Q: During Hollywood’s Golden Age, your father, John Cromwell, directed such movies as Of Human Bondage, Algiers, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But from 1951 to 1958 he didn’t direct anything. Why?
James Cromwell: My father was blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. He testified; he had nothing to say. . . .My father was devastated by the blacklist. Nobody would talk to him. He was a pariah; he wasn’t getting any projects. . . .
Q: Tell us about your political background and how you got involved with the Panthers.
Cromwell: I’m not a liberal; I’m a radical progressive. The Black Panthers were the subject of an action by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was going after Panthers on both coasts, and using as a cover the disagreement between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey [Newton]. The Panther 13 were accused of wanting to take over Abercrombie & Fitch, and the Botanical Gardens, and they were arrested. We were part of an organization called the Committee to Defend the Panthers. We’d raise money, get the Panthers out, then they’d skip bail and go to Algeria, where Eldridge was. When I went to Algeria, I actually met Eldridge; he wanted to see who I was and what my politics were. I always believed the goals of the Panthers were misunderstood by the majority of people. They saw the guns, and didn’t see what was in Huey’s other hand: a law book. The Panthers had a school lunch program, a shoe factory. They were organizing within the black community. Had they been allowed to go forward, we probably wouldn’t have the numbers of young people we have in jails now.
Q: What was your involvement with the Freedom Riders?
Cromwell: I went down South in 1964 as part of the Free Southern Theater, which toured under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was in Mississippi when Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were taken; we didn’t know they had been killed. I played football and went to high school with Mickey Schwerner.
This is but a small excerpt from Ed Rampell’s interview with James Cromwell in the July issue of The Progressive To read the entire interview, subscribe now for only $14.97and you’ll get access to the July issue, along with the rest of your one-year subscription.