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Present and Future of U.S. Labor

H.W. Benson

Southern Negro and Democracy

Challenge to American Liberal and Labor Movement

(Spring 1956)

From The New International, Vol. XXII. No. 1, Spring 1956, pp. 3–17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Way down in America is the Southern Negro. His economic exploitation and political disfranchisement form the base upon which Southern reaction rules locally and bans social progress nationally. But the Southern Negro is rising; the brittle structure that rests upon his degradation begins to crack and a tremor passes through the country. This is the immediate effect of the fight to end segregation in the South, a struggle which prefigures a shaking-up of U.S. politics, surpassed in recent times only by the consolidation and victory of the CIO.

Consider 1952. The banner of liberalism was limply borne by Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman; the labor movement rallied enthusiastically behind them. Skeptics who pointed dubiously to the Senator from the white state of Alabama were hastily assured that he was the prototype of emerging Southern liberalism, taking its place in the march of civilization. Through the election campaign and in the years that followed, the mind and spirit of labor-liberalism throbbed in sympathy and harmony with its appointed political leaders.

But abruptly, this slate became obsolete. The combination that seemed so glorious in 1952 had become politically impossible in 1956. Impossible? Yes. Not that ward-heelers and bosses couldn’t rig up some such hodgepodge again, which unions could conceivably support. But only at the cost of an utter debacle. It would prove impossible to rally the voters in the cities, the unionists and minorities who are the organized mass base of American democracy. For 20 years, American politics has moved steadily rightward; and, except for a fleeting few moments, the labor movement has trudged along. Now, for the first time, standard bearers of liberalism come under sustained attack from their followers not because they are too extreme but because they are not radical enough. Stevenson and Sparkman have not changed since the days when they received the plaudits of cheering admirers. What is changing is the mood of the nation. And the most portentous single factor in effectuating this change has been the movement of Southern Negroes for equal rights.

For 4 years Democratic leaders of every faction have strained their nerves to maintain “unity” at all costs in preparation for the 1956 presidential elections. Liberals chatted politely at party gatherings with reactionaries and racists. But this rotten alliance is suddenly torn apart when the victim of racism, overlooked before, stands up to demand his due.

NEGROES ARE DEMANDING their full rights as citizens in the South. Not submissively and not pleadingly, but insistently. Their movement has all the characteristics of a profound, ineradicable, deep-seated popular movement. These people are stirred by a yearning for simple justice. But more. They sense that the mood and trends of our time combine to make this the decisive moment for action.

In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes boycott bus lines in a movement supported actively by 10,000, acclaimed nationally and internationally. While this is the most spectacular and perhaps the most effective mass action so far, it is only part of a pattern spreading throughout the South.

In Dallas and Houston, Texas, Negroes try in vain to continue what was started in Montgomery. Those who board buses and take seats in defiance of local segregation laws are arrested; but when a Negro pleads not guilty and makes clear that he is ready to go through a court test, his case is dismissed. It is not the Negro but the local authorities who shrink from the test and so far it has been impossible to bring a legal case to court.

In scores of small communities and big cities, NAACP chapters are formed. They concentrate now on mass petition campaigns requesting that schools be desegregated and Negro pupils admitted. Where they are refused, they institute court suits.

Early in February, a writer for the New Yorker magazine enroute to a national NAACP conference in Atlanta, Georgia, asked his traveling companion. Thurgood Marshall, national NAACP counsel, for a summary of the situation in the South. Marshall couldn’t answer. “That’s what I’m going down to find out,” he remarked, “That’s what the meeting’s about.” But, came the query, isn’t the NAACP leading the movement? In reply, he told this story:

A curious bystander watched a massive parade moving quickly down a broad avenue. As it passed he noticed one straggler dragging up in the rear straining to catch up with the crowd. The onlooker buttonholed the straggler and asked, “Say, what’s going on?” “Don’t stop me,” came the frenzied reply as the laggard shook himself loose, “I’m the leader of that parade and I’ve got to get up front.” That parade leader, Marshall pointed out, is the NAACP.

The NAACP rises to a national membership of 400,000. Of 1,500 mass membership branches, 700 are in the South where it has gained a foothold even in Mississippi. Thus, the movement becomes organized, a symptom that this is not a passing flush of protest but a persistent, permanent campaign. Yet, it is not created and organized by officials above; it wells up from below as the NAACP is transformed from a committee of eminent citizens into a popular mass movement.

“The morale and militancy of local Negro leadership is such,” reports Herbert Hill, NAACP labor secretary in the New Leader, “that spontaneous forms of dynamic action are developed and pressure is for the most vigorous challenging of the Jim Crow system.”

“When I came to Miami in 1943,” recalled Rev. Edward T. Graham, Negro Baptist, “Negroes were not supposed to be downtown or on Miami streets after dark. If a Negro was ever in a white neighborhood, he had a lot of explaining to do. Now a man can go where he wants to.” But they not only “go,” they demonstrate. Last fall, Negroes demonstrated at Sarasota for the use of municipally- owned Lido Beach. In Miami, they organized a mass petition campaign for the use of the municipal golf links.

