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Ernest Rice McKinney

Can Capitalism End Jim Crow?

The Civil-Rights Report and Program

(April 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 4, April 1948, p. 101–105.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights is a document of the highest political and sociological significance.

The document is not only of importance for what it says, including its recommendations, but also because the conclusions and recommendations of the Report find their way into the Truman message to Congress on civil rights. In the message, the Report takes on very real political bone and sinew. This may not have any great significance in and for the North but such things are very clearly understood in the South. Aside from the political and sociological significance of the Report, the document raises certain theoretical questions in connection with the possibilities of bourgeois democracy in the United States and the resolving of what Myrdal has called “An American Dilemma.” Each of these questions will be treated in the course of this article.

The pertinence of the Report does not arise from any novelty in the publication of hitherto unknown facts about the failure of the democratic process in the United States. All of the findings of the Report, everyone without exception, have been known for decades and have been written down before. One can find every “discovery” made by the committee in the files of the Negro press, the archives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, in a host of books, pamphlets and other writings. What is of the greatest import at the present time is that Jim Crow and discriminatory practices have been uncovered, revealed, exposed and condemned by a committee with the composition of the President’s Committee.

What is new is not that the committee has discovered the existence of Jim Crow with all its heinousness. What is new is the fact that a committee whose chairman is the head of the world’s most powerful electrical manufacturing corporation has openly and definitively admitted that fact of Jim Crow, has said that discrimination must be eliminated, that it should be eliminated now, and that all minorities in the country, including Negroes, should be accorded and guaranteed full democratic rights.

Furthermore these democratic rights are not to be accorded and guaranteed in a purely hortatory manner as in the past; they are to be actual and real. They are to be established as a consequence of the letter and spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The laws are recommended and new government bodies are envisaged which will supplement present laws and commissions wherever and whenever they are needed to make the committee’s recommendations effective. In brief, what the Report proposes is the wiping out of every legal disability which the Negro suffers.

Against Jim Crow Myths

The committee’s Report sets forth what these disabilities are in the longest section of the Report, The Record: Short of the Goal. The committee finds that all basic democratic rights have been and are being violated, particularly in the case of the Negro. The committee expresses these basic rights as: “The Right to Safety and Security of the Person,” “The Right to Citizenship and its Privileges,” “The Right to Freedom of Conscience and Expression,” “The Right to Equality of Opportunity.”

In plain language the Report affirms and substantiates contentions which have been made by the NAACP, for example, about lynching, police brutality, discrimination by the courts, peonage, restrictive covenants, disfranchisement, discrimination in the armed services, job discrimination, educational restrictions and refusals of accommodations by public carriers and places of public accommodation. Under the heading of Segregation Reconsidered, the Report has this to say about the “separate but equal” philosophy: “In the committee’s opinion this is one of the outstanding myths of American history for it is almost always true that, while indeed separate, these facilities are far from equal.”

The committee takes hold of another matter which also can be placed among the myths: the point of view, held mainly in the South, that the federal government should keep hands off and leave matters of civil rights to the states and to educational processes at work in the localities where civil rights are being violated. The Report, however, takes the position that “The national government of the United States must take the lead in safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans.”

The committee gives several reasons for this demand: many of the offenses are committed by private persons or by local public officers. The American civil liberties record has international implications. There is a growing tendency for the people to look to the federal government for the protection of their democratic rights. Lastly, the federal government is the largest single employer of labor in the nation. It is incumbent on the government to set its own house in order and to set a correct example for the whole country.

In insisting on the necessity for the intervention of the federal government the committee “rejects the argument that governmental controls are themselves necessarily threats to liberty. This statement overlooks the fact that freedom in a civilized society is always founded on law enforcement by government.”

Program for Federal Action

After analysis of the situation and presentation of its arguments the committee sets forth its recommendations. The recommendations important for our purpose now include: Increase in the size and authority of the Civil Rights section of the Justice Department.

The establishment of a permanent commission on civil rights by the federal and state governments.

Strengthening of the United States Code by amendment and by new statutes to give additional protection for civil rights and to make possible stiffer penalties for civil rights violations, particularly “police brutality and related crimes.”

The enactment by Congress of an anti-lynching act, a new statute on involuntary servitude, anti-poll tax legislation, federal legislation protecting the right to participate in federal and state elections, and legislation by Congress “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin in the organization and activities of all branches of the Armed Services.”

