BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," who is Ruby Lee Hopkins?
Mr. NICHOLAS LEMANN, AUTHOR, "THE PROMISED LAND: THE GREAT BLACK MIGRATION AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA": She's the heroine of my book. She is a lady--well, I'll tell you a little bit of the story of her life. This book is called "The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," which refers to the migration from the rural South to the urban North. But Mrs.--her name is now Mrs. Haynes. She really has been part of four great migrations, the way I figure it.
She's had an incredibly eventful life. She was born in 1916. The first great migration that she took part in, was a migration of Southern rural blacks, who were living in the hills of the South, kind of eking out an existence as small farmers, into the sharecropper system, which existed on big plantations. When she was a baby, just born, a white labor recruiter came to the town where she was living and talked her grandfather into the idea that if he moved down to the Mississippi Delta, which is the home of fabulously rich soil and big cotton plantations, that he would make a lot of money, which wasn't true, but anyway, he believed it.
He carried her as a baby down to the Mississippi Delta, so that was the first great migration. And she really lived, for the first about 20 to 25 years of her life, in the sharecropper system, which...
LAMB: Can I stop you and ask you what a sharecropper is?
Mr. LEMANN: Yes. A sharecropper is a tenant farmer who is—the system is this: Sharecropper is the--is the successor system to slavery in the South, basically. The way it works is a sharecropper lives on a plantation, does not own the land, is given a plot of land--15 acres would be a typical size--on a very big plantation of thousands of acres. And the deal with the farmer is, the farmer provides housing, feed and seed, and--and the sharecropper raises a cotton crop. And at the end of the year, the crop is ginned--picked, ginned, weighed, sold, and they split the proceeds 50:50. That's...
LAMB: Are there still sharecroppers in America?
Mr. LEMANN: Basically, no. I mean, I--I wouldn't--somebody will come forth and say, `I'm still a sharecropper,' but the system doesn't really exist anymore for...
LAMB: When did it die?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, it died mostly in the 1940s. What--in--in--in--when Franklin Roosevelt was president, there started to be a lot of liberal pressure against the sharecropper system, for a bunch of reasons I'll get into in a minute. It was a very unfair system, and considered rightly to be cruel and inhumane. It's a fys--it's a--it's a system of rural serfdom, of the kind you don't think of happening in 20th-century America. Two things really ended the sharecropper system. One is the invention of various machines, in this case the mechanical cotton picker, that took away the need for hand labor in--in--in the fields, especially on big plantations.
LAMB: What year did they invent the mechanical cotton picker?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, it was invented over a long period of time. That could be a whole other book. It's sort of like the history of the automobile. There were several people competing to be the inventor and--and working on it over a 20-year period. 1944 is when the machine was production ready. It could be made by a factory and sold on a mass-production basis to farmers and put in the field and used.
As an aside, a man named John Rust is really the father of the mechanical cotton picker. Ironically, John Rust was a socialist, and--and he believed that the mechanical cotton picker would be used to establish socialism in the Southern cotton fields, and that the--the farms would be turned over to the sharecroppers, each sharecropper would have a cotton picking machine and would become a kind of yeoman farmer. The exact opposite really happened. John Rust died a bankrupt and bitter man. All of the labor was kicked off the Southern farms by the cotton picker, and the whole dream of turning tenant farmers into independent small farmers, which is an update of, you know, 40 acres and a mule from Reconstruction--that never happened.
LAMB: Let me go back, because I interrupted you and we got off the track. First of all, this picture--before I ask you more about Ruby Haynes, w--where did this picture come from?
Mr. LEMANN: That picture was taken 1941 in Chicago, South Side Chicago, on Easter Sunday morning. Have you--do you know about the Farm Security Administration? There was a great man named Roy Striker, who was an economist and a sort of minor New Deal official, with no photographic training, who was put in charge of a sort of propaganda agency ch--in the Roosevelt administration, and hired many great photographers, like Ben Shahn and Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, to travel around the country, taking pictures of social conditions. All of the famous pictures you've seen of the Depression were taken by his photographers. This picture was taken by Russell Lee, one of the FSA photographers and a man that I knew; in fact, he died a couple years ago.
LAMB: How'd you find it?
Mr. LEMANN: We were looking for a picture for the book cover, and the--I'm familiar with photography; in fact, I wrote an earlier book about Roy Striker and his subsequent photographic project for Standard Oil, now Exxon, in the 1940s.
LAMB: Do you know whether any of these kids back in the '40s are still alive?
Mr. LEMANN: They would have to be still alive, because I--I'm just guessing they would have been born--this is 1941; these kids are born maybe 1930, so they'd be 60-ish today.
LAMB: None of them have come forward and said, `That's me'?
Mr. LEMANN: No. I'm waiting for it to happen, and my whole last book involved getting pictures like this from the 1940s and tracking down the people in the pictures and fi--and telling their stories. So I've been asking myself, I wonder if I could find those people? It's much harder to do if the picture's taken in a big city than if it's taken in a small town. I don't know if I could find them, but I've been sort of hoping that one of them will come out and say—their pictures aren't in the caption of the picture, so...
LAMB: Their names aren't in the caption?
Mr. LEMANN: No, right.
LAMB: You were starting to talk about Ruby Lee Hopkins, now Ruby Haynes, am I correct about that? Ruby...
