Challenge to Negro leadership : the case of Robert Williams / by Julian Mayfield ; read by Chris Koch.
We have several minutes remaining before our next scheduled program. And in that time we'll hear an article by Julian Mayfield an article entitled challenge to a new growth leadership. The case of Robert Williams This article originally appeared in Commentary magazine in 1961. For some time now it has been apparent that the additional leadership of the American Negro community leadership which has been largely middle class in origin and orientation is in danger of losing losing its claim to speak for the masses of Negroes. This group is being challenged by the pressure of the events to produce more substantial and immediate results in the field of civil rights or we announce the position has long held. The dramatic Tuskegee and Montgomery boycotts the rational student sit ins none was inspired by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the Urban League or the established Negro church denominations. But it is to their credit that they heard Lee gave the boycotts and sit ins their blessing. And as with the
NAACP much needed financial help they were thereby able to present a united front to their common enemy. The system of white supremacy. But the challenge to middle class Negro leaders including the newer type like Martin Luther King remains it is inherent in the rapid growth of the militant white hating Muslim movement among the working class negroes. It can be heard in the conversations of black intellectuals and students from the south who regard the efforts of the NAACP the Urban League and most religious and civic leaders with either disdain or despair in the belief that they are doing too little too timidly and too late. Probably nothing more clearly illustrates this challenge however in the case of Wilkens vs. Williams Robert F. Williams as the president of the Union County North Carolina branch of the NAACP Wilkens vs.. Williams was a hearing before the board of directors of the NAACP in New York City which grew out of
three criminal cases that were disposed of in one day by the Superior Court of Monroe. The seat of Union County before this court on May 5th thousand nine hundred fifty nine stood James Mobley B F. Shaw and Louis Madelin Mobley a mentally retarded colored man was charged with assault with intent to commit rape on a white woman. He admitted he had caught her wrist during an argument. Shaw a white man was charged with assault on a negro chambermaid who claimed he had kicked her down a flight of stairs in a hotel where she worked. The case of the other white defendant Madeleine was the most inflammatory. He was accused of having entered the home of a negro woman eight months pregnant of attempting to rape or. And when she resisted and tried to flee across a field of brutally assaulting her and her 6 year old son a white woman neighbor had witnessed the assault and summoned the police. The Union County branch of the NAACP is the only one of its kind now in existence.
Its members and supporters who are mostly workers and displaced farmers constitute a well armed and disciplined fighting unit. Union County Negroes have had more than their share of ugly race relations. And by 1959 their experience which we shall examine in detail later had taught them to rely on their own resources in their dealings with the white community. After Madeline was arrested their first impulse was to mount an assault against the Monroe jail seize the prisoner and kill him. It was Robert Williams who restrained them. He pointed out that murdering meddlin would place them in the position of the white man who shortly before had dragged Charles Parker from a jail in Poplar Ville Mississippi and lynched him. Besides Williams argued so much national international attention was focused on Monroe that the judge and juries would be forced to punish the white men. But Williams was wrong. Impervious to world opinion the court freed both
Shaw and Medland and committed the mentally retarded negro to prison for two years only a last minute discovery of by his attorney of a technicality which reduced the charge from rape to assault prevented the judge from handing down a 30 year sentence. On the steps of the courthouse Williams issued an angry statement to the UPI reporter. We cannot take these people who do us injustice to the court and it becomes necessary to punish them ourselves in the future we are going to have to try and convict them on the spot. We cannot rely on the law. We can get no justice under the present system. If we feel that injustice is done we must right then and there on the spot be prepared to inflict punishment on the people. Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching in the south and since the so-called courts Lynch our people legally if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching then we must be willing to resort to that method.