The committee did not confine its position on how to secure civil liberties to educational and legislative procedures. It proposes the use of “sanctions” in the administrative and law enforcement fields. These would include: fines and imprisonment for civil rights violators; injunctions and suits for damages; administrative cease-and-desist orders, as in the case of the Food and Drugs Administration; refusal of federal financial aid to private agencies and institutions that practice discrimination; exposure of persons and institutions that practice discrimination.

“The committee ... believes,” says the Report, “that the national government has at its command varied powers and administrative machinery which are capable of being used with great profit in safeguarding civil rights .... The nation’s program for the protection of civil rights ... should move forward on three fronts, legislative, executive and judicial. Anything short of this full cooperative effort will jeopardize the success of the entire program.”

How does the committee motivate and justify such radical proposals? It must be borne in mind that this committee contains not one “radical,” not one individual who is anti-capitalist, not one individual who wants to effect any basic transformation in present bourgeois-democratic society. Every member of the committee is a defender of capitalism and of capitalist society as the correct and proper “American way of life.” It is to this kind of committee that the question at the bead of this paragraph is put, and the committee answers in the Report itself.

Can Capitalism Afford Jim Crow?

(1) What the committee calls “The Moral Reason”:

The pervasive gap between our aims and what we actually do is creating a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic beliefs. There are times when the difference between what we preach about civil rights and what we practice is shockingly illustrated by individual outrages.

For example:

Wartime segregation in the armed forces is another instance of how a social pattern may wreak moral havoc. Practically all white officers and enlisted men in all branches of service saw Negro military personnel performing only the most menial functions ... As a result men who might have otherwise maintained the equalitarian morality of their forbears were given reason to look down on their fellow citizens ... The United States can no longer countenance these burdens on its common conscience, these inroads on its moral fiber.

(2) “The Economic Reason”: The big economic problem before the United States and the rest of the world is to achieve

maximum production and continued prosperity. The loss of a huge potential market for goods is a direct result of the economic discrimination which is practiced against many of our minority groups ... Discrimination depresses the wages and income of minority groups. As a result, their purchasing power is curtailed and markets are reduced. Reduced markets result in reduced production. This cuts down employment, which of course means lower wages and still fewer job opportunities ... The United States can no longer afford this heavy drain upon its human wealth, its national competence.

(3) “The International Reason”: The Report quotes from a letter of Dean Acheson to the Fair Employment Practices Committee. “I think it is quite obvious,” said Mr. Acheson, “that the existence of discriminations against minority groups in the United, States is a handicap in our relations with other countries. The Department of State, therefore, has good reason to hope for the continued and increased effectiveness of public and private efforts to do away with these discriminations.” The Report then goes on to say:

We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics ... Our achievements in building and maintaining a state dedicated to the fundamentals of freedom have already served as a guide for those seeking the best road from chaos to liberty and prosperity. But it is not indelibly written that democracy will encompass the world. The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record. [Emphasis in original]

These are the three main reasons for the position taken in the Report and for the rather strong recommendations of the committee. It is clear that the committee was concerned with two main considerations in the world situation: the existence of Russia and its aggressive imperialism, as well as the potential or real ability of Russia to use the terrible violations of democratic rights in the United States as a means toward world prestige. This would be possible especially in those countries inhabited by colored populations as well as among the peoples of the smaller European countries which have always suffered under the domination of imperialism. It is true also that it will be very difficult for the United States to secure the good will or the allegiance of the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa, even in the absence of Russian propaganda, if these peoples look upon Americans in their midst not only as representatives of the financial colossus of the West but also as oppressors of minority peoples.

This is not all the committee is concerned with, as is clear from the Report. The committee still feels the impact of Hitler fascism and is alert to the threat of Russian totalitarianism: “the final triumph of the democratic ideal” has not been achieved. The whole Report is concerned with the question of how minority groups and populations can be made to believe that democracy is to be their lot now that German and Italian fascism have been defeated. The committee was perturbed, and correctly so of course, as to how this consummation could be brought to pass by this country with its black record of civil rights violations and the denial of democratic rights to a substantial portion of American citizens.

It is necessary now to approach this Report from another direction. We have set forth the analyses of the committee, its recommendations, and its arguments in defense of those recommendations. We have emphasized that the committee recommends legislative, judicial and executive acts, procedures and directives which, if adopted in their entirety, would remove every legal, economic and civil disability encountered and suffered by minority populations in the United States. There are important and far-reaching assumptions involved in the position taken by the committee. It is these assumptions and implications which must now be examined, specifically and concretely as they relate to the Negro in the United States because it is the Negro group which is the worst victimized.

