Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first female African-American reporter at The Washington Post, recently published her highly anticipated memoir Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America. Gilliam will visit Metrograph on Saturday, May 11 to introduce a rare presentation of the classic documentary King: A Filmed Record... From Montgomery to Memphis, which will screen on a 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress.
Ahead of Gilliam’s visit, which will be followed by a book signing in the Metrograph Book Store, we asked her daughter, the filmmaker and media artist Leah Gilliam, to interview her mother. What follows is an extensive, intimate conversation about the Civil Rights Movement, Gilliam’s legendary career, and what the film King reveals to us about our history.
Leah Gilliam: Say "Hi," Mom.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam: Good morning, Leah.
LG: We have separately watched King: A Filmed Record From Montgomery to Memphis, and we're gonna talk a little bit about it. I watched it for the first time, and then I reviewed some of the parts in your book about your coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, and it really sort of changed how I saw the film and thought about it. So for example, I emailed you and said, "Hi Mom, have you had a chance to see the film? Did you enjoy it?" as if it was a rom-com or something, instead of thinking, "Wow, that might be actually kind of traumatic, to go back and look at all this material, in this way." What were some of the feelings and thoughts that crossed your mind while you were watching the film?
DBG: When you said—you used the word, "Did you enjoy it," my first thought was, "Enjoy is not exactly the emotion that I had." I felt great respect and admiration for Martin Luther King, and for the freedom movement. I felt great joy at their courage, and their determination. I felt great admiration for Martin Luther King's depth and understanding of what he was doing, and how he was able to encapsulate such broad ideas from the deeply spiritual, to the realistic, and to the thoughts and the representations of the Constitution, and those documents that have been dear to Americans. It was an experience in which I felt a great deal of pride, because you know, the freedom movement among Black Americans really led to other freedom movements in the United States, and around the world. It was a very deep, emotional experience for me. Do you want me to explain a little bit about what I'd meant?
LG: Sure. That would be great. I'd love to hear that.
DBG: African Americans were really an oppressed minority at the time—246 years of slavery, a hundred of Jim Crow and segregation in the South—and having grown up in the segregated South, I knew, and felt a lot of the humiliations of what was involved. And then in 1955, as the movie showed, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and give a white man her seat, and the walking that those people did, for almost a year in order to gain their freedom…
LG: Yeah, that was really a powerful depiction of that particular moment in the Civil Rights movement. I certainly haven't seen every Civil Rights documentary, but I was really just so floored by that footage, of that month-to-month chronicle of people just sharing rides, and walking, and getting themselves to work day after day after day. Summer, winter, you know, spring... And thinking about the strategy behind that, in a kind of pre-wireless networked world, thinking about how much coordination and perseverance that particular action really required.
DBG: That's a very good point. And it electrified the nation, as King said. Not only did it start the Civil Rights Movement, in many ways, but the Freedom Movement would go on to inspire other oppressed people. You know, the next group was women. And I'm getting way ahead of myself, but you know, Gloria Steinem wrote her article, that appeared in the early '70s, "After Black Power, Women Power." And then we had the Gay Rights Movement. Then we had the movement for freedom in terms of expression of one's sexuality, we had the [movement for] freedom, in terms of the disabled. And all over the world, people were singing, "We shall overcome," which came right out of that Freedom Movement. So I'm skipping over a lot of the detail, and the power, and the fire of the movement, but in part it was the worldwide impact of this small, oppressed minority walking, and that came out of faith in themselves and faith in God. That really, I think, was part of the movement.
LG: You do get that sense of how deeply rooted the work was in the Black church. Obviously people talk about King's oratorical skills, but also, just seeing those hordes of people leaving church to begin those marches, getting their energy, that unity and sense of coalition by singing, and just, you know, carrying on, and getting their courage up, and then hitting the streets. Those are some really powerful moments of just seeing those hundreds of people, of different ages and backgrounds, really coming together in that way.
There are a few things that I wanted to talk to you specifically about. One was just about the opening of the film, because I thought it was so interesting. You have that juxtaposition between Martin Luther King speaking, and some of the more radical voices, in what would become the Black Power Movement. And it's a really interesting way to open a film that is looking at the struggle from Montgomery to Memphis. It alternates back and forth between these strong enunciations about Black Power—I know I recognize Stokely Carmichael as one of those speakers—and then with King, using that word "power,” and saying, "We have a power."