Roy Wilkins executive secretary of the NAACP called Williams from New York to ask about the statement. Williams confirmed it as his and said he intended to repeat it that afternoon for several radio and television stations eager to interview him. He would make it clear he assured welcomes that he was not speaking for the NAACP but for himself though he would stress that his views represented the prevailing feeling of the colored people in Union County. WILKENS replied that it would be virtually impossible for the general public to separate Williams statements from the policies of the NAACP since he would be identified as an officer of the organization. Williams then made his scheduled appearances and the next day May 7th will consent a telegram directing him to suspend his activities as a local officer pending consideration of his status at a meeting of the association's board of directors. Williams answered that he would attend the meeting with counsel. That's the stage was set for a contest between a highly respected leader of a distinguished national
organization and a relatively unknown young Southerner capable of issuing rash statements on the steps of a courthouse Wilkens versus Williams aroused heated discussions in nearly every Negro community in the country. But it was obvious from the beginning that Williams was bound to lose. At a closed hearing in June before the committee on branches Williams represented by Conrad Lynn a veteran civil rights attorney asserted that his statement had been made under emotional duress and that he had not meant to imply that Negroes should exercise anything more than their legal rights to self-defense and the right to come to the defense of another party against criminal attack. The committee upheld the action of its executive secretary and suspended Williams for six months. A few weeks later the delegates to the association's 50th Annual Convention voted seven hundred sixty four to 14 against Williams and in favor of a suspension. One sided vote should have settled the matter with Williams returning to obscurity but the
question raised by Wilkins vs. Williams are profound and still far from settled. A close examination of relevant documents and newspaper files and reviews of some of the principals involved lead one to conclude the real issue was never raised and that Williams was slapped on the wrist for having stated publicly what many of his fellow negroes even those on the board of directors of the NAACP felt but did not think it politic to express. Indeed a statement issued by Roy Wilkins on May 6 1959 deploring Williams statement might well have been written by Williams himself. At the same time it must be recognised that the mood of Negro citizens from one end of the nation to the other is one of bitterness and anger over the lynching of Mack Parker in Poplar Ville Mississippi April 25th and over numerous instances of injustice mete out to negroes by the courts in certain sections of the South. They see negroes lynched or sentenced to death in the same for the same crimes for which white defendants are given
suspended sentences or are set free. They are no longer willing to accept this double standard of justice. If negroes were no longer willing to accept the double standard of justice what were they to do about it. WILKENS did not say but one paragraph in the brief William submitted not to the Committee on branches provides the answer which he has been expounding ever since and which daily finds wider and wider acceptance. He Williams believes the message of arm self-reliance should be spread among Negroes of the South. He is convinced that the some human to national government will only take action when it is made aware that individual negroes are no longer facing the mobs in isolation but are acquiring the habit of coming to the aid of their minister brothers. But this is the precisely the position which the NAACP could not publicly support. The organization was already being subjected to constant harassment by the Southern states and to have advocated Williams position would have exposed the NAACP to widespread
criticism from many of the people who now warmly supported those who for the most part prefer the legal listing or pacifistic approach to American race relations. Moreover the possible resulting violence could have shaken the nation to its very foundation and caused the detents embarrassment in the conduct of its diplomacy with a large nonwhite world. But the situation in the south that provoked Williams statement and the ensuing controversy remains unchanged. The NAACP is rejection of Williams position only postpone the crisis facing negro leadership. It did not eliminate it because it seems probable that Williams and other young men and women like him will play an increasingly vocal role in the social maelstrom that is the American Southland. A closer look of him his views and the environment that produced him may be revealing. I first met Robert Williams at the center of a revolution and I'm certain that this is colored my attitude
toward him. It was in Havana in the summer of 1960. Relations between the Eisenhower administration and the Castro government had deteriorated almost to the breaking point. White and black leaders in the United States had already denounced Fidel Castro's efforts to win friends and sympathy among American Negroes. Adam Clayton Powell once a warm supporter had disavowed the Cuban leader. Joe Lewis is a public relations firm under strong public pressure. I've been forced to drop its Cuban account and Jackie Robinson had taken Castro to task in his New York Post column. The prominent negroes who would flock to her then as soon after the revolution succeeded had gone home and not returned. Yet there at the hotel president day a guest of the Casa de las Americas a Cuban cultural agency was Robert Williams A tall man in his middle thirties of massive shoulders and thick girth. In Havana he wore a wide brimmed hat of the GA euro peasant and a beard that would have been impressive anywhere else but in the land of Fidel Castro and his comrades. This was
