W.F. Carlton

Harlem Negroes Protest Jim Crow Discrimination

(9 August 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 32, 9 August 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

“Shame has come to our city and sorrow to the large number of our fellow citizens, decent, law-abiding citizens, who live in the Harlem section.”

Thus the first citizen of New York describes the demonstration in Harlem of the Negro people which has resulted in half a dozen deaths, scores of wounded, and hundreds of arrests.

So that, according to Mayor LaGuardia, when the Negro people demonstrate, shame comes to the citizens, Shame did come to LaGuardia himself when he insulted the Negro people by signing the contract for the Metropolitan Insurance Company housing project which expressly stipulated the exclusion of Negroes.

Shame does not come to the decent, law-abiding citizens in the White House in Washington and the decent, law-abiding citizens in Congress who have insulted the Negro people by segregating them in the Federal Government, by segregating them in the Army, in the Navy, in the Air Force and in women’s auxiliaries.

Shame does not come to Secretary of War Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Knox when the men they have inducted into the Army and Navy are shot down by military police and Southern civilians, are Jim Crowed and ill-treated on their way to the camps, are segregated in the camps themselves, persecuted, maltreated and lynched without any protection from the government.

We have not seen shame in the industrialists and men of business who in the very City of New York will not employ Negroes, and only when they are compelled to and have no other means of evasion, grudgingly give them work in industry, that same industry which is supposed to be doing all that is possible to win the great “war for democracy.”

All these things can be done by the “decent, law-abiding citizens” who merely continue the three hundred year old persecution of the Negro people which has always characterized American capitalist society.

But when the Negroes in Harlem become exasperated to the utmost limit by the combined persecution and hypocrisy of their lords and masters, and decide that they will show their resentment in the only way that seems possible to them, then is the time when LaGuardia goes to the microphone and informs the public theft this indeed is a shame.

This, and not the persecution, is the scandal. This, and not the hypocrisy, is the disgrace. Not those who insult the Negro people, not those who insult the intelligence of the Negroes by the perpetual bawling and yelling to them about the “war for democracy.”

No! According to LaGuardia, the demonstration against these things, that is the shame.

What Kind of Demonstration Was It?

The Mayor himself has informed the public that the upheaval in Harlem was a demonstration. A demonstration against what? Since when is it shameful to demonstrate against lynch law, segregation, discrimination and hypocrisy in high places, masquerading before the people as “war for democracy”? In this truly shameful hypocrisy. LaGuardia is only one of many. All the press, all the worthy citizens, not only in New York, but in Detroit, in Mobile, in Beaumont and in San Francisco, all get together and in one loud, clear and mournful voice shake their heads and say to the protesting Negro people, “What a shame!”

The people in Harlem are exasperated beyond endurance by the situation of the Negro people in the United States as a whole and the continuous contradiction between being persecuted by democracy and then being told that they must die for that democracy.

But the Harlem people have certain special grievances of their own. The overcrowding in Harlem can be borne with patience and forbearance by those who read about it in the newspapers. The people of Harlem can no longer endure it. They can no longer bear the overcharging for inferior food which is dumped upon the Harlem community by the “decent, law-abiding citizens” who cannot dispose of these goods anywhere else.

The people of Harlem cannot reconcile at all the constant shrieking in the press about the manpower shortage and their inability to get work. All this seems to the people of Harlem particularly shameful. When they do get work in industry, it is more often in New Jersey than in New York.

The people of Harlem for months now have made all manner of protest against the savage brutality of the police under the command of that “decent, law-abiding. citizen,” Police Commissioner Valentine, under the patronage of that equajly “decent” and equally “law-abiding” citizen, Mayor LaGuardia.

At a meeting of the New York City Council on June 25, Councilman A. Clayton Powell said that New York had recently witnessed “a continuous succession of unwarranted brutalities perpetrated upon Negro citizens in our city.” Many of these, said Powell, had resulted in deaths. He said that he Had taken up each of these cases by mail with Police Commissioner Valentine. One letter had been acknowledged. The rest had been ignored.

“I now say, fellow councilmen,” continued Powell, “that the riots of Detroit can easily be duplicated here in New York City. If any riots break 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 combating outbreaks in New York.”

The Negro people in Harlem on Sunday and Monday knew what they were demonstrating against. They were making known their feelings to the government in Washington which continually calls upon them to fight for democracy and at the same time sits quietly while the worst indignities are committed against them in the name of democracy.

For them this question of the government in Washington is symbolized in the Army and the treatment of Negroes there.

The Negro people were protesting against conditions in New York City and the conduct of the police force described by Powell.

The Negro people were demonstrating against the exorbitant prices which every shop in Harlem thinks itself justified in charging them.

What Brought the Protest?

For several months the police department has maintained a twenty-four hour picket in the lobby of the Hotel Braddock, the second largest hotel in Harlem. The Negroes say, they have said it in the Negro press, that they know many places in downtown Manhattan where, as far as they can judge, a permanent picket is very much needed. Harlem is very much stirred by this official slander of the Negro people.

When Private Bandy stopped a cop from rough-handling a Negro woman in the Braddock Hotel, it was no accidental incident. It represented to every Harlemite who heard it merely another example of the especially malignant persecution and slander which the Harlem people have been suffering during recent months. And when on top of it, the cop shot the Negro soldier, is it any wonder that the rumor spread and the Harlem people decided that they would show in no uncertain terms that they were not going to put up any longer with the continuous provocation of the “decent, law-abiding” officials who rule them.

The crowds heard that Bandy had died. It didn’t matter whether he was dead or not. Bandy was a symbol.

