t help offending somebody out there. If I say “naked,” if I use the word “pregnant,” I’ll get probably 500 letters complaining that I’m hastening national immorality. A lot of them are from nuts—you can tell that—but many are from perfectly sincere people who happen to think that practically anything is immoral. Let me do a sketch about the President or about a rabbi and there’ll be a storm of criticism.

Haley: Do you let this kind of reaction affect your choice of material?

Carson: You can’t afford to. The only time I pay attention to audience mail is when it contains something I find possible to use for the show’s benefit. You can’t let an audience run your show for you. If you do, soon you won’t have any audience.

Haley: Do you feel the same way about television critics?

Carson: I try never to let them bug me—but I’m not always successful. Nobody likes to be zinged; but whatever they say, I will continue to do what I think our show should do. I see little that I feel is constructive in what most TV critics write—about my show or anybody else’s. One of the main reasons is that few television critics really know much about television. Too many of them are ex-sportswriters and ex-gardening columnists, completely unfamiliar with the medium. They haven’t bothered to learn what makes it work. There are a few TV critics I respect: Jack Gould here in New York; and on the Coast, Hal Humphrey. But most of them are on a level with Sidney Skolsky, who once wrote that I wasn’t Jack Paar. I could have told him that. I felt like wiring him that neither was he any H.L. Mencken. I often feel that I’d like to give all the critics just three hours a day of TV time and say, “All right, you’re so bright, now you fill that three hours, every day.” You’d hear less from them about what’s wrong with television.

Haley: What’s your reaction to Newton Minow’s celebrated indictment of television as a vast wasteland?

Carson: Sure, there’s a lot of chaff on television. No doubt of it. But let’s not forget a fundamental fact about this medium. It starts in the morning, about six a.m., and goes off anywhere from one to three a.m. Where are you going to find the people to write consistently fine material 19 to 21 hours a day, 365 days a year? A Broadway play that’s going to run for 90 minutes can take a year or more to get written, by the biggest playwrights in the business; then it can spend months and months on the road, being tested every night and changed daily; they can bring in the best script doctors in the country—and yet that play can still open on Broadway and bomb out the first night. How can you expect television to do any better—or even as well—when it’s showing more in a week than appears on Broadway all year? I’m not defending the medium just because I’m in it: I’m just trying to explain that television has an impossible task. Why should it be the job of television to educate or edify or uplift people? This is an entertainment medium. I have never seen it chiseled in stone tablets that TV is philanthropic. Is it television’s job to improve people’s minds—when the libraries are full of empty seats? Are we supposed to provide instant education?

There are lots of things I’ll knock the industry for—including the fact that there’s too much junk on the air. But there are a lot of fine programs, too. And I think television is steadily working to improve its programming; the competition is so hot, it guarantees that. Another thing people so often entirely overlook when they’re criticizing is that this still is a very young industry. My first TV broadcast was when I was at the University of Nebraska. I was playing a milkman in a documentary called, believe it or not, The Story of Undulant Fever. You know what the broadcast range of that show was? The cameras were in the university theater’s basement and the screen was up in the auditorium—and that was the first television at the university. And that was in 1949: that’s how young television is. So I don’t go for this general rapping of the television industry. How long, how much longer, have the newspapers and the interviews and the movies been around? Does television offer any more junk than they do? Does television feed its viewers anything like as much rape and lurid details? Yet television is always being knocked in newspaper and interviews editorials. I’m not against the press, but that sort of attack is not only unfair but hypocritical.

Haley: Do you share, at least, the general view of the press that television’s commercials could stand both improvement and diminution in number?

Carson: Well, I wouldn’t say there are too many commercials. After all, the time has got to be paid for. The stations must make some money in order to continue programming, and the only way to do this is by selling products for sponsors. I think we have to recognize that and live with it. Every half hour we have just three one-minute network commercials: the others are within local station breaks. My gripe with commercials is that so many irritate me with their haranguing and shouting and overselling; and I think some commercials violate good taste. I go up the wall every time I catch that commercial with the kids bragging about “22 percent fewer cavities”! I happen to like and use the toothpaste, but I hate their commercial. And I’m sick, sick, sick of stomach acids going drip, drip, drip. Nor do I feel TV is the place to advertise relief for hemorrhoid sufferers. If I ran an agency that made commercials, my credo would be, “Be enthusiastic, but be quiet—and honest.” I would love to see believable soap ads, like: “This soap won’t get you a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband—but it’ll get you pretty clean!” I really think that would sell trainloads of soap. The advertising agencies should be called to task when they make phony claims and violate good taste and when they overemphasize sex and social-acceptance pitches, and status and snob pitches. Television advertising can’t be avoided, but it could be a hell of a lot more honest—and more palatable.

Haley: For most TV sponsors, the fate of a show is decided by its popularity rather than its quality, by means of rating systems that have been widely attacked not only for their life-or-death importance to network programmers but for the inadequacy and inaccuracy of their audience samplings. How much stock do you place in them?

Carson: I’m reminded of the story about this gambler in a small-town saloon who is taken aside and told that the wheel he’s playing is crooked. He says, “I know, but it’s the only wheel in town.” The industry seems to want a yardstick, and I guess the ratings are the only one they can find. I don’t know how accurate they are, but I’d hate to think that a random sampling of 1200 viewers gives a true national picture. I’m certain that people aren’t watching what they tell the pollsters they watch. People often want to project themselves as some kind of intellectuals, so they’ll say they watched the news, or some forum, or the National Educational Network show, when, in fact, they watched Bonanza or The Flying Nun. You know? One thing I’m sure of: Ratings certainly don’t indicate if people are buying the sponsor’s product. But I’m glad I have the ratings I get—accurate or not. Anybody would be. I don’t concern myself too much about them, though, because one show will be up, another one down. If you start worrying about a particular show, chances are you’ll do worse the next. What really counts, is how your ratings average out over, say, six months. I never worry about an individual program after it’s over. That was yesterday; what’s tomorrow?

Haley: The Joey Bishop Show went on opposite you several months ago. Do you feel that Bishop represents a threat to the Tonight Show popularity?

Carson: To tell you the truth, I don’t think anything about it. I don’t worry about what Joey Bishop is doing. When his show was ready to open, people asked me about it, and I told them I knew it would be the noble thing for me to say that I wished him much success; but honesty compelled me to admit that I hoped he would fall on his face. That’s how any performer feels about his competition; and if you hear anybody say different, he’s lying in his teeth. I think people will have much more respect for you if you’re honest. But no competition is going to bother me in the sense that I’ll lose any sleep over it. I look at it as professional golfers do. When he’s out there in some tournament, Palmer isn’t worrying about Nicklaus, or any of the rest. Any pro golfer will tell you that’s the surest way to lose. I give all my concentration to what I’m doing. Some viewers will go for Mike Douglas, some for Merv Griffin, some for Bishop, some for me. Nobody is ever going to walk away with the whole television audience; there’s plenty for everyone.

Haley: In many cities, the Tonight show competes with one or more of the controversial new talk shows that are emceed by combative, opinionated moderators such as Tom Duggan, Alan Burke and Joe Pyne. Do you ever watch them?

Carson: I am not a fan of those shows. I think their format, their whole approach, is a substitute for talent. They insult people. They’re rude. It embarrasses me to watch that kind of prodding and goading. I don’t think they’ll last, because the public will get fed up with them. People will see the deliberate controversy for what it is.

Haley: The Tonight show, under your control, has been criticized for deliberately avoiding controversy. Is there any truth to that?

Carson: Well, bullshit! That’s my answer. I just don’t feel that Johnny Carson should become a social commentator. Jack Paar got into that, being an expert on everything happening. So did Dave Garroway and Steve Allen and Godfrey. Who cares what entertainers on the air think about international affairs? Who would want to hear me about Vietnam? They can hear all they want from people with reason to be respected as knowledgeable. Controversy just isn’t what this show is for. My number-one concern, and the concern of NBC, is a successful Tonight show. I’m not the host of Meet the Press. I think it would be a fatal mistake to use my show as a platform for controversial issues. I’m an entertainer, not a commentator. If you’re a comedian, your job is to make people laugh. You cannot be both serious and funny. One negates the other. Personally, I want to be a successful comedian. Audiences have proved time and again that they don’t want a steady diet of any entertainer airing his social views—especially if he’s a comedian. When a comic becomes enamored with his own views and foists them off on the public in a polemic way, he loses not only his sense of humor but his value as a humorist. When the public starts classifying you as thoughtful, someone given to serious issues, you find yourself declassified as a humorist. That’s what happened to Mort Sahl. He was one of the brightest when he began; then he began commenting humorlessly on the social scene in his shows. How many shows has Mort lost now? I think he realizes this now—and he’s starting to get funny again. Like most people, of course, I have strong personal opinions. I might even be better informed than the average person, just because it’s my business to keep up on what’s happening. But that doesn’t mean I should use the show to impose my personal views on millions of people. We have dealt with controversial subjects on the show—sex, religion, Vietnam, narcotics. They’ve all been discussed, by qualified guests, and I’ve taken stands myself. But it’s only when the subject rises naturally. I won’t purposely inject controversy just for the sake of controversy. It would be easy, if that’s what I wanted. I could get in the headlines any day by attacking a major public figure like Bobby Kennedy or by coming out in favor of birth control or abortion. But I just don’t see it, and I don’t play it that way. I won’t make this show a forum for my own political views.

Haley: Isn’t it possible for you to air your social and political views without abandoning your role as a comedian? Can’t you comment humorously and satirically rather than seriously on current issues?

Carson: It should be—because that’s the essence of comedy at its best—but that’s not the way it works in practice, at least not on television. Americans, too many of them, take themselves too seriously. You’re going to get rapped—by the viewers, by the sponsors and by the network brass—if you joke about doctors, lawyers, dentists, scientists, bus drivers, I don’t care who. You can’t make a joke about Catholics, Negroes, Jews, Italians, politicians, dogs or cats. In fact, politicians, dogs and cats are the most sacred institutions in America. I remember once somebody stole the car of Mickey Cohen, the racketeer, with Cohen’s dog inside, and I said on Steve Allen’s show that the police had recovered the dog while it was holding up a liquor store. Well, the next day this joker telephoned and said, “I don’t want you should joke about Mickey Cohen,” and I told him the joke was about his dog. “That compounds the felony,” this character said. “You just better watch your step.” Look—a comic has got to tread on some toes to be funny, but he’s got to be careful how many toes he steps on, and who they belong to. I think the biggest rap mail I ever got was once when a girl said on the show that we should send Elvis Presley to Russia to improve our Soviet Union relations, and I said, “I don’t know about Russia, but it might improve relations here.” Presley fans tore me up. You can’t say anything about practically anything that can be considered someone’s vested interest. Once I planned to air a joke about how the government ought to be run like Madison Avenue would run it. Write ads like, “You can be sure if it’s the White House.” But I was told, “No, can’t kid the government.” Well, why not? Another time I was intending to kid the phone company a bit, and I couldn’t—because the Bell Telephone Hour was on the same network. If you plan to stay in television, you just have to adjust to these taboos, however ridiculous they are. But I must say that the timidity of the censors really floors me sometimes. For instance, it’s touchy, touchy if you say “damn” on TV. Once, in 1964, somebody brought a dog on my show that actually said “Hello.” It stunned me so that I blurted, “The damn thing talks!” Well, that word got blooped from the sound track before the show was aired. I say that any adult who gets offended at hearing “damn” or “hell” ought not to be watching television—or reading books. These same people, interestingly enough, seem to have no similar objection to the amount of violence on TV; otherwise, you wouldn’t see so much of it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK to kill somebody on television as long as you don’t say “damn!” as you strike your victim down.

Haley: In its recent cover story about you, Time interviews clucked editorially about what it felt was your taste for bathroom humor. Do you feel that’s a justified criticism?

Carson: That’s one of the two things in that whole article that I resented. The other line I didn’t like was that I had divorced my first wife. I didn’t; she divorced me. I didn’t initiate it. The way they put it made it sound like I was the kind of guy who made it big and then got rid of the one who had stuck with him all the way. Anyway, about that bathroom-humor bit. I think the writer didn’t use the word he intended; I think he meant double-entendre jokes—because toilet humor I don’t like at all, not from me or from my guests.

Haley: Then you do indulge in double-entendres?

Carson: Occasionally, yes—but without striving for it and without violating what I consider good taste.

Haley: The rap letters you’ve said you receive from viewers imply otherwise.

Carson: There’s a lot of hypocrisy in audiences. I’d never dream of telling even on a nightclub stage, let alone my show, some of the jokes that are told in a lot of the living rooms from which we get those letters! If you can’t talk about anything grown-up or sophisticated at midnight without being called immoral and dirty, then I think we’re in trouble. After all, by the time we go on the air, the children are supposed to be in bed asleep. I can’t just prattle about what I had for lunch and expect people to tune in every night. We’d be dead soon if we got dull enough not to get letters; we have to get in something now and then that’s provocative. Take comics. You can’t have Sam Levinson on all the time, talking about kids and school. You have to liven things up occasionally with somebody like Mel Brooks. Mel can get close to the line, on the line, or he’ll edge beyond it: He may offend, but when he’s going great, really winging, he’s near a genius. There are some guests, of course, who make a fetish of blue material. But if I once feel that, you won’t see them on my show again. Nor will I let a guest say something blue that I can sense in advance—especially if it’s just to be blue. But I’m not going to worry about it if something happens to slip—and it can just as well be me as a guest. Even when no double meaning is intended, that pious bunch out there in the audience will make up its own and write in about it. That’s more of a commentary about them, in my opinion, than it is about us.

Haley: Many of those same people, and their journalistic spokesmen, seem to feel that the sexual suggestiveness—and overt erotica—they perceive on television, in movies, interviews and books is evidence of a moral decline in society at large. What’s your reaction?

Carson: Well, if you’re talking about sexual morality, I wouldn’t agree that it’s declining, but it’s certainly changing. Young and old, we are very much in the process of taking a fresh look at the whole issue of morality. The only decline that’s taking place—and it’s about time—is in the old puritanical concept that sex is equated with sin. You hear the word “permissiveness” being thrown around; right away, in so many people’s minds, that translates to “promiscuity.” But it just ain’t so. You read about college administrators deploring the dangers of too much permissiveness on campus. The fact is that the biggest problems in this area are being experienced at colleges that are persisting in the old tight disciplines and trying to oversee every student activity that might hold any potential for sexual contact. It doesn’t work, of course. At one school I know about, in the men’s dorms, they’re permitted to have female visitors only for one to two hours in the early evening. All that means is that if a couple wants to go to bed, they can’t do it in the afternoon. On campuses with very little administrative supervision, there are no problems at all. Giving students latitude for personal freedom doesn’t result in everybody jumping into the hay with everybody else. They’re still just as selective about whom they have sex with. It’s not promiscuity; it’s just that private behavior is left up to the individual. I’m for that. Whether you agree or disagree with Madalyn Murray on the subject of atheism, you’ve got to admit she has a point when she said in her playboy interview, “Nobody’s going to tell me I’ve got to get a license to screw.” It’s ludicrous to declare that it’s wrong to have sex with anyone you’re not married to. It’s happening millions of times every day. If the laws against it were enforced, we’d have to build prisons to hold four fifths of the population.

Haley: When you talk about the ludicrousness of laws and mores forbidding sex outside marriage, do you mean pre- or extramarital sex?

Carson: Premarital. Some may consider it old-fashioned, but I feel that very few people can have sex elsewhere and still maintain a good marriage. It’s tough enough to keep up a good, solid marital relationship even when both partners are completely faithful.

Haley: How do you feel about such groups as the Sexual Freedom League?

Carson: For some, they seem to work, but for me, I pass. I simply couldn’t imagine engaging in anything like that. At the same time, I recognize there are all kinds of sexual deviations in this world; they are real needs for a lot of people, or they wouldn’t be doing whatever they do. As long as it’s this way, I think we ought to come to grips with the fact that there never can be any successful legislation against private, nonexploitive sex. I don’t want to start sounding like some boy philosopher, but our sex laws seem to be predicated on the puritanical assumption that all sex—especially any variations from the marital norm—is dirty and should be suppressed. At the same time, our national obsession with sex seems to be predicated on the belief that sex constitutes the entire substance of the relationship between man and woman—and that’s just as sick as feeling that it should have no part in human relationships. It’s a damn healthy part of a good relationship, that’s for sure. But it’s just a part, and we seem bound and determined to make it unhealthy.

Haley: How would you suggest we go about ridding society of these hang-ups?

Carson: We need to start with the kids. We need to completely overhaul not only our own neurotic values but the abysmal sex education in our schools. When anthropologist Ashley Montagu was on my show not long ago, he said—and I couldn’t have agreed with him more—that in any sexual relationship, adult or otherwise, married or unmarried, the key word is responsibility. We have to teach our young people to ask themselves. “Am I ready to assume the responsibility of a sexual relationship?” Even the clergy are openly saying this to youth now. They’ve quit, most of them, trying to sweep sex under the rug, as if it doesn’t happen. Look at the high school girls who are getting pregnant. It’s a little late to give them a good sex education. That’s why I feel that it should start early, say in the fourth grade. I don’t mean the whole clinical picture then, but a stress on the responsibility involved. When I was a kid, they called it “hygiene.” They talked about sperm and vulva, and everybody giggled. No teacher ever said a word to us about the complex role of sex in our life with other people. Nobody told us it wasn’t dirty, that it could be and should be pleasurable and that sex is a vital necessity to most people. It’s the lack of this kind of open and honest education about sex that causes so many kids to grow up with sexual hang-ups. As it is, they’re having to find things out by themselves—largely in rebellion against parental example. Kids are experimenting sexually and discovering that they don’t wake up rotted or damned in the morning, like they’ve been told by their parents and their clergyman. Young people see adults wife-swapping and philandering, and yet piously maintaining that sex is sacred and counseling them hypocritically about the “sinfulness” or “immaturity” of intercourse outside marriage. Like their parents, kids flock to see James Bond and Derek Flint movies—outrageously antiheroic heroes who break all the taboos, making attractive the very things the kids are told they shouldn’t do themselves. Well, they’re figuring “Why can’t I?” and they’re not buying the adult advice anymore. Why should they? They’re seeing a war that nobody wants, and the frightening prospect of a World War III that would incinerate us all. If anybody is capable of doing that, it’s the adults, not the young people. The vast majority of us don’t want to face the fact that we’re in the middle of a sweeping social revolution. In sex. In spiritual values. In opposition to wars no one wants. In opposition to government big-brotherhood. In civil rights. In basic human goals. They’re all facets of a general upheaval.

Haley: One of the most conspicuous facets of that upheaval has been the exodus of thousands of young people out of society and into hippie communities. Do you feel they’ve chosen a viable alternative to the square society they find unlivable?

Carson: No, I don’t. They seem to be involved in some kind of search for identity, but I don’t think they’re going to find it—not in Haight-Ashbury, anyway. Most of them, to me, seem lost and floundering. They’ve removed themselves from society, yet we see that they continue to expect society to provide them with necessities like medical help and food.

Haley: Many of them are provided for by the Diggers. Don’t you find that a reassuring evidence of self-reliance?

Carson: How sustained do you think that will be? Aren’t they doing it as a kind of kick? Let me see them continue looking after the hippies for a few years; then maybe I’ll look at it differently.

Haley: The hippie movement is linked in the public mind with usage of psychedelic drugs. How do you feel about this trend?

Carson: I think it’s one of the most frightening things youth, or anybody else, could possibly get involved in. We just don’t have enough authoritative information yet about how dangerous it is to tamper with the mind—but even what little we do know should be enough to give them pause. Don’t they know about the high ratio of genetic defects—known already, this early? These drugs are so new that research has just barely scratched the surface of the damages they can cause. Already, we know about chromosome debilitation. We see hospital emergency wards filling with young people, some not yet 20 years old, completely wigged out! Nobody ever tells them the facts. All they hear about is how they can take these chemicals and expand themselves, find themselves. Bullshit! Who have we yet seen emerge from the drug culture with any great new truths? Timothy Leary? A brilliant man, obviously. But what’s the philosophy he expounds? “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” I wouldn’t let him on my show. I wouldn’t let him spout that nonsense.

Haley: In condemning the use of chemical turn-ons, do you classify marijuana along with LSD and the other psychedelics?

Carson: No, I don’t put marijuana in the same bag with LSD or any of the hard narcotics. People are wrong when they say marijuana isn’t addicting, though. I’ve known people who use it, known them all my adult life, and I know they are at least psychologically addicted. But it’s just a mild stimulant, actually. And I think that the laws against its use are repressive out of all proportion. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to try it myself—or any of the other hallucinogens; it’s tough enough to navigate in this world without drugs. It may not seem like much of a world to the kids, but it’s the only one we’ve got, and dropping out of it isn’t going to solve anything.

Haley: Many young people, of course, far from dropping out, have become activists in the student-protest movement, intent on changing society rather than abandoning it. How do you feel about this kind of rebellion?

Carson: I feel that any of us has the right to dissent from what we don’t like. But to what extreme do we wish to carry it? I think students ought to have the right to protest, but not to the point of anarchy—like that Berkeley situation. I got the impression that they often didn’t know just what it was they were protesting against. Essentially, there was just a small, hard-core leadership throwing around words like “Freedom!” and “Rights!” What rights are they talking about? What about other people’s rights? When they brandish four-letter placards and shout “Fuck!” at free-speech rallies, what the hell are they proving except how sophomoric they are? As for the burning of draft cards, I think it’s stupid and pointless—though no more stupid and pointless than the war itself. It’s unlike any war we were ever in. An undeclared war. An unpopular war. And it keeps going on and on. I’m a father with a boy coming out of high school next year, and I don’t look forward to his marching off over there. I don’t think anybody dissenting against this war has any business being called “un-American,” but I still don’t see burning draft cards. I’m all for the right to dissent; lots of things need to be changed. But I think we have to respect some boundaries, some limits, if we don’t want to wreck the country. It can happen a lot quicker than people think if too many dissents and rebellions get out of perspective—and out of hand.

Haley: Do you think the Negro riots pose that kind of danger?

Carson: They certainly do—if we don’t do something to end them once and for all; and I don’t mean with more tanks. The big thing on television now is show after show, special after special, about the reasons for the riots. Presidential commissions are formed, committees of mayors and police chiefs convene, to investigate the causes and the culprits. That’s ridiculous. The why of the black revolution is no great mystery. What’s sparked it all, of course, is desperation; and it’s tragic that most whites can’t seem to grasp that simple fact. Negroes saw the Civil Rights Act passed 10 years ago—yet they haven’t really seen much since then in the way of enforcement. Why? Because too many whites are in favor of integration and equality only so long as it never touches them, only until some Negro makes a move to buy into their block, until they find themselves competing with Negroes for the same jobs. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some progress in the past decade; but it’s been too little and too slow—just enough to give Negroes a taste of freedom and equality, but not enough to make either a reality. So the discontent and frustration erupt into violence. It’s understandable, but we all know it’s not going to solve anything. The exhortations of extremists like Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael—urging Negroes to arm themselves and get Whitey—may not be designed to win friends and influence people, but they’re not going to win freedom for the Negro, either. They’re just going to result in massive retaliation by whites and ghastly carnage on both sides. So-called moderate leaders like Martin Luther King deplore these tactics, too—but what does he propose as an alternative? A guaranteed annual income of $3200 for all Negroes. He says it’s a compensation, an overcompensation, to make up for what’s been done to the Negro, for what the Negro has been deprived of, in this country. That’s all well and good, but where’s that money going to come from? If anybody is given any sum, somebody else has got to provide it. Black or white, if you’re not working and I am, then if you receive $3200, I’m providing it. That’s just replacing one injustice with another. Negro leaders call on the government to appropriate $50 billion to “erase the ghettos”—but that’s not going to solve anything, either, not by itself. You could gut Harlem today and rebuild it tomorrow but unless we do something to uproot the injustices that created the ghetto, all we’ll have built, at a cost of billions, is a nicer cage. This obsessive emphasis on money, money, money—just money—simply isn’t the answer. And neither is this pressure that’s being applied by civil rights organizations, when a job is open for which a Negro and a white are equally qualified, to give that job automatically to the Negro, just because he’s a Negro. Fundamentally, that’s both condescending and subtly demeaning to that Negro. The problem isn’t going to be solved by reverse favoritism any more than it is by giveaways. It comes down to just one basic word: justice—the same justice for everyone—in housing, in education, in employment and, most difficult of all, in human relations. And we’re not going to accomplish that until all of us, black and white, begin to temper our passion with compassion, until we stop thinking in terms of more guns and more money and start listening to more realistic and responsible leaders—leaders who will begin, however belatedly, to practice what they preach: equality for all.

Haley: Speaking of political leaders practicing what they preach, what was your reaction to the widely publicized transgressions of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Senator Thomas Dodd?

Carson: Well, whatever else they did, they became victims of an ethical double standard: the public’s pious condemnation of its elected officials for conduct it condones in private life. However unjustly and hypocritically, people expect those in positions of public trust to be as spotless as a minister. I certainly think we have the right to expect our politicians to uphold their vow of office with honesty and integrity—but only if we apply those same ethical standards to ourselves. As long as we shrug at the kind of corporate espionage and financial hanky-panky that goes on in business, as long as we take for granted the kind of tax-loophole sleight of hand and expense-account padding that goes on in everyday life, we’ll get exactly the kind of public officials we deserve.

Haley: In the three years since President Johnson’s re-election, a great deal has been said and written about the credibility gap—particularly in regard to the disparity between his professions of peaceful intentions in Vietnam and his continued escalation of the war. How do you feel about it?

