On September 21, 2020 Mercer University will begin hosting an exhibit called Faith of the Dreamer. The showcase features works that would have been part of Gwendolyn Payton’s final senior project in 1971– a project that should’ve earned her a dual degree in biology and art.
The former Gwen Middleton was one of the first African American students to integrate Macon’s A.L. Miller high school in the 1960s. From there, she would attend Mercer University, first as part of the Upward Bound program, and then as a full-time student in 1968. During her years at Mercer, Gwen shared in the revolutionary changes taking place on the campus, in the city, and throughout the nation.
Gwen intended to enter the field of medical illustration. She set out to present a senior art project that combined a portfolio curated under the guidance of instructors at the Medical College of Georgia with work informed by her own personal experiences. Dr. Marshall Daugherty, then the head of the art department at Mercer, deemed her work– which focused in part on black unity and identity– too controversial. He denied Gwen a place in the senior exhibit, effectively terminating any hope of an art degree.
A chance meeting nearly 50 years later is about to rectify that.
Speaking from her home in Athens, GA, Gwen was able to share her story and what’s happened since her time at Mercer. She’s raised a family, written children’s books, and of course continued to paint. She’s enjoyed a career working alongside her husband in his pediatric practice, but Gwen never forgot about her senior project. With Faith of the Dreamer, the university embraces an opportunity to uphold its commitment.
And Gwendolyn Payton finally gets the art degree she earned so long ago.
AI- I know that Mercer voluntarily integrated in 1963 and began to recruit African American students. Were you one of the students that was recruited or did choose to go to Mercer for your own reasons?
GP- Yes, I was recruited. If you want some really great background on this– I don’t know if you know the book, The Stem of Jesse? That book goes into quite a lot of detail about what was going on around the time [of] Sam Oni. He was an African young man who had been converted to be a Christian by the Baptist missionary people. Basically, Joe Hendricks and Dr. Rufus Harris, in thinking about desegregating Mercer, they wanted to have an African American student that they thought would be more likely to be accepted on the initial run through. That’s why they chose someone that was from a place where the Baptist convention had sent missionaries. They thought that this was gonna work– but once they got Sam Oni here, the Baptist missionary council just totally went the other direction! So that book will give you a lot of history on that.
My first experience at Mercer was in 1965 with the Upward Bound group. Upward Bound was a group that was funded by the federal government to help African Americans or minority students. It was not just African Americans in that program. It was a hundred students– and I think it was about five low-income white students that were in the program with us. We were just considered minority in terms of low income, not necessarily in terms of race at the time. That’s what I was thinking. I was a part of the first class that came into Mercer under the Upward Bound program. Most of the female students were recruited from the local high schools, A.L. Miller and Mt de Sales, because we had left our schools like Ballard-Hudson and Peter George Appling to go to those schools. Dean Hendrick’s idea was instead of going directly to the African American schools, they would recruit the African Americans who had already had some experience of being in a situation with white students. So they came to Miller and to Lanier high schools to recruit locally for the Upward Bound program. Now, there were students from other counties. I remember there were students from Twiggs County, from Monroe County, from a lot of the small counties right around Macon that came into the Upward Bound program at the time.
Which high school were you attending at the time?
I was attending A.L. Miller and that’s where I graduated from.
When they approached you with the Upward Bound project, were you excited and jumpin’ right at it? Or was there a certain amount of fear involved with it?
Actually, my mother had instigated me going to A.L. Miller because Miller was an all-girls school. Now, going to an African American coed school and going from there to an all-girls– predominantly a white school– that didn’t look like a fun thing! It didn’t look fun at all! I was a sophomore in high school and I had three older siblings that rode the bus to Ballard-Hudson. And that was my dream! When I got in 10th grade, my dream was to be able to ride the bus with them! My ninth grade year, they started recruiting to go to Miller. And my mom and I went to a meeting and she literally bruised my side every time the principal, Mrs. [Clara Nell] Hargrove, said– and she was very straightforward, I mean, she held no punches– “You students are not going to graduate from this school because you don’t have the foundation. You have no math foundation…” And every time she said something like that, my mom was just jabbin’ me in the side! And when we left there, my mom said, “You’re gonna go to this school. You’re gonna go.” And I was like, “Mama, I need to go to the other school!” (Laughs)
But that wasn’t true. You were prepared. You were capable of going to that school, right?
