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Albert Parker

The Negro Struggle

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded.” – Karl Marx.

(4 January 1941)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 5 No. 1, 4 January 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In an interesting series of articles in The Pittsburgh Courier, W. Robert Ming, Jr., Professor in the School of Law at Howard University, has dealt with the legal and technical aspects of the case of the S.S. Philadelphia sailors who were kicked out of the U.S. Navy because they signed a letter protesting intolerable Jim Crow conditions.

After demonstrating that the Philadelphia case shows how freedom of speech has been stolen from those in the Army and Navy, Professor Ming goes on to point out how much power this puts in the hands of the “brass hats.” If the public outside can’t get information about conditions in the armed forces from the only possible source – that is, from those inside – how can it possibly do anything to correct or improve those conditions? This means that if the soldiers can’t speak about conditions to the public, the officer caste can do just about anything it wants.

Professor Ming goes on to show that the officer caste has still another weapon to keep the mouths of conscripted soldiers shut, in addition to the power to discharge those who speak up. The right (“ephemeral though it be”) of a conscript to his former job depends on his getting a certificate from the Army “indicating satisfactory completion of the training course.” Under the present conscription set-up, a worker who would protest to the world outside, would certainly not get such a certificate. “This possibility of dual punishment places in the hands of the officers of this great peace-time army tremendous power without adequate controls and safeguards for the protection of the selectees.”

Where the Criticism Falls Down

But these articles in the Pittsburgh Courier are at their weakest point when the writer attempts to indicate how full rights for Negroes may be obtained and the right of freedom of speech and other civil liberties restored. For in his discussion of this, which is the key question, he limits himself to legal procedure and ignores the actual character of the courts and other institutions of the government.

How is the power of the officer caste to be limited? Operating under the Articles of War, they do just what they please, replying to criticism from the ranks with arrests and discharges, and to criticism from the outside with haughty contempt (the Philadelphia mess attendants were kicked out “in the best interests” of the Navy and themselves, says Rear Admiral Nimitz).

Says Professor Ming: “Practical solution of this problem created by the conflict between Army regimentation and civil liberty is possible. One simple device to secure the desired end would be to provide for review by civil courts, of actions by court martials or punishments inflicted on members of the armed forces by officers ...”

What are these civil courts anyhow? Fair and impartial; or the instrument of the ruling capitalist class? If Professor Ming doesn’t know from his own personal experience, let him ask workers who have been out on strike. Let him ask a poor man who has tried to sue a rich corporation. Or let him look up the decisions of the courts with regard to the Negro people, the courts’ approval of segregation in education and on trolley cars, their approval of the poll tax and the white , primary laws and the other legislation aimed at maintaining “white supremacy.”

If we consider here not the words about “justice” that are written into the laws, but really understand how they work, then we can understand that workers in the armed forces, colored or white, would get no better treatment from the civil courts than they do from the military. In fact, the consistent refusal of the civil courts to interfere with military decisions, is proof that they approve segregation, discrimination and denial of freedom of speech as practiced by the officer caste, and don’t want to interfere with it.

If you really want to abolish Jim Crowism, if you really want to protect the rights and improve the conditions of the soldiers and sailors, there can be no half-way measures: the officers will either have the power to do what they want, or they won’t. Either you go the whole hog and take control of military training away from the officer caste completely – or you waste your time and bat your head against a stone wall. Any program which falls short of military training under control of the workers themselves is one which leaves the reactionary officers with full power, and is therefore completely ineffective and useless.

A Correction

In our pamphlet on the Philadelphia men, issued before their discharge, we feared because of the silence that surrounded the case that the boys would be framed-up in a court martial. We said, “The court martial, when it takes place, will be conducted behind closed doors. (The men) will not be permitted to use lawyers from the outside ...”

According to Professor Ming, however, this is not legally correct. His explanation not only clears up this point, but shows why the boys escaped court martial and even worse punishment than they received.

“Public opinion was aroused (after news of the arrests leaked out) ... You know what the Navy did in the face of this public outcry. They turned down the recommendation (of court martial) of the captain of the Philadelphia. That was dangerous – if these men had been subjected to a general court martial they would have been entitled to the assistance of outside counsel, and a public hearing, a statement of charges, and the other protections which our legal system has devised for the safeguard of the defendants, even if they are members of the armed forces.

“Instead the ‘brass hats’ decided that these men should be discharged from the Navy – not ‘honorably’ ... but rather, they were to be given ‘undesirable discharges’.”/p>

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