I just felt that was interesting seeing how the same words, and very different methodologies, were operating at the same time. What did you make of that opening sequence, when they’re cutting back and forth between King and some of the quote-unquote, more "revolutionary" voices that would come to the fore?
DBG: I thought it was an interesting political move on the part of the filmmakers, to kind of minimize the integrity of the Black Power Movement, because it was talking about violence. Not everybody in the Black Power Movement felt that. When they talked about, you know, the crackers and all these things, it was clearly rhetoric and anger, as opposed to anything that could really make a difference. It was all anger, and it was all fury, but it had no… There was no strategy for going forward. What King had was a strategy that was so deep, and so particular, that it could ignite people to take action, and to continue to take action. I was interested in the political motives of the filmmakers, from that part, because I think, eventually Black Power turned out to be so much more. It made a difference in the arts, it made a difference in what was shown in theories. You know, it really turned out, as I write in my book, there were a lot of positives about the whole Black Power Movement.
LG: Right. I was going to say that I do agree with you, in some ways, that it's unfair to the Black Power Movement, which I think today is really seen as a movement that was really about local community rights and community services. People still look back to the Black Panther Party serving communities breakfasts, and creating local health clinics, and doing a lot of on-the-ground, community-based organizing. I think to compare the national movement, and the really different strategies that King was using at the time, to the most fiery kind of proponents of Black Power, was kind of interesting. But do you remember how much I was into Black Power as a teen?
LG: You sent us to these great liberal schools, where we were calling our teachers by their first names. We were [among] very, very few Black students. When we were studying the Civil Rights Movement, we had the opportunity to do an independent project, and I did one project on Ella Baker. And I remember, I went and I interviewed James Forman.
DBG: Oh my goodness, I forgot about that.
LG: And then I became really obsessed with the Black Power Movement, so much so that I was reading Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Momma. [laughs] I just thought... Maybe it was just the time, but I loved what you call that fiery rhetoric. It just felt so empowering, and angry, and uncompromising.
DBG: Personally empowering.
LG: So I had Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Momma in my book bag, at beautiful Sidwell Friends School probably every day. That's just a little personal note.
DBG: That's very interesting, because I was also taking you all over, to Howard. We started these Harambee Clubs. They were clubs where we would meet with other people, and we'd eat lunch, but we'd talk about Africa, and part of the history that you weren't getting in schools. Do you remember any of that?
LG: I remember that that was something that you always prioritized, that I remember a lot.
DBG: But there were a lot of books coming out after that. And I just want to say that for me, Malcolm X kind of epitomized that part of it. You know, King was the great spiritual leader, the great courageous spiritual leader. But there was another movement that followed the Black Civil Rights Movement. And so many people, when they look at the impact of Dr. King and his work, they also look at the impact of, you know, the Black Power Movement, because that is about the Blackness.
LG: Yeah, that's a great point. Where were you in 1955, during that year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
DBG: I was at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. I had helped to integrate a Catholic Women's College for two years in Louisville, but I had gotten hooked on journalism the first year I was at this college, because of the job I had, working for the Louisville Defender. I really wanted to leave, and go and study journalism. So I was able to get into Lincoln University, and start majoring in journalism. The movement started in 1955, in December, and then it was like '56 by the time the movement had obtained its goals. So that whole time I was at Lincoln.
LG: And how were you getting your news? How were you following the story?
DBG: Probably in not a very systematic way as a college student. We had radio, television, and that kind of stuff, I think. But most of the news, I was probably just getting on the radio, to the extent that I was, and then I also worked down in the Department of Journalism, [and] we were primarily looking at events on campus. But I was still very aware of the fact that in 1954, the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools. And as I say in my book, I was really politically conservative at that point. I wrote this article in the newspaper at Lincoln University, in which I said, "You know, go slow is not a bad idea." So awful. I regret that.
LG: Why do you think your views were so conservative at the time?
DBG: I think it was just primarily coming out of the Black church, and part of our teaching had been, you know, “Love your neighbor no matter how badly they treat you,” you know? “Don't fight back.” Probably some of the same teachings that many of the people who marched had, except that you know, we didn't have that kind of leader.
LG: So your first deep coverage of the Civil Rights Movement was of the Little Rock Nine, yes?
DBG: Yes. Even then, I was kind of on the periphery, because I had started my first job in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Tri-State Defender, and I had graduated in June. I was 20. I ended up going to Little Rock, because my boss had been horribly beaten by white mobs around Central High School, as he tried to cover the story as a reporter. And so…
LG: And this is L. Alex Wilson, right?