Carson: Well, I have to admit that at times I find myself with the very uncomfortable feeling that the public isn’t getting all the information it ought to, that we’re not being told what’s really happening—but not just in Vietnam. I’d say it started, at least for me, with the U-2 incident. The government denied and denied and denied—and then the truth came out. The most recent instance, of course, was the revelation of CIA spying on college campuses by hiring students as undercover agents to report on so-called subversive activities. I get the feeling that George Orwell may have been right when he predicted that Big Brother might be watching all of us someday. It’s not very reassuring about the ideals of those we entrust with the power to promote and protect the interests of this country.

Haley: Let’s talk about the qualifications of those who run for public office. How do you feel about the trend toward ex-show-business personalities in politics—men who, like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, win elections almost entirely on the strength of their affable screen images?

Carson: I couldn’t care less about a candidate’s previous occupation, as long as it was something respectable. I don’t care if a hot-dog vendor gets to be President. He had to be voted in there by the people, who had other choices. We’ve had doctors, lawyers, automobile executives, even ex-haberdashers in public life and I haven’t heard any complaints about their backgrounds. What makes them any more or less qualified than an actor? Why should a movie star be treated as if he’s diseased or something just because he decides to run for office? He could have the clap and it wouldn’t necessarily affect his abilities as a political leader. A politician should be judged by his performance in office, not by his former livelihood. If he does an incompetent job, the public can always throw him out. The night after Shirley Temple announced her candidacy for Congress, we did a skit on the show about “The Good Ship Lollipop” and had a little fun at her expense; but I certainly don’t think the fact that she once played Little Miss Marker should disqualify her for office. Who knows? She might make a pretty good congresswoman—certainly no worse than some we’ve seen.

Haley: On your show a few months ago, New York’s Governor Rockefeller suggested that you consider running for Congress yourself—as a Republican candidate for the Senate against Bobby Kennedy. What do you think of the idea?

Carson: No, thanks! Even if Governor Rockefeller hadn’t been saying that with tongue in cheek, I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in running for public office. I’d rather make jokes about politicians than become one of them. Once on the show, somebody asked me where tomorrow’s comedians were coming from, and I told him, based upon my recent observations, from the Democratic and Republican parties.

Haley: Your own origins as a comedian could hardly be more unlike the familiar showbiz story that begins on the Lower East Side and ends on the Great White Way, with stop-offs en route on the vaudeville-burlesque-Borscht Belt circuit. You’ve never talked much about your personal background on the air or off, other than to say that you’re from the Midwest and that you were once an amateur magician. Would you like to fill us in on the rest?

Carson: Well—I was born in Corning, Iowa. No cracks, please. I’m the product of a typical middle-class upbringing. My father was then a lineman for the power district; that means a guy who climbed up and down telephone poles. Later on, he became the power district’s manager, and he has since retired. We moved around to different small towns—places like Clarinda, Shenandoah, Avoca. I started school in Avoca, Iowa. I think I was eight when we moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, a town of about 10,000. I will never forget looking down on Main Street from a fourth-floor hotel window there, thinking how high up I was and marveling at so much traffic down in the street.

I think it was that same year I first realized I could make people laugh. I played Popeye in a school skit—you know, imitating him, with that funny voice. My sister Catherine and my brother Dick [now Carson’s director] and I grew on up through high school there in Norfolk. We had a big frame house in town. It was a typical small-town Midwestern boyhood. Dick and I fished and skinny-dipped in the Elkhorn river, and summers the family would vacation at a lake in Minnesota. I was at a friend’s home one day when I picked up an old book I saw: Hoffman’s Book of Magic. It described all the standard tricks and how to make some of the equipment yourself, and there was an ad for a kit of stuff from a mail-order place in Chicago. So I sent away for it, and the stuff came, and I couldn’t think about anything else but making things and working with the magic. I ordered every catalog advertised and read them from cover to cover, and spent every quarter I could get for more stuff. Finally, one Christmas I got this magician’s table with a black-velvet cover. I have never since seen anything more beautiful than that was to me. The next thing was ventriloquism. I bought a mail-order course, also from Chicago, for $15.

Haley: When did you first realize you wanted to be an entertainer?

Carson: I just can’t say I ever wanted to become an entertainer; I already was one, sort of—around our house, at school, doing my magic tricks, throwing my voice and doing the Popeye impersonations. People thought I was funny; so I kind of took entertaining for granted. I was full of card tricks, too. Around the house, I was always telling anybody I saw, “Take a card—any card.” It was inevitable that I’d start giving little performances. My first one was for my mother’s bridge club. They thought I was great; and I felt great, making my mother so proud, you know? And after that I went on to give shows at Sunday-school parties, church socials, anywhere they’d have me. I was 14 when I earned my first fee for my act—three dollars from the Norfolk Rotary Club. Then I began to get a fee like that at picnics, county fairs, 4-H Clubs, service clubs, chambers of commerce. I was billed as “The Great Carsoni,” wearing a cape my mother had sewed for me. In school, I was into every activity except sports. I went out for football, but the first time I ran with the ball and got tackled, the next thing I remember is the coach looking down in my face and asking if I was all right. He recommended that I give my full extracurricular time to other activities. I was in every school play, wrote a column for the school paper, everything. I got pretty good grades, but most of my effort was directed elsewhere.

By 1943, when I graduated from Norfolk High, I was making pretty fair pin money with my act. Funny thing, though, I still didn’t have any intention of entertaining as a serious career. I was still very small town in my outlook. It would be another three or four years before I’d find out that the Catskills weren’t a dance team. I was still playing with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, an engineer or a journalist. And I had decided on engineering when I entered college. But the war was on, you know, and I was accepted for a V-12 program that would get me a Naval Air commission; but they sent me to Columbia University’s midshipman school instead; there just weren’t any flying training openings then. I got my ensign’s commission and went to the Pacific on the battleship Pennsylvania. I had dragged a footlocker of gear for my act with me and I entertained the officers and men every chance I got. In the comedy bits, mostly, I’d knock officers; the enlisted men loved that. Later, when I was at Guam, I did the same thing there.

Finally, when I got out, I entered the University of Nebraska, this time trying journalism. I thought it would help me learn to write comedy. But that who-when-where-why-what bit couldn’t have bored me more, so I switched to radio and speech. It was while I was at the university that I got my first radio job for $10 a week at the local station, WOW, for playing in a comedy Western called Eddie Sosby and the Radio Rangers. It came on three mornings a week and I had to get permission to be 15 minutes late those mornings for my Spanish class. Then, in my senior year, I did a thesis on comedy. I analyzed the best comics then performing and taped excerpts of their performances to illustrate things like timing and sequence, building punch lines, recognition devices and running gags, things like that. Comedians like Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack and Mary Benny, Rochester, Ozzie and Harriet, Milton Berle and Bob Hope. When I got my A.B. degree in 1949, I went straight to my first job, $50 a week for doing anything and everything at WOW. I did commercials, news, station breaks, weather reports, everything.

I guess the next thing was my first marriage—to Jody. We’d been going together several years. Soon my first son was born, Chris. Meanwhile, I got a radio show, The Squirrel’s Nest I called it, and I picked up $25 on the side for magic acts I’d do anywhere I could. In Omaha, I remember, there was a group campaigning to get rid of pigeons, which were accused of defacing city hall. I came on my radio show with “Equal Time for Pigeons,” imitating the birds cooing their side of the story and pleading for mercy; we won a reprieve: The campaigning was dropped. Doing just about anything a Jack-of-all-trades in radio could do, it was almost automatic that I would eventually go on WOW-TV.

All the time, I kept thinking in the back of my mind about where I was headed, in a career way. I was getting along well enough where I was, but at the same time, I knew that I could never go very far as long as I stayed in Nebraska. The action and the opportunities were all either in New York or California. So I got a cameraman friend to shoot a half-hour film of me doing a little bit of everything I could do. When a vacation came up, I packed the wife and kids in our beat-up Olds, with a U-Haul trailer, and we took off for California. When we arrived in San Francisco, I knocked at every radio and TV door; at most of them. I couldn’t even get inside. They’d say, “No openings, sorry.” So we went on into Los Angeles—looking like something out of Grapes of Wrath driving down Sunset Boulevard. Same kind of hearty welcome.

But finally, a childhood family friend, Bill Brennan, who had gone into radio sales in LA, successfully recommended me for a staff-announcer job that had opened at KNXT, a local station. I went there and did everything except sweep out the place. When I could find the time, like on nights when I was disc jockeying, while the record was playing, I was sitting there in the booth putting together an idea for a TV show. See, I had made an agreement with myself when I got to LA—that if I didn’t have my own show after a year, I was going to move on to New York. I was never one who believed in “waiting for the breaks.” I believe we make our own breaks. Well, the CBS people finally looked at my idea and gave me a spot they had open locally on Sunday afternoons. You won’t believe the budget—for each show, $25! I wrote my own scripts, mimeographed them and acted in them—and got pretty fair newspaper notices. On one show, I had a friend rush past the camera on the air and I announced, “That was my guest today, Red Skelton.” Well, Skelton heard about it and really did turn up for one of my shows. Then some others did, including Fred Allen. Skelton and I really got on well, and finally he offered me a job writing for his show. I grabbed it.

I guess you’d call it the proverbial big break when the telephone rang one day and somebody told me Skelton had been hurt in a rehearsal. He was supposed to walk through one of those breakaway doors, but the door hadn’t broken and Red had been knocked cold about 90 minutes before showtime. I had always been doing bits and cracking gags around the office and they wanted to know if I could make it to the station and go on for Red. I don’t know how I got there in time, but I did. And I made cracks about Red getting hurt and said, “The way I fell out here, I think Red’s doctor ought to be doing this show.” Well, it came off all right. I got good notices. And that got me my next job—The Johnny Carson Show. That was my first big lesson. It ran out its contracted 39 weeks in 1955 and then folded. That’s where I learned that if you get too many cooks involved, that if you don’t keep control, you’re going to bomb out, and there’s nobody to blame but yourself.

Haley: Will you explain what you mean by that?

Carson: I mean that it was primarily through my own naiveté that the show failed. I had built the show initially around a format of low-key skits and commentary on topical subjects—something rather like the Tonight show. We got good reviews, but the network people felt the ratings should have been higher, and I let them start telling me what to do. “We’ve got to make the show important,” they told me. How would they go about doing that? With chorus girls! They were going to make me into Jackie Gleason! I’d come rushing on in a shower of balloons, with chorus girls yipping, “Here comes the star of the show, Johnny Carson!” And the rest followed in that vein. I let myself be a poor imitation, and that’s sure, swift death for any entertainer. But I think if nobody ever fails, he never has successes. The show flopped—but to me only in the sense that it went off the air after 39 weeks. I learned the hard way that you have to go with your decisions.

Haley: Do you consider that show your greatest failure?

Carson: Professionally it was. Personally, no. That was when I was divorced from my first wife. That’s the lowest I’ve ever felt, the worst personal experience of my life. We’d been married 10 years—since college, in fact. And children were involved—three sons. I think that’s the worst guilt hang-up you can have, when children are involved. But divorce sometimes is the only answer. I think it’s almost immoral to keep on with a marriage that’s really bad. It just gets more and more rotten and vindictive and everybody gets more and more hurt. There’s not enough honesty about marriage, I think. I wish more people would face the truth about their marital situations. I get sick of that old rationalization, “We’re staying together because of the children.” Kids couldn’t be more miserable living with parents who can’t stand each other. They’re far better off if there’s an honest, clean divorce. I’m happy to notice that my boys don’t seem to be negatively affected by mine. I think they’re getting along fine. I’ve got a very good marriage now. For a long time, I went around feeling guilty about the failure of the first one—but you can’t go on forever like that, just nursing your hurts. Some friends here in New York had been talking with me about Joanne before I ever saw her. Finally, I telephoned her and we made a date over the phone. I met her with her father at Eddie Condon’s and we hit it off great, right away, and it went on from there.

Haley: After the low point you described, when The Johnny Carson Show went off the air, did things begin to improve professionally?

Carson: Not by a long shot. I still had a lot more to learn—this time about the people who are supposed to give a performer so much help in this business. There I was: My show was closed. I was out of work. That kind of news flies throughout the show-business world with the speed of light. You’re out. You’re dead. But I’ve got a family to keep eating and every day I’m expecting to hear something from the agency that handled me. But I hear nothing. So I go over there. “Look,” I told them, “I can get myself some kind of an act together. Get a couple of writers to work with me.” You know what they said? “Sorry, Johnny, we can’t do that.” So I went home and wrote the act myself, and I went out personally and peddled it and finally got myself a date in Bakersfield at a place called The Maison Jaussaud, making $400 a week. But I was still naive. I was hoping that some of the top agency people would come to see me. They didn’t. They sent two junior members who sat at a table, then left. Nothing. Zero.

This was about the time I dropped back financially until I had to borrow from my father. I decided I had to go to New York. I couldn’t do any worse there and I might do better. So I borrowed more, from a bank that was good enough to let me have it. And in New York, finally I got the chance to go on Who Do You Trust?. Now, do you want to guess what happened? When I get solid on that show, really doing all right, here come this agency’s top guys. Big deal—old buddy-buddy, let bygones be bygones, no hard feelings, let’s forget the past. “How about our representing you again? We’ve got it all figured out how to shoot you straight to the top.” I listened until they finished their spiel and then I said, “Thank you, no, gentlemen. Where were you when I needed you?” Anyway, I finally went with another agency, MCA, one of the giants. I was doing fine now, getting the treatment they call “servicing the client.” I remember one day I was getting ready to leave their office to do the show, and this agency man makes moves to go with me. I asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “Don’t you want me to go to the show with you?” I told him I thought I could make it alone. What I felt like telling him was, “You want to do something for me? Iron my shirts.” I don’t even like to think about it. But now, I don’t even have an agency. MCA dissolved, you know. I’ve got a lawyer who handles most of my affairs. I’ve learned. Agencies play the percentages. You make it, they’ll take 10 percent. When I needed ’em, nobody was there. I’ll never forget it. I’m just telling it the way it is. If somebody wants to call that being a loner, if somebody wants to call that being vindictive, then so be it!

Haley: How did the break come from Who Do You Trust? to the Tonight Show?

Carson: In my first four years on Who Do You Trust?, I’d been offered all kinds of situation-comedy shows, but I had turned them down for one or another reason. And I had been doing guest spots, and I had filled in for Paar on Tonight, and I had done pretty well as his replacement. It was NBC that came up with the offer for me to replace Paar permanently. I turned it down, cold; not many people know that. I just wasn’t sure I could cut it. I just didn’t feel I could make that jump from a half-hour daily quiz show to doing an hour and 45 minutes every night. I was doing fine in daytime TV; I was solid and secure. And I felt I’d be stupid to try to replace Jack Paar. But I kept sitting in for him. And then, some months later, NBC made their offer again; Jack was nearer to leaving the show. Somebody had to replace him. My manager got on me, insisting that I owed myself the opportunity of reaching the big night audience. And NBC said they would wait until I finished my contract on Who Do You Trust?. While all this was going on, I was gradually building more confidence in myself—the more I thought about it. Nobody could tell me; I had to tell myself I could do it. And finally I did; I accepted the offer. Everyone I knew had some advice after that. One group told me I was nuts to try replacing Paar, but that made me all the more determined. Others became instant producers and told me, “Here’s how to handle that show….” That bugged me; I’d been through that in California and lost a good show because of it. I had cab drivers, waiters, everybody giving me advice.

Two things were in the back of my head: One was that I wasn’t going to be any imitation of Jack Paar; I was going to be Johnny Carson. The other thing was that I wanted the show to make the most of being the last area in television that the medium originally was supposed to be—live, immediate entertainment. I knew it wasn’t going to be any sauntering in and sitting at a desk and that’s all. The main thing in my mind that I had going for me was that I’d done nearly everything you could in the industry—but at the same time I knew that thinking that way was a danger. If I went out there with every critic waiting, and if I did everything I knew how to do, it would look like deliberate showing off, like trying to say, “Hey, look at me—I’m so versatile!” I had to fight that natural temptation to go out there and make some big impression. Finally, I decided that the best thing I could do was forget trying to do a lot of preplanning. I didn’t want to come out with something that smacked of a month’s preparation, because I wasn’t going to be able to keep that up every night. It all boiled down to just going out there and being my natural self and seeing what would happen.

Haley: What happened, of course, was one of the most remarkable successes in television history. But you mentioned going out there and being your natural self. Do you, really?

Carson: Are we back to that—my reputation for being cold and aloof, for being a loner and living in a shell and all that crap? Look, I’m an entertainer; I try to give the public what it wants while I’m on the screen, and I’m completely sincere about it. If I don’t happen to be a laughing boy off the screen, that doesn’t make me a hypocrite or a phony. In any case, what I am and what I do on my own, it seems to me, is nobody’s business but mine. As long as I don’t commit any crimes, you have no right to judge me except by my performance as a professional. On that level, you’re welcome to think whatever you want about me. But there’s only one critic whose opinion I really value, in the final analysis: Johnny Carson. I have never needed any entourage standing around bolstering my ego. I’m secure. I know exactly who and what I am. I don’t need to be told. I make no apologies for being the way I am. I’m not going to run around crying that I’m misunderstood. I play my life straight—the way I see it. I’m grateful to audiences for watching me and for enjoying what I do—but I’m not one of those who believe that a successful entertainer is made by the public, as is so often said. You become successful, the way I see it, only if you’re good enough to deliver what the public enjoys. If you’re not, you won’t have any audience; so the performer really has more to do with his success than the public does.

As for myself, I’ve worked ever since I was a kid with a two-bit kit of magic tricks trying to improve my skills at entertaining whatever public I had—and to make myself ready, whenever the breaks came, to entertain a wider and more demanding public. Entertainment is like any other major industry; it’s cold, big business. The business end wants to know one thing: Can you do the job? If you can, you’re in, you’re made; if you can’t, you’re out.

I knock myself out for the public—five shows a week, 90 minutes a show; and most of every day goes to working on that 90 minutes. It takes more out of me than manual labor would, and I simply won’t give any more of myself than that. I demand my right to a private life, just as I respect that right for everybody else. The Tonight staff knocks themselves out with me; then they go their way, I go mine, and we get along fine. I make the major decisions. That’s my responsibility.

I’m doing the best I know how. I’ve put my whole life into whatever you see on that screen. But whenever the day comes that I think it’s my time to go, I’ll be the first to tell the network to get somebody else in that chair. And when I do, they’ll be saying, “Who could follow Carson?”—just like they said, “Who could follow Paar?” Well, believe me, somebody can—and will. The public is fickle, and you can be replaced, no matter how good you are. Until that happens, I’m going to go on doing my best. I like my work and I hope you do, too—but if you don’t, I really couldn’t care less. Take me or leave me—but don’t bug me. That’s the way I am. That’s me. That’s it.

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the December 1967 issue of Playboy. © 1967 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)

(Alex Haley Interviews Malcolm X was originally published in the May 1963 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Malcolm XAlex Haley Interviews Malcolm X (May 1963)

Malcolm X had a fearsome image, tough guy, articulate but hard. For the first several sessions he just would not talk about himself. This was after the Playboy, interview, when we were working on his book.

I was uptight because I hadn’t been able to get through to him. I was ready to go to the publisher and suggest they try another writer. Malcolm kept going on about the Nation of Islam and his leader, Mr. Elijah Muhammed, and I just asked him to tell me something about his mother.

At the time he was up walking—almost stalking, the way he would walk—and he stopped as if someone had jerked a string to him. He looked at me and I knew that I had touched some button within him. He began to talk again, but more slowly. And when he spoke his voice was up a notch.

“It’s funny you’d ask me that,” he said. “I can remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were always faded and gray.” He walked a little more. “And I remember she was always bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had.” It was 11:30 at night and that man walked that floor until daybreak and spilling out of him came the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

It was the memory of a little seven-year-old boy of his mother beginning to have great strain trying to hold together her brood of seven children whose father, her husband, had recently been murdered. He’d been thrown under a moving streetcar. And after that night Malcolm was never, ever reluctant to talk. ~ Alex Haley.

A Candid Conversation With The Militant Major-Domo of The Black Muslims

Within the past five years, the militant American Negro has become an increasingly active combatant in the struggle for civil rights. Espousing the goals of unqualified equality and integration, many of these outspoken insurgents have participated in freedom rides and protest marches against their segregationist foes. Today, they face opposition from not one, but two inimical exponents of racism and segregation: the white supremacists and the Black Muslims. A relatively unknown and insignificant radical religious Negro cult until a few years ago, the Muslims have grown into a dedicated, disciplined nationwide movement which runs its own school, publishes its own newspaper, owns stores and restaurants in four major cities, buys broadcast time on 50 radio stations throughout the country, stages mass rallies attended by partisan crowds of 10,000 and more, and maintains its own police force of judo-trained athletes called the Fruit of Islam.

Predicated on the proposition that the black man is morally, spiritually and intellectually superior to the white man, who is called a “devil,” Muslim doctrine dooms him to extermination in an imminent Armageddon—along with Christianity itself, which is denounced as an opiate designed to lull Negroes—with the promise of heaven—into passive acceptance of inferior social status. Amalgamating elements of Christianity and Mohammedanism (both of which officially and unequivocally disown it) and spiked with a black-supremacy version of Hitler’s Aryan racial theories, Muslimism was founded in 1931 by Elijah Poole, a Georgia-born ex-factory worker who today commands unquestioning obedience from thousands of followers as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Messenger of Allah. At the right hand of God’s Messenger stands 36-year-old Malcolm Little, a lanky onetime dining-car steward, bootlegger, pimp and dope pusher who left prison in 1952 to heed Muhammad’s message, abandoned his “slave name,” Little, for the symbolic “X” (meaning identity unknown), and took an oath to abstain thereafter from smoking, drinking, gambling, cursing, dancing and sexual promiscuity—as required of every Muslim. The ambitious young man rose swiftly to become the Messenger’s most ardent and erudite disciple, and today wields all but absolute authority over the movement and its membership as Muhammad’s business manager, trouble shooter, prime minister and heir apparent.

In the belief that knowledge and awareness are necessary and effective antitoxins against the venom of hate, PLAYBOY asked Malcolm X to submit to a cross-examination on the means and ends of his organization. The ensuing interview was conducted at a secluded table in a Harlem restaurant owned by the Muslims. Interrupting his replies occasionally with a sip of black African coffee and whispered asides to deferential aides, the dark-suited minister of Harlem’s Muslim Temple Number Seven spoke with candor and—except for moments of impassioned execration of all whites—the impersonal tone of a self-assured corporation executive.

Many will be shocked by what he has to say; others will be outraged. Our own view is that this interview is both an eloquent statement and a damning self-indictment of one noxious facet of rampant racism. As such, we believe it merits publication—and reading.

Haley: What is the ambition of the Black Muslims?

Malcolm X: Freedom, justice and equality are our principal ambitions. And to faithfully serve and follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is the guiding goal of every Muslim. Mr. Muhammad teaches us the knowledge of our own selves, and of our own people. He cleans us up—morally, mentally and spiritually—and he reforms us of the vices that have blinded us here in the Western society. He stops black men from getting drunk, stops their dope addiction if they had it, stops nicotine, gambling, stealing, lying, cheating, fornication, adultery, prostitution, juvenile delinquency. I think of this whenever somebody talks about someone investigating us. Why investigate the Honorable Elijah Muhammad? They should subsidize him. He’s cleaning up the mess that white men have made. He’s saving the Government millions of dollars, taking black men off of welfare, showing them how to do something for themselves. And Mr. Muhammad teaches us love for our own kind. The white man has taught the black people in this country to hate themselves as inferior, to hate each other, to be divided against each other. Messenger Muhammad restores our love for our own kind, which enables us to work together in unity and harmony. He shows us how to pool our financial resources and our talents, then to work together toward a common objective. Among other things, we have small businesses in most major cities in this country, and we want to create many more. We are taught by Mr. Muhammad that it is very important to improve the black man’s economy, and his thrift. But to do this, we must have land of our own. The brainwashed black man can never learn to stand on his own two feet until he is on his own. We must learn to become our own producers, manufacturers and traders; we must have industry of our own, to employ our own. The white man resists this because he wants to keep the black man under his thumb and jurisdiction in white society. He wants to keep the black man always dependent and begging—for jobs, food, clothes, shelter, education. The white man doesn’t want to lose somebody to be supreme over. He wants to keep the black man where he can be watched and retarded. Mr. Muhammad teaches that as soon as we separate from the white man, we will learn that we can do without the white man just as he can do without us. The white man knows that once black men get off to themselves and learn they can do for themselves, the black man’s full potential will explode and he will surpass the white man.

Haley: Do you feel that the Black Muslims’ goal of obtaining “several states” is a practical vision?

Malcolm X: Well, you might consider some things practical that are really impractical. Wasn’t it impractical that the Supreme Court could issue a desegregation order nine years ago and there’s still only eight percent compliance? Is it practical that a hundred years after the Civil War there’s not freedom for black men yet? On the record for integration you’ve got the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court—but show me your integration, where is it? That’s practical? Mr. Muhammad teaches us to be for what’s really practical—that’s separation. It’s more natural than integration.

Haley: In a recent interview, Negro author-lecturer Louis Lomax said, “Eighty percent, if not more, of America’s 20,000,000 Negroes vibrate sympathetically with the Muslims’ indictment of the white power structure. But this does not mean we agree with them in their doctrines of estrangement or with their proposed resolutions of the race problem.” Does this view represent a consensus of opinion among Negroes? And if so, is it possible that your separationist and anti-Christian doctrines have the effect of alienating many of your own race?

