J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

Roosevelt and Negro Question

(May 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 19, 7 May 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Like every question which is deeply rooted in the economic and historical life of the nation, the Negro question appears in, the most unexpected places. Writers who are not dealing with it specifically and therefore are off guard, so to speak, for that very reason will give quite startling indications of the place that it holds in their conception of the development and future course of American society.

A most instructive example is the recent article in Life (April 30) on Roosevelt by Eliot Janeway. The article is, from its capitalist basis, a profound study of Roosevelt as a politician. As every good article should, it treats Roosevelt’s political skill in relation to the fundamental economic and social problems he had to resolve.

But because the writer is mainly concerned with Roosevelt’s tactics he refers to the more fundamental problem only in passing – and by so doing, far more than he is, aware, shows what he considers the main problems of the day.

Roosevelt’s Balances

Quite early in. the article he says that by 1941 Roosevelt had outgrown the New Deal, which had won three elections for him.

“In return he had led its fights, even its most fundamental fight against the conservative, predominantly Southern wing of the Democratic Party.”

Janeway states that by last spring “the two principal partners in the Roosevelt coalition were ready for a showdown with each other.” By 1944 Roosevelt, he says, was working over a “volcano.” I shall go no further than to point this out.

The issue which the Southerners chose as their fighting point was the Negro question. On it Roosevelt had to capitulate. No Negro plank appeared in the Democratic Party platform. Janeway makes no secret of his opinion that the South was near to revolt. He then accurately defines Truman’s task. It is to keep the balance between left and right in the Democratic Party. “Truman’s success and the unity of the country depend on his ability to maintain this balance.”

Here we can see how even a very intelligent, well-informed capitalist writer is apt to mistake the form for the content. The decisive forces in the country are the capitalist class and the working class. On their struggle depends the future. But undoubtedly the specific political form in which this struggle presents itself to the President today is the need to hold together the Democratic Party. And as far as the South is concerned, this means maintaining the status quo on the Negro question. Janeway does not say this outright but the implications are clear.

A Dominating Problem

How powerfully this problem dominates his mind is abundantly proved in other sections of the article. Thus, in talking about the great conflicts which Roosevelt sought to moderate he says:

“A Detroit riot, a Republic Steel massacre, a wave of sitdown strikes – the very shock that the news of them brought is a measure of their rarity.”

How rare they were, how far Roosevelt succeeded in keeping them “almost within bounds” is one question. In this writer’s opinion, what Roosevelt did was to hold them within certain limitations, thereby insuring that they would burst out with terrific force later. But that Janeway places the Detroit riot where he does, shows that he considers it among the fundamental problems. Obviously he over-estimates it. It is not to be placed on the same level as the great wave of sit-down strikes. What is important is that he certainly does not underestimate it.

Persistent Negro Question

The final proof of Janeway’s cast of thought is seen in his appraisal of Roosevelt’s work in the last years. Janeway sees Roosevelt as being mainly concerned with avoiding issues. This is a very sound political judgment. Roosevelt could not solve the great .issues facing the country and he knew it. When the war came he devoted all his attention to that, still more eager to avoid facing the problems he had failed to solve between 1932 and 1939. Janeway is anxious to make this clear and this is how he does it.

“He wanted to win the war. He did not want to win the war in order to establish racial equality, or win the war to establish white supremacy. He wanted to win the war on the basis of the status quo ...”

It is clear that the whole complex of economic, social and political contradictions which we call the Negro Question haunts Janeway. Whenever he mentions fundamental problems the Negro question comes popping into his mind.

A Lesson for All

There is a very profound lessons here both for organised labor and the great body of the Negro people. Organized labor has to address itself to the Negro question as a question which it must study and attack as a part of its plans for the future of American society. Part of this education, of this understanding, is to be gained by an analysis of the roots of race prejudice. The immediate field of action is the field of production and the union movement. The perspective must be the rooting-put of this cancer which affects the whole political life of the country.

The Negroes too have to make a step forward. Their immediate field of action is the struggle for equality, as far as that is possible in bourgeois society. Jobs for Negroes, abolition of discrimination, these occupy the thoughts and strength of millions of Negroes. But something more is required. Exactly what is to be the future of American society. What role will Negroes play in it? How can they assist in the formation of the type of society which will give them their just and equal rights?

If Janeway’s article proves anything, it shows that for Roosevelt, as far as he saw it, this problem was one of the insoluble ones. But equally Janeway’s article shows that the capitalist politicians are aware of it and relate it constantly to the future of their politics and their regime.

We, organized labor and the masses of the Negroes should never for a moment lose sight of this, despite the claims of the day-to-day struggle.

Last updated on 8 June 2016