THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Stand Your Ground – We Are on the Side of Right.”
Memory Treasure Chest (MTC) interview, 2015
JP: I think the first time I became truly active was when I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina to teach at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It was the time of the civil rights movement. And it was very early on and it was considered enormously controversial and Greensboro was not a place of enlightenment. And I was teaching at an all-girls school because that was the time when the boys were at Chapel Hill and the girls who were at Greensboro, an hour away. Because they didn’t really believe in coeducation at the time.
It would be the equivalent of the campus here at UCLA in relationship to downtown Los Angeles. Our campus was not downtown where the real action protests and the fight for civil rights was going on. So, I decided that I would organize my students to be part of the protests. But we would do it right there at the campus and we would boycott the movie theater and two restaurants. One called was called The Big Apple. I got six people who were willing to go along of all of my students.
Only Six People Came Out and We Picketed.
The six of us. I had gone to the police station and got a permit to do this, because I didn’t want to have any problems with the logistics of it. And I didn’t want to be told that we couldn’t be there. And they said you know you have to keep moving – you can’t stand still. So, we went around and around in this little circle in front of the restaurant – in front of the theater. And many times, faculty members from the university who were my colleagues that I saw every day would walk right through our picket line and enter the restaurant and the movie theater deliberately as a way of saying you can go to hell.
That hurt a lot but what hurt more was we would be doing our little walk around in front of the restaurant and theater and the rednecks in their confederate cars with their confederate flags would drive by. And they would toss empty beer cans filled with urine at us. It was very hard but the one thing I told my students who were the ones brave enough to march with me was – you stay your ground. Hold your ground. No matter what they do – no matter what they throw at you – no matter what they say – You just hold your position. We are here on the side of right. And so that became our motto. Stand your ground. Stand your ground. And we did. It took us from November to June to finally get the restaurant and the movie theater integrated.
It Was a Great Triumph For Us.
One of the students that stayed with me during all of that – she was always by my side when I went out with a few people to march and to do our little circle walk in front of the doors was Alison Greenwald-Gold. She is now a well-known author and a dear friend of mine. I named my first-born child after Alison Greenwald-Gold. I called her Alison for a reason. Because I thought if she has the same moral fiber – and she does indeed – if she has that moral fiber, all will be well. We will be a happy family together. And my daughter Sabrina is from a line in [John] Milton’s Lycidas, where you have the words – Sabrina fair – listen where thou art deep – and I thought, yes, she’s going to be my deep Sabrina. And so that’s how I got my daughters’ names.
MTC: So, what kinds of things would people be surprised to know about you?
JP: I’ve worn different hats in my life. I think most people do. By the time they get to my age they can look back. I graduated from Northwestern University as an undergraduate. I went to New York and I was hired by Condé Nast, which at that time published Vogue, Glamour and House and Garden. And I was hired as what they called a rover, which meant they put you in different positions working with different fashion editors and saw what worked and what gelled. I ended up working with Betty Downey [who] was the editor in chief, fashion editor in chief of Glamour magazine – although I did some stint with Vogue.
And of course, given the way I now dress most people find it’s pretty hard to imagine that I worked for Vogue, but I did. In those days, I was quite chic. And it was fun to work in the fashion industry. I had just graduated from college. I wanted to be in New York. I was thrilled that Condé Nast hired me. It was a wonderful time. And I went to the theater practically every night, of course. That’s why I wanted to be in New York. I had a splendid time. And then finally the issue of whether black dresses or blue bathing suits will be on the cover of Vogue – and I thought – I can’t stand it another minute.
I Can’t Stand My Life Thinking About This.
And so, I thought – let’ see what do I really like to do? And I thought I really like to read books and I really liked to discuss them with people who also like to read books. I wondered how I could possibly get paid to do that. And that’s when I decided to go back to Northwestern and get a PhD in literature and solve that problem. I thought, I’ll be a professor. And so that was the reason. I wanted to have more meaningful activity. And then when I became a professor – although I was not a full professor – I’m using that term as though I had this elevated status, which I did not. You start as an adjunct and then an assistant and then associate etc.
Needless to say, before I got to the point where I could be called full professor, I got married and did what women did in those days. I started having babies. This is what we did. We worked and worked and worked and got into a position where you could really move and then you got married and had babies. But that of course is also a source of extraordinary joy with no regret, I say that. I’m only talking about the patterns of the 40s and 50s. Back then people had a different way of handling it.
