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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Nonviolent Struggle for Racial Equality in America Throughout History

Aired September 3, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour and welcome to the program. My brief tonight: the irresistible force of non-violence in a very violent world. Today and through the prism of history, from Gandhi in India to Martin Luther King here in the United States. The non-violent struggle for racial equality in America is our focus tonight.

Listen to this phone call, recorded in November 1963.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I think one of the great tributes that we can pay in memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great progressive qualities that he sought to initiate.

LYNDON JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I'm going to support them all, and you can count on that and I'm going to do my best to get other men to do likewise. And I'll have to have y'all's help. And I never needed it more than I do now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That was Martin Luther King speaking to the American president, Lyndon Johnson, just four days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And in this call, Johnson promises to honor Kennedy's legacy by passing his civil rights bill.

In this one phone call, you hear the crucial ingredients of change, passion and power, moral force and political leadership. Together, these two men, as Martin Luther King always believed, succeeded in bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

And tonight, we'll speak with two men with intimate knowledge of this struggle.

Robert Caro has written an extraordinary biography of Lyndon Johnson, the man who more than any other enshrined in law the equal rights that Martin Luther King fought for.

I heard how that enormous victory was achieved from Harry Belafonte, the actor and activist who marched shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Harry Belafonte, welcome to the program. It is great --

(CROSSTALK)

HARRY BELAFONTE, SINGER, ACTOR And ACTIVIST: I'm delighted to be here.

AMANPOUR: -- to have you.

You become an entertainer. You become a singer and an actor. And one day you're in Las Vegas -- for your first time, I think. And somebody calls you a nigger. Do you remember that moment?

BELAFONTE: Yes. It wasn't the first time I'd heard the word, but I remember the moment. I walked into a place called the Thunderbird. It's where I was employed to come and perform.

And when I arrived, I walked into the front entrance of the building. I went to the desk to get my room and get squared away.

I was given the instructions that I couldn't come through the front door, couldn't eat in the restaurant, no fraternizing with the cast, which were a large number of very attractive young women, white, dancing in the chorus, and that we would have to have our meals in the dressing room.

I was not prepared for this at all. And when I heard those instructions, I just said, "I think we'd better revisit this contract. I don't think I'm going to be able to live with those rules."

AMANPOUR: We know about your really close relationship with Martin Luther King.

Around that time, he came knocking on your door.

BELAFONTE: Yes. He called to find out whether or not he could have a meeting with me because he was coming to New York. And at the time that he called I was just at the ascendancy of my career, just beginning to be going up the ladder.

And he knew that I was an activist. And I knew at the end of our exchange that I was going to be committed for the cause and be in his service.

AMANPOUR: Obviously, Martin Luther King is known for non-violence. There was so much violence against the black community, and yet he decided to resist through non-violence. Is that what attracted you to him?

BELAFONTE: What attracted me to him was his idea of -- that he could beat the system and that we should do it through this mechanism called non- violence. And that idea was quite alien to me, And I knew about Gandhi. I knew about what he had done.

But all the equations suggested to us that you had to be at least 100 million people and the -- and those who occupied your country should be in the minority. So it would be easy to be non-violent because you could overrun them.

But here in America, we were, what, 10-12 percent of the population. We were distributed through these pockets of ghetto existence. And I just really felt that the idea of non-violence was not a winnable idea.

But slowly, but surely, I saw in his method and in his technique and in his strategy that this thing could work. And I became deeply committed to it. I became deeply committed to the fact that it was the only tool that we had that could really make a difference.

AMANPOUR: It must have taken a lot of strength of character to remain committed, because, you know, I look at these images that you all lived through, the violence when the police would come into a lunch counter, a diner, and just throw the blacks out who were sitting at the counter, the hoses on the streets that were directed at men and women and children, the dogs that were set on you all, the police.

BELAFONTE: Yes, we confronted all of it because that's where our pain resided. We had to go in the places where the enemy was the strongest, where all the laws were being designed and administered. The South was a brutal place in which to be. The law was -- had its own problems, not too distanced from whatever went on in the South, but at least it wasn't a state law.