Mr. LEMANN: Yes.
LAMB: She's had how many different names?
Mr. LEMANN: Three: Hopkins, Daniels, Haynes.
LAMB: By the way, she's still alive.
Mr. LEMANN: She's still alive.
LAMB: And lives where?
Mr. LEMANN: Clarksdale, Mississippi.
LAMB: You started to talk about the migration. Where are we in that process?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, OK. She moved to the Mississippi Delta and lived on a succession of plantations all through the 1920s and 1930s as a sharecropper, staying with various relatives, chiefly her mother. She was born to a teen mother who wasn't married. She almost never met her father. She didn't--Mrs. Haynes didn't meet her father until she was about 20. She shuttled back and forth between her mother's home and her grandfather's home, and both her mother and grandfather themselves moved among plantations a lot, which was very typical of sharecroppers. Very often sharecroppers moved every single year from plantation to plantation.
After the sharecropper system began to die out, she moved in a sort of second great migration into the nearest sizeable town, which was Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of the bigger towns in the Delta. First migration from the hills to the Delta to be a sharecropper; second migration from the drafty, unheated sharecropper cabins on the plantations into the town.
LAMB: Which in this case was Clarksdale, Mississippi?
Mr. LEMANN: Yes. And then the third migration is to Chicago, Illinois. That's the big one.
LAMB: And did she go back then to Clarksdale?
Mr. LEMANN: She went to Chicago. She lived in Chicago for about 30 years, and then fourth migration is back to Clarksdale in--in—in around 1980.
LAMB: How did you find her?
Mr. LEMANN: I found her--that took a long time. That was the hardest thing in the book. I've been working on this book for about six years, and continually all through that time--it's maybe six and a half by now. And--and all through that time I've been looking for someone like her to be the main character of the book. And I went—I can't tell you how many blind alleys there were. It was very hard to find the right person. I went through church records, I went through social welfare agency records; I got people to take me around in Chicago, I got people to take me around in Clarksdale...
LAMB: What were you looking for?
Mr. LEMANN: I was looking for somebody who had lived through X amount of history, number one. You had to have that to qualify. You had to have lived as a sharecropper and made that great migration.
LAMB: OK. When did you decide this was the kind of person you wanted to find? What led up to that? Where were you in your head, trying to f--you know, what--six years ago, whatever?
Mr. LEMANN: I started off writing about inner-city ghettos.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, first time, 1980.
LAMB: Where were you?
Mr. LEMANN: I was a reporter for The Washington Post. And at that time I had what I would call the typical Washington assumptions about ghettos, which--which was that everything about ghettos is a result of federal social welfare policy. So if you wanted to understand inner-city ghettos, you should look through the lens of federal policy-making. So I did a series for The Post in Philadelphia about a welfare mother. It was about the welfare system. After I finished that--I spent several months there, and after I finished it I--I—I had a very strong feeling when we were going around taking pictures; I thought, you know--it just suddenly dawned on me, `I have done the wrong story.' The woman that I was writing about was a migrant from North Carolina, and really, I found in interviewing her she was much more interested in telling the story of her migration to the North and the evolution she had seen in her neighborhood than she was in describing her interaction with the welfare system. That was the real story.
And I--I kept finding in interviewing her--I would say--she would say, `Now let me tell you about growing up in North Carolina. I'd say, `No, no, no, no, no, don't talk about that. Talk about welfare.' And it's always a bad sign for a reporter, at least the--for the kind of work that I do, if you start to feel like you're forcing people to talk about what you've defined as the topic instead of what the real
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
Mr. LEMANN: New Orleans. So after I did that story, I--I resolved to write another story later about migration from the South, trying to understand ghettos through the lens of the great migration and all the changes that happened in those city neighborhoods over the years since World War II. So--so the idea was in my mind since ni--late 1980.
LAMB: When did you get your first interest in even writing about the poverty situation in this country?
Mr. LEMANN: I can't tell you. I--I just--in--innate. I've always been interested in that.
LAMB: What was your life like in New Orleans?
Mr. LEMANN: A million miles away from what I write about. My—I come from a family of lawyers. I was expected to be a lawyer.
LAMB: How many kids in the family?
Mr. LEMANN: Two, both of whom are writers. But--but we didn't know any writers or journalists. No one in our family had ever been one. And I was just--I lived in a world in which everybody was either a lawyer or a doctor, basically.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Mr. LEMANN: I went to school in New Orleans up through high school, and then to Harvard.
LAMB: And what got you interested in going to Harvard, and what did you study there?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, what got me interested in going to Harvard was that my dad went there. He was interested in my going to Harvard, I would say, would be a more accurate statement. And--and what I studied there is American history and literature, but I really majored in--in student newspaper.
LAMB: But you had to be a good student to get there in the first place, to Harvard.
Mr. LEMANN: Yeah, I was a--I--I wasn't a great student, but I was—I was a--a--I mean, I didn't go to one of these--I mean, one of the advantages of growing up in the provinces instead of Washington, DC, is you do not have to be a superachiever, you know, at an early age.
LAMB: And so when you left Harvard, where'd you go?