Malcolm X: Sir, you make a mistake listening to people who tell you how much our stand alienates black men in this country. I’d guess actually we have the sympathy of 90 percent of the black people. There are 20,000,000 dormant Muslims in America. A Muslim to us is somebody who is for the black man; I don’t care if he goes to the Baptist Church seven days a week. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that a black man is born a Muslim by nature. There are millions of Muslims not aware of it now. All of them will be Muslims when they wake up; that’s what’s meant by the Resurrection.

Sir, I’m going to tell you a secret: the black man is a whole lot smarter than white people think he is. The black man has survived in this country by fooling the white man. He’s been dancing and grinning and white men never guessed what he was thinking. Now you’ll hear the bourgeois Negroes pretending to be alienated, but they’re just making the white man think they don’t go for what Mr. Muhammad is saying. This Negro that will tell you he’s so against us, he’s just protecting the crumbs he gets from the white man’s table. This kind of Negro is so busy trying to be like the white man that he doesn’t know what the real masses of his own people are thinking. A fine car and house and clothes and liquor have made a lot think themselves different from their poor black brothers. But Mr. Muhammad says that Allah is going to wake up all black men to see the white man as he really is, and see what Christianity has done to them. The black masses that are waking up don’t believe in Christianity anymore. All it’s done for black men is help to keep them slaves. Mr. Muhammad is teaching that Christianity, as white people see it, means that whites can have their heaven here on earth, but the black man is supposed to catch his hell here. The black man is supposed to keep believing that when he dies, he’ll float up to some city with golden streets and milk and honey on a cloud somewhere. Every black man in North America has heard black Christian preachers shouting about “tomorrow in good old Beulah’s Land.” But the thinking black masses today are interested in Muhammad’s Land. The Promised Land that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad talks about is right here on this earth. Intelligent black men today are interested in a religious doctrine that offers a solution to their problems right now, right here on this earth, while they are alive.

You must understand that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad represents the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy to us. In the Old Testament, Moses lived to see his enemy, Pharaoh, drowned in the Red Sea—which in essence means that Mr. Muhammad will see the completion of his work in his lifetime, that he will live to see victory gained over his enemy.

Haley: The Old Testament connection seems tenuous. Are you referring to the Muslim judgment day which your organization’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, calls “Armageddon” and prophesies as imminent?

Malcolm X: Armageddon deals with the final battle between God and the Devil. The Third World War is referred to as Armageddon by many white statesmen. There won’t be any more war after then because there won’t be any more warmongers. I don’t know when Armageddon, whatever form it takes, is supposed to be. But I know the time is near when the white man will be finished. The signs are all around us. Ten years ago you couldn’t have paid a Southern Negro to defy local customs. The British Lion’s tail has been snatched off in black Africa. The Indonesians have booted out such would-be imperialists as the Dutch. The French, who felt for a century that Algeria was theirs, have had to run for their lives back to France. Sir, the point I make is that all over the world, the old day of standing in fear and trembling before the almighty white man is gone!

Haley: If Muslims ultimately gain control as you predict, what do you plan to do with white people?

Malcolm X: It’s not a case of what would we do, it’s a case of what would God do with whites. What does a judge do with the guilty? Either the guilty one repents and atones, or God executes judgment.

Haley: You refer to whites as the guilty and the enemy; you predict divine retribution against them; and you preach absolute separation from the white community. Do not these views substantiate the fact that your movement is predicated on race hatred?

Malcolm X: Sir, it’s from Mr. Muhammad that the black masses are learning for the first time in 400 years the real truth of how the white man brainwashed the black man, kept him ignorant of his true history, robbed him of his self-confidence. The black masses for the first time are understanding that it’s not a case of being anti-white or anti-Christian, but it’s a case of seeing the true nature of the white man. We’re anti-evil, anti-oppression, anti-lynching. You can’t be anti- those things unless you’re also anti- the oppressor and the lyncher. You can’t be anti-slavery and pro-slavemaster; you can’t be anti-crime and pro-criminal. In fact, Mr. Muhammad teaches that if the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of their true history, they would be anti-white themselves.

Haley: Are you?

Malcolm X: As soon as the white man hears a black man say that he’s through loving white people, then the white man accuses the black man of hating him. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad doesn’t teach hate. The white man isn’t important enough for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his followers to spend any time hating him. The white man has brainwashed himself into believing that all the black people in the world want to be cuddled up next to him. When he meets what we’re talking about, he can’t believe it, it takes all the wind out of him. When we tell him we don’t want to be around him, we don’t want to be like he is, he’s staggered. It makes him re-evaluate his 300-year myth about the black man. What I want to know is how the white man, with the blood of black people dripping off his fingers, can have the audacity to be asking black people do they hate him. That takes a lot of nerve.

Haley: How do you reconcile your disavowal of hatred with the announcement you made last year that Allah had brought you “the good news” that 120 white Atlantans had just been killed in an air crash en route to America from Paris?

Malcolm X: Sir, as I see the law of justice, it says as you sow, so shall you reap. The white man has reveled as the rope snapped black men’s necks. He has reveled around the lynching fire. It’s only right for the black man’s true God, Allah, to defend us—and for us to be joyous because our God manifests his ability to inflict pain on our enemy. We Muslims believe that the white race, which is guilty of having oppressed and exploited and enslaved our people here in America, should and will be the victims of God’s divine wrath. All civilized societies in their courts of justice set a sentence of execution against those deemed to be enemies of society, such as murderers and kidnappers. The presence of 20,000,000 black people here in America is proof that Uncle Sam is guilty of kidnapping—because we didn’t come here voluntarily on the Mayflower. And 400 years of lynchings condemn Uncle Sam as a murderer.

Haley: We question that all-inclusive generalization. To return to your statement about the plane crash, when Dr. Ralph Bunche heard about it, he called you “mentally depraved.” What is your reaction?

Malcolm X: I know all about what Dr. Bunche said. He’s always got his international mouth open. He apologized in the UN when black people protested there. You’ll notice that whenever the white man lets a black man get prominent, he has a job for him. Dr. Bunche serves the white man well—he represents, speaks for and defends the white man. He does none of this for the black man. Dr. Bunche has functioned as a white man’s tool, designed to influence international opinion on the Negro. The white man has Negro local tools, national tools, and Dr. Bunche is an international tool.

Haley: Dr. Bunche was only one of many prominent Negroes who deplored your statement in similar terms. What reply have you to make to these spokesmen for your own people?

Malcolm X: Go ask their opinions and you’ll be able to fill your notebook with what white people want to hear Negroes say. Let’s take these so-called spokesmen for the black men by types. Start with the politicians. They never attack Mr. Muhammad personally. They realize he has the sympathy of the black masses. They know they would alienate the masses whose votes they need. But the black civic leaders, they do attack Mr. Muhammad. The reason is usually that they are appointed to their positions by the white man. The white man pays them to attack us. The ones who attack Mr. Muhammad the most are the ones who earn the most. Then take the black religious leaders, they also attack Mr. Muhammad. These preachers do it out of self-defense, because they know he’s waking up Negroes. No one believes what the Negro preacher preaches except those who are mentally asleep, or in the darkness of ignorance about the true situation of the black man here today in this wilderness of North America. If you will take note, sir, many so-called Negro leaders who once attacked the Honorable Elijah Muhammad don’t do so anymore. And he never speaks against them in the personal sense except as a reaction if they speak against him. Islam is a religion that teaches us never to attack, never to be the aggressor—but you can waste somebody if he attacks you. These Negro leaders have become aware that whenever the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is caused by their attack to level his guns against them, they always come out on the losing end. Many have experienced this.

Haley: Do you admire and respect any other American Negro leaders—Martin Luther King, for example?

Malcolm X: I am a Muslim, sir. Muslims can see only one leader who has the qualifications necessary to unite all elements of black people in America. This is the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

Haley: Many white religious leaders have also gone on record against the Black Muslims. Writing in the official NAACP magazine, a Catholic priest described you as “a fascist-minded hate group,” and B’nai B’rith has accused you of being not only anti-Christian but anti-Semitic. Do you consider this true?

Malcolm X: Insofar as the Christian world is concerned, dictatorships have existed only in areas or countries where you have Roman Catholicism. Catholicism conditions your mind for dictators. Can you think of a single Protestant country that has ever produced a dictator?

Haley: Germany was predominantly Protestant when Hitler—

Malcolm X: Another thing to think of—in the 20th Century, the Christian Church has given us two heresies: fascism and communism.

Haley: On what grounds do you attribute these “isms” to the Christian Church?

Malcolm X: Where did fascism start? Where’s the second-largest Communist party outside of Russia? The answer to both is Italy. Where is the Vatican? But let’s not forget the Jew. Anybody that gives even a just criticism of the Jew is instantly labeled anti-Semite. The Jew cries louder than anybody else if anybody criticizes him. You can tell the truth about any minority in America, but make a true observation about the Jew, and if it doesn’t pat him on the back, then he uses his grip on the news media to label you anti-Semite. Let me say just a word about the Jew and the black man. The Jew is always anxious to advise the black man. But they never advise him how to solve his problem the way the Jews solved their problem. The Jew never went sitting-in and crawling-in and sliding-in and freedom-riding, like he teaches and helps Negroes to do. The Jews stood up, and stood together, and they used their ultimate power, the economic weapon. That’s exactly what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is trying to teach black men to do. The Jews pooled their money and bought the hotels that barred them. They bought Atlantic City and Miami Beach and anything else they wanted. Who owns Hollywood? Who runs the garment industry, the largest industry in New York City? But the Jew that’s advising the Negro joins the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, and others. With money donations, the Jew gains control, then he sends the black man doing all this wading-in, boring-in, even burying-in—everything but buying-in. Never shows him how to set up factories and hotels. Never advises him how to own what he wants. No, when there’s something worth owning, the Jew’s got it. Walk up and down in any Negro ghetto in America. Ninety percent of the worthwhile businesses you see are Jew-owned. Every night they take the money out. This helps the black man’s community stay a ghetto.

Haley: Isn’t it true that many Gentiles have also labored with dedication to advance integration and economic improvement for the Negro, as volunteer workers for the NAACP, CORE and many other interracial agencies?

Malcolm X: A man who tosses worms in the river isn’t necessarily a friend of the fish. All the fish who take him for a friend, who think the worm’s got no hook in it, usually end up in the frying pan. All these things dangled before us by the white liberal posing as a friend and benefactor have turned out to be nothing but bait to make us think we’re making progress. The Supreme Court decision has never been enforced. Desegregation has never taken place. The promises have never been fulfilled. We have received only tokens, substitutes, trickery and deceit.

Haley: What motives do you impute to Playboy for providing you with this opportunity for the free discussion of your views?

Malcolm X: I think you want to sell magazines. I’ve never seen a sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people. Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves. The white man’s primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man’s interest is to make money, to exploit.

Haley: Is there any white man on earth whom you would concede to have the Negro’s welfare genuinely at heart?

Malcolm X: I say, sir, that you can never make an intelligent judgment without evidence. If any man will study the entire history of the relationship between the white man and the black man, no evidence will be found that justifies any confidence or faith that the black man might have in the white man today.

Haley: Then you consider it impossible for the white man to be anything but an exploiter and a hypocrite in his relations with the Negro?

Malcolm X: Is it wrong to attribute a predisposition to wheat before it comes up out of the ground? Wheat’s characteristics and nature make it wheat. It differs from barley because of its nature. Wheat perpetuates its own characteristics just as the white race does. White people are born devils by nature. They don’t become so by deeds. If you never put popcorn in a skillet, it would still be popcorn. Put the heat to it, it will pop.

Haley: You say that white men are devils by nature. Was Christ a devil?

Malcolm X: Christ wasn’t white. Christ was a black man.

Haley: On what Scripture do you base this assertion?

Malcolm X: Sir, Billy Graham has made the same statement in public. Why not ask him what Scripture he found it in? When Pope Pius XII died, Life magazine carried a picture of him in his private study kneeling before a black Christ.

Haley: Those are hardly quotations from Scripture. Was He not reviled as “King of the Jews”—a people the Black Muslims attack?

Malcolm X: Only the poor, brainwashed American Negro has been made to believe that Christ was white, to maneuver him into worshiping the white man. After becoming a Muslim in prison, I read almost everything I could put my hands on in the prison library. I began to think back on everything I had read and especially with the histories, I realized that nearly all of them read by the general public have been made into white histories. I found out that the history-whitening process either had left out great things that black men had done, or some of the great black men had gotten whitened.

Haley: Would you list a few of these men?

Malcolm X: Well, Hannibal, the most successful general that ever lived, was a black man. So was Beethoven; Beethoven’s father was one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers. Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, was of African descent. And Solomon. Great Biblical characters. Columbus, the discoverer of America, was a half-black man.

Haley: According to biographies considered definitive, Beethoven’s father, Johann, was a court tenor in Cologne; Haydn’s parents were Croatian; Columbus’ parents were Italian—

Malcolm X: Whole black empires, like the Moorish, have been whitened to hide the fact that a great black empire had conquered a white empire even before America was discovered. The Moorish civilization—black Africans—conquered and ruled Spain; they kept the light burning in Southern Europe. The word “Moor” means “black,” by the way. Egyptian civilization is a classic example of how the white man stole great African cultures and makes them appear today as white European. The black nation of Egypt is the only country that has a science named after its culture: Egyptology. The ancient Sumerians, a black-skinned people, occupied the Middle Eastern areas and were contemporary with the Egyptian civilization. The Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, all dark-skinned Indian people, had a highly developed culture here in America, in what is now Mexico and northern South America. These people had mastered agriculture at the time when European white people were still living in mud huts and eating weeds. But white children, or black children, or grownups here today in America don’t get to read this in the average books they are exposed to.

Haley: Can you cite any authoritative historical documents for these observations?

Malcolm X: I can cite a great many, sir. You could start with Herodotus, the Greek historian. He outright described the Egyptians as “black, with woolly hair.” And the American archaeologist and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted did the same thing. Read Pliny. Read any of the ancient Roman, Greek and, more recently, European anthropologists and archaeologists.

Haley: You seem to have based your thesis on the premise that all nonwhite races are necessarily black.

Malcolm X: Mr. Muhammad says that the red, the brown and the yellow are indeed all part of the black nation. Which means that black, brown, red, yellow, all are brothers, all are one family. The white one is a stranger. He’s the odd fellow.

Haley: Since your classification of black peoples apparently includes the light-skinned Oriental, Middle Eastern and possibly even Latin races as well as the darker Indian and Negroid strains, just how do you decide how light-skinned it’s permissible to be before being condemned as white? And if Caucasian whites are devils by nature, do you classify people by degrees of devilishness according to the lightness of their skin?

Malcolm X: I don’t worry about these little technicalities. But I know that white society has always considered that one drop of black blood makes you black. To me, if one drop can do this, it only shows the power of one drop of black blood. And I know another thing—that Negroes who used to be light enough to pass for white have seen the handwriting on the wall and are beginning to come back and identify with their own kind. And white people who also are seeing the pendulum of time catching up with them are now trying to join with blacks, or even find traces of black blood in their own veins, hoping that it will save them from the catastrophe they see ahead. But no devil can fool God. Muslims have a little poem about them. It goes, “One drop will make you black, and will also in days to come save your soul.”

Haley: As one of this vast elite, do you hold the familiar majority attitude toward minority groups—regarding the white race, in this case, as inferior in quality as well as quantity to what you call the “black nation”?

Malcolm X: Thoughtful white people know they are inferior to black people. Even Eastland knows it. Anyone who has studied the genetic phase of biology knows that white is considered recessive and black is considered dominant. When you want strong coffee, you ask for black coffee. If you want it light, you want it weak, integrated with white milk. Just like these Negroes who weaken themselves and their race by this integrating and intermixing with whites. If you want bread with no nutritional value, you ask for white bread. All the good that was in it has been bleached out of it, and it will constipate you. If you want pure flour, you ask for dark flour, whole-wheat flour. If you want pure sugar, you want dark sugar.

Haley: If all whites are devilish by nature, as you have alleged, and if black and white are essentially opposite, as you have just stated, do you view all black men—with the exception of their non-Muslim leaders—as fundamentally angelic?

Malcolm X: No, there is plenty wrong with Negroes. They have no society. They’re robots, automations. No minds of their own. I hate to say that about us, but it’s the truth. They are a black body with a white brain. Like the monster Frankenstein. The top part is your bourgeois Negro. He’s your integrator. He’s not interested in his poor black brothers. He’s usually so deep in debt from trying to copy the white man’s social habits that he doesn’t have time to worry about nothing else. They buy the most expensive clothes and cars and eat the cheapest food. They act more like the white man than the white man does himself. These are the ones that hide their sympathy for Mr. Muhammad’s teachings. It conflicts with the sources from which they get their white-man’s crumbs. This class to us are the fence-sitters. They have one eye on the white man and the other eye on the Muslims. They’ll jump whichever way they see the wind blowing. Then there’s the middle class of the Negro masses, the ones not in the ghetto, who realize that life is a struggle, who are conscious of all the injustices being done and of the constant state of insecurity in which they live. They’re ready to take some stand against everything that’s against them. Now, when this group hears Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, they are the ones who come forth faster and identify themselves, and take immediate steps toward trying to bring into existence what Mr. Muhammad advocates. At the bottom of the social heap is the black man in the big-city ghetto. He lives night and day with the rats and cockroaches and drowns himself with alcohol and anesthetizes himself with dope, to try and forget where and what he is. That Negro has given up all hope. He’s the hardest one for us to reach, because he’s the deepest in the mud. But when you get him, you’ve got the best kind of Muslim. Because he makes the most drastic change. He’s the most fearless. He will stand the longest. He has nothing to lose, even his life, because he didn’t have that in the first place. I look upon myself, sir, as a prime example of this category—and as graphic an example as you could find of the salvation of the black man.

Haley: Could you give us a brief review of the early life that led to your own “salvation”?

Malcolm X: Gladly. I was born in Omaha on May 19, 1925. My light color is the result of my mother’s mother having been raped by a white man. I hate every drop of white blood in me. Before I am indicted for hate again, sir—is it wrong to hate the blood of a rapist? But to continue: My father was a militant follower of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. The Lansing, Michigan, equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan warned him to stop preaching Garvey’s message, but he kept on and one of my earliest memories is of being snatched awake one night with a lot of screaming going on because our home was afire. But my father got louder about Garvey, and the next time he was found bludgeoned in the head, lying across streetcar tracks. He died soon and our family was in a bad way. We were so hungry we were dizzy and we had nowhere to turn. Finally the authorities came in and we children were scattered about in different places as public wards. I happened to become the ward of a white couple who ran a correctional school for white boys. This family liked me in the way they liked their house pets. They got me enrolled in an all-white school. I was popular, I played sports and everything, and studied hard, and I stayed at the head of my class through the eighth grade. That summer I was 14, but I was big enough and looked old enough to get away with telling a lie that I was 21, so I got a job working in the dining car of a train that ran between Boston and New York City.

On my layovers in New York, I’d go to Harlem. That’s where I saw in the bars all these men and women with what looked like the easiest life in the world. Plenty of money, big cars, all of it. I could tell they were in the rackets and vice. I hung around those bars whenever I came in town, and I kept my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut. And they kept their eyes on me, too. Finally, one day a numbers man told me that he needed a runner, and I never caught the night train back to Boston. Right there was when I started my life in crime. I was in all of it that the white police and the gangsters left open to the black criminal, sir. I was in numbers, bootleg liquor, “hot” goods, women. I sold the bodies of black women to white men, and white women to black men. I was in dope, I was in everything evil you could name. The only thing I could say good for myself, sir, was that I did not indulge in hitting anybody over the head.

Haley: By the time you were 16, according to the record, you had several men working for you in these various enterprises. Right?

Malcolm X: Yes, sir. I turned the things I mentioned to you over to them. And I had a good working system of paying off policemen. It was here that I learned that vice and crime can only exist, at least the kind and level that I was in, to the degree that the police cooperate with it. I had several men working and I was a steerer myself. I steered white people with money from downtown to whatever kind of sin they wanted in Harlem. I didn’t care what they wanted, I knew where to take them to it. And I tell you what I noticed here—that my best customers always were the officials, the top police people, businessmen, politicians and clergymen. I never forgot that. I met all levels of these white people, supplied them with everything they wanted, and I saw that they were just a filthy race of devils. But despite the fact that my own father was murdered by whites, and I had seen my people all my life brutalized by whites, I was still blind enough to mix with them and socialize with them. I thought they were gods and goddesses—until Mr. Muhammad’s powerful spiritual message opened my eyes and enabled me to see them as a race of devils. Nothing had made me see the white man as he is until one word from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad opened my eyes overnight.

Haley: When did this happen?

Malcolm X: In prison. I was finally caught and spent 77 months in three different prisons. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because it was in prison that I first heard the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His teachings were what turned me around. The first time I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s statement, “The white man is the devil,” it just clicked. I am a good example of why Islam is spreading so rapidly across the land. I was nothing but another convict, a semi-illiterate criminal. Mr. Muhammad’s teachings were able to reach into prison, which is the level where people are considered to have fallen as low as they can go. His teachings brought me from behind prison walls and placed me on the podiums of some of the leading colleges and universities in the country. I often think, sir, that in 1946, I was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a common thief who had never passed the eighth grade. And the next time I went back to Cambridge was in March 1961, as a guest speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum. This is the best example of Mr. Muhammad’s ability to take nothing and make something, to take nobody and make somebody.

Haley: Your rise to prominence in the Muslim organization has been so swift that a number of your own membership have hailed you as their articulate exemplar, and many anti-Muslims regard you as the real brains and power of the movement. What is your reaction to this sudden eminence?

Malcolm X: Sir, it’s heresy to imply that I am in any way whatever even equal to Mr. Muhammad. No man on earth today is his equal. Whatever I am that is good, it is through what I have been taught by Mr. Muhammad.

Haley: Be that as it may, the time is near when your leader, who is 65, will have to retire from leadership of the Muslim movement. Many observers predict that when this day comes, the new Messenger of Allah in America—a role which you have called the most powerful of any black man in the world—will be Malcolm X. How do you feel about this prospect?

MALCOLM X: Sir, I can only say that God chose Mr. Muhammad as his Messenger, and Mr. Muhammad chose me and many others to help him. Only God has the say-so. But I will tell you one thing. I frankly don’t believe that I or anyone else am worthy to succeed Mr. Muhammad. No one preceded him. I don’t think I could make the sacrifice he has made, or set his good example. He has done more than lay down his life. But his work is already done with the seed he has planted among black people. If Mr. Muhammad and every identifiable follower he has, certainly including myself, were tomorrow removed from the scene by more of the white man’s brutality, there is one thing to be sure of: Mr. Muhammad’s teachings of the naked truth have fallen upon fertile soil among 20,000,000 black men here in this wilderness of North America.

Haley: Has the soil, in your opinion, been as fertile for Mr. Muhammad’s teachings elsewhere in the world—among the emerging nations of black Africa, for instance?

Malcolm X: I think not only that his teachings have had considerable impact even in Africa but that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has had a greater impact on the world than the rise of the African nations. I say this as objectively as I can, being a Muslim. Even the Christian missionaries are conceding that in black Africa, for every Christian conversion, there are two Muslim conversions.

Haley: Might conversions be even more numerous if it weren’t for the somewhat strained relations which are said by several Negro writers to exist between the black people of Africa and America?

Malcolm X: Perhaps. You see, the American black man sees the African come here and live where the American black man can’t. The Negro sees the African come here with a sheet on and go places where the Negro—dressed like a white man, talking like a white man, sometimes as wealthy as the white man—can’t go. When I’m traveling around the country, I use my real Muslim name, Malik Shabazz. I make my hotel reservations under that name, and I always see the same thing I’ve just been telling you. I come to the desk and always see that “here-comes-a-Negro” look. It’s kind of a reserved, coldly tolerant cordiality. But when I say “Malik Shabazz,” their whole attitude changes: they snap to respect. They think I’m an African. People say what’s in a name? There’s a whole lot in a name. The American black man is seeing the African respected as a human being. The African gets respect because he has an identity and cultural roots. But most of all because the African owns some land. For these reasons he has his human rights recognized, and that makes his civil rights automatic.

Haley: Do you feel this is true of Negro civil and human rights in South Africa, where the doctrine of apartheid is enforced by the government of Prime Minister Verwoerd?

Malcolm X: They don’t stand for anything different in South Africa than America stands for. The only difference is over there they preach as well as practice apartheid. America preaches freedom and practices slavery. America preaches integration and practices segregation. Verwoerd is an honest white man. So are the Barnetts, Faubuses, Eastlands and Rockwells. They want to keep all white people white. And we want to keep all black people black. As between the racists and the integrationists, I highly prefer the racists. I’d rather walk among rattlesnakes, whose constant rattle warns me where they are, than among those Northern snakes who grin and make you forget you’re still in a snake pit. Any white man is against blacks. The entire American economy is based on white supremacy. Even the religious philosophy is, in essence, white supremacy. A white Jesus. A white Virgin. White angels. White everything. But a black Devil, of course. The “Uncle Sam” political foundation is based on white supremacy, relegating nonwhites to second-class citizenship. It goes without saying that the social philosophy is strictly white supremacist. And the educational system perpetuates white supremacy.

Haley: Are you contradicting yourself by denouncing white supremacy while praising its practitioners, since you admit that you share their goal of separation?

Malcolm X: The fact that I prefer the candor of the Southern segregationist to the hypocrisy of the Northern integrationist doesn’t alter the basic immorality of white supremacy. A devil is still a devil whether he wears a bed sheet or a Brooks Brothers suit. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches separation simply because any forcible attempt to integrate America completely would result in another Civil War, a catastrophic explosion among whites which would destroy America—and still not solve the problem. But Mr. Muhammad’s solution of separate black and white would solve the problem neatly for both the white and black man, and America would be saved. Then the whole world would give Uncle Sam credit for being something other than a hypocrite.