These are courageous men and women. Some face up to economic reprisals that threaten impoverishment. Others face death. Some are killed. In Mississippi, last year two NAACP leaders who had been rallying Negroes to register and vote were shot and killed; a third was critically wounded. In January, shot gun blasts were fired into the home of Rev. Hinton in South Carolina, a man who had been leading local protests against school segregation. In Columbus, Georgia, Dr. Thomas Brewer who had led the movement which tested the right of Negroes to vote in the Democratic primaries was shot by a white tenant in his building. In Montgomery, the homes of boycott leaders were bombed. An NAACP member in the Deep South risks far more than, say, an active Communist Party member in the North. But the movement goes on. “Marshall Says NAACP May Go Underground” reads the front page headline of the Pittsburgh Courier on March 17, reporting that laws enacted by five Southern states aimed to drive the NAACP out of existence. To the New Yorker reporter, Marshall explained that many NAACP representatives do not send in written reports. “Some are leery about putting everything they know on paper. And when they phone, and hear clicking on the line all the time, they get leery about that too. I can’t blame them. It’s not safe to be an NAACP leader in some parts of the South today.”

When the murder of Brewer was announced at the sessions of the NAACP conference in Atlanta, a delegate from Bessemer, Alabama, said, “Everybody is armed there now, white and black both.” And a Negro woman NAACP leader in Alabama told reporters that she would start to carry a gun or get out of the state. Roy Wilkins, obviously anxious to calm his own followers lest their protest go beyond assigned limits, told reporters, “We will consider it a private dispute. We certainly wouldn’t want you people to headline it as a racial killing.”

In Orangeburg, South Carolina, site of the all-Negro State College, students, Negro students it should be remembered, hung in effigy the figure of white state representative Jerry Hughes, who pushed through the state legislature a law making it illegal for state, county, or municipal employees of the Democratic state of South Carolina to belong to the NAACP. Hughes represents (shall we say) the city of Orangeburg. Negro students are boycotting dining halls, demanding the end of milk and bread purchases from local merchants who support White Citizens Councils. They insist that College President Banner C. Turner speak out in support of integrated schools; when he evades and squirms at student-faculty meetings, they pound their feet and refuse to let him continue. When the state legislature retaliated by dispatching a committee to investigate “communism” in the university, students replied by a four- day student strike.

In Houston, Texas, 200 Negroes picket outside the all-Negro university protesting the appearance of Governor Shivers as a speaker. Outside the South, such an incident would hardly appear remarkable. But here it is an event. This group of Negroes feels ready for a mass demonstration in Southland. That alone expresses the turn in historical situation. And a demonstration against whom? Against the white governor of their own state. And their action goes off successfully, not only without reprisals from organized whites, but without the intervention of the state government. No police and no jails.

Scarcely more than a generation ago, the Southern Negro was literally whipped and terrorized like a cheap work animal. Now he demands not a civilizing tinsel on the chains of degradation, but nothing less than full rights. He challenges white supremacy and the political and social structure erected upon it. The Negro movement exudes self-confidence, a mood that is activated by the very air and spirit of the times. The South which yesterday was a united and closed world of white enemies, is now divided in itself and the Negro moves out for equality.

Here, in the heartland of the South, respect, deference, and humility before white rulers and white supremacy is disintegrating. Negroes fight as equals for equal rights. Although the struggle is only taking form, slowly enlisting wider sections of the population, the moral struggle of Negroes for equality has already been won; for they have affirmed it in action and wrested it from the ruling classes by their deeds. The Southern Negro will never again be reduced to the status of a pariah in political and social life. He emerges in combat into a key place in the politics of the South and thereby profoundly alters the political life of the whole nation.

Government and economy in the South are in the grip of white supremacists and segregationists; they dominate the state legislatures and executive chambers; they man the police force; they don judicial robes and run the courts. They own the textile mills, the tobacco factories. They own big cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations and processing plants. They own the Democratic party. They evict tenants and sharecroppers who try to exercise elementary democratic rights. In one South Carolina county alone 30 families were thrown out of their sharecropping homes. Foreclosure, the denial of crop loans are powerful pressures against tenants and croppers never out of debt. In 1950, the percentage of farmers who were tenants in five southern states was as follows: Alabama, 41.4 per cent; Georgia, 42.8 per cent; Louisiana, 39.6 per cent; Mississippi, 51.6 per cent; South Carolina, 45.3 per cent.

Here are millions of families, Negro in their majority, never out of debt, always needing loans and advances who are at the mercy of the planters.

In the face of what would appear to be an overwhelming force, a combination of economic and political power that would seem invincible, the Negro demands democracy. What gives him the courage to begin and the stamina to persist in what appears, at first glance, an unequal struggle?

