(upbeat music) - [Narrator] This is a production of WEDU PBS, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota.
- Coming up next, our guest today went from being a farm worker growing up in the segregated south to attending one of the best universities in the country.
He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.
His award-winning writing for the Tampa Bay Times has opposed some types of political correctness.
He's written about the modern day vestiges of slavery and what Blacks themselves need to do to overcome the legacy of oppression.
Writer Bill Maxwell is our guest right now on a special edition of "Florida This Week."
(upbeat music) (upbeat music continues) Welcome back, our guest, Bill Maxwell was born in Fort Lauderdale in 1945 in an all Black hospital, Provident Hospital.
He attended segregated public schools in Florida and other southern states.
His parents were farm workers and he traveled with them until he was 16 years old when he went to live with his grandparents in Crescent City, Florida.
In 1964, he became a civil rights activist and a volunteer for the SCLC and SNCC and worked throughout the south.
He served as a Marine in Vietnam and later graduated from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.
He earned a master's degree in English language and Literature from the University of Chicago.
For 25 years, he wrote editorials and a syndicated column for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times.
His award-winning writing appeared in newspapers worldwide.
He also taught journalism in English at colleges and universities in Alabama, Florida, Illinois and Texas.
In 1995, he created Role Models Foundation to assist students who wanted to become writers.
His latest book is "Maximum Vantage."
It won the 2022 Florida Book Award for Florida nonfiction and Bill Maxwell joins us now.
Bill, nice to have you here.
Thank you for coming over.
- Thank you.
- So I want to start with a topic of political correctness and what some people call woke.
You wrote a column in 2016 criticizing trigger warnings to college students.
You wrote against barring certain speakers from college campuses.
You criticized those who thought that books like "Huckleberry Finn" should not be assigned to college students, that college student should not be protected from distressing ideas.
Why did you say all that?
- Well, if there's one place where there should be complete intellectuality, it should be the college campus and by the way, the same thing for high school campuses.
I don't think that ideas and words are diseases, they're not.
So there's no need to be afraid of it.
When I was at the University of Chicago, we had Nazis come on campus to speak.
Well, my classmates and I had a very smart way to deal with that.
Don't show up to listen to them and so I believe in that.
If you don't like a program, you don't like a speaker, then don't deal with that person.
But I have no right, I don't think, to cancel, to make anyone not show up on my campus.
They should be there but I don't need to go listen to them.
I don't listen to everybody.
- Do you think some college students are being coddled?
- Yes, I think so.
Especially here in the state of Florida for all the wrong reasons.
We should not coddle anyone and keep them from ideas.
That's all they are, they're ideas and they're words.
- Well, here in the state of Florida, we've got a government right now that has outlined concepts that should not be taught in schools and has opened the doors to books being banned from schools.
What do you think about that?
- I think it's wrongheaded.
Matter of fact, I think it's stupid.
Why shouldn't a kid read a book that portrays the life of a gay kid?
There's no harm in that.
It's not going to turn anyone gay and by the way, I don't know anyone, I don't think you either, I don't know anyone who's grooming children.
I don't know a single teacher who's doing that.
I think it's made up, it's nonsense and it's intellectually dishonest.
It's not happening.
- When you spoke out and when you wrote the column saying that there should be no trigger warnings on campuses and all speakers should be allowed to come and speak, where you called a conservative?
- Yeah, once again, anyone who calls me conservative is unsophisticated.
Otherwise, if you are a smart person, you would know anything that you have read about me, you would know that I'm not conservative.
Now, what makes me conservative in people's minds is that I criticize fellow Black people.
Anytime you criticize your fellows then you become a conservative and I'm not.
The fact is that I think that if you have a child, you should read to the child.
If you have a house, take care of the house.
That makes me conservative.
Well, that's not conservative.
That's plain common sense and it's being self-aware.
So, no, I'm not conservative at all.
We can go through some issues and I can and show you.
- Well, we're gonna do that.
So just getting back to this idea of not banning speakers.
If somebody, let's say that they are Nazi, you said the University of Chicago, Nazis were allowed to speak on campus.
But if somebody brings a message of hate to campus, hate for Black people or hate for gays and lesbians, that's gotta offend a bunch of kids on campus, right?
- Yeah, so you're offended.
You don't have to go listen to it and I've been in that situation before where speakers have come to the campus and I was a professor and I would tell my students who the person is, what the topic is and if it offends you, I would not go.
If you agree with it, then of course you're gonna go.