Haley: Do you feel that the Administration’s successful stand on the integration of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi has demonstrated that the Government—far from being hypocritical—is sympathetic with the Negro’s aspirations for equality?

Malcolm X: What was accomplished? It took 15,000 troops to put Meredith in the University of Mississippi. Those troops and $3,000,000—that’s what was spent—to get one Negro in. That $3,000,000 could have been used much more wisely by the Federal Government to elevate the living standards of all the Negroes in Mississippi.

Haley: Then in your view, the principle involved was not worth the expense. Yet it is a matter of record that President Kennedy, in the face of Southern opposition, championed the appointment of Dr. Robert Weaver as the first Negro Cabinet member. Does this indicate to you, as it does to many Negro leaders, that the Administration is determined to combat white supremacy?

Malcolm X: Kennedy doesn’t have to fight; he’s the President. He didn’t have any fight replacing Ribicoff with Celebrezze. He didn’t have any trouble putting Goldberg on the Supreme Court. He hasn’t had any trouble getting anybody in but Weaver and Thurgood Marshall. He wasn’t worried about Congressional objection when he challenged U.S. Steel. He wasn’t worried about either Congressional reaction or Russian reaction or even world reaction when he blockaded Cuba. But when it comes to the rights of the Negro, who helped to put him in office, then he’s afraid of little pockets of white resistance.

Haley: Has any American President, in your opinion—Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy—accomplished anything worthwhile for the Negro?

Malcolm X: None of them have ever done anything for Negroes. All of them have tricked the Negro, and made false promises to him at election times which they never fulfilled. Lincoln’s concern wasn’t freedom for the blacks but to save the Union.

Haley: Wasn’t the Civil War fought to decide whether this nation could, in the words of Lincoln, “endure permanently half slave and half free”?

Malcolm X: Sir, many, many people are completely misinformed about Lincoln and the Negro. That war involved two thieves, the North and the South, fighting over the spoils. The further we get away from the actual incident, the more they are trying to make it sound as though the battle was over the black man. Lincoln said that if he could save the Union without freeing the slaves, he would. But after two years of killing and carnage he found out he would have to free the slaves. He wasn’t interested in the slaves but in the Union. As for the Emancipation Proclamation, sir, it was an empty document. If it freed the slaves, why, a century later, are we still battling for civil rights?

Haley: Despite the fact that the goal of racial equality is not yet realized, many sociologists—and a number of Negro commentators—agree that no minority group on earth has made as much social, civil and economic progress as the American Negro in the past 100 years. What is your reaction to this view?

Malcolm X: Sir, I hear that everywhere almost exactly as you state it. This is one of the biggest myths that the American black man himself believes in. Every immigrant ethnic group that has come to this country is now a genuinely first-class citizen group—every one of them but the black man, who was here when they came. While everybody else is sharing the fruit, the black man is just now starting to be thrown some seeds. It is our hope that through the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, we will at last get the soil to plant the seeds in. You talk about the progress of the Negro—I’ll tell you, mister, it’s just because the Negro has been in America while America has gone forward that the Negro appears to have gone forward. The Negro is like a man on a luxury commuter train doing 90 miles an hour. He looks out of the window, along with all the white passengers in their Pullman chairs, and he thinks he’s doing 90, too. Then he gets to the men’s room and looks in the mirror—and he sees he’s not really getting anywhere at all. His reflection shows a black man standing there in the white uniform of a dining-car steward. He may get on the 5:10, all right, but he sure won’t be getting off at Westport.

Haley: Is there anything then, in your opinion, that could be done—by either whites or blacks—to expedite the social and economic progress of the Negro in America?

Malcolm X: First of all, the white man must finally realize that he’s the one who has committed the crimes that have produced the miserable condition that our people are in. He can’t hide this guilt by reviling us today because we answer his criminal acts—past and present—with extreme and uncompromising resentment. He cannot hide his guilt by accusing us, his victims, of being racists, extremists and black supremacists. The white man must realize that the sins of the fathers are about to be visited upon the heads of the children who have continued those sins, only in more sophisticated ways. Mr. Elijah Muhammad is warning this generation of white people that they, too, are also facing a time of harvest in which they will have to pay for the crime committed when their grandfathers made slaves out of us.

But there is something the white man can do to avert this fate. He must atone—and this can only be done by allowing black men, those who choose, to leave this land of bondage and go to a land of our own. But if he doesn’t want a mass movement of our people away from this house of bondage, then he should separate this country. He should give us several states here on American soil, where those of us who wish to can go and set up our own government, our own economic system, our own civilization. Since we have given over 300 years of our slave labor to the white man’s America, helped to build it up for him, it’s only right that white America should give us everything we need in finance and materials for the next 25 years, until our own nation is able to stand on its feet. Then, if the Western Hemisphere is attacked by outside enemies, we would have both the capability and the motivation to join in defending the hemisphere, in which we would then have a sovereign stake.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that the black man has served under the rule of all the other peoples of the earth at one time or another in the past. He teaches that it is now God’s intention to put the black man back at the top of civilization, where he was in the beginning—before Adam, the white man, was created. The world since Adam has been white—and corrupt. The world of tomorrow will be black—and righteous. In the white world there has been nothing but slavery, suffering, death and colonialism. In the black world of tomorrow, there will be true freedom, justice and equality for all. And that day is coming—sooner than you think.

Haley: If Muslims ultimately gain control as you predict, do you plan to bestow “true freedom” on white people?

Malcolm X: It’s not a case of what would we do, it’s a case of what would God do with whites. What does a judge do with the guilty? Either the guilty atone, or God executes judgment.

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the May 1963 issue of Playboy. © 1963 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)

(Alex Haley Interviews Martin Luther King, Jr. was originally published in the January 1965 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Martin Luther King, Jr.Alex Haley Interviews Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States, and he has become a human rights icon. This 1965 interview with Haley was the longest interview he had ever granted to any publication.

“Anticipating that Reverend King might have problems reconciling his Baptist faith with the nude photographs in Playboy, I armed Alex with the magazine’s impressive sales figures—more than three million at that time—and he regaled King’s advisors with a demographic breakdown of the readership: college-educated young men and women, ‘the very constituency that was most vital to King’s interests, for anyone with a cause. Think what you will about the girls, but you can’t ignore the audience.’ They were convinced.

“However, King’s schedule made it next to impossible even for a conventional interview, let alone one like Playboy’s that would require many hours of taping. After a succession of frustrating cancellations, and three trips to Atlanta, he still hadn’t met the man, and most interviewers would have given up. But Alex had taken pains to befriend King’s secretary, and finally he threw himself on her mercy. He couldn’t face his editor empty-handed again, he told her, and she sent him to a church barbecue King was attending. ‘Let him see you there, but don’t press,’ she advised. He did as he was told, sitting there with a paper plate of chicken and potato salad until King finally took pity on him and came over to say hello, suggesting that they might talk for a few minutes over in his office.” ~ Murray Fisher—former editor of Playboy.

A Candid Conversation With The Nobel Prize-Winning Leader of The Civil Rights Movement

On December 5, 1955, to the amused annoyance of the white citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, an obscure young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., called a city-wide Negro boycott of its segregated bus system. To their consternation, however, it was almost 100 percent successful; it lasted for 381 days and nearly bankrupted the bus line. When King’s home was bombed during the siege, thousands of enraged Negroes were ready to riot, but the soft-spoken clergyman prevailed on them to channel their anger into nonviolent protest—and became world-renowned as a champion of Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance. Within a year the Supreme Court had ruled Jim Crow seating unlawful on Montgomery’s buses, and King found himself, at 27, on the front lines of a nonviolent Negro revolution against racial injustice.

Moving to Atlanta, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an alliance of church-affiliated civil rights organizations which joined such activist groups as CORE and SNCC in a widening campaign of sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides throughout the South. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the protest movement, King decided to create a crisis in 1963 that would “dramatize the Negro plight and galvanize the national conscience.” He was abundantly successful, for his mass nonviolent demonstration in arch-segregationist Birmingham resulted in the arrest of more than 3300 Negroes, including King himself; and millions were outraged by front-page pictures of Negro demonstrators being brutalized by the billy sticks, police dogs and fire hoses of police chief Bull Connor.

In the months that followed, mass sit-ins and demonstrations erupted in 800 Southern cities; President Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights Bill aimed at the enforcement of voting rights, equal employment opportunities, and the desegregation of public facilities; and the now-famous march on Washington, 200,000 strong, was eloquently addressed by King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the end of that “long hot summer,” America’s Negroes had won more tangible gains than in any year since 1865—and Martin Luther King had become their acknowledged leader and most respected spokesman.

He earned it the hard way: In the course of his civil rights work he has been jailed 14 times and stabbed once in the chest; his home has been bombed three times; and his daily mail brings a steady flow of death threats and obscenities. Undeterred, he works 20 hours a day, travels 325,000 miles and makes 450 speeches a year throughout the country on behalf of the Negro cause. Inundated by calls, callers and correspondence at his S.C.L.C. office in Atlanta, he also finds time somehow to preach, visit the sick and help the poor among his congregation at the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which he and his father are the pastors.

So heavy, in fact, were his commitments when we called him last summer for an interview, that two months elapsed before he was able to accept our request for an appointment. We kept it—only to spend a week in Atlanta waiting vainly for him to find a moment for more than an apology and a hurried handshake. A bit less pressed when we returned for a second visit, King was finally able to sandwich in a series of hour and half-hour conversations with us among the other demands of a grueling week. The resultant interview is the longest he has ever granted to any publication.

Though he spoke with heartfelt and often eloquent sincerity, his tone was one of businesslike detachment. And his mood, except for one or two flickering smiles of irony, was gravely serious—never more so than the moment, during a rare evening with his family on our first night in town, when his four children chided him affectionately for “not being home enough.” After dinner, we began the interview on this personal note.

Haley: Dr. King, are your children old enough to be aware of the issues at stake in the civil rights movement, and of your role in it?

King: Yes, they are—especially my oldest child, Yolanda. Two years ago, I remember, I returned home after serving one of my terms in the Albany, Georgia, jail, and she asked me, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?” I told her that I was involved in a struggle to make conditions better for the colored people, and thus for all people. I explained that because things are as they are, someone has to take a stand, that it is necessary for someone to go to jail, because many Southern officials seek to maintain the barriers that have historically been erected to exclude the colored people. I tried to make her understand that someone had to do this to make the world better—for all children. She was only six at that time, but she was already aware of segregation because of an experience that we had had.

Haley: Would you mind telling us about it?

King: Not at all. The family often used to ride with me to the Atlanta airport, and on our way, we always passed Funtown, a sort of miniature Disneyland with mechanical rides and that sort of thing. Yolanda would inevitably say, “I want to go to Funtown,” and I would always evade a direct reply. I really didn’t know how to explain to her why she couldn’t go. Then one day at home, she ran downstairs exclaiming that a TV commercial was urging people to come to Funtown. Then my wife and I had to sit down with her between us and try to explain it. I have won some applause as a speaker, but my tongue twisted and my speech stammered seeking to explain to my six-year-old daughter why the public invitation on television didn’t include her, and others like her. One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her that Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized that at that moment the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky, that at that moment her personality had begun to warp with that first unconscious bitterness toward white people. It was the first time that prejudice based upon skin color had been explained to her. But it was of paramount importance to me that she not grow up bitter. So I told her that although many white people were against her going to Funtown, there were many others who did want colored children to go. It helped somewhat. Pleasantly, word came to me later that Funtown had quietly desegregated, so I took Yolanda. A number of white persons there asked, “Aren’t you Dr. King, and isn’t this your daughter?” I said we were, and she heard them say how glad they were to see us there.

Haley: As one who grew up in the economically comfortable, socially insulated environment of a middle-income home in Atlanta, can you recall when it was that you yourself first became painfully and personally aware of racial prejudice?

King: Very clearly. When I was 14, I had traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley; she’s dead now. I had participated there in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks. It turned out to be a memorable day, for I had succeeded in winning the contest. My subject, I recall, ironically enough, was “The Negro and the Constitution.” Anyway, that night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta, and at a small town along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us, calling us “black sons of bitches.” I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley finally urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. And so we stood up in the aisle for the 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

Haley: Wasn’t it another such incident on a bus, years later, that thrust you into your present role as a civil rights leader?

King: Yes, it was—in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter long identified with the NAACP, telephoned me late one night to tell me that Mrs. Rosa Parks had been arrested around seven-thirty that evening when a bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, and she refused—because her feet hurt. Nixon had already bonded Mrs. Parks out of prison. He said, “It’s time this stops; we ought to boycott the buses.” I agreed and said, “Now.” The next night we called a meeting of Negro community leaders to discuss it, and on Saturday and Sunday we appealed to the Negro community, with leaflets and from the pulpits, to boycott the buses on Monday. We had in mind a one-day boycott, and we were banking on 60-percent success. But the boycott saw instantaneous 99-percent success. We were so pleasantly surprised and impressed that we continued, and for the next 381 days the boycott of Montgomery’s buses by Negroes was 999⁄10 successful.

Haley: Were you sure you’d win?

King: There was one dark moment when we doubted it. We had been struggling to make the boycott a success when the city of Montgomery successfully obtained an injunction from the court to stop our car pool. I didn’t know what to say to our people. They had backed us up, and we had let them down. It was a desolate moment. I saw, all of us saw, that the court was leaning against us. I remember telling a group of those working closest with me to spread in the Negro community the message, “We must have the faith that things will work out somehow, that God will make a way for us when there seems no way.” It was about noontime, I remember, when Rex Thomas of the Associated Press rushed over to where I was sitting and told me of the news flash that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional. It had literally been the darkest hour before the dawn.

Haley: You and your followers were criticized, after your arrest for participating in the boycott, for accepting bail and leaving jail. Do you feel, in retrospect, that you did the right thing?

King: No; I think it was a mistake, a tactical error for me to have left jail, by accepting bail, after being indicted along with 125 others, mainly drivers of our car pool, under an old law of doubtful constitutionality, an “antiboycott” ordinance. I should have stayed in prison. It would have nationally dramatized and deepened our movement even earlier, and it would have more quickly aroused and keened America’s conscience.

Haley: Do you feel you’ve been guilty of any comparable errors in judgment since then?

King: Yes, I do—in Albany, Georgia, in 1962. If I had that to do again, I would guide that community’s Negro leadership differently than I did. The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale. But I don’t mean that our work in Albany ended in failure. The Negro people there straightened up their bent backs: You can’t ride a man’s back unless it’s bent. Also, thousands of Negroes registered to vote who never had voted before, and because of the expanded Negro vote in the next election for governor of Georgia—which pitted a moderate candidate against a rabid segregationist—Georgia elected its first governor who had pledged to respect and enforce the law impartially. And what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective. We have never since scattered our efforts in a general attack on segregation, but have focused upon specific, symbolic objectives.

Haley: Can you recall any other mistakes you’ve made in leading the movement?

King: Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands—and some even took stands against us.

Haley: Their stated reason for refusing to help was that it was not the proper role of the church to “intervene in secular affairs.” Do you disagree with this view?

King: Most emphatically. The essence of the Epistles of Paul is that Christians should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe. The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life. This is the meaning of the true ekklēsia—the inner, spiritual church. The church once changed society. It was then a thermostat of society. But today I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion.

Haley: Are you speaking of the church in general—or the white church in particular?

King: The white church, I’m sorry to say. Its leadership has greatly disappointed me. Let me hasten to say there are some outstanding exceptions. As one whose Christian roots go back through three generations of ministers—my father, grandfather and great-grandfather—I will remain true to the church as long as I live. But the laxity of the white church collectively has caused me to weep tears of love. There cannot be deep disappointment without deep love. Time and again in my travels, as I have seen the outward beauty of white churches, I have had to ask myself, “What kind of people worship there? Who is their God? Is their God the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and is their Savior the Savior who hung on the cross at Golgotha? Where were their voices when a black race took upon itself the cross of protest against man’s injustice to man? Where were their voices when defiance and hatred were called for by white men who sat in these very churches?”

As the Negro struggles against grave injustice, most white churchmen offer pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. As you say, they claim that the gospel of Christ should have no concern with social issues. Yet white churchgoers, who insist that they are Christians, practice segregation as rigidly in the house of God as they do in movie-houses. Too much of the white church is timid and ineffectual, and some of it is shrill in its defense of bigotry and prejudice. In most communities, the spirit of status quo is endorsed by the churches.

My personal disillusionment with the church began when I was thrust into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery. I was confident that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would prove strong allies in our just cause. But some became open adversaries, some cautiously shrank from the issue, and others hid behind silence. My optimism about help from the white church was shattered; and on too many occasions since, my hopes for the white church have been dashed. There are many signs that the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. Unless the early sacrificial spirit is recaptured, I am very much afraid that today’s Christian church will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and we will see the Christian church dismissed as a social club with no meaning or effectiveness for our time, as a form without substance, as salt without savor. The real tragedy, though, is not Martin Luther King’s disillusionment with the church—for I am sustained by its spiritual blessings as a minister of the gospel with a lifelong commitment: The tragedy is that in my travels, I meet young people of all races whose disenchantment with the church has soured into outright disgust.

Haley: Do you feel that the Negro church has come any closer to “the projection of a social gospel” in its commitment to the cause?

King: I must say that when my Southern Christian Leadership Conference began its work in Birmingham, we encountered numerous Negro church reactions that had to be overcome. Negro ministers were among other Negro leaders who felt they were being pulled into something that they had not helped to organize. This is almost always a problem. Negro community unity was the first requisite if our goals were to be realized. I talked with many groups, including one group of 200 ministers, my theme to them being that a minister cannot preach the glories of heaven while ignoring social conditions in his own community that cause men an earthly hell. I stressed that the Negro minister had particular freedom and independence to provide strong, firm leadership, and I asked how the Negro would ever gain freedom without his minister’s guidance, support and inspiration. These ministers finally decided to entrust our movement with their support, and as a result, the role of the Negro church today, by and large, is a glorious example in the history of Christendom. For never in Christian history, within a Christian country, have Christian churches been on the receiving end of such naked brutality and violence as we are witnessing here in America today. Not since the days of the Christians in the catacombs has God’s house, as a symbol, weathered such attack as the Negro churches.

I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning when a bomb blew out the lives of those four little, innocent girls sitting in their Sunday-school class in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I think of how a woman cried out, crunching through broken glass, “My God, we’re not even safe in church!” I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window. It was symbolic of how sin and evil had blotted out the life of Christ. I can remember thinking that if men were this bestial, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Was there any way out?

Haley: Do you still feel this way?

King: No, time has healed the wounds—and buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs and fire hoses. When they refused Connor’s bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses. It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor’s men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.

Another time I will never forget was one Saturday night, late, when my brother telephoned me in Atlanta from Birmingham—that city which some call “Bombingham”—which I had just left. He told me that a bomb had wrecked his home, and that another bomb, positioned to exert its maximum force upon the motel room in which I had been staying, had injured several people. My brother described the terror in the streets as Negroes, furious at the bombings, fought whites. Then, behind his voice, I heard a rising chorus of beautiful singing: “We shall overcome.” Tears came into my eyes that at such a tragic moment, my race still could sing its hope and faith.

Haley: We Shall Overcome has become the unofficial song and slogan of the civil rights movement. Do you consider such inspirational anthems important to morale?

King: In a sense, songs are the soul of a movement. Consider, in World War Two, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, and in World War One, Over There and Tipperary, and during the Civil War, Battle Hymn of the Republic and John Brown’s Body. A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. Steal Away and Go Down, Moses were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage. We sing out our determination that “We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.” I should also mention a song parody that I enjoyed very much which the Negroes sang during our campaign in Albany, Georgia. It goes: “I’m comin’, I’m comin’ / And my head ain’t bendin’ low / I’m walkin’ tall, I’m talkin’ strong / I’m America’s New Black Joe.”

Haley: Your detractors in the Negro community often refer to you snidely as “De Lawd” and “Booker T. King.” What’s your reaction to this sort of Uncle Tom label?

King: I hear some of those names, but my reaction to them is never emotional. I don’t think you can be in public life without being called bad names. As Lincoln said, “If I answered all criticism, I’d have time for nothing else.” But with regard to both of the names you mentioned, I’ve always tried to be what I call militantly nonviolent. I don’t believe that anyone could seriously accuse me of not being totally committed to the breakdown of segregation.

Haley: What do you mean by “militantly nonviolent”?

King: I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon. This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.

Another of the major strengths of the nonviolent weapon is its strange power to transform and transmute the individuals who subordinate themselves to its disciplines, investing them with a cause that is larger than themselves. They become, for the first time, somebody, and they have, for the first time, the courage to be free. When the Negro finds the courage to be free, he faces dogs and guns and clubs and fire hoses totally unafraid, and the white men with those dogs, guns, clubs and fire hoses see that the Negro they have traditionally called “boy” has become a man.

We should not forget that, although nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, it found a natural home where it has been a revered tradition to rebel against injustice. This great weapon, which we first tried out in Montgomery during the bus boycott, has been further developed throughout the South over the past decade, until by today it has become instrumental in the greatest mass-action crusade for freedom that has occurred in America since the Revolutionary War. The effectiveness of this weapon’s ability to dramatize, in the world’s eyes, an oppressed people’s struggle for justice is evident in the fact that of 1963’s top ten news stories after the assassination of President Kennedy and the events immediately connected with it, nine stories dealt with one aspect or another of the Negro struggle.

Haley: Several of those stories dealt with your own nonviolent campaigns against segregation in various Southern cities, where you and your followers have been branded “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators.” Do you feel you’ve earned these labels?

King: Wherever the early Christians appeared, spreading Christ’s doctrine of love, the resident power structure accused them of being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the small Christian band continued to teach and exemplify love, convinced that they were “a colony of heaven” on this earth who were missioned to obey not man but God. If those of us who employ nonviolent direct action today are dismissed by our white brothers as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators,” if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts and goals, we can be assured that the summer of 1965 will be no less long and hot than the summer of 1964.

Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension.” I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded.

Haley: Is this the sole aim of your Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

King: We have five aims: first, to stimulate nonviolent, direct, mass action to expose and remove the barriers of segregation and discrimination: second, to disseminate the creative philosophy and techniques of nonviolence through local and area workshops; third, to secure the right and unhampered use of the ballot for every citizen; fourth, to achieve full citizenship rights, and the total integration of the Negro into American life; and fifth, to reduce the cultural lag through our citizenship training program.

Haley: How does S.C.L.C. select the cities where nonviolent campaigns and demonstrations are to be staged?

King: The operational area of S.C.L.C. is the entire South, where we have affiliated organizations in some 85 cities. Our major campaigns have been conducted only in cities where a request for our help comes from one of these affiliate organizations, and only when we feel that intolerable conditions in that community might be ameliorated with our help. I will give you an example. In Birmingham, one of our affiliate organizations is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was organized by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a most energetic and indomitable man. It was he who set out to end Birmingham’s racism, challenging the terrorist reign of Bull Connor. S.C.L.C. watched admiringly as the small Shuttlesworth-led organization fought in the Birmingham courts and with boycotts. Shuttlesworth was jailed several times, his home and church were bombed, and still he did not back down. His defiance of Birmingham’s racism inspired and encouraged Negroes throughout the South. Then, at a May 1962 board meeting of the S.C.L.C. in Chattanooga, the first discussions began that later led to our joining Shuttlesworth’s organization in a massive direct-action campaign to attack Birmingham’s segregation.

Haley: One of the highlights of that campaign was your celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—written during one of your jail terms for civil disobedience—an eloquent reply to eight Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen who had criticized your activities in Birmingham. Do you feel that subsequent events have justified the sentiments expressed in your letter?

King: I would say yes. Two or three important and constructive things have happened which can be at least partially attributed to that letter. By now, nearly a million copies of the letter have been widely circulated in churches of most of the major denominations. It helped to focus greater international attention upon what was happening in Birmingham. And I am sure that without Birmingham, the march on Washington wouldn’t have been called—which in my mind was one of the most creative steps the Negro struggle has taken. The march on Washington spurred and galvanized the consciences of millions. It gave the American Negro a new national and international stature. The press of the world recorded the story as nearly a quarter of a million Americans, white and black, assembled in grandeur as a testimonial to the Negro’s determination to achieve freedom in this generation.

It was also the image of Birmingham which, to a great extent, helped to bring the Civil Rights Bill into being in 1963. Previously, President Kennedy had decided not to propose it that year, feeling that it would so arouse the South that it would meet a bottleneck. But Birmingham, and subsequent developments, caused him to reorder his legislative priorities.

One of these decisive developments was our last major campaign before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act—in St. Augustine, Florida. We received a plea for help from Dr. Robert Hayling, the leader of the St. Augustine movement. St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and one of the most segregated cities in America, was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Such things had happened as Klansmen abducting four Negroes and beating them unconscious with clubs, brass knuckles, ax handles and pistol butts. Dr. Hayling’s home had been shot up with buckshot, three Negro homes had been bombed and several Negro night clubs shotgunned. A Negro’s car had been destroyed by fire because his child was one of the six Negro children permitted to attend white schools. And the homes of two of the Negro children in the white schools had been burned down. Many Negroes had been fired from jobs that some had worked on for 28 years because they were somehow connected with the demonstrations. Police had beaten and arrested Negroes for picketing, marching and singing freedom songs. Many Negroes had served up to 90 days in jail for demonstrating against segregation, and four teenagers had spent six months in jail for picketing. Then, on February seventh of last year, Dr. Hayling’s home was shotgunned a second time, with his pregnant wife and two children barely escaping death; the family dog was killed while standing behind the living-room door. So S.C.L.C. decided to join in last year’s celebration of St. Augustine’s gala 400th birthday as America’s oldest city—by converting it into a nonviolent battleground. This is just what we did.