I was! I know that, yes! I was very prepared. I did very well at the school. I was prepared, but this is a woman… I imagine she was in her late fifties or early sixties, and like Dr. [Marshall] Daugherty at Mercer, I feel like they had come up in an era and had been fed the idea– they were born around the turn of the century– that blacks were not capable, [that] we were three-fifths of a human person, and we were [more] closely related to gorillas than humans. So we didn’t have the capability! I look back at history and I honestly believe this is what those people believed. They believed that I wasn’t capable and I wouldn’t make it. I felt that’s why she was so confident to be able to tell me that.
At this time, how were you exploring your artistic abilities? This was something that your mother had encouraged in you from very early on in your childhood– your ability to draw, your ability to paint. What was your experience at that point in time before getting into the art department at Mercer?
I had been drawing and painting. I took classes at wherever they were, either at Ballard-Hudson junior high or at Miller. I remember taking art in elementary school. My first art teacher, Ms. Lightfoot, she was this tall, very statuesque African American woman. She had her hair all up in a ball and she put pins it, and I thought, “I don’t want to teach art because if I have to look like that…” (Laughs) She wore earrings and necklaces! I love being a woman, I’m a very feminine woman– but all the glitz, that’s not me. It was in seventh grade. I remember sitting there and looking at her, “If I have to look like that to teach art, I don’t think I’ll ever teach art!” That’s my earliest recollection of a class in art was in seventh grade.
Am I right in sayin’ that it was 1968 when you began attending Mercer as a full-time student?
As a full-time student in 1968. But I had gone to Mercer– starting in the spring, I think we would start in March– on the weekends with the Upward Bound program. And then during the summer, the summer of ’65, ’66, ’67, and ’68, we stayed on campus. We took classes in the art department at Mercer, we were advantaged to be able to get involved with theatre. I always loved theatre growing up, and I had tried when I was young to get involved with theatre. After I started at Mercer, I didn’t get involved because I really wanted to do well in my other coursework. I wanted to take art and I couldn’t take everything. I’d had some experiences trying to get into the local theatre in Macon– and that wasn’t pleasant. So I decided I wouldn’t worry about a route going into theatre when I got to Mercer.
You eventually changed your major to the dual majors of biology and art. What were you initially planning to study?
Initially? I was planning to study history. I wanted to study history and art together. But again, in the book The Stem of Jesse, it’s an amazing exploration of what happened because I was lookin’ over the curriculum for history and I was lookin’ over the books and I found a book that was co-edited by one of the professors at Mercer. He was Dr. [Spencer] King. Dr. King had co-edited this book, and he had no references whatsoever to the contributions of African Americans or any other Americans other than white Americans in the history books. He did have a paragraph about how we were happy to be in the slave owners’ care and most of us became friends of slave owners.
It was okay that he said that… But there was so much more that he left out. So we challenged him on that. Dean Joe Hendricks, he was amazing! He and Billy Randall, one of the local African American activists at the time, they set up a forum with Dr. King and actually invited Arthur Ashe, the tennis player, to come and be there. And he was! It was amazing! But in the book, and this is really strange that this is all happening right now because, in the book, the author talks about this situation. He named me specifically as someone who challenged Dr. King on what he had in his books and how he had not included the contributions of African Americans. That was one of the highlights of my life at Mercer was meeting Arthur Ashe– because I was a tennis player and I loved it!
