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Interview by Mike Wallace

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
June 25, 1958
Little Rock School Crisis, 1957
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views
Montgomery Bus Boycott


After failing to secure a King appearance on his television show “Night Beat,” Mike Wallace conducted this interview for a column he published in the New York Post on 11 July.1 The heavily edited column touched on only a few of the topics covered in this typescript of the interview. Prior to the column's publication, Stanley Levison contacted Wallace and his team with changes he, King, and Rustin wanted made in King's statements regarding Eisenhower’s civil rights record.2 A July memo to Wallace from his producer Ted Yates recommended against the changes: “Tell this fraud Levinson that the column, after being O.K.’d by King himself had been sent to the syndicate, and you can’t make the changes. Or else tell him that while you were in Wash[ington] I sent the thing out having been under the impression that King said it was alright.” In a 14 July letter to King, Levison detailed the “cheap trickery” he felt Wallace’s people engaged in to avoid making the changes and advised King to be careful in dealing with ‘fast moving and fast talking personalities.”

Q. It has been said that most Negroes, the majority of Negroes are rather indifferent to the whole problem. What is your reaction to that?

A. I am not sure if that is totally true. It is true that you don’t have any universal response. You have so many different segments of Negro life that it is very difficult to get all Negroes to respond in a certain way. Many of them are indifferent for various reasons. It was different in Montgomery. There you had a smaller community, communication was easier in a community of 50,000 people. This is different from have to deal with 17 million in an entire nation. In Montgomery, we were in the midst of a crisis which brought us together. A crisis tends to do that. We had geographical limitations and numerical limitations but it was easier than it would have been on a national scale. I don’t think Negroes generally are disinterested. On the whole Negroes are quite concerned about it. It is just a matter of being involved in various things and maybe we have not, on a national scene, gotten down to the grass roots, down to the masses. This is the next move in Negro leadership.

Q. Would you say that what happened in Montgomery is an ideal pattern for what willhappen on a larger scale?

A. Very diff definitly. I would like to see this a pattern all over?. I think it is the only way we are going to speed up the coming of this new order through mass militant non-violent action on the part of the Negroes.

Q. You said in Montgomery that what inspired this was a crisis, involving all the Negroes. But this involves all the Negroes in the country. You say that they are not indifferent, but it would appear that so many of them are indifferent. For example, where they are allowed to vote, the voting isn’t anything to boast about.

A. I don’t deny that at all. That’s a problem not only in the South. You have communities in the South where Negroes don’t have any difficulty but it is just a problem of internal apathy. There again, the system has something to do with that. There is such [strikeout illegible] a thing as freedom of exhaustion. That’s a temptation you just—you just live under this thing so long that you adjust to it. There was a Negro in Atlanta, in a slum area who used to play a guitar and sing this song called—“Bend Down So Long that Down Don’t Bother Me.” That’s the freedom of exhaustion. He just broke down under the load. That has happened to many Negroes. The feeling that you have to fight all the time so that you adjust to conditions as they are. But you have another group of Negroes that want to gain freedom and all that goes along with it but they are not willing to bear the sacrifices involved. You have three groups actually. The first is completely indifferent, if you can call them indifferent. I would rather call them the people who have completely adjusted to condition as they are. This is a small percentage. I would not think it is more than 10 or 15 percent. A second group of individuals are those who are determined—or at least concerned about first class citizenship and integration, But They are not willing to confront sacrifices involved. Some of them are afraid because they are in vulnerable positions. Many Negro school teachers are in this second group. They are concerned but they would not attend a meeting of the NAACP. They believe in the NAACP, they want to see it come but because of their positions, they just don’t push it. That’s a very large group. In that group also, you have a few people who really have a vested interest in segregation. Some Negroes profit by segregation.

Q. Who?

A. Some from an economic point of view. This is a small group also. Not a large group at all. There are those who feel that they cannot compete in an integrated society. So that some people who have made all their economic security on the basis of the system of segregation and that the feeling that integration will break down these possibilities, a feeling that they cannot compete.

Q. Do you mean a lawyer or a doctor?

A. Not necessarily lawyers and doctors. I refer more to business people. Morticians, for example, will fit into this category. Even a few real estate people in the South.

Q. Of the second large group, who would like to see himself furthered but will not take the trouble or risk? what percentage of Negroes?

A. That’s fi difficult to say. I would think this group is small, too. You don’t have too many Negro professional people in any community.

Q. No. I am talking about the large group.

A. Well, I am referring to a lot of professional people—not more than 10 or 15 percent. I think you have at least between 60 or 70 percent of the Negroes of America who are determined to gain freedom and first class citizenship. They are willing to make the sacrifices and they are just waiting for the guidance and leadership. They are ready. This includes the so-called masses. People who don’t have education and economic security. But they are tired of the old order and they have revealed themselves. This is a majority group.

