Veteran Network Journalist Digs Deeply in Telling Alabama’s Civil Rights Story at the Sixth Annual Realizing the Dream Legacy Banquet

(Following is a transcript of John Cochran’s speech at the Legacy Banquet in Foster Auditorium, January 17, 2014. Cochran is a native of Montgomery and a graduate of the University of Alabama. The veteran broadcast journalist has worked for both ABC and NBC News.)


I must tell you I was surprised to be asked to speak here tonight. Usually when I come to Tuscaloosa to speak I talk about politics or I tell stories about presidents I have covered. Sometimes I just tell Bear Bryant stories. Those are the ones that go over best. But tonight, it’s different. Tonight we are in Foster Auditorium, for goodness sake. Foster Auditorium, a landmark historical site in the struggle for civil rights.

So, what on earth am I doing here? I was not a civil rights activist. I have always been a journalist, a reporter, and reporters are observers. We only watch and report what we have seen.

And on top of that, I never reported on civil rights stories in my own country. I have only reported on the fight for human rights in other countries, in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.

But I do have some credentials to be here. Because I was lucky enough to grow up in Montgomery, where the civil rights struggle really took off in the 1950s.

I want to talk about some people on both sides of that struggle — people I knew.

First, a woman named Arrie. An unusual name, I suppose. Spelled A-R-R-I-E. I last saw her more than 50 years ago … but I will never forget her.

In the mid 1950s she worked for my family as a maid. She was African-American. Arrie was, I guess, around 50 years old, maybe a bit older. She was an imposing woman, tall, erect. Wore glasses. Always dressed well, especially for someone who did not make a lot of money.

I did not know much about her home life. For the most part, she liked to keep her private life private. She was either divorced or a widow. She had a daughter in high school. She was very well spoken. It was always clear that she was intelligent.

If there is one word I would use to describe Arrie it is … dignified. I have been around presidents, prime ministers and captains of industry. But I have never known anyone with more dignity than Arrie.

So let’s set the stage. It is December 1, 1995. Late in the afternoon a very tired black woman takes a seat on a municipal bus. Her name is Rosa Parks. She works as a seamstress at a downtown store. She is also secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I’m sure you all know her story. The driver orders her to move to the rear. She does not. She is arrested.

She and others in the Civil Rights Movement had wanted a test case in the courts to challenge the state law requiring segregated seating. The federal government had already outlawed segregation on interstate travel. But black leaders wanted not only a test case, they also wanted to test the resolve of Montgomery’s white merchants by putting economic pressure on the white establishment.

Now, let’s look at what the Alabama law said. It basically said passengers had to sit where the bus driver told them to sit. But in actual practice it was not necessary to do this.

Whites knew the custom was for them to sit up front. Blacks knew they were supposed to sit in the back.

But here is where it gets even weirder. There was no line on the bus separating whites from blacks.

A clear line on the floor of the bus would have at least made some kind of perverted sense. But, in practice it was even worse. The custom was that whites, looking for an empty seat, could go as far back as they wanted. And if a white person reached the first row where a black person was seated, the black rider was expected to get up and move to the back.

Just think about that for a second.

You English majors have probably read Ernest Hemingway’s “Movable Feast.” Well, this was a moveable line. And Rosa Parks wasn’t having any of that when the bus driver told her to give up her seat. She had already had a run-in with the same driver some years before. And so, the bus boycott began.

It meant that blacks stopped riding buses, which were their principal mode of transportation. It meant that many of them were not able to get to the white-owned stores to buy things. It also meant that many domestic workers, mostly black women, could not get to work. A young black minister was chosen to lead the boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And that brings us to Arrie. She told my folks that she was going to do anything that Dr. King told her to do. She said that some blacks had formed car pools and she could get a car pool to take her to work in the mornings. But there was no car pool to take her home at 5 in the afternoon. So, she told my folks, it was up to them to find a solution.

And they quickly decided on a solution. Me!

I had just gotten my driver’s license, so every day after I got out of school it became my job to drive Arrie home.

How many of you have seen the movie, “Driving Miss Daisy”? It won an academy award several years ago. In it a black chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman drives Miss Daisy, an elderly white woman. He sits up front to drive; she sits in the back.

