C L R James 1949

“The Talented Tenth”:
Negro Leadership and Civil Rights

Source: Fourth International, Vol.X No.4, April 1949, pp. 109-113, signed J. Meyer [C.L.R. James];
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido.

The preliminaries of the struggle over civil rights have already brought home to the Negro people that they can expect little from this Congress. The Pittsburgh Courier of February 26th expresses current Negro opinion editorially. “What reason was there for supposing that a Democratic Eighty-first Congress would be more ‘impressive’ than a Republican Eightieth Congress?” Its conclusion is also worth repetition: “The shadow-boxing going on in the Senate should be a post-graduate course to those whose political education has not gone beyond the campaign platform stage.”

But this does not mean that Negro injustice is merely the victim of the same old run-around. Not in the slightest degree. The 1948 elections showed that never since the period of the Civil War has the Negro question so shaken the nation. And never since that period has Congress been so involved in the Negro question as in the present session.

To pass any civil rights bill demands firm rules to end filibustering. This involves a break with a not unimportant traditional procedural practice. Secondly, civil rights are being exploited as a political weapon by the Republican Party against the Democratic Party. Bricker, a Republican from Ohio, maliciously proposes to add anti-discrimination clauses to a national housing bill. A Democratic senator bitterly protests at this proposal which he says will ruin the chances of the bill.

The NAACP and others demand that new labor legislation should contain clauses denying NLRB facilities to labor unions which discriminate against Negro workers. Senator Taft announces his agreement. The New York Times of February 8th says that the bitterness of the exchanges on the Republican attempt to exploit the civil rights issue exceeds anything since the special session called by Truman in 1947:

Democratic congressmen are exploiting the demand for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Law and the passing of social security legislation in an attempt to sidetrack the struggle on civil rights. Whatever may be the fate of the various issues and bills now before Congress, it is clear that the Negro question has stamped itself indelibly upon the life of this session.

The Negro question is the central issue of this Congress in another and deeper sense. Despite Truman’s assumption by divine right of the most dangerous powers in the Taft-Hartley Act, the Democrats have two advantages in their maneuvers and evasions on this bill: 1) the Republicans are known to be in opposition; 2) the labor leaders are silent and covering up for Truman. But there is not the slightest cover for anybody on the civil rights program.

It was the issue above all on which Truman galvanized his party and won the sympathies of the people. The Dixiecrats dramatized the clash for him by splitting the Democratic Party. If Congress fails to make a reasonable, a passable demonstration of its willingness and ability to translate into action the wishes of the people then democracy, “the American Way,” will receive a terrible blow; abroad in the deadly serious propaganda war with Russia, in the rank and file of the labor movement, in the consciousness of the American people as a whole, and above all among the Negroes who have during recent years given ample evidence that their patience is nearing its end. Finally the struggle in Congress puts squarely before the nation the role of the Southern politicians who have misrepresented the South and distorted the political life of the country for a hundred and seventy years.

A Bold Political Maneuver

The administration knows this – knows it very well. Hence Truman and his political advisers have initiated and are resolutely carrying through a political maneuver of extreme boldness. They propose to split the Negro petty bourgeoisie from the Negro masses and attach them to the Democratic Party and the administration. They propose to use them as a weapon for stifling not only the actions but the very protests of the Negroes. Thus the educated, white-collar elements among the Negroes, whom many years ago Dr. DuBois dignified with the phrase “talented tenth,” are at last receiving some of the recognition he demanded for them. They are not receiving a gift or “justice.”

Far more than the Congress is involved. The country as a whole is deeply stirred by the insoluble general crisis, and many are looking more and more to the Negro question as at least one issue which ought to be solved. The petty bourgeoisie is politically active on this question as never before. Many bourgeois industrialists are awaking to the fact that they cannot allow labor and “communism” to be the sole defenders of democratic rights. Catholic and Jewish organizations for good reasons of their own have joined in the battle. All of these, including the labor leadership, with unerring instinct realize that the Negro petty bourgeoisie represents, for them, the key to the situation. That the masses of the people are sincere, there is no doubt. We shall come to that later.

But from the president down, in their various ways all the leaderships have one common aim-to keep the Negro masses quiet and to bluff the skeptical working class. Thus the policy of President Truman and the administration is no cheap trick. It represents a response of capitalist society to social and political forces deeply rooted in the history of the nation and its present social structure. As the forces align themselves, and they are doing so with great rapidity, the question of civil rights for Negroes gives invaluable indications of more fundamental social conflicts involving the whole future of American society.

