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International Socialist Review, Fall 1957


Lois Saunders

Congress Bows to the South


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.117-121.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For the first time since Reconstruction days Congress passed legislation on voting rights of Negroes. But are Republicans and Democrats really interested in the struggle for equality?

* * *


WHAT has been called the “saddest day in the history of the Senate” brought jubilation to the South, a measure of disappointment to the Republican Administration and its Big Business backers, and disillusionment and bitterness to this country’s 15,000,000 Negroes.

Following a month of debate, the Senate voted 51-42 to tack a “jury trial” amendment onto the Civil Rights bill. This was the final, crippling blow to the measure, which had already been mutilated by previous amendments.

In the bill finally signed into law, the jury-trial amendment was modified to return a minimum of control to Federal judges where voting rights are violated, but the Senate action on August 2, “Black Friday,” saw the South triumphant as Northern liberals traded away Negro rights in the interests of political expediency.

After adding the jury-trial provision, the South added another amendment, prohibiting a Federal commission envisaged in the bill from using unpaid volunteer assistants from such organizations as the White Citizens Council and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In this gratuitous insult, the Senators equated the long-established, thoroughly respectable, always legal organization of the Negro people, the NAACP, with the White Citizens Councils, blood brothers of the Ku Klux Klan, which whip up race hatred, organize retaliation against Negroes who seek their rights, and flout the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Significantly, in the lengthy jockeying for advantage which passed as deliberations, the authentic voice of the Negro was lacking. No Negro was heard on the floor of the Senate, there to demand redress for the deep wrongs inflicted upon his people; for in the United States, the “fountainhead of democracy,” approximately one-tenth of the citizens, the Negroes, are without representation in the upper house of Congress.

With the Negroes voiceless, the white Senators, the “friends” of the Negroes, cynically sold them out to their avowed enemies. The bill, which was at best a half-hearted attempt to arrive at a compromise on the country’s most shameful, most embarassing and most explosive internal problem, was so flattened by the Senate steamroller that it emerged a virtually worthless piece of legislation.

Throughout the sorry spectacle, the Negro’s “friends” stumbled over each other in their haste to propose – and to vote for – disgraceful compromises designed to placate the Southerners.

The first of the crippling amendments, passed by unanimous consent, was one killing the provision that would have empowered the President to use Federal troops if necessary to safeguard the civil rights of Negroes. Next to be lopped off was the entire third section of the bill, which gave the Attorney General power to go directly to Federal courts to get injunctions against persons threatening a violation of any civil right, including the right to integration in schools, public facilities and transportation, as well as the right to vote.

At this point the bill was so narrowed that it dealt only with the right to vote. Section IV, which contained the last meaningful proposals still remaining in the bill, would have given the Attorney General authority to obtain injunctions to prevent violations of voting rights, with the authority to enforce orders resting with the judge. Even Eastland and Russell were not brash enough at this late date to hold that Negroes should not be protected – in theory, that is – in the right to vote. They, therefore, attacked this provision indirectly, by means of the jury-trial amendment.

Defended hypocritically as an attempt to protect and extend civil rights, it was designed to make sure that any whites who prevented Negroes from voting would go scot free.

In general, the democratic right to a trial by jury seems a reasonable safeguard of the individual against arbitrary acts on the part of a judge. In the particular case, however, inclusion of the jury-trial provision means that the Southern Negro will be deprived of the right to vote in the future as he has been in the past. Under the original bill the Federal government could ask a Federal judge for an injunction against a registrar who refused to register Negroes. If the registrar failed to obey the injunction he would be guilty of civil contempt. If he continued to refuse until registration was closed and the Negro had been deprived of the possibility of voting, the character of the contempt would change from civil to criminal.

Federal judges habitually take a serious attitude towards disobedience of their orders, and the registrar who came before a Federal judge on such a criminal contempt charge would stand a good chance of being convicted and sentenced. If he came before an all-white Southern jury, the probability is he would not only be freed, but would be hailed as a hero as well.

The net result, then, is that the registrar will continue to discriminate and the Negroes will continue to be denied the right to vote.

In an attempt to gain liberal and labor support, the Southerners broadened the amendment to provide for trial by jury in all criminal contempt cases, not just those involving the right to vote. [In the final House-Senate compromise this provision was narrowed to apply only to voting rights.] The trick was too transparent even for George Meany or Walter Reuther, who continued to oppose the jury amendment, though without any thundering condemnation of it.