Can Capitalism End Jim Crow?

First of all, the committee assumes that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and “The American Heritage: the Promise of Freedom and Equality” all do apply or should apply to the Negro the same as to the white citizen. Next, and of greater significance, is the underlying assumption that full democratic rights, in a practical way, can be accorded Negroes in the present social order and within the framework of that social order. By this is meant, of course, that full democratic rights can be accorded the Negro in the United States within the bounds of capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

Naturally, the committee’s Report does not approach the question of civil rights for Negroes from this direction. It proceeds always from the assumption that there is no incompatibility between full democratic rights for Negroes and the existence of and the continuation of capitalism and capitalist society. The question which arises, therefore, is not whether it can be done “now” as the committee demands but rather: can it be done at all inside capitalist society in the United States?

There are those who say that the answer to this question is “No.” Numbered among those who deny the possibility of achieving such equality are some Marxists, the American Socialist Party and some independent radicals. I am not concerned here with the attitude of the Socialist Party on the question; it is prompted largely by the disinclination of this organization to carry on a militant struggle for Negro rights here and now. They prefer to maintain a pacifist attitude and to substitute the theory that the Negro will get his rights only when all workers have been freed from capitalist exploitation. I am concerned with the question as posed by Marxian revolutionists, because I do not believe that there is any sound theoretical argument in support of the position that full civil rights cannot be achieved by the Negro in the United States in capitalist society.

We have to be clear what it is we are talking about when we speak of democratic rights and of civil rights. We also have to be clear what we are talking about when we say that the bourgeoisie profits from the exclusion of Negroes from equality and from the intra-class division which results from teaching white superiority and Negro inferiority.

Psychological Barriers Secondary

We have to remember that there was a time when the commercial bourgeoisie profited from the slave trade and the industrial bourgeoisie from the labor of ten-year-old children. It did not follow, however, that the slave trade and child labor would always be retained and defended by capitalists. It cannot be denied that for decades after the Civil War it was the position of capitalism that the Negro should be held as a special reserve to do the heavy, dirty and dangerous labor. To make such a scheme successful it was necessary to cultivate race inferiority and superiority myths, or to exploit such beliefs wherever they existed.

It was financially profitable for capitalism in the United States to have a period in which there was enmity and hatred in the ranks of the working class. The Northern bourgeoisie used this situation just as it had used the pronouncements of various clergymen and pseudo-ethnologists, before 1860, to the effect that slavery was not a violation of the teachings of the Bible and that Negroes and white people did not have a common ancestor. The bourgeoisie used both of these attitudes as a means of exploiting the Negro, making a profit and enhancing capitalist accumulation. Capitalism today, however,is not in the period of the early and middle nineteenth century. There have been development, expansion and many structural changes. Furthermore, it may be the case today that leading capitalists have come to the conclusion that not only does “free enterprise” in the United States need to cleanse itself of Jim Crow but also that it will be beneficial and possible of accomplishment.

To demand democratic rights or civil rights for Negroes and other “minorities” means to demand that Negroes and others be fitted into and accepted into the general economic, political and cultural fabric of the country without discrimination, segregation or disfranchisement. It means to lift every public disability from Negroes to which white people are not subjected. This is to apply to the whole United States. This is to say that the Negro shall have the same legal rights and the same protection of his citizenship rights as are accorded a white man in every section of the nation: the right to vote and run for office, get a job, travel, attend school, and go into all public places on terms of equality with white people.

The establishment and formal protection of this right have nothing to do, objectively, with any individual’s personal thinking and attitude on the question, or the attitude and thinking of any group of the population. Students at the University of Mississippi may be against admitting Negroes and may remain opposed even after the legislature has voted to abolish Jim Crow schools. It will be many decades before all the white citizens of South Carolina agree to Negro suffrage or the natives of Monroe County, Georgia, agree that Negroes have the right to be free from and protected from mob violence. Many decades will pass before the white people of Arkansas adopt the practice of sitting beside a Negro in the train after the elimination of Jim Crow cars. But it must be emphasized that, to one degree or other, everything that is said here about Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas is true of New York, Michigan, Massachusetts or California. It was only a few years back that the white people of Ohio voted by referendum to retain a clause in the state constitution which confined the right of suffrage to white people. This in spite of the fact that the right of the Negro to vote is protected in practice in Ohio.