So I think the college campus is a place where there should be utter ultimate freedom and ideas should never be canceled from a college campus.
- I want to ask about your early years.
Both of your parents were farm workers.
Eventually you went to the University of Chicago as a graduate student, but you grew up in the farm working milieu in the community.
Tell us about what was life like for you growing up?
- Well, mostly we lived in migrant camps.
We didn't live in any town or any city.
In fact, we weren't wanted in town.
There were some towns that we couldn't go into.
We had to send one person or send two people to go and get what we needed because we were considered to be these filthy farm workers.
You drive out through the farm working areas.
You see the people out there, it's stoop labor, you're working all day, you are dirty and you don't have the kind of money you need to buy nice things.
You are people who are not wanted.
So I grew up, no matter where I went, we grew up in lets say Fort Lauderdale, we started there, we go to Belle Glade, we go to Hastings, we go to Georgia for peaches, we go to Carolinas, we go to New Jersey, go to New York and no matter where we went, we were outsiders.
We were not wanted by anyone.
As a matter of fact, I would say some of the worst discrimination we received was from fellow Black people.
They didn't want us around their children.
- What was it about your family life, your mom and dad, that helped you rise above being just simply a farm worker?
- Now that's the question, I don't know if I can answer that.
All I know is that I read a lot.
My father taught me how to read and I read a lot and it was an escape from the drudgery of day to day living as a farm worker and it gave me a way to be someone else.
It gave me a way to get ideas.
It gave me a way to know that there was something better than being a person doing stoop labor.
So reading was actually escape.
Escape is not a good word sometimes.
But in this case, for a young kid, it was escape and I did know that there were things that were better.
Hell, I wanted to go to Paris, I read about Paris.
I wanted to go to New York.
So reading gave me another kind of world.
- So, when you got to the University of Chicago campus with all your experience at being at some of the lowest economic points of society and some of the lowest racial components of society, what was it like to go to the University of Chicago with your background?
- It was mind boggling.
I had to catch up.
Everything I did was catch up.
Matter of fact, I took Nodoz and I wouldn't go to sleep for sometimes almost a week because I read, I had to keep up.
When I went to class, there were some brilliant people from the Ivy League schools.
I was in graduate school so everybody there came there already with a lot of background in reading.
Luckily I had read a lot, but I had not read John Milton.
I had not read a lot of Shakespeare and I had to.
So, it was scary for me.
- There had to be no other people with your background on the campus at that point.
- Well, we had 90 students in my class and we only had three Blacks.
I'm one of them.
So we stood out like sore thumbs and there were a couple of professors who would lean on us to make sure that we had read the material.
Fortunately, all three of us were readers.
So, after a while you begin to blend and into second quarter, I could feel it, I had been accepted by many of the students.
But it was off-putting initially and for many of the professors, they had never had someone like us in class before.
- Before you got to the University of Chicago, you were, among other things, an organizer with Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and with the Student Non-Violent Coordinated Committee.
You signed people up to register to vote in Mississippi in 1964.
Tell us about that.
- It was hell, it was scary, it was very violent.
There was a poll tax for Blacks to go registered to vote.
There was also a literacy test that you had to take and most people could not pass the test because it was made up on the spot.
What is the fourth amendment to the constitution say?
Who knows that?
So, it was mind boggling and then we had to knock on doors.
So we went door to door trying to get people, the fear of God was in them already.
Mississippi was a very violent place.
So most Blacks that we talked to did not want us to come and talk to them.
They were nice enough and they would promised us they were gonna go register.
But we knew that it was an uphill battle.
As a matter of fact, we worked all summer in the whole state of Mississippi and we didn't register but 1,600 people for the whole summer.
- At the beginning of that summer, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were kidnapped and their bodies weren't found for several months.
Knowing that they had disappeared, these were two white men and Black man that been trying to register people to vote at the beginning of Freedom Summer.
They disappeared almost as soon as they got to Mississippi.
- In fact, the first week they disappeared.
- So, what was it like knowing that your fellow workers were gone and there was no word what happened to them?
- I was scared to death.
I can tell you one thing, SNCC made a very smart decision.
They decided to bring about 2,000 white kids, students from the north to come to Mississippi to help us register people to vote.
If those white kids had not been there, we would've all been killed.
But, luckily, because there were so many young white people, clean cut, fresh faces, that kept the Klan away and it kept some of the cops away from us and we had been there only on our own.
As Blacks, I would be dead today.