When we looked at the curriculum, we noted that there was hardly any African American contributions throughout the school, whether it was language arts or whatever. So we, as a small group, it was only 56 of us– my freshman year, it was 56 blacks on a campus of about 5000, about 1%– we decided to protest and ask for African American studies to be brought to the campus in some form or some fashion. And that’s what our goal was. As we were fighting that war, we had a lot of skirmishes. My skirmish with Dr. Daugherty was just that! It was something that I was noting, but several other African American students were having trouble with their department. Even my husband!
My husband [Dr. Victor Payton] was from Savannah, but he is African American. He really worked hard, probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met! He’s a physician now, but he got a B in English– and it just about took him out because he was such a great student! There were several students in his class that were white, and he felt like the teacher was just totally ignoring the fact that he had done as well as he did [when] he got a B out of the class! But those were the types of skirmishes we were having. But the major war that we were fighting was to get the Black Studies on campus within the time that we who started were there. And we did! We did!
You’re talkin’ about the Black Student Alliance? You were a part of that group? I was fortunate enough to find a great deal of information about that time and about those protests– these skirmishes in this war that you talk about.
Yes, I was a part of the Black Student Alliance. I, actually, was one of those who sat on the steps of the administration building [in support of the Black Studies program]. The inside scoop on that is that the president [Rufus Harris], he was instrumental in helping us to get the [Baptist] board– I think it was a board– to look at startin’ a Black Studies program. We held Dr. Rufus Harris in his office pretty much with his consent because he said that, “The only way we’re going to get them to pay attention is for you to really take a stand.” And when he told us what he thought would make a difference, we were all on board, especially since the local police… That was the biggest thing that we feared as African American students on campus. With everything that was going on at Mercer, we didn’t want to deal with the local police as students because we knew that wouldn’t be a good thing. But the thing that we had going for us was that Mercer didn’t want to deal with the local police either! They didn’t want them on the campus at all. The idea was, if we held him in his office, they would break before [us] because they would never want to call the police on the campus. Even if it meant a way to take the students off, they would never do that. So we had that going for us. We knew that they wouldn’t and we were assured of it. And so that’s why we did it.
I think a lot of people might not believe or even understand, but at that point in time in Macon, Mercer was a very insular society of its own, not as widespread throughout the community as it is now. Today, there’s Mercer everything– they’re involved with the Capricorn Studios that have just been reopened, they have all of the medical offices and so many other things that they’re doing… But at that point in time, it was a very, very small world all to its own.
It was an island (laughs)!
The Black Student Alliance, though, you guys, from what I read, that organization wanted to really change that [perception of] the school. There were community programs that the Black Student Alliance initiated like the preschool program in Tindall Heights and the things that you were doing at the school– the Black [Studies] and creating the Black Cultural Center. What kind of roadblocks did you hit trying to get out into the community as members of Mercer?
Dr. Joe Hendricks and his sister, Dr. Jean Hendricks, we were walking in their footsteps. Every time we thought of something that would be good, they had a way to do it. They were very eager to do it, and they were open to talking with anyone and everyone to get that done. Dr. Joe Hendricks, he knew the local activists and he was very much in touch with them. So when we, as students, were there and we– especially the ones that were from Macon– would say something about what we saw happening, he was very eager to see if they could help us to get some of those things done.
I didn’t see the red tape, but I’m sure he had red tape that he had to deal with to get some of those things done. But the administration– Dr. [Tom]Trimble, Dr. Hendricks, Dr. Harris– those men were all about building community with the community. It was the board that they had to fight– and that was their fight. It wasn’t ours. We were there to encourage and to take up… We were like foot soldiers. Like, “You set up this daycare and we’ll send students. The students’ll go over there and volunteer.” We had a relationship with them that if they could help us to get some of these things going then we would do everything we could to help out. There are other people that, say, for instance, Sam Hart, he’s still in Macon [and] several others that are still in Macon that can address that better than I.
Your final project for your degree in art… You have mentioned Dr. Daugherty a couple of times. Let’s talk about the project itself. What was it that you were putting together and what had inspired you to do it? Who were the artists that you were admiring at the time and what was the goal of that particular showing?