These were laws on the books that the police were required to execute. And we were in the middle of it, doing battle with them. And each day, we set out to do any of these things -- and certainly Dr. King and others were far more engaged than I was in the physical sense. We knew that there was putting our lives on the line.

AMANPOUR: I read in your book that Martin Luther King said to you, "We've got to get the Kennedys on board. We've got to find Robert Kennedy's moral center."

BELAFONTE: I think when anybody takes a good look at history, you'll understand that the only real power that was at our disposal, that we had to capture, was the Constitution of the United States of America. That was the tool to our liberation.

And the person who was most in charge of making sure that that Constitution was upheld was the President of the United States and certainly the attorney general of the United States, who was the overseer of the protections of the laws of the Constitution.

AMANPOUR: How did you find that humanity? How did you find his moral center?

BELAFONTE: Each time that we confronted him with situations where he thought it would be untenable for his brother politically, that we were being unreasonable by pushing the politics of our agenda against what Bobby, what John Kennedy was facing in trying to maintain the Democratic Party as a whole party, he felt that we were being unreasonable.

And each time we had to argue whether or not we were being unreasonable about, led him to positions of things from which he could not retreat without having a moral consequence.

I think that with the death of his brother, he began to see things in America from a very different prism. And I think that he had to do some deep soul-searching for himself on why are we having this conflict? What really is at the root of all of this?

And I think that took him on a path of looking more deeply. He began to go south and began to spend time among, first and foremost, with the poor in Appalachia. He went among poor white people first. And he saw the devastation of white poverty. And then right next to that, he saw the next deeper pain, which was in the black community.

AMANPOUR: When John Kennedy came to the forefront and was running for president, did you think that he would be on your side?

BELAFONTE: We thought we had every reason for him to be on our side and we had to make an assumption, and that is that he didn't -- he was not in touch with the depth of our anguish and the real meaning of our struggle. So as Dr. King said, we have to win them to our cause.

Now, I can't say that the black vote was the only vote that helped him win. But I think if you look at how narrow of a margin the victory was for him -- 100,000 votes in a national election is a very, very slim margin -- I think one can say, had the black vote not turned out the way it did, those of us who could vote, had it not turned out, the balance of the scale would have changed the course of history.

AMANPOUR: John Kennedy was assassinated. Later, so was Robert Kennedy. Now we have Lyndon Johnson as President of the United States.

Did you have any inclination that he might be the one who actually got the Civil Rights Act passed and the Voting Rights Act and did so much for the cause?

BELAFONTE: No, as a matter of fact, many of us thought that with Lyndon Baines Johnson becoming President of the United States in America, because of his Southern heritage and having been such a power in the Congress of the United States of America, we were coming up against a great adversary and that he would not be the champion of our cause.

Much to our delight and our great surprise, he took a very aggressive position in relationship to us and what we were doing.

AMANPOUR: Where do you think that came from in Johnson?

BELAFONTE: You ask a very good question. I don't know. He felt that his big legacy would be to put in legislation that would change the face of how Americans lived if he could eradicate poverty.

I think we became an extension of what he wanted to do in dealing with poverty.

AMANPOUR: Non-violence was your tenet, was what you hung onto, was what Martin Luther King was all about. Was there a fear that it could have turned violent?

BELAFONTE: With or without Dr. King, with the idea of non-violence, we're always in fear of violence. Violence was life-threatening. It meant that every time you stepped into the breach, you are a target.

And nobody seemed to have had any particular line as to who would be the next to go, whether you were a peasant or a farmer trying to register to vote or whether you were a black person walking on the wrong side of the street, you could be lynched with impunity by some white mob that just chose to take your life.

I guess the point that I'm making is that everybody thought that the most difficult thing facing civilization was the Cold War. And the only way that the Soviet Union would disappear or democracy would disappear, depending on who prevailed, would have been out of a great violent moment, the most violent in civilization's history.

But the fact is that communism imploded. And it imploded non- violently. Not one shot was fired. And it went away, non-violence. That made us take a look at South Africa.

Everybody knew that if there was ever to be a racial war, it would be out of what came out of apartheid, that the majority black in a fierce anger for what they had felt for a century of oppression and what the white Afrikaans, would be a violent racial vengeance.