That was the way it was supposed to be in the South. Blacks and whites were never supposed to sit together. It was a rule. An unspoken rule, but a rule nonetheless.

So, when I would drive Arrie it was “Driving Miss Daisy,” only with the roles reversed. I was up front; Arrie was in the back. That went on for a few weeks until one day Arrie and I were walking out to the car, and she said, “Johnny, this is damn foolishness. I’m going to sit up front with you.” I said, “Well, all right Arrie. Whatever you want.”

So we would drive first through a white neighborhood, and people would stop and stare. They had never seen this before.

Then we would get to a black neighborhood where Arrie lived and even more people would stop and stare. This went on for a couple of months.

Then, one day Arrie and I had noticed that no one was paying attention to us anymore. People had gotten used to seeing us. The rule was no longer a rule.

But there were plenty of other rules. Let me go back a bit to when I was about 10 years old. Down the street from us was an elderly woman who employed a black maid. The maid had a son about my age and sometimes she would bring her son to work with her. His name was Benny. One day he walked across the street to a park where I played sandlot football with some other white kids. We asked if he wanted to play with us. He said sure, and for several days he joined us.

But one day he was not there.

We asked his mom where Benny was. She said she had left him at home and he would not be playing with us anymore. The woman she worked for had gotten a lot of anonymous phone calls saying we shouldn’t be playing together. The problem apparently was that we were playing a game where we touched each other. We not only touched, but we blocked and tackled, and knocked the stuffing out of each other. It was football after all.

Apparently if we had been playing some other kind of game, like croquet, it would have been OK because there would be no touching. But we did not play croquet in my neighborhood, and I never saw Benny again.

One thing you can say about the Deep South in those days, it was like living as a character in a play by Beckett or Pirandella — the theater of the absurd.

So back to the bus boycott and more theater of the absurd, that invisible but moveable line on buses.

When the boycott started, Dr. King and other leaders had offered a compromise. They said put a real, visible line separating black seating from white so that when the white section was full, then whites would have to stand up instead of taking seats from blacks. The white city fathers turned down the compromise.

A year later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any segregation on city buses was illegal. There would be no lines, visible or invisible. And from December 1956, blacks could sit wherever they wanted.

It was a total victory for Dr. King, but it did not come easily. Many blacks literally wore out their shoes walking to work or to school. Houses were bombed. Dr. King and others were put in jail. Some blacks lost their jobs because their white employers were vengeful. And some, like Arrie, felt they might lose their jobs but went ahead anyway.

Once city buses were integrated, many whites, not all but many, wondered why they had fought it so long. The unthinkable had become not only normal, but routine.
The same would happen six or seven years later with school desegregation. I was just about to start high school at Sidney Lanier High when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision came down from the Supreme Court. I remember at the time some whites saying the first black kid that steps inside Lanier will be a dead kid. But that’s not what happened.

In Montgomery black and white leaders worked hard to prevent violence and they succeeded. Of course, over time many white parents took their kids out of public schools and put them in white academies. But at least violence was avoided.

And not all efforts at integration were successful. When my younger sister, Mary Ann, was in high school, she heard Dr. King speak and was very much taken with the civil rights movement. I was already living up north. Mary Ann was and is very religious. She has always asked, “What would Jesus do?” And so at the age of 16, she tried to integrate our church. One Sunday morning she took the hand of one of Dr. King’s top lieutenants, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and walked with him up the stairs of the First Baptist Church. An ABC News camera crew was filming what could possibly be an historic moment. High drama, or so it seemed.

But when the church ushers saw what was coming, they shut the doors and one of them said to my sister: “Mary Ann, does your mama know what you are doing? What’s the matter with you? Get on out of here, now.”

And so, with the doors shut, she and Dr. Abernathy retreated in ignominious failure. No history was made that day. But I was proud of her for trying. And she was the lead story on the National ABC News that night. She later spent several years working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was firebombed out of the house where she was living in Tennessee.

Of course, the first attempt to integrate this University also ended ignominiously. You are all familiar with Autherine Lucy, who was actually admitted in 1956 but then was suspended and eventually expelled on the flimsy excuse that her presence endangered her and others. It was not a proud moment for the university or those who loudly protested her admission.
It took seven long years before Vivian Malone and James Hood tried to enroll.