The show was the senior exhibit and everyone was supposed to have a senior project for the senior exhibit. I had started looking into medical illustration because I liked biology and art. I liked the sciences and I liked the art. I read about medical illustration. I knew that there was a department at the Medical College of Georgia. My husband was thinking about going to medical school, and I thought, “You know what? This would be good! I can put my art and my biology together!” From the Upward Bound program, there was a program called SEEP— Student Enrichment Education Program– at the Medical College of Georgia. The summer of ’71, I was looking at going into that program.
I talked to Dr. Daugherty before I left during the spring of ’71. I asked him if I could use part of the project that I did at the Medical College of Georgia in medical illustration to be part of my senior project. And he said, “Okay.” I don’t know… It just seemed like something… He had already shown me and the other African American student… He was younger than me, but there was one other African American student in the whole art department when I was there. [Dr. Daugherty] told me, he said, “You might get a C out of this class ’cause you’re not smart enough to actually graduate in art or get a degree from my department.” And I think he believed that, unfortunately! But at the time, I didn’t necessarily understand the gravity of what he was saying until I started working on my senior project and trying to get everything together. I went to [MCG] that summer. I did a portfolio. I worked with the assistant to the director of the program in medical illustration. She’s still alive right now. I went to see her in 2013. I went and visited her. Amazing, amazing lady!
Octavia Garlington. She helped me to put together a really strong portfolio to apply to the medical illustration department at the Medical College of Georgia even though I felt like I might not get in– because they only accepted four students. It was only two programs in the whole United States for medical illustration. One was at the Medical College of Georgia and the other one was at Johns Hopkins at the time. The next one I think was in Canada! So it was a very, very competitive program. And even though I felt like I had a pretty strong portfolio, even the other African American student that was there that summer, his portfolio just blew mine out of the water! So I was hoping he would get in (laughs)! I was hopin’ he would get one of those four spots!
My husband and I– going back a little– June of 1971, we got married. He went to boot camp, I went to [MCG] for the program. We got back together in September and I got pregnant. So here I go back to Mercer, to the dorm. My husband was at the medical college, his first freshman year, and I was in a dormitory pregnant. I went over to see Dr. Daugherty and I took my portfolio. We talked about me using it as a senior project again, and he said, “I don’t think that’s gonna be sufficient.” And I was like, “Really?” And he said, “I think you need to do some more paintings.” And so I did several paintings and when I went over to show him the paintings– or when he saw them, ’cause I was doin’ ’em in the art department– he said that he thought that my paintings were too controversial. And he just said, “I don’t think I’ll allow you to put anything in the senior show.”
The only piece that I’ve seen from that show was Rebirth of Colored Folk. Were the other paintings that you were doing in that same style?
No, actually there were a couple of other abstracts… I actually have about five pieces that would have been in that show. One was a plaster sculpture of a runner. One was a sculpture that was one of the beams… We had gone down to where they had dismantled the building that was the old Wesleyan College. Where the post office is in Macon right now [on College Street]? Wesleyan College was there. There was a building there and as students, we went over there and got pieces of beams of wood, and I have a carving from that. I can only get a picture of it for the show because my son has it out in California. I might get him to ship it. But I have about five different pieces that would have gone into that show. And a few others that I gave to family members or something. I can’t remember what happened to them.
I can see from maybe an educator standpoint, how a piece like the one I’ve seen– Rebirth of Colored Folk— might be somewhat controversial, but at the same time, my main feeling is that art is supposed to push controversy to a degree. I’m assuming that Dr. Daugherty didn’t feel that way at all?