Mr. LEMANN: I went to Washington to work at The Washington Monthly. To continue the story, I worked at The Washington Monthly for two years. I went to Texas and worked for Texas Monthly for a while as a writer, came back to Washington, worked for The Post, experiences that I was just talking about. I then went back to Texas Monthly again, as executive editor and did that for a while, then I decided I really wanted to be a writer and not an editor, and went to work for The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983, which is what I still do.
LAMB: Let me ask you about both the Texas Monthly and--and The Atlantic Monthly.
Mr. LEMANN: OK.
LAMB: What is it about those publications that draw a writer to them?
Mr. LEMANN: Number one, they're among the very few magazines that have staff writers, aside from news magazines--sort of feature magazines with staff writers. If you're a magazine writer, staff writer jobs are coveted, because you can get the time to really report a story. If you are a freelancer, which most writers for feature magazines have to be, you know, the clock's always ticking. Every additional day of reporting you do on a story is costing you money. So there's a tremendous temptation to be sort of superficial. And--and--and so I really wanted to go to a place where there was a commitment to serious reporting and longer magazine articles, and where they would put you on staff so you could really devote the time.
And Texas Monthly--I don't know if you're familiar with it. It's really the best city or regional magazine in the country and it has been for some time. It's a distinguished magazine, not well known outside of Texas. And also, I love Texas. It's a wonderful story. The other thing is, you can see from the book I--I--I noticed early on that I was different from most of my fellow journalists in that I was more interested in writing about sort of what I would call American life than I was wri--in writing about presidential politics. In other words, most of the young reporters I started out with were sort of pointing toward getting on the White House beat or the presidential campaign beat. And--and I--I just was never that interested in that, and always wanted to write about American life, things that I think are important but are not defined as news, and that's what sort of took me to Texas, away from Washington.
LAMB: OK. So you went to the Atlantic Monthly and you're still there.
Mr. LEMANN: Right.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
Mr. LEMANN: Three.
LAMB: And the last one was before this?
Mr. LEMANN: Was "Out of the Forties," the one about the--looking up the people in the old pictures.
LAMB: You did the Philadelphia series.
Mr. LEMANN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: You didn't quite like--so you wanted to go on and find somebody else to write about or--or you needed that real--going back to Ruby Haynes.
Mr. LEMANN: Right. So what happened was, when I was interviewing for a job at The Atlantic, I--I--I made it very clear to the editor, Bill Wentworth, that this is what I wanted to do, this was the big project I had in mind. He was very interested in it, too. So—so that was always part of the program for my working at The Atlantic. So we started--we were going to pick a city to write about, and he suggested Chicago, which I think was ne--a very good suggestion.
LAMB: Did he say why?
Mr. LEMANN: If you're writing the story of--of this great migration, Chicago is sort of the--it's mythic. It's--it's--it's--it's--see, if you write about New York, everybody says, `Well, that's just New York.' You can't--you can't draw national implications from New York. If you write about Washington, Washington's very atypical because it's a government city. Chicago is a big, industrial, brawny city, and it has--it's--it's--it--it--during the time of this book it's really the capital of black America. The South Side is probably the biggest contiguous black neighborhood in America, was then and probably is now.
LAMB: South Side of Chicago.
Mr. LEMANN: South Side of Chicago.
LAMB: How many blacks live there?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, Chicago has three million people; 40 percent are black. Tell me how many that is. You're good at math.
LAMB: It's a hundred and--1.2 million.
Mr. LEMANN: Almost two million. No, a million...
LAMB: Forty percent of three million would be 1.2 million.
Mr. LEMANN: 1.2. OK. 1.2 million black Chicagoans. Of those, close to a million would live on the South Side.
LAMB: What's the South Side of Chicago like?
Mr. LEMANN: It's huge. It--it has a lot of different kind of neighborhoods. That's one key to understanding it. It's--it--it—it is not--repeat--not just the slums. Chi--it has some of the worst slums in America. It has the biggest high-rise public housing project in the world, which is the setting for much of my book, the Robert Taylor Homes. It has, also, vast, huge sort of middle-class to upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. So it has the whole gamut of experience on the South Side, really. It's a--it's a very varied place.
LAMB: For those who haven't seen your book yet, you start in Clarksdale...
Mr. LEMANN: Uh-huh.
LAMB: ...you go to Chicago...
Mr. LEMANN: Uh-huh.
LAMB: ...then you spend a lot of time in Washington...
Mr. LEMANN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...back to Chicago...
Mr. LEMANN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...then back to Clarksdale.
Mr. LEMANN: Right.
LAMB: So those are the five different sections of the book.
Mr. LEMANN: Right, sort of like a pyramid.
LAMB: Explain why. What's the reason for that?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, I--I wanted--I liked the symmetry of the arrangement, for one thing. It's sort of like if you go to the symphony, they--they have the overture and then they have the coda, and they're sort of the same. So I wanted to have--have that aspect in the book. It opens and closes in a circle, sort of. It opens and closes in the same place. The Washington section--I couldn't leave Clarksdale, also, because I thought people would want to know--after I started in Clarksdale, people would want to know, well, what happened to Clarksdale? How did it turn out there? You've left Clarksdale in 1948 or whatever, and it's just--it's sort of dropped off the map. And there's a lot of interesting stories about Clarksdale; the civil rights movement's effect there and the war on poverty there, which was sort of a success story, unlike Chicago.
