J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

(9 March 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 10, 9 March 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Republican Party has issued a statement on its policy for the election in 1940. It is not too early for the Negroes to begin a careful consideration of the programs and candidates at the coming election.

The Republican party for years masqueraded as the friend of the Negro. To quote Frederick Douglas’ famous words, “The Republican Party is the deck and all else is the sea.” People have claimed that the adherence of the Negro to this particular position for so many years is proof of the Negro’s backwardness, stupidity, and ineptitude for politics. It was nothing of the kind. Here again the Negro has been vilely slandered.

Why Negroes Backed Republicans

After the Civil War, the Negroes, contrary to the general belief, flocked to the polls and lived an intense political life. Naturally they supported the Republican Party. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln; in it were revolutionary radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and Sumner who agitated for expropriation of the Southern landlords and “forty acres and a mule” for the Negroes.

Within their limits, the Republicans, anxious to crush their rivals, played a progressive role – small wonder that the Negroes voted for them. This they did in unusually large numbers.

Not that they were not tempted. In Virginia, for instance, the Southern landowners embraced the doctrine of Negro suffrage, and made an attempt to win the Negro vote. They posed as friends of the Negroes and in addition to promises they made threats: If the Negroes would not vote as their Southern employers wished, they swore to drive them from employment. This was a very real threat, carried out without mercy. But in those early days the Negroes would not be coerced. Some few Negroes were bribed and even won elections against Republicans with the support of the Southerners. But the majority of the Negroes voted solidly for the Republican Party.

In fact, far from being apathetic about politics, it was the political energy of the Negroes that drove the old Southern landowning class into suppressing the Negro vote at all costs.

In Virginia the whites outnumbered the Negroes. Soon after the Civil War they gained a political majority and controlled the government. They would not vote funds for public education and insisted on the full payment of the interest on a huge public debt. William Malone led a split from the government party and rallied the poor farmers and the middle-classes against the reactionaries. The Negroes voted in great numbers for Malone.

His party, the Readjusters, was returned with a majority and, backed by the middle classes, and the poor, white and black, Malone reduced the public debt and raised the appropriations for public education. The Southern landowners saw that this combination of the poorer classes, both black and white, meant death for them. They sought for the weakest link in the chain of their enemies and found it in the slogan against “Black Domination.” With this slogan, and by intimidation and terror, they split the ranks of their enemies and regained power.

Active in Populist Movement

Near the end of the century, the Populist movement asserted itself. Once again the Negro farmers rallied to it. The reactionaries used the old tactics of “Black Domination” allied with violence. In vain the white farmers in the South protested that this new struggle had nothing to do with the conflicts of the Civil War. Once more their ranks were disrupted. It was then that in despair the poor and middle-class whites decided that to have the Negroes with them meant the ruin of their course and finally acquiesced in the exclusion of the Negroes from politics. Under the powerful pressure of legalized lynching, the Negroes gradually sank into political apathy.

The Southerners rallied round the Democratic Party. The Negroes, when they voted at all, were driven into the Republican camp. In the days when the Democrats were systematically excluding them from participation in politics, the Negro’s only hope for salvation seemed the Republican Party. In many respects the Republican Party was indeed the deck, a very small and slippery deck it is true, but a drowning man catches at much less than the Republican Party, and the Negroes were drowning.

Broke with Republicans in 1932

With the coming of the New Deal, however, the Negroes sat up and took notice. A New Deal. If any group of people in this country need a New Deal the Negroes did! They rallied to Roosevelt in 1936 and carried consternation into the ranks of the Republicans. The Republican High Command appointed Dr. Bunche of Howard University to make a special investigation into the reasons for the desertion of the Negroes, though why they should have needed a special investigation to find out what everybody knew, passes ordinary comprehension. But the New Deal has failed. It is now a corpse. The Negroes have begun to realize that there is nothing in it for them. The result is the beginning of a swing back to the Republicans, as seen in a Philadelphia election some months ago.

Swing back to what, however? What have the Republicans to offer? In their new draft program, the Republicans make a strong plea for the Negro vote. What they offer we must examine closely. But this much is already clear. 1940 is a great turning point for the large masses of Negro voters. They know that the Republican Party has nothing to offer, and after eight years of the New Deal they are in as much misery as ever they were. They form one-third of the ten million unemployed in the country. Roosevelt slashes at WPA and relief. He says not a word about the Anti-Lynch Bill. It seems to be a case of either the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea.

But in 1940 there is a way out. There is no need to limit oneself to the reactionary Republicans or the hypocritical New Dealers. Why must the workers continually trail behind the bosses? What we want is a Labor Party, a party of the workers and the farmers, white and black. If we are to form it, however, we must start laying the basis for it now.

Last updated on 16 July 2018