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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Comparing the merits of gradual versus direct change in race relations

Johnson discusses the differing approaches to changing race relations of gradualism and non-gradualism. According to Johnson, her husband endorsed an approach of gradualism in his capacity as a leader of the Southern Regional Council, which did not overtly support desegregation until 1954. Johnson argues that while this approach had its merits, she tended to believe that sometimes a more direct approach to change is necessary. In order to support her stance, Johnson cites her work towards establishing a childcare center for African American children in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, during World War II.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. 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

GUION JOHNSON:
No, no, they did not endorse desegregation. And I do not think that the Southern Regional Council took any very positive stand on segregation or desegregation until 1954. I may be wrong, but this is my recollection, that they did not openly endorse [desegregation], although many research reports were made pointing to the penalty which the South paid because of its maintenance of segregation . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Of the dual system?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was Guy's feeling one of waiting? I read his article in Common Ground answering Lillian Smith, was his one of waiting?
GUION JOHNSON:
Gradualism. His philosophy at that time was one of gradualism. That you cannot force the change upon an unwilling people. That it must be by enlightenment and education, that you gradually get a change and any change that comes gradually rather than quickly or dramatically is the change that is lasting. That has been his position. I have not always agreed with him on the philosophy of gradualism. I think there comes a time when some dramatic change must be made. And my own experiences have illustrated that. For example, I tried to get during the war, when I was with OCD, [the community] to open a child care center, to get it set up in Chapel Hill to take care of the children of working mothers, and, of course, those would be the black children. And was bitterly blocked by a woman leader in Chapel Hill and everytime I set up a little conference calling for national . . . (You know, we would get national funds for this and I got one of the national leaders in from Washington from the State Department of Public Instruction and the head of Education Department here and the social workers here and we had this little meeting just to explore it, and) oh, she was violent in her opposition. And the OPA Board was meeting in the Town Hall, when the sirens, the fire siren, sounded and we ran to the window to look out, because we saw that it was toward Potter's Field, which is in the black community, and we saw the flames leaping up, and we scurried around trying to find out what the trouble was and where the fire was, and Mr. Moody Durham, who was chairman of the OPA came back, and his face was very grave and he said, "I'm sorry to tell you, three little Negro children have been burned to death in that fire." I said, "Find out more about it." And I found out that the mother had been working in a prominent home and had not been able to get anyone to take care of her children that day and she had locked the children in the house, with the seven year old, and there were two younger children, and that the seven year old had apparently gotten hungry, and it was cold, and she had tried to start a fire with kerosene and had apparently thrown the kersone on to the coals and had had an explosion and the house burned down and the children couldn't get out because the door was locked. And the mother had been detained by her employers because they were having a big party. So, I came home and wrote a story that night and called the news bureau. Bob Maddry was head of the news bureau and was also mayor of the town, and I said, "Bob, we are going to have that child care center. This makes it - the fact that three little children were burned to death because there was no one to take care of them - makes it possible." He said, "O.K., give me your story and I'll get it out." And he got it out on the wire, saying that because of this, (he told the story of the children burning and said that because of) the death of these three children, Chapel Hill had spontaneously risen up demanding that a child care program be started. And so, as soon as the story hit the paper, I had a telephone call from this woman who was very angrily denouncing me, "You have no right! you have no authority!" And I said, "You have no authority to stop me." And she said, "What do you mean, exceeding your authority?" And I said, "You are not the person whom I knew many years ago. You have had a serious personality deterioration." And she said, "Well, good-by, good-by." And as she was saying good-by, I said, "You will not oppose me." And we got the program started.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Could she at that point have opposed you?
GUION JOHNSON:
She could have tried to use her influence in the community and she had a great deal of influence. Her husband was a very prominent lawyer, a member of the law faculty. He was highly respected and greatly beloved and she would have had a great deal. [of influence] She was a member of the power structure.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And did the child care center go through?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, I got it [the initiating procedures] going and then had to go off to Atlanta. But others carried through on it, but at least I got the forces going. And with Bob Maddry, the mayor backing me, I knew that it would go through. He said that he would support me and [I should] he would carry through and just go on and teach history in the University and he said that he would carry through. He said, "I'll do it, I don't want her to try to chop your head off anymore." But, we got it going. So, that's the reason that I have disagreed with Guy. I think that sometimes, there must be . . . if I had waited and used the gradual approach, it would have been many years before we had any child care agencies in Chapel Hill. Now, we have many child care agencies.