LAMB: Big name that popped out at me--I suppose it's my generation--was Muddy Waters.
Mr. LEMANN: Muddy Waters is from Clarksdale--was from Clarksdale.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Mr. LEMANN: No, he died recently. He died--well, not--he died about eight years ago. He grew up on a plantation outside Clarksdale called the Stovall Plantation. That's one reason why I chose Clarksdale. I said, `Why just Chicago?' I--I chose Clarksdale because Muddy Waters--two things. Muddy Waters is from there, and the mechanical cotton picker was invented there.
LAMB: OK. For those who've never heard of Muddy Waters, who was he?
Mr. LEMANN: He was the great--the--the king of the blues, I think. Certainly he was, without argument, the king of the Chicago blues. He was one--the leading member of this--of the generation of Mississippi Delta blues people who were born and grew up in the Delta, moved to Chicago as part of the black migration, and changed their sound once they got there by using electric guitars and--and drums to produce the, you know, so-called electric--electrified blues sound. So he and his generation invented that sound, the Chicago blues. And he...
LAMB: Am I--am I right? You said you've been working on it for six years. You started working on this in--this book in 1985.
Mr. LEMANN: '84. '84.
LAMB: Now it's my fault, but let's go back again and try to find out how you found Ruby Lee Hopkins-slash-Daniels-slash-Haynes.
Mr. LEMANN: OK. I'm getting to that. That--that happened—that happened later. I was ...(… Chicago. And--and let me just also say about Chicago some other things there attracted me to it. It was the--the--the Muslims were headquartered there. Many, you know, sort of famous black organizations were there. And now, Ebony magazine, Johnson Publishing Company is there. Then, the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper in the country, was there.
LAMB: That was run by a future congressman, Bill Dawson? Was--did he run that?
Mr. LEMANN: The Defender? No. The Defender was run by Robert Abbott and then later by Abbott's nephew, John Sengstacke.
LAMB: Sengstacke's paper--but Bill Dawson was a congressman from--black congressman from Chicago.
Mr. LEMANN: Right. He was--he was the great--now forgotten, but he's a fascinating figure. He was the--the black boss of Chicago, really, for 30 years, most of the period in this book; 1940, when he was elected to Congress, until his death in 1970. He--he ruled politics in black Chicago.
LAMB: Elijah Muhammad?
Mr. LEMANN: Joe Louis lived in Chicago; Mahalia Jackson lived in Chicago; Dawson, who was a powerful political boss; Mayor Daley, who's a wonderful character to write about--all of these were attractions of Chicago.
LAMB: First black Cabinet officer in any presidential Cabinet.
Mr. LEMANN: Robert Weaver, who is still living, although he's ill, was living in Chicago--I sort of felt like everybody was in Chicago then. He was living in Chicago then. Louis Martin, who was--was one of the leading civil rights advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was a protege of Robert Abbott of the Defender, and--and--and lived in Chicago and then ran a paper for Abbott in Detroit. And then another whole side of it is the University of Chicago Sociology Department, out of which came every theory and every intellectual trend having to do with ghettos. So that's another point about Chicago.
But anyway, Clarksdale had Muddy Waters, these huge cotton plantations and the cotton picking machine. The way I found Mrs. Haynes was, finally, after many, many, many blind alleys--I needed somebody who was from Clarksdale, who had lived as a sharecropper, who had moved to Chicago, and I really wanted somebody who had lived in high-rise public housing in Chicago, 'cause that's--part of this whole story is how that housing was built and how it declined. So you had to have been through the Stations of the Cross to qualify for my book, you know? And--and--and then, also, not only did you have to live through all the stuff, but you had to be a very extraordinary person with an unusual memory and unusual storytelling ability. So in other words, a lot of people qualified, but--but they couldn't remember it all.
Sh--she has an unbelievable memory. She's one of these people who can remember, you know, every phone number of every place she ever lived, every rent check and how big it was, dollar amounts of everything, everyone's name. She can re-create each scene in her life, playing all the parts. She's amazing. Anyway, the way I found her finally was, after some moments of despair that I would never find somebody like this--there's a guy who's described in the book named Benny Gooden, who is the richest black man in Clarksdale and is--is the public housing king of Clarksdale. He has--he has become rich by building privately and managing for HUD subsidized housing projects. And, by the way, they're excellent projects. And he is rather--he's view--he's interesting, because he's viewed, as many people like that are, in the white community as a kind of a poverty pimp, but he's beloved in the black community because he runs good projects, he knows everybody who lives there, he lives in the same neighborhood where his projects are, he goes to church with Ruby Haynes, so on.
So anyway, he got interested in my project, and put out the word to the managers of his projects to help me locate migrants. So I would go around to the various housing projects of Clarksdale, meet with these managers, and they would put me in touch with people who had made this great migration or knew people who had or had kinfolks who had. And in doing that w--several rounds of interviews, finally, I met Mrs. Haynes.
LAMB: How many people did you interview to get to Mrs. Haynes?
Mr. LEMANN: I don't know. It's hard to say. I haven't counted it up. I'd say 100, but maybe--it's hard to say, because I was doing this for so many years and I was doing, you know, several hundred interviews for the book as a whole. I interviewed a lot of otherpeople besides just migrants. But counting everybody that I--that I, you know, sort of tried out for the part, 100 sounds about right.