It is not only that the Negro has slowly and painfully won a position in society, that the inevitable encroachment of industrialism and civilization upon the Southern way of life has slowly created a place for the Negro; that sections have been educated, organized, and wrested a higher standard of living. Above all, they know they are moving with history; that a powerful and progressive movement of labor spreads through the nation and sympathizes with their struggles; that the moral feeling of the country and of the world is with them; that the international position of the United States and its world reputation weigh against the racists. They know that they are not alone but that they fight together with millions of others in their country and with tens, hundreds of millions throughout the world for freedom: at home for democracy, abroad for freedom from imperialist domination.

According to one observer, Reverend Martin Luther King told a mass meeting of Montgomery boycotters, “You know, whether we want to be or not, we are caught in a great moment of history ... It is bigger than Montgomery ... The vast majority of people of the world are colored ... Up until four or five years ago, most of the one and one-quarter billion colored peoples were exploited by empires of the West, in India, China, Africa. Today, many are free and the rest are on the road. We are part of that great movement.”

Rooted in a worldwide surge for emancipation, the movement is irrepressible. The Southern Negro who moves into action under the impact of world events and the rise of the labor movement shakes national liberalism out of its lethargy. Yesterday, the Negro was led and stirred by the rise of a labor movement. Today, he prods the labor movement forward pushing it inevitably into collision with their common enemy.

A fight begins for the end of segregation in schools. But instantly, the broad question of democracy arises. The Negro must defend the right of the NAACP to exist, and his right to belong to it. He must intensify his drive to win political rights and to make his weight felt in government and in politics. But the whole South ern system, the class rule of white planters, merchants, and capitalists rests directly upon the disfranchisement of the mass of millions of Southern Negroes and to a lesser degree upon the disfranchisement of white workers. What is challenged is not merely segregation in schools, not even the oppression of Negroes in general but, the whole Southern socialsystem and the nature of its social and political rule.

The Negro challenge to the dominance of Southern reaction is already recorded in the struggle for the right to vote. According to Herbert Hill, 700,000 Negroes were registered voters in the South in 1948; in 1952, this figure rose to 1,300,000. Their break through is revealed in some state figures:

In South Carolina


35,000 voters in 1946;


1952: 130,000

In Florida

40,000 voters in 1948;

1956: 120,000

In Louisiana

60,000 voters in 1948;

1956: 150,000

In Arkansas

85,000 voted in 1952

In North Carolina

55,000 voters in 1948;


1952: 100,000

This is only the beginning. There are 6,000,000 potential voters among Southern Negroes. Southern reaction is based on their disfranchisement. It required only 100,848 votes for Mr. Eastland to return in 1954 as Senator from Mississippi, a state with a population of 2,100,000. To elect Senator Lehman from New York required 2,630,000, approximately as many voters as the whole population of Mississippi. But that is not the full story. It required over 17 per cent of the New York population to send a Senator in an election in which 36 per cent voted. But Eastland’s position is based on the votes of less than 5 per cent of the people of his own state. It is on such a thin base that Southern rule is perched. The Negro struggle against segregation, inseparably connected with a struggle to expand democracy, in fact to achieve it, threatens this whole system of narrow rule.

In 1943, the United Auto Workers published a study entitled, Labor’s Stake in Abolishing the Poll Tax. At that time, 8 states had a poll tax. But the Negro is barred from voting, not principally by the tax, but by intimidation and violence; hence, the UAW report presents a picture, accurate in essentials, despite the inevitable changes in detail after 12 years. In sum: 12 per cent of the population voted in the poll tax states in 1936; 44 per cent, in the non-poll tax states.

The following table, based upon UAW figures, gives a state by state survey:

Disfranchisement in the South







Votes received

Voters disfranchised 1940



























S. Carolina
























More voters were excluded from the polls than those who voted for the winning candidate. Even more pertinent to our subject, in most cases the winner received a smaller vote than the number of Negroes alone barred from the polls.

Thirteen Southern states elect 26 Senators and 120 Representatives. This alone gives them impressive power in a Senate of 96 and a House of 435. But mere arithmetic hardly tells the full story. In 1954, the Democrats won 49 Senate seats, a narrow majority which permitted them to organize and dominate all its committees. The South, by itself has a majority inside the Democratic caucus. (26 out of 49). And in the House (252 Democrats to 203 Republicans), the South again controls the Democratic caucus (120 out of 232). And so, after labor’s "victory” in the ‘54 elections, the South dictates the choice of Speaker of the House (Rayburn of Texas); imposes its choice as majority leader in the Senate (Johnson of Texas); dominates party committees and decides the party’s real line in everyday affairs. Not every Southern congressman is equally tied to the racist bloc, only 100 signed the segregationists manifesto; but the figure of a predominant Southern conservatism emerges nevertheless.

