African Americans, 1947: We want to be free!

Submitted by martin on 8 November, 2013 - 8:18

The US Army which won World War Two, and prided itself on its victory over the Nazi racists, was itself segregated.

African Americans were hived off into separate units, often working as cargo handlers or cooks, and commanded by white officers. Not until 1948 did the US government decide to desegregate its armed forces. Not until after the end of the Korean war, in 1954, was desegregation carried through. Since the defeat of radical reconstruction in the Southern states after the US civil war of 1861-5 which abolished slavery, the now-formally-free African Americans in the South had faced an explicit code of laws, called Jim Crow, segregating public and private facilities.

In the North racist discrimination was less formal, but real. And when the federal government had to choose — as in the army — it chose segregation. World War Two saw vast movement of African Americans from rural areas in the South to work in factories in the North, a movement which continued through the 1950s and 60s. As African Americans moved into the armed forces, the factories, and the cities, increasingly they demanded equality, and became more able to win the support of at least some white workers for the demand.

The article we print here is an abridgement of extracts, published in Labor Action of 9 June 1947, from a pamphlet on civil rights by Ernest Rice McKinney. McKinney, an African American himself, was then secretary of the Workers’ Party, the “Third Camp” Trotskyist organisation in which Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others were also active.

The Cold War and the lurch to the right in US politics in the witch-hunting McCarthy period stalled the struggle for equality. The socialist left in the US lost ground. McKinney had joined the Communist Party in Pittsburgh in 1920, at the age of 24, and A J Muste’s Conference for Progressive Labor Action in 1929. With the CPLA, he joined
the US Trotskyists in 1933. He had sided with Shachtman and Draper when they divided from the “orthodox” Trotskyists in 1939-40 over attitudes to the USSR’s invasions of Poland and Finland. In 1950, like others around that time, and while remaining socialist-minded, he drifted away from organised politics.

The great movement for equality which McKinney called for would explode only in the late 1950s and early 60s. It won formal equality for African-Americans, and the removal of Jim Crow laws from the lawbooks, in the mid-1960s. Yet African Americans are 2.1 times as likely to be unemployed as white Americans, and have a median household income only 59% of white Americans’. That economic gap is as big as it was before the civil rights laws of the mid-1960s. The social revolution which McKinney wanted, which will level up US workers both black and white to full social equality, is still to be won.

The word “Negro”, used by McKinney, was then considered the most respectful term to denote African Americans. It fell out of usage in the late 1960s and was replaced by the term “African American” in the late 1980s. We have also not updated his use of “he” to mean “she or he”, etc.


From Labor Action, 9 June 1947 - "We Want to Be Free in a Free Country, in a Free World...." by Ernest Rice McKinney.



Labor Action editorial note - We print below excerpts from a pamphlet on the Negro Question and the struggle against Jim Crow written by Ernest Rice McKinney, national secretary of the Workers Party, and soon to be published by the Workers Party. Comrade McKinney has completed the pamphlet, which in our opinion is the finest written on the subject, and is now making final editorial revisions.

Readers will understand that the continuity of the pamphlet was disrupted in excerpting, for we have not added transitions. The sections as they appear below are parts of larger sections which discuss the Negro's status, his relation to the working class movement and his place in the socialist movement.


Cartoons from Labor Action, 2 June and 23 June 1947

McKinney speaks at Workers' Party May Day rally, 1940


In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence one may read the following words:. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution proclaims: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge any privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This was followed by the 15th Amendment which provides that: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude." That is what the Declaration of Independence says and that is what the Constitution of the United States says.

But we who are Negroes do not need anybody to tell us that every line and every provision as set forth n the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the laws made by the Congress at Washington have been and are violated In the case of the Negro.

Instead of the policy set forth In the Constitution and the law and the Declaration of Independence, the Government at Washington, the State governments, public Institutions and business; are guided rather by the declaration of Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott Decision: "A Negro has ho rights which a white man is bound to respect."

We who are Negroes know that not only are we denied equal protection of the law but the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." We know that our right to vote is "denied and abridged."

