A recent column by the N. Y. Post's Murray Kempton gives an incident which lights up the relationship between the rising tide of the Negroes' struggle for civil rights and contemporary American liberalism.
Inasmuch as liberalism is the dominant political ideology of the labor movement, such an illumination also reveals a good deal about the relations between the Negroes' heroic battle for democracy and the political views and actions of the unions.
According to Kempton, the "First Lady of American Liberalism," Eleanor Roosevelt, tendered her resignation from the national board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on April 16. As explanation for her move, she claimed that pressure of time prevented her from attending board meetings. One week later, Mrs. Roosevelt obviously experienced a change of mind; she returned to the board.
This much is in the public domain. But Kempton goes on to some informed speculations about the real reasons for her resignation.
He states that "the leaders of the NAACP had no reason to be unconscious of her discontent with what had gone on at some of the meetings she had attended." The NAACP for instance, supports the amendment of Representative Powell (Dem.—N. Y.) to bar federal financial grants to schools which refuse to start desegregation. Mrs. Roosevelt opposes it.
But what must be even more painful to her are the criticisms which such NAACP leaders as Roy Wilkins have made of Mrs. Roosevelt's favorite candidate, Adlai Stevenson, and the Democratic Party as a whole. And while the Negro leadership has tempered these criticisms insofar as public expression is concerned, there can be no doubt that in private (at NAACP board meetings, let us say) it has relaxed its restraints. Hence Mrs. Roosevelt's discomfort and annoyance.
She has expressed on a number of occasions her bewilderment and dismay at the criticisms made of Stevenson on the score of Negro rights; and there is no reason to doubt that her puzzlement is genuine, since there is no reason to believe that she understands or is capable of understanding the conflict which exists between the efforts of the Negroes to put an end once and for all to the outrageous Jim Crow system and supporting the Democratic Party
To Mrs. Roosevelt and to thousands of liberals, including those whose ties and loyalties to that party do not have the "official" quality which exists in the ease of Mrs. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party is the be-all and end-all of political life and all political struggle has to be accommodated to it.
But the fight of the Negroes, like all significant social struggles by progressive elements of society, runs squarely into conflict with that party.
Every action taken by a Southern Negro or a group of Southern Negroes to realize any one of the democratic rights which all citizens theoretically enjoy immediately brings the fighters against Jim Crow face to face with some governmental authority. One of the causes of the increasing concern with politics shown by the unions lies in the fact that year by year the workers find that their demands are no longer realizable by economic struggle alone, but require action in the halls of government for their actualization. As true as this is for the unionists, it is even more true and more directly apparent for the Negroes.
ROADBLOCK TO FREEDOM
Just consider: Do the Negroes wish to vote? Then they face the resistance of the various state election boards and committees.
Do they wish to put an end to segregated schools? The school systems of the various Southern state governments stand in the way.
Do they desire an end of segregated transportation in Montgomery? Then they have to fight the municipal government of that city.
And of course, it is no secret as to which party is in control of the state and city governments throughout the South. The struggle against racism in the South is a struggle against the Democratic Party in the South.
The Jim Crow system consists of an intermeshing network of institutions and practices; primary among these are the legal structures throughout the Southern states which provide the skeleton and backbone of the entire system. To end segregation and discrimination governmental action is required and for that the Negroes need either governmental power or effective strength to influence the government.
In Montgomery, for instance, it is not so much the bus company which stands in the way of victory; it, facing the enormous loss of profit which the boycott has produced, might by now have yielded to the pressure of the Montgomery Negroes; but the police power of the city government has been adamant.
Many of the gains registered by the Negroes in the last decade have come through governmental action. The program of such organizations of the Negro people as the NAACP requires, for its realization in life, more of the same.
But right here the major snag appears. Far the fact is, and many Negroes realize it, that both major political parties have run out on the Negroes, have turned their backs on them. They are content with giving out vague platform rhetoric and a minimum of democratic concessions for the Negroes, most of them on paper, as a substitute for that which the Negroes justifiably want—the complete abolition of the Jim Crow system.
NOWHERE TO GO
But the situation is even more specific than that. For it is more than the "two parties" in general which is on trial; it is the Democratic Party specifically, that is; the party of the New and Fair Deals, the party of "liberalism."
But this party consists of three elements: the liberal-labor bloc, the Southern racists, and the conservative big-city political machines. And of these three groupings, it is the last two which dominate and control the party and the first grouping which plays the subordinate rule. It is the Southern racists who will control the important committees in Congress, in the event of a Democratic victory.
Moreover, at every turn, the congressional liberals, the so-called spokesmen for the liberal-labor bloc, have themselves capitulated to the conservatives and reactionaries. They have done so on the question of civil rights, as they have on all other major questions.