That is not all. Consider the so-called customs and traditions of Congress. Chairmanships and prize committee seats are awarded by “seniority.” We only just witnessed the grotesque elevation of Eastland to chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Supreme Court has ruled segregation unconstitutional; Eastland, a Mississippi cotton plantation owner, who arouses and organizes resistance to its decision, now occupies a strategic position to block civil rights legislations. Why? He is senior member of the majority party. And how did he accumulate seniority? In the Democratic South the election of white Democrats is guaranteed by guns and clubs. Thus, Mississippi terror reaches into the Senate chambers to decide what shall be lawful.

DISCRIMINATION EXISTS in one degree or another everywhere, North and South. Wherever it persists, it is pernicious and detestable, and must be eradicated. But in the South it is erected into a code of law imposed and enforced by the power of government.

In the South governmental power itself is erected upon segregation; social rule depends upon maintaining the Negroes’ legal disabilities and upon their forcible exclusion from political life. Adlai Stevenson, in a futile effort to dodge the fight for democracy in the South, levels a finger at anti-Negro riots in his own Chicago. Does he contend that the rule of the Democratic Party in his state depends upon Jim Crow? Hardly. But it does in Mississippi and Alabama. The representatives of Southern planters and mill owners whose support Stevenson seeks, occupy seats in Congress only because the Negro cannot occupy unsegregated seats in buses, schools and polling booths. Grant the Negro lull equality and they fade away. This is true nowhere, but in the South.

NEGROES ARE CONFIDENT of success. “Many years ago, we asked for school equalization,” said Dr. C. J. Gilliam an NAACP leader in Baton Rouge to Look magazine reporter Carl Rowan, “Then we couldn’t get it. Now, we don’t want it. We want nothing less than total integration in all facets of American life – and we won’t stop until we get it.” Rowan, reporter for Look magazine said “I found Negroes confident of victory.”

And white racism? The mood is quite different.

Sam J. Ervin, Senator from North Carolina, writing on The Case for Segregation in Look magazine cringes before national opinion. “Southerners of both races,” says he, “practise racial segregation in those areas of life which are essentially social in nature. There is little other racial segregation in the South.” He hardly speaks like a man convinced of the righteousness of his cause. By denying the evident fact of segregation in all spheres of life, he becomes apologetic. He lies. A bold lie can inflame a movement, but not a shamefaced lie. By shrinking from a defense of segregation in general, he concedes, in effect, that it is not defensible – in politics, on buses and trains, on the job.

And why is he for segregation? “The reasons for my belief in social segregation based upon race are simple. They do not rest on any theory of racial superiority or racial inferiority.” He just has a feeling that segregation is the natural way of life of humans and animals.

This man signed the Manifesto of Southern Congressmen; but he has neither the courage, confidence or conviction to proclaim the superiority of the white race. When Southern reaction could reach into the lofty realms of white superiority, it might dream of standing on solid moral ground; pure civilization stood with rope and faggot against the pressures of savagery. But now, its security has vanished. It stands over an empty pit. Here, a Senator who signs the Southern call to action is ashamed to defend racial superiority before the nation’s public.

Contrast the spirit of militant U.S. Negroes; they have no hundred Congressmen to sound the alarm; they control no governments; they run no political parties. Yet, every word and action trumpet: “We are right; you are wrong.” When one side radiates rectitude and the other is driven to shamefaced lies – (Southern reaction still clings to the ludicrous claim that Negroes want segregation) the outcome of the struggle is determined.

Look at racist leader Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi. Proudly and firmly he stands for the purity of America and its white man. In Congress he takes his position uncompromisingly against the liberalization of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. He will, if he can, preserve the South white, American, undefiled by modern civilization or other foreignisms. The man however, owns 4,000 acres of good Southern farmland: cotton, oats, soybeans, and corn. Under terms of the Refugee Relief Act he has already settled a Hungarian family on his land as share croppers and seeks to bring in another of Russian nationality. The call of humanity, liberalism, democracy, internationalism find no echo in his soul. But to the appeal of sordid economic gain he quivers in sympathy. If he only troubled himself to conceal the hypocrisy, he would show a certain respect for public opinion. This way it is too coarse, too crass. Such is the leading champion of the Southern cause.

Unlike the Negro, who is aware that his cause is spurred on by peoples the world over, the representatives of Southern reaction feel the glance of contempt, if not from a unanimous population, at least from that section of the population which is politically active and thinking. Thus, the “fear” that pervades the South, meaning the racist, white South. This “fear” is nothing less than the realization that national and world opinion stands against prevailing relations in the South and that these are on the verge of a momentous change.

Take for example, the careful admonitions of Louisiana Senator Allen J. Ellender. In radio address on March 17, he told his constituents, “What the South must avoid at all costs is violence, lawlessness, hatred, and bloodshed. The outside agitators who seek the subjugation of both white and Negro races in the South are hovering like greedy vultures for the time when racial antagonisms lead to chaos ths breakdown of governmental authority, and general lawlessness. If this condition should occur, then all our people could look forward to would be a reputation of the reconstruction regimes which brought the South only oppression and self-seeking exploitation.” (Irresistible habit compels him to pose as protector of the Negro, but his plight consists in this: everyone laughs. So we will not take it seriously.)