But John L. Lewis, probably still smarting from memory of the stiff penalties levied against the United Mine Workers during the Korean War and World War II, fell for the Southerners’ hoax. He issued a statement endorsing the jury-trial proposal.

This was the cue for Senator Chapman Revercomb (Rep.) who, sensitive to what he chose to interpret as the will of the numerous West Virginia miners, promptly swung over to the side of the Southerners.

Joining in the rush were Northern Democracts who have long been supported by Negroes as “friends.” Among these were Senators O’Mahoney of Wyoming, Anderson and Chavez (himself a member of an oppressed minority) of New Mexico, Mansfield of Montana, Green of Rhode Island and Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy, loudly touted as Democratic presidential timber, had told reporters that he was in favor of the right-to-vote section of the original bill. But in behind-the-scenes conversations, he was apparently reminded that it was the South which had supported his candidacy for the vice-presidential nomination in the early ballots at the Democratic National Convention in 1956, and that the South would not take kindly to any presidential candidate who rejected the jury-trial amendment. Kennedy saw the light. He, too, switched his vote. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, running-mate of Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 presidential election and considered again in the running for 1960, was another who climbed on the South’s bandwagon.

At no time during the debate did any of the bill’s “defenders” do that which would have been automatic for a Negro or any other person seriously concerned for the Negro’s welfare: launch a counterattack against the South. Instead, they let the Southerners choose the battleground, and permitted the discussions to revolve around a series of secondary issues, such as the danger of Federal troops again “marching through Georgia,” the legal technicalities of the difference between civil and criminal injunctions and the phony issue of the threat to the democratic tradition of trial by jury.

Absent from the debate was the central question at issue – the hard and incontrovertible fact that Negroes in the South are systematically deprived of basic rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. Defenders of the bill were too polite to mention any of the hundreds of documented cases which show the extent to which the Negro is disfranchised. In the seven Southern States of the Deep South, plus a section of Texas, the potential Negro vote is 3,750,000. Of these, only 850,000 or 23 per cent are permitted to register, with far fewer actually voting. In Mississippi only four per cent of the Negroes are registered. Every type of trickery is used to keep Negro names off the voting rolls, from the poll tax, through delaying tactics, literacy tests, inability to locate the registration books and civics tests, to obscure questions on Constitutional provisions.

Some of this information was inserted into the Congressional Record during the last hours of debate, when it could do no possible good, but it was never brought out on the floor.

Also kept discreetly in the background were the ghosts of Negro martyrs who had been murdered because they tried to encourage other Negroes to vote, such as Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriet, who were bombed in Florida; or the Rev. George Lee who was shot to death in Mississippi. Their names were not mentioned.

No Negro Senator, had there been such – at least no Negro Senator who had not been swayed by party pressure – would have permitted the Senators to exclude these matters from the debate. But, as already noted, in the deliberations concerning their basic rights, the voice of the Negro was barred from the floor of the Senate.

Absent also was the voice of labor whose leaders have abdicated the right to independent representation, preferring instead to rely upon the Democratic party with its powerful Dixiecrat wing. Labor leaders, together with the Communist party, which follows the same course, will have a hard time in the months to come trying to justify to Negroes their policy of supporting the Democrats.

The union bureaucrats, as a matter of fact, are to a large measure responsible for the present impasse in race relations in the South. The Negroes have demonstrated time and again in recent years their determination to gain their rights. They have looked to the white workers for assistance. But they have looked in vain, though there have been a few notable exceptions, such as the Packinghouse Workers. The unity of white workers and Negroes would compel concessions from the white supremacists. It would also pave the way for unionization of the South. But championing of the Civil Rights struggle by the union heads would bring them into collision with the Southern wing of the Democratic party. This does not fit in with the political aims of Walter Reuther and the other labor leaders. They elected, therefore, to duck the civil rights fight, as well as the fight for unionization of the South.


Through the misty haze of endless verbiage, as the Senators huffed and puffed and concluded their horse trades, certain of the underlying currents in the crisscross of race relations in this country began to reveal themselves.

Apparent to everyone was the angling for political advantage at the polls by both Republicans and Democrats. So open was this that it seemed to some observers that the only reason the Administration had proposed the bill or maneuvered it to the floor of the Senate was because the Republicans were attempting to extend the gains they had made in tearing away Negro allegiance from the Democrats in 1952 and 1956.

Not so apparent, but nonetheless a factor, was the attitude of Big Business. The financial and industrial rulers of the country – such as US Steel, Standard Oil and the giant of them all, DuPont and its subsidiaries, including General Motors – find race relations in the South today an obstacle to their interests and plans.

