American Socialist, February 1956

The Southern Negro Stirs by Conrad Lynn

By Conrad Lynn

[About the Author: A COURAGEOUS attorney who has fought many important segregation and civil liberties cases, Conrad Lynn was co-counsel with Arthur Garfield Hays in the only court test armed forces Jim Crow be carried to the U.S. Supreme Court. That involved the refusal of Winifred Lynn to submit to induction in a segregated army unit during World War II. He later (1947-49) was counsel in the case of mixed Negro-and-white groups to test the legality of segregation in Southern transportation. That campaign, in which Mr. Lynn participated directly, took place in four states, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, leading to a number arrests and, in some cases, chain-gang sentences. His most important recent public cases have had Puerto Rico as their setting. He defended pacifist Ruth Reynolds against a charge of collaboration with the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in alleged advocacy of the overthrow the U.S. government. Mr. Lynn is also attorney in the case of the Puerto Rican Nationalist leaders who are being prosecuted for sedition; an appeal in one of these cases now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent months, Mr. Lynn has joined as counsel in e Braden-Wade case in Kentucky.]

THE most inspiring area in the United States today is the old South. The rest of the country exclaims in horror at the Till mutilation-murder and the sickening whitewash of its perpetrators. The cowardly Belzoni shootings, the bullwhip and shotgun reigns of a Sheriff McCall in Florida, or a Byrd, or Strider of Mississippi, expose the hideous visage of race dictatorship for all the world to see. Who can blame other Americans for decrying the hanging out of such dirty linen? But they view the scene from only one angle of vision. While the masses of Negroes accepted an economically depressed, socially inferior status, it was seldom necessary for the ruling class openly to employ such brutal tactics. Lynching was the prerogative of the poor white and the petty shopkeeper. It served the function of keeping the Negro in his place while the upper class remained carefully off stage. Now, such aloofness can no longer be pretended. A social structure is being shaken and the Southern aristocrat may soon have his back against the wall.

The Southern ‘way of life’ was constructed around the turn of the century after the Negro had enjoyed a shortlived emancipation. The Southern pattern was less of a crazy quilt than the more hypocritical Northern accommodation. A tiny Negro business and professional class was permitted to exist but in a strictly segregated locale. It was reasoned, with some justification, that pressure from below could thus be siphoned off and the educated Negro could be given a stake as a minor partner of Jim Crow.

But two world wars have loosened the grip of the traditional ruling classes everywhere and at last the semi-feudal rulers of the South are confronted with the handwriting on the wall. The cotton-picking machine has chased the poor white from the fields as tenant farmer or overseer, and he has found employment in the Texas oilfields or in the many new industries that find his labor cheaper than in the unionized North. He is even painfully learning in the sugar refinery strikes in Louisiana and in the long-shore struggles of the Gulf ports that he has a fundamental identity of interest with the despised blacks. The lesson is being learned slowly but inescapably.

IS it any wonder, then, that the ruling class in the South has openly assumed the helm in the savage struggle to smash the Negro back? The amalgamation of the White Citizens Councils into the Federation for Constitutional Government finds a score of ex-Governors and ex-Senators lined up with such active politicians as Talmadge, Eastland, Fielding Wright, Griffin and Strom Thurmond. Appropriately, a major industrialist, John U. Barr, is its chairman. One of its first acts was to put out feelers for alliance with Rumely and Mervin K. Hart. Thus, a special brand of American fascism appears on the scene.

Numberless anonymous little Negroes who trudged to the polls to vote, who dared to challenge Jim Crow on buses, who petitioned for non-segregated schools, are compelling a polarization of forces. In most instances these actions have been without the sanction of their major spokesman, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Winfred Lynn was denied support when he refused to submit to induction in a segregated Army. Irene Morgan did not have official approval for sitting in the ‘white’ section of a bus in 1946. The national office of the NAACP hesitates to endorse the fight of Andrew Wade and his white friends, the Bradens, for a home in an unsegregated neighborhood of Louisville. What is true of the national body, however, is not true of the branches of this organization. When the writer was jailed in Petersburg, Va., in 1947, for refusing to move to the ‘colored’ section of a bus, the local branch of the NAACP was quick to come to his aid. Local Negro leaders of the battle for equality in the South almost uniformly come from indigenous chapters in the various states. McCoy and Howard of Mississippi, the youthful Carl Gray of Montgomery, Ala., Simkins of Columbia, S. C., Calhoun of Georgia, to mention only a few, are all active NAACP members.

Until the recent past the NAACP has been dominated by its Northern constituents. The Northern middle-class Negro has accepted a second-class status which is for the most part not as galling as that suffered by his Southern brother. At the same time, influential in his councils, are liberal whites like Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and H. B. Lewis, whose hearts bleed for the Negro but who are anxious that the Negro not be too ready to bleed for himself. Inevitably the influence of this faction must wane as the struggle in the South intensifies.