Nor can one take seriously his comic opera warnings of the impositions of “reconstruction” regimes upon the South. A hundred years after the Civil War, the social scene has altered. When Ellender and the narrow class stratum he represents are driven out of office and democracy extended to the South, they will be replaced by governments which rest not upon Northern bayonets but upon Southern masses. The aim of the rising movement in the South is to free the land from the domination and rule of an anachronistic class whose power is waning.

Southern reaction balances itself delicately in national politics and Ellender realizes that he can do nothing drastic to quell the Negro movement. The reconstruction bogey is a device for frightening his extremist followers from demanding of him what he cannot deliver. Not reconstruction by military rule from without, but the free play of social forces within the South – there is the doom of Ellender.

In a democracy, where issues are finally decided by the will of millions, the mood of contesting forces is crucial. A rising determination and confidence on one side; spiritual diffidence on the other is at last transmitted to the masses. At such times we say, the “mood” of the nation is changing. Such a change, for example began in 1929. Through the twenties, Republican “normalcy” prevailed; it was an era of conservatism, of open domination by big business, a “chicken in every pot,” permanent prosperity and continued progress through the open domination of big business. Even in prosperity, the labor movement faltered, the AFL declined, liberalism declined, progressivism vanished. But the crisis changed everything; big business lost its own self-confidence in the crash and the mass of people came out from under the spell. The spiritual domination of the capitalist class was and remains mortally stricken. Even now, while Americans are ready to support capitalism, they reject whatever appears as the direct rule of capitalists. The mood of America, yes, even powerful capitalist America, changed. Just such a change of mood, in the South, is foreshadowed in the struggle against segregation.

It is a change that threatens to overwhelm Southern reaction.

But, if racism cannot hide the fact that even the South feels that its cause is morally rotten, can it perhaps hold on by violence bolstered by dilatory legalisms?

For a hundred years, the exploited mass of Southern Negroes has been kept in check by open violence and legal manipulation. The doom of the Southern system can be read in this fact: its room for juridical maneuver has been drastically curtailed while the resort to violence is ultimately hopeless. This is not to say that all matters will be settled peacefully and painlessly. Violence, or the imminence of it, remains as a threat, for example, to the Negro in Mississippi who wants to vote. The situation teeters constantly on the edge of violence precisely because a decaying ruling clique may be driven to desperate measures. In the end, however, it is futile. The Southern Negro probes for weak spots in racism and finds them. Any attempt to repress this movement by terror would succeed only in unleashing a nationwide wave of revulsion and indignation.

A call for sending Federal troops to the South has already been voiced, conjuring up visions of the deposition of local governments by military rule. Rule from the outside has always tended to unite the local population against the occupier. But it can hardly ever come to this. A hundred devices are available to an aroused national democracy short of military occupation: federal laws and their simple enforcement; arrests of those who prevent citizens from voting; in sum, a program to make acts of discrimination, segregation, and antidemocracy a criminal federal offense. The days of Civil War and Reconstruction are over and with it the impenetrable unity of white supremacy. Like the nation, the South is divided in itself: unions against employers; tenant against landlord; city against farm; reactionaries, middle-roaders, liberals. So far, these antagonisms have not been forced to the fore in the course of the Negro struggle. But this seems clear: if it comes to an open struggle between a united national democracy and Southern reaction, there will be no united South.

Law offers as little refuge as violence for the legal climate has become dark and cloudy for them. Seventy years ago, planters ran the South, while outright tools of Big Business ran the country. Racism took shelter under Supreme Court decisions which perpetrated Jim Crow despite the 14th and 15th amendments. Now, there is a new “legality” and a new Supreme Court decision which undermine racism and stimulate the struggle for equality.

Nevertheless, for generations, the South held the Negro in bondage, exploited his cheap labor and robbed his political rights. If all that was possible despite the Constitution, perhaps it is still possible despite the Supreme Court. Such seems the illusory hope of Southern racism, as for example, Senator Ervin:

“The Constitution in other words does not require integration, it merely forbids discrimination. It does not forbid such segregation which occurs as the result of voluntary action. It merely forbids the use of government power to enforce segregation.” Thus: one line of maneuvering is indicated. And he concludes literariously, “Thomas Carlyle said: ‘Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.’ I believe, as he, that it is best to solve today’s problems today and to leave tomorrow’s problems to tomorrow.” Put off equality for another hundred years? Is it possible? If everything depended upon law and law alone, yes. From that viewpoint the racist view is not totally illusory. Stave it off five years; ten years; fifteen. Perhaps the world will change: perhaps the nation will change; perhaps the labor movement will decline; perhaps ... who knows what? The factors that favor the Negro struggle are not etched in eternity. Just as reaction gives way before labor and democracy, so, alas, human freedom is sometimes forced back. The hope of Southern reaction lies in delay, in awaiting the unknown. The Negro movement on the other hand rejects “moderation” and “gradualism,” fully aware that the time is ripe to strike mortal blows at Southern racism and perhaps exorcise it forever.