The Republican Administration is the preferred political spokesman of this small ruling group. It is therefore no accident that the Civil Rights bill was proposed and backed by the Eisenhower Administration. Nor is it any accident that Senator William F. Knowland, right-wing Republican, with one eye cocked toward the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and the other ogling the White House in Washington, emerged as the bill’s most consistent protagonist. It was he who brought the House bill to the floor, by-passing the Senate Judiciary Committee which had had a similar measure bottled up for six months, and who piloted it during its course through the Senate.

Vice President Richard Nixon, top runner among the Republican 1960 presidential hopefuls, was also instrumental, as presiding officer, in bringing the bill to the floor and in pressing for its passage.

Wall Street, naturally, has no intention of launching a crusade on behalf of the Negro. It is not concerned with such abstract values as morality or justice, or civil and democratic rights. Nevertheless, for the furtherance of its own policies, the evidence indicates it would like to hit upon some formula to get rid of the most repugnant aspect of civil-rights violations.

President Eisenhower, with his vacillating and fumbling defense of the bill, finally taking a stand only against the jury-trial amendment, mirrors the attitude of the country’s capitalist rulers. Curbing Southern excesses is dictated by present national and world conditions, but President Eisenhower would like to have this accomplished as painlessly as possible, without unduly upsetting his friends, the fine “gentlemen” of the South.

The reasons why Negroes seek a Civil Rights bill are self-evident. They see such a bill as a valuable aid in their drive for full equality. They want the rights of which they are deprived by trickery and terror. They want the right to an education, the right to a job, the right to vote, the right to live where they please, the right to participate to the fullest in every phase of contemporary life unhampered by crippling restrictions which place them in the category of pariahs and untouchables. They want what everybody else wants – recognition and acceptance. They ask no special favors. They seek merely the removal of special, cruel handicaps. They ask, in sum, that “dignity of the individual” about which the ideologists of American capitalism are so fond of boasting.

The reasons why Big Business prefers to eliminate the most awkward features of Jim Crow rule have been developing since the close of World War II. If Wall Street’s shift in attitude seems strange, we should recall the sharp changes in the attitude of Northern capitalists towards the Negro during and after the Civil War. Lincoln, representing America’s capitalist interests, freed the slaves as a means of ensuring the victory of the North. A decade later, having crushed the rebellion, Northern capitalists became preoccupied with expansion to the West and by the turn of the century they were eyeing China and other Asiatic countries. In the Hayes compromise of 1876, the North pulled Federal troops out of the conquered South and gave Southerners a free hand to take back from the Negro those privileges and rights granted by Constitutional Amendments XIII, XIV and XV, enacted at the close of the Civil War. The North’s attitude was formalized in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court in 1896 which sanctioned the “separate-but-equal” doctrine and ushered in an era of renewed terror against Negroes.

The interest manifested today by Big Business in the affairs of the Deep South is in accord with another decision of the Supreme Court, the school integration decision of May, 1954, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine and which, together with its 1955 ruling, ordered the South to get on with the business of integration “with all deliberate speed.”

In the slightly more than half century between these two decisions, the world has changed greatly, and the needs and interests of American capitalism have changed correspondingly. The West, so tempting in 1876, has long been dominated by Eastern capital. The Far East, and especially China, was lost to American exploitation when Chiang Kai-shek fled before the armies of Mao Tse-tung in 1949. Today with approximately one-third of the world excluded from the capitalist sphere, American financial interests are in search of new possibilities for expansion. The industrial and financial giants are faced with the paradox of an enormous productive capacity, increased in recent years by automation, plus large amounts of idle capital, at the same time that markets and possibilities for profitable investment abroad have been shrinking.

It is under these conditions that Big Business has taken a new long look at the South. Here is a new frontier, a sizeable, backward area where new capital can be invested and where there is a big reservoir of cheap, unorganized labor. How cheap can be gauged from a glance at income statistics. In Mississippi in 1949, for instance, 77.3 per cent of the Negroes had an annual income of less than $1,500, according to figures based on the 1950 US Census records. In the North, 45.7 per cent of the Negroes were in that economic group, but in the North Negroes accounted for only a small percentage of the population, whereas in Mississippi they were slightly less than half of the population of the State. Likewise, the median income of Negroes in Southern cities for the same year was $861 as against $1,665 in Northern cities.

