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David Coolidge

Economics Behind Racial Struggle in the South

(30 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 39, 30 September 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In these articles I have discussed many aspects of the problem which is known as “The South.” I have discussed this problem as it is connected and related to the AFL and CIO organization campaign. All of the questions discussed, and many more which have not been mentioned, are an integral part of the very difficult task of getting the workers of the South organized into trades unions.

Liberals, particularly Northern liberals, are wont to lay great emphasis on the demagogic and inflammatory character of the political and economic propaganda carried on by the Southern politicians. It is necessary to emphasize who these politicians are from the standpoint of their social origins. We have already discussed their connection with Northern capitalism and the bloc they have with the chief political representatives of Northern capitalism in both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

This brazen alliance is extremely significant and cannot be emphasized too strongly. Northern Republicans continue to speak of themselves as the “party of Lincoln.” By this they say that they are the party of freedom and progress. They also proclaim in their election platforms that “the Republican Party is historically the friend of labor.” It is with this sort of demagogic propaganda that the Republicans obscure not only the real historic role of Lincoln as the head of the party of triumphant Northern capitalism, but at the same time they obscure the present bankruptcy of capitalism and the extremely reactionary character of the present Republican Party.

Northern Democrats participate in this deception and the two together make a bloc with the most reactionary and bombastic Southern blackguards. This is all in the interest of Northern monopoly capitalism; that is to say, in the interest of U.S. monopoly capitalism.

The Conflict in the South

While there is a conflict in the South between the big planters and the Southern and Northern industrialists, this conflict is merely a struggle between these two sections of the ruling class for priority in the exploitation of the Southern toilers. The Southern Talmadges, Arnalls and Bilbos serve one or the other or both masters. Simultaneously, however, each in his own way seeks to enhance his own local economic, political and social independence and prestige. Each seeks, therefore, to build a political machine and to become a part of the native Southern economic groups. They must have something to sell to their masters. The most potent article to put up for sale is the political support of the masses and control of State Legislatures and City Councils.

The Southern political oligarchy retains its control over the masses by the time-honored shibboleths of “white supremacy,” “the protection of Southern white womanhood,” “the South is the best friend of the Negro” and by all the variegated hypocrisies of the “damnyankee” theme. The Yankees they oppose are the Northern liberals who from time to time speak out against the “peculiar institutions” of the South. Even the majority of the so-called Southern liberals are also in opposition to the position taken by outspoken Northern liberals.

There is really no basic difference in the approach to the social questions of the South between that of Bilbo and Talmadge and that of the bulk of the Southern liberals. The Arnalls, Peppers, Alsops, Daniels and Ethridges are in unison with the Talmadges, Bilbos, Eastlands and Rankins on the all-basic question of political, social and economic equality for Negroes. There is also no significant difference between the two groups on the matter of the exploitation of the working class, black and white, the maintenance of “white supremacy” and domination through the indoctrination of the “poor whites” with race superiority notions.

Neither the Southern “liberals” nor the outright reactionaries, of course, have any genuine equalitarian ideas in relation to the masses, white or black. One aspect of the dispute takes place around the question of whether the exploitation of the mass es shall be concentrated on the plantations or in the factories.

Negroes as Labor Force

The crux of the problem is the presence in the South of more than ten million Negroes. Historically and socially, the Negroes are a far more important factor in the labor force than they are in the North. Black, not white, labor is the cornerstone of the Southern economy. We have discussed the peculiarities of this outmoded economy with its emphasis on manual operations and its technological primitiveness. It is a low-wage economy, one which can persist only at a low cultural level, on the basis of a strict separation of black and white, the brutalization of the white masses and the degradation of the Negro. Above all it is imperative for the maintenance of this system that the Negro be kept available for labor in the fields, swamps, forests, mines, quarries arid for the many common labor and menial tasks which predominate in the South.

This is the real meaning of the multitudinous anti-Negro laws, rules, regulations and customs of the South. When the illiterate and unwashed old man Adair of Monroe, Ga., tells a PM reporter that he knew a Negro who cooked his own father’s head and ate it, he is only saying in his own stupid and revolting way that Negroes should be confined to all the hard, dangerous, undesirable and poorly paid jobs; that they should be kept herded in shanty-towns, shot down if they attempt to vote and lynched in order to keep them in their place. But what Adair says in the only manner he knows is, in effect, what white Southern leaders say and do.

Continuation of the Past

What takes place in the South today is a continuation, with differences wrought by changing times, of the attitude of the South to the slave regime. Peonage is a substitute for chattel slavery. Wages, particularly for Negroes, are kept as near to the unpaid labor system of slavery as possible. In the rural areas the planter is a law unto himself in his relation to Negroes. Bilbo, Talmadge, Eastland and Rankin are worthy successors to Tillman, Blease, Vardaman and Tom Watson. They too are the saviors of white racial purity just as were Tillman and his. blatherskite contemporaries. On the other side, that is, among the “liberals,” we find Arnall functioning as a successor to John Temple Graves and making an all-out struggle for the industrialization of the South.

The whole intricate problem as to what the South is and how it got to be that way has been obscured by a high degree of emotionalism, ignorance, nonsense, demagogy, unscientific theory and downright lying. To this must be added the fact that a great deal of this rationalization has been made possible by virtue of the case with which Negroes can be identified and also by the difficulty of identification in the case of the so-called “white Negroes.” The difficulty is enhanced when it is realized that relatively few people have an adequate knowledge of the South: its history, laws, customs and its economy. Most of what is written about the South by Southern writers is biased, apologetic, trivial, emotional or impressionistic. What is produced in the North is often similar or woefully inadequate.

This is borne out in what is often written and spoken about slavery and the socio-political system of the South today. A majority of the disputants, white and black, do not properly evaluate the South as an integral part of capitalism in the U.S. and the role this section has played in the development of American capitalism. In another article, which will be the last in this series, I will discuss these questions.?

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