No. As a matter of fact, one of the paintings that I did was a piece that– I don’t even know where he came off interpreting it the way he did– but it was an abstract. If you could imagine this– paint streaming down a canvas and it was purples and chalky white. I brushed across at some points and then I made a circle at some point. I told him that it was called Purple You, Purple Me. And he said, “That’s just indicative of women of the night. You shouldn’t put anything like that in the show.” And I’m goin’, “What? Wait– where did that come from?” (Laughs)
I don’t know what he had in his mind. I explained to him that [Rebirth of Colored Folk] was about African Americans. We come in all different shades of brown, black, and gold. But at that time, we were coming into an awareness of each other in a unified way. Because from the African American standpoint, my husband is very fair-skinned and he was mistreated by blacks because he was real fair. This is the way we put it– he’s too light to be dark and too dark to be light, you know? He was pretty much not accepted as a black person, but surely not accepted as a white person. He ends up somewhere in between, and I wanted to put it out there that as black Americans, it doesn’t matter what your skin color is. We can come into a basic awareness of ourselves as a unit. That’s what the infant [in Rebirth of Colored Folk] represented– rebirth into awareness of each other and a unified awareness not divisive.
Ultimately, Dr. Daugherty just wouldn’t let you do a final senior project for your art degree?
He would not let me put my paintings in the senior show. There was a class that he required– and I have my transcript right in front of me– that he himself taught and he taught it in the spring. He said, “If you can’t take this course then I will not be able to approve you getting a degree.” I had taken several courses over and beyond the course that he wanted me to take, but he would not hear of it! I asked him if I could take his course [as an] independent study in the fall and the winter because I was going to finish up in the winter quarter, my other degree, and I would be able to leave and my baby was due in May. So I asked him if I could do an independent study. I said, “I’ll be sure and graduate in biology. Can I come back after I graduate and finish it up?” And he was like, “No.” I was so upset! I ran across the campus and I went to the dorm and I called my husband. I told my husband it was like he was gloating. It was like, “I finally gotcha!” And it was just so hard, so hard!
What was the reaction from your fellow students? And being at Mercer that long, you had to have had friends among the staff as well. What was the reaction there?
Honestly, I don’t remember talking to a lot of people about it except my small group. And they were outraged, but they were going through… We’d sit around comparing wounds, basically. Like my husband, “I got this professor… I worked my tail off. I know I’m a better student than most. I know I’ve done this, but here I get a B!” So the most we did was compare wounds at the time. But I was ready to go. I was eight months pregnant. I was ready to go– and I didn’t know I had a recourse. I thought that [Dr. Daugherty] was the last say!
I’m looking right now at this curriculum. It says, “Curriculum: Art, Chairman: Marshall Daugherty… The following courses constitute the major… In addition, a student majoring in art must satisfactorily complete a major project, which may, for example, take the form of a graduation exhibit or a research paper. The project will consist of work done substantially over and beyond the classwork in art.”
I spent about eight weeks down at the medical college preparing that portfolio. And I know it was a great portfolio! It should have met these requirements over and beyond– because I worked eight straight weeks on it with a professional! And then when I came back to Mercer and he told me I couldn’t use it, I need to make more paintings, I did more paintings! But then they weren’t satisfactory either! So that’s where I found myself.
I hesitate to ask this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway.
You don’t think that he was ever going to give you that opportunity anyway, do you?
No! No! I felt like after I talked to him in the fall, and I told my husband, I said, “I feel like he’s just out to prove himself right. That I don’t have the ability to get a degree from his department.” My getting pregnant and having to leave campus just played into his scenario pretty well.
You did end up at the Medical College of Georgia and you received a Bachelor of Science to become a technician. You started your family. Your husband started his practice and you worked within that practice?
Yes. I worked with him almost 30 years in a pediatric practice.
Did you continue to paint and sculpt?
Yeah, I painted. Over the years, I’ve developed more as a portrait artist. I don’t do any sculpting. I’m not particular about painting landscapes– but I love painting faces! I love the uniqueness of people’s faces and that’s what I generally paint. I’ve done a few commissions over the years.
When did you start working on children’s books?
These are a couple of books that I wrote 30, 40 years ago (laughs)!
Oh! So for your own children?
