DATE June 30, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tom Roberts and Israel Goldvicht discuss the making of
the PBS documentary "Suicide Bombers"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Many people can't comprehend why someone would become a suicide bomber. A
recruiter, a trainer and three Palestinian suicide bombers whose missions
failed in Israel speak for themselves in a new documentary called "Suicide
Bombers," which will be shown tomorrow night on many PBS stations as part of
the series, Wide Angle. The men were interviewed in Israeli prisons. The
documentary was written and directed by my guest Tom Roberts, who also
conducted the interviews. He lives in London. The film was produced by
Israel Goldvicht who lives in Jerusalem. We'll hear from Goldvicht a little
Let's start with an excerpt of an interview that Tom Roberts recorded with an
18-year-old named Muhammad Abu Tayoon about why he had wanted to become a
suicide bomber. Tayoon backed down just before he was supposed to detonate
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. MUHAMMAD ABU TAYOON (Failed Suicide Bomber) (Through Translator) I want
to become a martyr. I don't want this life. I want to be with God, to enjoy
the second life. I want to go to paradise where there is happiness and joy,
where there are no problems. There I get all I want. I get to be with the 70
virgins. Here our life is full of problems. We Palestinians prefer to die,
just kill ourselves, rather than live this worthless life. My life is
worthless. We are hollowed bodies leading a pointless life. Israelis enjoy
their life. They go out at night. They have cafes and nightclubs. They
travel all over the world. They go to America or Britain. We can't even
GROSS: Tom Roberts says it was difficult to convince Israeli authorities to
grant permission to interview the failed suicide bombers, but once he was
given permission, he was able to select from a large number of prisoners. I
asked him how he chose the men featured in the documentary.
Mr. TOM ROBERTS (Writer/Director, "Suicide Bombers"): The majority of the
people that we spoke to, we asked if we could interview them immediately after
their interrogation was complete so that they were, in effect, fresh from the
field, that they had not spent a long time in prison, thinking about what
they'd done and perhaps reorganizing their thoughts or their retelling a story
or manipulating their story, but, in fact, it comes straight out of
We subsequently followed up those initial interviews with quite an extensive
range of contacts, so we did secondary and tertiary interviews with the same
individuals, and we found, of course, they said the same things, although with
less intensity than the first interview, so that we know that we didn't have a
distortion in terms of their point of view.
GROSS: Tom, let's talk about some of the people that you interviewed. The
first suicide bomber interviewed on this documentary is Muhammad Abu Tayoon,
an 18-year-old who entered Israel with a bag full of explosives but then
wavered and returned home before--you know, deciding against detonating, and
he was arrested several days later. Why did he want to be a suicide bomber or
a martyr as he would call it?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think that he is representative of a very large number
of them, a young man who was going to school, experiences the occupation, is
aware that to be a shahida, that is, a martyr, is an exalted position. Girls
are said to gather around the poster of the new shahida and giggle and talk
and admire. Everyone speaks in hushed terms about these individuals. And so
he certainly felt that maybe for nationalist reasons he should do something
like this. I don't believe that he really, deep down inside, actually was so
caught up in the ideology that he really wanted to do it and was driven to do
it. I think that he played with the idea.
And then, of course, he tells the story about how when he mentioned it to his
life's love, a young girl he'd known for, like, seven or eight years and
intended to marry, she was so appalled by the prospect that she became angry
and cut off her contact with him. This, curiously, led him to, I think,
probably become depressed. I don't know quite how he responded in emotional
terms, but certainly it accelerated his decision to become a suicide bomber.
Then all the other ideologies and other elements that are used to buttress
these people and get them on the mission were put into play.
GROSS: Before the mission, he made his video declaration of martyrdom. What
did he have to do on this video?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, generally, I mean, I think we've all seen them on the
news. You are often given a piece of paper to read, which is a political
tract, justifying your actions, proclaiming your belief in Allah and the
importance of martyrdom operations and then goes on to say that you're going
this, you know, in retaliation for X or Y and calling on your colleagues to
continue these kind of actions. It's a self-justifying thing, but it has
another very important mechanism. It's very difficult, of course, for any
individual to wrap themselves with explosives and press the trigger.
In Palestinian society, the social structure is very tight. You live amongst,
you know, your family and friends, and there's little opportunity to travel,
and family and the community is very, very close. And what happens is that
when you appear and you give this declaration, you in effect are called a
living martyr, that is an individual who's, in effect, already dead even
though your heart is beating. And once you've made that declaration, it is
socially impossible for you to back out of it. It's kind of like they've
slammed the door and you have no alternative but to carry out the operation.
GROSS: Why couldn't he do it? What was the attack supposed to be, and why
did he decide at the last minute that he just couldn't go through with it?
