Southern man-of-letters Robert Penn Warren is probably most famous for his novel All The King’s Men. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947. But in 1964, Warren embarked on a very different project—he traveled the country with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and spoke with dozens of men and women involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Warren published excerpts of those interviews in a book called Who Speaks For The Negro?
Now, digitized versions of all of Warren’s recordings are available through Vanderbilt University’s website.
Warren interviewed leaders like Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Warren, of course, is very Southern, and has a very, very Southern voice” said Executive Director of the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt Mona Frederick, “But we forget that King, too, has quite the Southern accent.”
While Warren is talking with King the phone rings, “And it really feels like you are in that room with them while they are having that conversation,” Frederick said.
As well as leaders like King, Warren spoke with men and women whose names would otherwise be lost to history.
“I think that the archive serves to humanize, really, all the figures involved in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement,” Frederick said. “And you hear them as human beings, as people who were frightened by some of the violence, who weren’t always sure of the next step.”
Frederick is grateful for the archive, but she says it was somewhat improbable that these interviews happened at all. Warren did his interviews at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and Frederick says it’s a mystery why these extremely busy activists took the time to talk with an older white man.
“That’s the one puzzle about the book and the material that remains unanswered. What was the cache that Robert Penn Warren had?”