Robert Penn Warren will always be known in Louisiana for his time at LSU between 1933 and 1942, where he saw the rise and fall of Huey Long and fictionalized the Kingfish in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “All the King’s Men.”
But just in time for February’s observance of Black History Month, a new book reminds us of another aspect of Warren, his important role in the civil rights movement. In 1964, Warren traveled the country interviewing civil rights leaders to research his book, “Who Speaks for the Negro?” The interviews themselves hadn’t been published in book form until last month, with the release of “Free All Along,” which includes more than a few insights about how Louisiana shaped — and was shaped by — the movement’s key leaders.
Among those Warren interviewed was Andrew Young, the New Orleans native who would become a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a member of Congress, America’s U.N. ambassador under President Jimmy Carter, and the mayor of Atlanta.
Young, speaking to Warren on March 17, 1964, discussed his childhood in New Orleans as the son of a father who was a dentist and a mother who was a teacher. “The neighborhood was largely white,” Young recalled. “Yet, my folks were the only professional people in the neighborhood. It was a lower-income neighborhood where my father had a dental office. And, I think, very early in life, I ran into both the problems of race and class.”
Young said he tried to navigate the racial and social barriers in his hometown by ignoring them. “I decided then that people were people and that these external categories of economics and race were of little or no significance,” Young told Warren. “I was almost always getting spanked by my parents for playing with the wrong kids. At the same time, the white children in the neighborhood were being spanked by their parents for playing with us.”
Warren died in 1989 at 84. Young is now 86. In some ways, the conditions Young described when he sat with Warren in 1964 seem part of a remote historical past. In other ways, they remain as current as the morning headlines.
Such are the lessons that history, including the kind recounted during Black History Month, are supposed to teach. This is a month to remember how far America has come, and how far it has yet to go.