But when Mandela led South Africa to its democracy, not one shot was fired and a non-violent transition took place.

If you want to fast forward to today and look at what took place in the Middle East, what took place in Tunisia, what took place in all of these earliest responses to the oppression that these people felt, and still feel, is non-violence. It is the state who brings violence to the game, not those who are seeking to overthrow oppression.

So I say that somewhere -- because everywhere I went during the time of non-violence, the most important person to people in the zones of oppression was Dr. King. They were all singing "We Shall Overcome."

And then for America to have Occupy Wall Street and the first thing these kids, all whom the opposition said need to take a shower, get a life, go out and do something with your lives, all the things they said about Dr. King and the rest of us when we were young, we were malcontents, we were just misfits, we just want to live off the state, that's exactly what they are saying about Occupy Wall Street rebellion.

And we're saying, they're on the right track, non-violence lives and yay for Dr. King.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, Harry.

BELAFONTE: You're welcome.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: In 1963, history profoundly and tragically changed with the crack of gunshot fire. The U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was thrust into office.

Historian Robert Caro tells the dramatic story in "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson." I spoke with him about how Johnson, a Southern politician, made civil rights the law of the land in America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Mr. Caro, thank you for joining me.

ROBERT CARO, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Nice to be here.

AMANPOUR: Whenever anybody thinks of Lyndon Johnson, they think first of President Kennedy. You wrote the assassination of President Kennedy, from the perspective of Lyndon Johnson in your latest book, it is riveting.

CARO: Yes.

AMANPOUR: How did he become a great president in the shadow of this legend that he had to follow?

CARO: Well, you know, for one thing he did, I -- he had to turn the laws that the legend, Jack Kennedy, had introduced into legislation by getting them passed. We see it most dramatically in civil rights. On November 22nd, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot, his civil rights bill was absolutely stopped dead by the Southern Democrats who controlled Congress. Johnson picks it up.

You know, the first week after the assassination, he has to give an address to a joint session of Congress, and his advisers one night are sitting around the kitchen table in Lyndon's home. He hasn't moved into the White House yet, so he's still in his house, discussing his first speech.

And they're all saying, don't waste your political capital on civil rights. It's a lost cause. You'll antagonize the Southern Democrats. They'll stop your entire program. It's a noble cause but it's a lost cause. Don't fight for it.

You know what Lyndon Johnson says to them? He said, "Then what the hell's the presidency for?" And in that first speech, he says, the most important thing we have to do, the first thing we have to do is pass President Kennedy's civil rights bill.

AMANPOUR: Why did he think that was the most important thing to do first?

CARO: Well, you know, Lyndon Johnson, all his life, had had this compassion for poor people and particularly poor people of color. We could even see it, you know, when he's in college, between his sophomore and junior years. He has to drop out to earn money to go on, and he teaches at what's called the Mexican School in a little town called Cotulla down near the Rio Grande border.

The children that he taught there left their reminiscences, and I wrote in my first volume, "No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared."

AMANPOUR: But what did he say to those kids, or what did he feel about what he owed, maybe, if he got to a position of power?

CARO: After he's moving Kennedy's civil rights bills forward, with these great speeches, he has a scene in his office with Richard Goodwin, one of his speech writers, and Goodwin asks him the very question you just asked.

And you know what he answers him? He says, "You know, I swore when I taught those kids that if I ever had the power to help them, I would do it. And I'll tell you a secret. Now I have the power and I mean to use it."

AMANPOUR: You mentioned his State of the Union speech, the first one. What was the reaction when he got up and, frankly, told them this was going to happen?

CARO: Well, you can only imagine the reaction of the Southern Democratic senators, who had raised him to power in the Senate because he had made them believe he was on their side. Well, now he's president and he stands up there and tells them he's going to pass this legislation.

Do you know what he says? It's that black people have been fighting for 100 years and we've been talking about civil rights for 100 years. It's time to write it in the books of law. That's what Lyndon Johnson did.

AMANPOUR: His early life, his childhood was mired in poverty and failure. He had seen his father fail and stumble. Where did this come from, this compassion? Was it from there?