Q. You said Montgomery is an ideal pattern of what should happen all over the [strikeout illegible] country. How can this be done? You say 60 percent are waiting for it to be done.

A. We must do it through leadership and organization. Bringing leaders together from all over the country. There is one organization now—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that grew directly out of the Montgomery situation and through which we seek to bring together leaders from all of the major communities in the South, discuss the common problems and ways of implementing the Supreme Court decision through non-violent methods. We are now mainly concerned with voting. This is a time to get this pattern all over the South and get communities organized and get the Negro organized all over.

Q. Right now there is going on a concerted attempt to get Negroes to pull bus strikes, boycotts and the like?

A. I wouldn’t say that. I am sure that these things will come under discussion as the organization grows. It is still in its embryonic stages. We are now moving towards organization structure. We will just get into some of these problems in a more systematic fashion. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference consists of 190 leaders from 10 Southern states. They issued a statement and called to the President to meet with Negro leadership. It was this request that resulted in the meeting with the President the other day. This is an example of what the organization has done.

Q. Are you personally satisfied with the progress made, particularly with Southern Negroes fighting for their rights? Many people have said this: [strikeout illegible] just what is to come pretty soon? The Negro specifically?

A. I am sure we can do much more. No. I am not totally satisfied. This is the job ahead. To get thiso over the Negroes in all communities that the only way to do it is to organize and as you know, I believe firmly in non-violence and in organizing we must make the principle of non-violence our central principle. We must organize and appreciate prepare ourselves for militant and social action which is non-violent. So I am not totally satisfied with what we have done. We can do much more. If integration is to be a reality, the Negro will have to take the primary responsibility. All groups must work together, but the Negro himself must take primary responsibility.

Q. Are you satisfied with the NAACP and with what they have done? Do you think there is room for major improvement? Are they on the wrong track?

A. I don’t mind that question because I think the NAACP is doing a good job in a manner of—the NAACP has achieved excellence in the area of legal strategy and is doing an excellent job in that area. Breaking down legal barriers to integration.

Q. What about other areas?

A. The NAACP recognizes that it cannot do the whole job. I have heard very responsible leaders from the Board of the NAACP say that the NAACP cannot do this job alone. What we seek to do through the Souther Christian Leadership Conference is to supplement the NAACP. Once you get your decisions from the Court, this isn’t enough. You’ve got to implement it. What we can do in the South is take the noble decisions that have been rendered as a result of the work done by the NAACP and implement them on the local level through non-violent means.

Q. You met with Eisenhower early this week. Last year you said that the Executive level of government is apathetic on this problem. Do you think Pres. Eisenhower [strikeout illegible] personally or [strikeout illegible] our administration is helping this cause very much?

A. I wouldn’t put it all on Eisenhower. I would say there is a great deal of apathy in both the legislative and executive branches of the government.

Q. Why?

A. I don’t know. I am sure there are many reasons why. I don’t know all of the reasons why there is apathy. Sometimes maybe it is due to the fact that persons in these positions do not understand the problem and the dimensions of it and what it is doing to our nation.

Q. I am including the men in the legislative and executive branches who say they are all for civil rights, etc. Do you think many of them really care about Negroes?

A. What persons are you speaking of?

Q. The people in our government, the verbal champions of civil rights. Do you think they really care?

A. I think some of them do. I think some of them have moral convictions about it. Some of them do it for political advantages. I am sure that some of them are serious and sincere. I don’t doubt their motives at all. I think when Senator [Herbert H.] Lehman talks about it, he is sincere. He’s a stateman. Senator [Paul] Douglas is sincere. He says a moral issue is involved. I think some others will do it for political advantage. They see it is politically expedient and they use it.

Q. Can you conceive of Negroes and whites in America living together in harmony as one being human being with another without their doing there beinga reall feeling deep down inside that this is so. I know a lot of people who pay lip service but when it comes down to the real thing, like sending your kid to school where there are Negroes, or like your son bringing home his Negro friend, then it becomes a different story. As long as this feeling exists, are you going to achieve anything?

A. I would hope that it can be achieved. So long as you have prejudiced attitudes and you have segregation in the country, you will have these attitudes (something) all over the country, it touches the whole country. As we move through the transitions in the South, it is more intense in the South. I certainly feel that the problem can be solved if we meet it with moral strength. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Justice everywhere sheds light on the problem of injustice in other areas. Now we are in this period where you do have people who have doubts even in Northern communities. Even they have paid lip service to it. They are not committed to it absolutely.

