From Fourth International, Vol.15 No.3, Summer 1954, pp.81-84.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
DEVELOPMENTS since the May 17 US Supreme Court ruling that segregated public schools are unconstitutional have made clear that whatever decrees are issued by the Court to implement the decision following the submission of additional briefs in October, school segregation will not be abolished in fact in the United States until all forms of racial discrimination are ended.
From an historical perspective, the Court’s action was simply the latest in a series of shifts in policy on official discrimination, resulting from the particular political needs of the capitalist class.
A brief summary of these shifts demonstrates the contradictory interpretations of the Constitution possible tinder democratic capitalism. The only underlying principle involved is the maintenance of the capitalist system. Consequently no court decision on segregation is irrevocable or irreversible.
- March 4, 1789, the Constitution went into effect, specifically recognizing slavery and discrimination.
- Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights went into effect, including the Fifth Amendment, with the clause “No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ...” But this guarantee did not apply to Negroes’ rights, since Negroes were considered property, not persons.
- March 6, 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, the Court held that a Negro who had been a slave could not become a citizen by residing in an area where slavery was banned.
- Dec. 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, was declared ratified. But it was still necessary to pass the Fourteenth (July 28, 1868), and Fifteenth (March 30, 1870) Amendments, specifically granting the “equal protection of the laws” and the right to vote.
- 1873-1879, in the first cases interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment after its adoption, the Court held that the amendment banned all state-imposed discrimination against Negroes.
- 1896, in the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was not unconstitutional so long as the separate facilities provided were equal.
- 1954, in cases from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia, the Court holds that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and therefore violate the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment.
What is the reason for the Court’s reversal of its previous interpretation, in the Plessy case, that segregation is not unconstitutional? Chief Justice Warren, in delivering the Court’s opinion, specifically cited only one new factor in the situation, “the extent of psychological knowledge.” Modern psychology, he said in effect, reveals that separation of Negro children from white in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children even though the material facilities provided are equal. “Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.”
Psychology was a major element in the new interpretation – that is true.
But it was not the psychology of the effect of segregation on colored children. It was the psychological effect of US Jim Crow on the colored colonial peoples, and the political needs of American capitalism’s propaganda campaign for domination of the world, that were decisive in reversing the Court’s previous position.
While not a word of this appears in the decision, it was clearly the policy of the administration in Washington to secure an interpretation aimed at convincing the opponents of American capitalism abroad that the “imperfections” in US democracy are being corrected internally. That was why the Justice Department filed a brief as friend of the court specifically requesting a re-examination of the “separate but equal” doctrine. That was why Vice President Nixon, on his return from a “good-will” trip abroad, publicly reported that the practice of discrimination in this country is harmful to US foreign policy.
And that was also why the Voice of America began broadcasting the news of the decision within two hours after it was rendered, so that the peoples in Asia and Africa and Europe heard it before many Americans.
In the weeks following the ruling, reactions at home varied. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which led the fight against segregation, and supporters of the struggle for Negro equality, saw the ruling as an important legal victory. On the whole, they recognized that it would be necessary to follow up this moral victory with additional court actions as well as organizational and other measures, in order to implement the decision and to combat attempts at delay, evasion and circumvention.
Southern extremists varied in their comments. Governor Talmadge of Georgia, who ,had repeatedly declared “there never will be mixed schools in Georgia while I am governor,” expressed his intention to defy the court ruling. He challenged the authority of the Court and threatened to abolish the public school system rather than end segregation. On an NBC-TV Meet the Press program, he said his state would not “secede from the union,” but he indicated that troops would be used to uphold the state laws.
Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi declared: “The South will not abide by or obey this legislative decision by a political court. Integrated schools are not desired by either race in the south. An attempt to integrate our schools would cause great strife and turmoil.” Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia said that the decision “will bring implications and dangers of the greatest consequence.”
Senator Eastland and his fellow Mississippian in the House, Congressman John Bell Williams, have introduced resolutions asking Congress to approve a constitutional amendment which would destroy the Court’s jurisdiction in matters of racial segregation.
But the dominant opinion of the Southern ruling class was better expressed by Governor James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, who said he was “shocked,” but proceeded to note that the Court did not order an immediate end to separate schools. He went on to advise South Carolinians to “exercise restraint and preserve order” while he – the “benevolent Bourbon,” as one Negro writer characterizes him – studies the decision and decides on recommendations to the Legislature.