LAMB: Where'd you find her?
Mr. LEMANN: You mean where in...
LAMB: And when the fir--when you met her for the first time, did you know immediately that this was your character?
Mr. LEMANN: No, I didn't. I was too dumb. I mean, she knew and I didn't. That was the irony of it.
LAMB: By the way, why isn't there a picture of her in the--in the book?
Mr. LEMANN: I don't really know why. I'm, as you can tell, a photography buff, and I always wanted to have photographs in the book. And my publisher, bless their hearts--they're a great publisher—has never agreed with me that there was a need to have photographs bound into the book of the people. There's not only Mrs. Haynes, but there are several other people whose life stories I tell in the book. And I--I sort of had in mind a `let us now praise famous men,' where the--you get a really good photographer who would take these people's pictures. And I could never sell the publisher on it. But there was a wonderful picture of Mrs. Haynes that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, which ran an excerpt from the book, and--and a photographer, Magnum photographer named Eli Reed, took a terrific picture of her. But it's not in the book.
Anyway, where were we?
LAMB: We were starting to talk about Ruby Lee Hopkins.
Mr. LEMANN: Here's--OK, here's...
LAMB: How--how old is she now?
Mr. LEMANN: She's 75. What happened was, as I say, there was many, many starts and stops and blind alleys in looking for characters, but when I met her I had gotten to a certain point in the research when I had decided--I would go back and forth. I would say, `I'm going to find this person in Chicago,' I would say to myself, and then I'd say, `No, I'm going to find this person in Clarksdale.' So I was in one of the phases when I thought `I'm going to find this person in Chicago.' So I put out the call to these managers, Mr. Gooden's managers, saying, `I'm looking for people living in these projects in Clarksdale who have kinfolk living in public housing in Chicago. I want names of people now living in public housing in Chicago who have Mississippi roots.'
By the way, it's impossible to find those people in Chicago, because all of officialdom has sort of written off the projects. So you would think, `Oh, there must be some social worker or somebody who knows everybody in the projects,' but in fact, nobody does. They have very little contact with the outside world.
LAMB: Chicago government has written off the public housing projects.
Mr. LEMANN: Until recently, when a very good man named Vincent Lane became director of the Chicago Housing Authority, and he has sort of sold me on the idea that he a--for the first time in decades is a really sincere, dedicated director of the CHA.
LAMB: How many people in Chicago live in public housing?
Mr. LEMANN: There's an official number and an unofficial number. The official number is--in fact, there's a lot of different numbers. Something over 100,000 people though; some people think as much as 250,000 people.
LAMB: Who pays for that?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, some are being paid for and some aren't, but—but primarily the federal government.
LAMB: To live there it costs you nothing?
Mr. LEMANN: No, you--you pay a rent. You pay a--but it's a very low rent, and the rest is picked up by a federal subsidy. I say people don't know, because officially the population of these projects is almost completely women and children. Unofficially, there's a lot of men living there, but they're not p--they're not official residents and they're not paying rent.
Anyway, at that--so--so I got the name of Mrs. Haynes as a person who had a relative living in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, that--that being her daughter-in-law, Connie Daniels, whose life story I also tell in the book. And she's still living in the Robert Taylor Homes. So I called her just to get her daughter-in-law's name, address and phone number. I met her daughter-in-law before I met her. And when I called her, she said something along the lines of, `Don't you want to interview me?' So I thought, `Oh, sure, I--I do want to interview you. Next time I'm down in Mississippi, I'd like to. I'll call you.' So I did, and I interviewed her, but it was the end of a long day. I'd interviewed people all day long in half-hour increments. Again, I was sort of like a casting director in terms of looking for the right person to write about. And, you know, you see those scenes in the movies where they're auditioning hundreds of people for a part, and you wonder, `How can they really know that they're getting the right person?'
So I interviewed her at the end of the day. I asked a lot of questions designed to see if she fit the first qualification; that is, the Stations of the Cross qualification. Had she been in all these places? And--and so I was saying, `When did you--where did--where did you live then? Where did you move then? Where did you move then? And then what happened? Then what happened? Then what happened?' Fine. And then I, at some point, had occasion to call her back. I had meanwhile begun interviewing her daughter-in-law quite a bit in Chicago. And when I called her back, she said, `You know, when you interviewed me, you really did not do a very good job. You—you didn't ask me the right questions. The questions you asked me were--were--were dull. It was just "When did you move there?" and "When did you move there?" I have some interesting stories to tell. I've--I've had an interesting life. You should come back and talk to me again.'
So I thought, `Thank you, Mrs. Haynes, and I've obviously missed something.' And I went back there again, and I essentially just said, you know, `OK, I'm not going to ask you any more dumb questions. You talk.' And--and she did, and--and that was it.
LAMB: By the way, what would you rather be doing, asking the questions or having me ask you the questions?
Mr. LEMANN: I would rather be asking the questions. That's what I've been doing my whole life, and I love it. And...
LAMB: Are you a little hoarse from all this talking?
Mr. LEMANN: Yeah, I am. I've started to--God is punishing me for answering the questions instead of asking them.
LAMB: Tell us a little bit about her, about--75 years old, we know. She now lives in Clarksdale, Mississippi. How many times was she married?