Mr. ROBERTS: As I recall, he was going to target a bus, go--one of the
typical bus bombings, get on a very crowded bus and press the button. In
actual fact, I think he was a confused young man who was there to carry out
this mission more for psychological reasons than for political or religious
ones. Now I went to visit his house. He lived in a refugee camp outside of
Nablus called Balata and it was clear that his family had some affluence. His
father had been a construction company owner. He'd done small projects like
putting in swimming pools and things of that sort. And as I looked around the
house, I saw two pictures on the wall of what looked like to be a grandfather
figure who looked down in a very stern, very rigid way amongst the--at this
family. I later discovered, in fact, it was photographs of his father.
And I watched his father very carefully and I found him to be a tremendous
autocrat. His wife seemed to be in fear of him. His kids jumped to his
order. And one can imagine that Abu Tayoon was a young man who felt he had
very much something to prove to his father, an element of `I will be respected
if I carry out this mission.' I think there were a lot of psychological
reasons, the girlfriend and the father, add that to the wider political and,
if you will, the general environment and he was motivated to go do this. But
in his heart, I don't think he had the courage and I don't think he had, if
you will, the rigidity of thinking, the narrowness of thinking that made it
possible for him to push that button.
GROSS: Well, one of the things he tells you in the interview is that he
thought, `What if I end up killing Israelis who actually favor peace?' And he
decides that, you know, there might be people who are killed who are pro-peace
and he wouldn't feel good about that. And he offers that as one of the
reasons why he couldn't go through with it.
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think undoubtedly that was part of the reasoning or
part of his I think justification. I think, in fact, he knows who he's
talking to in this interview and he's also just been interrogated, so he's
trying to put the best possible light on the reason he didn't go through with
it and he's deeply shamed by his failure. You can see that, the way he holds
his head, the way he tries to say that, of course, God decided he was not
going to be a bomber and therefore he was made to be confused by God. In
other words, it wasn't him that was confused, and it wasn't him that should be
ashamed, or he suffered the accusations of being a coward. He just couldn't
quite do it because God was preventing him from doing it. And I think deep
down he was probably more decent an individual ultimately than someone who can
take that extra step and that's not to justify or excuse it but that's to
understand that the ideology that is preached, that there are thousands of men
who just are desperate to go do this, to blow themselves up, is actually
propaganda. And there are actually very few individuals who really truly want
to do this.
GROSS: So what do you think? If he is released at any point and goes back
home, what would his reputation be? Would he be considered a coward? Would
he be punished by his own community for not having followed through on his
pledge to become a suicide bomber?
Mr. ROBERTS: I think that's very unlikely. I don't think he would be
certainly treated as a hero. He was a failure in terms of the ideology and
the propaganda and therefore they don't really want to call attention to that.
It's easier if you just forget about him and make no fuss or noise. So I
don't think he would have any great difficulty and I certainly don't think he
had any justification to fear that he would be harmed on his return. I don't
think there's any evidence that failed suicide bombers go back and are
executed or killed or assaulted.
GROSS: Is the fact that he couldn't go through with it taken into account in
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, yes, I mean, they can't sentence suicide bombers who are
GROSS: True, true. But, I mean...
Mr. ROBERTS: ...those who--yeah.
GROSS: ...is there this element of, `Well, you know, maybe you're not so bad
because you've decided against it at the last minute'?
Mr. ROBERTS: The sentence that a failed suicide bomber receives--he will get
about 15 or 17 years in prison. If a suicide bomber failed for technical
reasons, otherwise they attempted to press the button and failed, they would
get a higher sentence. And those who have been successful in terms that
they've sent other people to carry out--they built the bomb and organized the
trip and sent other people to kill and that trip was successful--will serve a
life sentence for every individual that was killed in the operation. So there
are people in Israeli prisons with sentences of 800 years or 1,200 years. In
that sense, Abu Tayoon would get a sentence of 15 to 18 years and that would
be relatively lenient.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Roberts, director of the documentary "Suicide
Bombers," which will be shown tomorrow night on many PBS stations.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Tom Roberts, directed the documentary "Suicide Bombers,"
featuring interviews with failed suicide bombers who are now in Israeli
prisons. Also joining us is the producer of the film, Israel Goldvicht, who
lives in Jerusalem.
Let me ask you about two other interviews that you did for this documentary.
You interviewed two men who recruit suicide bombers and build the bombs.
Israel, would you describe the bus bombing that these two men were behind.
