AN APPROACH TO BETTER RACE RELATIONS

National YWCA Convention
Philadelphia, May 5, 1934

Madam Chairman and Ladies of the Convention:

The race problem in the United States is the type of unpleasant problem which we would rather do without but which refuses to be buried. It has been a visible or invisible factor in almost every important question of domestic policy since the foundation of the Government, and may yet be the decisive factor in the success or failure of the New Deal. The dominant interests in the South are determined that there shall not be an industrial emancipation of the Negro. In Birmingham, Alabama, on April 18, one brass-lunged industrialist raised the threat of secession of the Government persisted in its efforts to eliminate the wage differentials between the North and South. Of course, the South would never play into the Negro's hands by seceding; but this idle threat shows the temper of the Southern industrial mind.

In the field of agriculture the government cotton acreage reduction program of 1933 brought a conflict in interest between the plantation owners and their predominantly Negro sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching in its report "The Plight of Tuscaloosa", found that out of 6,000 government checks sent into Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, as compensation for the cotton acreage reduction, only 115 were made out to Negroes; and even then informed local people knew of no instance in which a Negro got any of the money, their checks being indorsed over to white men in every known instance. The significance of this condition is too plain for argument when one realizes that Negroes constitute more than 70% of the dirt cotton farmers in Tuscaloosa County, and when one considers that the New Deal was intended to reach all the way down and benefit the man actually on the soil. It remains to be seen whether the Bankhead Act will give the 'croppers any better protection in 1934.

In the matter of the subsistence homestead the issue which carries the most dynamite in many sections of the country is the question whether whites and blacks shall be included in the same homestead project, and upon what terms. In the Chancellorsville, Georgia, Homestead Community, a project involving from 30,000 to 100,000 acres, a regent of the University of Georgia on April 23 protested a proposition that Negroes should be set off in a separate community at one end of the location, and whites in a separate community at the other. The gentleman came out flatfooted in a letter against segregation. He says:
 

"There should not be any segregation in these homestead communities. In other words, there should not be a white settlement, where only white people work and live, and there should not be a Negro section where only Negroes work and live. There should be no fixed plan at all. There might be a group of farms where three white men lived, and then an adjoining group with to or three Negro families…"

that a segregated community would eventually mean discrimination against Negroes in matters of equipment, housing, taxation, schools and the like; whereas integrated at random in the community at large they would share the common benefits in more equal measure. Some Negro leaders have been sending up hosannas ever since this pronouncement; but there are also sceptics who are saying that the undisclosed reason why the gentleman does not want the Negroes segregated is because he fears that they may lose the master-slave pattern under conditions of economic independence and physical separation; that as a Southerner it is not so much that he wants to keep the Negro under his eye as under his thumb; and they point out another section of his letter where he says:
 

"This (segregation) is a condition which experience has taught Southern people won't work. It will bring on trouble, bad feeling, and eventually something worse."

The problems are not all in the South. In your own organization the greatest strain on the Christianity of some of your Northern local associations is the admission and participation of Negro membership. Without extending my remarks, may I remind you that Christianity has always seemed to fight a losing battle against race prejudice, as evidenced for example by the schism of the Protestant churches on the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War; and the failure down to date on the part of most churches to extend the hand of Christian fellowship to the Negro community, whether North, South, East or West. The trouble is that most of our churches are social clubs masquerading under the guise of religious institutions.

I shall not burden you with any detailed analysis of the condition in which the Negro finds himself today. Many of you are familiar in the political field with the efforts of the Negro to penetrate the Democratic primaries, especially in the States of Virginia, Alabama and Texas. In the field of economics you doubtless know that the initials NRA stand for "Negroes Robbed Again."

