From New International, Vol. IX No. 7, July 1943, pp. 201–204.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 36–46.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.
Gloom and despair have gripped millions of the Negro population of this country. For at least a year the coming explosions were a topic of conversation everywhere. They were written about extensively in the Negro press and in certain sections of the capitalist press as well. Masses of the Negro people had shown their determination, their courage, their willingness to sacrifice, on every possible occasion that an opportunity presented itself. Yet the blow has fallen upon them and they have been powerless to meet it. Not only that. They expect, and with good reason, that more desperate times are ahead. This is not a matter now of a long-range program for abolishing the economic and social basis of race prejudice. The problem is much more urgent than that. Events in states as far apart as Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and New York have shown that at any moment gangs of whites will begin to beat up and murder Negroes in the streets, and to wreck and burn down blocks of Negro homes. Yet the helplessness with which the Negroes watched the peril approach shows quite clearly that though they, above all people, realize how urgent the problem is, they are still not clearly aware of the real forces at work against them and, therefore, cannot plan to meet the emergency. Now when they are searching everywhere for a way out of the danger in which they stand, we propose to place before them and their friends certain fundamental facts of the present situation and to draw certain conclusions from these facts.
The first and most important point is that it is useless to depend on the government for protection. By the government, we mean the Washington Administration under Roosevelt, or whoever may be President, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the senators and congressmen, the state administrations, the state governors, the city police, the FEPC, all forms and manner of official power. These will not and, being what they are, cannot protect the Negro people.
First, the Administration in Washington. The Roosevelt government knew that the Detroit outbreak was on the way. After the rioting in 1942 over the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit, government investigators reported on the general situation in Detroit as follows:
“It is not melodrama when city officials here [Detroit] say this conflict is the most serious the city has faced since way back beyond the time of the big strikes.
“They don’t go far enough in what they say. It would be nearer realism to say that, if not today, tomorrow, this country, or let us say the war effort, will face its biggest crisis all over the North!”;
The investigator referred specifically to Buffalo and Philadelphia as danger points.
“A person not in the vortex of the situation can hardly realize its urgency.
“Therefore, let it be repeated once more: It is beyond control and extends far beyond Detroit, and unless strong and quick intervention by some high official, preferably the President, is taken at once, hell is going to be let loose in every Northern city where large numbers of Negroes are in competition.” (PM, June 27.)
We are not going into the question here of whether immigrants or the Ku Klux Planners are mainly responsible for the outbreaks in Detroit. It is sufficient that whoever they are, in the Northern cities at least, they are a definite minority even among the workers. The point is that the Roosevelt government knew, and the Roosevelt government did nothing. Remember also that the government today wants no interruption in war production. Yet rather than take steps to protect the Negroes, it preferred to let the situation rest as it was. In connection with the Sojourner Truth riot, the government arrested three men, three, on a charge of “seditious conspiracy.” This was in February, 1942. Today, eighteen months later, the government has not brought them to trial. To depend on this government for protection is suicide.
This is what happened before. Now mark what happened during the riots. The police are the local representatives of the state. To them is entrusted the power of the state in its dealings with civilians. Their duty is supposedly to protect the lives and property of civilians who are lawlessly attacked. But the police cannot be expected to act in one way when the government, from whom they derive their authority, acts in another. Their actions, therefore, merely show crudely what is the real policy of the government. They sided with the rioters! Every Negro and every friend of elementary human decency should frame and display in his house that shameful photograph in which two policemen hold a Negro while a white rioter hits him in the face, and a third policeman on a horse looks on. That the police, the power of the state, is in this conspiracy against the Negro people has penetrated into the head even of Walter White, national secretary of the NAACP. He writes from Detroit on June 23: “Twenty-five of the twenty-eight who lie dead from the race rioting here are Negroes. Eighty-five per cent of those arrested are Negroes. One hundred per cent of the thirty-two who were tried and convicted of rioting yesterday were Negroes. In these figures lies the answer to the sullenness and bitter despair I saw yesterday on the faces of Negroes.”