Mr. ISRAEL GOLDVICHT (Producer, "Suicide Bombers"): Well, it's bus number
37, in Haifa. It was populated by young people, quite a lot of them are
teen-agers and so on. And its operation started in the city of Hebron in the
West Bank which is quite far from Haifa and they recruited somebody who agreed
to the mission but then changed his mind. So they picked up somebody else, a
Palestinian truck driver, we were told, with an Israeli ID card, i.e.,
somebody who lives within either Greater Jerusalem or was in the Green Line,
took him to Haifa, and he went to this bus and exploded--17 people were
killed. Right? Am I right, Tom?
Mr. ROBERTS: Seventeen were killed and 50 injured. I think nine were under
the age of 18, and it occurred after a lull, so it came as a big shock to the
Israelis when it took place.
GROSS: Now one of these two men that you interviewed recruited the bomber and
the other built the bomb and prepared the bomber. These two men that we're
talking about, what their motivation? Why were they so deeply committed to
Mr. ROBERTS: I think to answer that question, you have to start from--it's
like different perspective, which is to look at the difference between the
suicide bomber, the actual button-pusher, if you will, and those that send
him. Those that send him are, at least in our experience, very, very
committed individuals who believe deeply in the ideology, who are politically
active, who see themselves as great warriors fighting the Israeli state. But
I think in the end their hearts are really filled with hatred, and if you stay
till the end of the film, you hear Majdi who tells the story at the age of 12,
that when he was the age of 12, coming back from school, he was confronted by
an Israeli border patrolman who Majdi claims slapped him across the face for
no reason, whatever, and many years later, sought revenge for the humiliation
of that. Now how much of that slap was in his own mind and how much he
contributed to it and what actually happened at that point, you know, we'll
never know, but Majdi's heart, there's no question, is full of hatred and
GROSS: Now the recruiter you spoke to tells suicide bombers that they will be
rewarded in paradise for their actions. What does the recruiter tell his
recruits about the rewards they will get in paradise?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, they're very, very extensive. I mean, everyone seems to
focus on the 72 virgins that the shahida, the martyr, will be given once he
gets to paradise. I'm not quite sure what happens to the female suicide
bombers but, in fact, there are many other rewards and I think one of the most
significant ones is that the ideology or, if you will, the religious
fundamentalism preaches that 70 members of the suicide bombers will get a free
ticket, an automatic absolution of any sins, and they will automatically go to
So the suicide bomber can look forward to this luxurious wonderful life of
sexual ecstasy surrounded by brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and
cousins and nephews, all of which he knows that because of his actions they're
guaranteed to make it to paradise. So, again, you have a replication, if you
will, of the Arab family, of the extended family in paradise. And then when
you hear them describe the kind of world they're going to be in, rivers
flowing of non-alcoholic wine or of milk and honey and fruit juice and water
and so forth, you begin to realize that what they're describing is the idea of
what paradise would be for a desert or nomadic people.
Mr. GOLDVICHT: But one more point, if I may?
Mr. GOLDVICHT: The fact is that those who recruit them, when they were asked
by Tom about why aren't you yourself volunteering--so they do talk about doing
it one day but they talk about themself as the seed, as those who need to stay
alive to continue, you know, the struggle. And an expert told us, actually,
that you won't find family members of leaders of the Palestinian groups who
are participating in it as suiciders.
GROSS: Well, what did you learn from the person you interviewed who actually
built bombs about how the suicide belts are designed?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, it's, on one level, very, very simple technology. It's a
small, usually a plywood construction--you can use other materials--with a
thin layer of very high plastic explosive. And on top of that are piled nuts
and bolts, nails, and things of that sort, so that when the blast takes place,
the shrapnel rips out. It's made very thin and worn around the waist. And
the technology is simple. You need a detonator, you need a switch. That's
relatively all you need.
It's a very simple kind of thing. They rarely make them so that they wear
them front and back. So sometimes they mounted on the back. And as he
explains quite clearly, the simple instructions you are to receive is when you
get on the bus. If the majority of people are behind you or down one, you
turn your back so that if you're wearing a backpack, it explodes in that
direction. In other words, you face the bomb in the direction where the
majority of the people, whether it's on the front or back, to carry out the
greatest number of casualties.
In a confined space, this weapon is truly devastating and it tears people to
shreds really, and arms, legs are ripped off, and the shrapnel can do very,
very severe damage. The blast wave itself is enough to kill. Even if you
aren't hit by the shrapnel, the blast wave will rupture internal
injuries--internal organs, rather--and cause very, very, very severe injuries.
So, in a small, confined place--if you do it on the street corner, the
casualty levels will be much lower. So they need a confined space, a pizza
shop or a bus, something of that sort.
Mr. GOLDVICHT: A bus.
GROSS: And the suicide bombers are told, if they're bombing a bus, that they
should enter the bus full of peace and tranquility so that they don't draw
attention to themselves.