No. I wrote them, and my children know about them, but I want to be able to publish them because I just think they’re great stories. I just haven’t stopped and taken time to do the artwork for them. I have a son now– well, he’s been with me for 44 years– but he’s developed his art to an incredible place and he and I have already talked about it. He’s going to illustrate the books for me. We’re still working to get that nailed down, but he’s got the characters that he wants to do, and we’re working to get them published after he’s finished the illustrations.
This is the son out in California?
I have two sons that live in California. I have three sons, actually, but two that live in California. One is my son who’s the artist [and] also a physician [Dr. Kurlen Payton]. He is a neonatologist. He takes care of intensive care newborns, and he’s head of the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] at Cedar Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.
That’s amazing that he would develop both abilities– the artistic and the medicine.
Yes! It is amazing! And like I said, he’s an amazing artist. He’s my second son. Our first son is an actor and he is working on The Walking Dead right now.
Awwww, excellent! I’m a big fan of the zombie genre, just to throw out there.
Do you watch The Walking Dead?
I kinda got burned out on that show. I was a big fan of the comic book and my wife and I religiously watched probably the first five seasons. We got away from it right about the time that we had our daughter.
Well, if you remember the character King Ezekiel, that’s the character that Khary [Payton] plays. The one that had the tiger!
You do have a plan to publish these children’s books sometime in the future?
Yes, my son and I, as soon as we finish working on the illustrations. He’s worked on the individual characters. We just need to put it together in the book. But he, oh my gosh, you talk about a busy person… He just accepted the position as head of the NICU. And he also is co-director of a consortium– for lack of a better word– that oversees the standardization of care of 158 NICUs in the state of California. So we’re working at it, but I don’t give him a timeframe because it’s something that I know will get done at just the right time.
You are going to finally present your senior art project and receive your art degree from Mercer. Tell me about the conversation that led to that. If I’ve got the story right, it was Dr. Sarah Gardner, and she heard this tale directly from you. What were the circumstances leading up to that conversation?
Dr. Gardner and I were sitting across from each other, I was sitting on one bench and she was standing on another at midnight waiting for the 12:40 shuttle [at the airport]. I was waiting for the shuttle to go to Athens from Atlanta and she was waiting for the one to go to Macon. I literally just scooted over to her bench because I was like, “We just sittin’ here together. It’d be better if we’re closer and lookin’ out,” and I just started…
You didn’t know her at that point?
No, I’d never met her.
Wow. That makes the story even more amazing!
We were talking– and if you know me, you know I’m a talker. And I just like meeting people. I like understanding their story or just hearing it. She told me that she was a professor at Mercer and I said, “Oh? What are you professor in?” And she said, “History.” And I said, “I majored in history at one point.” She said, “At Mercer? And I said, “Yeah!” She said, “You majored in it. Did you get your degree?” And I said, “No.” I told her that story, and then I said, “I went into biology ’cause I liked the sciences. And then I thought I’d do a double major in art and biology, but I ended up just getting the biology degree.” She said, “Why didn’t you get your art degree?” I told her that story, and she said, “That doesn’t sound right!” I said, “Well, I tried a few years ago to get it.”
I actually have the letter right here that I wrote to Dr. Lambert. He was the dean of the liberal arts school a few years ago when I wrote this letter. It was in November of 2013. Lake Lambert. I wrote him and I asked him about looking into me getting my degree. And he wrote me back. One of the questions he asked that just threw my husband, he wrote, “Why did you wait so long to appeal this decision?”
I just said, “Simply put, I didn’t know that I could.”
Huh. What was the stall point then?
He wrote me back and said that I would have to do about 32 hours at Mercer. And of course, I was 63 years old at the time. I didn’t think that I needed to do it. I had pulled my transcript and I had gone over all the courses that I’d taken, and I just didn’t think that was something that I would have to do to get this degree that I’d already worked on.
But now you are.
Yeah, I am because I’m not being required to take the 32 hours! They looked at my transcript and they pulled off, I think it was four or five courses that were more advanced than the course that Dr. Daugherty was requiring. They just replaced his course with one of the ones that I’d already taken.
