It’s not every weekend you can see history rewritten before your eyes. Maybe it’s just this weekend, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where Bob Friedman and the Birmingham Black Radio Museum project will turn up the volume on a rarely heard aspect of the Magic City’s civil rights struggle.
In the era of American apartheid, small broadcasting stations WBCO, WJLD and WENN gave listeners on the other side of Jim Crow’s line insight into their unique culture and radio heroes of their own, such as Shelley the Playboy, Johnny Jive, the Thin Man and Tall Paul.
Paul Dudley White is of particular interest in this anniversary year for his role in passing information surreptitiously to black demonstrators while broadcasting on white-owned WJLD. No recordings of Tall Paul’s courageous broadcasts exist, but that hasn’t deterred Black Radio Museum project manager Bob Friedman. The BCRI event this weekend seeks to ensure that posterity does not overlook White’s contributions to the fight for civil rights.
Why is a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan telling this tale? That’s an interesting and complex story deserving of its own seminar, inspired by race consciousness and the love of music. “My father’s involvement in the garment industry introduced me to the black community for the first time as a kid,” Friedman said. As far as music, one name stands out for him: “There was nobody on earth like Douglas ‘Jocko’ Henderson. Jocko had a black Bandstand on television from Newark. Black kids, black groups. Even though Alan Freed was huge, Jocko was in a world of his own.”
In particular, the elegant harmonies of doo-wop fired Friedman’s imagination, drawing him to a career singing with and arranging for various groups. His political awareness also led him to crusade for causes as diverse as welfare rights and the presidential campaign of Lenora Fulani in 1988.
After that campaign, instead of returning to his base in Chicago, Friedman decided to try his luck in Birmingham because he liked the doo-wop music he heard late at night on WJLD. Liked it so much, in fact, that he applied to work there and was brought aboard as a salesman. (He would later go on the air as “Bobby D”, briefly hosting his own doo-wop program and then a talk show called Sound Off!)
Working at WJLD in 1992, Friedman realized the station was marking its 50th anniversary. He began research, talking to old-timers to compile a commemorative brochure. When the personality known as Johnny Jive brought by a scrapbook full of photos and memorabilia, “My mind exploded,” Friedman said. “The realization that there was this rich history out there was enough for me.” Friedman began interviewing everyone he could find with even a peripheral involvement in Birmingham’s black radio scene. To date, he has obtained around 60 oral histories.
Ironically, he never got Tall Paul’s. “He was reclusive,” Friedman said. “I remember Paul when I got to ‘JLD. He was a cantankerous guy, courageous, controversial and conflicted.”
Details of White’s early years have been difficult to authenticate, but it seems clear that by the time he began broadcasting at WJLD in 1962, the 26 year-old had lived a full life already. Once a promising boxer, his fearlessness became essential when he began his subversive broadcasts in the spring of ’63.
As Diane McWhorter recounted in the award-winning history Carry Me Home, Tall Paul might innocuously announce a “hot luncheon” at the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was code for high school activists to meet to plan street strategies. “There’ll be a party at the park; bring your toothbrushes,” meant a mass demonstration was imminent and that students should be prepared to spend the night in jail. When the announcer said, “It’s really cold,” on a day when the high was to be 80 degrees, it was a signal to hit the streets and march. The culmination of this effort was “D-Day,” May 2, 1963, the first day on which students ditched classes to demonstrate.
Though a morning drive personality, Tall Paul also got over to older students at Miles College. “He knew [Dr. Lucius] Pitts the president, he was out in the street, he lived in the community,” Friedman said. “He was willing to point out who he thought were dangerous men — Klansmen and so forth — and ID their cars and write down their license plate numbers. Miles College people might look at him differently than the kids he woke up in the morning, and we’ll learn more about that.”
That’s the premise of the panel discussion Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at the BCRI, bringing together Rev. Frank Dukes and publisher Joe Dickson, organizers of Miles College students in 1963, with minister Gwendolyn Webb and Richard Finley, who were high school students recruited to participate in the Children’s Crusade. “This may be the first time that Miles College and high school students, under two different disciplines, will be on the same panel to discuss how they saw each other in this effort,” Friedman said. Moderator Dr. Horace Huntley of UAB will encourage the audience to contribute their recollections of that fateful spring 50 years ago.
Bob Friedman will bookend the discussion with slide and video presentations on Birmingham black radio in general and Tall Paul in particular. If you can’t make the Saturday morning event, come to the BCRI Friday evening, starting at 6 p.m., to hobnob with panel participants, as well as with Brian Ward, the British author of Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South. Both events are free to attend.
Like freedom itself, recognition for Tall Paul has been a long time coming. “In my estimation, people who grew up in this city and went through the 1960s have been waiting for Paul to get his due,” said Friedman. “I am so pleased I can be a part of that.”