Mr. GOLDVICHT: And it's not painful at all. I mean, it's like a needle...
GROSS: Right, they're told that it won't be painful.
Mr. ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.
Mr. GOLDVICHT: It won't.
Mr. ROBERTS: And, in fact, I think that's probably the case. I mean, this
explosive is so severe and so instantaneous that the bomber is torn to pieces
and dies an instantaneous death. So, you know--but, I mean, you're right.
They're told in religious language, you know, enter with peace and in
tranquility because you're one step away from going to paradise, that you're
about to carry out God's mission. And so there are reports of suicide
bombers observed just before they hit the switch with a big smile on their
face. I don't know if that's true, but I've heard reports of that sort. And
one can imagine that if you really, really submit to the ideology, that you
may well convince yourself that you're about to take the trip of your life.
GROSS: Well, in fact, one of the teen-aged failed suicide bombers, somebody
who had second thoughts about it, tells you that one of the reasons why he
wanted to do it in the first place is that he saw two martyrs with smiles on
Mr. ROBERTS: Precisely.
GROSS: Dead martyrs. Yeah.
Mr. ROBERTS: You s--I mean, the interesting thing about Bilal--that's who
you're referring to, you mentioned as a would-be suicider. I've personally
come to the conclusion--this is a personal judgment--that Bilal never really
was a suicide bomber. He reacted to an event in the street as a young man
might do, seeing two individuals who were shot in a confrontation with Israeli
troops. We don't know the circumstances of what really happened. He felt a
sense of outrage, went to people he knew that could organize these.
And one of the things he did say, and we do point out in the film, is that he
said to them, `Quick, can we do it very quickly? Can we do it speedily,
because I may change my mind?' He wasn't really truly an individual who had
absorbed or believed in all of this. It was an instantaneous reaction
virtually. And had there been some delay, I think, before he carried out his
mission, he never would have gotten that far. As it was, when he got there,
he just decided he wasn't going to do this and didn't believe in it. And to
this day, he's different from the others--he doesn't believe in it; he doesn't
support it; he doesn't want to talk about politics. He realizes he made a
mistake and wants to get out of Israeli prison and leave the area, leave the
GROSS: In fact, he didn't grow up in Israel. He was born in Kuwait, grew up
in Jordan and, you know, was already a boy when his family moved to a village
on the West Bank.
Mr. ROBERTS: Exactly right. And I think that, you know, there are many
different elements that make the suicide bomber who he or she is. And, of
course, one of those is the social experience. One of those is the life
inside the West Bank or in Gaza. It's a very difficult life. There was an
intifada before where the young men of the community rose up and effectively
overthrew their elders and carried out this low-intensity campaign against the
Israelis. Then you had eight, nine years of the peace process, which gave the
Palestinians ultimately very, very little. They got very little reward for
this process. And although it was relatively quiet, it was a time of great
frustration for both sides. Both sides were mostly frustrated they couldn't
progress this peace process much further. And then the extremely violent
second intifada. I think if you grew up in those conditions and that's all
you know, you were ripe for the ideologies that are used to recruit suicide
GROSS: And the teen-agers today who are becoming suicide bombers are of that
generation that grew up during the first intifada and the second.
Mr. ROBERTS: They were children. Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Thank you.
Mr. GOLDVICHT: Thank you very much.
Mr. ROBERTS: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Tom Roberts and Israel Goldvicht made the documentary "Suicide
Bombers." It will be shown on the PBS Wide Angle series tomorrow night.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: In the late 1800s, one of the best jobs a former slave could get was
working as a Pullman porter. Coming up, why the Pullman Company wanted to
hire dark-skinned ex-slaves. We talk with Larry Tye. His new book is about
the Pullman porters and the making of the black middle class. Also, Ken
Tucker reviews the new album from the female rock duo Mr. Airplane Man.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Larry Tye discusses his new book, "Rising from the
Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the 1860s, George Pullman started a train company that had sleeping cars
(technical difficulties) traveling around the country in luxury. The
passengers were assured of special treatment by the Pullman porters. The
Pullman Company intentionally hired black men as the porters. It was an
exhausting job that was sometimes demeaning, but it was also one of the best
jobs available to African-American men. In fact, the Pullman porters helped
create and enlarge the black middle class. The Pullman Company terminated its
sleeping-car service in the late 1960s.
Journalist Larry Tye has written a new book called "Rising from the Rails:
Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class."