Were more Southern Negroes employable in factories, industrialists could well afford to give them on-the-job training and pay them a wage higher than they are now getting but still well below union wages in the North. Taking advantage of the tax-free provisions offered in many sections of the South, the industrialists could erect new streamlined factories and manufacture their products at a far lower cost than in the unionized North. In addition, competition from the newly industrialized, open-shop South would tend to force down Northern wages and further weaken the unions.

Why, then, has there not been a greater rush of Northern capital into the South? Instead of such a development, there appears to be a reluctance on the part of Big Business to invest heavily in the area. That reluctance, in turn, seems to have a close correlation with the intensity of Jim Crow rule and the existence of the plantation system. To refer again to Mississippi, Negro incomes in that State are low, illiteracy is high and, as mentioned above, only four per

cent of the State’s Negroes are permitted to vote. Negroes have few rights in Mississippi that a white man must respect. Although some industries have fled to the South, not many of them have selected Mississippi as the site for their new operations. In 1940 in the entire State there were only 56,782 workers engaged in manufacturing out of a total population of 2,183,796. By 1955 the number had grown to only 105,000. (Mississippi’s population in 1950 had declined to 2,178,914.)

It seems apparent from this low level of industrialization that some factors necessary to attract capital are absent. One of those factors is the rawness of the labor supply. Industry must have workers readily available who possess at least a basic education sufficient to enable them to read and write, and enough familiarity with machines to make it possible to train them for work on the assembly line.

A Negro sharecropper, illiterate and unskilled, is only a potential candidate for industrial labor. That is all he will be so long as his life is lived in the cotton fields and his education limited to a few years’ attendance at sub-standard segregated schools. Thus the tight Jim Crow fetters that bind the Negro also retard industrialization.

If economic factors today favor a modification in the Jim Crow pattern, political pressures point even more powerfully in the same direction. These stem from the revolutionary ferment and upheavals American imperialism faces aboard in its drive for world power and from the mounting insistence of the Negro people at home for equality.

Southern treatment of the Negro has become a liability in the carrying out of American foreign policy. The people of Africa and Asia are keenly sensitive to capitalist America’s treatment of its Negro minority. The State Department finds it increasingly difficult to explain away such incidents as the kidnaping and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, the barring of Autherine Lucy, to the accompaniment of violence, from the University of Alabama, or the refusal of a Texas airport cafe manager to serve an Indian Ambassador except on a segregated basis.

The sending of Vice President Nixon to Ghana as a special representative of the President when that West African country celebrated its independence from England last spring is one indication of how seriously concerned the State Department is with the attitudes of non-white people.

At home the South’s stiff repressive laws and its anti-Negro violence add fuel to an already explosive situation. Despite the peculiar Southern methods and the spreading aggressions of the White Citizens Councils, the Negro is no longer docile. He is demanding his rights. He took those demands directly to Washington in the Prayer Pilgrimage May 17. The rise of a new national political consciousness on the part of the Negro, as signified by that demonstration, was noted by the Administration and by Wall Street. Faced with pressure from the Negro, Big Business recognizes the need for timely concessions to lessen the danger of serious political convulsions.

Hence the fatuous and threadbare contentions of the South and the South’s use of open violence as a method of rule appear outmoded to Wall Street. The new conditions call for new methods. The North, for the most part, has done away with discriminatory laws, but has found many devious means of keeping Negroes separate and apart and in an inferior position. When court enforcement of restrictive covenants was outlawed, the North fell back on other methods to “discourage” Negroes from moving into “white” residential areas, and continues to maintain de facto ghettos with their accompanying all-Negro schools and other public facilities. By gerrymandering political districts, it has kept Negro representation in legislative bodies down to a trickle. By “selective” hiring practices it has controlled the volume and advancement of Negro labor.

Why can’t the South do likewise? It seems logical, simple, desirable – to Big Business. The trouble is that it means the doom of the white South’s “way of life,” its sharecropper plantation system, its “right” to overwork, underpay, abuse and terrorize the millions of Negroes it still tries to keep in the status of semi-slaves. The exhibitition just witnessed in the Senate gives eloquent testimony to the power of that “way of life,” and to the tenacity with which Southerners will defend it.

The Southern Senators challenged the power of their adversaries and won a resounding victory. But that victory – in face of the rising militancy of the Negroes – may well prove the prelude to their defeat.