Q. Harry Ashmore says it is the law of the land and we should obey it. He never says this is a good thing and we whites should welcome the opportunity to sit in a classroom with other human beings.

A. A deeper thing is this. You are saying in substance that many people will go along and will accept this because it is the law of the land but really they don’t accept it because it is good? This is what I would call the distinction and between desegregation and integration. Desegregation breaks down the legal barriers and brings men together physically. In Montgomery, Alabama, the buses are desegregated but not integrated. Integration is a personal and intergroup feeling. We are moving through the process of desegregation which is a necessary step to integration. We cannot get to integration before going through the process of desegregation where you have to break down through legal means. I think most people think it is right to abide by certain laws—like traffic laws, etc. Men finally grow to the point of havit of following these laws. In America we are moving through the period of desegregation and the phsycial barriers are being broken down—the legal barriers, that is. Naturally you will have this problem of people going on with this automatically because it is the law but once there they are brought together—you see, they hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other.

Q. How far does this integration go? This Ideal state? David Lawrence says the underlying fear of white Southerners is interracial marriage. Arthur Crock wrote a whole column on the same thing. Isn’t this the end step? If one doesn’t [strikeout illegible] looks at anothing person as a human being rather than what is the color of his skin, you will have mass intermarriage3

A. I don’t think you will have mass intermarriage. That isn’t what the Negro wants basically. The thoroughly integrated society means freedom. When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom. It hasn’t given me the possibility of alternatives. In the final analysis, intermarriage has no relevance to this issue. Races don’t marry, people do. It is an agreement between two people and either party can say no. There will be intermarrying, I am sure. But in a society societies where you have a good deal of integration, you don’t have a large percentage intermarrying.

Q. You yourself say that there is a difference between desegregation and integration in which people voluntarily and willingly mingle and look upon each other as human beings and not as Negro and White. Doesn’t this lead inevitably to this? A.H. H.J. Mueller said that there is no doubt that slowly and surely the races are planning blending together. There is no such thing as a pure Negro in America any more. They have 1/3 white blood.

A. Who’s responsible for that? Do you know? The person who makes the most noise about intermarriage is responsible. Many of the loudest segregationists in the South have fathered children by Negro women and the fear is a fear of retaliation. A sense of guilt.

Q. Yes, that is the cause up to now. In the entertainment industry, amongst intellectual circles where this fear of Negro, White, Chinese is being diluted simply because people are intelligent integrated, you do find more and more interracial marriage.

Q.[A.] I am sure that integration will lead to some intermarriage. I don’t deny that. I don’t think this is the primary thing with that the Negro is seeking. If you will go down any list of desires and wants of Negroes of American society, intermarriage was almost always at the bottom. Jobs, equal opportunity, education were at the top of the list.

Q. This would reflect the conscious desires?

A. Yes. Are you saying that this is a sub-conscious desire?

Q. I am saying that what people are saying. They point to statistics.

A. My position is—I can state it in two points. First, properly speaking, indivu individuals marry and not races. Second—that in communites where you have a great deal of integration, the percentage of interracial marriages will remain small.

Q. Would you consider it bad if there were vastly increased interracial marriages provided that these were wholesome marriages? Would you consider it a bad thing [f?] or American society if these marriages increased?

A. I don’t know. I would have to think about that a little more. I wouldn’t want to make a hasty statement on that. I have certain views still turning around in my mind on this whole issue. On that particular point, I have not come to a definite conclusion and I would rather not comment on that.4

Q. What effect do you think the recent Court decision is going to have on both Negroes and Whites in the South?5

A. It depends on the ultimate outcome. It is still in the process of litigation. It would depend on the outcome. If the decision isn’t reversed, I think it can do two things. First, for the White South, it can become a sort of example and a pattern for them to follow. It is sort of green light for foreign elements. It gives them a map to follow. Organized groups can go into areas and just cause a little trouble and this will be the pattern. If the decision is reversed, it would be helpful. It is crucial if we are to continue in the line of progress that the decision be reversed. Not just for Little Rock. This will become the pattern throughout the South. It seems to be both dangerous and tragic. The failure to reverse this decision might well depend on the justice of our nation. The civil rights issue will largely determine the effectiveness of America from now on in its international relationship.

Q. Why?

A. Because you have in this world about 1 billion, 600 million Negroes colored peoples living in Asia and Africa. Most of them have lived under the yoke of colonialism for years and are now gaining their independence. American will never gain the respect of these growing new nations in the world so long as she has second class citizenship.