Dr. Gardner was able to get in touch with the right people to look at this and bring this forward?
Yes, it was an amazing time because I had just had an aunt to pass away and her funeral was going to be November the 19th of 2019, which is my birthday. Dr. Gardner had said that if I wanted to, she would help me set up an interview with the dean of the liberal arts school. That interview was on November the 20th of 2019, and I got with Dr. [Anita] Gustafson, who is now the dean of the liberal arts department, as well as Craig Coleman, who was with the art department. They told me what they could do to help me get my degree.
I gotta tell ya, that story is actually even more amazing than the one that Ben [Dunn, Director of the McEachern Art Center] told me leading into this. And it’s a very exciting thing for you to be able to do this and to have this show. Learning about your experience at Mercer and here in Macon during that time period… And then here we are now. It has been a rough couple of days in a rough couple of years in a rough century so far. My wife and I have been watching the news, seeing what’s happening almost nonstop with Black Lives Matter, the protests, the demonstrations, what’s just recently happened with Jacob Blake, the sports teams that are sitting out games in protest… This all has to feel familiar and it has to feel scary. Has it brought back things to you that you wish had stayed gone? Or are you ready to meet the challenge?
Over the past few months, I have looked at this whole situation and my first inclination, and today it’s even more so, that this, unfortunately… It just breaks my heart for the lives that are lost. Listen, this is crazy… In the fall of 1971, when I was dealing with what I was dealing with at Mercer, I had a [cousin] who was shot in the back and killed by someone, who on the stand in the courtroom– I was sitting there– he said, “N*****s were not supposed to be out after 12. I got my guns and I went n****r huntin’. And the mayor, he’s goin’ to deputize me. He’s goin’ to deputize a thousand of us, and we’re gonna keep the peace in Macon.”
Now, this was in the era of Ronnie Thompson. He had bought that tank and driven it down Main Street in Macon, sayin’ that he brought the tank into Macon to keep the peace. What I saw today, compared to what I saw then was this incredible parallel where people can be fed things to the point that they feel like they have the power– without any remorse– to take someone else’s life and nothing’s going to be done about it. When that happened in Macon, November 21st, 1971, my cousin was killed. I named my second son, the doctor, Kurlen, after him.
His name was Curlen Middleton. He was a student at the DeVry Institute. He just came home for Thanksgiving and he and his roommate went downtown not knowing that there was a curfew. His roommate was a smoker. They went downtown to get cigarettes out of a cigarette machine at the Greyhound bus station, left that bus station, drove back out. We lived on Robinson Road off of Napier out in that part of Macon. [They] noticed that someone was following them. The guy followed them until they got to a T and had to go left or right. They were sitting up there trying to decide which way to go, and he rammed the back of their car. The car went over into someone’s yard. The three got out– one was my cousin, his younger brother, and his roommate. The younger brother went towards the car of the person who had hit them.
My cousin and his friend went to the back of his car because he had just gotten this old car– and he was pretty proud of it. He had brought it down from Atlanta– and you know young men, they’re gonna think about the car! It didn’t matter about who hit ’em. It’s, “What happened to the car?” So they went to the back of the car. My younger cousin went towards the guy in the car, guy stood up and shot him. Shot him in the neck. And he said, “I’ve been shot!” And he said, “Run!” The cousin and the roommate turned each and ran into different directions. The guy stood and point-blank shot my cousin and killed him. And because his mother had [multiple sclerosis] and couldn’t go to the courtroom and his dad had been killed when he was a little boy, my mother and I were representing the family. I was 21 years old.
I sat there and I saw that man… I can’t remember exactly, but I don’t know that he ever stayed a night in jail for what he did. And he admitted it on the stand! Black lives have always mattered. Everybody’s life matters, but black lives matter more to me because I’ve seen black people and I know family members who have been killed. Which to us, means, “Do we really matter?” And then when you don’t see any justice over the years, over and over again? That’s where Black Lives Matter comes from. It’s not just something that was made up today. It was from way back. From three-fifths of a human to today, do we really matter? That’s where that comes from.