The administration and its supporters have taken the lead first of all on the question of propaganda. The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights was a landmark. Since that time we have had the plain-speaking, almost violent report on Jim Crow in Washington. Attorney-General Tom Clark now finds himself on liberal bookshelves as the author of an opus (a very dull and pedestrian affair) attacking racial covenants and bearing the suggestive title of Prejudice and Property. As for the speeches and articles and messages of Senator Humphrey, Governor Bowles, and the rest, one has only to look back to Roosevelt’s pitiful record from 1932 to 1945 to recognize the vast distance that the Democratic Party and the administration have traveled, under the whip of the Negro masses and the sympathy of the people. They are no longer on the defensive, as far as words are concerned. They have learned the trick of joining full-throatedly in the chorus of denunciation.

The administration recognizes how precious are its Negro spokesmen. Their presence on Democratic platforms and their signatures on Democratic documents are the sole certificate of Democratic purity on civil rights. Their control of the Negro masses is the slender barrier between the present turgid situation and bloody outbursts, Roosevelt (how he is being exposed these days!) used to appoint Negroes to posts dealing with Negroes. That is no longer satisfactory. Earl Brown, Amsterdam News columnist, quite recently made a blistering attack upon the Negro policy of the New Deal:

“In this period a number of Negroes were appointed to would-be advisory positions in the Government. All of these appointees were purely political manikins who were yanked around by departmental or bureau heads at will. They had no power. Most of them never even learned what they were supposed to do.”

Similarly, says Brown, Negroes in the diplomatic service were appointed only to posts dealing with Negroes. It is clear that in the minds of both whites and Negroes this must stop. Dr. Ralph Bunche, a Negro, after his success as mediator in Palestine, is mentioned by Leonard Lyons, New York Post columnist, as being seriously considered for the post of ambassador to Russia. (There is no question that a Russian post is higher than a post dealing with Negroes.) The truth of the rumor is not important. The rumor itself is.

The governor of the Virgin Islands is said to be slated for a federal judgeship or perhaps the Supreme Court. The Negro press notes with glee that he has been touring the South, hobnobbing with Southerners and Dixiecrats. This, it is claimed, is preparation for the judgeship.

The most startling appointment, however, is that of Mrs. Anna Hegemann as assistant to Social Security administrator Oscar Ewing. The post of Social Security Administrator has been recommended to Congress for cabinet status. The Negro press speculates with bated breath whether this would not mean that Mrs. Hegemann would occupy a post just below cabinet rank. Appetites are whetted by the career of Negro Congressman Dawson. He is now chairman of the Committee on House Expenditures. His secretary is a Negro, who now functions as secretary to the Committee.

In addition Truman has agreed to raise the status of the American and Liberian ministers to that of ambassador. The American minister, Edward Dudley, is expected to be the first Negro ambassador. True, Liberia is a Negro state, but he can always be promoted to Russia or Communist China or some such place.

The little Trumanites everywhere are following the example. Chester Bowles appoints a Negro as his military aide, the Democratic congressman for a Bronx constituency appoints a Negro as his secretary. This is just the beginning. What is intended, particularly if mass activity continues, was made perfectly clear by the remarkable events that took place in Washington during the inaugural celebrations.

“A Big Day for Democracy”

President Truman of Missouri and Vice President Barkley of Kentucky gave the Jim Crow tradition in Washington such blows as it has never been given before. To the inaugural ball 250 Negroes were invited. At a very special dinner given to Truman and Barkley as President and Vice President, four Negroes, two men and two women, were present. Negro Congressman Dawson was guest of honor at a dinner and parties in which Howard McGrath and numerous other Democratic magnates participated. Conversely, at dinners and patties given by the Democratic National Chairman and others, Congressman Dawson and numerous other Negroes from all over the country participated. At both the gala and traditional inaugural affairs, “the race” took an active part on and off the stage. For “the first time” in the annals of this country, three Negroes made a “command performance” before the Chief Executive at the same time. Lionel Hampton’s band played for the pre-inaugural ball, and the next night at the inaugural ball when Benny Goodman fell ill, Hampton, a guest at the bail, substituted for Goodman as leader of the band. Negroes stayed at the Statler and the Shoreham.