Of the twenty-four Negroes killed, twenty were killed directly by the shots of the police. So that the lives of the Negroes were in far more danger from the government’s representatives than from the rioters. The triggers were pressed by the fingers of Detroit policemen, but the guns were aimed by the government in Washington. For the Roosevelt government had shown the policemen quite clearly where it stood in regard to Negroes. It had not only segregated them in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the federal government itself, thereby making it impossible for policemen to have the proper respect for the rights of Negroes. By the government’s action over the Sojourner Truth riots, by its refusal to take one single step to avert a crisis which everybody, and particularly the police, knew was on the way, the government had given the police a clear direction as to where the guns were to be pointed. The government in Washington could pretend to be neutral. But when the fighting is actually on, the police have to take action. They acted in accordance with the policy of the government: restore order by putting the Negroes in their place.
The government in all its shapes and forms is responsible for these murderous attacks, not only before they occurred, but while they were going on. On Monday, June 22, two hundred and fifty representatives of labor, fraternal and social organizations, both Negro and white, crowded into the dining room of the Lucy Thurman YWCA at noon in order to take measures to protect the Negro people. This was obvious from the speeches. Speaker after speaker indicted the police for murdering Negroes, for concentrating on Negro areas, for refusing to arrest the leaders of the white mobs. They gave examples from their own personal observation. They called on Mayor Jeffries, who was present, to put an end to this lawlessness by the state. They asked him to go on the radio and warn that all instigators would be severely punished. They condemned his handling of the situation.
Jeffries refused point-blank to take the actions they recommended. The latest news is that both Jeffries and the FBI have agreed that there is no need for any investigation. Washington government, local mayor and local police are all fundamentally one. In Los Angeles, the city police joined with the rioters against the Mexicans and Negroes. After the Mobile outbreak, Monsignor Haas, new head of the FEPC, another government body, recommended that the Negroes be segregated into four Jim Crow shipyards which make only bare hulls. This means that though they can become ship-fitters, welders and drillers, they will be debarred from such highly skilled and highly paid work as machine operating, pipe fitting and electrical installation. By this action, rioters are told by the government that it they riot hard enough they can be sure of attaining their substantial demands: “keeping the Negro in his place.” A PM reporter in Texas reports again what is common knowledge, that the state guard and police in Beaumont, as all over the South, resented the fact that they were called upon to defend Negroes against white men. And it is no longer a question of only the South.
New York has long been known as one of the places where segregation is practiced least (that is the best that can be said) and Mayor LaGuardia is reputed to be one of the great friends of the Negro. Some weeks ago the Mayor gave his assent to a Metropolitan Insurance Housing Project which will exclude Negroes. Thus, at this critical time, the head of the city administration gives an unequivocal demonstration to would-be rioters and his own city police as to what his attitude is on the race question. The city police understood their Mayor even before he spoke. On June 24, at a meeting of the City Council, Councilman Clayton Powell, a Negro, said that New York had recently witnessed “a continuous succession of unwarranted brutality perpetrated upon Negro citizens in our city,” with many cases resulting in deaths. He had taken each of these cases up by mail with Police Commissioner Valentine. One letter had been acknowledged, the rest had been ignored. “now say, fellow councilmen,” continued Powell, “that the riots of Detroit can easily be duplicated here in New York City. If any riot breaks out here in New York, the blood of innocent people, white and Negro, will rest upon the hands of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Police Commissioner Valentine, who have refused to see representative citizens to discuss means of combatting outbreaks in New York.” What protection can be expected from such a police force?
The Negro people, therefore, had better make up their minds. The state, the government, in Washington, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, or anywhere else, is no protection. There will be some talk. The government may send in some troops after the mischief has been done and the situation seems to be spreading too far. It may even appoint a commission. But before, during and after the rioting, the government and its agents act in accordance with the three hundred-year-old policy of American capitalism – nor could it be otherwise. The state, says Marx, is the executive committee of the ruling class. The American capitalist class has gained untold riches by its specially brutal exploitation of Negroes. To deaden the consciousness of exploitation among the white workers it taught them to despise Negroes. Now today it needs uninterrupted production for its war. But when certain backward elements among the whites attack Negroes, the capitalist class, through its executive committee, the state, shows that even against its own immediate war interests, it must continue that persecution on which so much of its power and privileges have been built. The Army, the Navy, the police, the Department of Justice, all these are the instruments whereby the capitalist class holds down the masses of the people. These are soaked and trained in race prejudice as a matter of high policy. If even the government dislikes race riots, it cannot take vigorous steps to repress them because that will tear down the prejudice on which so much depends. If Negroes depend upon the government, they are going to be dragged from trolleys and beaten up, they and their wives and children will be shot down by rioters and police, and their homes will be wrecked and burned. Furthermore, these riots are no passing phase. It even by some miracle they are held in check during the war, when the war is over they will burst forth with tenfold intensity.