William's second visit to the island since the revolution and he was a celebrity applauded wherever he went in personal appearances and a magazine and newspaper articles. Williams had been a Korea in the United States. His main charge being that America talks freedom abroad while denying its to its black citizens at home. Williams and Castro had frequently appeared together on television and a warm friendship had developed between their relationship had mutual advantages. The Cuban leader was furnished with a goldmine of propaganda material to use in his clash with the Eisenhower administration and Williams had a platform from which he could speak and be heard around the world. His attacks on the United States merely involved him in fist fights with an American newspaper who angrily accused him of unpatriotic behavior in airing an embarrassing domestic problem in a country that was hostile to the United States. Unwittingly the reporter had touched on one of the keystones of Williams strategy what some people don't understand. He told me one evening is that in the south we're fighting for our
lives he was referring to the broad economic offensive what officials and businessmen have mounted against militant negroes throughout the south. I'm in the struggle to win and I'll win it in any way I can. If somebody gets embarrassed that's too bad. An opportunity to test the effectiveness of his approach had arisen on his first trip to Cuba. A telephone call from Monroe informed him that his wife and children were receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Furious he stormed down to the United States Embassy stopping only to pick up a correspondent friend from Prince a Latina. The Cuban news service he demanded and received an audience with Ambassador Philip Munsell with whom he lodged a vigorous protest. The harassed diplomat no doubt realized the potential explosive propaganda material it would fall into Castro's hands. He agreed to submit William's written protest to Washington and within a few hours Mrs Williams and her children had a guard of several police cars. Williams believes that the white supremacy system of the South could not survive very
long without the support or the tacit consent of various agencies of the federal government. At the same time he has convinced the federal government offers the only real hope the Negro has for winning any large measure of his civil rights. But Washington will act only under strong pressure and this the Negro people must create by a more militant assertion of their rights including meeting violence with violence. The white south through its traditional alliance with conservative Republicans subjects the federal government to an enormous amount of pressure and winds appreciable results. Consequently it has been able to divine defund the Supreme Court's school desegregation order for seven years with little federal intervention. Williams concedes that the Negro cannot match the South's great resources and either money or congressional influence despite the best intentions of Northern liberals and even a liberal president. But the negro does have a formidable weapon in his sensitive position in international affairs. Without the Cold War and the competition between the colossally of the West and East it seems doubtful
that the many African nations could have gained independence so rapidly. Certainly the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America indicated the Cuban revolution could not have been permitted to swing so far left if it had not for the extreme degree of United States sensitivity to world opinion today for the same reason. Although he knows it is possible to exaggerate the similarities Williams believes that the American Negro has been presented with the finest opportunity history is likely to offer him to obtain full participation in our national life. Thus when President Eisenhower was in India championing the rights of Asians to better housing Williams wired him in care of Prime Minister Nehru who was also an NAACP member to protest the housing we development scheme largely financed by federal funds that union county officials had designed to destroy the best Negro neighborhood in Monroe. Eisenhower acted with unusual haste and the project has been stalled ever since. Nowhere was William's method of subjecting every racial incident to world exposure more effectively
demonstrated than in the kissing case. On October 28 1058 to Monroe colored boys James Hanover Thompson and David fuzzy Sampson eight and nine years old were arrested and charged with assault on a white female. Earlier that afternoon in a game with some white children James had either kissed or been kissed by a seven year old white girl. The boys were held incommunicado three days before Williams knew they were under arrest. Ironically According to Williams his first intelligence came from the mayor of Monroe who telephoned because he said he knew Williams was a trouble maker and he wanted to know if Williams had any ideas about how to handle the case. The mayor denies he made the call. It seemed to Williams that the boys required immediate legal aid which was not available in Union County. He submitted a request to the National Office of the NAACP But meanwhile on the sixth day after their arrest in a closed hearing without defense counsel Judge J Hamilton pries heard the