The gutting of the Civil Rights bill was a hard blow for the leaders of the Negro people. It was far more than a defeat on a single issue, even on one of such overwhelming importance. It marked a pitiless exposure of the futility of the policy on which they had based their actions for decades. The NAACP leaders had adopted as their own the political credo of Samuel Gompers, “Reward your friends and punish your enemies.” An independent political course was beyond them.

There could not have been devised a more devastating display of the ineptness of the NAACP policy than the defection, one by one, of the liberal “friends” the NAACP had so carefully cultivated for so long. Following the vote on the jury-trial amendment, the NAACP leaders acted as if they were stunned. President Eisenhower was more outspoken against the Senate action than was Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP.

As the debate opened, the Negro leaders seemed confident that at last, for the first time since Reconstruction, Congress would pass a meaningful, if somewhat weak, Civil Rights bill. It would signal a new day for the NAACP itself. It would signal the beginning of a new day for the Negro people of the South. It would prove that the policies of the NAACP had been correct.

The NAACP leaders had placed their reliance on their “liberal” friends in Congress. To this they had attempted to subordinate all other activity, with the single exception- of the continuing court tests of denials of civil rights. Where other forms of struggle emerged, they did so outside the orbit of the NAACP.

The Association was at great pains to weed out from the local leadership in its many branches any individuals who might conceivably be tainted with a suspicion of being “radicals” or “Communists.” To prevent mass demonstrations which could somehow get out of hand, it developed the technique of the dignified and limited – and ineffective – “leadership conferences,” which periodically undertook to visit state and national Representatives and Senators, to try to persuade them of the justice of voting for Negro rights.

The NAACP was even chary of giving its approval to the mass bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. It was not until June of this year, after he had been acclaimed by many other organizations and had proved beyond doubt that he was the Negro people’s outstanding figure, that the NAACP awarded the Rev. Martin Luther King, leader of the boycott, its highest medal, the Spingarn award.

When, as a result of the pressure from Negroes of the South, coupled with the refusal of President Eisenhower to speak out against bombings and other atrocities, the Negro leaders, including the NAACP, were virtually pushed into a demonstration at the nation’s capital, they again did everything possible to keep that demonstration under tight control. It was not to be a “March on Washington,” the NAACP insisted, but a “Prayer Pilgrimage.” Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Negroes and whites could have been mobilized for the Washington demonstration. The leaders seemed frightened at such a prospect.

The first thing the Rev. King did when he arrived in Washington was to call a press conference, through which he made clear to the nation and to the 30,000 people who had assembled for the pilgrimage that there was absolutely – he was emphatic – absolutely no intention of visiting any Congressmen or Senators, no thought of picketing the White House, no plan to engage in any type of political activity whatsoever. It was in the nature of an official edict. The Rev. King indicated that it would be “Communists,” and only “Communists,” who would insist upon such methods of direct pressure. The demonstration, he maintained, was to be strictly a peaceful, prayerful supplication.

The insistent plea in his prepared speech at the Lincoln Memorial the following day was an appeal for the right to vote. The Rev. King studiously ignored the question on everyone’s mind: Vote for whom and for which party? The appeal for the right to vote has tremendous emotional attraction for people deprived of that right. But in the politics of the South, the right to vote, important as it is, confers on the Negro only the right to cast his ballot for one race-baiter as against another – so long as the choice remains between the candidates of the Democratic and the Republican Parties.

The many thousands gathered before the Lincoln Memorial gave their leader, the Rev. King, an overwhelming ovation. But they had also greeted with undisguised enthusiasm the proposal made just a few minutes earlier by Representative Adam Clayton Powell of New York for a “third political force led, for the time being, by the Negro clergy,” and opposed to both the Democrats and the Republicans. The two policies were sharply counterposed in essence, if not in words: obtain the right to vote, and use the ballot to support Democrats or Republicans; or, obtain the right to vote, so that you can break with both existing capitalist parties and establish a new independent political party, dedicated to the interests of the Negro and other workers.

Which course will the Negro leaders and the Negro people follow?

In the final reckoning, as witnessed in the Senate debate, the patient efforts over the years on the part of the NAACP proved a failure. The capitalist “liberals” showed themselves to be friends who desert when they face the test. The exposure of these “friends,” so glaring that few could fail to recognize it, is the single healthy and hopeful aspect of the great debacle.

The end of a deeply held political illusion can serve as the beginning of the next long step forward.

The Negro people will not accept the Senate defeat, bow their heads and let the old order continue. Behind them is the Montgomery bus boycott. Behind them also is the Prayer Pilgrimage. Ahead lies the continuing fight for equality until victory is won.

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