You write that by the 1960s, Pullman porters had come to personify the
grinning servant, the Uncle Tom, but the Pullman porters had been real agents
of social change in their prime. In what ways did they help create social
Mr. LARRY TYE (Author, "Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the
Making of the Black Middle Class"): In a couple ways. They first started in
the 1930s. They launched the first successful black trade union in America,
and this was a union that did all the conventional things that a union does in
terms of giving them substantially more wages, shorter working hours, general
better working conditions, but much more important than that, it gave them a
sense of self-respect and a sense of identity that they weren't just these
nameless, faceless guys who worked on the cars. They actually gave them name
badges, which were very important things for these men, who had either been
called `George' or been called by conventional profanities over their years on
the Pullman cars. And they were called George because, in the tradition of a
slave being named after a slave master, they were seen as the servants of
George Pullman, the man who launched the company they worked for.
GROSS: George Pullman started hiring Pullman porters shortly after the end of
slavery, and he intentionally wanted to hire dark-skinned ex-slaves. What was
Mr. TYE: His reasoning was twofold. One, it was that they would come and
work for him for whatever price, however low the price he decided to pay them,
and he paid them next to nothing, and that they would work as long and as hard
as he would demand of them, and he demanded them working a hundred or more
hours a week. But the more interesting reason that he hired them was he was
trying to sell railroad customers back then on a whole new concept, on the
concept of overnight travel, and his sleeping cars were more than double the
price of a conventional railroad ticket. So he had to convince these
passengers that they were going to get such ultimate service, such luxurious
service, that it was worth paying this--what seemed like an extremely high
fee. And who better to convince them that they were going to be waited on
brilliantly than ex-slaves who embodied for these white passengers the whole
notion of service?
GROSS: What was the service that they were asked to provide?
Mr. TYE: They were asked to do everything from serve as a chambermaid to a
valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, taking care of passengers who were
drunk or who had lost their temper. They were basically asked to do
everything that somebody would do in a hotel on the entire service staff. And
they were the only service staff on this railroad trip across country that
could often take three or four days, so they did every job that was asked of
GROSS: Now you mentioned that there was another reason why George Pullman
wanted to hire dark-skinned African-Americans, and that was to clearly
differentiate between the porters and the passengers. Because these were
sleeper cars, people were going to be undressing, preparing for bed. What was
his reasoning there?
Mr. TYE: There was a sense of the social separation, that these should be men
who were so clearly from a different world than his white passengers that
nobody could ever see themselves as running into these guys in another
situation off the train. And the blackness of their skin was seen as one more
way to differentiate them from their white passengers and to say, `These are
people who are different; they are almost invisible to you, and you should not
worry that you would ever be embarrassed if you're in a compromising position
with them on the train in terms of ever having to see them again in your other
GROSS: There was a whole rulebook that he published regulating the porters'
interactions with their passengers. What were some of the things in the
Mr. TYE: There were some extraordinary things in the rulebook. Some of the
things that I found most interesting and were most offensive to the Pullman
porters were that they should use different-colored blankets than either the
passengers or the white conductors to make sure that no white employee of
George Pullman or no white who rode on his train should ever have to worry
about using the same pillow or blanket that a black porter had used. There
were rules governing everything from how to fold a sheet to how to swat a fly,
that everything--George Pullman believed in a system of management that didn't
leave any detail to the discretion of his employees generally, and
particularly to his black Pullman porters. So he specified how they should
dust a passenger's jacket when they were leaving a train, on exactly what they
should do in shining shoes. Every little detail was written down in his
hundreds of rules in his thick rulebook that every porter was required to
carry every moment that they were on the train.
GROSS: Do you think that African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s
considered this a good job?
Mr. TYE: It was actually considered one of the two best jobs you could have
in the black community back then, particularly for a black man. They used to
say--there was a wonderful expression; Pullman and postal were the best things
that a black man in that era could do. And it meant that working for the post
office was one of the best jobs in terms of having higher pay and having a job
with more status, and the only thing that beat that in terms of blue-collar
work in the black world back then was being a Pullman porter.
GROSS: Well, what was the life like, the day-to-day life of a Pullman porter?
Mr. TYE: The day-to-day life was one of having to largely wear a mask that
essentially allowed them to accept some of the humiliation, some of the abuse
that they took from their passengers and not give it back to them. They
lived, in a sense, in two different worlds. One was a world that they showed
and the face that they showed to their white passengers, and that was a
perpetually obliging one. And the other was a world that they live in with
fellow Pullman porters where they actually develop their own language and
their own way of learning how to absorb this abuse without giving it back,
that gave them very much of a schizophrenic world back then.
GROSS: Where did they sleep?
Mr. TYE: They slept in the smoking room, which doubled as the men's toilet.
They had a little curtain that separated them from the toilets and the
washbasins, and they had an old couch back there. And they were given, at
most, four hours to sleep at night. Now, in fact, that sleep was interrupted
anytime a white passenger, a white man, came in to use the toilet or to have
a poker game into the late night in the smoking room, or just to have a smoke.