Q. What about an the argument that desegregation is resulting in an intolerable atomosphere inside the shcools?

A. Well, one—if the forces of good will were as strong as they should be and conscientious and vocal, you wouldn’t have [strikeout illegible] as much tension in these situations. If in Little Rock the forces of good will were as strong as the forces of ill will, this would not have happened. I don’t think the majority of the people completely felt that this should happen. The second thing is this. I cannot conceive of a period of social transition without some tension. This is inevitable. What Whenever you are moving from an olde order to a new order, in the transition period, there is some tension. We seek to lessen the tension as much as possible but we don’t seek to due process in order to avoid tension. We have a choice in America to move toward the goal of justice in spite of the tension it will create or stop the process in an attempt to avoid tension while in reality we are tearing away the very core of our nation. This is the choice. The one we should choose? Allow the inevitable tension to arise. There can be no birth or growth without birth and growing pains. Whenever you confron the new, there is the recalcitrent of the old, a response that shall develop. In any community where integration occurs, you are going to have this. We want to [strikeout illegible] would not be integrated in Mont, Ala if we had taken this attitude, We would were determined to ride those buses on an integrated basis. Now it has worked out. Tension isn’t the permanent condition of things. We have got to press on and realize that this tension is not a necessary phase of the transition and when this transition is fulfilled, it will ead us to a greater democracy and a greater nation.

Q. Was the Montgomery bus strike a very carefully planned supported strike? It has been said that you were a man set up as a figurehead but that this was really organized outside of Montgomery. What is your reaction?

A. I don’t know a greater indigenous movement ever taken place in America. There was nothing in terms of outsiders—first it was the NAACP, then it was the Communists. You hear this type of thing in the South. The only think I can say is that it was a spontaneous movement developed by the Montgomery people who were tired of the indignities, etc. that they had suffered for many years on the buses. It was organized by the people of Montgomery, the leaders. It was a spontaneous response to to an incident which was the arrest of Mrs. Rosie (?).This was merely the precipitating facot factor in not the causal factor. That lies deep down in the past, a long accumulation of humiliating experiences.

Q. Will these small actions bubble up all over the South?

A. I think so. I don’t think Montgomery is the end of the process of at all. Bus integration has taken place in many cities without the necessity of a bus strike. The pattern of Montgomery in this respect didn’t have to repeat. New Orleans, Miami, Nashville all integrated their buses. Immediately afterh the decision came down in our case, several southern cities integrated without any statement. One or two of them said we don’t want another Montgomery.

Q. The example of Montgomery put the fear of God into white communites elsewhere?

A. Yes. I think so. I think Montgomery can serve as a pattern not only in the bus integration but in other areas. It repeals refutes the one thing that Negroes lived on for many years—that is that Negroes could not get together organize and unify on anything worth while.

Q. Do you see any real integration in Montgomery as a result of desegregation?

A. I don’t think it is coming in the next year or two. Realismi impels me to admit that it is going to take time. And a lot of hard work. A real possibility exists. It will depend on whether the Negro community will continue to move on or live in a negative phase past. That is possible in Montgomery or any community. You can talk about what happened in the past and get bogged down by the glory of your great yesterday and fail to see the challenges of tomorrow. If we continue to press, on as you move on, you are moving toward integration in some form.

Q. Does it depend upon the White people moving on?

A. It depends upon both. I am convinced that the white people are not going to move on if the Negroes don’t. It is going to depend on whether we continue to move and our method in moving will arouse the consciences of the white people. Montgomery did a lot to awaken the decent consciences of the white people.

Q. Do you think there are many consciences among the white people in the South?

A. Oh yes. More than you can ever tell because you hear the noise of the extremists and they tend to drown out this these persons of good will but they are there. But the hope is that something will happen through Negro voting so that people of good will can get into public positions.

Q. In the white South, there are not only elements that want to desegregate but elements that want to be friends?

A. You don’t have a solid south regionaly. You have three souths. The South of compliance—Oklahoma, Kansas, Missori Missouri, West Virginia. The wait-and-see-South—N.C., Tenn., Texas, Fla., Ark. Then the recalcitrant, hard-core, resistant South—Alabama, Mississipi, Georgia. There are several souths in terms of attitudes. You have the white south that says we will do anything to maintain segregation including physical violence. They are in the minority. You have another group that will say I don’t believe that integration is morally sound but it is the law and we will follow it because of the law. This is the adjusted group in the south. Another group, small but growing, is made up of persons working toward integration. They believe this is morally and constitutionally sound. And there are many others—not just one.

