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Problems of the South

David Coolidge

The Social and Economic Problems of the South

Operation Dixie and
the Social Structure of the South

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In last week’s article we discussed the situation in the South as pertains to its economic poverty, the domination of the economy by Northern capitalism and the efforts of the Southern bourgeoisie (capitalists) to raise themselves to some sort of independent status. It was remarked that a drive such as that contemplated by the CIO would be desperately opposed by the Southern industrial, agricultural rulers. This makes necessary the most careful and cautious planning. Many tactical procedures which would be taken for granted in the North would have to be modified for the South.

Special Instructions to Organizers

Some of the instructions issued to organizers are interesting and enlightening. Organizers are to make special efforts to become a part of the community; they must act as though they were local people and not “outsiders.” They should go to church on Sundays and participate in other activities of the native population. If an organizer calls at a home and the man is away, he is to call again when the “head of the house” is at home. It is not so much that these procedures are not of value in the North but that they are imperative and of general advantage in organizing in the South. As a rule, the organizers must be Southerners. There will be a minimum of Jewish and Negro organizers and they will be greatly limited in their field of operations.

The CIO would not have to give special attention to these things in the North. Northern business men, editors and workers would not concern themselves with the fact that an organizer is a Southerner and had lived in Monroe, Ga., all the years before he came to New York to organize clothing or textile workers. A Southern organizer working in Ohio would not have to resort to extraordinary efforts to demonstrate that he was not an infidel, atheist or freethinker. While one should at all times be careful about such conventions as not paying undue attention to the woman in the family while the husband is away. Northern women exercise a far greater degree of freedom in such matters than do Southern women.

A white Southerner working in Illinois would not risk being run out of town if he addressed a Negro man as Mr. Jones or a Negro woman as Miss Smith, if he decided to have white and Negro workers together in one local there would be no danger that the whole organizing campaign would have to be suspended for months or years.

In order to deal adequately with the many questions which are raised in connection with organizing in the South, those mentioned above and in last week’s article, it it necessary to inquire how the South came to be what it is. Why is this section of the country so backward? Why is its political life of such a low order? Why is there so much ignorance? Why does virtually all of the political, social and economic thinking and acting revolve around the place of the Negro in Southern society?

In the first place, the South expends an astonishingly small amount of money for free public education. While the South has a higher proportion of children of school age than any other section of the country, it appropriates less, far less per capita, than any other section. For the U.S. as a whole the average expenditure per pupil is about $80 annually. For ten Southern states the average is about $60 for white children and only $18 for Negro children. This is the average for the ten states, but in Georgia and Mississippi the expenditure runs respectively about $8.00 and $9.00 for Negro children. Obviously, this means that the quality of instruction is poor. This is bad enough but added to this is the fact that teachers, white and black, are severely restricted in the subjects they are permitted and in the manner of treating these subjects. One can imagine, for instance, what is taught to white youth about the Civil War, slavery, trade unions, the rights of Negroes and the social position of women and children.

That is not all. It is not unusual, in the rural and small town areas, for a female Negro teacher to have demands made on her that she become the concubine of a white school official if she retain her job. Negro men teachers often have demands made that they either pay in advance for teaching jobs or agree to “kick back” part of their meager monthly salary. As a rule this is handled by some “Uncle Tom” Negro who also demands that he receive some honorarium from the hapless teacher in the form of cash or a hunting or fishing trip to be paid for by the teacher.

It should not be forgotten, too, that the school year is only an interlude between cotton-chopping and picking, in these areas school is closed and parents, pupils and teacher go to the fields to work until the harvesting is over. The economic basis for this educational poverty and degradation is the low income and per capita wealth of the South. There are also political, social and economic reasons.

The ruling class of the South perpetuates itself and retains its power and prestige through the maintenance of ignorance, stupidity, superstition and poverty among the masses. It is here that economic exploitation is the most barbaric. It is here that the social customs are the most outmoded. It is here that political life is, the most corrupt and rotten.

Life in the South is cheap; homicide flourishes; and “law,” particularly in the rural sections, is largely a matter of personal taste and inclination. This is the section where one literally finds capitalism “dripping blood and dirt from head to toe, out of all pores.”