And so it was four hours maximum sleep, perpetual interruptions and a very
uncomfortable old couch separated by a thin curtain that was where they were
supposed to get enough sleep to function for their hundred hours of work a
GROSS: Must have been hard to function and hard to be cheerful with so little
Mr. TYE: A little hard to be both of those, absolutely. And yet these guys
managed to do it for careers that spanned 30 and 40 years, which was a
function of two things: of how few other choices they had, and of how the
upside of the job, the idea of being able to travel the country, being able
to absorb lessons from their wealthy and interesting white passengers--that
all of that looked so good compared to what other choices they had in those
days that they were willing to absorb the downsides of the job for all those
GROSS: What impact do you think it had on the porters and on the families of
the porters for them to be exposed to the travel and to so many different
Mr. TYE: We can see directly--that's the big piece of this book in terms of
trying to understand how they absorbed those lessons and what role it played
in their lives. They came to see the value of education. Their white
passengers perpetually talked to them about the importance of getting advanced
degrees or going to college at all. And they learned those lessons and saw
that the kids could get schooling.
They learned how to invest the money that they made, and it started out as
very little money, but after they had a union, they had enough to actually
think about what they would invest it in. And they saw America's leading
financiers riding the train with them, and these were people they spent three
and four days with, and they learned really concrete lessons. One porter
after another would tell me the great investments they made which, in many
cases, let them get off the railroads or, at a minimum, let them put their
kids through school. They absorbed the whole lesson of how the white world
worked in ways that they went on to put into use in their own life and that
let them become, if not themselves, through their children and grandchildren,
the founding members of the black middle class.
GROSS: My guest is Larry Tye, author of the new book "Rising from the Rails."
We'll talk more about the Pullman porters after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Larry Tye. His new book is called "Rising from the Rails:
Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class."
How did the Pullman porters start to unionize?
Mr. TYE: They tried to unionize originally in the late 1800s, and every
attempt to unionize was quashed. George Pullman had a monopoly on sleeping
car service. He despised the notion of unions, whether they were white
unions or black unions. And he managed to fire workers or do anything he had
to do to intimidate them. But there was a slow process that began in the
mid-1920s where a guy named A. Philip Randolph, who was not a Pullman porter,
came in and began a process of unionizing them. And it took a full 12 years
from the day they started the process to the day they actually got a union to
make this effort work. And Randolph and all of his lieutenants went through
entire poverty, experienced brutality at the hands of the Pullman Company, and
they were never discouraged enough, that they one way or another managed to
keep fighting the battle, whether it was in the courts, whether it was through
regulatory agencies, and, most importantly, trying to keep the Pullman porters
on board with him, and he miraculously succeeded in doing it through this long
GROSS: What are some of the specific things that the Pullman Company tried
to do to discourage the African-American workers from unionizing?
Mr. TYE: They beat up--they hired thugs--and this came out in the court
case--to beat up one of Randolph's top lieutenants. They fired dozens and
some people say hundreds of Pullman porters who were involved with the union
effort. They went to court and did everything they could to quash every
effort there. They tried to lobby Congress, and successfully did that, to
pass laws that made it very difficult to unionize the porters. And they did
all these things over a consistent period of 12 years, led at one point by Abe
Lincoln's son, who took over for George Pullman as the head of the Pullman
Company, Robert Todd Lincoln. And he was one of the best union busters of
anybody the Pullman Company had ever had on board.
GROSS: Hm. Once the Pullman porters did unionize, what impact did that have
on the labor movement?
Mr. TYE: It had two impacts on the labor movement. One is it helped to
desegregate the labor movement. In the early days, A. Philip Randolph and his
porters union were the only black union who was affiliated--they were not a
formal part of the AFL, but they were an affiliated union, and Randolph kept
pushing for full status, equal status within the AFL hierarchy. He would go
to every executive committee meeting and push for all the black unionists to
get more equal treatment. And he was a perpetual thorn in the side of
everybody who ran the AFL-CIO for about 25 years, until he started seeing his
efforts yield some results. It had a profound psychological effect on blacks
who were trying to unionize to see as visible of workers as the Pullman
porters were successfully create their own union. And then he yielded
practical results by pushing the union movement to accept blacks on an equal
GROSS: You know, it's still registering on me that President Lincoln's son
became the head of the Pullman Company and was so anti-union. Is it going too
far to say that Lincoln signed the proclamation to free the slaves and then
his son made sure that some of those ex-slaves or descendants of slaves didn't
make a lot of money?