It is not difficult to believe the rumor that President Truman bluntly made the Southerners understand that if they did not like it they could stay away. He himself spoke to Lena Horne, the Negro film star, during one of the parties, and Governor (Kissing Jim) Folsom expressed himself as willing to oblige a Negro photographer in democratically including Miss Horne in the peculiar brand of gubernatorial activity from which he gets his name. (The lady excused herself and thus both the Negro picture pages and democracy were cheated.)

For the Negro petty bourgeoisie the whole business was no laughing matter. Sections of the Negro press went wild with joy.

“It was a big day for democracy.”

“Thee two greatest days in modern history passed into the pages of democracy ... leaving us with tired feet and happy heart. There’s more ... much more ... which we will be remembering for days to come, but right now, our fatigued mind refuses to admit all of it into the frontal cranium or wherever it is that things go when they want to come out on paper.”

“Biggest thrill of the day came via radio when newscasters chortled over the snub given Dixiecrats Thurmond and Talmadge by President Truman and Vice President Barkley.”

There is no question but that this is going to be repeated in New England, in Detroit, in Los Angeles. It may take time, but Truman’s Negro guests were politicos and Negro supporters from all over the country. It is inconceivable that so radical a departure did not have the whole country in mind. Gone – for the time being – are the day’s when Frederick Douglass forced his solitary way into a reception given by Abraham Lincoln, when Theodore Roosevelt brought the roof down on his head by an invitation to Booker T. Washington to lunch with him at the White House. Gone too are the days of furtive little luncheons by Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House to selected Negro stooges. A new stage has been reached and passed.

At the same time the big industrialists have moved on to the scene. Five Howard University senior engineering students, all veterans of World War II, have been hired by the General Electric Company. Here are already a few Negroes working as engineers with General Electric but it is obvious this is a new policy. M.M. Boring, Manager of Technical Personnel Division of G.E., Schenectady, New York, and his assistant personally visited the Howard School of Engineering and Architecture and after interviewing 14 students selected five. The Urban League has planned these policies with General Electric, General Motors, Merck (chemicals), Fairchild Aviation, international Harvester, American Telephone and Telegraph, Du Pont, Sinclair Oil, Ford Motor Co., Chrysler, Packard and the Automatic Manufacturing Company. The Industrial Secretary of the National Urban League, Julius Thomas, explains very precisely that this move concerns “highly skilled” Negroes and “high-paying” jobs. No longer will the labor movement alone have the monopoly, and credit of working side by side with Negroes. Careers, if even carefully rationed, are now open to the talents of the talented tenth.

Cultivating a Privileged Caste

Thus the administration and heavy industry have embarked on a concerted drive politically, economically, and socially, in the primitive sense of that word, to win over a caste of Negroes to their side. It is nothing new; British imperial policy, in India and in the colonies, squeezed this particular orange dry. In the last days of British imperialism in India there were less than six hundred Englishmen in the Indian civil service. (Britain merely kept the army, the navy and the air force in its own hands.)

Some such drastic policy was necessary or the American bourgeoisie would face disaster on the Negro question with all its national and international repercussions. The fierce upheavals in Harlem, Detroit and elsewhere, the story, as yet untold, of the unceasing and often bloody lighting for their rights by Negroes in the army, were climaxed by the declaration of Randolph and Reynolds which startled not only the bourgeoisie but the Negro leaders. Forrestal called them together to aid him in the elaboration of a segregated policy for Negroes in the armed forces. They turned him down flat. Something had to be done. It is being done. A new perspective has been opened for the Negro petty bourgeoisie. No one except a rabid reactionary can be otherwise than sympathetic to any body of Negroes who, after 300 years, find themselves to some small degree recognized as American citizens. The right of Negroes to jobs is a right which must be relentlessly fought for, not only in the factory but in the office and everywhere. But that is not what is at issue here at all. What is of the first importance is the political motivation of those who are making the concessions and, above all, the political consequences for the Negroes and the country as a whole. These are already visible.

The fiasco of the civil rights program in Congress appears to be purely the work of the Democratic and Republican fakers and intriguers maneuvering with the Southerners. Particularly brazen were the Brooks Hays proposals. The Democratic Party was offered Southern support for a federal anti-lynching bill by which the federal government would intervene only after proved inability of the slate authorities to deal with a lynching; there would be a federal FEPC, but the government would have no power to enforce any decisions. It now appears that the last word on this monstrous impudence rests not with the Democratic party but with the Negro leaders who are swarming in Washington. If they accept it, then Truman’s face is saved and it will be their task to pacify the Negroes and assure the rest of the country that “real progress” has been made.