In the field of education you may be acquainted with the efforts in North Carolina and Kentucky to have the State make some provision for Negro students who wish to take a professional course after graduating from the Negro colleges in those States, where the professional course is offered to white students in the tax-supported Universities from which Negroes are excluded. Your own organ, The Woman's Press, has commented on the discriminations against Negro students in Northern schools in the matters of dormitory accommodations, gymnasium and swimming pool facilities, practice work and clinical opportunities in dentistry and medicine. One of the impending struggles which will be next to break will be over the unequal and unjust apportionment of school funds in the border and Southern states, including not only questions of buildings and equipment but also the question of the differentials in white and Negro teachers' salaries for the same certificate and the same grade. The condition of Negro teachers drawing 70% or less of the salaries of white teachers of equal class and grade; the spectacle of white children riding to school in buses while the little Negroes tramp the roads, cannot be permanent.

The Scottsboro Cases, the Angelo Herndon Case in Georgia, the impotence of the States to curb or punish lynching; the attempted murder of two Negro lawyers near Henderson, North Carolina, for daring to challenge the exclusion of Negroes from a North Carolina jury, reflect the load carried by the Negro in the courts of "justice"?

In the field of government you must know how the Federal Civil Service rules requiring candidates to state their race and submit their photograph with their application have been used to eliminate Negroes as a class from all appointments covered by civil service above the grades of laborer or messenger. An obstinate policy of the War and Navy Departments has decimated the ranks of Negro soldiers and sailors, and effectively emasculated those still left in the service of most of their self-respect; a matter which I predict the United States will seriously regret in the event of another war. You must know something of the humiliation and procrastination which Negro white collar workers met in many sections last winter when they applied for work under the CWA. The newspapers have been full of the DePriest resolution against racial discrimination in the House Restaurant in Washington, and the assault on a cultured Negro woman for the sole offense that she was hungry and tried to get service in the Senate restaurant during the hearings on the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill.

The plight of the Negro worker in agriculture, domestic service and industry; the disproportionate number of Negro families on relief due to job displacements and other loss of work, with attendant loss of self-assurance, are open sores calling for social surgery of the highest order. But there is no use piling up the deficit.

On the credit side we can point to certain advances. The Negro has made some progress under the New Deal; and at least in the Federal Government there is an increasing tendency to give him a voice in his own interest and to include his requirements in the national recovery. The Attorney General of Ohio has just overthrown the designation of race and use of photograph in the Ohio State Civil Service applications by declaring it an unconstitutional discrimination. The State of Maryland in 1933 made a bold attempt to bring the lynchers of George Armwood to justice. The Commonwealth of Virginia is reforming its jury system. Southern women are moving rapidly to the front in interracial work. And your own Association has exhibited significant liberal tendencies.

But since the problem before the Negro today is not the depths from which he has come but the heights to which he aspires, we pass on to the question what is his philosophy and what are his techniques.

At the present time Negro leadership is in a state of transition. The elder statesmen on the whole have made their contribution and are on the way out. The majority of the younger statesmen are still worrying over their make-up: whether it shall be bright red or pale pink. As a matter of fact there is quite some doubt as to from what quarter the younger statesmen will come. Last summer a conference of young intellectuals and organization workers, including some from your own "Y", was convened at Amenia to lay down a program for the race. The conference spent three days in talk and then in substance resolved it could not resolve. Without any fault on the part of the host, it has gone down in history as the anomic conference of Amenia.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People under the courageous and aggressive leadership of its secretary, Walter White, represents the most effective fighting force in the Negro group; but the National Association needs certain reorientation and a measure of reorganization. The most effective work under the N.R.A. for the integration of Negro workers into industry and the protection of their rights has been done by the Joint Committee on National Recovery, the leading spirit of which is John P. Davis and to which your own Association has given its support. The Urban League is largely opportunist. The Y.M.C.A. should be known as the Young Men's Conservative Association.

To continue the indictment, the Negro Church has removed itself too far from the actual vicissitudes of life to wield the influence which its weight of numbers would otherwise give it. The average Negro college offers regimentation but very little real independence of thought and action. The old style Negro fraternity still spends most of its energies helping the sick and burying the dead. In other words, the Negro in 1934 has outgrown his older patterns of leadership, but is not yet sure of the new.