The same observations can be made in connection with the attitude of groups of white people on the question of restrictive covenants and the right of Negroes to live in “white neighborhoods,” to sit beside white people in theatres, to be treated in the same wards in hospitals and accommodated in restaurants and hotels. Even after Jim Crow is outlawed there will be persons who will not agree to Negro equality. There will be Negroes who will go on just about as they do now: sitting beside Negroes exclusively, eating only in Negro restaurants and frowning on social intercourse with white people. All of these are psychological and sociological factors in the situation which have no necessary or theoretical connection today with any basic requirement of capitalist and bourgeois welfare.

Capitalist society today can get along as well or as poorly without Jim Crow. Neither capitalist profit nor the rate of profit will be lessened by the complete equality of black and white people in the United States. On the contrary, it seems clear that some parts at least of the bourgeoisie are moving to the position that the rate of profit and the mass of profit might be enhanced by the establishment of civil rights for the whole population.

Temporary Way Out

It may be argued that for the bourgeoisie to demand and carry through equal civil rights for Negroes would mean to dig its own grave, because such action would cause the working class to close ranks eventually and establish the reign of intra-class peace. While this is correct it must be added that capitalism has been digging its own grave for many, many decades but still refuses to descend into that grave. Right now it seems that the bourgeoisie is looking around for a way out to escape the grave for a few more decades.

It must be said also that the bourgeoisie has faced many dilemmas before. I mention only two: free public education and collective bargaining. The ruling class after a while came to the conclusion not only that free public education was necessary in the interest of capitalist development but that it could be so controlled as to become a buttress for bourgeois society. Also one would have to look far and wide for an employer who today would openly demand the abolition of collective bargaining. Capitalism has not fared badly with these two “revolutionary” innovations. Charles Luckman, member of the committee and president of Lever Brothers, soap manufacturers, has written an article for Colliers entitled Civil Rights Is Good for Business. Charles Wilson, chairman of the committee and of General Electric, is clearly of one mind with Luckman on this matter.

The bourgeoisie has had experience enough to know that,while proletarian solidarity is a high explosive, it does not necessarily follow that there will be an explosion. Also there can be various types and degrees of working class solidarity. Advocacy of civil rights for Negroes may not produce such solidarity at once but rather the contrary. The bourgeoisie might at a certain time adopt such a course as a new and subtle means of keeping Negroes and white workers apart; that is, for the bourgeoisie to become the champions of Negro rights would seem to validate what some Negroes have always contended, namely, that the white upper class is the best friend of the Negro.

But even if the result should be intra-class peace this does not mean the end of capitalism, as is occasionally proclaimed in agitational utterances. Only devotees of the romantic movement in politics entertain such notions. Class solidarity is necessary for the elimination of capitalism but not sufficient. Something is needed in order to set off an explosive. The bourgeoisie has always believed, often mistakenly, that it can at least retard the development of anti-capitalist action by the proletariat. For instance, it is well known that the capitalist ruling class has been fairly successful up to now in thwarting the development of independent political action by the proletariat. Therefore, from its side, there is no reason to believe that the bourgeoisie is gripped with the fear that civil rights for Negroes and the demise of capitalism are synonymous.

Open Door to New Market

The “Solid South” is the chief barricade against civil rights for Negroes. But the South is a huge potential market for the manufacturers of consumer goods. It is eighty-three years since the close of the Civil War and the victory of Northern industrial capitalism, and yet the South remains only a potential market for consumer goods. Here are millions of American citizens who would buy the products of industry if they had the money or a cultural level which prompted the desire for an ever-increasing standard of living. This is a primary concern not only of Northern bourgeois but also of the new Southern industrial bourgeoisie.

There is reason to believe that the Northern bourgeoisie is ready to enforce an “Open Door” policy on the South. This means to force the South to consent to the raising of the living standards of the Southern masses, black and white. To raise the living standards means to raise wages, to build homes, schools, hospitals, roads, transport. This cannot be done effectively with the dominance of Jim Crow, the poll tax, lynching and the hegemony of the backwoods. It cannot be done by support of the present forces which represent the South politically. It cannot be done in conjunction with the extremely reactionary attitudes of Northern heavy industry, power companies, banks and insurance companies which function in the South like colonial administrators.

Southern congressmen and governors are raising a great furor today over the president’s civil rights message. Who are these people? They are native Southerners. Some of them are men of modest ability. Some of them are ignorant, ill-informed, lacking in culture, and altogether bombastic, demagogic, venal and corrupt. They are a part of that general phenomenon known as “the South”: general backwardness, a vast Tobacco Road stretching from the Carolinas to Arkansas and the far reaches of Texas. A section represented in Congress by Lester Jeeters in custom-made suits. A section which glories in sending its clowns, its mountebanks and its “one gallus” men to the state capital to be the chief executive of the commonwealth.

