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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Arthur Jordan

Leadership in the Negro Struggle


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, p.99.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Negro Leadership Class
by Daniel C. Thompson, with a foreword by Martin Luther King, Jr.
A Spectrum Book. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963. 174 pp. $1.95.

This is a study of the functional role – or roles – played by Negro “race relations” leaders in New Orleans since 1940.

The book is the product of a four-year (1958-62) research project conducted by the author at Dillard University where he was then a sociology professor. Dr. Thompson has culled a basic sample of 100 “top race relations leaders” (75 Negroes, 25 whites) from the 318 individuals initially interviewed by his research team. The responses of this basic sample to a series of “open-ended” questions, together with observations recorded by researchers (who were also active participants in Negro and interracial organizations) at meetings they attended, constitute the core material on which the study is based.

Dr. Thompson’s main concern is how Negroes “get things done” in a biracial community in which there are no Negroes in the decision-making “power structure.” He finds that to get things done, Negro leaders must seek to influence white “men of power,” and that, in the pattern of race relations on the leadership level, the role played by Negro leaders is largely determined by the types of whites they seek to influence. He describes three such white-Negro dichotomous relationships: “segregationist-Uncle Tom,” “moderate-racial diplomat,” and “liberal-race man.”

At the outset (1940) of the period under review, the traditional segregationist-Uncle Tom relationship was clearly dominant. Whatever the Uncle Toms could get done had to be within strictly Jim Crow limits. Then, perhaps as Dr. King’s foreword suggests, in response to changing “mass demands,” the Uncle Toms began to be replaced by the other, not entirely new, types of Negro leaders – the race men and the racial , diplomats. White liberals appeared to agree with the race men that Jim Crow had to go. White moderates seemed ready to work out compromises with the racial diplomats, even where some segregation might be abandoned in the process.

The difficulty was that all along the real white “men of power” remained segregationists. Moderates and liberals, it turned out, were not inside the “power structure.” Or, to put it another way, seeming moderates and liberals who were in the “power structure,” showed themselves in the pinch to be segregationists. In the school desegregation crisis of 1960-61 moderates acted at best as, in Dr. Thompson’s words, “segregationists unwilling to go so far as to defy the federal court orders,” while liberals, with some praiseworthy exceptions, reduced themselves to moderates or went into limbo altogether.

Returning to the question of how Negroes get things done, it seems that whatever has been done for New Orleans Negroes – not very much – it was done with the grudging acquiescense of segregationist “men of power.” This is apparent in Dr. Thompson’s chapter by chapter review of the negligible or very limited gains of Negroes since 1940 in the areas of “citizenship,” “earning a living,” and “education.” Perhaps cajolery and appeals to conscience coaxed a few contemptuous crumbs from the table. The rest was yielded under pressure – or the threat (overt or latent) of pressure: either direct mass action of some kind (boycotts, sit-ins) or the litigation-induced intervention of the Federal Government.

The Federal Government is, of course, a national “power structure” that far overshadows those of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Dr. Thompson seems confident that New Orleans Negroes – through northern Negro and white liberal allies – can exert more leverage upon it than can the local segregationist “men of power.” A test of strength may be the public schools where New Orleans Negro leadership seems to rely almost exclusively upon the Federal Government. To date, segregation is the reality in New Orleans public schools, integration a “token” will-o’-the-wisp.

Dr. Thompson estimates that a large majority of the present Negro leadership of New Orleans are thorough “race men” determined to achieve complete civic, economic, and social equality. He shows how they have grown in militancy and resourcefulness. The question, perhaps inadequately considered by him, is where do they go from here? Representing a minority, they still must find allies who will not desert or run for cover in the coming struggle. They continue to confront the segregationist “men of power” who still – by and large – call the shots in New Orleans. Won’t the last battle have to be one for the “power structure” itself?

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