But, luckily, the white kids softened a lot of the violence.
- What do you think about the reemergence these days of racist groups?
There are neo-Nazis now demonstrating all across Florida.
The Klan is more active.
You've got these groups like the Proud Boys and Holocaust deniers, there's a resurgence of these kind of right wing groups that were opposed back in the sixties to civil rights.
But, now they're back and in some places they're mainstream.
- Yeah, I could be wrong about this but I think that the election of Donald Trump did something fundamentally bad for us.
He did something that I think is important though.
Donald Trump got rid of all of the pretense.
We're now looking at who we are as Americans and we are basically a racist country that cannot be cured of it and Donald Trump has proven that and now we have institutions that I even thought at one time we're pretty much immune to what we are up against, but we're not.
I thought, and I wrote a column many years ago, that what distinguished us from other places was the rule of law.
Well, the rule of law now is gone pretty much in many places, in many institutions and so you see what you get when that happens.
I never would've thought and I would've made bet you a million bucks that what happened at the capitol, January 6th, could not have happened in this country.
But that's what happens when you pull away the pretense.
That's where we are.
- Okay, so when you say the country cannot be cured, that sounds pretty pessimistic.
- It is pessimistic.
- Okay, so why are you so pessimistic?
- Because we are racist.
America's a racist place.
It was founded that way.
Slaves came here.
We used slave labor to make the country what it is.
What you think gonna change about that?
I'm dark skinned, can't change that.
On sight, I'm a problem for a lot of people.
- I wanna read from your book, "Maximum Vantage," it's a collection of your columns over the years and it goes to this point.
You talk about African Americans and you say many have cast aside the old romanticism of the land of the free, "No matter what conventional wisdom holds, "insightful Blacks know that they are permanent strangers "in the place of their birth."
That phrase, "Permanent strangers."
Why do you feel that way?
- I'm never gonna be accepted, as I said before, on sight, I'm not accepted and then when it gets deeper than that, we have ingrained behavior.
We have ingrained attitudes and I don't care what anyone says about institutions being racist.
When a bank is racist, what happens to Bill who comes in for a loan?
Well, that translates into what happens back in my household.
If I can't qualify, institutionally, I can't qualify, what does that do for my daily life?
What does that do for my children?
It means that my children are automatically disadvantaged and so that's not gonna change in this country.
We passed a few laws that made things fair on the books, but not here.
We're still racist.
- How do you think we change people's hearts?
- Attrition won't do it.
I don't know.
Because right now, what is the governor telling his children?
He's got three real cute kids.
Look at what they are seeing from their father.
What kind of adults are they're gonna be?
- Well, let's talk about that for a moment.
There's politicians, I think the governor included, that think that there's no such thing as institutional racism.
That we passed the civil rights laws in the 1960s.
We've got affirmative action.
We've got things that make amends for some of what happened in the past and that we're in a new era and that we don't need to look back and say, "Well, the institutional racism that might have existed "50 or 100 years ago, it no longer exists."
What do you say?
- Critical race theory is true.
The fact is the institutions themselves are what you're looking at and I see a study, a release almost every week now that shows that banks are unfair to us, car lending is unfair to us, housing is unfair to us.
What am I supposed to do, I'm not with stupid.
Anyone who thinks critically cannot help but conclude that America is racist.
Take our school system.
Our schools are segregated as they were the day Dr. King was assassinated.
Matter of fact, they're more so now.
Look at Hillsborough County.
Look at Pinellas County.
You tell me that our schools are integrated.
- You say at one point in your book that because Blacks realize that they'll never be fully appreciated and integrated into society, they've created their own society.
So, for instance, you point to rap music as one of the institution that says, "Okay, we're gonna do some things differently "and we're gonna say to the dominant white society, "'Forget about you guys, this is us.'"
So talk about why you see the rise of these Black institutions being separate from the white majority.
- It's just reality.
I don't see a real positive message in rap music, but I can see why it is there and there's a need for it for a lot of people.
I don't need it.
But, it is what it is.
It is a reflection of what we have created.
If anyone, if a white person doesn't like rap music, then look at yourself.
You did this.
No white kid in Oakland woke up one morning and said, "I'm gonna write protest music."
No, the the person grew into that and until we start to actually assume responsibility for what we created, we have a problem.
John Stewart said one night, he was on CNN and John Stewart said, "People like DeSantis, the reason he has a problem, "we haven't been taking care of the problem to begin with.