No matter how patiently they try to make it appear that this is done because we can't interpret some state constitution, we know that it is done "on account of race," or "colour." Every Negro knows that he is segregated, hounded, clubbed and lynched. We know that we are insulted, degraded and Jim Crowed.

This happens everywhere in this country. In New York City and Atlanta, Georgia. In Seattle, Washington and Charleston, South Carolina. In the nation's capital, at Washington, and in the capital of Mississippi, at Jackson. We are Jim-Crowed in the departments of the Federal Government just as in the government of the State of Texas. The Talmadges, Bilbos and Eastlands demand "white supremacy" in Georgia and Mississippi while the Roosevelts, Trumans, Deweys and Tafts enforce "white supremacy" in the national government, in the military service and in the Republican and Democratic parties.

We are not treated as human beings; North, South, East or West. If we go for a job we get the hard and dirty labour. If we want to rent a house, we are directed to the cabins In the field, the shanties across the tracks and the slum areas of the great cities. If we are hungry we are told: "we do not serve coloured people," or "we will serve you In the kitchen."

When we go to the theatre, if we are admitted at all, we are told that Negroes must sit in the gallery. In the hospitals the policy Is, "white people first." The education of our children is postponed until after the cotton is picked or until a new "white" school is built. Then the Negro children get the old ramshackle building.

"Justice" in the courts, for us, is likely to be determined by the colour of the person who accuses us or who is accused by us. If a white man accuses us or we accuse a white man, justice is not blind, but on the side of the white man. If only Negroes are involved, then "justice" can be determined by the flip of a coin.

THE PROBLEM IS: HOW END DISCRIMINATION?

This is enough. I could go on, and so could you, with this recital of humiliation, degradation, intimidation, pious hypocrisy, terror and Jim Crow. You know exactly what I am talking about. You and I have been through these things. We did not have to read it in the daily papers. We have been unwilling actors in this miserable and inhuman drama.

We didn't need to wait for the belated and weak utterances of the "inter-racial" committees. There is nothing much that you and I can learn from the sermons preached during "Brotherhood Week." We heard these sermons even during the days of slavery from the stall provided for us in the church balcony.

Yes, this is enough for you and for me. If this booklet were for white people primarily, I would have to say a great deal more. More explanation and detail would be necessary.

Lots of white people really don't know much about these things. I am not talking about the hypocrites and the liars among the white people, who do know. There are, for instance, thousands of white workers who do not understand the situation with the Negro in the United States. There are hundreds of thousands of white workers, in the North, who are really surprised at the plight and the condition of the Negroes in the South.

But we are not addressing ourselves to them right now. This booklet is directed to Negroes primarily; to all Negroes.

There is one thing we have to admit right at the beginning. There is a Negro problem in the United States.

I have heard both white people and Negroes say that there is no Negro problem. "It is really a white problem," they say. While I can understand what these people are attempting to support, you and I certainly cannot agree with this analysis.

What the people mean, who hold this point of view, is that if the white people would let Negroes alone, or treat them just like other people are treated, there would be no Negro problem. But this is exactly what the problem is: how can white people be persuaded to stop discriminating against Negroes, to stop segregating us and to stop lynching us? How can this government and this country be persuaded to accord us the full democratic rights accorded to every other group except the Negro?

We want to be let alone in this manner and only in this manner. We want to see the day come when we really have in practice, the unalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." We want to see the United States a country where all the people, and not just the white people, are free from the abridgement of "any privileges or immunities," and where every person receives justice, and where no person is denied the right to vote "on account of race." We want to see these rights granted, protected and exercised in real life and not just printed on paper.

WE REFUSE TO BE SLAVES ANY LONGER

The real and genuinely important question therefore, is, what must be done? What are we, as Negroes, going to do?

Before we answer this question it is necessary to get a few things straight. It is necessary to say and say frankly where we as Negroes are placed in this country.

There is no need to beat around the bush on this matter. We don't stand so well. From the day that a Dutch ship landed at Jamestown, Va., with "20 negars" on board we have been fighting an uphill battle. First, for mere physical freedom and later, today, for our democratic rights. We are an oppressed race or an oppressed people.

