Voices From the Past
The Robert Penn Warren Center reveals its namesake’s long-forgotten conversations with historic civil rights greats.
A photograph taken of Robert Penn Warren in the early 1960s shows not the young Kentucky boy whose life changed at Vanderbilt, but a mature Warren—wiser, with life’s experiences written on his face. This is the Warren who sought out men and women in the Civil Rights Movement, interviewing them, sometimes under the cover of darkness for their protection. The Warren who preserved those interviews so they could be heard, in their own voices, once again, thanks to an inter-institutional initiative spearheaded by the center that bears his name, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities in the College of Arts and Science.
Now revered as America’s first poet laureate and the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, Warren, BA’25, enrolled at Vanderbilt as an engineering student. In the English class he took to meet basic education requirements, Warren found where his passion lay: writing. He joined a group of fellow poets and intellectuals known as the Fugitives. The Fugitives morphed into the Agrarians, a conservative collection of 12 Southern writers and poets. Again, Warren was among them. In 1930 the Agrarians published a manifesto called I’ll Take My Stand, which included a Warren essay on race titled “The Briar Patch.” In it he argued for separate but equal education for blacks and whites.
“Hollow though that sounds to us now, that was a radical position,” says Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. “His colleagues and constituents would not have believed African Americans needed to be educated beyond elementary school.”
Despite the then-progressive thinking, Warren regretted the essay. “I never read the essay after it was published,” he later wrote, “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, like the discomfort you feel when a poem doesn’t quite come off, when you’ve had to fake or twist or pad it, when you haven’t really explored the impulse.”
Warren later determined to set things right. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, some 35 years after his essay was written, he lugged a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder to interviews with people involved in the movement, including participants like Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Ellison, and the Rev. James Lawson, ’71. The result was Warren’s 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, hailed by New York Times reviewer Charles Poore as “one of the year’s outstanding books.” The tapes, though disclosed in Warren’s foreword, were largely forgotten.
“It’s like getting into a time machine and going back in time. Just hearing the voices is pretty remarkable.”
~ Mona Frederick
An Audible Discovery
Then, in 2006, Frederick read a brief article that mentioned Warren’s book and related audiotapes. Although the Warren Center is dedicated to interdisciplinary research and study in the humanities, rather than to Warren and his work, Frederick was intrigued. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll have to look for those tapes,’” she recalls.
Frederick obtained a copy of the out-of-print book and discovered that Warren had interviewed almost 50 legendary figures at the height of the Civil Rights Era. Realizing his work represented a major contribution to the historical record of the movement, she and staff associate Sarah Nobles began tracking the whereabouts of Warren’s original reel-to-reel tapes.
Nobles traveled to Yale where Warren had been a professor while writing the book and uncovered tapes and related materials in Yale’s library. “No one had catalogued them or listened to them in a while,” Frederick says. “To hear them for the first time was chilling. It’s like getting into a time machine and going back in time. Just hearing the voices is pretty remarkable.”
The humanities center discovered that the University of Kentucky also had some audio interviews by Warren that were part of an oral history project. Initially believing that Kentucky had duplicates, Frederick quickly realized the collection had been split. “Kentucky didn’t know Yale had any, and Yale didn’t know Kentucky had some,” she says.
“Why did Martin Luther King and so many others take a couple of hours to sit down and talk to Warren, a white English professor from Yale?”
~ Mona Frederick
Warren’s interviews were significant, particularly because they took place during one of the most critical times in U.S history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, giving the federal government power to enforce desegregation. Three men in Mississippi registering black voters were found burned to death. The month Warren penned his foreword, Malcolm X was assassinated, and immediately after the book was released, the march on Selma began.
“It was a terribly chaotic time. Why did Martin Luther King and so many others take a couple of hours to sit down and talk to Warren, a white English professor from Yale?” Frederick wonders.
That makes the tapes, and what will eventually be a broad-based historical repository related to the book, all the more important.
Preserved and Accessible
Working with Paul Gherman, who recently retired as Vanderbilt’s university librarian, and Jody Combs, assistant to the university librarian for information technology, the next step was to bring the tapes into the 21st century. Using digital versions created from the originals at the University of Kentucky and Yale, the librarians created a searchable database and cataloged the tapes, making it easy for anyone to listen by topic or interviewee. The tapes are accessible for free online at http://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu. Transcripts of the interviews are currently being created and digitized, as are related materials that Warren kept.
One item is a response to a letter Warren wrote, Frederick says. “He wrote to Stokely Carmichael, and Carmichael responded, ‘Oh, I just read your book in jail. We’d tear five pages out at a time and pass them around. When you’re in jail, characters from books become your cell mates.’”
“It can be a little daunting to think what we’re doing is putting a historical record together that will outlive us both.”
~ Jody Combs
Combs says that the project has been, in some ways, a humbling experience. “You’re going through material, much of it ephemeral and not of huge historical value, but then you run into these amazing pieces of information—beautifully written, beautifully articulated ideas of the time,” he says. “It can be a little daunting to think what we’re doing is putting a historical record together that will outlive us both.”
A Worthy Commemoration
As the tapes were being digitized and made available online through the three cooperating libraries, the Robert Penn Warren Center was also planning events in honor of its 20th anniversary. The two projects were joined as part of a year-long celebration.
More than 40 years after Warren asked the question, Who Speaks for the Negro?, the center organized a two-day response. “We Speak for Ourselves,” as the event was titled, brought together leading scholars and activists with as many of the original interviewees as possible, including the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Ruth Turner Perot, Lois Elie, the Rev. Will Campbell and Lawson. Decades had passed since many of these civil rights leaders had gathered. “One said to another, ‘The last time I saw you, we were talking to Bobby Kennedy,’” Frederick recalls.
The event was videotaped and is available in an online collection, displaying the 21st century response side by side with interviews from 1964.
Warren’s children, Rosanna and Gabriel, generously provided permission to digitize the extra material related to the book. For the conference and collection, Rosanna Warren, the Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities and professor of English and modern foreign languages and literatures at Boston University, wrote her recollections of life in the Warren household while her “Pa” was writing Who Speaks for the Negro? She remembered her father’s return after being gone for weeks at a time:
Stories emerged: how he and his hosts often had to travel on back country roads long distances at night in cars without headlights for fear of being shot. … He attended meetings in remote farmhouses where all the blinds were down, and where at night almost no lights were lit.
While her parents tried to shield their children from the danger, it hit home, Rosanna Warren said, when she opened their Connecticut mailbox and found a KKK pamphlet with a threat scrawled across it:
“We know where you live and we will get you.” … I remember running into the house, to find my parents, and show them and ask them what was happening. There followed anxious, whispered conversations between the grownups, where there was question of contacting the FBI and eventually a sense that that would be useless.
Rosanna Warren’s recollections put in context some of what her father experienced as he wrote Who Speaks for the Negro? and the risks he took in giving black Americans a voice during the early Civil Rights Era. Thanks to scholarship and technology, their voices—and his—are still being heard. They’re speaking for themselves after all these years, and anyone can listen and learn.
The Who Speaks for the Negro? digital project was made possible with support from the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University. Original materials (recordings) were provided through the generous support of the University of Kentucky and Yale University. Some abstracts are available courtesy of the University of Kentucky. The “We Speak for Ourselves” conference was generously co-sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Program in African American and Diaspora Studies, Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, Center for Ethics, Center for Nashville Studies, Department of English, Law School, the Office of the Provost and the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. Additional support was provided by various programs and departments at Vanderbilt; a full listing can be found on the Who Speaks Web site.