The Negro Waits to See

The Negro Waits to See

AS NOVEMBER approaches, the Presidential race seems to be too close for partisans of either side to take comfort.


AS NOVEMBER approaches, the Presidential race seems to be too close for partisans of either side to take comfort. For a variety of reasons, internal and external, no racial or economic bloc in this year’s elections is more undecided, nor does any group have a better chance to swing a reasonably close election, than the Negroes. They do not want to be a racial bloc; they would prefer to vote as citizens, as individuals. But the Negro has been forced to think and to vote racially by the discriminations to which he is subject, by the coalition of Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress, and by the new awareness of race which the war has created throughout the world. The political lynching of Wendell Willie by the Old Guard Republicans and of Henry Wallace by the equally Old Guard Democrats was fought more consistently and is resented more deeply by the Negroes than by any other group of voters.

But let no one believe that the mass of Negro voters are thinking in terms of “a plague on both your houses.” They are not talking about going fishing on Election Day. The Associated Press prediction of a sharp slump in the number of votes this year does not apply to Negro voters–except those in the armed services, who, because of the connivance of Republicans with Southern Democrats, will not be able to vote. The Negro has been too deeply stirred by continued discrimination in the midst of’ a war for human freedom and is too apprehensive about the post-war situation to stay home on Election Day. He will vote, and with certain concrete aims in mind.

Negroes don’t expect too much from either party. They know that whatever they get they will have to fight for. They know also that their chances of success depend in considerable measure on general social and economic progress. These considerations will influence their votes next month.

They want full political equality–the same right to vote as white men, the right to run for elective offices and to be considered for appointive offices.

They want full civil equality–equal access to the protection of the law, and an end to Jim Crow in transportation, hotels, restaurants, recreation and entertainment, and all public facilities. They want an end to restrictive housing covenants–this could be made a condition of federal financial assistance–and they don’t want any so-called “equal but separate” accommodations; separate accommodations are by that very fact unequal.

They want full equality of educational opportunity– access to the same schools, and equal pay for Negro teachers at all levels.

They want full equality of employment opportunity– the all too familiar spectacle of the Negro college graduate working as a messenger boy or a dishwasher must go. This is a responsibility of management and of organized labor as well as of government.

Negroes know that federal action is essential in all these fields. They know that the states have demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to take effective action. They know too that the modern technique of those who don’t want a thing done is not to say they are against it but to say, “Let the states do it.”

Some progress has been made since 1940. It has been due almost entirely to pressure by the Negroes themselves, and it has strengthened their determination to continue the fight. The Supreme Court decision in the case of Smith v. Allbright has opened the Texas and Arkansas ballot boxes to Negroes in primary and general elections and has promised an end of disfranchisement throughout the South within two years. It has enormously stimulated political consciousness and a sense of political power among Negroes in seventeen Northern and border states which together have 280 electoral votes. If Negroes vote en bloc they can determine the choice of President and Vice-president, Senators and Representatives, in almost 150 Congressional districts.

Against terrible odds, in the face of the prejudices of many employers and even of some unions, the Negro has battled his way into industry. Mass action brought the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices into being, and mass pressure has had to be exerted continuously to prevent sabotage of that agency. Riots and anti-Negro strikes in Detroit and Philadelphia and Lockland, Ohio, have embittered but not discouraged the Negro in his fight for a job. They have strengthened his resolution, because he knows that after “the war for democracy” is won be will have to face more determined opposition than ever in many areas of the United States. He knows that the crude diatribes of the Rankins and the Hoffmans alike are designed to recruit members for anti-Negro, anti-labor outfits like the Ku Klux Klan.

Negro voters are embittered by the continued humiliation, physical violence, and death visited upon Negro soldiers in the South; by the blunt refusal of the Department of Justice to act in cases like that of Private Edward Green, who was killed by a bus driver in Alexandria, Louisiana, on March 19. The War Department declared that “considering the testimony of all the witnesses and the circumstances surrounding the case, the conclusion is inescapable that there was no justification, moral or legal, for the slaying of Private Edward Green by Odell Lanchette.” But the Department of Justice has failed to take steps against the criminal, who is still at large. Its inaction will cost Roosevelt votes, particularly among mothers and wives of Negro service men. The Green case was front-page news in the Negro press all over the country.