Last year the university marked the 50th anniversary on several occasions and one of the speakers was former Governor George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy. Let’s take a look at Wallace.
I first met him during his first run for governor in 1958. Some of you younger folks may not know it, but in that race he was the nearest thing to a liberal or at least a racial moderate in that race. He did well in the Democratic primary, but lost in a run-off to a man who was backed by the Ku Klux Klan.

At the time the Klan still had some influence. I well remember the first time I drove from Montgomery here. On approaching the Tuscaloosa city limits one of the first signs I saw was one that said, “The Ku Klux Klan Welcome you to Tuscaloosa.”

Now wasn’t that nice of the Klan? That sign stayed there for several years.

While I was a student here, I worked at a downtown radio station that no longer exists. I discovered one day that my boss, the general manager, belonged to the Klan. I was stunned. I told him that I had never heard him say anything racist. He just laughed and said, “Oh. The Klan. I just did that because it’s good for business. I don’t go to their meetings. But some of them have businesses that advertise with us.”

And the Klan was a factor in defeating George Wallace. He decided that in the next election he would play the race card and he did, successfully. He was elected in 1962. I was a student at the time having come back after serving in the Army. I had been stationed at the White House where I wore civilian clothes and worked for President John Kennedy’s press secretary.

My job was a technical one, to make audio recordings of the president and to deal with anything related to audio such as microphones and public address systems.
I’m wandering off topic here, but I want to tell you about the night President Kennedy spoke to a pep rally here in Foster. Kennedy and I were in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where Coach Bryant accepted the award for the nation’s best football team. At one point during the banquet, the president, Coach Bryant and I, along with some trustees and famous alumni, went upstairs to a suite where we had set up a telephone line to Foster.

The auditorium was packed with students. Kennedy got on the phone and went on and on about how when he was at Harvard in the 1930s, he followed the exploits of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I was standing beside him and I still have a picture of the two of us. I have sort of a quizzical look on my face. Frankly, I doubted he had spent any time at all at Harvard following the Crimson Tide. But the folks here at Foster loved it.

But now let’s move ahead a year later. I am back in school here. And Wallace has just been elected governor.
One afternoon I was in class at what used to be the Union Building. It’s now Phifer Hall. The Dean’s secretary comes into the classroom and says, “John, you have a call from the White House.” So I went to the Dean’s Office and on the other end of the phone was the White House photographer, Cecil Stoughton. Cecil said, “I just saw a pal of yours walk into the Oval Office.” I said, “Who?” He said, “The president of your school, Frank Rose.” I said we were hardly pals and that he didn’t even know me.

After Cecil and I chatted a bit, I hung up and called Dr. Rose’s office. I smelled a good news story here. I was an aspiring journalist and wouldn’t it be great to break a story like this. I asked President Rose’s secretary if he was in his office, and she said, “No, he is on fundraising trip in Houston, Texas.”

I said I didn’t think so, that he was actually in the Oval Office talking to the president. She said … just hang on a minute. It was more like 3 or 4 minutes and then she came back and said could I get over to the president’s office immediately? The number two official at the University would like to speak to me. He was a very nice man named Jefferson Bennett. He said “John, you love this university, don’t you? And you wouldn’t do anything to harm the University, would you? But if you go public with this it will infuriate George Wallace. If he knows Dr. Rose is meeting with John and Robert Kennedy to discuss how to integrate this school, Wallace will be very vengeful toward the University. And so will some people in the state legislature.”

So, I had to decide between my ambition to be a journalist and loyalty to the university. I think it was a close call for a few minutes, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.

I graduated a few months later, so I was not here the following June when Wallace made his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door. Our master of ceremonies tonight, Culpepper Clark, is the expert on what transpired then. And if you want to learn more I suggest you read his book entitled: “The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s last stand at the University of Alabama.”

As you know, Governor Wallace retreated that day and the students were admitted. Vivian Malone is no longer with us. She died in 2005. He sister, Sharon, spoke here last year. She is a prominent doctor in Washington and is married to the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder. When I told her I would be here tonight, I asked if there was anything she wanted me to pass on for her on Vivian.

She wanted me to remind you that her big sister’s fight for civil rights did not end when she graduated in 1965.