DBG: This is L. Alex Wilson. And that was when I got Ernest Withers, the photographer, and said, "We have to go to Little Rock." And so, we went to Little Rock. That was such an in-depth experience, because I met so many of the reporters who had been covering the South for years. I was able to hear their stories about what it took for them to get the stories from behind the Cotton Curtain, you know, lynchings and killings and deep oppression.
But these reporters had been brave and courageous enough to go and do what they had to do to get those stories out. Sometimes they would have to pretend they were preachers, and they'd walk around, you know, these little towns with a Bible under their arms, so that people wouldn't know that they were there to write about somebody who had been lynched, or somebody who had been killed.
LG: You do such a great job of really vividly depicting that sort of dual nature, and the courage of Black journalists at that time, in your book. That description of L. Alex Wilson is just so harrowing. Really sad and horrible. That wasn't the kind of thing you told us about when you described your first boss. That was really moving to read that, and get that sense of just how important the Black press was, and is, and how important it is to really do what you believe in. You know, that was one of many moments in Trailblazer where I really thought, "Wow, this is like a love letter to the Black press, and to the heroes who came before you." It's very vivid. You're 20 years old. You're in a room with Simeon Booker, and Carl Rowan Jr. They sound kind of grisly, and like they're drinking all night and playing cards... [laughs] And there's, like, 20-year-old DBG with her big preacher-kid eyes blinking... [laughs]
DBG: I was definitely mesmerized, when I sat down in the basement of Daisy Bates' home, and they were drinking whatever they were drinking at the bar, and I was just listening and looking. And then, you know, I mean, all hell is breaking loose in the city.
There's no doubt about the fact that the media was very, very important to the whole Civil Rights Movement. I can't say that I was, you know, putting all that together when I was 20. I was hired by Jet and moved to Chicago by the end of that year. You know, that was such a different world. On the one hand, I felt like a rookie, you know, just learning the basics. But also, [I was] just fascinated and attracted by the potential for bringing about change by becoming a journalist.
LG: I remember one of the things you always told us as kids was not to be afraid to get in over our head, to be in a complicated situation. If it was interesting to you, if it was intriguing, if you thought that this was some place that you wanted to be, just to stick it out. I thought about that, re-reading that part and thinking about my 20-year-old mom in the basement with all these men. But as you read on, you begin to realize that they're also staying up because it's a dangerous situation, and no one can fall asleep, because there are hordes of angry white supremacists hundreds of feet away. Right? The next morning you realize that there were people who were literally being kept at bay throughout the night. So I just imagine also that it was a really electrifying and scary moment as well.
I'd love to hear a little bit about your time at Jet Magazine, because that also coincided with some really important moments during the Civil Rights Movement. Were there scenes or moments in the film that resonated with some of the coverage you did at Jet? As I sort of tried to match your storyline to the film’s storyline, I thought, "Where's my mom? What's my mom doing at this time?"
DBG: I was there at a low level. You know, I was an associate editor, but that really meant a reporter. And I was still learning to write, and still learning to do the basics. And I remember one of the editors told me, "You write like you've got concrete in your fingers." And so I went into the bathroom and cried, and then I came out smiling, and I just kept working. I wasn't called on to do many of the big Civil Rights stories while I was there. They had people who did great stuff, and who knew the South, and who turned out all these great stories. But still, I did a lot. I went into prisons and interviewed prisoners, and you know, there's nothing like going into a prison, and when you hear those doors shut, and then the feeling when you come out of that prison.
And Chicago was so different, you know? Black Chicago was so different. But as the movie showed, Chicago was one of the most, you know, horrific experiences that Dr. King had, because of the hate, the segregation, and the determination that whites had not to change their way of living, not to have a Black neighbor, not to treat Blacks as equals and human beings.
LG: I've seen films about the Civil Rights Movement, and I've certainly read your book. But there is just something about the lack of narration and this amazing archival footage, you know, when you see those hoses getting turned on people. You just realize how strong that hatred really was, and how things have changed. It's very striking, just to see that much bald and startling hatred, and then to see it just really being faced with such courage and fortitude.
DBG: White supremacy is very violent. And it continues today in different forms. But it's the whole concept of a country, really, that allowed, and permitted one race to be glorified, and another race be debased.
LG: Really, all other races debased.