WHY is it that among the most prosperous Negro in the South we find many of the most militant fighters for social emancipation? A glance at Morocco, the Gold Coast, or Indochina, affords a clue to the answer. In many respects the situation of the Negro in South is analogous to that of oppressed colonials. Regardless of his economic station, he is barred in many crucial areas from participation in the national life. From this circumstance, however, we need not adopt the Communist deduction of ‘self-determination for the Black Belt.’ As much as any non-accepted group, the Negro in America seeks integration into the general body politic.

While the leadership of the current struggle has con from the educated middle-class Negro, as the fight deepens, the Moses Wrights among the downtrodden mass come to the fore. This is a sure sign that this campaign differs fundamentally from all that have preceded. Every previous upsurge of the Negro has resulted in compromise with his inferior status consolidated at slightly higher level than that which existed before. No his fight coincides with the stirring of that vast world color in Asia and Africa, awakening from a millenium of apathy. The lowliest Negro veteran remembers his experiences in Asia and Europe. The impact of a changing economic organization arouses obscure impulses for root participation in society’s benefits. ‘The Negro in Amen is the great proletarian. The white worker can dream of rising to middle-class status but the Negro is a worker in uniform, so to speak, a uniform he cannot take off: his skin. When such a group, deliberately kept for generations at the bottom of the social structure, begins to stir an raise its head, the whole edifice feels the shock.’ (D. MacDonald, Politics, February 1944.)

In the South, the Negro knows that his battle admits of further compromise. The basis of the decision of the United States Supreme Court that segregation, per se, is discrimination, makes this implicit. That decision was if only a recognition of the world struggle for men’s allegiances. Any doubt that the final contest for integration has been joined can be resolved by a visit to a Southern Negro church, such as the one in Lake City, South Carolina which was burned to the ground by the blind and desperate mob. In this cultural center of the Negro is likely to hear on any occasion the singing of ‘O Freedom’:

And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord
And be free

The conflict assumes innumerable forms. In Augusta, Ga., the Negroes win the right to vote and throw out of office a reactionary Board of Education wedded to segregation. In Montgomery, Ala., a young Negro woman refuses to heed an order of a bus driver to give up her seat to a white woman. Three policemen drag her in chains to jail. Three days later Carl Gray leads a boycott of 40,000 Negroes who walk as much as five miles to work rather than submit any longer to Jim Crow on buses. The Negro taxi-drivers cut their fare for their brothers to ten cents and even some white employers, in grudging admiration, call for their Negro servants in their own cars.

In Orangeburg, S. C., the White Citizens Council decrees the firing from jobs of Negroes who sign a petition for an unsegregated school system. The Negroes, who are in the majority there, place a selective boycott on the leaders of the Council. Economic ruin stares these worthies in the face. The Godchaux refinery in Louisiana hires armed thugs to break up the strike of Negro and white workers. The union quietly provides all its members with the weapons of self-defense.

In Louisville, Ky., a white man, Braden, sells a home to a Negro friend, Andrew Wade, in an unsegregated neighborhood. Hoodlums stirred up by the real estate interests fire shots into the house. Friends of Wade, Negro and white, volunteer to move into his house with guns to protect home and family. In the dead of night a bomb as thrown under the home, partially destroying it. Wade sends his wife and baby away and grimly stays on with his rifle. In Milford, Del., young white toughs set out to beat up Negroes in the black ghetto. They are thrown back and punished so severely by the erstwhile lowly blacks that the police have to rescue them. In Mississippi a bloody showdown impends as the whites and blacks sweep the hardware stores bare of guns and ammunition and the white banking authorities announce that they will no longer extend credit on the crops of the Negroes this spring.

NOR does the Negro stand alone in the area of the fight. Small groups of dedicated whites all over the South risk everything to stand by his side, foreshadowing the ultimate reawakening of the disadvantaged whites. The history of Populism and of native socialism in this region is ample testimony to the revolutionary potential of the Southern masses. Don West in Dalton, Ga., the Bradens in Louisville, Charlie Jones in Chapel Hill, Minter, Cox and Editor Hazel Smith of Mississippi, have but taken up the cause of their forebears.

Finally, the remainder of the country is profoundly affected by the course of this crucial struggle. For the first time, any obscure region in the South knows that the acts of the hooded mob in the dead of night may be exposed by a Murray Kempton, or a Desmond, or even an anonymous field hand in Mississippi who writes to a Chicago paper of the terror in his neighborhood. Unquestionably the Negro will experience attacks of mounting intensity as native fascism plays its last cards. But who can doubt the eventual outcome?

Return to American Socialist
Return to the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line
Return to the Marxists Internet Archive