Mr. TYE: Actually, the Pullman porters over the years had their own
expression: Lincoln freed the slaves and his son re-enslaved them. And they
didn't feel it was going too far to say that, and that's precisely what Robert
Todd Lincoln did. He was as vehement as George Pullman had ever been in terms
of trying to limit salaries, limit any potential for promotion, basically
limit the opportunities for his Pullman porters and keep them as chattel
slaves. And I think that Pullman porters over the years found that a really
grim but ironic situation they were perpetually pointing to.
GROSS: Do you think that the Pullman porters or their union had much of an
influence on the civil rights movement?
Mr. TYE: I think they had a profound influence. If I can tell you a quick
story about--when we think of the beginning of the civil rights movement, we
often date it from the Montgomery bus boycott. And the Montgomery bus boycott
began when Rosa Parks was asked to step to the back of the bus, refused to do
it and was arrested. The first person that she summoned to the jail to bail
her out of jail was a Pullman porter named Edgar D. Nixon. She knew Nixon
because she worked for him. He had an office that--he held two hats in that
office, and one was as head of the local chapter of the NAACP; the other was
as head of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And
Nixon had been waiting for years to have just the right test case to try this
boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
He had one problem, though, in trying to organize this boycott, and that was
that he was a Pullman porter who was out on the road so much that he couldn't
be there to be at all the meetings. So he looked around town for who would be
somebody that could be the perfect front man for him in this boycott, and he
saw this young minister who had just graduated from Boston University named
Martin Luther King who happened to have the biggest church in town. And he
called King and asked him, `Would you be willing to come to a meeting I'm
organizing of ministers to talk about what we do in organizing a boycott?'
And King said, `Give me some time to think about it; call me back.' So Nixon
calls 13 other prominent ministers in Montgomery and convinces them to come to
a meeting the next day. He calls back King and says, `What about it, Reverend
King?' And King says, `OK, I'll come.' And Nixon says to him, `That's great,
because I've organized a meeting for tomorrow at your church.'
And he saw King as perfect. He represented a wealthy church, a large church,
and he was young and impressionable enough that Nixon could pull the strings
in making this boycott happen with Martin King as the front man to start with.
And I think that's an interesting story to me because it's a metaphor for what
porters did throughout the years in the civil rights movement. They used
their union halls, turned over their union halls for civil rights meetings.
They bankrolled the civil rights movement at a time when there was no money to
support civil rights activities. And their people behind the scenes were
critical actors from the earliest days of the civil rights movement.
GROSS: As part of your research for this book, you found as many surviving
former Pullman porters that you could and tried to interview them. You also
interviewed, you know, family members of former Pullman porters. How did you
find these people?
Mr. TYE: It was--I had been a journalist for 20 years, and the most difficult
job I think I've ever done in those 20 years was finding these Pullman
porters. I did everything that--I called on every trick and every convention
that I'd learned during those years as being a journalist, from putting ads in
railroad retirement magazines, putting ads in every black newspaper in every
railroad city in America. I had Amtrak helping me track them down. I found
their old employment data that was left behind by the Pullman Company and
tried to track them down that way. I wrote letters to probably 500 Pullman
workers from those old Pullman Company records. I talked to black ministers
in major cities across the country. I talked to civil rights leaders. And
those things yielded precious few porters.
The technique that actually worked the best--and it shouldn't be surprising,
but it surprised me, and I was late to come to it--was talking to people who
ran nursing homes in cities, in major cities across the country. And they
tended to know. The Pullman porters were out of the normal network of social
interaction. They were so old and so tuned out from the normal networks.
They were in their late 80s, in their 90s; one was 102. And the people who
knew who they were and where they were were people who were running the
nursing homes that they were living in. And in every city, once you found one
Pullman porter, they would generally be able to lead you to others. But
finding that first one was a wonderful challenge, and I ended up coming up
with dozens of them, but it was really difficult and a real challenge.
GROSS: Now Pullman porters have figured into a lot of movies, even songs. Do
you have any favorites of all the ones you pored through?
Mr. TYE: First of all, I found fascinating the way the porters were always
background characters in the movies. There wasn't a movie from "The Thin Man"
movies to an entire era of movies from the 1920s to about the 1950s where
there was a train that you didn't see this obliging, smiling Pullman porter
character who generally had no speaking part in the movie. And they were the
perfect backdrop, partly because they conjured up this whole era of elegance.
And when they said things, it was generally roles as the compliant, obliging
But I think that there were a bunch of authors who managed to go a little
deeper, and one of them, my favorite, was Studs Terkel. And he had
interviewed E.D. Nixon, this guy who brought Martin Luther King into the
civil rights movement, in an oral history that Terkel was doing of the Great
Depression. And he quotes Nixon as saying, "A Pullman porter can always get
into a conversation anywhere. He walked into a barbershop, somebody'd say, `I
didn't see you around here.' Or maybe they'd notice his pants with the
stripe. Everybody listened because they knowed the Pullman porter had been
everywhere and they never been anywhere themselves." And I think that's
precisely what happened, for, in sketching out the Pullman porter's role, he
was a guy to be revered in the black community.