The possibility of delay lies in the very nature of the Supreme Court decision. Remember that no law has been passed to make segregation a criminal offense. And thus far, no one in authority pants impatiently for such a law.

Fred Rodell, Professor of Law at Yale University explains what this means in the April 3, issue of Look magazine. “Without a criminal statute, desegregation has no teeth – save only that a state official can be jailed or fined for contempt of court if he disobeys an order specifically and personally directed against him. Without more and more Supreme Court decisions, the South can go on using all manner of devices that get around the letter of the original ruling until each in its slow turn is forbidden.” To end segregation merely under the terms of the Court ruling would take decades. There are 10,000 school boards in the defiant states, he points out. In each county Negroes would have to press for admission, in the face of local intimidation from their landlord. They would have to appeal to the Court against local boards, then for contempt citations, and then? Years pass. The child who appealed for admission to elementary school becomes a man while the legal machinery creaks on. He grows old and dies, segregated as ever.

But all that is speculative, for the fight cannot be limited to “law.”

The Court decision gave an impulse to the struggle for Negro rights, but did not create it. Quite the contrary. It would be more correct to say that the struggle created the decision: the minds of the eminent justices were not molded by a close scrutiny of old law journals. They overruled their predecessors who had sanctioned Jim Crow in the schools because the struggle of Negroes had pushed through into their consciousness. In the United States, the Negro was not quiet; during the war he had extracted an FEPC by a threat to march on Washington; and now, the whole world talked of Jim Crow. While America postured in the world as the champion of liberty, millions of newly freed colored colonial peoples knew that the American Negro remained legally oppressed.

The decision, prompted by the struggles of the past, becomes in turn the starting point for an intensified struggle. In the same way, section 7A of the NRA and the Wagner Act, concessions to rising demands of labor, stimulated it to new demands. The parallel is very close. Section 7A did not organize a single union; it established the right to organize but set no criminal penalties for violating this right. A cumbersome machinery was erected: appeals to Labor Boards; appeals to the courts to enforce the decisions of Labor Boards. Where employers resisted Board decisions, cases dragged on for months, for years. One case, against Weirton Steel, finally reached a weary conclusion some ten years after it had been begun; by then, the union was dead. The NRA was dubbed the “National Run Around.” The Wagner Act symbolized the new mood of the country; the breakdown of the morale of open shopism and the rising confidence of the workingclass. Nevertheless, in the end, the legal logjam was broken, not in the courts but in the class struggle, as unionism won its decisive victories in sit-down strikes and on picket lines.

The Supreme Court decision does not in itself desegregate a single school. It puts the question in a new legal framework and prepares a thousand court cases. But equality can become a reality, the decision can be enforced only by unremitting pressure from below.

The issue then will not be resolved within the sedate walls of courtrooms, it will be fought out in politics. In Raleigh, North Carolina, 125 delegates at a state-wide NAACP conference mapped out a campaign to register and vote. A Negro weekly in Durham editorialized: “The job of defeating those who would deny Negroes the full right to democracy can only be done at the ballot box ..." But to bring these ballots to the Southern box, to have them counted, and to assure that governments will be based upon their will ... that struggle will shake up the whole nation. It is already doing that.

AS THE SURGE OF NEGRO STRUGGLE widens, Herbert Hill notices, “An aspect of these developments that has ominous implications is that, by and large, the Negro has so far fought this battle alone ... With very rare and isolated exceptions, white institutions and individuals have not come forward to join in the fight – even though now the Negro who demands his rights is acting within the law and the whites who insist on segregation have declared themselves outside the law. Where are the responsible and moral white people?” He might properly pinpoint his query: where is the labor movement?

Leadership in the fight for democracy in the South has momentarily passed out of the hands of the labor movement. In a certain sense the Negro does fight alone; but he is not isolated ... it would be impossible otherwise to account for the high morale and determination of his struggle. It was the rise of mass unionism that paved the way for the big advance of the Negro struggle; in return, it is the Negro who paves the wav for the next big advance by labor.