CARO: I think so. You know, everything in Lyndon Johnson traces back to this really terrible childhood that he had in this isolated room in impoverished Texas Hill Country, where he watched his father, who once a respected state legislator himself, go -- fail so badly that they lost the Johnson Ranch and for the rest of Lyndon Johnson's boyhood, they lived in a little house in Johnson City, where each month they were afraid it would be taken away from them, from the bank.

His brother, Lyndon Johnson's brother, Sam Houston Johnson, once said to me, "To understand Lyndon, you have to understand that the most important thing for Lyndon was not to be like Daddy, not to fail."

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that, had Lyndon Johnson not been president when he was, that civil rights would have passed?

CARO: Well, you know, that's a very hard question, because there are so many ifs. You know, but you really look at where were civil rights when -- on the moment that the shot rang out in Dallas and Jack Kennedy was assassinated. The Southerners, they controlled the Senate absolutely. No civil rights bill, you know, was going anywhere.

AMANPOUR: Do you think President Kennedy could have done it?

CARO: There's so many ifs for this in this, and I don't really know the answer to this. I -- the only honest answer that I can give is that while Kennedy partisans say he would have done it in the second term, it would have been a strong Democratic majority, but the committee chairman would still have been the same committee chairman. All that I can honestly say is that at the moment he was assassinated, it was going nowhere.

AMANPOUR: So there was Martin Luther King, who was pushing this moral issue into the face of the Kennedys, into the face of President Johnson. There were the clerics. There were also celebrity activists, like Harry Belafonte.

CARO: Yes.

AMANPOUR: How much impact did they have?

CARO: Oh, they had, you know, the heroism of men like Harry Belafonte and all the rabbis and ministers and students from the North, and the black children who had to stand up to the police and the fire hoses and the police dogs and the state troopers with their whips, that created the force for civil rights. But this force needed someone who could turn that into a lure.

You know, in 1965, blacks still vote in very low percentages in the United States. And Lyndon Johnson decides to pass a Voting Rights Act. And really, Martin Luther King is down in Selma, voting for it. And Lyndon Johnson goes before Congress and he says, "We shall overcome." He adopts the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement as his own. You know what happened?

That night, Martin Luther King is in Selma. He's in the living room of one of his aides. He's watching this speech. And when Lyndon Johnson says, "We shall overcome," Martin Luther King starts to cry. And his assistant said it's the first time they ever saw Dr. King cry. It's like he realized at last, they had a champion in Washington.

You know, that story does not -- and the Lyndon Johnson story is so complicated because, at the end, when Martin Luther King is saying Vietnam is destroying civil rights legislation and the war on poverty, so the Lyndon Johnson story, isn't talking about one side of it today, it's a lot more complicated than that.

But his moments, when he fought for civil rights, when he picked up the heroism of these people in the South, and it's amazing to look at it. You know, that's -- '64 is the summer of Birmingham. You turned on television and you see the fire hoses rolling -- you know, I mean, I remember television commentators saying, look at the little girl.

There was a little black girl. The fire hoses are rolling her down the street with the force of the water. You remember all that, and you say, that's a great moral uprising. But then you also say, it needed someone in Washington who could turn this moral force into law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: And a final thought: Lyndon Johnson, as Robert Caro chronicled, was a contradiction. The ruthless politician with surprising compassion who pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, the war on poverty and also led his country into the disaster that was the Vietnam War.

Imagine a world where a bare-knuckles party boss grew up to be a statesman and ultimately a tragic figure on the scale of Shakespeare's King Lear. How did he do it? How did he exercise what Caro calls his "gift beyond a gift," his genius for power when so many leaders shrink from that fight?

Just look at these pictures. They vividly show that political genius in action, up close and personal, in your face, and yet intimate. In Robert Caro's words, "threatening, cajoling, charming, bullying," and said Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, "He could take a bite out of you bigger than a T-bone steak and the very next day he would put his arms around you like a long lost brother."

Beloved and loathed, Johnson knew how to get things done or to repeat his own memorable words, "Then what the hell is the presidency for?" And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, amanpour@cnn.com, and we read every single email. Imagine that. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.

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