Let me quote Sharon’s remarks about Vivian:

“The issue of civil rights was a lifelong commitment for her. From her first job in the newly formed civil rights division of the Justice Department to her last job as the head of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs at EPA, she continued the fight for civil rights for all Americans. As a testament to the strength of her spirit and to her continued presence, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, has established ‘The Vivian Malone Jones Legacy Award’ which will be given to an EPA employee who has made exemplary contributions to social justice. And to close this historic arc, to ensure her safety and to protect her civil rights as a citizen of the State of Alabama, required the commitment and active participation of the president and the attorney general of the United States. And today my husband, Attorney General Eric Holder, has the responsibility and the privilege of enforcing those same civil rights. Fifty years has brought about many changes, and although we still have much work to do, I think Vivian would be extremely proud of where we are today.”

Those are the remarks that Vivian’s kid sister, Sharon, wanted to share with you tonight.

The integration of the University was a milestone. That very night President Kennedy went on national television and for the first time promised action on civil rights. He was the first president to say that civil rights was a moral issue. Until that night, Dr. King and other black leaders had been disappointed and frustrated by Kennedy’s reluctance to push for significant legislation. Kennedy did not live long enough to see his proposals become law. As you know, after his assassination Lyndon Johnson managed to persuade a reluctant Congress to pass bills banning discrimination in housing, public facilities, interstate commerce, and perhaps most important of all, a bill guaranteeing the right to vote.

At the time white Southerners were very powerful in Congress. They warned Johnson that if he continued to push for civil rights, then Democrats would lose the South. Johnson said he realized that but he had to do it.

Why did he have to do it? Well, partly he felt he had an obligation to carry out John Kennedy’s program. And as Johnson’s biographers have written, he had long felt that he had to help minorities. As a young schoolteacher in Texas, he saw discrimination not only against blacks but also Hispanic kids.

Recently, some of us who served in John Kennedy’s White House had a dinner on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Because Lyndon Johnson also served in that administration as vice president, his daughter, Lynda Bird, was invited. I asked her if there was an additional reason that her father fought so hard for civil rights.

She immediately said yes, that before he became president, the family had a black man working for them at their house in Washington. He was very close to the family. One night at his home he became very ill and an ambulance was called for. But no ambulance came because he was in a black neighborhood.

Lynda Bird said her father was furious, never forgot it, and when he became president he did something about it.

When you look back at what resulted from the confrontation outside this auditorium, it is quite remarkable. One thing that happened is that it propelled George Wallace into the national consciousness.

I had some more dealings with him and so did my family. My much younger brother was in junior high school with Wallace’s son, George Jr., who as you know later became a politician himself. One day my mother got a call from the school saying my brother had gotten into fight with the governor’s son.

Some years later Wallace was starting his second run for the presidency. I went down to Montgomery to interview him. And when I walked into his office, I said, “I’m not sure you remember me.” He said, “Yeah, I remember you. You’re the guy whose brother beat the hell out of my kid.”

I crossed paths with Wallace several times over the years. In 1972 he was shot and paralyzed in a Maryland suburb just outside Washington. I covered that as a reporter, but privately I also met at the hospital with his second wife, Cornelia, whom I had grown up with. It was a terrible time for them. He was in severe pain and deeply depressed.

But while he was in the hospital in Maryland, he was visited by a black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm from New York. Here is her account of their meeting. He told her that her supporters would not like the fact that she came to see him. She said she didn’t care what they thought. At that, he cried and cried and cried.

Some years later I was in Montgomery to visit my mother and his third wife called me. She asked if I would come by the governor’s mansion. She said it might cheer him up.

So I did and was taken up to his bedroom where he was in his hospital bed watching the news on TV. The national news was just ending and the local and state news was just starting. I said, “Governor, you want to watch this. I’ll just sit here and watch it with you.” “No,” he said, “I don’t care about this, I only care about national and international news,” and he clicked off the TV set. He still thought of himself as a national political figure even though in reality those days were long gone. He wanted me to tell him the latest in Washington politics and gossip.

We talked for about an hour. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember we spent a long time talking, of all things, about 19th century European history. Any of you students majoring in history will appreciate this. He loved history, and he started talking about the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Wallace talked about the diplomats there, Talleyrand from France and Metternich from Austria, and so on.