It was behind the banner of unionism that Negroes last fought the big battle for equal rights. As the CIO penetrated major industrial centers where Negroes worked by the tens of thousands – auto, steel, rubber, oil, packinghouse, racial barriers were torn down; Negroes poured into the labor movement with equal union rights; they won job security; they raised their standard of living; they became union leaders, trained and able. A dent was made in the prejudice of millions as white workers and Negroes joined in united class action as the CIO demanded equal rights for Negroes and condemned the poll tax. Negro and white steel workers marched together through the streets of Birmingham and in open defiance of local segregation ordinances sat together in the same hall to organize their union. It was a union leader, A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Sleeping Car Porters, who emerged as one of the leading spokesmen for the Negro people and led the March on Washington movement. The CIO “preempted” the struggle for Negro rights. In 1947, Rev. Horace White, Detroit Negro minister, commented, “The CIO has usurped moral leadership in the [Negro] community ... Sadly, I must admit, the Protestant Church gives no moral leadership in Detroit.”

Men like R.A. Nixon, one of the leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott, were hard at work. He became president of a Sleeping Car Porters local. In his spare time, he organized Negro building trades and clothing workers. He became an active member of the NAACP and organized a pressure campaign to force election officials to place Negroes on Alabama’s voting lists. His name has shot into national prominence. There are scores, hundreds like him all over the South; men reared in the labor movement ready to give leadership in the struggle for equality.

But the labor movement, after its initial burst forward, bogged down. It lost momentum, not only in the struggle for Negro rights, but in the struggle for democracy in general. First, the war; the unions fought their own battles less, cooperated with the government more and shunned all conflict. Then, the progressive section of the labor movement, above all, the CIO, remained a minority of the organized working class as conservative sections of the AFL moved in competition with it. Millions came off the farms and into the factories for the first time.

Now there is a united labor movement and in their unity AFL and CIO prepare to root out discrimination where it has taken hold in the unions. At the same time, it meets a strongly entrenched inner foe: organized racketeering and begins a campaign to break its hold. The new federation is preoccupied with its own internal revamping, preparing itself to lead ... perhaps tomorrow. But the struggle over the Supreme Court decision erupts today and the Negroes begin pressing hard. The labor movement which should be the spearhead, the rallying fighting center, confines itself to declarations of solidarity, moral support, and counteracting the agitation of racists in southern locals.

The most stubborn obstacle in the path of unionism has been its own political policy. In general, labor is paralyzed by its attachment to the Democratic Party. In particular, it is blocked in Congress by a Republican- Dixiecrat majority. Let us for the moment put all “prejudices” in favor of a labor party aside. Even within the framework of bourgeois politics, it would be simple common sense for the labor movement to insist that the liberals whom it supports break with the Southern reactionaries. But it has never risen to this elementary demand. Labor gives all for unity with liberal Democrats; liberal Democrats hold tightly to Southern reactionaries; and Southern reaction combines with conservatism generally to knife labor.

Negroes are intimidated in the South? So are labor organizers. Unionists are beaten by thugs or jailed by police in the South as a matter of routine.

In 1953, Louisiana sugar cane plantation workers struck during the harvest season. In October, after they had been on strike for 60 days, a state court issued a sweeping injunction at the behest of plantation owners, that made virtually all strike activity illegal. Two years later, the union’s appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court and lo! the state court was reversed; the injunction set aside. Regrettably, in that two years, the strike had been broken and the local union wiped out.

The legal victory was of some interest but hardly oversignificant to the plantation workers who were driven out of the area or to those who remain at a wage of 41½ cents per hour, the legal minimum set by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The labor movement protests. Its publicists pen indignant editorials and news releases which are privately printed in its own press. Telegrams and long distance phone calls pour in to the Attorney General’s office demanding federal intervention. But nobody listens; it is soon forgotten. With such contempt an organized body of 15,000,000 workers is shrugged off ... 15 million! almost as many organized trade unionists as there are Negroes. The union is ignored but not the Negro. Why? And when injustices fly thick and fast, where are the Democratic liberals? Busy with other things. It never occurs to union leaders to put it plainly and simply: we insist that you speak up in public and begin a fight in “our” party to rid it of the influence of Southern reactionaries.

But the Negro movement shows no such diffidence. Sensing its new power, it insists upon a strong and clear stand against the racists; no catering to reactionary pressure, no weasel words. Behind this insistence lies a threat, a threat that the compromiser will find himself deserted. If the Negro rejects compromise with Southern reaction, the labor movement can do no less. Stevenson felt the whip of labor hostility from George Meany. Significantly, it was not a complaint that he had ignored labor’s big struggles: Westinghouse, Perfect Circle, Florida hotels, Kohler; rather, it came as an attack for compromising the struggle for democracy in the South. Now, the mass unions can support another compromise between New Dealers and Slave Dealers only at the risk of an unprecedented political split with their own Negro membership.

But there are limits. Like labor, the Negro is confined to the two major parties. Yet, no one can claim that he is indefinitely or permanently attached to them. In the heat of the fight, Adam Clayton Powell does not hesitate to talk of a new party if neither of the others will fight for democracy. He is a man whose slogans come and go. The fact remains that the Negro, fighting for equality in the South, pushes to free American politics from the doldrums where it has been becalmed for 20 years. That is its contribution to the fight for democracy. It is no small thing.

