Books: Who spoke for the Negro?

Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 10:05pm
By Tim Boyd
Mona Frederick (Courtesy Chapter 16)

In 1930, poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren publicly defended segregation and the racial mores of the South in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of essays by a set of 12 “unreconstructed” Southerners based at Vanderbilt University. By the 1960s, however, Warren had become critical of the institution of segregation. In 1963, he began compiling interviews with prominent civil rights leaders and activists; he called the project Who Speaks for the Negro? Nearly 50 years later, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, also based at Vanderbilt, undertook its own project of digitizing the interviews Warren conducted and making them available to the public through a newly launched website []. Mona Frederick, executive director of the Warren Center, recently answered questions from Chapter 16 about the genesis and significance of the collection.


When and how did the idea for creating an online archive of the Warren interviews first become something the Warren Center was interested in doing?

In 2006, something came across my desk to remind me of Warren’s volume Who Speaks for the Negro? and caused me to begin to wonder about the original audiotapes and whether they were still in existence. I quickly discovered that they were at Yale and that the University of Kentucky library had previously digitized three or four of the interviews. Why not digitize them all, I thought, and make these rich conversations available to anyone with access to the Internet? I secured permissions from Warren’s children, Rosanna Warren and Gabriel Warren, and so began this journey.


Was it widely known that these interviews still existed, or was their “discovery” news in itself?

I think that a handful of Warren scholars may have been aware of the audiotapes, but since the book has been so long out of print, this was material that was somewhat obscure. I later discovered that the original tapes had been split and that some were at the University of Kentucky as well as those that were at Yale. Neither of those institutions was aware that this had happened. The Vanderbilt library was a critical resource in creating this digital archive. I think this is a wonderful example of cooperative work between libraries in the digital age.


How much do we know about Warren’s own motivation for undertaking this project? Was it intended purely as a journalistic exercise, or was there also a personal self-awareness on Warren’s part about his own lack of knowledge on what the “Negro” of 1964 believed, or perhaps a general feeling on his part that white Americans as a whole lacked that knowledge?

Robert Penn Warren had several reasons for writing this book. In 1930, I’ll Take My Stand was published by members of the Fugitive and Agrarian movement at Vanderbilt. The volume included an essay by Warren on race titled “The Briar Patch.” In it, he argued for separate but equal education for blacks and whites. Although at the time this was a somewhat progressive position, Warren later in life regretted having written the essay with its racist and separationist overtones. “I never read the essay after it was published,” he later wrote in the first few pages of Who Speaks for the Negro?, “and the reason was, I presume, that reading it would, I dimly sensed, make me uncomfortable. In fact, while writing it, I had experienced some vague discomfort.”


The website also contains various reactions to the book, including reviews and Warren’s own correspondence. How would you describe the response to the book in 1965? Was it noticeably different across racial groups?

Overall, the book was very well received. The Chicago Tribune stated, “This is superb documentation, possibly unique in historiography.” The New York Times reviewer proclaimed it “one of the year’s outstanding books.” One reviewer, however, felt that the book was a good idea but had the wrong author, suggesting that Bayard Rustin would have been the right person to write this book.

My favorite review was written by noted African-American critic Albert Murray: “Robert Penn Warren, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Southerner, a one-time apologist for segregation, a long-time colleague of the old agrarian romantics and a sometime friend of countless white supremacists and even Dixiecrats, has written a new book which is perhaps the very best inside report on the Negro civil rights movement by anyone so far. In spite of several ridiculous flaws, which are much more characteristic of certain New York indoor intellectuals than of the worldly, realistic and thoughtful son of a hardheaded old Kentucky dirt farmer, Who speaks for the Negro? deserves the widest possible circulation.”


To get a good feel for what the collection is all about, which interview or interviews do you recommend starting with?

The “big brass,” as Warren calls them, are a good start: for example, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I also like the interview with Kenneth Clark, in which the two of them have a near shouting match over the legacy of John Brown: martyr or crazy man? I also think his conversation with Clarie Collins Harvey is illuminating. For local flavor, the James Lawson interview is really interesting, as are the conversations with Kelly Miller Smith, Stephen Wright, and Avon Williams.


Have any of those who were interviewed in the original project listened to their own interviews recently? If so, what kinds of reactions have they had?

The Warren Center hosted a program in 2008 in which we brought back as many of the people that Warren interviewed that we could. Soon the website will have video posted from that program.


The breadth and scale of this material would make a great resource for teachers and scholars at all educational levels. Are there any efforts under way to promote the collection as a teaching resource in high schools or other colleges around the country?

I hope to work with colleagues in the near future to begin to develop curricular guides using this digital archive.