The East Indians, the Chinese and the black Africans are oppressed by foreign imperialist overlords who have invaded their countries. But these countries should belong to the Indians, the Chinese and the black Africans. It would be correct for these people to run the invaders out, win their national independence and establish their own national government.

They would not bar other people from the country, but when these others came in they would know that they were not going there to dominate the country and keep the people who really belonged there from running the country and maintaining a free independent and national government.

The people themselves should have and should take the right to decide what they want to do and what kind of government they want to have. They should make their own laws and develop their country as they see fit. This Is nothing new that we are saying. All the Independent nations of the world demanded this right for themselves and fought against enemies and Invaders to establish this right. This has been called democracy.

Such demands were part of the cause of the Revolutionary War In this country in 1775. The people in this country wanted to be free and not be dominated by England.

Our country is the United States. We love this country as well as the next man. Why shouldn't we love this country? It is a vast, fertile, beautiful land abounding in natural resources. There is everything: here to supply the wants of the people, to produce abundance and happiness for the people. We have made great contributions to the building of this country. As much as the next man. We have contributed to this country. The strength of this country rests on our backs. Our sweat and toil built this country. We are natives of the country. We really know nothing of any other country.

Some white people talk about being descendants of the Mayflower. We were here before the Mayflower. We are part and parcel of the soil of this country. All of our political, economic and social roots are in the United States. All of our life is bound up in the whole life of this country.

We say again that this is our country and we want it to be our country. Just as it is the country of the white man. This is no more his country than it is our country. We will not let any white man tell us that this is his country but not our country.

We want to stay here. But not as slaves. We refuse to be slaves any longer..Two hundred and fifty years as chattel and 82 years of oppression under freedom are long enough and too long. If we don't see this and submit further to the insult which has been heaped upon us, then we have no right to be free.

Frederick Douglass understood this decades ago when he said: "They who would be free must themselves first strike the blow."

The Chinese want to run China as Chinese. The Indians want to run India as Indians. The black Africans want to run Africa as Africans. That is proper and correct for them. That is as it should be.

But we do not want to run the United States as Negroes. We want to run the country as full citizens of a Democratic Republic. We want to be equal to everybody else. Nothing more and nothing less. We want political equality, social equality and economic equality. We want this all over the U. S. without distinction of place or section. We demand this equality in the South, too.

We do not ask for more than other people have, only for what they have. We want all the rights, for Instance, which a white worker has. The equal right to a job, and to any job for which we are qualified. We demand equal opportunity to prepare for any and all jobs which are or may be available to the white worker. We demand the right of equal educational opportunity, the right to travel like other people, the right to seek entertainment unmolested and unrestricted. We will insist on the right to eat in all public places and to be accommodated in all public places just like other people.

In the matter of jobs, education, railroad travel and all other accommodations and privileges afforded the public, we will oppose Jim Crow, discrimination and segregation. We do not believe that there should be jobs for Negroes, schools for Negroes, cars or seats for Negroes, toilets and waiting rooms for Negroes.

We are not fools and will not be beguiled by any hypocritical talk, laws and ordinances calling for "equal but separate accommodations." We know that "Negro jobs" are the lowest paid and the most laborious jobs. We and our children have learned by bitter experience what Negro public schools are. From the standpoint of buildings, equipment and curriculum we know that separate Negro public schools are inferior to the schools provided for white children and youth. We know what Negro waiting-rooms are in railroad stations and what kind of cars are provided for Negroes on Jim Crow trains.

While all of this should be clear to everybody, unfortunately this is not the case. There are people in this country who do not understand these things. There are many people who do understand but who pretend they don't.

There are Negroes who do not take a forthright stand on this question of social, political and economic equality for Negroes. There are Negroes who say; "I don't care about social equality, what I want is economic and political equality." For the large mass of us this position is based on a misunderstanding, a very serious and dangerous misunderstanding, and a failure to get at the heart of the problem of prejudice and discrimination in the United States.