Two weeks before the Detroit outburst, the Rt. Rev. C. Ransom, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, addressed a meeting of 1,500 people at Town Hall, New York. The bishop spoke to a people strongly conscious of the danger which hung over them. He made one reference to the work of the President and “his great wife” for Negro equality, but he called upon the Negro people to fight. He made a public confession. “I am tired of lying and compromising; we praise William Lloyd Garrison – he was a white man who died for the Negro – but Negroes must learn to die for themselves!” He concluded: “I’d rather die and be damned than to surrender my absolute equality to any man!” The bishop is a little shaky on the theology. We can assure him on the very highest authority that if he were to die fighting for equality he will at least not be damned. But his political line is impeccable. What makes his speech so noteworthy is that in all the outpourings of the wordy Negro leaders in this crisis, it stands almost alone. With all that had happened and the prospects of still worse to come, not one of the so-called leaders of the Negro people had the courage, the sense, or the honesty to call upon the people to defend themselves. We shall give a selection of what they did say, so that there will be some coordinated record of the shameful cowardice, self-seeking and bankruptcy of these betrayers of the Negro masses. (The selections are all from the June 26 issues.)
The People’s Voice: “It is evident that the Axis is planning an invasion of America. ... Our government has been mysteriously soft-hearted in dealing with the big-time fifth columnists of America. ... It is time the President of the United States stopped phony investigations of lynchings, police brutality, maltreatment of black soldiers, mob law, and got down to business. ...” Then, in large capitals: “THE QUESTION THAT NOW CONCERNS US IS NOT – WILL WE WIN THE PEACE, BUT WILL WE WIN THE WAR? AND, IF SO, WHICH ONE? ABROAD OR AT HOME?”
Signed: ADAM CLAYTON POWELL.
To the people in Buffalo, Philadelphia and elsewhere, wondering their turn will come, it must be comforting to know that the Axis is planning an invasion of America and that is why their heads are being busted open.
The New York Age: “The saturation point is fast being reached. The failure of legal authorities to face the situation is bringing near and nearer that fatal day when the limit of human endurance shall have been reached. ... If and when that day is allowed to come –there will be trouble.”
The Pittsburgh Courier: “We urge prompt and immediate action by the Office of the Attorney General. ... The Federal Bureau of Investigation ... Nazi saboteurs, Axis-inspired!” Then, in large print: “WE DEMAND ACTION.”
The Chicago Defender: “Biddle must be made to act or vacate his high office. ... Let us still further unify our country and go forward to win the war NOW in 1943.”
The Journal and Guide: “The state governments must play their part; the city and country governments must play their part; if they fail the federal government must assume its responsibility as was done in the Detroit case. It is time for America to close ranks if we are to retain the respect of the other members of the United Nations....”
You see, it is not Negro lives which are at stake, but the respect for America of the United Nations.
Lester Granger (for the National Urban League) in a telegram to President Roosevelt:
“We therefore call on you to order an immediate investigation of these outbreaks and the possibility of their subversive instigation ...”
Walter White (for the NAACP) in a telegram to President Roosevelt:
“We urge you to go on the radio at the earliest possible moment and appeal to America to resist Axis and other propaganda ...”
Ferdinand Smith, chairman, and Charlie Collins, secretary, Negro Labor Victory Committee:
“We feel that the Detroit outbreak demands most stringent measures to prevent the further breakdown of morale and war production.”