Thus the struggles of the Negroes for democracy inevitably result in criticisms of the pussyfooting Stevensons and of the party as a whole. But it is at this point that the Negroes face an overwhelming dilemma.
For as long as political Ufa in the United States remains frozen within the structure of the two-party system, there is really nowhere else to turn. All that the leaders of the NAACP can do is privately condemn vigorously and publicly deplore – less vigorously. And here and there a voice suggests that the Negroes should vote for the Republicans.
Thus Congressman Adam Clayton Powell has offered such a suggestion several times during the past few months. And Roy Wilkins made a speech in which it appeared that he was urging the colored people to vote for Eisenhower.
Now there is a good possibility that large numbers of Negroes who have voted Democratic during the last twenty years or so may cast their ballots for Eisenhower in 1956. Such a development could take place on the basis of successful Republican exploitation of the claim —already advanced by Nixon—that it was a "Republican" Supreme Court which made its anti-segregation ruling. But the Negro leadership as a whole and the overwhelming majority of the Negro masses know that no more can be expected from the Republicans than from the Democrats.
LABOR VS. RACISM
But so long as the political choices in this country are confined to the parties which now monopolize political life between them, all that the Negroes can do is issue vague threats of voting Republican in the hope that this will apply enough pressure on their "friends" so as to produce a few grudging concessions. But if the Negro masses in this country face this dilemma, the same applies equally to the labor movement,
The unions find themselves in this squeeze in respect to many matters which concern them—and what political matters do not concern them in this day and age? But more specifically, they run up against this blind wall in regard to the very question which we are discussing, civil rights.
Many commentators have noted that the unions have not at all risen to their social responsibility in the struggle for the rights of the Negroes. Too often they have not engaged in any meaningful campaigns but have instead contented themselves with rhetorical declarations in favor of desegregation, etc. A symptom of this situation was manifested in the refusal of the labor movement to join in the "one-hour work stoppage" proposed by Powell some weeks ago.
The union movement has a clear and patent stake in the current fight of the Negroes. It is more than a struggle for an end to segregation; it is a struggle for democracy.
And throughout its history, the unions have participated in many significant social struggles which were not immediately concerned with the economic demands of labor. Unions were deeply involved in the fights for universal suffrage, for free public education, for the rights of women, and many other issues. They participated in such struggles, not out of political morality and idealism alone, although that too is not to be discounted, but out of recognition that these political demands coincided and inter-meshed with the needs of the workers.
The battle for civil rights, the struggle for democracy which it represents, is another such fight.
The Jim Crow system acts as a divisive barrier in the effort to organize the unorganized workers, and hinders the efforts to win gains for the working class. It is a roadblock in the way of complete unionization of the South.
A victory over the Jim Crew system is simultaneously a victory over the anti-labor Southern reactionaries who today block unionization of the South and who, through their control of Congress, hinder labor's efforts to fight against anti-labor legislation.
TAKE THE OFFENSIVE
A good part of the labor movement, and more particularly that section of it which was organized in the CIO, has at least a respectable record on Jim Crow. It helped to achieve an end to discrimination in hiring and promoting in many industries, to wipe out wage inequalities, etc. And in addition, it brought thousands of Negroes into the ranks of organized labor, and brought them in on a basis of equality and solidarity.
But now, under conditions of this momentous struggle, labor has not added its might to the aid of the embattled Negroes. Many reasons have been advanced for this. The uncertainty of the unions that they could bring out large numbers of their white members in demonstrations is one factor. Their fear that large proportions of their white members in the South would leave their union organizations, and perhaps organize a dual racist union movement, is another.
But overriding these facts is the lack of a perspective by the labor movement about taking the economic, social and political offensive. If the unions had a clear-cut program for going over to the offensive, for marshalling an all-out campaign to organize the South, to fight for democracy, then these factors would not have the weight they currently appear to have.
Then the unions could begin an immense educational job among their members to solidarize them with the struggle of the Negro masses. Then they could have a perspective of bringing unionism to millions of Southern Negro and white workers, with a momentum which would overshadow the racist prejudices of some white workers. Then they could engage in a meaningful joint struggle with the Negro masses for civil rights and democracy.
But such a perspective runs into the wall of political timidity which today blankets the labor movement. For such a perspective a new political party is required, the declaration of labor's independence on the political field.
The responsibility for initiating a new party rests upon the unions. The labor movement, in alliance with the Negroes and with the liberals of the middle class, can and must forge the new political instrument which can advance a program to end Jim Crow and many other injustices and inequities in our society.