To say that social equality is a "private affair" is also totally misleading. To say that it is a private affair whether or not I go to Smith's house to dinner, or that it is a private affair as to whether or not I marry Pauline Smith or Susie Jones, is correct. But this kind of decision is my private affair only when Smith or the woman I attempt to marry is a Negro. I will not go to the home of a Negro to dinner uninvited nor will I impose myself on a Negro woman who rejects me. In purely personal relations, I will deport myself around Negroes with no less decorum and good sense than in my relations to those who are not Negroes.

We can approach the problem In another way. There are Negroes who say: "I don't want to go any place that I am not wanted."

But what are some of the places where Negroes are not wanted? The so-called "white neighbourhoods," restaurants, colleges, theatres, department stores, playgrounds, libraries, parks, swimming pools, the sales force of corporations, clerical jobs, engineering staffs, churches, dining cars and many trades unions. That Is, there are privately owned Institutions and enterprises which do not want Negroes, there are tax-supported public places which do not want Negroes and there are federal, state and municipal Institutions which do not want Negroes.

If we decide to stay away from all the places where we are not wanted there will be very few places we will go and very few things we will do.

In a certain city once where some white hooligans were driving Negroes from a swimming pool supported by public taxation, a Negro editor took the position that he would not carry on a campaign against this outrage because: "these white people are not going to have Negro men in that pool with their women." That is, according to this editor, the white people were not going to tolerate "social equality."

In New York City a petty judge decided that the state equal rights law did not apply in a situation where a Negro man and a white woman went into a restaurant together to eat. The refusal of the proprietor to serve them was upheld by this judge.

A steel company hired a Negro man to work in its filing department. A white girl employee of that department objected to working with a Negro and was upheld by the superintendent of the department.

It was the custom of a YWCA in a city to hold periodic staff meetings to which all executives from the various branches in the city were instructed to attend. There were four Negro executives from the Negro branch and of course they attended. At the end of the meeting tea was always served. It was understood, however, that the Negro "ladies" would not remain for tea. The Negro women would announce that they must get back, to their offices and the white women would express deep regret that the Negro women could not remain.

The Republican and Democratic parties have national, state and city headquarters during election campaigns. Being very anxious that Negroes shall not be ignored, these parties establish committees of leading Negro politicians. As a rule, however, the Negro headquarters is separated from the general headquarters. If it is in the same building it is isolated and segregated.

A great railroad system some years back decided that no more Negro messengers should be hired because only men should be hired "who can be promoted to higher positions".

"SOCIAL EQUALITY" IS NOT A PRIVATE AFFAIR

These illustrations help to explain and clarify what is involved in what is known as "social equality." They demonstrate that social equality, in the United States, cannot be and is not a "private affair," a simple choice to be made by an individual with the consent of another individual.

In prejudice-ridden America any and all equality for the Negro is looked upon as social equality. According to the American pattern of Jim Crow; to give a Negro a clerical job is social equality. To hire a Negro engineer is to accord the Negro social equality. To give a Negro any work except that of a menial, common labour or domestic service is to "open the doors to social equality."

This much can be said about this point of view: it is not possible to keep people permanently separated and apply race superiority notions in practice if one does not, in a very concrete way, keep Negroes from advancing and demonstrating that we have capabilities just like other people.

Negroes must demand and fight for social equality because there is only one kind of equality; full and complete equality. We specify social, economic and political equality because in the United States, the Negro is in a very unique position.

We are forced to compromise in practice or we will starve, go naked and homeless. Right now we are forced to take the meanest occupations or go jobless. We are forced to submit to residential segregation or we would have no place, to live. We are faced with the necessity of compromising with Jim Crow attitudes in politics or we would have no opportunity to participate in political life.

When we make this separation we do not mean by that that one can have political equality without social and economic equality, or economic, equality without social and political equality, or social equality without political and economic equality. They all go together. They are, of one pattern. Negroes know. this. They have seen how it works.

When we speak of full equality for Negroes what we mean is that we as Negroes should have all the rights, privileges and opportunities which white people have who are at the same station as we. That Is, since Negroes are overwhelmingly wage-earners, we should have the same social, economic and political privileges that white wage-earners have.