“Compromise” and “Dilemma”

Lem Graves, the Courier’s Washington correspondent, reports in detail the opening motes. Graves states flatly the dilemma posed by the Brook Hays compromise. The Negro leaders will have to decide whether at some “prestige risk” they can work out an “honorable peace” with the Southern proponents of “honest and legitimate solutions” to the Negro problem “which might not go quite as far as the leaders have been asking the South to go ...” The other alternative is to reject all “enlightened compromises” from that quarter. The phrases that Graves uses show which side he is on. But though he gives moral support, he is under no illusions as to the risks the Negro leaders are running.

There is, he says, some danger in both moves. To make a deal, “there is the danger in all social movements, the leadership will be discredited by any step away from the pedestal of contention they have occupied.” In plain political terms: if they accept the compromise, the masses may leave them and they will be of no use whatever to the administration. He returns to this again and again. These leaders “haze to calculate the effect on their personal job and income status, of any retreat which would end the civil rights cold war. (This question of loss of face among one’s constituents affects Southern politicians and civil rights lobbyists alike).”

Graves is a little premature about any retreat by these Negro leaders “ending” the cold war. But his insight and particularly his frankness are none the less instructive. He poses the other alternative: refusing the “compromise.”

This might anger the hard-pressed Southern Negroes. That is one of the few references to the Negro masses in all the reporting about the inaugural celebration and the new status of Negroes in Washington.

Graves says that he took a poll among the Negro leaders. He learns from these gentlemen that they want to know: 1) how “sincere” are the proponents of the compromise; 2) how much backing have the proposals in Congress. The third concern of these fakers can only be fully appreciated if quoted verbatim: 3) “If Negro leaders would consent to dickering on the basis of a ‘compromise’ (which seems quite doubtful) how much higher would the Southerners raise their sights in an effort to come close to effective legislation in the civil rights field and to a basis of honorable compromise which would not leave the racial leadership holding the bag?”

The Millions Are Not Considered

We have underlined the last few words. The Negro leadership is prepared to go as far as possible in “honorable compromise” with the Southerners as long as they can hold their own position as leaders. What happens to the millions of Negroes is no concern of anybody. But with appointments in the offing to posts of policy-making status, with real social equality and invitations to cocktail parties and dinners with the highest in the land, and with an opening for high-paying white-collar jobs in industry for sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and protégés, the social basis of these fakers is widely extended. They are getting something to fight for. But if they are getting more they will have to do more. It will be their task not only to accept the “honorable compromise” but to sell it to the Negroes and the country.

Truman is ready to help them all he can. In the inaugural parade there were some segregated units. But there were also mixed units of cadets from West Point and Annapolis, mixed units of WACs and WAVEs, a mixed light-tank corps and a few others. This was a demonstration made to a million people from all over the country. The administration, there is not the slightest doubt, is preparing to make some token moves in regard to segregation in the armed forces. It is reported both in the capitalist press and in the Negro press that an end to segregation in the air forces is being prepared. We shall see.

But while the Negro press swoons with delight at the mixed units from Annapolis, it also reports that the number of officers in the navy under the new policy is about eight or eleven, or some such ridiculous figure. Still more revealing is the reality in Jersey. The governor has earned national publicity by insisting on no segregation in the National Guard but a Jersey correspondent asserts that there are eleven token Negro members of a white unit. That’s all. The old realities are to continue behind a facade of Negro petty bourgeois incorporated into positions of privilege and petty profit.

We are at the very beginning of this new development. All of it of course, as always, is the result of the tremendous activity of the Negro masses. But it is necessary to repeat that this deliberate policy of the administration is merely the crystallization of social and political developments in the nation at large. The American petty bourgeoisie today has “discovered” civil rights. If Congress and the administration are building up the Negro petty bourgeoisie on the one side, petty-bourgeois organizations and activities are proliferating all over the country bolstering the Negro petty bourgeoisie on the other. This, its historical antecedents, its effect upon the Negro masses and the proletariat, and the role of the labor leadership, will be the subject of a second and concluding article.


Last updated on: 11 April 2009