Today. You know – they don’t stop. They get the PhD and they keep going. I think that’s a very good idea to just keep going. And that’s when I got hired as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina. That really changed my life because then I became a political activist. And stayed a political activist with causes that I felt were noble and good.
MTC: And when we talked last, you mentioned something about the John F. Kennedy debates or something being a turning point for you if I remember.
I Assumed I Was a Republican.
JP: Right. Yes. That’s very interesting that you remember that. It shows how there’s so much crowded into this cranium now with almost 82 years of information up there. I didn’t even think of that. But when I was in graduate school there were the Nixon-Kennedy debates. And I had been raised in a very conservative world of Grosse Pointe, Michigan and everybody was Republican, and I assumed that I was too. It never occurred to me one way or another.
And yet when Nixon and Kennedy debated on television – and it was the first time – there was such a debate. I listened and watched and there was Richard Nixon – and I thought – I don’t really agree with anything he says. I guess he’s the Republican. And I guess I’m a Republican. And then John Kennedy started to talk, and I thought. Oh – I agree with everything he has to say. I guess I’m not a Republican. I guess I am a Democrat and that stuck. That was the first time.
MTC: Had you been registered to vote prior to that?
MTC: Were you registered as a Republican?
JP: Oh yes.
MTC: When did you change?
JP: Immediately darling, so I could vote for JFK.
MTC: Can you share some other stories from when you were younger? When we last spoke, you told me a great story about when you were four years old.
JP: Oh yes. Well my sister was very cautious. My sister is a lovely lovely woman, but she was very shy and very cautious, and she stayed very close to home base and we had a nanny, and everybody felt very comfortable that we were well cared for and well looked after. How I got away from my nanny I do not know but at one point I decided that I wanted to go shopping. And I had a nickel. And I decided that I was going to shop and spend my nickel and I headed out on the street and I was heading – like this street – it would be like if I was heading to Wilshire Boulevard the equivalent of a really quite busy thoroughfare.
Finally, somebody opened their front door, a neighbor down the road a bit opened the front door and saw me walking along and said to me – where are you going Joannie? This is in my 4-year-old glory. I said – I’m going to the store. And she said, Oh really. And I said, Yes, I have a nickel and I’m going to the store. And she said, Does your mother know you’re going? Oh absolutely. She said, What about your nanny? Does your nanny know that you’re out here? Oh yes. She knows too. And I just headed off and of course the neighbor immediately called my house and said – Do you know where your four-year-old daughter is at this very moment? She is heading down to Jefferson Blvd. and not too far from it at this point. So that was my first excursion into I want to be independent. I wanted to do my own thing.
MTC: Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up in Grosse Pointe for you.
JP: Oh, it was lovely. You know what you know you don’t know anything when you’re a little kid except what you have right around you. And it was lovely. You know my neighbors were sweet. My family was sweet. My nanny was sweet. It was just positively the nicest thing imaginable. And everybody was Republican, so they all got along, and everybody was comfortable. So, they all got along on that score too. So, what do you know – you’re just a little kid and everybody’s living just the way you live so it doesn’t occur to you to think about other worlds? It just doesn’t.
MTC: Were there any other instrumental moments that led you to become the woman that you became and are today?
JP: Yes, I think it all goes back to that time – the 60s kind of thing when things are changing. And it goes back to understanding that there’s something there to protest, that there’s injustice and gross heartbreaking inequality. There’s a wonderful thing that Eldridge Cleaver said – I don’t know if he’s the first to say it but he certainly made it very prominent. And that is either you are a part of the solution or you are part of the problem. I wrote that on the blackboard when I taught every single time I had a new class. Either you are a part of the solution or you are part of the problem.
Apathy and Indifference Is Not Acceptable.
And so that led me to work in the civil rights movement and then in the peace movement and then in the women’s movement. You see it has just evolved – evolved – evolved because the currents come and go. The currents are here and then there is a new shift. First, you’re evolved in civil rights and then all of a sudden there a Vietnam War and we are killing Vietnamese and what we all did in those days. So now this is hard to imagine.