Haley: But isn’t it true, Dr. King, that during this and other “nonviolent” demonstrations, violence has occurred—sometimes resulting in hundreds of casualties on both sides?

King: Yes, in part that is true. But what is always overlooked is how few people, in ratio to the numbers involved, have been casualties. An army on maneuvers, against no enemy, suffers casualties, even fatalities. A minimum of whites have been casualties in demonstrations solely because our teaching of nonviolence disciplines our followers not to fight even if attacked. A minimum of Negroes are casualties for two reasons: Their white oppressors know that the world watches their actions, and for the first time they are being faced by Negroes who display no fear.

Haley: It was shortly after your St. Augustine campaign last summer, as you mentioned, that the Civil Rights Bill was passed—outlawing many of the injustices against which you had been demonstrating. Throughout the South, predictably, it was promptly anathematized as unconstitutional and excessive in its concessions to Negro demands. How do you feel about it?

King: I don’t feel that the Civil Rights Act has gone far enough in some of its coverage. In the first place, it needs a stronger voting section. You will never have a true democracy until you can eliminate all restrictions. We need to do away with restrictive literacy tests. I’ve seen too much of native intelligence to accept the validity of these tests as a criterion for voting qualifications. Our nation needs a universal method of voter registration—one man, one vote, literally. Second, there is a pressing, urgent need to give the attorney general the right to initiate federal suits in any area of civil rights denial. Third, we need a strong and strongly enforced fair-housing section such as many states already have. President Kennedy initiated the present housing law, but it is not broad enough. Fourth, we need an extension of FEPC to grapple more effectively with the problems of poverty. Not only are millions of Negroes caught in the clutches of poverty, but millions of poor whites as well. And fifth, conclusive and effective measures must be taken immediately at the federal level to curb the worsening reign of terror in the South—which is aided and abetted, as everyone knows, by state and local law-enforcement agencies. It’s getting so that anybody can kill a Negro and get away with it in the South, as long as they go through the motions of a jury trial. There is very little chance of conviction from lily-white Southern jurors. It must be fixed so that in the case of interracial murder, the federal government can prosecute.

Haley: Your dissatisfaction with the Civil Rights Act reflects that of most other Negro spokesmen. According to recent polls, however, many whites resent this attitude, calling the Negro “ungrateful” and “unrealistic” to press his demands for more.

King: This is a litany to those of us in this field. “What more will the Negro want?” “What will it take to make these demonstrations end?” Well, I would like to reply with another rhetorical question: Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Negro is sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to him those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America? I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the Negro for his freedom. This continued arrogant ladling out of pieces of the rights of citizenship has begun to generate a fury in the Negro. Even so, he is not pressing for revenge, or for conquest, or to gain spoils, or to enslave, or even to marry the sisters of those who have injured him. What the Negro wants—and will not stop until he gets—is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality here in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honorably his. He knows that he is right.

But every Negro leader since the turn of the century has been saying this in one form or another. It is because we have been so long and so conscientiously ignored by the dominant white society that the situation has now reached such crisis proportions. Few white people, even today, will face the clear fact that the very future and destiny of this country are tied up in what answer will be given to the Negro. And that answer must be given soon.

Haley: Relatively few dispute the justness of the struggle to eradicate racial injustice, but many whites feel that the Negro should be more patient, that only the passage of time—perhaps generations—will bring about the sweeping changes he demands in traditional attitudes and customs. Do you think this is true?

King: No, I do not. I feel that the time is always right to do what is right. Where progress for the Negro in America is concerned, there is a tragic misconception of time among whites. They seem to cherish a strange, irrational notion that something in the very flow of time will cure all ills. In truth, time itself is only neutral. Increasingly, I feel that time has been used destructively by people of ill will much more than it has been used constructively by those of good will.

If I were to select a timetable for the equalization of human rights, it would be the intent of the “all deliberate speed” specified in the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision. But what has happened? A Supreme Court decision was met, and balked, with utter defiance. Ten years later, in most areas of the South, less than one percent of the Negro children have been integrated in schools, and in some of the deepest South, not even one tenth of one percent. Approximately 25 percent of employable Negro youth, for another example, are presently unemployed. Though many would prefer not to, we must face the fact that progress for the Negro—to which white “moderates” like to point in justifying gradualism—has been relatively insignificant, particularly in terms of the Negro masses. What little progress has been made—and that includes the Civil Rights Act—has applied primarily to the middle-class Negro. Among the masses, especially in the Northern ghettos, the situation remains about the same, and for some it is worse.

Haley: It would seem that much could be done at the local, state and federal levels to remedy these inequities. In your own contact with them, have you found Government officials—in the North, if not in the South—to be generally sympathetic, understanding, and receptive to appeals for reform?

King: On the contrary, I have been dismayed at the degree to which abysmal ignorance seems to prevail among many state, city and even federal officials on the whole question of racial justice and injustice. Particularly, I have found that these men seriously—and dangerously—underestimate the explosive mood of the Negro and the gravity of the crisis. Even among those whom I would consider to be both sympathetic and sincerely intellectually committed, there is a lamentable lack of understanding. But this white failure to comprehend the depth and dimension of the Negro problem is far from being peculiar to Government officials. Apart from bigots and backlashers, it seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as “enlightened.” I would especially refer to those who counsel, “Wait!” and to those who say that they sympathize with our goals but cannot condone our methods of direct-action pursuit of those goals. I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation. Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates.” I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.

Haley: Haven’t both of these segregationist societies been implicated in connection with plots against your life?

King: It’s difficult to trace the authorship of these death threats. I seldom go through a day without one. Some are telephoned anonymously to my office; others are sent—unsigned, of course—through the mails. Drew Pearson wrote not long ago about one group of unknown affiliation that was committed to assassinate not only me but also Chief Justice Warren and President Johnson. And not long ago, when I was about to visit in Mississippi, I received some very urgent calls from Negro leaders in Mobile, who had been told by a very reliable source that a sort of guerrilla group led by a retired major in the area of Lucyville, Mississippi, was plotting to take my life during the visit. I was strongly urged to cancel the trip, but when I thought about it, I decided that I had no alternative but to go on into Mississippi.

Haley: Why?

King: Because I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.

Haley: That statement exemplifies the total dedication to the civil rights movement for which you are so widely admired—but also denounced as an “extremist” by such segregationist spokesmen as Alabama’s Governor Wallace. Do you accept this identification?

King: It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist—in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love. If it sounds as though I am comparing myself to the Savior, let me remind you that all who honor themselves with the claim of being “Christians” should compare themselves to Jesus. Thus I consider myself an extremist for that brotherhood of man which Paul so nobly expressed: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Love is the only force on earth that can be dispensed or received in an extreme manner, without any qualifications, without any harm to the giver or to the receiver.

Haley: Perhaps. But the kind of extremism for which you’ve been criticized has to do not with love, but with your advocacy of willful disobedience of what you consider to be “unjust laws.” Do you feel you have the right to pass judgment on and defy the law—nonviolently or otherwise?

King: Yes—morally, if not legally. For there are two kinds of laws: man’s and God’s. A man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God, is a just law. But a man-made code that is inharmonious with the moral law is an unjust law. And an unjust law, as St. Augustine said, is no law at all. Thus a law that is unjust is morally null and void, and must be defied until it is legally null and void as well. Let us not forget, in the memories of 6,000,000 who died, that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”, and that everything the Freedom Fighters in Hungary did was “illegal.” In spite of that, I am sure that I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers if I had lived in Germany during Hitler’s reign, as some Christian priests and ministers did do, often at the cost of their lives. And if I lived now in a Communist country where principles dear to the Christian’s faith are suppressed, I know that I would openly advocate defiance of that country’s anti-religious laws—again, just as some Christian priests and ministers are doing today behind the Iron Curtain. Right here in America today there are white ministers, priests and rabbis who have shed blood in the support of our struggle against a web of human injustice, much of which is supported by immoral man-made laws.

Haley: Segregation laws?

King: Specifically, court injunctions. Though the rights of the First Amendment guarantee that any citizen or group of citizens may engage in peaceable assembly, the South has seized upon the device of invoking injunctions to block our direct-action civil rights demonstrations. When you get set to stage a nonviolent demonstration, the city simply secures an injunction to cease and desist. Southern courts are well known for “sitting on” this type of case; conceivably a two- or three-year delay could be incurred. At first we found this to be a highly effective subterfuge against us. We first experienced it in Montgomery when, during the bus boycott, our car pool was outlawed by an injunction. An injunction also destroyed the protest movement in Talladega, Alabama. Another injunction outlawed the oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, from the whole state of Alabama. Still another injunction thwarted our organization’s efforts in Albany, Georgia. Then in Birmingham, we felt that we had to take a stand and disobey a court injunction against demonstrations, knowing the consequences and being prepared to meet them—or the unjust law would break our movement.

We did not take this step hastily or rashly. We gave the matter intense thought and prayer before deciding that the right thing was being done. And when we made our decision, I announced our plan to the press, making it clear that we were not anarchists advocating lawlessness, but that in good conscience we could not comply with a misuse of the judicial process in order to perpetuate injustice and segregation. When our plan was made known, it bewildered and immobilized our segregationist opponents. We felt that our decision had been morally as well as tactically right—in keeping with God’s law as well as with the spirit of our nonviolent direct-action program.

Haley: If it’s morally right for supporters of civil rights to violate segregation laws which they consider unjust, why is it wrong for segregationists to resist the enforcement of integration laws which they consider unjust?

King: Because segregation, as even the segregationists know in their hearts, is morally wrong and sinful. If it weren’t, the white South would not be haunted as it is by a deep sense of guilt for what it has done to the Negro—guilt for patronizing him, degrading him, brutalizing him, depersonalizing him, thingifying him; guilt for lying to itself. This is the source of the schizophrenia that the South will suffer until it goes through its crisis of conscience.

Haley: Is this crisis imminent?

King: It may not come next week or next year, but it is certainly more imminent in the South than in the North. If the South is honest with itself, it may well outdistance the North in the improvement of race relations.

Haley: Why?

King: Well, the Northern white, having had little actual contact with the Negro, is devoted to an abstract principle of cordial interracial relations. The North has long considered, in a theoretical way, that it supported brotherhood and the equality of man, but the truth is that deep prejudices and discriminations exist in hidden and subtle and covert disguises. The South’s prejudice and discrimination, on the other hand, has been applied against the Negro in obvious, open, overt and glaring forms—which make the problem easier to get at. The Southern white man has the advantage of far more actual contact with Negroes than the Northerner. A major problem is that this contact has been paternalistic and poisoned by the myth of racial superiority.

Haley: Many Southern whites, supported by the “research” of several Southern anthropologists, vow that white racial superiority—and Negro inferiority—are a biological fact.

King: You may remember that during the rise of Nazi Germany, a rash of books by respected German scientists appeared, supporting the master-race theory. This utterly ignorant fallacy has been so thoroughly refuted by the social scientists, as well as by medical science, that any individual who goes on believing it is standing in an absolutely misguided and diminishing circle. The American Anthropological Association has unanimously adopted a resolution repudiating statements that Negroes are biologically, in innate mental ability or in any other way inferior to whites. The collective weight and authority of world scientists are embodied in a Unesco report on races which flatly refutes the theory of innate superiority among any ethnic group. And as far as Negro “blood” is concerned, medical science finds the same four blood types in all race groups.

When the Southern white finally accepts this simple fact—as he eventually must—beautiful results will follow, for we will have come a long way toward transforming his master-servant perspective into a person-to-person perspective. The Southern white man, discovering the “nonmyth” Negro, exhibits all the passion of the new convert, seeing the black man as a man among men for the first time. The South, if it is to survive economically, must make dramatic changes, and these must include the Negro. People of good will in the South, who are the vast majority, have the challenge to be open and honest, and to turn a deaf ear to the shrill cries of the irresponsible few on the lunatic fringe. I think and pray they will.

Haley: Whom do you include among “the irresponsible few”?

King: I include those who preach racism and commit violence; and those who, in various cities where we have sought to peacefully demonstrate, have sought to goad Negroes into violence as an excuse for violent mass reprisal. In Birmingham, for example, on the day it was flashed about the world that a “peace pact” had been signed between the moderate whites and the Negroes, Birmingham’s segregationist forces reacted with fury, swearing vengeance against the white businessmen who had “betrayed” them by negotiating with Negroes. On Saturday night, just outside of Birmingham, a Ku Klux Klan meeting was held, and that same night, as I mentioned earlier, a bomb ripped the home of my brother, the Reverend A.D. King, and another bomb was planted where it would have killed or seriously wounded anyone in the motel room which I had been occupying. Both bombings had been timed just as Birmingham’s bars closed on Saturday midnight, as the streets filled with thousands of Negroes who were not trained in nonviolence, and who had been drinking. Just as whoever planted the bombs had wanted to happen, fighting began, policemen were stoned by Negroes, cars were overturned and fires started.

Haley: Were none of your S.C.L.C. workers involved?

King: If they had been, there would have been no riot, for we believe that only just means may be used in seeking a just end. We believe that lasting gains can be made—and they have been made—only by practicing what we preach: a policy of nonviolent, peaceful protest. The riots, North and South, have involved mobs—not the disciplined, nonviolent, direct-action demonstrators with whom I identify. We do not condone lawlessness, looting and violence committed by the racist or the reckless of any color.

I must say, however, that riots such as have occurred do achieve at least one partially positive effect: They dramatically focus national attention upon the Negro’s discontent. Unfortunately, they also give the white majority an excuse, a provocation, to look away from the cause of the riots—the poverty and the deprivation and the degradation of the Negro, especially in the slums an ghettos where the riots occur—and to talk instead of looting, and of the breakdown of law and order. It is never circulated that some of the looters have been white people, similarly motivated by their own poverty. In one riot in a Northern city, aside from the Negroes and Puerto Ricans who were arrested, there were also 158 white people—including mothers stealing food, children’s shoes and other necessity items. The poor, white and black, were rebelling together against the establishment.

Haley: Whom do you mean by “the establishment”?

King: I mean the white leadership—which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them. The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise. And he is ostracized as is no other minority group in America by the evil of oppressive and constricting prejudice based solely upon his color. A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice. It is still my basic article of faith that social justice can be achieved and democracy advanced only to the degree that there is firm adherence to nonviolent action and resistance in the pursuit of social justice. But America will be faced with the ever-present threat of violence, rioting and senseless crime as long as Negroes by the hundreds of thousands are packed into malodorous, rat-plagued ghettos; as long as Negroes remain smothered by poverty in the midst of an affluent society; as long as Negroes are made to feel like exiles in their own land; as long as Negroes continue to be dehumanized; as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head winds of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.

Understand that I am trying only to explain the reasons for violence and the threat of violence. Let me say again that by no means and under no circumstance do I condone outbreaks of looting and lawlessness. I feel that every responsible Negro leader must point out, with all possible vigor, that anyone who perpetrates and participates in a riot is immoral as well as impractical—that the use of immoral means will not achieve the moral end of racial justice.

Haley: Whom do you consider the most responsible Negro leaders?

King: Well, I would say that Roy Wilkins of the NAACP has proved time and again to be a very articulate spokesman for the rights of Negroes. He is a most able administrator and a dedicated organization man with personal resources that have helped the whole struggle. Another outstanding man is Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League, an extremely able social scientist. He has developed a meaningful balance between militancy and moderation. James Farmer of CORE is another courageous, dedicated and thoughtful civil rights spokesman. I have always been impressed by how he maintains a freshness in his awareness of the meaning of the whole quest for freedom. And John Lewis of SNCC symbolizes the kind of strong militancy, courage and creativity that our youth have brought to the civil rights struggle. But I feel that the greatest leader of these times that the Negro has produced is A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose total integrity, depth of dedication and caliber of statesmanship set an example for us all.

Haley: Many whites feel that last summer’s riots occurred because leadership is no longer being offered by the men you named.

King: The riots we have had are minute compared to what would have happened without their effective and restraining leadership. I am convinced that unless the nonviolent philosophy had emerged and taken hold among Negroes, North and South, by today the streets of dozens of American communities would have flowed with blood. Hundreds of cities might now be mourning countless dead, of both races, were it not for the nonviolent influence which has given political surgeons the time and opportunity to boldly and safely excise some aspects of the peril of violence that faced this nation in the summers of 1963 and 1964. The whole world has seen what happened in communities such as Harlem, Brooklyn, Rochester, Philadelphia, Newark, St. Petersburg and Birmingham, where this emergency operation was either botched or not performed at all.

Haley: Still, doesn’t the very fact that riots have occurred tend to indicate that many Negroes are no longer heeding the counsels of nonviolence?

King: Not the majority, by any means. But it is true that some Negroes subscribe to a deep feeling that the tactic of nonviolence is not producing enough concrete victories. We have seen, in our experience, that nonviolence thrives best in a climate of justice. Violence grows to the degree that injustice prevails; the more injustice in a given community, the more violence, or potential violence, smolders in that community. I can give you a clear example. If you will notice, there have been fewer riots in the South. The reason for this is that the Negro in the South can see some visible, concrete victories in civil rights. Last year, the police would have been called if he sat down at a community lunch counter. This year, if he chooses to sit at that counter, he is served. More riots have occurred in the North because the fellow in Harlem, to name one Northern ghetto, can’t see any victories. He remains throttled, as he has always been, by vague, intangible economic and social deprivations. Until the concerned power structures begin to grapple creatively with these fundamental inequities, it will be difficult for violence to be eliminated. The longer our people see no progress, or halting progress, the easier it will be for them to yield to the counsels of hatred and demagoguery.

Haley: The literature of the John Birch Society, accusing you of just such counsels, has branded you “a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

King: As you know, they have sought to link many people with communism, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a former President of the United States. So I’m in good company, at least. The Birchers thrive on sneer and smear, on the dissemination of half-truths and outright lies. It would be comfortable to dismiss them as the lunatic fringe—which, by and large, they are: But some priests and ministers have also shown themselves to be among them. They are a very dangerous group—and they could become even more dangerous if the public doesn’t reject the un-American travesty of patriotism that they espouse.

Haley: Was there any basis in fact for the rumors, still circulating in some quarters, that last summer’s riots were fomented and stage-directed by Communist agitators?

King: I’m getting sick and tired of people saying that this movement has been infiltrated by Communists. There are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida. The FBI provided the best answer to this absurd rumor in its report to the President after a special investigation which he had requested. It stated that the riots were not caused or directed by any such groups, although they did try to capitalize upon and prolong the riots. All Negro leaders, including myself, were most happy with the publication of these findings, for the public whisperings had troubled us. We knew that it could prove vitally harmful to the Negro struggle if the riots had been catalyzed or manipulated by the Communists or some other extremist group. It would have sown the seed of doubt in the public’s mind that the Negro revolution is a genuine revolution, born from the same womb that produces all massive social upheavals—the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations.

Haley: Is it destined to be a violent revolution?

King: God willing, no. But white Americans must be made to understand the basic motives underlying Negro demonstrations. Many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations are boiling inside the Negro, and he must release them. It is not a threat but a fact of history that if an oppressed people’s pent-up emotions are not nonviolently released, they will be violently released. So let the Negro march. Let him make pilgrimages to city hall. Let him go on freedom rides. And above all, make an effort to understand why he must do this. For if his frustration and despair are allowed to continue piling up, millions of Negroes will seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies. And this, inevitably, would lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Haley: Among whites, the best-known and most feared of these militantly racist Negro sects is the Black Muslims. What is your estimation of its power and influence among the Negro masses?

King: Except in a few metropolitan ghettos, my experience has been that few Negroes have any interest at all in this organization, much less give any allegiance to its pessimistic doctrines. The Black Muslims are a quasi-religious, sociopolitical movement that has appealed to some Negroes who formerly were Christians. For the first time, the Negro was presented with a choice of a religion other than Christianity. What this appeal actually represented was an indictment of Christian failures to live up to Christianity’s precepts; for there is nothing in Christianity, nor in the Bible, that justifies racial segregation. But when the Negroes’ genuine fighting spirit rose during 1963, the appeal of the Muslims began to diminish.

Haley: One of the basic precepts of black nationalism has been the attempt to engender a sense of communion between the American Negro and his African “brother,” a sense of identity between the emergence of black Africa and the Negro’s struggle for freedom in America. Do you feel that this is a constructive effort?

King: Yes, I do, in many ways. There is a distinct, significant and inevitable correlation. The Negro across America, looking at his television set, sees black statesmen voting in the United Nations on vital world issues, knowing that in many of America’s cities, he himself is not yet permitted to place his ballot. The Negro hears of black kings and potentates ruling in palaces, while he remains ghettoized in urban slums. It is only natural that Negroes would react to this extreme irony. Consciously or unconsciously, the American Negro has been caught up by the black Zeitgeist. He feels a deepening sense of identification with his black African brothers, and with his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean. With them he is moving with a sense of increasing urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.

Haley: Do you feel that the African nations, in turn, should involve themselves more actively in American Negro affairs?

King: I do indeed. The world is now so small in terms of geographic proximity and mutual problems that no nation should stand idly by and watch another’s plight. I think that in every possible instance Africans should use the influence of their governments to make it clear that the struggle of their brothers in the U.S. is part of a worldwide struggle. In short, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, for we are tied together in a garment of mutuality. What happens in Johannesburg affects Birmingham, however indirectly. We are descendants of the Africans. Our heritage is Africa. We should never seek to break the ties, nor should the Africans.

Haley: One of the most articulate champions of black Afro-American brotherhood has been Malcolm X, the former Black Muslim leader who recently renounced his racist past and converted to orthodox Mohammedanism. What is your opinion of him and his career?

King: I met Malcolm X once in Washington, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. He is very articulate, as you say, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views—at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. I don’t know how he feels now, but I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.

Haley: For them or for whites?

King: For everyone, but mostly for them. Even the extremist leaders who preach revolution are invariably unwilling to lead what they know would certainly end in bloody, chaotic and total defeat; for in the event of a violent revolution, we would be sorely outnumbered. And when it was all over, the Negro would face the same unchanged conditions, the same squalor and deprivation—the only difference being that his bitterness would be even more intense, his disenchantment even more abject. Thus, in purely practical as well as moral terms, the American Negro has no rational alternative to nonviolence.

Haley: You categorically reject violence as a tactical technique for social change. Can it not be argued, however, that violence, historically, has effected massive and sometimes constructive social change in some countries?

King: I’d be the first to say that some historical victories have been won by violence; the U.S. Revolution is certainly one of the foremost. But the Negro revolution is seeking integration, not independence. Those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out the oppressors. But here in America, we’ve got to live together. We’ve got to find a way to reconcile ourselves to living in community, one group with the other. The struggle of the Negro in America, to be successful, must be waged with resolute efforts, but efforts that are kept strictly within the framework of our democratic society. This means reaching, educating and moving large enough groups of people of both races to stir the conscience of the nation.

Haley: How do you propose to go about it?

King: Before we can make any progress, we must avoid retrogression—by doing everything in our power to avert further racial violence. To this end, there are three immediate steps that I would recommend. Firstly, it is mandatory that people of good will across America, particularly those who are in positions to wield influence and power, conduct honest, soul-searching analyses and evaluations of the environmental causes that spawn riots. All major industrial and ghetto areas should establish serious biracial discussions of community problems, and of ways to begin solving them. Instead of ambulance service, municipal leaders need to provide preventive medicine. Secondly, these communities should make serious efforts to provide work and training for unemployed youth, through job-and-training programs such as the HarYouAct program in New York City. Thirdly, all cities concerned should make first-priority efforts to provide immediate quality education for Negro youth—instead of conducting studies for the next five years. Young boys and girls now in the ghettos must be enabled to feel that they count, that somebody cares about them; they must be able to feel hope. And on a longer-range basis, the physical ghetto itself must be eliminated, because these are the environmental conditions that germinate riots. It is both socially and morally suicidal to continue a pattern of deploring effects while failing to come to grips with the causes. Ultimately, law and order will be maintained only when justice and dignity are accorded impartially to all.

Haley: Along with the other civil rights leaders, you have often proposed a massive program of economic aid, financed by the federal government, to improve the lot of the nation’s 20,000,000 Negroes. Just one of the projects you’ve mentioned, however—the HarYouAct program to provide jobs for Negro youths—is expected to cost $141,000,000 over the next ten years, and that includes only Harlem. A nationwide program such as you propose would undoubtedly run into the billions.

King: About 50 billion, actually—which is less than one year of our present defense spending. It is my belief that with the expenditure of this amount, over a ten-year period, a genuine and dramatic transformation could be achieved in the conditions of Negro life in America. I am positive, moreover, that the money spent would be more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.

Haley: Do you think it’s realistic to hope that the Government would consider an appropriation of such magnitude other than for national defense?

King: I certainly do. This country has the resources to solve any problem once that problem is accepted as national policy. An example is aid to Appalachia, which has been made a policy of the federal government’s much touted war on poverty; one billion was proposed for its relief—without making the slightest dent in the defense budget. Another example is the fact that after World War Two, during the years when it became policy to build and maintain the largest military machine the world has ever known, America also took upon itself, through the Marshall Plan and other measures, the financial relief and rehabilitation of millions of European people. If America can afford to underwrite its allies and ex-enemies, it can certainly afford—and has a much greater obligation, as I see it—to do at least as well by its own no-less-needy countrymen.

Haley: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group?

King: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro; it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.