Mr. LEMANN: She was only married once. However, she--she's had various--see, she comes from a world in which nobody ever got married, or ver--it was very rare for people to get married. There was a tradition of common-law marriage. That's really what she grew up with, in which people would either get married or not have a marriage ceremony and move in together. This was a time when--you know, in the 1930s, when the only people cohabiting in America were poor, rural black folks, as opposed to now, when everybody is. So it was--it was sort of an unusual habit at the time, but very pervasive in her world.
LAMB: How man--how many children has she had?
Mr. LEMANN: She's had eight children, and so several of the children--well, actually, only one of the children was born in wedlock, of the eight, although the la--the younger four were all—the father was h--her husband--she's been married twice--her ultimate husband, Luther Haynes. But--but several of her children were the--were the product of these sort of shorter-lived, common-law marriages of a kind that, again, were very, very common in the world she grew up with, were the rule in the world she grew up with, and--and--and became also the rule in--in the Chicago ghetto, as they are now.
LAMB: What--what do you most remember from--I mean, how--how long did you talk to her?
Mr. LEMANN: Oh, a lot. I still talk to her fairly often. I talked to her just a few days ago.
LAMB: Is she a happy woman?
Mr. LEMANN: I wouldn't say she's real happy, but she's happier now--I would say she's--she's found a degree of contentment. She talks very vividly about being happier now than she's ever been before in her life.
Mr. LEMANN: One is she's on Social Security, as opposed to being on and off welfare, which she was for much of her adult life. Social Security system pays a whole lot better than the welfare system, so she's financially much more secure than she had been before. She's living back in Clarksdale, which she really likes. She became, for reasons described in the book, quite bitter about Chicago and really felt that it had let her down and it hadn't turned out the way she had hoped it would. And then the other thing is, like many of her friends, you know, poor black women, she's had many, many problems with men, and--and she can talk to you for hours about no-good men. And--and so, when she got to an age when she just didn't try to date anymore and didn't try to meet men, she says, she became much happier, because--because all of her--she feels now that all of her romances in her life always sort of went awry and left a bad taste in her mouth.
LAMB: Which government figure that you've studied--and I know there are a lot of names in here, from Lyndon Johnson and the Nixon administration and Sargent Shriver and Frank Mankiewicz and Bill Moyers and on--and go on--Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I want to ask you about--which government figure, in your opinion, did the most to help her life get better?
Mr. LEMANN: Johnson, without question. I mean, not just her; there's--there's--I should again say, she's--in a way she's not a typical migrant, although she's had this very dramatic story, because most of the migrants did not come from sharecropper backgrounds, and most of the migrants wound up sort of successfully middle class in the North. There's a character in the book named George Hicks, who would be much more typical of the migration, although he's had a--a less dramatic life by virtue of the fact that he is middle class. And he, ironically, wound up on the other side of the housing project equation from Mrs. Haynes. His--he made a career as a housing project manager. He was actually, for a time, manager of the project where she lived. He wound up, you know, happy homeowner; he's--he's just retired, wonderful family, two cars in the garage and all that stuff. And...
LAMB: Is he typical?
Mr. LEMANN: He's p--much more typical, right.
LAMB: So his life got better once he left Clarksdale...
Mr. LEMANN: Much.
LAMB: ...moved to Chicago.
Mr. LEMANN: Much.
LAMB: Did he stay there?
Mr. LEMANN: Yes, he stayed in Chicago. He goes back to Clarksdale a lot. He's the president of--every little town in Mississippi has a club in Cl--in--in Chicago. He's president of the Clarksdalian Club of Chicago. He goes back to Clarksdale every year. They have a big dinner dance at the auditorium that they weren't allowed to go in when they were growing up. Anyway, he would be more typical, and I bring him in now because I think clearly Lyndon Johnson did the most for people in the great migration, or for black America in general. It's easier to point to what he did for George Hicks than it is to point to what he did for Mrs. Haynes, although he did things for both.
Mrs. Haynes' grandchildren are all in Head Start, a program that Lyndon Johnson started. Her, you know, basic benefit on--on—on Social Security is higher, thanks to Lyndon Johnson and succeeding presidents. If she gets sick, she's taken care of through Medicare and Medicaid, a Lyndon Johnson program. Some of her grandchildren, I think, are going to end up going to college. The grants they get will probably be grants that were instituted by Lyndon Johnson. The reason that she can go into any place in Clarksdale--if she gets sick she can go to Clarksdale hospital. The reason she doesn't have to ride on the back of the bus anymore and the reason she can vote is because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed by LBJ; Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by LBJ.
To some extent, you can argue that George Hicks lives where he lives today because of the Fair Housing Act of '68 passed by LBJ. I think there is no question--there isn't anyone close; there isn't any second place--that LBJ did the most of--for black America in the panoply of white American politicians.
LAMB: In your book on page 115 you write, `During his presidency, Kennedy's support for civil rights always came as the result of the black movement's prodding him into action.'
Mr. LEMANN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Is that something you knew before you started this book?
