Turning of the Centuries II: Inheriting the Past, Building a Future

From a conference entitled "Turning of the Centuries II: Inheriting the Past, Building a Future," held at Chicago State University in March 2001. Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago author and broadcaster, gives the keynote address. In it, he shares his experiences on the topic of race relations, peppering his talk with colorful anecdotes and taking a variety of questions from his listeners.

00:00Copy video clip URL Phillip Cronce, assistant professor of philosophy, welcomes the audience and introduces the theme of the conference, “Inheriting the Past, Building a Future.”

02:00Copy video clip URL Beverly John, executive assistant to University President Elnora D. Daniel, gives introductory remarks on Daniel’s behalf and invokes the university’s role as “facilitator of knowledge development toward positive social change.” “This occasion provides that opportunity,” she says. Audio sounds spotty.

05:42Copy video clip URL Cronce introduces Prof. Victor Sorell, the acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Sorell calls Studs Terkel a “cultural figure synonymous with the city of Chicago,” and uses literary sources to elaborate on the conference’s theme of past and future.

12:01Copy video clip URL Dr. DJ Bolder introduces Terkel and his works. “He is a man committed to preserving the oral history of our lives and publishing those accounts as testimony to some of the ways we live and think.” Quoting one of Terkel’s editors, she says, “Americans have told Terkel the truth even when they have lied to themselves.” Sound cuts out from

17:52Copy video clip URL to 18:18.

19:03Copy video clip URL Terkel, son of Russian immigrants, begins his speech on race relations by saying that the highest honor he ever received was an induction to the university’s Hall of Fame of Writers of African Descent under the “Voices from Other Cultures” section. “Boy, oh boy, free at last. Great God almighty, I’m free at last,” he said, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

21:12Copy video clip URL He explains the title of his talk, “Affirmative Action is Nothing More Than Affirmative Civility” saying, “affirmative civility means … recognizing the other person as a presence.” He criticizes the often negative portrayal of black Americans in the media, and shares an anecdote about “affirmative civility” from his own life.

24:06Copy video clip URL Terkel talks about the process of investigating material for writing his 1992 book Race. “In the 1950’s there was only one [restaurant] in the Loop where blacks were invited,” he said. He shares illuminating anecdotes about traveling with a group of musicians and being refused service in restaurants because one musician in their group was black. “You could cut the hostility with a knife,” he says.

29:50Copy video clip URL “Anecdotes tell you what it’s all about, really,” Terkel says, asking the audience to participate by asking him questions. The professor who introduced him asks Terkel about the most difficult interviews he’s conducted. He instead tells the most exciting interview he ever conducted, one with the former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan. He recounts the powerful story of how this man, forced to work side by side with blacks on a committee for their children’s schools, shed his prejudice and became an impassioned organizer for a black labor union. “That, to me, is the most exciting interview I’ve ever had. It tells me there’s something, there’s redemption. It’s spiritual, it’s biblical in its power,” Terkel says.

41:07Copy video clip URL The next audience member asks him about the musical adaptation of his book, Working. His response is inaudible until 43:05, and shares his opinion of the production. He also talks about an NBC radio project he worked on as part of the Works Progress Administration, called Destination: Freedom. “It was the first time ever African-American history was done in a dramatic form.”

44:54Copy video clip URL Another audience member asks complicated, general questions about freedom and slavery, which Terkel finds hard to answer, preferring not to speak in generalities. He instead retells an anti-slavery passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to demonstrate his viewpoint on the subject.

47:55Copy video clip URL The next question asks Terkel what circumstances instilled in him such a liberal viewpoint, especially in regards to race relations. “There was no epiphany moment,” he replies, saying that he instead came to appreciate African-American culture through an accumulation of experiences such as meeting people and listening to music from black musicians. “It just happened, I guess, naturally.”

50:27Copy video clip URL Another professor asks him to define black/white race relations today.  He expands on the topic by speaking also about relations between economic classes, and the impact of the media on societal relations. “I think grassroots has to be the key,” he says, and gesturing to the diverse audience gathered before him  remarks, “This is what it’s about.”

53:22Copy video clip URL The next question asks Terkel about his opinion of young people in America. “I have tremendous faith in young people … more than I’ve ever felt before,” he says, telling an anecdote about a diverse, politically engaged group of young people he encountered at a presidential rally for candidate Ralph Nader. “Once young people are informed, not deformed … they will do the right thing. They know it. I feel great hope,” he concludes.

55:27Copy video clip URL Another person asks about his parents, and their influence on him. “My father was a wonderful tailor, but had a bad heart. My mother was a tough little sparrow and ran a rooming house in Chicago,” he says. Terkel tells a colorful story about how his mother rented a room in her building to a prostitute. Once, when she saw the girl’s pimp roughing her up, she sprang to the girl’s defense, “lunging at this guy … scratching his eyes out.” “From her I guess I got that spitfire thing,” Terkel says.

57:49Copy video clip URL A man asks Terkel who he’d like to interview that he still hasn’t had the opportunity to talk to. “George Bernard Shaw would’ve been great. If you want to be stuck on a desert island … well, outside of Michelle Pfeiffer I’d say George Bernard Shaw.”

59:07Copy video clip URL “Do you see civil rights in America as being a lost cause because there hasn’t been another significant movement [since the 1960s]?” a woman from the audience asks. Terkel says, “It’s true, there hasn’t been, but it’s far from a lost cause, on the contrary.” She replies that she sees an anti-civil rights movement among young “yuppies.” Terkel admits that he has sensed a feeling of “disillusionment” but says, “This battle will always go on, of those who simply want to be good not only for themselves but for the community, and those who are out to get it no matter what.” He shares a humorous story about scaring “yuppies” on a bus.

01:04:38Copy video clip URL Another woman asks what role he thinks churches and community organizers play in social change. “The community organizations are the most important there are,” he says and tells a story about one such protest group.

01:06:48Copy video clip URL An audience member asks Terkel to share anecdotes about Mayor Richard J. Daley and Alderman Leon Despres. Terkel calls Despres “one of my heroes” but says sarcastically of Daley, “Remember he said there are no ghettos in Chicago.” He also recalls when the mayor bungled a phrase and mistakenly declared, “We’re going to higher and higher platitudes.”

01:07:49Copy video clip URL A man invites Terkel to a union meeting later that day and asks him to tell an anecdote about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). “It was the idea of one big union, way back then. They were self-educated men, by the way. These are blue collar working people who used to read a lot of books,” he says. Excusing himself to leave for work—”or else I’ll get canned,” he says—Terkel recieves a standing ovation.



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