Q. Does the church play a part in this?

A. We have a right to look to leadership in the church. This is basically a moral problem and the church is supposed to be the guardian of the morals of the community. The church is the just organized institution in the south. Southerners are quite religious from an institutional point of view. They go to church on Sunday. I see some hope in that area. I think the churches are becoming much more conscious in this problem than ever before. The ministers that say integration is morally sound are so few. The majority group believe firmly in integration and this is the gospel but if they are too vocal they feel that they will lose the churches. The church will immediately call the segregationists to the pastor. Response will be better in the long run. They can influence the mass of the young people in their day to day talks. Some people are willing to stand up and lose a church and be damned, if necessary. It is my idea on even liberalism, if we can use that word. I am afraid that we don’t have enough people in America really committed to integration, not in terms of intellectual assent. Intellectual assent is merely—growing agreeing that something is true. Not really living it. I am afraid that we don’t have enough people in high places committed to it. I think Pres. E. is a man of genuine integrity and good will but on Q. I think Pres. E is a man of the question of integration he doesn’T understand… how this problem is to be worked out, and the dimensions of social change. He thinks it will work itself out in years. I don’t believe he thinks that segregation is the best condition of society. I think he believes it would be a fine thing to have an integrated society but I think he probably feels that the more you push it, the more tension it will create so you just wait 50 or 100 years and it will work itself out. I don’t think he feels like being a crusader for integration.

Q. In the 1960 election campaign, do you see any difference in 1960 as compared with 1956 regarding the integration or race problem?

A. I would have to think about that a little more because I don’t profess to have too much political ability and knowledge. I wouldn’t go out endorsing either party. I see shortcomings in both and good points in both. As far as the Negro vote, I don’t know. There can be a change a swing to the Rep. party. But it will be determined by the action of the executive branch of the government to a large extent and on this will whole civil rights problem struggle. I mean Pres. E’s behaviour between now and 1960.But not only him. The Justice Department, too. I mean the whole executive branch. It is possible but it will not be a swing to the Rep. party just to make a change. There are other aims that the Negroes feel have to be been gotten through the Dem. party.

Book by Dr. King to be published by Harper: STRIDE TOWARD FREEDOM

A Montgomery story. This is the way it starts. Then I attempt to come give the broad implication of the M. story generally. In the final chapter, I seek to charter a course for general action. Rules that the Fed. govt., labor, liberal whites in the North, moderate whites in the south, church and religious bodies, then the Negro himself. Where do we go from here.

1. On 17 January 1957, Wallace’s producer Ted Yates contacted James H. Robinson of In Friendship for assistance in booking “one of the top southern Negro leaders who has actually dealt with the White Councils, the KKK, open hatred, and violence. Of course, Rev. Martin Luther King would be the greatest guest of all.” On 7 February 1957 King declined a 29 January invitation from Yates. Mike Wallace (1918-), born Myron Leon Wallace in Brookline, Massachusetts, earned his A.B. (1939) from the University of Michigan. His popular interview show “Night Beat” gained national distribution in April 1957; during this time Wallace also wrote a daily interview column in the New York Post. In 1963 he was hired as an anchor on the CBS Morning News and in 1968 began working as a reporter for the CBS News investigative program, “60 Minutes.” Wallace interviewed King several times for CBS News.

2.Levison to King, 14 July 1958.

3. David Lawrence was the founder and editor of U.S. News and World Report. Arthur Krock was a columnist and editor for the New York Times.

4. On 8 July Levison wrote Edward L. Greenfield of the Fund for the Republic, sponsor of Wallace’s interview show on ABC, complaining that Wallace’s questioning of King “was overdone and lacked sensitivity.” A major grievance centered around the subject of intermarriage: “You understand, that while Dr. King is perfectly willing to express his views by extending the discussion on the subject the impression is created that this is a major issue. It is Dr. King’s feeling that this subject is in no sense dominant in the thinking of the southern Negro and a distorted impression can arise from excess concentration on it.” Levison added that Wallace was “rather aggressive, which caused Dr. King to say that he did not ask for the interview.” He continued: “There was a noticeable lack of specific knowledge of any of Dr. King’s activities subsequent to the Montgomery Protest. This could not fail to create a poor impression, since there has been extensive press coverage of these activities. Finally there was a tendency to interrupt, to ask a question while Dr. King was actually in the process of answering that very question.... it seems to me that respect for a public figure requires a better degree of preparation and more sincere attention to what he has to say than was manifest in this interview.”

5.Wallace refers to federal district court judge Lemley’s decision in Cooper v. Aaron, which granted a request by the Little Rock school board for a delay in the city’s school integration plan. The decision was later reversed.


MWall-MiU-H, Mike Wallace Collection, University of Michigan, Michigan Historical Collection, Ann Arbor, Mich.