Mr. LEMANN: Not really. You know, the--the--we're talking about John F. Kennedy. On all these kinds of issues, the record of Robert Kennedy is better than that of John Kennedy. There's been a lot of kind of ex post facto myth-making about John F. Kennedy and civil rights, myth-making by the Kennedy circle, and--and especially Arthur Schlesinger, I would say. Acting out of sincere admiration, they have kind of remade him in death into a civil rights president. Now he did su--pro--propose the Civil Rights Act, although the consensus is he would never have been able to pass it. He did various things. But on the whole, first of all, he just didn't get that race was a great kind of moral issue in America until very late, if he got it at all. He--he--the one--he was very worried about the March on Washington in '63; would have preferred that it not happen. He--he was not thrilled about all the civil rights activity that Dr. King was doing in the South; was always urging him, `Go slower, take time.' I--I just—he wasn't a crusader on this issue.
Johnson, you can question his motives, but he did decide, for whatever reason, and Robert Kennedy did, too, both after the assassination, that they were going to become crusaders on this issue.
LAMB: Page 177: `Today the Moynihan Report stands as probably the most refuted document in American history, though, of course, its dire predictions about the poor black family all came true.'
Mr. LEMANN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What's that all about?
Mr. LEMANN: The Moynihan Report, 1965, h--a government report called The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, written by s—now senator, then assistant secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Moynihan Report was incredibly controversial. You know, most government reports are totally ignored. This was a report that said the black family as falling apart, essentially, and said it in very dramatic, one might even say overdramatized, terms. And it produced a furious reaction in the then just--just aborning black power movement and in the kind of academic, intellectual left, which was also just coming into being at the time. It--Moynihan's assertion, made quite casually and off the cuff in the report in a paragraph, that slavery had destroyed the black family, led to a whole shelf of books by historians written between '65 and about 1980, proving that slavery didn't destroy the black family. So that's why I say it was—it w--it's an incredibly refuted document.
LAMB: `The real link between...'
Mr. LEMANN: Excuse me.
LAMB: `...Moynihan and Nixon, the obsession they shared, was a deep dislike of the left liberal political culture that had grown so dramatically in the past three or four years and reached its height of influence during Nixon's first years in office.'
Mr. LEMANN: OK. Moynihan, as I just said, was just wildly attacked after the Moynihan Report came out. He was pilloried. It wasn't just that these books came out. He was booed and hissed. He was called every name in the book. There was really a huge reaction to this report, and--and--and not a measured reaction, either. It was not polite debate. There was--you know, this was a very angry time in America, too, 1965, '66. And as a result, Moynihan became very bitter, and he became kind of obsessed with the danger posed to America by these forces that had gone after his report, namely the kind of interlocking directorate of the black power movement and the academic, intellectual left.
So it's my contention that, really, the main thing on his mind in his service in the first couple of years in the Nixon administration was, `How can we neutralize and how can we refute this tremendously destructive and dangerous force in American life?' That was what was really on his mind then. And, of course, Nixon hated the same people Moynihan hated. That was one of the great things they had in common.
LAMB: Well, at--at this stage in the game, assess Senator Moynihan's influence, because he's all throughout your book in all the different administrations, all the way back to President Kennedy.
Mr. LEMANN: He was around for this whole time. I mean, if you ask the question--there--there isn't an official position of the kind I'm about to describe, but let's say there was a position called, you know, government minister, chief white person in charge of responding to the great black migration. Who held that job? D.P. Moynihan held it. He was in government, thinking about these issues, in a position of high influence, all through the 1960s and in the early '70s. And he was the only person who was influential in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who was also influential--in fact, he was even more influential in the Nixon administration. So he--it was all sort of on his watch, in a way.
I would assess him in this way: He's--he's--he's a ver--he's a wonderful character to write about, because he's very complicated. He--if you judge--Moynihan gets a great press now, in part just because he was there then and--and was--was warning about the ghetto sand about bad conditions there. Journalists love Moynihan because he is a journalist, in a way. He expresses himself through writing, and he--he's very verbal and he just thinks in terms of concepts. You can't fault Moynihan as a--as a--as a sort of a journalist or intellectual. But you can fault him as a politician. In other words, the job of--of a government official is, presumably, to get things done, and that's what Moynihan then was not very good at, and I still think is not all that good at, and it--and--and he really--in '88 he finally passed his first major piece of legislation.
But, you know, his talent--he's valuable. I mean, he's my senator and I vote for him. But his talent is the talent of a journalist: identifying issues, highlighting issues dramatically. His talent is not getting the bill passed, getting the program set up. The things that Johnson was so good at, Moynihan is not good at. So I think if you ask your earlier question about Moynihan, what Johnson felt was the only question that you should really ask about a politician—what he says do--doesn't matter what he said. Doesn't matter what a politican said--I'm giving you Johnson's view of the world--it matters what he did. What did he do? Not that much. He wrote a report. He proposed a sensational report. He proposed a sensational revision of the welfare system that failed. The record is more of--of poses struck and things pointed out than of achievement.
LAMB: How do you feel about this book?
Mr. LEMANN: How did he?
LAMB: You. No, how do you feel about this book?
Mr. LEMANN: About my book?
Mr. LEMANN: I like it. I'm--I'm proud of it.
LAMB: Is it your favorite?
Mr. LEMANN: Yeah, definitely.
LAMB: Is it getting the kind of attention you hoped it would get?
Mr. LEMANN: Yes, and more, more than I hoped it would get.
LAMB: Is there anything about the attention you're getting that you don't like?