Within common law, we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs, which are regarded as settlements. American Indians are still being paid for land in a settlement manner. Is not two centuries of labor, which helped to build this country, as real a commodity? Many other easily applicable precedents are readily at hand: our child labor laws, social security, unemployment compensation, man-power retraining programs. And you will remember that America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans after the War—a program which cost far more than a policy of preferential treatment to rehabilitate the traditionally disadvantaged Negro would cost today.

The closest analogy is the GI Bill of Rights. Negro rehabilitation in America would require approximately the same breadth of program—which would not place an undue burden on our economy. Just as was the case with the returning soldier, such a bill for the disadvantaged and impoverished could enable them to buy homes without cash, at lower and easier repayment terms. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses. They could receive, as did ex-GIs, special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs. Under certain circumstances of physical disability, medical care and long-term financial grants could be made available. And together with these rights, a favorable social climate could be created to encourage the preferential employment of the disadvantaged, as was the case for so many years with veterans. During those years, it might be noted, there was no appreciable resentment of the preferential treatment being given to the special group. America was only compensating her veterans for their time lost from school or from business.

Haley: If a nationwide program of preferential employment for Negroes were to be adopted, how would you propose to assuage the resentment of whites who already feel that their jobs are being jeopardized by the influx of Negroes resulting from desegregation?

King: We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all—so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened. At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques. Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done. The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on the Government to get jobs for all. Together, they could form a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all.

Haley: If Negroes are also granted preferential treatment in housing, as you propose, how would you allay the alarm with which many white homeowners, fearing property devaluation, greet the arrival of Negroes in hitherto all-white neighborhoods?

King: We must expunge from our society the myths and half-truths that engender such groundless fears as these. In the first place, there is no truth to the myth that Negroes depreciate property. The fact is that most Negroes are kept out of residential neighborhoods so long that when one of us is finally sold a home, it’s already depreciated. In the second place, we must dispel the negative and harmful atmosphere that has been created by avaricious and unprincipled realtors who engage in “blockbusting.” If we had in America really serious efforts to break down discrimination in housing and at the same time a concerted program of Government aid to improve housing for Negroes. I think that many white people would be surprised at how many Negroes would choose to live among themselves, exactly as Poles and Jews and other ethnic groups do.

Haley: The B’nai B’rith, a prominent social-action organization which undertakes on behalf of the Jewish people many of the activities that you ask the Government to perform for Negroes, is generously financed by Jewish charities and private donations. All of the Negro civil rights groups, on the other hand—including your own—are perennially in financial straits and must rely heavily on white philanthropy in order to remain solvent. Why do they receive so little support from Negroes?

King: We have to face and live with the fact that the Negro has not developed a sense of stewardship. Slavery was so divisive and brutal, so molded to break up unity, that we never developed a sense of oneness, as in Judaism. Starting with the individual family unit, the Jewish people are closely knit into what is, in effect, one big family. But with the Negro, slavery separated families from families, and the pattern of disunity that we see among Negroes today derives directly from this cruel fact of history. It is also a cruel fact that the Negro, generally speaking, has not developed a responsible sense of financial values. The best economists say that your automobile shouldn’t cost more than half of your annual income, but we see many Negroes earning $7000 a year paying $5000 for a car. The home, it is said, should not cost more than twice the annual income, but we see many Negroes earning, say, $8000 a year living in a $30,000 home. Negroes, who amount to about 11 percent of the American population, are reported to consume over 40 percent of the Scotch whisky imported into the U.S., and to spend over $72,000,000 a year in jewelry stores. So when we come asking for civil rights donations, or help for the United Negro College Fund, most Negroes are trying to make ends meet.

Haley: The widespread looting that took place during last summer’s riots would seem to prove your point. Do you agree with those who feel that this looting—much of which was directed against Jewish-owned stores—was anti-Semitic in motivation?

King: No, I do not believe that the riots could in any way be considered expressions of anti-Semitism. It’s true, as I was particularly pained to learn, that a large percentage of the looted stores were owned by our Jewish friends, but I do not feel that anti-Semitism was involved. A high percentage of the merchants serving most Negro communities simply happen to be Jewish. How could there be anti-Semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice? Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi? And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom—it has been so great.

Haley: In conspicuous contrast, according to a recent poll conducted by Ebony, only one Negro in ten has ever participated physically in any form of social protest. Why?

King: It is not always sheer numbers that are the measure of public support. As I see it, every Negro who does participate represents the sympathy and the moral backing of thousands of others. Let us never forget how one photograph, of those Birmingham policemen with their knees on that Negro woman on the ground, touched something emotionally deep in most Negroes in America, no matter who they were. In city after city, where S.C.L.C. has helped to achieve sweeping social changes, it has been not only because of the quality of its members’ dedication and discipline, but because of the moral support of many Negroes who never took an active part. It’s significant, I think, that during each of our city struggles, the usual average of crimes committed by Negroes has dropped to almost nothing.

But it is true, undeniably, that there are many Negroes who will never fight for freedom—yet who will be eager enough to accept it when it comes. And there are millions of Negroes who have never known anything but oppression, who are so devoid of pride and self-respect that they have resigned themselves to segregation. Other Negroes, comfortable and complacent, consider that they are above the struggle of the masses. And still others seek personal profit from segregation.

Haley: Many Southern whites have accused you of being among those who exploit the race problem for private gain. You are widely believed throughout the South, in fact, to have amassed a vast personal fortune in the course of your civil rights activities.

King: Me wealthy? This is so utterly fallacious and erroneous that I often wonder where it got started. For the sixth straight year since I have been S.C.L.C.’s president, I have rejected our board’s insistent recommendation that I accept some salary beyond the one dollar a year which I receive, which entitles me to participate in our employees’ group insurance plan. I have rejected also our board’s offer of financial gifts as a measure and expression of appreciation. My only salary is from my church, $4000 a year, plus $2000 more a year for what is known as “pastoral care.” To earn a grand total of about $10,000 a year, I keep about $4000 to $5000 a year for myself from the honorariums that I receive from various speaking engagements. About 90 percent of my speaking is for S.C.L.C., and it brings into our treasury something around $200,000 a year. Additionally, I get a fairly sizable but fluctuating income in the form of royalties from my writings. But all of this, too. I give to my church, or to my alma mater, Morehouse College, here in Atlanta.

I believe as sincerely as I believe anything that the struggle for freedom in which S.C.L.C. is engaged is not one that should reward any participant with individual wealth and gain. I think I’d rise up in my grave if I died leaving two or three hundred thousand dollars. But people just don’t seem to believe that this is the way I feel about it. If I have any weaknesses, they are not in the area of coveting wealth. My wife knows this well; in fact, she feels that I overdo it. But the Internal Revenue people, they stay on me; they feel sure that one day they are going to find a fortune stashed in a mattress. To give you some idea of my reputed affluence, just last week I came in from a trip and learned that a television program had announced I was going to purchase an expensive home in an all-white neighborhood here in Atlanta. It was news to me!

Haley: Your schedule of speaking engagements and civil rights commitments throughout the country is a punishing one—often 20 hours a day, seven days a week, according to reports. How much time do you get to spend at home?

King: Very little, indeed. I’ve averaged not more than two days a week at home here in Atlanta over the past year—or since Birmingham, actually. I’m away two and three weeks at a time, mostly working in communities across the South. Wherever I am, I try to be in a pulpit as many Sundays as possible. But every day when I’m at home, I break from the office for dinner and try to spend a few hours with the children before I return to the office for some night work. And on Tuesdays when I’m not out of town, I don’t go to the office. I keep this for my quiet day of reading and silence and meditation, and an entire evening with Mrs. King and the children.

Haley: If you could have a week’s uninterrupted rest with no commitments whatever, how would you spend it?

King: It’s difficult to imagine such a thing, but if I had the luxury of an entire week, I would spend it meditating and reading, refreshing myself spiritually and intellectually. I have a deep nostalgia for the periods in the past that I was able to devote in this manner. Amidst the struggle, amidst the frustrations, amidst the endless work, I often reflect that I am forever giving—never pausing to take in. I feel urgently the need for even an hour of time to get away, to withdraw, to refuel. I need more time to think through what is being done, to take time out from the mechanics of the movement, to reflect on the meaning of the movement.

Haley: If you were marooned on the proverbial desert island, and could have with you only one book—apart from the Bible—what would it be?

King: That’s tough. Let me think about it—one book, not the Bible. Well, I think I would have to pick Plato’s Republic. I feel that it brings together more of the insights of history than any other book. There is not a creative idea extant that is not discussed, in some way, in this work. Whatever realm of theology or philosophy is one’s interest—and I am deeply interested in both—somewhere along the way, in this book, you will find the matter explored.

Haley: If you could send someone—anyone—to that desert island in your stead, who would it be?

King: That’s another tough one. Let me see, I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing Mr. Goldwater dispatched to a desert island. I hope they’d feed him and everything, of course. I am nonviolent, you know. Politically, though, he’s already on a desert island, so it may be unnecessary to send him there.

Haley: We take it you weren’t overly distressed by his defeat in the Presidential race.

King: Until that defeat, Goldwater was the most dangerous man in America. He talked soft and nice, but he gave aid and comfort to the most vicious racists and the most extreme rightists in America. He gave respectability to views totally alien to the democratic process. Had he won, he would have led us down a fantastic path that would have totally destroyed America as we know it.

Haley: Until his withdrawal from the race following Goldwater’s nomination, Alabama’s Governor Wallace was another candidate for the Presidency. What’s your opinion of his qualifications for that office?

King: Governor Wallace is a demagog with a capital D. He symbolizes in this country many of the evils that were alive in Hitler’s Germany. He is a merchant of racism, peddling hate under the guise of States’ rights. He wants to turn back the clock, for his own personal aggrandizement, and he will do literally anything to accomplish this. He represents the misuse, the corruption, the destruction of leadership. I am not sure that he believes all the poison that he preaches, but he is artful enough to convince others that he does. Instead of guiding people to new peaks of reasonableness, he intensifies misunderstanding, deepens suspicion and prejudice. He is perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today.

Haley: One of the most controversial issues of the past year, apart from civil rights, was the question of school prayer, which has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Governor Wallace, among others, has denounced the decision. How do you feel about it?

King: I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the Congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.

Haley: Governor Wallace has intimated that President Johnson, in championing the cause of civil rights only since he became Vice-President, may be guilty of “insincerity.”

King: How President Johnson may or may not have felt about or voted on civil rights during his years in Congress is less relevant, at this point, than what he has said and done about it during his tenure as President of the United States. In my opinion, he has done a good job up to now. He is an extremely keen political man, and he has demonstrated his wisdom and his commitment in forth-rightly coming to grips with the problem. He does not tire of reminding the nation of the moral issues involved. My impression is that he will remain a strong President for civil rights.

Haley: Late in 1963, you wrote, “As I look toward 1964, one fact is unmistakably clear: The thrust of the Negro toward full emancipation will increase rather than decrease.” As last summer’s riots testified, these words were unhappily prophetic. Do you foresee more violence in the year ahead?

King: To the degree that the Negro is not thwarted in his thrust forward, I believe that one can predict less violence. I am not saying that there will be no demonstrations. There assuredly will, for the Negro in America has not made one civil rights gain without tense legal and extralegal pressure. If the Constitution were today applied equally and impartially to all of America’s citizens, in every section of the country, in every court and code of law, there would be no need for any group of citizens to seek extra-legal redress.

Our task has been a difficult one, and will continue to be, for privileged groups, historically, have not volunteered to give up their privileges. As Reinhold Niebuhr has written, individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily abandon their unjust posture, but groups tend to be more immoral, and more intransigent, than individuals. Our nonviolent direct-action program, therefore—which has proved its strength and effectiveness in more than a thousand American cities where some baptism of fire has taken place—will continue to dramatize and demonstrate against local injustices to the Negro until the last of those who impose those injustices are forced to negotiate; until, finally, the Negro wins the protections of the Constitution that have been denied to him; until society, at long last, is stricken gloriously and incurably color-blind.

Haley: In well-earned recognition of your dedication to and leadership of the struggle to achieve these goals, you became, in October of last year, the youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. What was your reaction to the news?

King: It made me feel very humble indeed. But I would like to think that the award is not a personal tribute, but a tribute to the entire freedom movement, and to the gallant people of both races who surround me in the drive for civil rights which will make the American dream a reality. I think that this internationally known award will call even more attention to our struggle, gain even greater sympathy and understanding for our cause, from people all over the world. I like to think that the award recognizes symbolically the gallantry, the courage and the amazing discipline of the Negro in America, for these things are to his eternal credit. Though we have had riots, the bloodshed that we would have known without the discipline of nonviolence would have been truly frightening. I know that many whites feel the civil rights movement is getting out of hand; this may reassure them. It may let them see that basically this is a disciplined struggle, let them appreciate the meaning of our struggle, let them see that a great struggle for human freedom can occur within the framework of a democratic society.

Haley: Do you feel that this goal will be achieved within your lifetime?

King: I confess that I do not believe this day is around the corner. The concept of supremacy is so embedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor. But it is certainly my hope and dream. Indeed, it is the keystone of my faith in the future that we will someday achieve a thoroughly integrated society. I believe that before the turn of the century, if trends continue to move and develop as presently, we will have moved a long, long way toward such a society.

Haley: Do you intend to dedicate the rest of your life, then, to the Negro cause?

King: If need be, yes. But I dream of the day when the demands presently cast upon me will be greatly diminished. I would say that in the next five years, though, I can’t hope for much letup—either in the South or in the North. After that time, it is my hope that things will taper off a bit.

Haley: If they do, what are your plans?

King: Well, at one time I dreamed of pastoring for a few years, and then of going to a university to teach theology. But I gave that up when I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Perhaps, in five years or so, if the demands on me have lightened, I will have the chance to make that dream come true.

Haley: In the meanwhile, you are now the universally acknowledged leader of the American civil rights movement, and chief spokesman for the nation’s 20,000,000 Negroes. Are there ever moments when you feel awed by this burden of responsibility, or inadequate to its demands?

King: One cannot be in my position, looked to by some for guidance, without being constantly reminded of the awesomeness of its responsibility. I live with one deep concern: Am I making the right decisions? Sometimes I am uncertain, and I must look to God for guidance. There was one morning I recall, when I was in the Birmingham jail, in solitary, with not even my lawyers permitted to visit, and I was in a nightmare of despair. The very future of our movement hung in the balance, depending upon capricious turns of events over which I could have no control there, incommunicado, in an utterly dark dungeon. This was about ten days after our Birmingham demonstrations began. Over 400 of our followers had gone to jail; some had been bailed out, but we had used up all of our money for bail, and about 300 remained in jail, and I felt personally responsible. It was then that President Kennedy telephoned my wife, Coretta. After that, my jail conditions were relaxed, and the following Sunday afternoon—it was Easter Sunday—two S.C.L.C. attorneys were permitted to visit me. The next day, word came to me from New York that Harry Belafonte had raised $50,000 that was available immediately for bail bonds, and if more was needed, he would raise that. I cannot express what I felt, but I knew at that moment that God’s presence had never left me, that He had been with me there in solitary.

I subject myself to self-purification and to endless self-analysis; I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction. But whatever my doubts, however heavy the burden, I feel that I must accept the task of helping to make this nation and this world a better place to live in—for all men, black and white alike.

I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a white policeman accosted a little Negro girl, seven or eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother. “What do you want?” the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, “Fee-dom.” She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew. It was beautiful! Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.

Similarly, not long ago, I toured in eight communities of the state of Mississippi. And I have carried with me ever since a visual image of the penniless and the unlettered, and of the expressions on their faces—of deep and courageous determination to cast off the imprint of the past and become free people. I welcome the opportunity to be a part of this great drama, for it is a drama that will determine America’s destiny. If the problem is not solved, America will be on the road to its self-destruction. But if it is solved, America will just as surely be on the high road to the fulfillment of the founding fathers’ dream, when they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the January 1965 issue of Playboy. © 1965 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)

(Alex Haley Interviews Melvin Belli was originally published in the June 1965 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)

Alex Haley Interviews Melvin BelliAlex Haley Interviews Melvin Belli (June 1965)

Melvin Mouron Belli (July 29, 1907 July 9, 1996) was a prominent American lawyer known as “The King of Torts” and by detractors as ‘Melvin Bellicose’. He had many celebrity clients, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jack Ruby, Errol Flynn, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, Sirhan Sirhan, Jim Bakker, the Rolling Stones, and Tammy Faye Bakker, Martha Mitchell, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis, and Mae West. He won over USD $600,000,000 in judgments during his legal career.

“It became something of a coup among the celebrities we interviewed to draw Alex as their interviewer, not only because he was becoming something of a celebrity himself but because of the kind of interviews he did, and the kind of man he was. Stars are understandably wary with journalists, but without exception, Alex’s subjects have called his interviews the best—the fullest, the fairest, the most revealing—that have ever been done with them. And many became lifelong friends. Melvin Belli (June 1965) still calls him’a very remarkable man, one of the gentlest, kindest, most decent guys I’ve ever met.’ ” ~ Murray Fisher—former editor of Playboy.

“Oswald’s treatment by the law was the biggest scandal in the history of American justice. The world saw the horrendous spectacle of Oswald, without legal counsel, interrogated for hours and thrust into that Friday-night mob-scene ‘press conference’ and shouted questions in police headquarters corridors. He had no counsel to object as dozens of self-seeking, self-serving ‘authorities’; volunteered to the press their prejudicial, incriminating and otherwise unwarranted statements regarding Oswald’s guilt. He went a full day without counsel.” ~ Melvin Belli.

A Candid Conversation With The Embattled, Outspoken Attorney Who Defended Jack Ruby

“The mad genius of the San Francisco bar” … ”a court jester” … ”a publicity-mad pettifogger” … ”the S. Hurok of the legal profession”—these are among the kinder things said about San Francisco attorney Melvin Mouron Belli (pronounced “bell-eye”). That he is unquestionably among the greatest living trial lawyers, however, is conceded even by Belli’s legion of enemies, including no few as formidable in stature as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, most major insurance firms, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon and, perhaps most recently, the city of Dallas, Texas, ever since Jack Ruby—with Belli as his counsel—was sentenced to death there for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

An eminent attorney long before the Ruby trial, “Belli has had more effect on the law in the past ten years than any 50 lawyers in the last century,” in the possibly overenthusiastic opinion of a colleague. Indeed, many of his cases have established, or carried forward, major precedents in America’s civil and criminal law. Defending those accused of rape, robbery, assault, arson, murder, fraud, pimping, income-tax evasion, forgery and even overtime parking, he has won literally hundreds of criminal cases. But he is best known as “The King of Torts”—a title he cordially dislikes—for his victories in more than 100 personal-injury and medical-malpractice suits, in which he has earned for clients awards ranging from $100,000 to a record-setting $675,000. He has also pioneered the use of “demonstrative evidence” before juries—graphic, and sometimes grisly, courtroom displays of artificial limbs, autopsy photographs, skeletons, mannequins, X-rays, witnesses on stretchers—inspiring William Prosser, former dean of the University of California Law School, to call him “a Hollywood producer,” and his trials “epics of the supercolossal.” So potent is the Belli image, however, that defendant insurance companies have sometimes made substantial settlements when mere mention was made that Belli might be hired.

An international law practice, plus a prodigious schedule of writing, lecturing and teaching, takes Belli around the world, usually followed by a wake of controversy. But no case has earned him as many headlines as the one he lost 15 months ago in Dallas, where he caused a courtroom sensation by leaping up after the announcement of the verdict, tears in his eyes, to denounce the death sentence for Jack Ruby as “the shotgun justice of a kangaroo court.”

It was to explore the issues and the aftermath of this historic trial, as well as the other unpopular causes he has espoused during his 32-year career, that we went to San Francisco early this spring for an exclusive interview with the embattled 57-year-old attorney. He greeted us in the three-story Belli Building, which he had bought from ten Chinese owners and spent $450,000 restoring to such turn-of-the-century elegance that it has been formally designated State Landmark Number 408 by the California Historical Association. The local San Francisco Gray Line tours include a glimpse from the street through the picture window of his ornate office, where Belli himself may be seen at his vintage desk consulting with clients and colleagues amid a spectacular Victorian mèlange of heavy crystal chandeliers, velvet chairs, leather couches, antimacassars, quill pens, oil paintings, awards for Belli’s forensic triumphs, thousands of legal and medical books, an array of apothecary jars, several human skeletons and a 25-foot-long bar. With a small communications network of telephones and speaker systems, Belli maintains touch with 18 lawyers on the premises, their secretaries, private investigators and sundry other specialists attending the cases of clients by the dozens who have been lured by Belli’s magic name and lofty courtroom batting average.

In a casual display of expansive graciousness, millionaire Belli flipped to us the keys to his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud for our use during the visit; and he wined and dined us regally in his $280,000 Twin Peaks home. During our weeklong series of conversations, we accompanied him to speaking engagements and joined him at his tailor’s for the fitting of three new suits. And on our first morning in town, we even helped him transplant geraniums in his office window box as his fire-engine-red slacks and shirt wowed the ogling tourists in the street outside. In this bizarre setting, we began by posing a hypothetical question.

Haley: You said once that “any lawyer worthy of the name has a commitment to defend the pariahed, unpopular defendant.” You proved your point when you defended Jack Ruby. Would you have been as willing to defend Lee Oswald if he had lived?

Belli: I would have hated to, for I loved Jack Kennedy very much. But as a lawyer, I must acknowledge that any man charged with any crime, however heinous, is entitled to competent representation. So if Oswald had lived, and he hadn’t been able to obtain other competent counsel, and I had been asked to take his case—yes, I would have represented him. If I had refused, I feel I would have had to turn in my shingle. I like to think that the American Bar hasn’t sunk so low that there are not other defense attorneys in this country who would have done the same thing.

Haley: Do you think Oswald’s rights as an accused were adequately protected by the Dallas authorities?

Belli: Oswald’s treatment by the law was the biggest scandal in the history of American justice. The world saw the horrendous spectacle of Oswald, without legal counsel, interrogated for hours and thrust into that Friday-night mob-scene “press conference” and shouted questions in police headquarters corridors. He had no counsel to object as dozens of self-seeking, self-serving “authorities” volunteered to the press their prejudicial, incriminating and otherwise unwarranted statements regarding Oswald’s guilt. He went a full day without counsel. In my belief, the public’s mounting outcry shamed the city into sending the president of the Dallas Bar Association, H. Louis Nichols, to visit him in his cell. As far as I know, Nichols has never been inside a trial courtroom except for official inductions to office, eulogies and ceremonial purposes; this legal paragon then did what strikes me as unthinkable and unforgivable by giving an interview to the press that probably destroyed Oswald’s obvious and valid defense, that he was mentally deranged. Nichols told the press that “he looked perfectly all right to me,” which gratuitously and automatically helped the Dallas establishment condition public opinion against any insanity defense by Oswald. Where was an Oswald defense counsel to scream in protest when Dallas’ prosecutor told millions watching on television, “Oswald is the guilty man. There is no doubt about it, and we’re going to fry him!” What kind of defense counsel would have consented to the Dallas police department’s utterly unbelievably stupid act of marching Oswald right out into the open—for television? An expert defense counsel for Oswald should have been of urgent priority for the American Bar Association—while he was alive. But not until Oswald was safely dead did he get a counsel. When his lawyer couldn’t be embarrassed by being seen sitting next to an assassin, an unpopular defendant, then national A.B.A. president Walter E. Craig was appointed to represent Oswald at the Warren Commission hearing.

Haley: Despite the Warren Report, the belief persists in some circles, especially abroad, that Oswald and Ruby were parties to a right-wing plot against the President’s life—a plot in which the FBI, the Secret Service and even the Warren Commission conspired to conceal “the truth.” Do you feel that these suspicions have any substance?

Belli: They’re hallucinatory and utterly preposterous. Do you want to know who I believe is solely responsible for starting these rumors? The Dallas police department and the Dallas district attorney’s office. Their ominous insinuations that Oswald and Ruby knew each other started during the trial. In the judge’s chambers I tried to persuade the D.A. to announce in court that there was no truth to those rumors—which could have been quashed right there—but it appeared to me that the D.A. encouraged them, so as to make Jack Ruby seem some kind of conspiratorial monster. So the rumor that he had killed Oswald to “silence” him got cabled abroad, and it steadily mushroomed, besmirching the image not only of our law-enforcement agencies, but of our nation. It has been made to appear that our FBI either could not or would not report the full story of the “plot.” There was even an outrageous rumor that our own President Lyndon Johnson conspired in the assassination, to succeed to the Presidency. Now, I know as much about the assassination as any man alive, and I can tell you flatly that it was the barren, solitary act of Lee Oswald. He was a crazy man. And he and Ruby were strangers. Those are facts. The most incredible thing to me is why the FBI didn’t pass along to the Secret Service the lengthy file it had on Oswald. But as much as I detest the type of man that J. Edgar Hoover is, I can’t make myself believe that the FBI or the CIA or anyone else suppressed knowledge of any plot. On the Warren Commission, we had seven wise and honorable men, some of the best. If they couldn’t come up with the truth, then God pity us all!

Haley: What significance do you attach to Warren’s statement, during the Commission’s deliberations, that the full story of the assassination “won’t come out in our lifetimes”?

Belli: None. That was a horse’s-ass thing for Justice Warren to say. I don’t know what he meant, but I don’t think he meant anything ominous by it. If you’re looking for untold facts, though, I can tell you something most people never knew. The night before Oswald was shot, I learned, a Dallas policeman and his girlfriend talked with Jack Ruby, trying to get him to approve of the idea of having Oswald lynched. Their reason was that they knew what a weak-minded guy Jack Ruby was. At the trial, I never mentioned the cop and his girl, because I never could locate them again; they just disappeared.

