J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” – Karl Marx

(1 September 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 64, 1 September 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Effects of Capitalist Propaganda

We have seen in the case of the Chicago race-riots how brazenly capitalist society can obscure a truth hostile to itself, and how persistently it propagates lies. Let us take another type of capitalist propaganda, widespread, generally accepted, and poisoning the roots of the radical movement. It is fashionable to say, with a sad shake of the head, “Yes, the Negro is badly treated in the South, but he ‘accepts’ it. After the revolution, of course, he will be different ...”

Skillfully the Southerners spread the doctrine that the economic exploitation, the vicious social discrimination, the lynching, all these crimes against humanity the Negro “accepts” because he is a Negro, and therefore docile. These Southern Fascists say that they know how to manage the Negro.

And yet these liars, among themselves, use a phrase that completely contradicts this theory of Negro “acceptance”. It is this. “If you let a nigger get out from under control, there is nothing in the’world you can do but kill him.” In other words: keep the Negroes in chains or they will blow this society to pieces.

But the Negroes Do Not “Accept”

That is the real truth. The whole Southern system is based on the fact that the Negro does not “accept,” and the Southerner knows it. After mankind domesticated the horse, the dog, the cat, and the cow, these “accepted”. There is no need to worry about them any longer. They are tame. But lions and tigers, even performing lions and tigers, highly-trained and tamed, men keep in iron cages. Who in his senses would say that these animals “accept” their captivity? They are sometimes beaten into passivity. Terrorized, they eat from the keeper’s hand. But he keeps them in the cage. For he knows that, given the slightest opportunity, they would throw off their docility and strike right and left like any wild beast in the jungle. That is the situation of the Negro in the South. For the last seventy-five years, he has been caged.

There is no need to deal here with the long history of the Negro revolts, the thousands who ran away, who killed their masters, mutilated themselves, committed suicide, set fire to plantations, to cities, and even to whole districts. These we shall treat elsewhere. But one monumental fable we must puncture at once, that the Negro slaves during the Civil War, even those who remained behind, were loyal to their masters.

This is the tale: The gallant Southerners went forth to war leaving behind their wives and daughters in the protection of their faithful and affectionate slaves. Lovely stuff. For fools and readers of Gone With the Wind, film fans, and revolutionaries who do not realize how profoundly, persistently and maliciously the bourgeoisie imposes its ideas.

Facts Are Quite Different

When the Southerners passed their first conscription act in 1862, they left behind one white man for every twenty slaves, Later they made it one for every fifteen. Rigid patrol duties were enforced to keep in subjection those supposedly so loyal slaves. Owners sent overseers to manage these loyal slaves. In addition, for every twenty-five slaves, there was one Negro driver, For every fifty slaves, there was one white overseer. For every hundred slaves, there was one manager. For every eight hundred slaves, there was a superintendent. For every two thousand four hundred slaves, there was a director. An officer would place a body of cavalry around laboring slaves; another would put them under lock and key with a heavy guard on evenings. And yet these loyal Negroes deserted to the Northern Army. All the array of managers, directors, superintendents, locks and keys and guards could not keep them. So much for the loyalty and the “acceptance”.

Today, does the Southerner have faith in the loyalty and docility of the Negro? It isn’t only that the Negro is prevented from voting, is driven into economic servitude, is segregated, is lynched. The Southerners watch him as if they expected a revolution every day. A loaded pistol faces him at every turn. In certain Southern cities, if he attempts to come out of a bus by the front door, he faces the pistol barrel of a white policeman. And he knows that the policeman will fire, so he turns and goes out at the back. A Negro farmer who does well and begins to look prosperous, is warned, and if he continues with this crime, he is beaten and driven out of the district in fear of his life. A Negro policeman from Washington revisits the South and, going for a ride, wears riding breeches. He is forced to take them off.

Many Negroes were beaten and some were lynched for wearing their private uniforms after the war. In small things and in large it is the same story. What does it mean? What could it mean but that the whites have a desperate fear of these so-called loyal, so-called docile, so-called “accepting” Negroes. “If you let a nigger get out from under control, there is nothing to the world you can do but kill him.” They at least have no illusions about Negro “acceptance”.

They Await the Call to Action

Doubtless there are many Negroes in the South who are cowed and politically backward, who see no way out, and who think that to be trodden underfoot is the fate of the Negro. But the desire for action is very near the surface. That situation can change overnight. Many of the boldest emigrate. But many thousands, who feel the bitterness of their position, are still in the South. All around is bourgeois democracy and a certain political and social freedom for whites. Some read the Negro press and see how their friends and relations in the North day to day win a few more privileges. There are enough of them to give that lead which transforms the masses. And that is the reason for the rigid terror, the control by Southern whites. We only help them by talking about the Negro “acceptance”. If when we say they accept we mean they submit to force, then we are saying what is true, but we are saying it very badly. For when the bourgeois says that the Negro accepts, he means the Negro is contented with his lot in the South, that he is contented because he is a Negro, and Negroes are happiest that way. And that is a brazen and abominable lie.

Quite recently the press was filled with accounts of how the Negroes in Miami defied the Ku Klux Klan and voted. But it was many weeks after before the leader of the Miami Negroes disclosed in an interview how, at the height of the agitation, the Negroes sat up waiting for the Klan with their Winchester rifles across their knees. But none of the capitalist papers printed that. The Southern Fascists suppress every example of Negro militancy. They want everyone to believe that Negroes “accept”. We, however, are not going to allow ourselves to be duped by the passivity of the terrorized Negroes. “If you let a nigger get out from under control, there is nothing in the world you can do but kill him”. Good. That we accept. We shall struggle side by side with the Negro to break that control. For the Negro out of “control” can kill as well as be killed.

Last updated on 13 March 2016