THE NEGRO STRUGGLE reminds labor of everything that it has left undone. For one thing, it has left the rule of Southern reaction fundamentally intact. The union movement has been dissuaded from its clear duty to itself and to the nation by simple homilies: the lesser evil; half a loaf is better than none; moderation and evolution. Now, the Negro too, is pressed to be modest and retiring in the name of “gradualism.” Gradualism and moderation, how felicitous a thought in America, the land of the happy middle class. It is the ideal solution for a vexatious difficulty. Are we not all moderates except for “extremists”?

Yet, gentle and genteel liberals are astonished that the Negro movement, all its wings, rejects moderation; and not because they are extremists. The NAACP, respectably and cautiously led; the churches, calling for prayer; pacifists, unionists heap a unanimous ridicule upon the exponents of gradualism, sparing not President Eisenhower and his erstwhile chief rival, Adlai Stevenson. Clearly the issue cannot be “gradualism vs. extremism” but something else. Hear James Reston, New York Times columnist. Eisenhower, said he, “has a vast body of moderate opinion working with him, but the extremists who want ‘enforcement’ and those who want ‘nullification’ are better organized than the moderates ...” The Negro becomes an extremist because he insists upon “enforcement”; meanwhile, “moderation” is counterposed to enforcement. (One side, in the service of human freedom, insists upon application of the Constitution; the other, in the name of racist tyranny, demands that it be set aside. It requires a finely developed sense of aloof impartiality to dismiss both as “extremists.”)

Enforcement requires human action; politicians must do something: pass laws, see that they are executed, if necessary, jail those who disobey – a fate ordinarily dispensed without qualm to ordinary criminals, Communists, alimony shirkers, and pickets. It requires that an Eastland be repudiated and Montgomery boycotters be encouraged. But “gradualism” is far more lenient. It simply describes the slow accumulation of social forces, the decade and century long evolution in opinion, standard of living, intangible advances, unnoticed setbacks – all of which takes place autonomously, virtually independent of conscious human will. Above all, gradualism makes no demands upon politicians; it doesn’t ask for patronage; nor does it demand that they take a stand.

Liberal gradualists are dismayed by the struggle for equality. But this is not to say that they oppose the trend to equality. Quite the contrary. They undoubtedly welcome it. Some, perhaps, only in private. After all, they are humane, civilized and ... realists. But why, they bemoan, force us to act and press us to repudiate party colleagues like Eastland and the signers of the Southern Manifesto whose votes we have always appreciated. There is a subtle difference, too, between the gradualism of the Southern liberal and that of his Northern brother.

Occasionally, the racist talks of "gradualism” but exclusively for national consumption. On home ground, he demands not the gradual advance of Negro rights but active resistance to it. But the Southern liberal is thinking of something else. Here, where tradition, public opinion, law, and plain physical force hold the Negro in bondage, "gradualism” becomes the refuge for those who cannot summon the courage to fight for their convictions in a hostile environment. Obey the Supreme Court, uphold the law, gradualism, moderation ... this is their timid stand against aggressive reaction. The gradualism of the Southern liberal will not give active aid to the Negro struggle. But one thing is already certain; the Negro will not be disoriented by it. At any rate, it represents a deep fissure in the white wall of racist unity.

But the North? Here racism is not elevated into ruling government and liberalism dominates. It should be easy to stand up for democracy among democrats. Yet, Northern liberalism finds it difficult. Here, one can arouse popular indignation, rally support for the Southern fighters, protest, demand Federal laws, demand democracy in the South. In the North, in sum, the call for gradualism and moderation weakens and disorients not the racists but the fight for democracy. And why? Only because the Democratic party remains a party of New Dealers united with Slave Dealers and liberals have been determined to keep it so.

DEMOCRACY IS CHALLENGING Southern reaction. The elements of the challenge have been accumulating, gradually, for generations, until the issue is at last posed: will the old rule be deposed or can it resist this assault until the surge for democracy recedes? This question cannot be settled “gradually.” First, the fight for democracy must be won; then reaction and racism can be slowly and gradually liquidated. Or, the Negroes can be defeated and their fight for democracy demoralized.

Everything combines now to the advantage of those who demand a change: the labor movement is strong, united and overwhelmingly in solidarity with the Negro; Southern reaction is under pressure; the constitutional foundations of Jim Crow have been undermined; the cold war relaxes and attention can be focused on the inner battle for democracy; the United States is under irresistible pressure from the newly free, colored peoples of the world. Everything is ready and ripe for the final blows. The Negro seizes the initiative and brushes aside those liberals who call upon him to act with restraint. His public contempt for false compromise has thrown liberalism off balance. Yesterday, liberals and labor were content to wait for the self-liquidation of the Republican regime maintaining unity in the Democratic party with the Southern reaction. But now, the Negro will not permit it and this is the rejuvenating force in American politics.

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Last updated: 24 October 2019