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From the Archive: A Bold Design for a New South | The Nation

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From the Archive: A Bold Design for a New South

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An arresting paradox emerged in 1962. History will doubtless judge the year as making a favorable turning point in the struggle for equality, yet it was also the year that civil rights was displaced as the dominant issue in domestic politics. Although thundering events in Oxford, Miss., and Albany, Ga., captured public attention, there was a perceptible diminishing in the concern of the nation to achieve a just solution of the problem.

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From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."

All profound social movements reach a plateau of this sort, short of the summit, and the presence of new opposition should not dismay us. New obstacles should not be deplored but welcomed because their presence proves we are closer to the ultimate decision.

Part of the blame must be laid to the Administration’s cautious tactics. Early in the year, the President backed away from the Senate I fight to amend Rule 22, the so-called filibuster rule; had he entered the fray, the amendment would probably have passed and the greatest obstacle to the passage of civil-rights legislation would have been smashed. (Despite this experience,  the President again remained aloof, under similar  circumstances, in January of this year, and again the amendment failed to carry.) True, 1962 was the year of the Cuban crisis, which understandably tended to dwarf all other issues. Yet even in the shadow of Cuba, such issues as trade legislation and tax reform took the play away from civil rights in editorial columns, public debate and headlines.

The Administration’s circumscribed actions, in the civil-rights field was generally accepted by, the public;. even liberal forces proved watchful rather than anxious, hopeful rather than insistent. The demand for progress was somehow drained of its moral imperative, and the issue no longer commanded the conscience of the nation as it had in previous years.

The decline of civil rights as the Number One domestic issue was a direct consequence, I believe, of the rise and public acceptance of “tokenism.” The American people have, not abandoned the quest for equal rights; rather, they have been persuaded to accept token victories as indicative of genuine and satisfactory progress.

An impressive list of government actions took place in 1962 affecting job opportunities, voting rights, desegregation bf public facilities, the appointment of Negroes to official posts, housing discrimination, etc. In fairness, it must be said that this Administration has outstripped previous ones in the breadth of its civil-rights activities. Yet the movement, instead of breaking out into the open plains of progress, remains constricted and confined. A sweeping revolutionary force is pressed into a  narrow  tunnel.

This is inevitable when sharply limited goals are set as objectives in place of substantial accomplishments. While merely 7 per cent of Negro children in the South attend integrated schools, the major battle of the year was over one Negro in a Mississippi university. Two thousand school districts remain segregated after nearly a decade of litigation based upon Supreme Court decisions

Hundreds of Southern communities continue to segregate public facilities, yet even after the immense efforts and sacrifices of the weary Negro citizens of Albany, Ga., the government enters the fray only at the periphery, filing an amicus curiae brief & a law suit.

Negro unemployment has mounted to double the proportion of white, unemployment, and government action produces a handful of jobs in industries possessing government contracts.

Housing discrimination confines Negroes to slums, North and South, and  an Executive Order forbidding it affects the smallest possible area.

If tokenism were our goal, this Administration has adroitly moved us towards its accomplishment. But tokenism can now be seen not only as a useless goal, but as a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and  its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.

Tokenism was the inevitable outgrowth of the Administration's design for dealing with discrimination. The Administration sought to demonstrate to Negroes that it has concern for them, while at the same time it has striven to avoid inflaming the opposition. The most cynical view holds that it wants the vote of both and is paralyzed by the conflicting needs of each. I am not ready to make a judgment condemning the motives of the Administration as hypocritical. I believe that it, sincerely wishes to achieve change, but that it has misunderstood the forces at play. Its motives may better be judged when and if it fails to correct mistakes as they are revealed by experience.

The day for assessing that experience is at hand. Token gains may well halt our progress, rather than further it. The time has come when the government must commit its immense resources squarely on the side of the quest for freedom. This is not a struggle in which government is a mere mediator. Its laws are being violated.

In a dispute between capital and labor, the government may assume the role of mediator when the simple determination of wages is the issue. But it, did not assume this role in the ‘30s, when the issue was a basic right—the freedom of labor to organize and be represented. Then a law of stern and sweeping power put the government wholly on labor's side. A National Labor Relations Board legislated and enforced labor rights in every nook and cranny of the nation, bending the most powerful corporations into compliance.

Negro rights have no comparable government bastion. Negroes are isolated in communities which daily violate their constitutional privileges with total impunity. The government cannot merely mediate, because basic legal rights are involved, The scale on which violations exist is so vast that limited approaches will never reach the evil; only enforcement machinery of vast proportions will be equal to the task.

Government has not accepted the philosophy of tokenism in defense of economic planning. We have created scientific and industrial miracles: computers solve in minutes problems humans would require hundreds of years to calculate; man-made instruments guide missiles millions of miles into space, measuring and analyzing the components of other worlds. Yet in a luncheonette in a Southern town, the government cannot make the Constitution function for human rights.

The government cannot merely mediate because the national interest is deeply involved. The widespread, blatant and persistent denial of human rights in huge regions of our nation constitutes our gravest weakness before world tribunals and world opinion. Our national interest compels us to do more than seek tokens of justice.