That, on the whole, is shaping up as official policy in the South: continue segregation, since there is no order in the Court decision banning it; and devise ways and means to continue segregation by legal and extra-legal trickery, whatever the Court may rule.
Unofficially, other methods are being prepared to maintain segregation. These methods range from social, economic and political pressure and intimidation of Negroes, to outright force and violence.
On June 10, for example, a group of former Ku Klux Klansmen announced that thev have reorganized under the name of the “White Brotherhood,” pledged to preserve segregation bv legal means and to “try to avoid killing and violence.” (My emphasis – J.B.) Bill Hendrix of Tallahassee, Fla.. former KKK Grand Dragon, is spokesman for the group.
At the same time, as though to emphasize the fact that the old forms of intimidation in the South have not been entirely abandoned, a Pittsburgh Courier headline on June 5 reported: Lynching in Alabama! The victim, unnamed when the paper went to press, was found hanged in a wooded section near a Negro church outside of Vredenburgh.
Earlier, on May 26, the new home of a Negro dentist in Birmingham, Ala., was damaged by arson. The following weekend the pattern of segregation by intimidation was repeated in the northern city of Cleveland, Ohio (“best location in the nation”), with three new cases of attacks on homes by paint-smearing, rock-hurling bigots, and a similar incident in nearby Lakewood.
The long history of incidents such as these and similar attacks in Chicago and elsewhere apparently have influenced the thinking of Southern white supremacists. They are beginning to hold meetings of governors and other law enforcement officers to consider how to segregate Negroes, as the North has done, without legal sanction.
Negro leaders, too, recognize that the Supreme Court decision and further decrees can remain a dead letter from the outset unless the action of the Negro people and their allies puts teeth into the law.
In an Atlanta Declaration adopted by a southern conference of the organization, the NAACP announced a campaign by branches in all areas affected by the Court decision to petition local school boards for immediate ending of racial segregation in schools and to offer assistance in working out problems.
The next day the Supreme Court acted on six more eases involving segregation. In three cases the Court denied hearings, thereby letting stand lower court decisions
- banning segregation in low-rent housing projects in San Francisco;
- banning segregation on the old “separate but equal” doctrine at Hardin Junior College of Wichita Falls, Texas; and
- ordering the city of Houston, Texas, to permit Negroes to use municipal golf courses on a segregated basis.
Only the first case involved a principled opposition to segregation.
In the three other cases, involving admission of Negroes to the University of Florida and Louisiana State University, and to a city-owned Louisville, Ky., amphitheatre, the Supreme Court merely ordered the lower courts to reconsider their decisions “in the light of” the May 17 ruling and “conditions that now prevail.”
These actions should make it clear that the Court does not intend to take a clear-cut, principled stand extending its ruling against segregation in the schools to segregation in all other fields, as some had hoped. If they intended to do so, they could have commented on the cases they refused to hear, or they could have heard them and ruled to uphold the decision of the lower courts while clarifying the basis for the decision as the unconstitutionally of segregation.
In the three cases that were referred back to the lower courts for re-examination, the Court could have been less ambiguous if it had wished to outlaw segregation.
But the Court did none of these things, because the main task had already been concluded May 17 with the ruling on school segregation: the Voice of America had its story.
There will be other by-products of the Supreme Court decision. Machine politicians already are attempting to credit or blame the Democrats or the Republicans, or one candidate or another in primary elections, for the decision against school segregation, in order to win voles in the November elections.
McCarthy-type smears will be dragged in to discredit opponents of segregation. Senator Eastland started this process on May 27 when he asserted that the “court has been indoctrinated and brainwashed by left-wing pressure groups.” His proofs: Justice Black received an award April 14, 1945, from: the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which Eastland called a notorious “Communist-front” organization; Justice Minton, who was then on the US Circuit Court of Appeals, made a speech at the same affair; Justice Douglas accepted a $1,000 Sidney Hillman award from the CIO in December, 1952; Justices Reed and Frankfurter gave character-witness testimony in behalf of Alger Hiss, former State Department official convicted of perjury in 1950.
But such developments are secondary to the main line of policy on segregation. There is no basic disagreement between the Democratic and Republican parties on this question. The history of the past half century and more demonstrates that the ruling class, through both capitalist parties, has no intention of ending discrimination against Negroes. At present, in the attempt to make Washington’s foreign policy less objectionable to the world’s colored millions, Wall Street is willing to grant a concession: a statement that public school segregation is unconstitutional.
At the same time, a small legal victory might strengthen the arguments of those Negro leaders who preach support of capitalism as the system under which equality will eventually be achieved.
