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Albert Parker

Demand Freedom for Negro Sailors

(30 November 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 48, 30 November 1940, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Letters of protest, demanding the freedom of the Negro sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia and an end to the Jim-Crow practices in the Navy, began to pour into the offices of President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Knox last week, at the same time that the government announced its intention of standing by the policy of segregating colored sailors to the mess attendants division only.

The policy of the Navy Department was reiterated in a statement issued by the Bureau of Navigation as follows:

Roosevelt’s Policy

“After many years of experience, the policy of not enlisting men of the colored race for any branch of the naval service, except the messmen’s branch, was adopted to meet the best interests of general ship efficiency.

“The selection of men to man the navy is left to. the discretion of the executive branch of the government.

“In the exercise of this discretion. the bureau endeavors to furnish naval vessels with crews consisting of men best qualified to meet the requirements of the special rating and branch to which they are assigned.

“This policy not only serves the best interests of the navy and the country, but serves as well the best interests of the men themselves.”

In plain English, this means that the President of the United States (executive branch) thinks that colored sailors are best qualified to be Jim-Crowed off into the kitchen and servants’ quarters of the Navy, and that this policy helps not only the country, but the Negro sailors as well.

The letters from various organizations and individuals printed in the Pittsburgh Courier last week showed that an increasing number of people are aroused over the case of the imprisoned Philadelphia sailors, and are eager to express their resentment over conditions in the Navy.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a letter to Secretary Knox stated that the colored people of this country “are bitter about the treatment of their men in the armed forces of the nation ... We wish to enter a most vigorous protest against this action and to request you, as Secretary of the Navy, to intervene.”

The N.A.A.C.P. upheld the action of the mess attendants in bravely signing their names to the published letter of complaint, saying they had done so “in belief that they had a just complaint which ought not to be weakened by an anonymous letter.”

The Courier also quoted from the “pointed letter” to Roosevelt and Knox by the Workers Relief & WPA Union of Newark, N.J., signed by George Breitman, secretary, which asked for an immediate end to the arrest, confinement to the ship for “further investigation,” molestation and inquisition suffered by the boys “whose only ‘offense’ is that they complained with much cause against a brutal system of discrimination and segregation.”

The unemployed union also demanded that Roosevelt and Knox use their powers to put an end to these conditions.

Harlem Union Offers Support

Another letter, for Local 32 of the Building Service Employees International Union, signed by J. Cyril Fullerton, executive manager, explained that the union has a membership of 2,000 who reside and work in Harlem, 90 percent of whom are Negroes.

“We feel as you (The Courier) do that Jim-crowism when captioned by that lofty term, ‘The American Way’, or race discrimination even when covered by the American flag to disguise its viciousness ... stinks to the high heavens nonetheless.

“We are definitely united to lend your worthy paper every possible means of support in its drive against this outcropping of injustice which has now come to the surface m the United States Navy.

“We have one aim and that is to see that justice is secured for the colored men in the Navy who are now being unjustly punished for demanding their rights as men and American citizens.”

Mess Attendants Expose Aim

Since their arrest, the mess attendants on the Philadelphia have been joined by sailors from at least three other ships who have spoken out and in most cases signed their names, corroborating their testimony about treatment of Negroes in the Navy.

Added to these this week were the names of Negro sailors from two other ships. Those on the U.S.S. Brooklyn, stationed off Mare Island, California, show that they understand what is going on behind the closed doors of the Philadelphia case when they write:

“They are trying to make an example of Johnson and Goodwin (two of the Philadelphia men) to try to scare the rest of us into submission. But these constant letters to you are the only hope Johnson, Goodwin and the rest of us have to get your help, that of the N.A.A.C.P., and other such organizations throughout the country so that this case will not be dropped into obscurity and forgotten by our people while conditions remain the same. We, part of the messmen of the U.S.S. Brooklyn, ... are prepared to sacrifice the time that we have in here and ourselves to help remedy this condition.”

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