Mr. LEMANN: Not really, no. I've--I've--I've really been very pleased with the reaction to the book, the magnitude of the reaction, the kind of reaction, and...
LAMB: What do you want the impact to be?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, what I've--what I've liked about it is I feel that--a function that books can perform--I mean, all of--all of the tests that I just proposed to you about getting things done doesn't apply to me, because I'm not a politician; I'm a book writer. It seems to me that the one function of book writers is just to write a book that has literary merit, and--and I'm interested in that. But--but the sort of social function and political function of--of a book writer is to get people talking about something, just to--to kind of gin up the conversation in America about a subject. And I--I hope that that's what this book will do. In other words, I felt--I feel that on these issues of ghettos, it's on everybody's mind. It's kind of a national obsession, not always stated, but it's always hovering in the background behind discussions of issues. But there isn't a good way to talk about it. Everybody's stuck. They're--the same arguments are being used, chasing each other in circles.
So my hope is that this book will sort of create a history of ghettos that allows people to come afresh to the discussion and really start thinking about it again, and in particular, I hope that the book will kind of throw out of court the now-familiar argument that we cannot--the government can't do anything to solve the problems in the ghettos because we already tried all that in the war on poverty, and it failed and it made things worse. So, therefore, the one thing we can't do is try to do anything.
LAMB: Have you given a copy of this to Ruby Haynes?
Mr. LEMANN: Yeah. Oh, sure, I--I have.
LAMB: Has she read it?
Mr. LEMANN: Yeah, she's read it. I mean, she he--she--I--I gave it to her before publication. She read...
LAMB: What did she--what did she think?
Mr. LEMANN: I think she basically likes it. She's had several reactions over the last months, you know, in the--in the--and has read it several times, and I think only finished reading it in book form sev--several days ago. And her f--her last reaction--last time I talked to her, which was on Monday night, she was feeling very positive about the book and--and--and said she really likes it. She was getting a lot of nice reactions. I mean, her concern and my concern are really the same, in a way. When you say why did I pick her, I r--I really wanted to pick somebody that people who don't know anything about this world would read their life story, and instead of thinking `The underclass? What's that? You know, it's a bunch of scary numbers. It's people on the news being hauled off to jail. I don't like it'--instead, they would read her story and think, `This is a person I like and understand, not a person who's perfect,' but--but--but there would be a kind of empathy. There would be a feeling, `Oh, that's who we're talking about. Oh, OK. Well, then, let's get down to work.'
And that has--this is one thing that's pleased me about the reaction to the book. That has been the reaction. Nobody--very often, people have reacted to her life story by saying, you know, `This is somebody who's had a real tough life and--and who should have had a lot more help than she had.' And nobody has read it and said, `This is, as you know, the welfare queen of Chicago. To heck with her.'
LAMB: How would you define your own political philosophy?
Mr. LEMANN: Well, ba--basically, I'm a--I've--I've been--I worked at the Washington Monthly, and--which is the home of the so-called neoliberal movement, and I guess I'm--you know, to the extent that any of us are comfortable with labels, I would be fairly comfortable with that label.
LAMB: How did you get George Will to say the following on the back flap of the book: `Nicholas Lemann is America's best writer about America's most vexing problem. "The Promised Land" is comparable in scale to, and even better in execution than, Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma," published 47 years ago'?
Mr. LEMANN: Basically, we just sent him the galleys of the book. The thing is--the thing about Will is--I don't know him.
LAMB: Never met him.
Mr. LEMANN: I had shook his hand once several years ago at a, you know, convention where he was the speaker, but that's it. He's--he's different from many conservatives around today, because he's a sort of a big-government conservative. And--and he believes that—most conservatives would be fairly hostile, ins--including President Reagan--would be fairly hostile to my calls for more government social programs. But Will is a--amenable to that kind of thing, because he believes--you know, one of his books was called "Statecraft as Soulcraft." He believes government is the repository of the soul and conscience of the nation, and if there's a problem, government needs to act to fix it. And--and he's been good in terms of a kind of moral sensitivity to the problems of ghettos over the years.
LAMB: By the way, with the book covers, do you have to pay these guys to endorse it?
Mr. LEMANN: No. No.
LAMB: Henry Hampton says, `This beautifully written, thought-provoking and at times controversial work deserves a wide readership.' Who is Henry Hampton?
Mr. LEMANN: "Eyes on the Prize," did you see that?
Mr. LEMANN: He's the guy who did "Eyes on the Prize." He's a great documentary film producer. He did "Eyes on the Prize." He did "Eyes on the Prize, Part II." He's now working on two other very ambitious projects, one a--a history of the Great Depression and one a history of the war on poverty.
LAMB: What's next for Nicholas Lemann?
Mr. LEMANN: I don't know. I'm--I'm back working at the Atlantic, and--and I'm not going to sort of push to get another book out real soon. I--I take a long time to do these things, and--and I imagine it'll be several more years before I've got a--I--I'm--I definitely want to do another book, and I want it to be about, as I said vaguely, American life. But I don't know exactly what. And--and my job—doing my job for the Atlantic is a great way to do R&D and look around and see what's out there to write about, so that's what I'm doing now.
LAMB: This is the book, "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America"; Nicholas Lemann, the author. Thank you very much.
Mr. LEMANN: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.