"We have never taken care of discrimination "the way we should have "and so now we have what?
"Discrimination and here you are telling us "that those guys are the problem."
I read somewhere that you always despise people you mistreat.
We have been mistreated and therefore we're despised.
I believe that's the truism.
If you mistreat someone, you would despise that person.
- What do you think about family values?
There's conservatives that push back and say, "Blacks need to have more family values "and if they've made their family whole, "there wouldn't be the problems in the Black community."
- I don't have any problem with that.
I'm a strong believer in making sure that the household itself is safe.
The household has love in it and in the shelter.
I believe in that.
So I have no problem with that our argument.
You go anywhere in the world, tight-knit families are it and so if you have a subculture like we are and we are not tight, then we do have a problem.
So if anyone tells me that, I would say, "Yeah."
And I'm not conservative either.
The fact is that, damn it, families that stick together and have the right kinds of values can thrive in a particular way.
We are never gonna be part of this country.
I'm never gonna be the equal of Ron DeSantis.
But I can also go to my neighbor who's Black and say, "We need to get together "and clean this up and take care of this.
"We need to really make Black lives matter.
"Let's not hurt each other.
"Let's not kill each other."
Now that makes me conservative and I said, "That's bunk."
But the fact is that common sense is nothing more than survival.
- In addition to all your interests, you're a strong environmentalist.
Is there a nexus between environmentalism and justice and civil justice?
- Well, the environment is everything.
Everything is the environment and the environment is everything.
- What made you so interested in the environment?
- Like I just said, it's everything and matter a fact, as a child, I lived in it as a migrant farm worker, I was out in the great outdoors almost all the time and I don't understand why everybody doesn't realize that the climate is changing.
Why you can't see that the sea level is rising.
You don't know that the great Salt Lake is drying up.
So where do you live?
Where are you going to exist?
So we have to love the environment.
We have to love Mother Nature.
We have to love the world.
- Bill, we're almost down to the last minute or so, but we're coming up on the anniversary of Dr. King's, "I Have A Dream Speech" and you say that a lot of people that are now saying things favorably about Dr. King are getting it wrong.
Tell us what you mean by that.
- Nothing galls me more than have some white guy running around saying, "Dr. King said, "'Judge me, not by my skin color "'but by the content of my character.'"
Okay, I will judge you by the content of your character.
So if you are a racist, you don't have the right, Ron DeSantis does not have the right to mention Dr. King in any way whatsoever.
None of these segregationists, and that's what they are, no one in Alabama right now that I know of who's a leader that got rid of Doug Jones, but none of those people have the right to invoke the name of Dr. King because Dr. King did not mean for you to use his words that way.
He was trying to tell you that we have value, we are equal to you and God made us all equal and so no white man, especially a racist white man, has a right to invoke Dr. King's word because you are being intellectually dishonest when you do.
- We just have 30 seconds.
Are are you saying that there are politicians that are want to reinvoke segregation?
- Yes, a lot of them.
I'm not sure if Ron doesn't want to.
Rick Scott, yes, we have some very bad people actually running the state of Florida.
I don't know where all these guys came from who go to Tallahassee with these, I don't know where they get it from, but they are.
If you're telling me that my history cannot be discussed in classroom, why would you be afraid of my history?
Why would you want white kids not to know that we actually hang the men three blocks from here?
The kids should know that.
The kids should know that Blacks were brought here in the holds of ships and that they were worked until they died.
Why shouldn't you know that?
So, anyone who perpetrates that kind of philosophy, who speaks that way, for me, is nothing but a racist and we have a lot of those people right now running important institutions.
I just heard this morning, that many police departments, many of them now are actually recruiting Proud Boys.
Why would you recruit?
Why would you allow a person like that to be in the police department?
Why would you allow Klansman to be on the police force?
And that was one of the problems in St. Augustine when I was growing up, many of the deputies, many police officers in St. John's County were Klansmen and that's why it was so dangerous.
- Bill, thank you so much.
We're out of time, but it's always great to talk to you.
- All right, thank you.
- Well, Bill Maxwell, thanks for being on the program and thank you for joining us.
Send us your comments at email@example.com and like us on Facebook, you can view this in past shows online at wedu.org or on the PBS App and "Florida This Week" is now available as a podcast and from all of us here at WEDU, have a great Memorial Day weekend.
(upbeat music) (upbeat music continues) (upbeat music continues) - [Narrator] Florida this week is a production of WEDU who is solely responsible for its content.