No wage-earner, white or black, can have full social, economic and political equality. Not even the white worker has social equality, or economic equality or political equality with his employer, a high government official, the big politicians or with any of the rich.

If white workers understood this they would not feel as they do toward Negroes. If white workers knew that they were socially proscribed by the rich and powerful, economically exploited and politically degraded along with the Negro, they would understand better what attitude they should have to Negroes who have all of these disabilities and the additional one imposed on them as Negroes.

It is tragic to hear a white worker ask the question: "Would you want your sister to marry a Negro?" He thinks that he has really delivered a mortal blow to the argument for the social equality of. Negroes. It has never occurred to such a white worker that there are white people who take the same attitude toward him in relation to their sisters. They ask: "Would you want your sister to marry a mechanic?"

You see that white workers don't have social equality either. Neither do they have real political equality. And of course being workers they do not have economic equality.

What we mean therefore, when we advocate social, political and economic equality for Negroes is the same amount of equality that white workers have, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by poor people who are white, equal treatment with the white working men and working women.

The Workers Party to which I belong never proceeds in this manner! We never subordinate the fight against Jim Crow to the need for preserving the present social system. Any social system which supports or tolerates Jim Crow is not worth preserving and should be destroyed.

We say directly that capitalism which is the rule of a few people who own everything, is the source of Jim Crow In the U. S. That's one of the reasons why Jim Crow is a country-wide practice and not just confined to the South. There is a national policy of Jim Crow to which all Negroes are subjected. The whole country is capitalist and the whole country is Jim Crow. The government of Mississippi is Jim Crow and the government at Washington is Jim Crow.

Negroes are discriminated against in the factories, discriminated against in the factories of Texas and the factories of Michigan. That's why we say that Jim Crow is a part of the present social order and will not be eliminated until it is attacked at Its roots.

WE WANT TO BE FREE IN A FREE WORLD ...

We of the Workers Party know about and are proud of the many black heroes who have given their lives for freedom. Not only for freedom for themselves but for all the people. Jim Crow America has ignored the real and genuine heroes of the Negro people.

I am talking about Harriet Tubman, Gabriel, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and others. These were truly great human beings; incorruptible, brave, loyal, determined and daring. Just think of it, Harriet Tubman, a Negro woman, taking her shotgun along and going into the South, rescuing Negro men and women from slavery and bringing them north to freedom.

Listen to Peter Poyas, Vesey's magnificent coadjutant, tell one of his men what kind of slaves not to recruit for the Vesey insurrection: "Don't mention it to those waiting-men who receive presents of old coats from their masters, or they'll betray us." Peter Poyas was no hand-me-down Negro.

Here is what Nat Turner said to his men before they began the Nat Turner insurrection, "Friends and brothers, we are about to commence a great work tonight. Our race is to be delivered from slavery . . . remember that ours is not a war for robbery, nor to satisfy our passions: it is a struggle for freedom. Ours must be deeds not words. Then away to the scene of action."

There was David Walker, pamphleteer and author of Walker's Appeal. Walker was no compromiser. He denounced slavery and all those Negroes who were willing to compromise with the slave system and with the Southern slave masters. He told the slaves to rebel and "when you commence," he said, "do riot trifle, for they will not trifle with you; they want us for their slaves and think nothing of murdering us for order to subject us to that wretched condition; therefore if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed."

These are really the great Negroes of the past: Tubman, Turner, Walker, Gabriel, Payas, Vesey and the other daring men and women who organized the people and led them Into the battle for freedom. They and all their kind give the lie to all the slanders about Negroes being cowards.

That's what a lot of people would like for us to be; cowards. Our record needs no defence. Anyone who thinks he it called upon to defend our record is either a scoundrel or a fool. Anyone who attempts to denigrate us will be faced with Tubman and Poyas; Gabriel and Vesey; Turner and Walker, and a thousand unsung and unknown black heroes, right down to this very minute.

The Workers Party is proud to inscribe the names of these black heroes on its banner along with all the unforgettable revolutionary heroes of the oppressed. We want their names to live and their deeds to live. We want to emulate them and follow their example. We want to be free in a free country and a free world.