Haley: Why did you take on the Ruby case? Some say it was for the publicity.

Belli: Look, I’m for hire. I will defend anyone who comes to me—even the president of the Bar Association suing a guy for defamation, for accusing him of being a liberal, in favor of civil rights, due process of law, and against wire tapping. My service to the community as a trial lawyer is that I am for hire by either side. As far as publicity is concerned, I’d had my fill of that long before that travesty of a trial ever came along. My motive in taking the case was that I hoped I might be able to do something for that sick man, Jack Ruby, for psychiatry, for law, and for tolerance. But I didn’t volunteer for the job. Jack’s brother Earl asked me if I would take the case, and he offered me a defense fee of $100,000.

Haley: Did that sum play any part in your decision?

Belli: I agreed to take the case for the reasons I’ve just stated. But since you’ve brought up the money, it might interest you to know that I never got anything like $100,000 for the case. What I got was debts—bills, expenses for our defense team, for the medical experts who flew to Dallas to testify for Ruby, and other costs. I did get about $12,000 from the Rubys, but I paid for every other cent of the costs out of my own pocket—about $15,000. It might also interest you to know that I was offered $100,000 from another source not to defend Jack Ruby. I’m not saying what source.

Haley: There has been some speculation that the offer came from a well-known right-wing Dallas oil millionaire.

Belli: If that’s what you heard, that’s what you heard.

Haley: That’s all you want to say about it?

Belli: No more—now.

Haley: All right. Once you accepted the case, what made you decide on a plea of temporary insanity?

Belli: The incontrovertible evidence of psychiatric examinations. Jack Ruby was and is a very sick man who belongs in a mental hospital. We owed to our national image a dramatic example of how the American legal system pursues and protects a defendant’s rights. We owed to our own law an exposure of the incongruities in our law’s understanding of mental illness. Indeed, for the world to see and appreciate the modern medical specialty of psychotherapy at work was one of the great promises of that trial. And those brilliant clinical experts—psychologists and neurologists—who examined Jack Ruby put together an unmistakably clear picture of a mentally unstable man whom the assassination had stunned and shocked and impelled into frantic, attention-seeking compulsions beyond his power to control. Nothing I’ve ever sensed in advance about the line of defense for a client has ever been more graphically justified by the evidence—or more ignored by a jury.

I never dreamed what a kangaroo court of mockery and errors and prejudice in law and decency we were going to face in that city. There isn’t one fair-minded lawyer who won’t appreciate what I’m saying when the transcript can be read. I’ve disagreed with jury verdicts before; every lawyer has. But I’ve never felt that the jurors weren’t honestly trying to do their very best—except on that black day there in Dallas.

Haley: Bitter criticism and even American Bar Association censure have been leveled at you for shouting after the verdict, “May I thank the jury for a victory of bigotry and injustice!” How do you feel about it now?

Belli: As outraged as I did then. It was a spontaneous outburst of horror at the callous death sentence from a jury that had taken actually less than one hour to consider all of the complex scientific testimony about that pitiful, afflicted little man. I shouted long, vituperatively, and in tears, that a kangaroo court and a bigoted jury had railroaded Jack Ruby to purge their collective conscience in a rape of American justice that made Dallas a city of shame forevermore. Too often have our courts of law shown us that vindictive streak, that drive to heap society’s sins upon an individual, that hypocritical refusal to face facts inherent in which are unpleasant truths about ourselves. The watching, listening world needed to hear a voice from among those Americans who recognized what had happened, and who were sickened by Dallas’ cruelty, the smugness, the community defensiveness and the blind determination to crucify one man for everyone’s sins.

Haley: Do you think that’s any more true of Dallas than it would have been of any other city where the President might have been murdered?

Belli: It’s uniquely true of Dallas. Dallas is unlike any other city in America; even the rest of Texas, thank God, is different from Dallas. Federal Judge Sarah Hughes called Dallas “the only American city in which the President could have been shot.” Every major publication had veteran writers there who appraised and reported Dallas in such terms as “murder capital of the world,” “a sick city,” “a festering sore,” “a city of shame and hate.” Here is a city where a minister told his flock, “If any of you vote for this Catholic Kennedy, don’t you ever come to my church again.” Here is a city where I took my wife and son to a beautiful Baptist church and on the Sunday program an usher gave me, the Lord’s message was squeezed down in a corner under the church’s impressive balance sheet full of dollar signs. Here is a city where I entered a barbershop, unrecognized, and someone discussing the trial said, “I hear they got those Jew psychiatrists out from Maryland,” and someone replied, “Yeah, with their slick Jew lawyers.” I swept the towel from around my neck, stood straight up, gave the Nazi salute, yelled “Achtung! Heil Hitler!” and goose-stepped outside. Here is a city whose prosecutor said of a St. Patrick’s Day parade, “Maybe we’re pressing our luck too far to allow another parade so soon for another Irishman!” And the same prosecutor said, “Well, if they want to look inside of Jack Ruby’s brain, we’ll give it to them after we fry him!”

Dallas is where Adlai Stevenson was spat upon and hit upon the head with a picket sign, and where the American flag was hung upside down by General Edwin Walker, an ardent advocate of the philosophy of the John Birch Society. In Dallas in 1960 even Lyndon Johnson and his lady had been insulted. Dallas is a city where the “Minutewomen” get on telephones and call all over with such messages as “Mental health is Communistic” and “Fluoridation of water is Communistic.”

Haley: Aren’t you describing the activities of a lunatic fringe?

Belli: Look, I’m not talking about all the citizens of Dallas. I’m talking about the oligarchy that rules and runs the city. I’d be the first to admit that some of America’s truly fine people live there. In Dallas I met two of the greatest stand-up guys I ever knew: Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus—it took visceral courage to speak out as he did; and Rabbi Silverman—he was one of the bravest men there. No, my contempt is reserved solely for the city’s archreactionary oligarchy. You know what made them madder at me than anything else? It was when I said what symbolized Dallas for me: a gold-plated bidet I’d seen with a philodendron growing out of it. They were enraged at the implication that they hadn’t known what to do with it. Well, I take that back. They do know what they can do with it.

I’ll never forget how Sheriff Bill Decker said he was going to see to the “safety” of Joe Tonahill, my trial assistant, and me: He was going to have a police car deliver us to court “because there’s so much high feeling around here.” I told him, “Look, I appreciate your concern, but we’re going to walk down goddamn Main Street to the courthouse. Whenever it gets to the point here in America, in my own country, that I can’t walk down any main street as a trial lawyer, then I’ll have to take down my shingle.” And I would. I’d go to Congress and walk outside wearing a sandwich board. I’d howl to the heavens. I might have to do some flamboyant things to get my story heard, but you know I know just how to do it. In any case, we did walk down that Main Street in Dallas to the trial, but I’m going to tell you the truth, I was scared shitless. I used to say, despite all my enemies, that no one would ever actually want to shoot me. But now, after walking down that street and seeing the hate in the eyes of everyone who watched, I never would say that again.

Haley: Was your outburst in court the reason for your being dismissed as Ruby’s lawyer after the trial?

Belli: I was not fired. I bowed out of my own accord. I lost my objectivity that day in Dallas. Once I lose my objectivity, I’ve lost my value in our adversary system of justice. So I got out of the case. It’s as simple as that.

Haley: What do you think will result from the appeal of Ruby’s conviction which is now pending?

Belli: I think that everyone in law knows what will almost automatically happen when an appellate court reviews that trial transcript away from that emotionally charged Dallas courtroom. I pray to God that the terrible miscarriages of American justice that trial transcript contains will cause the case to be reversed. And I pray, for the sake of that sick, pathetic little man, Jack Ruby—whose already paranoid-schizophrenic condition has deteriorated shockingly during his long imprisonment without psychiatric care, and who has tried several times to commit suicide in his cell, once by butting his head against the wall—that his cruel death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment in a mental hospital, where he has belonged since the day they put him in Dallas’ city jail a year and a half ago.

Haley: Do you favor capital punishment in murder cases where the assailant is adjudged mentally sound?

Belli: I don’t favor institutional vengeance under any circumstances. Who in God’s name has the right to pass judgment on the life of another human being? Who’s to usurp this divine prerogative? Only a primitive mind sanctions this kind of barbarity. Just look at the creeps who are in favor of it; you get the feeling they want to be the ones to pull the switch. Dick Nixon is all out for capital punishment; I can’t think of a better argument for its abolition. I only wish I could take him, and all the rest of them who believe in gassing and “frying” felons, through the agonizing ordeal of the last days of waiting in the death house to be hanged or electrocuted, through the gut-wrenching last meal, through the writing of the last heartbreaking letter to one’s wife or daughter. Let me do just this, nothing more—and I’d be able to defeat capital punishment single-handedly.

Haley: Do you disagree with the view that the death penalty deters crime?

Belli: Naturally, punishment does deter some crime. A lot of crime hasn’t happened because whoever considered it simply feared he’d wind up in the clink. But you’ve got a different breed of motivation in murder—because of its irrationality. Most murderers just don’t think in terms of consequences; they don’t think at all, as a matter of fact. Thus, the death penalty does very little, if anything, to deter murder. I’ve seen prisoners join a jailbreak, going right past condemned row, doing exactly what they knew could put them in the death house, and it didn’t deter them a bit.

Haley: Examining another aspect of American justice in a recent book called Innocence, author Edward D. Radin estimated that some 14,000 people each year are convicted, imprisoned and in some cases executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Are those figures accurate, in your opinion?

Belli: We can’t have any way of knowing for sure unless their convictions are reversed—and nothing like that number are. Circumstantial evidence can often be loaded or misleading, and eyewitnesses can be mistaken or untruthful, but I’m still not among those who feel that a great number of innocent people are convicted because of either. I have too much respect for our system of law to believe that justice could miscarry so often and on such a scale. Over and above that, I’ve had the practical experience to deny the allegation. But, of course, miscarriages do occur, and probably always will, for man-made law will always be fallible; but even if it happens only once in a million cases, we must rectify it and look for means to improve our system of justice so that the same mistake isn’t made again. If by protecting the rights of an accused, providing him as we do with recourse to appeal for a reversed decision on the basis of irregularities in the conduct of his trial, we enable ten guilty men to go free because their lawyers get them off on a “legal technicality,” it would still be better than for one innocent man to be convicted and imprisoned, or even executed, because he had no such recourse.

Haley: A moment ago you brought up the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. Would you regard policemen, who frequently testify in criminal cases on behalf of the prosecution, as more reliable witnesses than the average man in the street?

Belli: I’m glad you asked that question. It happens to be one of the axes I grind in my book Dallas Justice. In it, I said I was convinced that the testimonial credibility of policemen on the witness stand is often highly suspect, for it stems from the belief, deep in their law-abiding hearts, that they are serving a higher truth than justice when they testify for the prosecution. They often know a lot about the case in which they are testifying that might be helpful to the defendant—but they sometimes neither make it available to his attorney nor mention it in court. They are convinced—it’s part of being a cop—that the reason the defendant is sitting there is that the law, their part of the law, has done its job and that the job of judge and jury is to provide a quick, questionless conviction and a stiff sentence. The presumption of innocence until guilt is proven is for lawyers, not for cops. The man must be guilty, they think, or else why has he been arrested, arraigned and brought to trial? So they sometimes convince themselves that a modicum of truth stretching or truth omission on their part could achieve the desirable end that strict adherence to the rule of evidence could not.

Perhaps, of all people, from what you’ve read of me, and because of what I’ve just said, you wouldn’t expect me to say this, but I think the average American policeman not only is a good guy, but he’s underpaid, overworked, and a pretty damned good human being. He goes out of his way to help kids, and to help people in trouble. It’s only the black sheep, the errant cop, who gets into the newspapers. And thank God there aren’t many of them.

Haley: The U.S. crime rate is steadily rising, and many law-enforcement officers are convinced that part of the cause lies in the courts’ insistence on strict rules of evidence that provide lawyers, as you mentioned a moment ago, with “legal loopholes” to spring their clients. How do you feel about it?

Belli: What the police mentality seems unable to comprehend is that these “loopholes,” these technicalities of the law, are among the inalienable protections against the violation and usurpation of human rights. I admit that I’ve seen a few flagrantly guilty men slip through legal loopholes and go scot-free in my time; but far more often I’ve seen these same loopholes used to save innocent men and women who would otherwise have perished or been sent to prison for the best years of their lives. No, that’s not the reason for the rising crime rate. And it’s certainly not because people are growing more lawless and depraved, as some have darkly hinted. As a matter of fact, I think we’re slowly growing better. More likely it’s because of the catapulting rate of population growth among the poor, the uneducated and the underprivileged in our squalid, sprawling city slums; because of the struggle to retain our individual identities in an increasingly anonymous mass society; because of our liberation from Victorian sexual strictures, which has set many young people morally adrift; because we find ourselves burdened with more leisure time than ever before, and the Devil is finding work for idle hands; and maybe partly because we have too many laws telling us what not to do—some of them damned silly laws. Instead of trying to legislate morality for adults, why don’t we try teaching it to children? The better, the more tolerantly, the more sympathetically we educate our children, the less crime we’ll have when they grow up.

Haley: Another “legal technicality” decried, and occasionally defied, by law-enforcement officials is the Constitutional amendment that safeguards the public from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” thus prohibiting police, say on a gambling or vice raid, from entering a private residence without knocking, or from searching a premises without a warrant. Do they have a valid complaint?

Belli: In a word, no. I’m still Victorian enough to feel that my home is my castle. Damn it, if I were growing marijuana in my back yard, I’d still insist that J. Edgar get a search warrant before I’d let him wipe his feet on my door mat. Once the uninvited have the carte-blanche right to prowl my home and search my person, next they’ll be trespassing in my mind, as they’re already trying to do with truth serum and lie detectors. Such Gestapo information procedures are not only unnecessary but unendurable in a democracy.

Except perhaps to our God, we all have a façade, even to our closest friends; some of us even to ourselves, and to our spouses—our spouses in particular, for that matter. It may not be good that we have it, but I don’t believe the state or anyone else has a right to pierce that facçade without the individual’s consent—even though it might be good therapy for us to have the veil drawn aside. But that’s the psychotherapists’ realm, not the cops’.

Haley: How do you feel about legalized wire tapping? Is it morally or legally defensible?

Belli: Wire tapping, like lie detectors and truth serum, isn’t only impolite, it’s morally, legally, innately wrong; it stinks of spying. We can’t let Big Brother get away with it. He’s already got his long arm up to the elbow into our pocketbooks, our offices and our daily life.

Haley: Doesn’t your own firm employ wire tapping in its investigative work?

Belli: Yes, I’m afraid we do. I don’t have to like it to be forced to appreciate the fact of its widespread use, which makes its counteruse unavoidable. If I’m a layman, I can turn away from an ugly wound, but not if I’m a surgeon—and as a lawyer, I am a surgeon of sorts; I have to use every means at my command to represent my client, just as a surgeon has to use every instrument or drug at his command to save his patient. It’s simply that bugging is now so commonplace that no conscientious and realistic lawyer, however much he deplores it, has any choice but to use it.

Haley: Among the staunchest supporters of legalized electronic surveillance is the FBI. What do you think of its vaunted reputation for scientific crime detection?

Belli: Their technical expertise is more impressive than their reputation. Sure, it’s a patriotic institution, as sacrosanct as motherhood—but both can get a bit sickening when overportrayed, which they are. While it spends its time and the taxpayers’ money chasing two-bit car thieves and looking for Communist spies in Greyhound bus stations, organized crime continues to get fat off of prostitution, dope, gambling, “juice” and murder for hire; it’s the nation’s biggest business. With its resources and its power, there’s no reason in God’s world why the FBI couldn’t have broken up the syndicate long ago if Hoover really wanted to. The reason he hasn’t is simply that syndicate bigwigs are so good at covering up their tracks that it’s hellishly difficult to get a conviction, and he wants to keep his precious FBI’s gleaming escutcheon unbesmirched by failure.

Haley: We take it you’re not one of his greatest admirers.

Belli: You might say that. If you want a good scare, get a copy of Fred Cook’s book, The FBI Nobody Knows, and read it some dark night. It tells the cold, hard facts about Hoover. As the FBI’s revered director, he’s done a great job—of making his position more secure than that of most crowned heads in this troubled world. Hoover’s dictatorial ideas and ideology have no place in a position of such power in a democracy.

Haley: What is his ideology?

Belli: The ideology of fascism, of rightism. Look at how many ex-FBI men are members of the John Birch Society; I wonder where they picked it up. Hoover is an archreactionary autocrat who deprecates the concept that “we the people” are fit to govern ourselves. He’s a dangerous, dangerous man whom we should have gotten rid of a long time ago. Given full rein, he’d legalize not only wire tapping but search-without-warrant and no-knock-and-enter; in the name of law and order, he would completely abandon due process and the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen.

Haley: Aren’t you going a bit far?

Belli: I probably am—because I’m telling the truth. When this appears in print, I fully expect a knock at the door from Mr. Hoover’s gray-flannel minions. They’ve already tried to tap my phones and monkey with my mail. But I’ve had uninvited nocturnal visitors before. I’m ready for them. The question is: Are they ready for me?

Haley: Speaking of violating individual rights, do you feel, as some have charged, that Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, unduly and extralegally harassed Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa?

Belli: God pity Hoffa. Any individual is in trouble today if he gets the eagle after him. One vicious man, Bobby Kennedy, subverting the powers of government, made it a mission to “get” Hoffa. Now, Hoffa’s done a lot I don’t like—but I think some of his convictions will be reversed. If Hoffa has done wrong—and maybe he has—the law will take care of him. He should be prosecuted, not persecuted.

Haley: Fact magazine recently attributed to you the following remarks about Robert Kennedy: “He’s the most vicious, evil son of a bitch in American politics today…. Sure, he wants to be President, but what he really wants is to become head of the universe…. The Pope isn’t safe with that little bastard around…. He’s arrogant, rude, and even ignorant of the law…. He’s the monied Little Lord Fauntleroy of government…. Every newspaperman knows what he is, and even Johnson can’t stand him, but everybody is too scared of the son of a bitch.” Are these accurate quotes?

Belli: That’s what I said. But I certainly didn’t expect to see it on the cover of a magazine; indeed, I didn’t expect to be directly quoted. But I’ve since had hundreds of both lawyers and laymen write and telephone me to say, “I wish to hell I’d had the guts to say the same thing.” Kennedy as Attorney General had absolutely no experience for the job as top lawyer of the United States. Who is this man, who has never been in a courtroom, to tell me how to act, or to tell my colleague trial lawyers how to act? Which he did. But quite apart from that, and his vendetta against Hoffa, I know of nothing Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General did that he could point to with pride.

Haley: How about his department’s dedication to the enforcement of civil rights legislation?

Belli: His office did a tremendous and good job on civil rights; but in Jack Kennedy’s administration, could any Attorney General’s office have done less?

Haley: What do you feel can be done to rectify the mockery of justice in Southern courts, which perennially exonerate whites charged with murdering Negroes?

Belli: These segregationist barbarians—the ones who pull the trigger and the ones who let them off—affront not only the law of man but the law of God; they disgrace themselves and our country before the world. But this conspiracy of hate and bigotry won’t last; its days are numbered. In practical terms, however, we can’t change the state laws or the inbred prejudices that keep them in force. I’m afraid we must resign ourselves to the fact that these atrocities, and these travesties of justice, will continue until the white South learns to understand and respect the spirit as well as the letter of due process and equality before the law. It just takes time. Pretty soon all the subterfuges, tricks and deceits designed to circumvent the civil rights laws will have been tried by the die-hards and eliminated by the Supreme Court. Then, and only then, will Negroes in the South begin to enjoy the fruits of true freedom.

Haley: Do you share the conservative view that the present Supreme Court, because of its trail-blazing decisions in civil rights, censorship, school prayer and the like, is “too liberal”? And do you agree with those who feel that it has begun to unrightfully usurp legislative authority?

Belli: What do you mean by “liberal” and “conservative”? If you mean that “liberals” are more concerned with human rights, and “conservatives” with property rights, I think that’s as good a definition as any. According to that definition, the present Supreme Court is the most liberal we’ve ever had. But too liberal? No. As for assuming legislative authority, of course it has. But unrightfully? No. For good or for bad, our Supreme Court has without question become the second legislature in Washington. I say that not in criticism, only as something in the nature of things, I happen to think we have a great Supreme Court, the greatest decision-making Court we’ve ever had, the most humanitarian in our history. Earl Warren is a great administrator; he has integrity, ability. The individual justices are sincere and hard working; they try hard to be objective, to put country above personality; they’re the best we’ve ever had. The Court has done the American people great justice in rendering the law consonant with the changing needs and increasing complexities of the contemporary world.

Haley: Since the turn of the century, many attempts at censorship of sexually explicit books and films have been made by the U.S. Post Office, the U.S. Customs Bureau, various state governments and scores of religious and citizens’ censor boards. Almost all of these bans have been judicially overruled, some of them in historic decisions by the Supreme Court. With whom do you feel should ultimate authority rest for passing on the “redeeming social merit” of allegedly obscene creative works?

Belli: With the public, through the courts. If I were defending a so-called “dirty” book, I’d feel a jury of my peers fully qualified to judge its redeeming merits. Juries do a damned good soul-searching job that speaks for their community’s collective morality. Let literary men, ministers, professors, the tolerant, the bigoted, the broad-minded and the narrow-minded all have at it in a jury room. The sparks of conflict will shed the light by which justice may be illuminated. Only a jury will arrive at a judgment that is the wish, the temper of the community—which I think should be the ultimate criterion of judgment.

Haley: How do you feel in general about the much-discussed revolution in sexual attitudes and practices that’s taking place in America today?

Belli: I believe in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and sex, and not necessarily in that order. But sex has been here since the Garden of Eden and no overnight revolution in the sex relationship is going to accomplish anything good. Greater candor, yes; greater permissiveness, no. I can’t believe that pre-marital and extramarital relations per se can lead to a fuller life or more enduring happiness. I’m certainly not Victorian, except in my office decor, and I’ve certainly seen enough of life as an able-bodied seaman, knocking around the world with Errol Flynn, and trying cases in every state; but I do not believe, in this particular area of human relationship, that lack of will power will achieve any greater degree of happiness. I will say, however, that I don’t think we’re more meretricious sexually than lecherous old grandpa. We’ve just brought sex a little more into the open. And that’s all to the good.

Haley: You and Errol Flynn were close friends, weren’t you?

Belli: Yes, we were. We met when I was retained to represent a sailor who had been accidentally harpooned in the foot by a guest on Errol’s yacht, the Zaca. When I went down to Hollywood to question Errol and walked in wearing a white suit and a black Homburg, his eyes lit up. He had always been impressed with the histrionics of trial law, and I’ve always felt that I might have been an actor. After I’d taken his deposition, we had a most enjoyable legal tussle, and a friendship began. He was great company. He lived life to the fullest; he was up at all hours; he drank vodka before he got out of bed in the morning. And he had the Devil in him. He loved pixy tricks, and played more than his share of them. In a dresser drawer, I remember, Errol kept about 30 emerald-looking rings, which he’d give to girls, telling them with great feeling, “This belonged to my mother.”

He and I also played great jokes on each other. One hot afternoon in Paris, Errol took off all his clothes to be cool and lay down on his bed for a nap. I left him sleeping soundly and went downstairs to the hotel bar and sold tickets for five dollars apiece to about 20 women—Frenchwomen and tourists—whom I brought upstairs for a guided tour of Errol in the altogether. Well, we were all tiptoeing through the bedroom when some silly Frenchwoman began giggling and yelled “Fleen! Fleen!” and woke him up. Did he get sore!

This was in 1949. I had been in Rome on a business trip, and was about to leave for Tokyo when Errol called from Paris. He said, “Dear boy, you’ve got to come to Paris. They’ve got me over a barrel.” I went, intending to stay two days, and stayed months. Errol was making a movie partially financed by the French government and there were plenty of complications on which he needed my help. We stayed about half the time on the Zaca, anchored off Nice. Errol would go down to the bilge, where he kept some gold ingots hidden, bring one back, row to shore with it, turn it in for currency—and we’d be off for a night at the casino.

In Paris, at the Belle Aurora, an exquisite little French restaurant, after we’d gotten up at noon, we’d sit from about one to four and have imaginary trials, drinking bottles of calvados. That’s applejack made in Normandy country; it would chase white lightning out of business. We’d drink and invent legal cases, usually murders, which we tried on the spot. People would crowd outside in the street until they blocked it. I’d accuse Errol and examine him, then he would accuse me and examine me. We’d get almost to the point of blows.

In later years, back in this country, my family came to know Errol well. He sometimes stayed with us. But he wasn’t well. My little son, Caesar, called him “a sick man”—the perception of children. My wife would plead with him to take it easier. He told her, “Look, I’ve done everything twice, why should I bother? If I had an attack, there wouldn’t be anyone to give a damn.” Right at the end, he was planning to play me in a film. It was about this time that he sent me galleys of My Wicked, Wicked Ways. I wasn’t home when he telephoned, on his way to Vancouver to sell the Zaca; it was like selling his life. He told my wife, “Tell the guy I love him; just tell him that for me.” Then, later—it was midnight—I was in bed at our Los Angeles home when Errol’s valet telephoned and said, “He’s gone.”

I guess we were brothers, in a way—though I was an only child. Like him, I’m wild, enthusiastic; I love people. I’m a Leo, you see, born July 29, 1907.

Haley: In Sonora, California, according to your biography. Is that where you grew up?