Crowds of Negro service men and civilians, milled around, the hospital where Bandy and Officer Collins who shot him were being hospitalized.

Was It a “Race Riot”?

It is perfectly clear that the masses of the Negro people in Harlem, far from being thoughtless hoodlums, to quote Mayor LaGuardia again, were people stirred to resentment and action at the insult which they felt had been directed at the whole Negro race in the treatment of the Negro soldiers.

We do not propose to go here into any detailed account of the demonstration, except to point out that the smashing of the shopwindows was also a protest and expression of resentment against those petty profiteers, themselves robbed and cheated by big business, who in turn rob and cheat the Negroes by high prices and poor quality goods.

The press and LaGuardia take excessive pains to say the demonstration was not a “race riot.” The demonstration was not a racial demonstration in the sense that the Negroes did not direct their protest indiscriminately against whites. Nor did white gangs invade Harlem.

The Negro people of Harlem showed extreme intelligence and understanding in what they did. They were not against individual White citizens in the streets. They were protesting, in the only way they understood, against their unbearable conditions. The protest was, in the fullest sense of the word, a racial demonstration, a demonstration against the wrongs and injustices perpetrated against the Negro people.

The Silence of “Leaders”

Since the Detroit events, Roosevelt has not said one single word. He now has imitators. On the Harlem demonstration, Philip Randolph has imitated his master, Roosevelt, and observed a dignified silence. The rest we can foretell in advance. White, Randolph and all such will appoint committees, “inter-racial committees.” They will haggle over whether one new playground or two new playgrounds should be built. They will send a letter full of signatures to the OPA asking for a ceiling on rent. In other words, they will do exactly as they have always done. But the Negro people are becoming tired of words and promises.

What is to happen now? Labor Action during the last weeks has pointed out that the situation all over the country is grave, that the masses of the Negro people must organize themselves both for protection against the hoodlum elements such as the Klan and the official hoodlums; that they must organize themselves to fight against segregation of the Negro in the armed forces of the nation – against all forms of oppression.

The Harlem demonstration is to us nothing shameful. It is in reality a demonstration of the masses of the Negro people against their position in American capitalist society. The tremendous stir of oppressed peoples all over the world at the present time, the ferocious appeal to violence and destruction of the ruling classes, the incessant mouthings of “democracy” and the need to “die for democracy,” coupled with the shameful betrayals of democracy at home and abroad, these things are pulling the Negro people from sullen hostility to spontaneous protests against the crimes and hypocrisy of capitalist democracy.

There is nothing shameful about that. What is shameful is the fact that those who pose as the protectors of democratic law and order are the very ones who lay the basis for the persecution and condone others who more savagely follow their lead.

We say to the Negroes, therefore, that to demonstrate against tyranny and injustice has always been one of the greatest and most admired virtues of mankind. The moans and wailings of La Guardia, Walter White and the whole capitalist press will not alter that.

The fact that the Negroes did not attack whites indiscriminately shows that they are on the verge of finding the correct answer to the problems which have plagued the Negro people for three hundred years.

What they have to do in New York and elsewhere is to organize this rebelliousness against tyranny and the insults to their intelligence, and direct it into such channels as will bring their grievances and their wrongs forcibly before the American people and the people of the whole world.

The Need for Organization

Let them organize themselves to create their own committees and to direct properly the passionate desire for freedom and equality which now stirs all Negro youth. Let them organize themselves to march on Washington, and themselves place before the resident and Congress their shameful conditions. Let them demand their rights in the name of that very democracy for which they are being called upon to die. Let them make it clear, by the tightness of their organization, the determination of their demonstrations and the resoluteness with which they present their demands, that nothing on earth will prevent them from making themselves free and equal citizens in the community, in every sphere of life, particularly the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and factories which are controlled by the government.

Let them make this clear to Roosevelt so that he must emerge from his diplomatic silence and is compelled to make clear statements on the Negro question and pass and enforce laws which guarantee to the Negro people their racial, economic, political and social rights.

The Negro people and Harlem and elsewhere must stop looking for leaders among big names who are always in the capitalist press or filling up space in the Negro press. These are the very ones whose leadership must be avoided at all costs. True leaders are people who do what the masses of the people want them to do. And if the Negro people look for these among themselves, they will find them.

Where the Future Lies

Negroes also must look for allies among the great masses of the white people who are sympathetic to their point of view. Quite recently, the United Mine Workers of America put on a magnificent demonstration for their just economic rights. Of these 500,000 workers, 100,000 were Negroes.

The Negroes must go to Lewis and to unions whose leaders have shown both in words and in deeds that they support the aspirations for equality of the large masses of the Negro people. They must inform these of their situation, of their determination to fight injustice, and they must demand that these labor leaders and unions come to their assistance in what, after all, is only the eternal fight of the poor against the rich.

The Negro workers where they are strong enough must not only take upon themselves the organization of the defense of the Negro community. They are the ones best fitted to act as representatives of the Negro communities to the white workers in the labor unions.

There is absolutely nothing shameful, nothing disgraceful in demonstrating against tyranny and showing to all the world that the Negroes will no longer put up with all that they have borne for so long. What is required is to use that energy, that determination and that magnificent spirit in such a way and in such a manner as to win concrete victories and build a firm alliance between the masses of the Negro and white people and all those who suffer from the tyranny, the persecution and the cruelties of capitalist society.

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Next week’s Labor Action will carry another article specifically devoted to the problem of the labor movement and the Negro question.

Last updated on 12 June 2015