But I want to tell you, it’s all of America. This is just not Grosse Pointe but all of America said – Vietnam? Where is Vietnam? Why are we concerned with Vietnam and then we got out a map and we opened it – this little bitty place on the map halfway across the world and we thought – what? So that was huge for us to understand the concept of a totally evil, totally senseless war – it’s just so bad. And if that doesn’t get you moving, very few things will.
MTC: How did things segway into your interest in the women’s movement?
JP: I think that was a very much a normal part of the progression. Where Stokely Carmichael at one place said – I hope I am not maligning someone else. Well anyway – a leader within the civil rights movement actually said in public and into a microphone – that when somebody commented that there were no women leaders in the civil rights movement. And he said – but there is. The place for women is on their backs. And that did it – see that changed everything for women. The women’s movement was – this is my take on it – you could get a hundred people and you might have a hundred different views on what got the women’s movement going. But for me that’s what got the women’s movement – my connection into the women’s movement going.
MTC: Were you there in person or were you did you hear about it or read about it?
JP: That’s a good question. No, I don’t think I was although I was in the audience when Stokely Carmichael spoke in North Carolina. That was really interesting. As a matter of fact, Alison Greenwald Gold and I were the only white people in this audience that night. We went to hear him speak. We didn’t know that we would be the only white people. We looked around and everybody was African-American except for the two of us. And we were up in the balcony so we could really check. We were looking and checking it out.
It was very important to go and hear these people. That is not where when he said that most loathed the line. He made great sense in that speech because of course there was a lot going on in Greensboro. You know that they finally got to be where food was dumped on the heads of people who sat down at the Woolworth’s counter – integrated. And we were out in front kneeling in the posture of prayer. And they beat us anyway.
MTC: Tell me about that [Newsweek Magazine].
JP: This is the last issue for the year 1999 before we went into 2000 and a whole new century. And this is the last issue that Newsweek put out and the words – I can’t read them exactly here but it says basically how ordinary people changed history. I looked at that and I thought, oh yeah you know that’s so true. We were just ordinary people.
We Weren’t Anybody Special.
We were just out there in the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement. And there were so many of us that saw each other in all of these movements, and I thought that’s a wonderful thing to put on the last Newsweek of that century. I opened it up and by it was a banner across if you open this up – it was a banner and there was an image of a suffrage worker over here and it went straight across the page over the two pages. And Alison was with me and I was looking at this and I looked at that and I said – Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh I can’t believe it – that is Sandra and me with one of our ERA signs in a march. I can’t believe that we are there. And it was so touching. Because she said – so seriously – Of course you and Sandra are there, mother. Because you and Sandra were always there.
I love to go to the theater, to the ballet, to the opera. And for instance, last night I was at the Geffen. I’ll be at the Douglass on Thursday and then next Tuesday I’ll be at the Taper. That’s the pattern of my life goes I like I like going to the theater. That’s thanks to my father who at a very young age took me to the theater. I like being with my family. I like being with my friends. I like going to the theater and I like working for causes.
MTC: I remember you talking about a quote about basically – if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. A quote that impacted you. Are there any other pieces of great advice that you’ve gotten over the years that you’ve taken to heart?
JP: So much. You know so much. When we are active and when we read and when we hear people speak and when we read more that I can’t even begin. You know I just can’t begin. Oh, I love Emily Dickinson’s poem that starts – “I taste a liquor never brewed. Inebriate of air – am I. Debauchee of dew.” High on life. Oh yeah. Everybody said she was gloomy – she was not gloomy. She was high of life. She loved life. Breathing the air is enough to make you high on life. There is so much out there that one could cite that as I say it would be for five years.
MTC: Is there any advice that you would pass along to your grandsons and future generations?
JP: Oh, absolutely yes absolutely. Stay connected to the issues of your times. That is very important. Because I had a very dear friend now deceased. She was a student of mine at Northridge and I started to get her involved in Democratic Party politics and she said to me – I wish that I had known you earlier. Because I was never connected to the issues of my time. And now those issues they shift you know first it’s the civil rights movement then it’s the Peace Movement then it’s the women’s movement then it’s the anti-nuclear movement. She said I just wish that I had been connected. My feeling is – get connected and stay connected. Don’t think the issues are going to go away. Look what we have now with Ferguson. All of this is still the need to be connected.