Belli: Until I reached college age, when I went off to the University of California in Berkeley. But I almost didn’t make it. I was the valedictorian of my high school graduating class, but I had to sue the principal to get my diploma.

Haley: How did that happen?

Belli: Well, I was brutally attacked the evening before graduation—by a huge bottle of whiskey. I was so sick the next day that I couldn’t get to school to make my speech, and when the principal found out why, he withheld my diploma. He was adamant, so my father took me to see an old family friend, a judge. When the judge heard the story, he said, “My boy, you’ve been wronged!” And he hauled out of his desk a couple of writs, a replevin, a bench warrant, a couple of subpoena duces tecums, a habeas corpus, a habeas diploma, a handful of old bail bonds, and he stuck all of them together with notary public seals and red ribbon and he marched over to the school and served all of it on the principal. I got my diploma on the spot. Up to that day I had been thinking about being a doctor, but right then I knew the law was for me.

My father lost his money in the crash, so I had to work my way through college as a soda jerk, a summer farm hand and things like that. I even wrote off for free samples of things like soap and shaving cream and sold them to my fraternity brothers. After I graduated, I spent a year traveling around the world on merchant ships as an able-bodied seaman. Then I entered the University of California Boalt Hall Law School. I stood a lucky 13th in a class of 150.

In 1933, when I got my degree, I was lucky enough to get a job as a government investigator, posing as an itinerant bum, moving around with the Okies. My name was supposed to be “Joe Bacigalupi.” I was supposed to submit reports on what the Okies were talking about and what they wanted. I had a card with a special Los Angeles telephone number to call if I ever got in really bad trouble—not for just getting arrested or beaten up; it had to be really important. I never had to use it. One of my first deep impressions was watching Los Angeles deputy cops standing on the city line clubbing back poor Okies trying desperately to get into the city to get on relief rolls, or at least to get a meal. Eventually, I wrote a report that was used as the basis for migratory-worker relief in that area.

Moving out and about then, riding in and on and underneath freight cars, “bumming,” standing in soup lines, sleeping in skid-row “jungles,” I don’t know how many times I got thrown out of different towns about the Southwest—but I know that’s when I developed my deep, strong sympathy for the underdog and the outcast, and it’s where I learned about the kangaroo courts in this country. Well, after that migratory hobo investigation job ended—Say, I seem to be telling my life story. Do you really want to hear it?

Haley: Certainly.

Belli: All right, you asked for it. Well, I got desk space in a small San Francisco law firm. But nothing happened. I just sat there. Finally, in 1934, a well-known defense lawyer took me on for the lordly wage of $25 a month. But nothing happened there either, so I managed to save $20 and went down to Los Angeles looking for a better job. One big lawyer there who turned me down I later opposed in a case; I won my client a $187,500 settlement. The guy could have hired me in 1935 and sent me to Palm Springs for the rest of my life at $100 a week and still saved his client money. Now he tells people, “I recognized Belli as a comer the first time I saw him.” Sure he did! I know ever since then, I’ve never refused to see a guy fresh from law school. You never can tell.

I finally learned to quit waiting for business to find me. If I was going to get any clients, I decided people would have to know I was around. I got the idea of spreading it around that I’d take, free of charge, any cases of criminals in lots of trouble. One of the first clients I found was Avilez, “the Black-Gloved Rapist.” He had been tried, convicted and sentenced to a total of 400 years. For whatever it was worth, I got 200 years knocked off his sentence. He wrote me a thank-you note. After that, I got a number of other hopeless cases—one of them a convicted counterfeiter who had resumed printing the stuff right in San Quentin’s print shop.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the case that first showed me the thing that would later get me on my way was that of a young Negro convict named Ernie Smith. He had been indicted for murder for killing another convict, in a fight in the San Quentin prison yard. Smith told me he had done it in self-defense, that the other man was about to throw a knife at him. I couldn’t believe it, but the captain of the guard confirmed for me that most of the convicts carried knives. He showed me a desk drawer full of over a hundred lethal-looking pigstickers, explaining, “We take away the big ones.” Before the trial, I served a subpoena on the captain of the guard, ordering him to come to court with his drawer full of knives to be admitted into the evidence. Walking past the jury box with it, I was struck by a hell of a thought. My whole case, every argument to determine if Ernie Smith would live or die, was in that drawer! So I “accidentally” stumbled and dropped it; a hundred wicked-looking knives spilled all over the floor in front of the shocked jury—broken saw blades, sharpened files with tire-tape handles, the works. The jurors took one look and they knew it had been self-defense. You realize what I had hit upon by accident? The effect of demonstrative evidence in trials. I might never have talked those jurors into seeing self-defense, but I had proved it when I dropped that drawer.

Well, that’s background. I had a lot of different cases after that, all kinds. And I gradually built up a pretty good practice, at least enough to live on.

Haley: How did you come to specialize in personal-injury suits?

Belli: Mainly because when I entered practice, the average individual who had suffered a personal injury faced a pretty dismal financial-award prospect if he went to court. Well up into the 1900s, settlements were in the neighborhood of $1100 for the loss of a leg, $5500 for the loss of a male organ. Sometimes people who were even paralyzed with permanent spinal injuries would get simply nothing, perhaps on the basis of a “contributory negligence” claim by the defense. Some states had laws making $10,000 the maximum allowable death award.

The average suffering, scared, inexperienced plaintiff had usually been rendered penniless by medical costs and the loss of habitual income. If he did get an attorney to go to court, a fee of one third of the average award wouldn’t permit the attorney to present a really persuasive case. And when 12 well-meaning but confused jurors sat hearing a jumble of legal terminology they couldn’t understand, if the plaintiff got anything, it was the usual, totally inadequate award.

Well, I began to make a practice of showing demonstrative evidence to juries: human skeletons, moving pictures, enlarged X-rays, still pictures in color, infrared pictures, wooden scale models. When the jurors graphically saw the nature and extent of injuries, my clients began getting substantially increased awards. And when other personal-injury attorneys around San Francisco, then around California, caught on and began doing the same thing, the whole picture of awards began improving.

It was about then that the defendant insurance companies began campaigning against us. Awards were getting “too high.” “Ambulance chasers!” they called us. “Shysters!” Since personal-injury law is 75 percent of all trial work, their implication was that only 25 percent of lawyers in America were respectable—a thought to conjure with.

Haley: Still, any business—including the insurance companies—must make a profit to survive. Isn’t it reasonable that they would resist personal-injury awards of often hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Belli: Tell me: Who is the victim—the poor injury-bankrupt plaintiff trying to collect adequate damages from a rich insurance company; or the rich insurance company trying to whittle down or avoid payment of an adequate award for a personal injury inflicted through the fault of the defendant whose paid-up insurance premium that company has regularly collected? Which is the greater perfidy? You talk about insurance-company profits—well, let me tell you something: The insurance companies are among the world’s biggest businesses, and they got that way by taking in unbelievable amounts of the public’s money in premiums—billions of dollars a year. The public is buying protection. But the insurance-company executives seem to forget that they are holding the public’s money in trust. They come to regard that money as theirs, and they’ll be damned if they’ll give it up without a struggle. They accept your money readily enough, but did you ever try to collect any money from a big insurance company? Nine times out of ten, when the time comes to pay off, they fight tooth and nail to get out of their obligation.

Their cries that adequate awards threaten to bankrupt them are nothing alongside their shrill cries whenever someone suggests now and then that the state take over their business. Isn’t it odd for someone claiming to be losing so much to scream so loudly against losing the opportunity to keep on losing money? No, the six-figure adequate awards I’ve pioneered are equitable, just and necessary. These awards are here to stay, and I think the trend is further upward. But I will guarantee you that awards to the personal-injury plaintiffs will never keep pace with the insurance companies’ fantastic and mounting profits.

Let me ask you something: Except an adequate award, what else can be offered to the personal-injury victim? We have nothing that will make the permanently injured victim whole again, nothing that will let him walk without a limp, nothing but drugs to let him sleep without pain. For many, one day not even morphine any longer eases their frightful suffering, and the only alternative left is a cordotomy—the severing of the spinal cord to halt the dreadful journey of the pain impulses to the brain. Think about that the next time you see one of these propaganda pieces about the “high awards” that are “ruining” the country’s insurance companies. Think about those pitiful personal-injury victims who tempt one to say “They’d be better off dead.” But the law forbids them to choose death; they have no legal choice but to go on living—and suffering. Think about the double amputees, the “basket cases”, the traumatic psychotics, the paraplegics, the spinal-injury invalids, the blinded, the grotesquely burned and scarred. Think about the permanently immobilized cases, the people who were once just like you and me but who are doomed for their lives to a wheelchair or a brace, or to the indignities of bowel and bladder incontinence.

Let me give you an example of a typical case of mine and let you decide whether the award I won for my client was “too high” or not. He was a happy, redheaded kid, just back from the war. He had a wife, a child, a job, and then his life was ruined in an accident caused by the negligence of the San Francisco municipal railway. He suffered a crushed pelvis, and a rupture of the urethra at the juncture of the prostate gland. He will be impotent for the rest of his life. And every tenth day for the rest of his life he must endure a painful urethra catheterization, or his urethra will close, whereupon his bladder would burst. His hospital and doctor bills were over $25,000 at the time of trial, and they will be at least $2000 a year as long as he lives. Two years afterward, I saw that boy again, and what I had feared within myself had happened—his wife had divorced him, his home was gone; he had nothing left but the remainder of his award money. Would you swap places with that boy for the $125,000 he was awarded? Or for a million dollars? Two million? Ten million? I think not.

Yet according to them, the noble, stalwart simon-pure insurance companies are being “victimized by fakers” for $50,000 and $100,000—just for having lost a lousy arm or leg! When I started winning this kind of award, they began sending out letters and buying expensive ads aimed at potential jurors in personal-injury cases: “Keep those awards low, or you’ll force your automobile insurance to go up.” Bushwa! Today, with personal-injury awards higher than ever before, insurance-company stocks are among the best market buys.

Anyway, when I won three verdicts for more than $100,000 apiece in 1949 and 1950, I really began to draw fire from the insurance companies. “Belli is a Barnum!” they screamed. “The courtrooms are being turned into horror chambers!” But headway was being made everywhere. Asking not a cent of fee, I began lecturing all over the country—to law students, to bar associations, to groups of plaintiff lawyers. Sometimes my speaking in a state would start an immediate rise in personal-injury awards. An example of that is Mississippi, which was for many years one of this country’s lowest-verdict states; soon after I addressed its State Bar Association in 1951, Mississippi awards rose sharply—to at least an equitable level.

Finally I decided that I would write a book of all that I thought was modern and just in trial procedures, in both criminal and civil law. It took me two years to write it; in those two years, I averaged about two hours of sleep on weeknights and one hour a night on weekends, but finally I turned out the three volumes that were published in 1955, called Modern Trials. I’m happy to say that it’s become something of a standard textbook in the field.

Haley: What about your Belli Seminars? Will you describe what they are and what they do?

Belli: For the past 13 consecutive years, I and my associates have held these Belli Seminars in almost every state and major city in America, and they have been widely and enthusiastically attended and accepted by trial lawyers, law students and even some laymen. In them we teach in all phases of modern trial law, on civil and criminal, substantive and procedural law. These seminars have done a lot for the law, but not one has failed to draw criticism from some local member of the American Bar Association, some insurance lawyer, or some large law firm with a “business practice.” They raise their old cry: My lectures are “illegal” or “unethical.”

Haley: On what grounds?

Belli: I’m teaching lawyers how to raise awards to injured people. I’m teaching them how to sue malpracticing doctors who refuse to testify and who condone the American Medical Association’s conspiracy of silence. I’m teaching lawyers how to sue the reluctant insurance company and how to serve the process evader. Among the politicians and the fat cats of the A.B.A. hierarchy, needless to say, none of this law for the benefit of the little man is particularly popular—though social-circuiting A.B.A. presidents are constantly trumpeting on the majestic subject “The Defense of Unpopular Causes,” and proclaiming that it’s every lawyer’s duty to give a courageous representation of his unfortunate brother, however unpopular he is, however heinous his crime. These are the same great vocal defenders who whimper, from behind their corporate desks, when some poor unfortunate’s unpopular case has to be tried, “Sure, he’s entitled to the best defense, but you defend him, I can’t afford to!” Even worse, these preachers of lofty sentiments are the quickest to impose guilt by association on the lawyer of the heinous-crime client. And these same A.B.A. presidents are approving the abolition of law-school courses that would teach the student lawyer how to try an unpopular case! If we continue diminishing the hours devoted to criminal law in our law schools and increasing those devoted to taxation, accounting and the like, we may as well move over into the business-administration schools. Then the few of us remaining criminal lawyers and general trial men may as well be displayed at the monkey house where the public can stare at our odd and nearly extinct species—attracted to the zoo by the A.B.A. presidents’ public barking against us.

Haley: For a member of a nearly extinct species, you seem to be making a pretty good living. It’s been reported that you earn more that $300,000 a year from the “adequate awards” you win for your clients.

Belli: Every penny I get, I earn! Do you think all a lawyer has to do is pick up a phone and get an insurance company to settle for $100,000 and then bite off a third of it? To start with, I’m gambling when I take a case. Especially when it’s a large award to be sought, the layman has no dream of the amounts of time and talent and money that the plaintiff’s lawyer must invest in preparing the best presentation possible. If we get to court and a jury votes against my client, I’ve lost all I advanced—in cash as well as effort. I don’t just sit in my office and work my cases. Our firm here, we aren’t just some fat-ass corporation of lawyers sitting around thinking about new ways to screw the government out of taxes; we are a firm of concerned and committed people representing men and women who need help. We care. It’s the most precious thing we’ve got here, our feeling for the people who come here wanting help. I’m working my cases in the shower, when I’m trying to sleep and can’t, when I’m on the john, when I’m driving my car, when I’m sitting in those late-night planes. If I win the adequate award for my client, I feel I deserve the one third I take for the work that got the award. Most personal-injury lawyers take a bigger cut than I do—many of them 40 and 50 percent.

Haley: Still, you’ve managed to amass a sizable fortune from the proceeds of such cases. How much would you say you’re worth today?

Belli: I could cash out today with—well, look, let’s put it this way: I feel that after he makes a million dollars a guy should start counting his blessings instead of money. I’m counting my blessings.

Haley: Your remarkable success in winning six-figure awards, and earning five-figure fees, in medical-malpractice cases has made your name a red flag to the American Medical Association as well as to the nation’s insurance companies. What’s your brief against the medical profession?

Belli: George Bernard Shaw wrote it better than I could say it, in The Doctor’s Dilemma: “We’re a conspiracy, not a profession…. Every doctor will allow a colleague to decimate a whole countryside sooner than violate the bond of professional etiquette by giving him away.” The same as with chicken-hearted, fat-cat lawyers, my complaint isn’t against the individual doctors; 99 percent of them are great guys, doing their best and working hard. But here again, the individual doctor has a far higher code of ethics than when he acts in convention, through his association. With lawyers and doctors, it seems there’s some sort of collective amorality, a callous mob psychology, that takes over the individual practitioner’s ethics and honesty. Doctors as a group condone malpractice acts that individually they wouldn’t dream of sanctioning. The individual doctor is so busy treating the sick and performing operations that he’s forfeited the administration of his national organization to a bunch of dirty sons of bitches who try, because of their own shortcomings in their profession, to make him conform to what they think medicine should be. They tell him not to publicly criticize his fellow practitioners; they have usurped his conscience.

Haley: Do you think it’s reasonable to expect a doctor to jeopardize his professional standing by testifying against a colleague?

Belli: Look, every doctor is licensed by us, the public, to practice. His training, his talent, his title, is given to him in trust, by society. To whom, morally, does he owe more—to mankind, or to the A.M.A. and the insurance companies who underwrite his practice? Think of yourself as a victim of some doctor who was simply careless. Think of your being maimed, maybe irreparably, because of his bungling and of your being unable to get another doctor to testify against a wrong that he can plainly see.

My first malpractice case was my eye opener to this incredible conspiracy. I was retained to sue a doctor who had prescribed enemas and cathartics for a young man who was suffering classic appendicitis symptoms. The boy’s cramping worsened, the doctor sent him to a hospital where he let him wait; the appendix burst and the boy died. Not only was the treatment patently wrong, but later I had good reason to believe that the doctor was intoxicated when he made the house call. Are you ready? I lost that case! Not one of this drunken doctor’s colleagues would testify in court to what he had obviously done. Worse, five doctors testified in his behalf, including the head of one of our largest university hospitals. Five years later, that defendant doctor killed himself; he had become a dope addict and a habitual drunkard.

Twenty-five years have passed since then, but it’s still next to impossible to get one doctor to testify against another, and it doesn’t matter how flagrant the case is. Good old Doc Frebish may have come into the operating room dead drunk, carrying a rusty knife and wearing an old pair of overalls, but as long as he’s a member in good standing of the A.M.A., not one doctor in 10,000 will testify against him. You can force a doctor to take the stand as a witness, but all you can get out of him is a grudging acknowledgment that good old Doc Frebish may have forgotten to wash his hands before taking out Mrs. Smith’s uterus instead of her tonsils, and that he may have absent-mindedly left a sponge in her abdomen, but that this “could happen to any of us,” and certainly couldn’t be considered negligent.

Haley: Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?

Belli: You think so? Listen, an entire book has been written about things left in patients—not just sponges and forceps, but rings, wrist watches, even eyeglasses, for God’s sake. Imagine: “What time is it, nurse? I’ve lost my watch.” “Just a minute, doctor, I’ll put on my glasses. Oops! Where are my glasses?”

Now I have personal knowledge that most doctors privately do deplore this sort of thing. A number have told me privately of incompetent colleagues generally regarded as disgraces to their profession. “But Mel,” they say, “don’t ask me to testify against him. My insurance would be canceled.” I can’t really say I blame them; if you ever do actually get a doctor to take the stand and testify against another doctor’s flagrant and perhaps tragic malpractice, he’s regarded as a “stoolie” and will be ostracized for life. Score another victory for the conspiracy. This is the sort of thing I’m trying to fight. Is it any wonder my name is anathema to these people?

But you know, I take pride in the fact that there’s an instructor in one San Francisco medical school who asks his students, “What man has done the most for medicine in the past century?” They name Pasteur, Lister. He says, “No—Melvin Belli, because the son of a bitch has made medical men conscientious about their courtroom testimony, and has made lawyers learn medicine.”

Haley: Is a background in medicine essential for a lawyer?

Belli: Absolutely. In our courts today, three fourths of the criminal and civil cases involve some understanding of some aspect of medicine and medical practice. If a general trial lawyer doesn’t cultivate for himself something beyond a layman’s knowledge of medical fields, he cuts himself off from essential information, and he deprives his client of an essential service. Every law student I meet, if he indicates to me that he wants to do something more worthwhile with himself than to be a jockstrap for some insurance company, or to keep some corporation’s legal skirts clean, I advise him to arrange not only to see a complete autopsy but to learn firsthand about surgical procedures of every sort, to sit in on skin grafts, bone grafts, plastic surgery. I advise him to learn the functions of surgical instruments, to familiarize himself with hospital paraphernalia and procedures.

Let me tell you a very simple case of where medical knowledge paid off for me, among the hundreds and hundreds of times that it has. This was as simple as merely knowing a word, a medical term, when I heard it. I was cross-examining a doctor who contemptuously attributed several of my plaintiff’s complaints to “amenorrhea.” When I got up to present my argument to the jury, I had a medical dictionary in my hand. I read aloud the meaning of that word; it wasn’t something with which my male client was likely to be afflicted. It means “irregular menstruation.” My client won a handsome award. By now I probably know as much medicine as I do law. Here in my office I’ve collected a bigger medical library than is owned by probably any doctor in San Francisco. It rivals my law library—in which 29 of the books are my own, by the way.

Haley: How do you find the time to study medicine, write books, give lectures, teach law courses—and still maintain your overflowing calendar of personal-injury cases?

Belli: Well, somehow you manage to get done what you feel has to be done—especially if you don’t see anybody else doing it. And besides, I love my work. But I sometimes wish I could be a werewolf, with two lives—the life I have now and another life. I yearn for the quietude and the thoroughness of dealing with only a few cases. The way it is now, I have to budget my time like a whore when the fleet’s in. This morning I’ve been on the telephone, about different cases, with Canada, New York City, Pittsburgh, the Virgin Islands, and I’ve exchanged some cables with Hong Kong. I need time to work on my autobiography. I’ve been collecting stuff for 15 years. It’s going to be big. And it’s really going to lay into all those bastards.

Haley: Who do you mean by “all those bastards”?

Belli: You know: Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar, the A.M.A., the A.B.A., the insurance companies, ad infinitum.

Haley: Don’t you sometimes feel that you’ve earned a few more enemies than you can afford?

Belli: Maybe so. Maybe I should have better sense than to take them all on headfirst and simultaneously. Because you know what I’m scared of in this office today? The big frame-up! I’m always telling myself I have to watch my tongue. My fault is that of Adlai Stevenson. He likes to make cracks, too. It cost him the Presidency. But whatever the cost, I’ve got to fight for what I think is right—and against what I think is desperately wrong—or I wouldn’t think much of myself as a human being.

I’ve told you how in my early days I began to acquire my bitterness against the guy with a billy, the entrenched powers. We see injustices all around us, and we all want to cry out—but how many of us dare? We all see Big Brother’s steady encroachment because we don’t. I know we have to give up some freedom to have some safety, some order in society, but I simply cannot tolerate very much of Big Brother—those who claim to know what’s better for you than you do.

I don’t believe that the average person, informed people included, really realizes the swiftly increasing degree to which our country is being run and controlled by an unseen government—not only by the FBI and the CIA and the A.M.A. and the A.B.A.—but by foundations, banks, ad agencies, insurance companies, trust companies and their monolithic ilk. In insidious ways, they are prescribing our moral codes, limiting our freedoms. Their cold-blooded business ethics are becoming universally, and passively, accepted.

The A.B.A. is at war with me—like the A.M.A. and the insurance companies—because I’m at war with those who abet evil by keeping silent when they see wrongs being perpetrated and perpetuated by the greed, malice and deception of these self-seeking institutions. I’m under attack because I believe in crying out against injustice. God knows, I’ve endured more than my share of slings and arrows: “Belli’s a nut, a charlatan, a publicity seeker, an egomaniac!” Sure I’m flamboyant. I can afford to be, because I’m a damn good lawyer. You’ve got to ring the bell to get the people into the temple. But my brand of nonconformism is so offbeat they don’t know what to label it. About the only thing they haven’t tagged me is “Communist.” It’s a wise thing they don’t; I’d sue. This, mind you, after all I’ve done for the law. I’ve tried more cases, I’ve had more judgments affirmed on appeal, I’ve made more new law than probably any lawyer, group or firm in the past 15 or 20 years. After I’m gone, they’ll be teaching courses about Belli. But the pack is out in full cry salivating over me. So be it. If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down fighting.

Haley: Is your plight as serious as all that?

Belli: You bet it is. And things have been coming to a head since the end of the Ruby trial. I was absolutely awed by the speed and the ruthless efficiency with which Dallas’ multimillionaires retaliated against me for my uncharitable remarks to the press about their fair city. You’ve heard that money talks? Listen, money screams! By the time I got back to San Francisco I found that insurance policies of mine had been canceled without explanation; a book publisher had backed out on publishing Black Date: Dallas, the title I had planned for a book; mortgages had been foreclosed; my name had been withdrawn from official lists of lawyers; my credit was frozen; some TV appearances and lectures were canceled. I’m not being paranoid when I say that those bastards in Texas were behind the whole thing. Why, you wouldn’t believe some of the mail I got postmarked Texas. Imagine opening a letter addressed to you as “Dear Rectum.” Heart-warming!

The best part of it, though, is their campaign—with the cooperation of the heads of the A.B.A., who have been waiting for an excuse—to have me kicked out of the American Bar Association. After the Ruby trial, I was notified that I’d be given a “trial,” investigating my “conduct of the case”—though publicly I’d already been convicted by the A.B.A. “grievance committee.” I was notified that my trial would be held in the Statler Hotel in Dallas. I replied that I wasn’t about to come to Dallas. Out of curiosity I asked them if they intended for it to be held on the hotel’s top floor with my seat next to the open window.

I was next peremptorily notified that my trial will be held in San Francisco instead. That suited me fine. Then they announced they had decided to take depositions against me. I asked that the depositions be delayed until a date when I could be present. Denied. I asked by what “rules of evidence” was I to be tried. No reply. I asked for the privilege of taking depositions on my own behalf. Denied. Next came an indefinite postponement of my trial. So I not only don’t know how I’ll be tried, or for what I’ll be tried; I don’t know when I’ll be tried either.

Haley: Can you continue practicing if you’re ejected from the A.B.A.?

Belli: I don’t have to belong to the American Bar Association to practice. I don’t even have to belong to the A.B.A. to take books out of their library. To practice, I just have to belong to my own state bar. As Bob Considine said, “Being kicked out of the American Bar Association is like being drummed out of the Book-of-the-Month Club.” I’d cry all the way to the bank.

Haley: Suppose you were disbarred also by the California state bar.

Belli: Well, I’ve always got my solid-gold Honorary Life Membership card in the Bartenders’ Union. Or maybe I could get the Coast Guard to renew my able-bodied-seaman papers. I think I might write, too. Back when I first started, I might as easily have gone into steel-working, or teaching, or exploring, or doctoring, instead of law—and I bet there are a lot of people who wish I had. But you know, it’s hard for me even to think about having any other career than law. The law is my muse. She has in her wooing been a jealous mistress, but my courting of her these 30 years has been an exhilarating time.

(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the June 1965 issue of Playboy. © 1965 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)