I stated at the outset that while 1962 was the year in which civil rights receded as the primary domestic issue, it was also a year that marked a favorable turning point in this area. In what sense can 1962 be considered 'favorable"?

The Kennedy Administration may have embraced tokenism as a least common denominator, acceptable to the whole South. But the fact is that this approach is tactically and strategically unsound: the South is not, today, one whole. It is already split, fissured into two parts; one is ready for extensive change, the other adamantly opposed to any but the most trivial alterations. The Administration should not seek to fashion policies for the latter; it should place its weight behind the dynamic South, encouraging and facilitating its progressive development.

The simple and arresting truth that became clear in 1962 is that significant elements of the South have come to see that segregation has placed the whole region socially, educationally, and economically behind the rest of the nation. What is the evidence for this?  The following are quotations from the leading white newspaper of the South, the Atlanta Constitution:

We have stopped justifying and begun rectifying  racial  wrongs. We have traded self-deception for self- respect. . . .

This is the South we are proud of—a land of gentlemen, plain-spoken, manly and respectful of their people . . . not a swampland of the deceitful where weaselers dodge and cavil and speak half-truths to the unknowing. . , .

As a Negro is freed from force, the white man is freed from guilt; as narrow political systems pass, our people broaden; as schooling improves, factory payrolls will multiply and as America  grows, the South will more than match her. The South is going to pass her. For here on the final frontier, greatness is setting in. . .

In the same week these challenging words were writtten as a Declaration of Independence of a new South, the Governor of North Carolina declared in plain-spoken terms that discrimination in employment in his state must go.

This is the moment for government to drive a wedge into the splitting South, spreading it open. Negroes and enlightened whites have already built alliances which are registering momentous gains in the electoral arena. In 1962, Georgia, on the basis of a Negro—white de facto alliance, elected a moderate Governor, a moderate Mayor in Atlanta, a  moderate Congressman from the most populous county, and sent a Negro to the State Senate for the first time in nearly a hundred years.

The South is fissuring along a seam which divides the industrializing regions from the stagnating, backward, agricultural areas. This is significant because the new social and political attitudes are rooted in economic necessity. New industry will not come where dying customs create social tensions, second-rate education and cities without the cultural institutions required for the technical personnel of modern industry.

In short, communities have learned that they cannot live in the past and enjoy the fruits of the present. More and more Southerners are speaking out, telling plain truths to the bitter and the blind. Enlightened self-interest makes them accept the Negro's drive for freedom as an ally rather than an enemy.

There will still be differences of opinion in the South. Yet the present direction is forward and the areas in which blind conflict rages are narrowing. We will continue to know jails at first hand because change will not come easily in many places. Nevertheless, we will negotiate desegregation into oblivion in one community as we batter its stubborn walls in another.

The crystallizing of this new social revolution confronts the Administration with the responsibility to pattern programs in bold designs. In place of timorous steps suitable for the Old South, the government should turn to the New South, giving it the aid it needs.

The Administration is at a historic crossroad. It has at stake its moral commitment, and with it its political fortunes. It will not weaken its international posture, but strengthen it, if it takes the grades of school should be accepted road to democratization, of the South in active unity with the enlightened South—white and Negro. It will not suffer domestically, because its fate in the large Northern cities will turn on the Negro electorate and these cities will determine who occupies the White House.

The President has called for civil rights legislation in the present session of Congress in the face of earlier counsels of despair—the hostility of Congress, he was told, made any such proposals futile. The President’s specific program includes some constructive measures. Regarding voting and registration, he has again introduced the proposal that completion of six grades of school should be accepted as evidence of literacy, qualifying the applicant for registration. Thousands of potential voters can be benefited by such a law. He has further proposed a mechanism for by-passing obstructive local registrars by specifying objective standards under which Federal Registrars may be appointed to qualify voters.

A legislative struggle this year need not be a quixotic exercise in futility. The obstructive coalition of Southern Democrats and Conservative Republicans can be split on this issue. The Republicans cannot afford to block civil rights legislation which the President earnestly sponsors, and Southern Democrats cannot defeat it if they are isolated; if, however, the President is lethargic, the Republicans can be tranquil. They can content themselves merely with criticizing the President in absence of real challenge. If civil rights is elevated to the urgency that trade, tax and military legislation enjoys, 1963 can be a year of achievement and not another annual experience with frustration.

These are practical political considerations all dictating one road. Yet above it all, a greater imperative demands fulfillment. Throughout our history, the moral decision has always been the correct decision. From our determination to be free in 1776, to our shedding of the evil of chattel slavery in 1863, to our decision to stand against the wave of fascism in the 1930s, we grew and became stronger in our commitment to the democratic tradition. The correct decision in 1963 will make it a genuine turning point in human rights. One hundred years ago a President, tortured by doubts, finally ended slavery and a new American society took shape. Lincoln had hoped the slavery issue could be relegated to secondary place, but life thrust it into the center of history. There segregation, the evil heritage of slavery, remains.

 

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