The manner in which the Administration handled the Philadelphia transit strike against the upgrading of eight Negroes was encouraging at the outset, but the result was disappointing. The army did an excellent job, just as it did in the Detroit riots last year. Negroes all over the country were watching to see if the Administration would duck the issue and thereby define unmistakably the conditions of post-war employment for Negroes. When the Attorney General ordered a federal grand jury to investigate, the Negroes were jubilant, for they were certain that once the sinister anti-union forces behind the strike were revealed, America would have a lesson in the facts of industrial life. The jury upheld the Negroes’ right to work on the same terms as white men, but its unjust denunciation of the C.I.O., which had opposed the strike, its ignoring of the fact that the strike was called by former leaders of a company union, and its whitewashing of the company, which had encouraged the strikers, destroyed most of the value of the lesson.

The Administration made another forward step when it ordered an end to Jim Crow in army camps, but the order is unenforced in many Southern camps.

The G.O.P. platform offers little more to the thoughtful Negro voter, even if its promises are taken at face value. He regards with deep skepticism the Republican proposal to abolish the poll tax by constitutional amendment. Negro voters know that the tax will never be abolished if it must wait for a two-thirds’ vote in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the forty-eight state legislatures. The Republicans’ unqualified approval of legislation to make the FEPC a permanent government agency was heartening until they inserted another plank which promised to give control of employment services to the states. That, followed by the G.O.P. vote for the George bill to vest control of unemployment compensation in the states, has led intelligent Negroes to believe that the growing trend toward “states’ rights” would make a permanent FEPC practically impotent.

This suspicion was strengthened by an episode at the Governors’ conference in St. Louis. It was reported that Mr. Dewey had placed high on the agenda a proposal that the twenty-six Republican Governors not only indorse the G.O.P. plank for a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax but pledge a special session of their legislatures to ratify the amendment. I sent Mr. Dewey a telegram saying that no one believed the poll tax could be eliminated in any reasonable period of time by a constitutional amendment; that the child-labor amendment had been approved by Congress twenty-two years ago but that to date only twenty-eight state legislatures had ratified it. I suggested that the Governors might more wisely and profitably indorse the bill passed by the House of Representatives, which, despite a filibuster, was still pending in the Senate, and that they might also vigorously call for cloture on the debate. Well, when the poll-tax item on the agenda was reached, the Presidential candidate hurriedly passed it by, saying that it was unimportant and could be taken up later. It was apparent that Mr. Dewey feared to repudiate his party’s platform openly, but also feared to do anything that might actually abolish one of the means by which the Republicans’ Southern allies maintain themselves in power.

The Electoral College conspiracy in the South has fizzled; the 1944 election will be determined by the popular vote of the sixteen Northern and border states, which have 280 electoral votes. In those states the Negro vote is most concentrated, amounting to a potential balance of power. Those states are New York, which according to the 1940 census had 393,056 Negroes of voting age; Pennsylvania 299,99S; Illinois, 263,426; Ohio, 220,164; Maryland, 183,716; Missouri, 164,605; New Jersey, 143,661; Michigan, 138,116; Kentucky, 138,001; Oklahoma, 37,137; California, 98,407; Indiana, 80,451; West Virginia, 70,094; Kansas, 39,381; Delaware, 22,893; Connecticut, 20,704. In almost every one of these states the Negro voting population has been greatly increased since 1940 by war-time migration. Ten states with 214 electoral votes, according to lake August polls, are still politically doubtful–New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey. If the Negroes in those states vote as a bloc, they can decide the outcome of the election.

At this writing no person can accurately or even honestly predict whether the Negroes will vote as a bloc or not, or, if they do vote as a bloc, which side they will be on. The Negro has little faith in either party. He remembers the Roosevelt of the thirties, but he also knows that the Roosevelt of the mid-forties sold Henry Wallace down the river to the reactionaries of his own party and of the country. The Negro has even less faith in the party that chose a Dewey when it could have had a Willkie. He therefore waits to see whether either party, between now and November 7, will do something honest and effective about the poll tax, lynching, a permanent FEPC, social security, public housing, federal aid to education, and federal legislation to protect men in uniform from mob attack; and whether either party will do anything toward obtaining a peace that will recognize the colored peoples of the world as human beings.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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