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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Role of the Black Student Movement in the food workers' strike of 1969

Davis outlines the role of the Black Student Movement (BSM) in the 1969 food workers' strike at University of North Carolina. According to Davis, the food workers approached the BSM because they could provide "assistance, support, and manpower" to the strike. As elsewhere in the interview, Davis argues that the BSM did not lead the strike, but rather helped the food workers in their pursuit of improved working conditions. Their reputation for commitment to social change and their willingness to take on the administration made them prime candidates for such a task.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

RUSSELL RYMER:
I was just wondering if you could sort of characterize what you fell the black students, the BSM contribution to the strike was. I think that is a general question, but I meant it to be more specific. What specifically was their place, what did they do that nobody else did and why were they in a position to di it?
ASHLEY DAVIS:
All right. Number one, I think that the workers approached BSM simply because BSM had shown actual committment, the leaders had shown committment and interest prior to the strike and I think that people were looking for this. Like I say, we were committed, when we started out initially, we were committed. WE didn't just talk. You know, we mentioned some people at the beginning of this interview, and some people said, "Man, always avoid arrest." And that always bothered us, that some people did always manage to avoid arrest. And we saw what happened in Durham and a lot of people in Durham were led down the alley and then looking around for the leadership and the leadership had split. Well, the leadership here stayed and I think that the people trusted BSM. Two, as a role, number one, in terms of communication, the BSM served between the workers and other campus wide organizations. I think that the workers were very naive in a lot of ways, by dealing with a lot of people on the campus. And usually, they went through BSM for advice on how to handle this or what to do about that. And the BSM gave such advice. Our role was to support and give assistence and it was that from the beginning to the end. Support and assistence. Support in terms of just saying well, in terms of just plain spiritual support, people out there marching on the strike lines, people showing up to work, helping in the soul food cafeteria, assistence in terms of providing, like I say, people who could write letters for people, people who would go with the ladies from the cafeteria and help them solve their problems dealing with people on the University campus, this kind of thing. I think that was the primary role of the BSM. Assistence, support, and manpower. Now, see, manpower there was not many men at all in that cafeteria system. And you needed them, the problem with strikes is that you need manpower and we provided manpower out there on the line. We were going to help protect the ladies and I tell you, from my belief about the times, I think that the ladies did need protection. That was primarily the role of the BSM, that is the role as I saw it.
RUSSELL RYMER:
Then, this last thing…I'm reading right here, this is Joe Shedd. Do you remember Joe Shedd.
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Yes.
RUSSELL RYMER:
He was one of the white leaders that was meeting with the administration back then. He has written up some conclusions which is his point of view. But one of the things that he condemns the white groups for, was that they seemed, he says, "others, other whites, talked about provoking a confrontation or seizing a building without any seeming concern for what such an action would have done for the cause of the strikers. After all, ‘the administration deserved it."’ Would say that this was true of the BSM as well?
ASHLEY DAVIS:
No, no. I tell you what. There was a big difference. That's a good point that he brought up too. Because there was a big difference between…and this has always been the problem with black and white coalitions. The problem is always that what blacks wanted, whites didn't want, whereas blacks wanted stability… you know what I mean. A car, a good home, security, to go where you want to, to the beach or wherever, a good job…the whites who supported the blacks in this were doing so only because they were coming back from that kind of thing. What would happen would be that we would have white students who would say, "We want to take this building." We'd say, "Man, we don't want to take no building. We don't want to get hurt. Why should we want to get hurt." This is why people didn't want to stay in Manning Hall. Why should I stay in Manning Hall and get my head busted. I had no desire to get my head busted. I want no fight with no state trooper. Well, we always operated on the idea that everything we did was tied to particular goals. And the thing at the cafeteria, that too. We got to the point where we had strained our ability and had to tell people to leave our workers alone. Now, there were some white kids and some black kids who wanted to take a building, "we ought to tear it up and rip it off." But that wasn't us, like you say.
RUSSELL RYMER:
By another token, do you think the strike was really aided by the soul music and the loud speakers in Manning and the turning over the tables and the calling the Chancellor "Champ". Do you think these were…do you think they hurt the strike?
ASHLEY DAVIS:
No, I don't think so. Number one, I think what you are asking me if the strike was not solved the way it was, would it have hurt the strike? As opposed to literally did it hurt the strike? Literally, no. Because playing that music aroused the state troopers and led to that final big scene that helped us solve the problems. But in terms of actually playing the music, I think that the workers got real re-enforcement. One thing about it is this, people from the BSM were very sure, like I say, we were very commited and I think that when workers like that, and you've got a bunch of women who were going out on strike…and I don't say "women" in the chauvinistic sense, I'm saying that people who would want to hurt them would see them as defenseless. And we had some sisters out there that I wouldn't want them to mess with. But the point was that playing music like that, the cafeteria and everything, said to them, "we are not going to let these people hurt you. We are going to becout there with you." You know what I mean? Everything that we did was tied to a specific thing that was involved with the strike. And I think that has been a thing that the paper…like I say, it really amazed me how white people can have so much ego and care so little for human beings, and so, the papers, I think that people interpreted in the newspapers what they would like to see happen. I still find that today, when people come up to me whereas, o.k., the BSM has a good drama group, a poetry reading group, we really get a lot more students in our program, we got people writing plays, man, we got interaction, cultural, learning going on now. We've got all kinds of activities going on. We got a culture week that's been going on all this week. I've got a folder right here on the doggone thing and yet people come around and ask me, "What's the BSM doing?" They want the BSM to tear down the University, they want the BSM to do this kind of thing." But even then, what we said that the BSM was doing, we were helping those workers. And I tell you what, I wouldn't get up at four o'clock in the morning for nobody, unless I…I don't get up then just to hurt the University because I think that the University is hurt bad enough itself. I mean, it's just hurting itself. So, there was never any of that kind of thing. We had cases where with the state troopers, we stayed back and the white kids would say, "Move out." Well, with these state troopers, man, we would go back. You don't go out and get killed. You don't do that, that's crazy. You can't strike dead. But we had white kids who would do that and it led us to believe that a lot of white kids…and unfortunately, this is what hurts you so much when you do stuff like that. I guess it's like anything, you know who your bedfellows are. And I think this is what disenchanted a lot of white kids with the black movement. Because whereas they were looking for people who would be super-appreciative of what they were doing, we tended to see some of them as having misplaced values. They were in it a lot for just getting their own rocks off, they were in it for other things.
RUSSELL RYMER:
That's what I'm talking about…
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Right. In other directions, with their gripes with the University, gripes with students, gripes with a lot of things. And they looked around for any particular perfect vehicle. The Kent State situation was beautiful. I mean, it provided the kids with a nice…even this was sanctioned under the law, that's why it was really nice, you know what I mean? That was the tops for this kind of thing.
RUSSELL RYMER:
But, the actions of the BSM were actually just pragmatic and very controlled.
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Pragmatic and controlled.
RUSSELL RYMER:
With the workers in mind.
ASHLEY DAVIS:
Yeah.