Social justice leaders with flaws
Although Burgess was a New Yorker, his understanding of history allowed him to connect to southerners, and his understanding of the cyclical nature of life allowed him to weather defeats. After briefly reflecting on these themes, Burgess discusses the "feet of clay" of Buck Kester, H.L. Mitchell, and Franz Daniel.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with David Burgess, August 12, 1983. Interview F-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
Second I think that the it gave us
some view those of us, and I was sort of a Yankee in a sense though I
was able to adopt a southern accent very quickly, and never was accused
of being a "God damn Yankee".
- DALLAS BLANCHARD:
It probably saved your life.
- DAVID BURGESS:
It might have. But it gave us a sense of southern history. I mean that
book, C.J.Cashin book of the south was an eye-opener for me, the way Tom
Watson is the tragic figure. But I never realized that the black cause
really did not come in til late in North Carolina until the
1890's to kill of the whole black/white proletarian
relationship, and that he was the Vice-Presidental candidate with
Bryant. This gave me a very deep sense of history. I think this helped
some of us who came into the south. And the Southern Fellowship sort of
strengthened it. In other words since you were a part of history, you
weren't just there doing your thing in Rockford, South
Carolina or somewhere down in the south. I think that is another. Then
third as I mentioned before, the biblical connections, the relevance of
the old testiment of the prophecy in particular. And Buck's
favorite passage was that serman in Nazarath of Jesus quoting Issiah.
That was sort of his text as it were. And I have used it and reused it,
which I think was important. But I think finally that this it is hard to
put it into words, but the ability of an individual in difficult
situations to pull strength from other people, sources, to realize that
you had to regularly recycle to be effect. But this defeat is never the
final defeat or this victory is never the final victory. This is a
double thing. You are thankful for small victories, but it is not the
ultimate victory. You are sorryful for small defeats, but it
is not the pitts. At least in my life this gave me
a great sense of power, and recessitation, and renewal. I think it was
very important. Another person indirectly related to us although I
don't know how prominent is Alex Herd. Whom later became
chancellor of Vanderbilt. He was sort of a theoritician, political
science over in University of North Carolina when I was around.
- DALLAS BLANCHARD:
I didn't realize that.
- DAVID BURGESS:
But I don't know if he has any connections. But I knew him
from we worked for a year in Washington together. I knew the friendship
after it went bad. Then I think that the final thing in my own personal
life is that you never can put your faith in man or an institution. I
discovered, I went to the south with the three heroes in mind. One was
Buck Kester, one was H.L. Mitchell, and one was Fronz Daniel. I
discovered in the fullness of time that everyone had clay feet. Fronz
was a labor leader who in the later thirties was considered the coming
labor leader. He suffered one defeat after another. He went through a
difficult period with alcohol and next with the divorce later in the
sixties. But he came out of Highlander, Union class of 1929. And I
remember when he was drunk once in Cordeve he said to me "Dave
the trouble with you is that you have a sustaining philosophy."
This is just after he lost an arrogant election. And we had to take him
home when he was at a convention in Atlanta. And we had to take him up
to his room and so forth. He was railing and rioting. He was jsut a
bear. But he was very easily hurt and very easily insulted. Heart of
gold. He had the toughness of becoming the organizer of opportunity, he
cracked. Buck Kester, I would say that I loved him, I admired him. We
were close. But there was a wistfulnesss for bygone days, never feeling
that he had reached his culmination for wishing in this life. I
din't know him later. I didn't meet him after
1955, so I have no comment. H.L.Mitchell is the one who is sort of a
survivalist and he made a real lecturing about
becoming the former President organizing the Southern Tennant Farmers
Union. He now has his own thing going. But it was something he never had
a religious point of view, but something very enduring about the guy. Up
and down he still persisted, he still had a delegation seeing so and so.
He organized the fisherman down in Louisiana and Texas. He helped Cheves
start, and other people. And he has been all over the lot and he still
has a sense of humor. A secularist. And we're corresponding
regularly. He is trying to get me to court Monday. He has come across
something. But anyway. But he had feet of clay. He wasn't
terribly a good organizer, he wasn't proficient. He did not
know how to develop leadership within the common sense of the word. All
sorts of factionalism within the union, which I was very much aware of.
But you never got into it. I discovered that you can not build your life
on three fine guys. You have to find your own. You can still learn
something from it. And I did. I have.