The entire digitized collection of Robert Penn Warren’s interviews — along with correspondence between Warren, his interviewees, publisher, and critics — is available online at

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

3 Comments on this post:

By: FreedomJournal on 6/27/12 at 8:33

(September 1, 2007 by Carl A. Patton)

Why do the mis-informed,
foolish, ignorant and stupid
dare say I have not the right
to look at my people.

Who painted you Black?
Where is the brush?
How many more colors
will the world see?

The big financiers the
champions of big
business and banks
look to the legislature
and called the shots.

They also sent agents from
academia who had a different
culture claming to record
what they did in the Ghetto.

Meanwhile the genius of Donny
Hathaway and marvelous Marvin
Gaye really told the Ghetto story in song

Delta Blues men, Son House, Mississippi
Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Luther
Allision and Howling Wolf told our story.

I heard the sorrowful blues guitar strings.
Hot licks, every melody and lick a story.
Not always a blue story. But a story of life
and survival in a unique fashion.

My Lord, I heard the cry of the Black
man, woman and my Mamma and Daddy
who came from black belt Alabama in the blues.

James Brown soul brother number one
stopped the lies as no one could pretend
to have his soul.
But where were the Black intellectuals?
Who is supposed to lead the charge?

Meanwhile the preachers ran to the
Outhouse. This foul place is where
he hid the silver.

They said the Black intellectual went
through the front door and out the back
door. Shame and honor he wore
hidden up his sleeve.

The Black independent press stood still.
They waited on advertisements as they controlled
the editor’s thoughts, which blew away in the wind.

A wretched world has produced a desire
for no Truth, wisdom or knowledge.
Truth held no premium neither did
opinion for it is not yours if it came from
someone else.

Were there some bent on sacrifices?
Hail to the taskmaster without choice?
Hail those chosen to be in that number.

By: FreedomJournal on 6/28/12 at 9:45


December 15, 2006, Along Stewart’s Creek, by Carl A. Patton

These were the people that
were born to sing and dance.
They had a history as entertainers as they
were captured along the west coast
of the land of the Blacks.

Many also had a great ear for the
banjo and the juice harp. Rhythms then
came in abundance for the Cullad folks.
They also loved the back beat the
bottom was the drum.

However there was not much laughter are
singing and dancing during the week
for this is when they cried.

Some said they cried to keep from
laughing as they laughed to keep
from crying.

Brethren pray tell why did the
Cullad folks cry? Why will all
men die?

Does crying cleanse the soul?
Does crying allow more trials
a place to fester and grow?

But just who are the Cullad folks?
Can Cullad folks write about crying?
Friday night I saw a smile on
my brother’s face.

Had it come from wine,
song are from sweet Sue?
But I still saw sorrow in
the midst.

However Sunday brought another day.
Most that smiled this day
did not frown and had joy all week.

They prayed for all the folks
not only the Cullad folks.
Because all that were lost
would cry some day.

By: FreedomJournal on 6/30/12 at 9:30

Man Does Not Know My Name
June 30, 1999
From "The Cry of Humanity Poetry and Prose Love, Peace and Paradise"

I find joy, solace and the,
tranquil sensations of Peace and
Paradise as I record these words.
I know also that as man attempts
to tilt the hand of fate, he will fail.
His victory is a brief moment of the

To quell the writer's desire to dispel
injustice and the right to free expression
only fuels the fire of words etched in stone.
Never can mortal man destroy Truth.
Can he destroy sunshine?

I thank God that prayer has rendered a matter
of immunity to injustice, abuse
and the disregard of man, of my
people as human subjects.

Yea, though I feel no need for
justification but to only
answer the call.

The call that was made by
the Creator in days gone by,
days prophesied to the days of
warning and condemning.

Part I

Hence did he come from the darkest
continent, Kemit to some, and
“The land of the Blacks.”

Wherever the Garden? Did come
the souls of Black folk.

Legends behold, the Egyptian story
was told, to be retold in clouds of
doubt of who the people of Kemit were.

The opposite pole of the multitudes
see no confusion in Ham or those
oppressed in the land of the Blacks.

Hence to some, we realize that
the oppressed are oppressed by Blacks
in a land called Kemit, the land of
burnt faces, bodies laid to rest
with methods still held in mystery.

As the Blacks oppressed the Blacks,
The Exodus saw a people that became
the people that wandered, and become
a mystery as to where they came and to
who they are.

As the old Law of Moses gives way
to the new law and the Messiah.
The way to Peace and Paradise is known
to those who wrote in the books of the Old and the New.

These people who know Alpha have
by Creation been blessed with the
spiritual side.

Always realizing that some higher power,
the Creator of all, has blessed them
and created all they see, feel and know.

Hence, these people as many of the
multitudes are the people of God.
They will come to know the Messiah.

Cont. Part II