Roundtable: Alphonse Fletcher Fellows Ed Gordon hears from three of the first 12 Alphonse Fletcher Fellows. They each receive a $50,000 grant for work that contributes to improving U.S. race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of Brown v. Board of Education.
NPR logo

Roundtable: Alphonse Fletcher Fellows

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Roundtable: Alphonse Fletcher Fellows

Roundtable: Alphonse Fletcher Fellows

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A special edition of our roundtable today. Our panelists are all winners of the Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship. They each received a $50,000 grant for what's been called work that contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the US Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. And joining us from our New York bureau is Deborah Willis, professor in the photography and imaging department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts; Kathleen Cleaver, senior lecturer in African-American studies at Yale and senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law; and from Pacific Grove, California, Robert P. Moses, founder and president of the Algebra Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I thank you all greatly for joining us today. We should say congratulations to you all. Just a note, the selection committee for this fellowship was chaired by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of this program. They reviewed more than 250 candidates who submitted applications for the fellowship.

Deborah, let me turn to you first and ask, tell us quickly about the project that you're doing that won, in fact, this fellowship.

Professor DEBORAH WILLIS (New York University's Tisch School of the Arts): Well, thank you. My project focuses on African-American photography and images of black people. I have, for a number of years, written and researched the history of African-American photographers and my proposal was to put together a documentary as well as to work with Aaron Neville and Keith Calhoun and a photographer, Chandra McCormick, on images in the South, in Louisiana, specifically on Angola prison. So it's a compilation of ideas of looking at images and how photography tells stories.

GORDON: Mr. Moses, let me turn my attention to you, and briefly tell us what your project's about.

Mr. ROBERT P. MOSES (Founder and President, Algebra Project): We have two projects; one is the Algebra Project, which is picking up from the civil rights movement when we used the right to vote as a organizing tool for political access in Mississippi, and now we're using math literacy as an organizing tool for educational and economic access. The other is an initiative which the project was involved in starting quality public school education as a civil right. What we are doing is working together with a network of people around the country. Danny Glover, who is on our board, was instrumental in getting this off the ground, as well as Vanetta Jones(ph), dean at Howard Law School. And what we are doing there is asking the country to think for the first time that it should treat all of the children in the country as children of the country. We would like a constitutional amendment. We're going to call for a constitutional amendment for education, quality public school education, as a civil right.

GORDON: Ms. Cleaver, you won your grant in the--with the idea of completing your memoir.

Ms. KATHLEEN CLEAVER (Senior Lecturer in African-American Studies, Yale): Thank you. Yes, I did.

GORDON: Tell us...

Ms. CLEAVER: I've been at...

GORDON: ...about that if you will.

Ms. CLEAVER: Well, I've been at work for at least 10 years in terms of this memoir. I started getting fellowships in 1994 to work on this book. The idea--it's called "Memories of Love and War." It starts in 1954, it ends in 1984, and that's a period in which the backdrop is the Cold War, the Vietnam War. And I call it that surreptitious war waged against the civil rights and black power activists of the '60s, particularly in the wake of the white violence and terrorism targeted in black communities following the Brown decision because these communities were hostile to the idea of ending segregation. And that violence continued and spilled over into many other areas. My generation took it upon ourselves to stand up against it and say that we're going to have our freedom and we're going to resist this type of effort to continue holding us back.

GORDON: I'm curious, Deborah, as you think about where we are today, obviously, so many gains made by African-Americans over the last 30 years or so, yet, as we heard in a newscast today, cross-burnings in North Carolina. We can run the litany of problems that we still have. How important is it for you to continue the effort to make sure that race relations stays on the front page, the front burner in this country?

Prof. WILLIS: Well, I'm committed to it mainly because we need to tell the story. Just as you mentioned the cross-burnings from the past are the very similar experiences that are going on today. But it's a way, as a visual person--I'm interested in visual literacy--how to tell people, the general public, about the horrific experiences that we have all experienced visually as well as physically. So my commitment is to documenting and teaching young people, teaching older people about this experience.

GORDON: Robert Moses, one of the things that I found interesting in your project is that it sprung from the idea that you weren't satisfied in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the way math was being taught at your daughter's school. And one of the interesting parts that we see today and dilemmas, quite frankly, is ofttimes we are not seeing our children educated on many fronts, not only literally in the schools but historically with our stories, which will obviously cause problems down the line for them and all of us, quite frankly.