But will the Supreme Court ruling achieve either of its real aims – winning the confidence and support of the colonial peoples, and of the American Negroes, for capitalism?
In the first place, it won’t win the support of the Chinese, Koreans, Indo-Chinese or any other colonial peoples fighting for freedom from imperialist domination. Their distrust of the
United States is based on more than the obvious hypocrisy of the US claim to leadership of the “free world” while practicing discrimination at home.
The basic antagonism is between people who have been super-exploited for generations by foreign imperialism, and the capitalist rulers of the the US who must find new fields of exploitation in order to maintain the profil system. This antagonism would exist even if there were no problem of Jim Crow in America. The US government knows this, too, and is not halting A-bomb and H-bomb production in favor of Supreme Court rulings as a means of winning world domination.
Similarly at home, a few colored politicians, or others with a vested interest in a segregated community, may be satisfied with democratic platitudes and abstractions; but the mass of Negro workers want integrated schools so that their children – not some great-great-grandchildren of the future – can have the same education and the same opportunities for jobs as other children. They want equal job opportunities and equal pay right now, so that they can provide decent homes for their families and get out of the demoralizing slums. They want their right to live wherever they wish, under civilized conditions, without danger of threats and violence.
They also want, like other working men and women, freedom from the fear of war and of unemployment, and all the traditional freedoms they have been taught are theirs – the right to think, speak, write, meet, vote.
But the Supreme Court ruling will not even result in the one limited objective of integrated schools. The majority of the states now requiring or permitting segregation will, it is true, get in line with the Court ruling by revising their laws and ordinances requiring separate schools – though whether they effect these legal reforms sooner or later or not at all depends on how principled, militant and uncompromising a struggle the NAACP and the Negro people and their allies conduct.
But the outlines of the new forms of segregation in the US, even though state laws requiring separation of colored and white children in schools may be wiped off the books completely, are already clear. Numerous Northern newspapers and magazines have pointed out that in most cases colored children will “naturally” continue to go to the same schools they went to previously, since they live in segregated ghettoes and could logically be expected to attend schools in their own neighborhoods.
For the majority of Negro children, the Supreme Court decision will mean no change at all. Only those living on the borders of the “community within a community” will be faced with the problem, of enforcing their right to attend mixed schools.
The NAACP recognizes this and has announced it will now broaden its campaign to combat segregated housing and discrimination in employment, while at the same time it seeks implementation of the ruling against school segregation. Employment of Negroes in the least skilled jobs in heavy industry or the dirtiest, most difficult and lowest paid jobs in consumer goods industries, tends to make it difficult or impossible for them to move out of the ghettoes because of the higher cost of transportation and of buying or renting newer homes.
Finally, those few who are able to overcome the legal and economic barriers find that the white supremacists do not hesitate, as a last recourse, to use naked force. Bombings, arson, destruction of property, beatings and even murder are the means. Very seldom do the law enforcement authorities take action against their silent partners who carry out the dirty work. Local police subversive squads can track down every detail in the history of a socialist, a militant unionist, or a persistent fighter for equal rights; but they plead helplessness in discovering who bombed the home of a new Negro resident in a “white” neighborhood.
The struggle for equal rights, like the struggle of the unions, is essentially a defensive struggle. In both, the problem is to hold on to gains already made, and to fight for their extension in order to counteract the efforts of the ruling class to restrict all progress that threatens its power and privileges. As long as these struggles are conducted within the limited perspective of isolated reforms – a legal decision here, a temporary wage increase there – the gains are superficial and transitory.
To repeat an old but time-tested analogy: some of the most painful or ugly symptoms of a disease may be temporarily soothed by surface medication, drugs or minor operations; but until the basic cause of the illness is found and cured, the infection will recur or break out in other forms.
That is why labor’s gains in wages and working conditions will not secure the workers’ standard of living until the whole wage system, and the organization of production for profit on which it is based, is attacked fundamentally and replaced with a rational socialist system of production in keeping with mankind’s present stage of material and technical progress.
And that is why racial segregation will be eliminated, not by court decisions, but only when its role in relation to our American capitalist system of production and all the institutions developed to maintain and support it is recognized and similarly attacked fundamentally.
The Supreme Court ruling on school segregation can have historic significance if it is utilized by the united working people as a wedge in the revolutionary struggle to demolish the old superstructure of capitalism and build a new society for mankind on modern foundations.
Last updated on: 31 March 2009