Unionization Attacks Social Structure

The South does not have a high regard for education of the masses, their participation in politics, of any aspirations of the masses for a higher standard of living, but the South does have its traditions, its taboos and its own peculiar social institutions. The organization of the workers, even the white workers, into industrial unions is, and must be, a direct assault on the whole structure of southern economic, social and political life and customs.

The very concept of industrial unionism and the proposal to organize workers into such unions is a direct attack on the whole southern social structure. It is this, not alone for the reason that it is a plan to raise the wages of these lowly workers and toilers, but because it is a plan to organize in such a way that the Southern overlords will not be able to defeat the plan. They will not be able to defeat the plan primarily for the reason that the CIO must organize the Negro workers along with the white workers. No matter how cautious the CIO is, and caution is indicated, it will not be able to escape carrying the campaign to the Negroes, even if there were any intention to proceed with the white workers alone. But even if in the beginning the overwhelming majority of the new unionists are white, this will not save the situation for the ruling class. Because to elevate the wage standards of the poor white workers and to give them a sense of security and power will of itself tend to lessen their enmity toward the Negroes. These white workers will learn eventually, out of their experience, that they must include the Negroes in order to consolidate their new economic and political gains.

On the Negro’s part the awakening will be far more profound and pregnant. What Negroes need more than any other section of the population is what they have had the least of: organization as workers, into distinctly workers’ organizations which are striving for their advancement as wage-earners. Ever since their emancipation Negroes have been beguiled into multitudinous and variegated organizations which have attempted to free them from Jim-Crow and secure for them their democratic rights. These organizations have been of limited value. Some of them have been and are of dubious worth. None of them has approached the problem from the point of view that they were dealing with a group which was overwhelmingly proletarian or semi-proletarian, thereby indicating the nature of the program necessary, as well as the type of leadership needed to carry that program into action.

Organizing the Negro Worker

The NAACP, the organization with the largest Negro membership, aside from the church and fraternal societies, boasts of a membership of over 500,000. These members are all over the U.S. in 1,000 branches. The majority of them are Negro workers. But they really have nothing much to do. Thousands of them are in the South. Five hundred thousand Negroes in trade unions in the South would be able to do more for “the advancement of colored people” than many thousands more could do for the same ends in any organization such as the NAACP.

That section of the resolution of the Workers Party on the U.S. adopted at its last convention, dealing with the Negro has the following to say:

... the organization of the Negroes in the South into the CIO cannot but have the most revolutionary consequences for the developments of the Negro people and their struggle ... The indispensable prerequisite to a fighting unity of the Negro people on a progressive and effective basis is the political and ‘organizational’ differentiation of the Negro people into class organizations, tendencies and movements. In the course of this differentiation the Negro proletarians, allied with white proletarians, will be in a position to take the leadership of the whole Negro people, a leadership without which the struggle of the Negroes for equality is doomed to petty-bourgeois ineffectualness, capitulation, or outright sterility. The unity of the Negro people, in other words, can and must be established first by the separation of the Negro people into class movements and then by its realliance under the leadership of the proletariat.

“From, the standpoint of this perspective and this necessity, the CIO drive into the South is of the most vital and even of historic importance for the development of the class struggle in the U.S. and for the development of the Negro people for equality.

“For the same fundamental reasons the Party (Workers Party) while supporting the struggle, no matter how limited, of the Negro people today in the direction of social equality and against white oppression, seeks at all times to separate out of the Negro people the Negro proletarians and to help organize them into their own class organizations or into organizations in which their class leadership is firmly established. Only by proceeding with this fundamental conception is it possible for revolutionists to join and participate in the work of the present-day bourgeois or petty-bourgeois Negro organizations. Any other analysis or approach to the Negro question in the U.S. leads to opportunism, and helps delay the crystallization of the Negro proletarian leadership which, allied with the proletarian movement in general, is alone capable of fructifying the democratic struggle of the Negro people as a whole against white oppression and for full, unrestricted social equality.”

(David Coolidge will contribute another article on this subject in next week’s Labor Action)

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