Mr. MOSES: Well, I think one thing, we've been able to tap into math literacy because of the computer transformation of the technology. And so the computer age, the information age adds another literacy to the reading and writing literacy just for citizenship. So--but I think the central issue for us is that the education system has been the main driver of the country's caste system, vis-a-vis African-Americans. And when I was on the witness stand in '63, the judge asked us, `Why is SNCC taking illiterates down to register to vote?' And we, in effect, said, well, the country can't have it both ways. It can't have denied the whole people access to education and literacy through its politics and then turn around and say they couldn't access politics cause they were illiterate. And we won that struggle in terms of the Voting Rights Act. But the important point is that illiteracy was really the subtext of the right to vote in Mississippi.

GORDON: Ms. Cleaver, let me, as an extension of what Mr. Moses was just talking about with your involvement with SNCC as well as the Black Panthers in the previous discussion we just had about black leadership, I'm curious, as you develop these memoirs and, clearly, are going to have a lot of that in them, I'm curious about what your feelings are about black leadership today.

Ms. CLEAVER: Well, I think one of the problems we're looking at is that our community has been demobilized from the time when we were very active on the front of demanding the right to vote. And it has also been fragmented through both programs of affirmative action, integration that allowed some people to become suburban corporate executives, that other people shot off into the bottom ranks of the prison industrial complex. So we have a very different community and, therefore, we have a different relationship to the leadership. And I think what was important about the leadership that brought us to the point of some successes up into the '70s was that they were being generated and inspired by a mobilized community. That's no longer the case, and I think that some of what I would call the shallowness and the ineffectiveness that people are complaining about, leadership has to do with that relationship.

GORDON: Deborah, interestingly, as I listen to Ms. Cleaver there, I would think that you could chronicle, and I'd be interested in terms of what you see as images of today juxtaposing them to images of the past and what that tells us.

Prof. WILLIS: Well, one interest, as Kathleen just mentioned, in terms of how we reference the leaders visually. And the leaders that we recall from the '50s, how they--'40s and '50s, they reference themselves as leaders based on the way that they presented themselves, publicly speaking, dressed a certain way. And then they were not only just housewives, but they were also club women and they were women who were educated and women who were part of their communities who took care of their families. So I think that as we reference leaders, they're not just the visual aspect of the man in the suit. And that's my concern as I read photographic images, as I teach about photography. I'm interested in teaching people how to read the visual language in photography.

GORDON: Mr. Moses, I'm curious what you believe, as you move forward, is missing in the dialogue today as relates to race.

Mr. MOSES: Well, on this issue of leadership, what we did in the Delta in Mississippi, was to work what we thought as the demand side of that struggle for the right to vote. How do you get the sharecroppers into the mix so that they're demanding their rights? And, of course, out of that process came leadership from the sharecroppers. The most visible form of that was Fannie Lou Hamer. So one of the issues today is how do we get the young people that we are working with in the Algebra Project to make demands on this society for what the society says they don't want, namely their education. And so the Algebra Project and this quality public-school education movement is also very much focused on that. How do we work the demand side of this problem? How do we get the leadership from the grass roots, from the people who are left out? How do we get them into the mix? Because to really change the country, it's true. You have to have the leadership from the local level, working the demand, but then you also have to have the people who are working at the top of the country in terms of the presidency, the Congresss, the Supreme Court, all the national organizations responding to this demand, but...

GORDON: It all works in conjunction.

Mr. MOSES: Sorry?

GORDON: It all works in conjunction.

Mr. MOSES: Yes. Exactly.

GORDON: Yeah. Let me ask this with a little less than a minute to go. Ms. Cleaver, when can we expect the idea of your memoirs to be finished, and then public and available?

Ms. CLEAVER: Well, that's a tricky question.

GORDON: I know.

Ms. CLEAVER: What I think is important is that we need to understand the life stories of those people who fought and who sacrificed and who, as James Forman pointed out, believed it was important to work for human rights and not for money. And he said if we could get that idea to spread, we would revolutionize this country. And that's a part of the story I'm telling. I have about five more chapters to complete. I've completed 20, so it'll be in a year or two.

GORDON: OK. Deborah, real quick for me, you will have an exhibit of these pictures.

Prof. WILLIS: Exhibit and--yes, an exhibit and a documentary.

GORDON: And it will start out, the exhibit in New Orleans, correct?

Prof. WILLIS: Yes, at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans, yes.

GORDON: And when would that be?

Prof. WILLIS: We're hoping March of '06.

GORDON: All right. Deborah Willis, Kathleen Cleaver, Robert P. Moses, I thank you all for joining us and congratulations.

Prof. WILLIS: Thank you.

Ms. CLEAVER: Thank you so much.

Mr. MOSES: Thank you.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.