After a while I felt he was tiring, so I took my leave. But I remember walking down the steps from the mansion and thinking, “Well, that was pretty weird.”

The next time and last time I saw him was when my wife, Barbara, and I were visiting my mother. Wallace was no longer governor. He was divorced and lived alone except for a young black man on whom Wallace was totally dependent.

We spent an afternoon at his bedside in his home. Barbara had never met him, and he spent much of that time trying to convince her that he had never been a segregationist. He rarely looked at me. We had known each other too long and he knew he could not convince me. But I do think his views changed after he was shot.

When he died, ABC asked me to cover his funeral even though it had nothing to do with my job of covering the White House. Wallace lay in state in the Capitol just a few steps from where Jefferson Davis as sworn in as president of the Confederacy. I was just outside with my camera crew interviewing people after they paid their respects. Many were black people who appreciated that in his last term Wallace had put many blacks in state jobs. Finally, one very sophisticated looking young black woman came out. I asked why she had come. She said, “I wanted to see up close the face of evil.”

Before I leave the subject of Wallace, I want to relate to you a story that a well-known African- American, Vernon Jordan, tells. Vernon is a past president of a civil rights group, the Urban League, and is now a prominent lawyer in Washington and New York. He is also known as perhaps Bill Clinton’s closest friend.

Eight years after Wallace was shot, Vernon was shot by a white supremacist. He almost died. The first telegram of sympathy Vernon received was from Wallace.

A few years after he was shot, Vernon was asked to speak in Montgomery at a predominantly black high school. Just before he started to speak, Vernon saw state troopers pushing Wallace’s wheelchair into the auditorium. Vernon went ahead with his speech, which was critical of Wallace’s policies.

After Vernon finished, the Troopers carried Wallace’s wheelchair up to the stage.

Vernon went over to him, and Wallace said, “I can’t get out of this chair, so I want to ask you a favor. I want you to reach down and hug me.” Vernon did. Now I want to quote to you some remarks that Vernon sent me when I told him I would be with you tonight. This is Vernon speaking now:

“This is the absolute, God-honest truth. The former governor of this state, a mean old racist who once stood in the schoolhouse door to keep out the black people, could no longer stand at all. And yet, he wished he could stand — not to set himself defiantly athwart history —but rather to embrace me as a brother. I tell you that was one hell of a transformation.” Those are Vernon’s words. He thought you might want to hear them.

You will be glad to hear that I am moving into the home stretch with my remarks. But since we are celebrating Dr. King’s birthday Monday, I want to talk about his impact that I saw overseas. In Poland in the early ’80s, the Communists declared martial law and imprisoned many anti-communists. During that time I met secretly with some who had escaped capture. They were not discouraged. They knew they would win in the end. They told me, “Look at how long it took Martin Luther King.” And they were right. Seven years later the Communist regime collapsed.

In the mid-’80s in South Africa, the white government also declared martial law. I heard the same things there. “Dr. King overcame. We will, too.” Next to Nelson Mandela and possibly Mahatma Ghandi, I believe he was the person black South Africans most admired.

And in this country Dr. King’s struggles spurred others to fight for women’s rights and gay rights. And how about the disabled? It took a quarter century after the Civil Rights Acts of the ’60s, but after a long hard battle, the disabled in 1990 won their fight in Congress for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Young people may say the battles have all been won. There is nothing left to fight for. Wrong! Here’s just one example. Lately there have been attempts to suppress the votes of minorities. Now there is a fight worth getting into.

And it started all those years ago in Montgomery. So, I am honored to take part in Dr. King’s birthday party. But, as a Montgomery boy, I also want to remember all the people who took part in the historic bus boycott, especially Rosa Parks and my driving partner, Arrie.

I met Rosa Parks once when she was receiving an honor at the White House. I said, “We’re from the same town, Montgomery.” She just laughed and said, “Montgomery… my, my. My, my.”

She eventually moved from Montgomery, ending her days in Detroit. So did Arrie, who had relatives in Detroit. I know that they knew each other in Montgomery, but I have no idea whether they got together in Detroit.

But I like to think they did. I like to think of them in old age, sitting in their rocking chairs, just sitting and rocking, and looking back at their part in how they changed the world.

My, my. My, my.

Thank you.