These are the Negro leaders. These are the cringing, crawling, whining Uncle Toms who have not, not a single one, addressed a single manifesto to the Negro people and to their white fellow citizens, many of whom, in organizations and in groups or singly, are ready to do what they can for the defense of the Negro people. No. To that very President to those very legal authorities who have themselves so criminally, by commission and omission, encouraged and protected the rioters, it is to them that these Negro leaders address themselves, beating the big drum against the Axis. Read those extracts again. What they are saying is this:
“Don’t you see, Mr. President, that when they shoot us down and bust our heads open, it stops our war production? If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t trouble you.”
The President is the same man who so shocked Walter White by openly supporting segregation in the armed forces, who has used the FEPC as a toy windmill to fool Negroes; the same who, according to Adam C. Powell, has instigated phony investigations into the thousands of government-organized brutalities perpetrated against the Negro people every day. So far, the President has kept quiet. As long as he can have Walter White, Lester Granger and Ferdinand Smith to keep the Negroes quiet, why should he say anything? However, Eleanor Roosevelt has not the gift of silence. When the zoot suit riots broke out, she was in Washington, the center of government. The world will little note nor long remember what she did there. She did nothing. But she said plenty. As a fitting crown to a notably platitudinous career she declared that “Americans must sooner or later face the fact that we have a race problem” (Journal and Guide, June 26.) The words are not an indictment of Eleanor Roosevelt. This pouring of little thimblefuls of water on great fires is her job. But the colossal insolence and contempt of her remarks is an indictment of the Walter Whites, the Lester Grangers and the Ferdinand Smiths. It will be an everlasting tribute to their role as de facto agents of the white ruling class among the Negro people that, in this crisis, not one of them turned to the Negroes and said: “Negroes, defend yourselves.”
Two voices, and two voices only, spoke up clearly on the riots in general, if not actually on Detroit. The first was the Afro-American of Baltimore, which, commenting on the Texas riots, spoke words which should be learned by heart. Every sentence is pregnant with wisdom:
The cause of the attack upon the hundreds of innocent colored people is not important. Some Southern communities need no incentive to mob action. All they want is an excuse.
In a situation like this in the South, it is idle to appeal either to state or federal authorities for assistance. It usually comes too late.
Colored communities must be prepared to protect themselves. Frederick Douglas said that the slave that resisted vigorously was almost never whipped.
If mobsters attacking colored homes get a hot reception once, they will not repeat that visit.
The second, the Amsterdam News of New York, was still more powerful:
We knew and we have said repeatedly that there can be no law and order (Negroes really don’t care whether whites like them or not) in the United States until the federal government steps in and stops the continuous program of pogroms perpetrated against Negro citizens, particularly in the South. By failing to protect the lives and security of American citizens, our government tacitly enters into what amounts to collusion with the Nazi-minded and acting whites of America. Conditions between the two races are now so bad that any sane citizen fears not only for his country, but for his family, friends and himself.
Because our government refuses to act resolutely – go in and punish the mob members, regardless of their number – it is now mandatory on every citizen to protect himself. To protect oneself in face of mob violence means to fight back hard without giving any quarter to anyone. This may mean death but it’s far, far better to die fighting as a man than to perish like a caged animal in Beaumont or elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the Negro citizen’s war is right here at home against white mobs. Let us battle them unto death, until our government, dedicated to protect all of its citizens, does its duty as any government worth its salt would. The die is cast and we must fight all the way for our lives, our homes and our self-respect.
There is the whole thing in a nutshell. It is true for the South, and true for the North, and true for everywhere. There are some thirteen million Negroes in this country. They are willing and anxious to defend themselves. In their place, who would not be? But their leaders never do anything else but appeal to the same President, the same state, the same police, the same authorities, who, being what they are, will not and cannot defend the people. We ask the Negroes: Shouldn’t Ferdinand Smith, Lester Granger, Walter White and all the Negro press have joined in a common manifesto to the Negro people? Shouldn’t they have called upon them to defend themselves, shouldn’t they have denounced by name the President, the police officers, the legal authorities, the mayors and all who have so criminally encouraged and aided, directly and indirectly, in the persecution of the Negro people? Shouldn’t they have appealed to the great body of white people in this country, telling them that in view of the shameless failure to protect the Negroes, it was up to the citizens themselves to do it? Isn’t it this which the situation demands? Is there any other way to save the people from the imminent perils of the future? Any Negro leader who cannot answer in the affirmative to the above questions is a traitor to his people and should be driven out from among them.