case and committed the boys to indeterminant terms in reform school. Williams through an intermediary was responsible for Ted pasterns breaking the story in The New York Post. And from there it spread around the world with lightning like rapidity demonstrations were staged against American embassies in Europe outstanding intellectuals protested to the State Department and Canon L John Collins of London St. Paul's Cathedral became involved in a lively transatlantic feud with Luther H. Hodges then governor of North Carolina. The governor to his embarrassment was first informed of the kissing case by a reporter while in the middle of a television interview in Philadelphia. Eventually the boys were released from the reform school and allowed to go back to live with their mothers who had been forced to move out of Union County without the pressure of world opinion. Williams insists those boys would still be in custody. These stories which are later verified were related to me during long nightly
conversations in Havana one evening I asked Williams a question I thought he might not answer. What truth was there in the rumor that had been circulated during the NAACP convention that his men were not only armed in the South after all a surprisingly large number of people keep guns but that they were in fact just a moral army drilled and disciplined with access to an arsenal. He left. Hell man that's no secret. I don't know why it should frighten the board of directors of the NAACP. Everybody in Monroe knows what we have and that we know how to use it and that we are willing to use it. The mayor and the chief of police know and so does the Klan. Come tomorrow when you get back to the states and see for yourself. This was the same kind of invitation that had taken me to Cuba and two months later I was in Monroe North Carolina. Some southern towns are lovely with great old houses that slumber on Broad streets beneath spreading ancient trees in such towns even a negro writer on a hurried visit can perceive that although his ancestors only supplied the labor under the antebellum system of
caste and privilege at least there was a comprehensive society in which everyone had a place and dimly he can understand why other Southerner rist aristocracy fought so desperately to retain the cruel and dehumanizing system that was slavery. Here at least social relations had a symmetry where in the dark ugly things were hidden away in the slave quarter on the back stairs of the big house. But Monroe is not such a town. It is ugly. There was little distinction in the architecture of its finest palaces and although it is built on hills there is a dreary flatness about it worst. It is a composite town unpainted one room negro shacks which rent for an inflated $10 a month sit within a stone's throw of the tiny neat unimaginative bungalows in the white middle class. One can drive three blocks in any direction and to the graphic reality of race relations and Union County. The Northern visitor keenly aware that violence always simmers beneath the seeming to turn quality wonders that anybody black or white would want to fight over this place.
In the days the steam engine Monroe was a prosperous rare road maintenance down a generation ago Robert Williams father along with a significant number of men rose colored men service the trains and earned a steady living at it. They bought their own homes in the colored section called New Town sent their children to the colored school most of the year and so on the youngsters the hope of a better future if they were not a genuine middle class. They were better off than a tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the country's rural population. But the diesel engine supplanted steam and the depression and mechanization displace most of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers and Monroe did not die. It was left severely crippled by the time Williams had grown to adolescence. Unemployment was a chronic problem in Newtown he served a hitch in the Army somehow squeezed in three years of college at West Virginia state and Johnson C. Smith College in nearby Charlotte and then enlisted in the Marine Corps for a tour of duty. On returning to Monroe he entered the lists of the letters to the editor
column of the Charlotte newspapers and seems to have spent most of his time in sensing the local whites by debunking their notions of white supremacy. During this period he married Mr Mabel Robinson a sturdy tall attractive woman with whom he has had two children. He worked at his trade of machinist while he wrote his provocative letters to the newspapers. It is possible that no one outside of North Carolina would ever have heard of Williams of the Supreme Court had not ordered school desegregation in 1054. It is still difficult to imagine the impact of the court's decision on small southern towns intercourse between the races. That is social intercourse during the Southern day which as James Baldwin has pointed out is quite different from the guilt ridden integrated southern night was the function of the local white officials and businessmen and colored ministers. Another self appointed spokesman who purported to represent the views of their fellow negroes white lawyers in Monroe often defended negroes who were in trouble not too vigorously to be sure and were paid by the NAACP chapter.
There was an understanding a working relationship between the whites who ran the town and the colored ministers. The whites would try to control their extremists and in return the black men of god help to keep the black population in its place. But suddenly one Monday in 1054 a long held tradition was struck. A death blow. The NAACP which had never claimed to be anything but a moderate organization became the ogre of the southland. He acknowledged membership in it could mean the loss of job credit and physical security. Negro doctors lawyers undertakers whoever had to be licensed by the state promptly withdrew from membership when the Union County chapter was apparently in its last throes. With only six members Robert Williams was drafted for the presidency. You're the only fool left said one of those who urged him to accept the position somewhat innocently. Williams set about trying to recruit members among the respectable middle class and needless to say he failed absolutely.