DBG: Right. You know, that's a really terrifying understanding of a country for Black people. There's still a lot of anti-Blackness that is a part of white supremacy. But it's still, you know, different in many ways. But when I came along, in the segregated South, it was a part of the era of Jim Crow. And that meant white and colored water fountains, you know, dirty toilets for Black people and clean toilets for white people, and all that stuff. Today, you still have, you know, this mass incarceration of Black men, and increasingly also Black women. You know, we still have the pipeline to prison, with so many young Black people caught in poverty. You won't have to have George Wallace saying, "I'm not going to let you into my college." But the pipeline to prison kind of makes it clear that they'll never have to worry about getting to a college.
LG: It's supposed to be a beautiful 35mm print. And it'll be interesting to see it in a theater, as well.
DBG: Yes, I'm really looking forward to it.
LG: One of the reasons why we chose this film was because you had very specifically said that it was the teachings of Martin Luther King and Kennedy, really encouraging young Black people to infiltrate, and go into the places where they had not been welcome in the past, that really helped spur you to not just, you know, want to go to any daily newspaper, but to go to one of the best, brightest, growing daily newspapers, which was The Washington Post. Can you talk a little bit about that, about your own personal relationship to the words of King, and how it impacted your professional trajectory?
DBG: Yeah, I was always impressed about how he stressed that we had a power. As African-Americans, we could, and would face obstacles, but we didn't want to forget that we had a power, you know? In the case of those of who are believers, you know, it's like a transcendent power that is with you. It was a combination of that and Kennedy talking about the New Frontier, but the real push was that the Freedom Movement that had started in '55, had really pushed me, you know, to want to be a part of it, but in a different kind of way.
After I had worked at Jet, and I'd seen what they were doing, and I appreciated what they were doing, [I wondered] what would it be like to be on the other side. You know, they are out there marching and fighting for my freedom. You know, we're opening the doors. I needed to walk in. Not just walk in, but I needed to excel. And by that, I don't mean I was the best writer in the room at The Washington Post, but I was in the room, and I stayed in the room. And you know, when I look back at the books, the history books they have written about the Post, and the stories that they've written about those early times, I think that my name as the first Black reporter gives substance to what King was saying, you know? Yes, make a difference.
And that meant, if young people were getting knocked down by hoses and dogs and all that in the street for my freedom, I had to man up, and be strong enough to take some humiliation, to not throw up my hands and walk out because somebody might have called me the wrong word, or somebody refused to speak to me, or somebody, you know, decided they didn't want to go to lunch with me, you know? It's been interesting... One of my former colleagues, who came to a recent book signing, she was saying, "If I had thought about it, I would have taken you to lunch." [laughs] And I was like... It wasn't quite that simple, you know.
LG: You were like, “Too little, too late.”
DBG: Exactly, exactly.
LG: I really like that in Trailblazer you wrote that your position had not come with community. And I just thought that that was such a great way of putting it. You know, you were not amongst friends. And it was a really difficult job, and I really respected and enjoyed reading how you sort of talked about going out into D.C., and scaring up some Black colleagues and Black journalists and other people who could help you, who could help form that community of people that you obviously weren't getting in the newsroom.
DBG: Yeah. And the other thing was also going so much into Black neighborhoods. Because when I wanted to start helping write the welfare stories, and the war on poverty was kind of beginning—it started under Kennedy, but it really came to fruition more into Johnson—I would be going in these neighborhoods, and really seeing how people lived. And that was, to me, also an impetus to, how do you help change things? And it's sometimes just telling the story helped.
LG: Did you have a moment where you were torn? Where you thought that you should be working for the Black press as opposed to the white press? Did it ever seem that simplistic to you?
DBG: I don't recall ever just wanting to go back. I knew what I was doing. It felt like what I was doing was the right forward movement. And you know, I did not look back with a false memory of the days of segregation. As difficult as it was, it was like, "This has to be done."
LG: Just as we close, one thing that I thought was really impressive was that you also seem to have a real hunger, a thirst for getting the story. I remember that as a kid, we always felt like people were always talking to you. We could not figure out what it was. Like, whether it was someone at the grocery story, or a cab driver, you just seemed to have a way of drawing people out, or people just wanted to start talking to you. And to us as kids it was sort of an annoyance, but I realize that part of it was that innate curiosity, that that is part of your craft.
DBG: Yeah, I guess you're correct on that. It's the curiosity, but it's also a deep respect for humanity. It's knowing that each person is sacred. If you're alive, it's a blessing. It's important. And I think that when I listen to people, and learn about them, it comes from that deep belief.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.