These men have had an interesting, stormy, but uncertain career. Most of them are not descendants of the old plantation aristocracy but of the poverty-stricken poor whites who were held in subjection by the slavocracy. Historically they are part of the line of poor-white political leaders which came to power in the South after the overthrow of slavery and particularly after the overthrow of Reconstruction.

Poll-Tax Politicos Hinder Expansion

This is, the group which carried through the disfranchisement of the Negro, which wrote the segregation laws of the South, which reorganized the Ku Klux Klan, which fomented the lynchings and led the mobs. This is the group which perpetuates and lives by all the discarded ethnological mumbo-jumbo of a half century ago. These are the protagonists of “white supremacy,” “pure white womanhood,” and no “mongrelization.” When they speak of white supremacy they mean supremacy of the Southern white. According to Eastland of Mississippi, “Southern white boys out in the Pacific” were “fighting for white supremacy.” Furthermore, white supremacy does not mean to them some distinction the Southern white has achieved in competition, intellectual, artistic, physical or scientific, but rather a state of affairs which the white Southerner has achieved by brute force and which he proposes to hold on to by brute force if necessary.

These present-day Southern politicos – the Rankins, Eastlands, Overtons, Ellenders, Dorns, Gossetts, Johnsons in Congress and the state government politicos – are the beneficiaries of all that is vicious, reactionary and culturally backward in the United States. They know this. As it was put by the elder Talmadge: “I can win in any county where there are no streetcars.” Also it can be said that these men can win as long as there is ignorance: so long as there are white men and women in the South who believe that Negroes kill their fathers and then eat the head, who believe that the superiority of the white race arose in the Garden of Eden, who don’t know that there is a better life than that which they now live. These demagogues can continue in their places in the capitol at Washington and in the various states only so long as there is a poll tax; so long as Southern poor whites believe that God has limited the supply of food for mortals and that he must therefore starve the Negro in order to keep from starving himself.

The Southern politicos know all this and very cunningly play on this ignorance and degradation. They are against civil rights because civil rights would be a blow to their rule. Democratic rights would recognize and emphasize the rights of all human beings and not as now the rights of the mob. Civil rights would place the masses in a position to elevate themselves, to acquire higher wages, education, health, and a change in their political representatives.

This Southern rabble in Congress are men of the greatest brazenness. They own nothing substantial and have no controlling say in the industrial and political life of the country. And yet they demand that the owners of railroads continue the unprofitable practice of maintaining dual accommodations for two groups of people. They demand that states and individuals keep giving money to support two schools where one would suffice. They demand that the bourgeois who gives donations to hospitals should give enough for two hospitals if the bourgeois giver insists that hospital care be provided for Negroes. The Eastland-Rankin demagogues are very free with other people’s money.

Jim Crow and Imperialist War

There is reason to believe that at least a section of the North which foots the bill is growing weary of paying for the maintenance of the “purity of white womanhood” in the South. If the Report means anything it means that some bourgeois are more frightened at the prospect of not getting at the twenty-one million potential customers in the South than they are at the prospect of “mongrelization” in that section.

Finally, there is something more involved in these gestures toward the enforcement of civil rights. The United States and Russia are facing each other today in the peace and formality of the United Nations, while back home each nation prepares its war regalia to be donned at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, there is a contest going on between the United States and Russia for the support of the peoples and nations of Europe, Asia and Africa.

This country may face some difficulty in explaining to the Chinese why American Jim Crow is superior to Russian “aggression.” It will not be easy for the State Department to make an Indian understand that segregation is far more moral than the Russian practice of denuding a country of its machinery. European small nations may not be able to distinguish between being stumbled over by big Russia and being milked and regimented “gently” by big America. American Negroes might conceivably decide to remain neutral in a war between this country and Russia. They may find some difficulty in differentiating between a totalitarianism which they have only heard about, and a vicious totalitarian-like Jim Crow which they have lived under for over three hundred years.

The bourgeoisie and the government are concerned about these things. They know that they cannot go into a war with Russia and have this discrimination-segregation burden to carry and explain. To prosecute the next imperialist war will require greater solidification of the people, all of the people, colored and white, citizen and non-citizen, the mainland and the colonies. I believe that the bourgeoisie and the government have this prime necessity in mind. In addition to all the other reasons for the proposals at this time, there is this other: the civil rights program is a plan for achieving national unity in the coming imperialist struggle against Russia.

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