In desperation he turned to the lower class of the Negro community. He likes to tell of the day he walked into a pool parlor and asked if anyone there wanted to join the NAACP. The players looked at him in astonishment and then do you mean we can belong to that organization. From that time on Williams has had as many members as he could manage sometimes more. He says of that period I made an important discovery. The woman earning ten fifteen dollars a week as a domestic the sharecropper the ditchdigger they were more loyal to the NAACP than the negroes who were much better off. They would stick under pressure probably because they had less to lose and we were the only fighting organization they had. At the Union County branch of the NAACP grew so did the Ku Klux Klan which had renewed its activity soon after the Supreme Court decision. Most of the claims wrath was directed against Dr Perry. One of the six who remained in the chapter when Williams assumed leadership the popular young physician who was fairly prosperous
had built an attractive ranch style home overlooking the new highway. The Klan considered the house an affront and it believed that Perry contributed large sums of money to the NAACP chapter has publicly announced its intention of running him out of the county. When we heard over the radio Williams says that a Klan meeting had drawn a thousand people. We think that it was time to take a stand. You see there are only 13000 people in the county Klansmen from surrounding counties were swelling the attendance. The colored men of Monroe on themselves with the heaviest weapons available and set up an alarm system that would summon them instantly to the scene of any trouble. A regular night guard was established around Dr. Perry's home trenches were dug Molotov cocktails prepared and gas masks and helmets were distributed. At one point during the troubled period the police attempted to seize the weapons but desisted Williams and Perry threatened a lawsuit. Nothing in the laws of North Carolina and of most Southern states restricts or contravenes the constitutional right to keep and bear
arms and be secure in one's person. A Klan motorcade 60 cars long invaded new town on the evening of October 5th 1957 as was their custom the robed Klansman fired at the homes of the negroes as they drove past near Dr. Perry's home they were confronted by a sustained fire of several scores of men who had been instructed by Williams not to injure anyone. If it could be helped at the first signs of resistance the Klan motorcade dissolved into chaos panic a Klansman fled in every direction some of them wrecking their automobiles. There have been no Klan motorcades in Monroe since. A footnote tells us that Dr. Perry has been driven out of Union County However the county is leading Catholic layman was arrested 958 and indicted on charges of performing an abortion on a white woman. So all evidence submitted against him was her uncorroborated statement. He was convicted sent to prison and barred from Union County denied the right to practice medicine. He now works as an assistant to an
undertaker in Durham North Carolina. It is interesting to speculate on why this significant event received so little publicity. Monroe chief of police now NIE admitted to the Associated Press the next day that there had been a motorcade. He knew because it included several police cars but he denied that there had been an exchange of gunfire. Williams invited the press to Newtown to view the bullet scarred houses and the wrecked automobiles whose owners did not care to claim them. Nevertheless few people outside the state knew that the Clash had taken place and that the Klan had sustained a decisive defeat. Compare this with a nationwide news coverage and wide applause given the Indians in nearby Lumberton County when they were out of a Klan meeting with gunfire a few weeks later about this Williams says. It's as if they were afraid to let other negroes know what we have done here. We have proved that a hooded man who thinks a white life is superior to a black life is not so ready to risk his white life when the black man stands up to him.
He recalls proudly that in Monroe they have had their sit ins and weighed ins but none of their boys and girls has been the victim of violence from racist hoodlums. They know don't you see that we are not passive resisters. The morale of the negroes in Union County is high. They carry themselves with a dignity I have seen in no other southern community largely vanished on the slouching posture the scratching of the head and the indirect mumbled speech that used to characterize the negro male in the presence of whites. It is as if in facing up to their enemies they have finally confronted a terrible reality and found it not so terrible after all. But they have had to pay a price for the new self-respect but Turnell is and has been destroyed in Union County. The leftover food that the colored maid could once carry home is now consigned instead to the garbage pail and the old clothes that found their way to the colored section are now either sold or burned and intimate communication that used to pass from mistress to maid nester to work in
Seldom in the reversed direction has largely disappeared. Negro suspected of belonging to the NAACP are told. Let Williams feed you and let Williams find you a place to live as they are fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes. Northern owners of the new factories by agreement with the city fathers hire no negroes but in point. But import white workers from Charlotte 25 miles away. It would almost appear that the rulers of Monroe society had determined to strengthen Union County NAACP and Williams influence on the colored community and in fact that is what they have done. But what role is Williams likely to play in the future. Although he has shown great personal courage and demonstrated effective leadership ability in the row he can claim to a large following outside his own county. True he has a scattering of fervent supporters in the United States Europe and Latin America who subscribe to the Crusader the weekly newsletter in which he Flay is not only white supremacist but negro moderates who accommodate themselves to the system.