And I did an interview at one point with Julian Bond, the chairman of the
NAACP, and Bond said--to start out the hourlong interview, he said, `I've got
really nothing to tell you. I didn't know much about the Pullman porters.'
And he proceeded to describe how, as a little kid growing up in rural Georgia,
he had seen these elegant-looking black men dressed in their fine blue
uniforms and had seen them walking down the street as men of grace and men of
achievement. And he had no idea what the uniform was about; he didn't really
know what their job was. But these were men in the black community who stood
out and who were seen as the most prominent and respected men in that world.
They had been everywhere, they had seen things nobody else had, and they
shared their experiences when they came back from every train trip.
GROSS: Well, Larry Tye, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Larry Tye's new book is called "Rising from the Rails: Pullman
Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by the female rock duo Mr. Airplane
Man. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Mr. Airplane Man's new album, "C'mon DJ"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Mr. Airplane Man is a Boston-based duo that takes its name from a Howlin'
Wolf song. The band features singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett and
drummer-organist Tara McManus. Their third album, "C'mon DJ," has drawn
comparisons to another twosome, The White Stripes, but rock critic Ken Tucker
says these two women are using the blues for their own purposes, not to prove
sincerity and authenticity, like many white musicians do, but to express
intimate, immediate emotions. Here's his review.
(Soundbite of "Ask For Water")
MR. AIRPLANE MAN: Uh-huh, I asked for water. Uh-huh, you gave me gasoline.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
That cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Ask For Water," recorded in Memphis by the two
women who make up Mr. Airplane Man, is pretty nervy stuff. Discordant,
unmindful of conventional blues rhythms, but getting the spirit of the music
right: mournful, angry and resigned.
Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus fill their third album with original songs
and covers that suggest a desire to avoid the sound of the present day while
tapping into contemporary ambivalence and doubt. They do it again on an
original like, "Don't Know Why."
(Soundbite of "Don't Know Why")
MR. AIRPLANE MAN: Don't know why. Don't know why. Don't know why. Don't
know why. Don't know why you do the things you do. You say you like me and I
like you, too. So why am I always feeling so blue? Got a funny feeling
coming from you. I don't know why. Don't know why.
TUCKER: If you were just to read a lyric sheet for that song, it would sound
like something from the now-buried TV show "Sex and the City"--woman at home,
waiting for a phone call from a guy that never comes, feels bad, sits around
wondering why, and wondering why she takes this emotional abuse. But the way
Garrett sings it, she avoids any hint of self-pity. And her guitar and
McManus' drums lay out a canvas of music upon which Mr. Airplane Man can
paint expressionistic portraits of frustration and resentment.
(Soundbite of "Fallen")
MR. AIRPLANE MAN: Feel I'm fallin', fallin' for you. All you boys, I'll
think of you. There ain't nothing I can do. Fallin' for you.
TUCKER: That song, "Fallen," with its refrain, `There ain't nothing I can do.
I'm falling for you,' portrays love as an inescapable trap. It takes the
ideas of the blues as a music of fatalism, of doomed unhappiness, and turns it
into a music of delirium, of giving yourself over to an emotion no matter what
it may cost the singer.
This idea of losing control, of giving into one's bleakest hopes and desires,
is something you just don't hear in the most popular music of the moment.
From Missy Elliott to Norah Jones to Christina Aguilera, music by pop women
tends to be the stuff of empowerment, of taking control of bad situations and
making them right, or at least bearable. At the same time, there's nothing
weak or indecisive about the women of Mr. Airplane Man. The vehemence of
their music guarantees that. Just listening to the drumming on this song,
"Make You Mine," proves my point.
(Soundbite from "Make You Mine")
MR. AIRPLANE MAN: When I see you, the things I'm gonna do. Take you by the
hand, make you understand. ...(Unintelligible) be. You will love me. When I
hold you close, and take a little time, ...(unintelligible) 'cause, baby,
you're so fine. I whisper in your ear just what's been on my mind.
TUCKER: Mr. Airplane Man ranges across decades in their music: the '50s
stomp of "Red Light," the '60s psychedelia of "Sun Going Down," the '70s
punk-rock slam of the title track. But what the album comes down to is the
solidarity of these two women's friendship. They've known each other for 20
years, since they were 10, and met at a summer camp in New Hampshire. How
un-rock 'n' roll is that? But how rock 'n' roll is their music? Plenty.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"C'mon DJ" by Mr. Airplane Man.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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