Your question about how I feel about this right now is, unfortunately, people are still dying. But I’m praying that this will wake up our society and help us. Especially the whites in America. I read something quoted from someone in 1946 who said that there was nothing going on in racism in America in 1946. And there are people who believe that today! But, you know, we’re alright… But they don’t understand. Just look at the history. That’s all I have to say to people. Please look at your history, look at the history of the United States– the real history. You may have been in a history program like the one I started out in that had nothing about what was really happening. But today, we know history, and it’s something you can look back at and figure out what really is going on.
I can’t add anything else to that. I’m actually kinda cryin’ right now because I don’t know what else to ask you from that. Thank you so much for taking the time today. I know I’ve taken up a lot of yours.
That’s okay. I expected it.
But I appreciate every moment of this. Generally, I speak to musicians about their albums and about the things that they do. One of the things that we’ve talked most about over the last few months has been being a musician and an artist during the pandemic. I had an opportunity to speak to a singer named Don Bryant. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Don’s work. He’s been around a very long time– a songwriter, he’s married to Ann Peebles– and I asked him about being an artist and being a black man during the 1950s in Memphis, and going through the Civil Rights movement, going through Vietnam, going through that whole era… I asked him when he looked around, what he thought about today, and he told me it feels worse. How do we fight what’s happening right now as a country? How do we come together?
I think that we all have to be interested enough in each other to learn each other’s history. I need to know the history of the whites– and I’ve been studying that. There’s a book called White Awake that was written by Daniel Hill and published in 2017. It talks about how, when the country started out, there was no white race. There were Germans, there were Irish, there were Italian Americans. There was no white. That wasn’t even a term. Where did that come from? When did that start? And how has it been perpetuated to the point that whiteness is the norm? It’s the standard. Everybody else’s like African American, Asian American, Native American… Just going back and looking at your history and understanding how it was perpetuated after slavery.
What happened with the whites? What happened with the blacks? What was going on? And then for those who understand it and accept history for what it is and are not living in la-la land? For me, as an African American, I’m going to be able to pull those African Americans aside who are so filled with animosity and bitterness and hatred, that they can’t even see straight… We can’t build a country on your hatred or your bitterness. I’m going to be able to do that. I can talk to them. But for the whites, they have to learn history. You have to learn your history and you have to be able to talk to people and let them know. White privilege? Yes, you have it. And it’s okay. That’s a result of the system that has been perpetuated. You didn’t start it, but you don’t have to own it. You have to open your eyes and see what’s going on around you.
When my son is pulled over at the age of 48 years old in California, and the first thing a policeman asked him is, “Whose car is this?” Do you think white 48-year-old men driving a BMW in California are pulled over every day for that? No. I talk to [white people] and they’ll say, “Well, you know, we had a hard time growing up, and I say, “That’s okay. The problem is, you’ve got to see that even though you had a hard time, even though you had a single mom, even though your dad left, even though those things happened… What if you were black? And every day you had a son– I have three sons– and every day that your son went out to go to work at night at a theater, you listen out because you thought he might be calling you from a jail… Just because he’s black.” See, there’s something in addition to. There’s always an addition to your troubles that I can tell you that will make a difference because you’re white and I’m black.
That’s what I feel like we have to do. I feel like whites have got to be in tune and be able to help other whites. It’s happened in our church, actually. We brought up this idea of looking at how to be more unified as a diverse church, a group of multiracial, multicultural people. How do we get closer? The idea is that those of you who understand, help others understand. Black Lives Matter don’t mean that everybody else’s life don’t matter. It means that there’s something that’s been happening that’s caused black lives to go from 1970 [when there were] 300,000 incarcerated to 2 million in 2019 and 47% of those are black. Our country’s only 13 or 15% black! There’s something wrong with that, to be concerned about, to want to know, and then help those who don’t understand that. That’s all I can think to do.