But he is in danger of being driven out of Monroe where his standard of living is pretty close to penetrate. No one will employ him in any capacity in union or nearby counties. Certainly the present national leadership of the NAACP does not feel that Williams will do and will undermine their position in the near future. The organization is still the most effective civil rights force in the country and few of its members have shown any inclination to abandon it. But sooner than anyone now supposes three factors make create a social climate in the South in which a Robert Williams will play a leading role. They are the growing militancy of Negro students the intransigence of the Southern white oligarchy and the repressed negro working class and peasantry. The students in the white ruling groups of the South are locked in a struggle that has greater ramifications than perhaps even they realize. At stake is not whether a black child shall sit beside a white child in a school room or at a lunch counter. It is not even whether a black boy sits beside a white girl and one day marries her
at stake is the very existence of the Southern oligarchy. Its entrenched power and traditional privileges which rests on the non democratic political system and an economy based on a plentiful supply of cheap and organized labor. Ultimately the struggle in the south will determine who will represent the states and the congressional districts in Washington who will sit in the legislatures. The city halls and the courts who will operate the industries and the arable land as the real issue becomes more apparent to develop and seem certain first. Those who now yield power will refuse to yield beyond the minimal of token desegregation and will retaliate often violently and in defiance of federal law. And second the students will abandon the technique of passive resistance as it proves in effect to all and seriously disturbing the power structure of Southern society. The most decisive factor in factor in the conflict will probably be the negro laboring class who for unheard from these are the great masses of the unskilled who
belong to no labor unions or civic organization whose churches are more concerned with leading their flock to heaven then to a fuller share of democracy on earth whose only fraternity is that of a million of neglected and untrained who have nothing to barter on the labor market but their willingness to work. Only yesterday a man of this class could pick the cop and run the elevator pack the crate. But now the machine can do it better and displaces him. Government statistics hardly suggest how great his number is much less what he is feeling and thinking. But we know he is everywhere. The industrialization programs of the South almost always exclude him 14 percent of the black labor force is now unemployed as opposed to 7 percent for the nation as a whole. Accounts will walk through any colored section of a Southern town or city will reveal him standing in the corner lounging near the bar slouched on the doorstep staring into the uncertainty that is his future. The day in his life. Those who make decisions that vitally affect him are not only the
governments federal state and local. The captains of industry and finance but even the negro middle class and the striking students all of whom seem to be going someplace without him. It is not his children that all of the school desegregation 4 is about. He is lucky if he can keep them in the colored school. No one can presently claim to speak for this man. Not Church Union nor NAACP. And just as he does not yet clearly understand the social forces arrayed against him. Neither do they understand him or the various stimuli to which he is likely to respond. Predictions are risky at best but it seems Stace to say that as these forces come into sharper conflict and what is essentially an attempt to overthrow an entrenched political and economic power the negro leadership class will be faced with a crisis for a purely legal Listy or passive resistance approach will clearly not be able to control the dynamics of the negro struggle. Then too the form may come Robert Williams
and other young men and women like him who have concluded that the only way to win a revolution is to be a revolutionary. That was an article by Julian Mayfield entitled challenge for new leadership. The case of Robert Williams. The article appeared originally during one thousand sixty one.
- Challenge to Negro leadership : the case of Robert Williams / by Julian Mayfield ; read by Chris Koch.
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- KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
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- In the thirty spare minutes before the next broadcast, KPFA host Chris Koch reads aloud the article "Challenge to Negro leadership" regarding NAACP leader Robert Williams, written by Julian Mayfield, and published in Commentary Magazine, April 1961.
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- Williams, Robert F. (Robert Franklin), 1925-1996; African Americans--Civil rights--History
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Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
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