Calvin Trillin - Looking Back at American Racism in "Jackson, 1964"

June 28, 2016 - Calvin Trillin 06/28/2016 Views: 4,766

Author Calvin Trillin examines half a century of racism in the South through a collection of individuals' stories in his book "Jackson, 1964." (5:42)

Watch Full Episode

My guest tonight isa staff writer at The New Yorker

and bestselling author.

His new book is called Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches

from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America.

Please welcome Calvin Trillin.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)

-Welcome to the show.-Thank you.

50 years reporting on race.

Most white people I know can'teven watch 12 Years a Slave.

(laughter)

How have you done it?

Well, I think, uh,I just got interested,

and, um...

I think a certain amount of ithas to do with empathy.

I think most white people--you're right--

can't imaginebeing a black person.

Um...

and... think of itas something theoretical

rather than personal.

Um... when I think of that,

I think of an experience I had

with the University of Georgiaintegration.

The, um... oneof the undergraduates, uh,

Charlayne Hunter,was in a dormitory

-full of, uh,sort of hostile coeds. -Yeah.

And so we talked on the phonequite often.

She's still a friend.

And, um...

one day we were talkingabout a trip she had taken

back from Savannah, and she saidit was awful on the train,

and I said I thoughtit was a very good train,

and she said...

"Not where we have to sit."

And I knew a lotabout Plessy v. Ferguson

and interstate transportationand all that by that time,

but all of that just sort ofdrained from my mind,

and I thought: they can'tmake her sit back there.

It was sort of personal.

And I realized that...that people, uh, in the South,

black people in the South,it's personal every day.

And to some extent,it's still that way in America.

I think Chris Rockhad a great line

that summed it all up whenhe said in his standup routine:

None of you white peopleout in the audience

would change places with me,and I'm rich.

The... the storiesthat you tell,

you come from being a reporter,you're writing these dispatches.

How importantdo you feel it was for you

to embrace these storiesas personal stories?

'Cause that's what you dothroughout the book--

you are talking to people, as opposed to just reporting

on the topic.

Why did you feelyou needed to do that?

Well, I...This was one of the things

that drew me to the subject,rather than write

about politicians or movie starsor something.

I was often writingabout people who had...

ordinary peoplewho had really serious...

-decisions to make.-Yeah.

Uh, was a...

was a mother gonna sendher six-year-old

through the lines of shouting...

women shouting obscenities,uh, to school?

So, I mean, they're...these are decisions

that ordinary people makeevery-every...

made every day down there, so...

It's interesting, you saythat they made these decisions.

One thing that struck mewhen I was reading the book

was how many of these storiesseem to be applicable today.

You know,you have a story in here

where... Martin Luther King,

-Right. Right. -you were seatednext to him on a flight,

and talking about how...

how much injustice was going onin the country,

talking about howsomething had to be done.

You know, him saying, I thinkone of the lines was, um,

"I want everybody to love me,but I can't wait for them

-Yeah.-to love me."

The idea of waiting, uh...

presupposes some beliefin reincarnation.

I mean, the... the waitingwould be more than a lifetime

if they waited.

And, in fact, thingsstarted happening in the South

when black people took thesituation into their own hands

-and started doing instead of...-It's al... that's always

an interesting discussion,'cause you were on the ground--

a lot of people, evenin this day and age, say, uh,

you know,you shouldn't be rioting,

you shouldn't be protesting,you know, these thugs,

you see what they're doing,they're smashing windows,

they're doing that--you were on the ground

when there was another movementthat was becoming a force,

another movementthat was rioting,

another movement that resortedto more than just speech.

Do you think that helped?I mean, you were there.

Was that something thatthey needed to do at the time?

Is that somethingthat you can understand?

I think they needed to do itunless they were just going

to wait for a very long timeor maybe forever.

Uh, I think, uh...

the first piece in the bookabout Jackson,

a lot of... of white studentscame down...

hundreds of themcame down to help.

It was the first timethat happened.

And part of the ideaof the Jackson summer

was to register voters,but part of the idea

-was just to bringthe nation's attention -Yeah.

to... to Mississippi.

Uh, and-and Mississippi was thenthe most difficult state,

uh, and oneof the commemorations

for the 50th anniversaryof the Freedom Ride,

somebody said to me,"Who would have thought

"when we were in Mississippithat we would have had

a black president?"

And I said, "When I wasin Mississippi in 1961,

I would have settledfor a black policeman."

It's a... beautifulcollection of stories.

I really recommend everyoneto read it.

Uh, I guess I wasn't there, butI say thank you for being there

so that I could travel there;it's really fantastic.

-Thank you so much.-Thank you, Trevor.

-(applause)-Thank you for being here.

Jackson, 1964 is available now.

I really suggest you read it.Calvin Trillin, everybody.

We'll be right back.