Every school club, every street, every church group, can organize for defense where official authority has failed them, as it has. They can pool their resources and train defense guards. The movement should be nationwide and it could be started tomorrow.
Should the President be ignored? Not at all. The President should be informed, but he should be informed not by weekly telegrams about the Axis, but by tens of thousands of citizens marching on Washington. Walter White and Philip Randolph bear a direct responsibility for the helpless situation the masses of the Negroes find themselves in today. When the people were ready to march on Washington, these perpetual cringers cringed before Roosevelt and LaGuardia and called off the march. Is it any wonder that the state has continued its contemptuous course? Only one thing will make it change, and that is when it sees that the Negro masses are not listening to those who continually present their behinds to be kicked, but are themselves undertaking their own defense, and are presenting their ills to the government in person.
Some of these cowards and hangers-on to the Roosevelt government whisper that “we Negroes cannot fight the whole white population.” The statement is a gross slander against tens of millions of white people in America and, above all, a slander against the CIO. We ask the Negro people to note that during the last ten weeks the whole bungling, hypocritical administration set-up for placing the burdens of the war upon the masses has been exposed and made to totter by the magnificent action of the miners. These half-million men have trusted in their union, and not in the state which they have recognized for what it is – the executive committee of the ruling class. They have shown what well organized, determined men can do. One hundred thousand of these are Negroes. Yet nobody thinks of white miners and Negro miners. They are just “the miners.” The reason is because the Negro miners are perfectly integrated into the labor movement. This is what the Negroes must aim at. They must integrate themselves as tightly as possible into the labor movement. It is true that even in the CIO some white workers are hostile to Negroes, such as those workers who struck at the Packard plant against the upgrading of Negroes. But the UAW of Detroit, for instance, has repeatedly demonstrated its sympathy with the Negroes against the comparatively small section of Detroit race-baiters. It has repeatedly condemned the Detroit Mayor for his criminal laxity. Let the Negroes note this, and where, as in Detroit, they are strongly represented in the unions, let them make direct appeal to the unions for help in the organization of the defense. There are difficulties in the way. But the Negroes can overcome them if they first depend upon themselves and then call for the direct support of labor.
Walter Reuther, vice-president of the UAW, has said: “As soon as they pull the troops out of here it will happen again. Our only hope is that some active committee is organized to arouse the decent people of this town so that this won’t happen again.” R. J. Thomas, president of the UAW, has stupidly complained that the auto manufacturers “have given us little cooperation in helping to smooth race relations.” That remark is in its way as miserable as the telegrams of Walter White and Lester Granger to Roosevelt. But the union leaders are undoubtedly bitter about the whole savage business and know the danger which it represents for union solidarity. Let the Negro community and particularly the Negro workers in the unions, put the problem squarely up to the unions themselves. “We cannot trust the state, in Washington or here. You are the most powerful organized force in the community. We are, most of us, workers like yourselves. We are organizing for our own defense and we appeal to you.” If only the workers see that the Negroes mean business, they are certain to respond. But the Negroes must first rid themselves of the misleaders who are always looking to Roosevelt or to Pearl Buck, or to Willkie for help, and, incidentally, the publicity which it brings. If the Negroes do not defend themselves, then it is certain nobody else will.
There are, of course, many other aspects to this problem: Its fundamental economic and social causes, the problem of labor cooperation, seen at its best in the miners’ strike and at its worst in the reactionary AFL; the attitude of political parties; perspectives of the future. These will be dealt with by future articles in The NEW INTERNATIONAL and are regularly treated in the weekly, Labor Action. But the problem here emphasized is an urgent one and has been treated as such. One of the most important lessons a Marxist learns is that the state is the executive committee of the ruling class. Another is that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. As the Negroes search their minds for a way out, let them carefully think over the two principles illustrated above. If in their determination to protect themselves they should grasp these two ideas, they will have learned lessons which will take them far.
Last updated on 12 June 2015