There are other forces however at work among the Negroes. If I had to name the three most significant events which have affected Negro psychology within the last twenty years I would name the World War, the Garvey movement, and Communism.

The World War itself taught Negroes organization, discipline and the unimportance of death. By the migration of Southern labor to man Northern industries, the Southern Negro got a taste of freedom. For the first time Negroes in a large number got enough economic goods to take time out from the struggle for existence to rationalize about their condition. Many of them took their first lessons in politics and trade unionism. In short, the World War leavened the lump.

The Garvey movement was a black man's dream; and for all its bombastic phantasmagoria of a visionary African empire, it made a permanent contribution in teaching the simple dignity of being black. Prior to Marcus Garvey all Negro teaching had been to be like the "good white folks" and not make too much noise. Madam Walker had made a million dollars making bleaches and straightening hair. But Marcus Garvey, the black Negro from Jamaica, founded himself an imaginary empire, surrounded himself with black dukes and black duchesses, gathered himself a black army and a green cross corps of black nurses, actually sent black men out to sea in command of ocean-going vessels, and paraded in the sun claiming his black skin as his proud birthright and distinction. For my purposes it is immaterial whether he was charlatan or fool, Marcus Garvey by turning the Negro's attention to the beauty of the color of his own skin, has had a profound influence on Negro thought.

And now Communism --- goose flesh to some people. The contribution of the Communists to the Negro has been to turn the race issue into a class issue. They have been the first, at least in recent times, to have appealed to the masses, as distinguished from the classes. Whereas all prior approaches to the masses had been paternalistic, the Communists came and walked among them, like the disciples of old, and offered them full and complete brotherhood, without respect to race, creed or previous condition of servitude. Finally, the Communists have been the first to fire the masses with a sense of their raw, potential power, and the first openly to preach the doctrine of mass resistance and mass struggle: Unite and fight.

It is not necessary to organize a Watch and Ward Society. Communism is too new and Negroes are still too conservative to rush into any radical, revolutionary program. But the fact remains that the fight which Liebowitz and the Communists have made and are making in the Scottsboro Cases has caught the imagination of Negroes as nothing else within a decade. And as one of its repercussions it has forced all the rest of us would-be Negro leaders, or, as the Communists would have it: Negro misleaders, to a firmer stand and bolder action than we probably would have been inclined to take otherwise. The Communists have made it impossible for any aspirant to Negro leadership to advocate less than full economic, political and social equality, and expect to retain the respect and confidence of the group. Some day the Scottsboro Cases are going to be acknowledged as a milestone in the history of America.

When it comes to the matter of techniques, several factors have to be taken into consideration. The American Negro is the only subordinate, minority group that I know of whose legal rights outreach actual practice. The usual course of history is for a subordinate people to enjoy rights in fact long before their rights are given legal sanction. But the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments have given the Negro in theory and in law absolute equality of citizenship, so that the real problem of the Negro is not to obtain new rights but to obtain the effective enforcement of those he already has. This fact has thrown the majority of the race controversies into the courts; and perhaps the fact that the race issue has produced so little bloodshed in the United States as contrasted with other racial issues of comparable size is due in no small degree to the fact that the majority of our racial wars have been fought in the court room rather than in the market place. This is what is called the legalistic approach, and has been the distinguishing characteristic of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The matter of techniques has been further complicated by the fact that racial conditions are not the same in all sections of the country. The Negro in New York does not have exactly the same problems as the Negro in Texas. The Negro in Georgia cannot make the same speeches or use the same weapons as the Negro in Illinois.

Techniques then have varied according to time, place and circumstances. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threw the force of its nationwide distribution of branches into the fight to defeat Judge Parker. In Washington, D. C., the New Negro Alliance composed of young college graduates has been picketing chain stores in Negro neighborhoods to force the employment of Negro clerks. In Columbia, South Carolina, the Negroes are organizing a Non-Partisan Voters League for greater influence in the primaries. A violent controversy is now raging between one of our ex-apostles and a lot of other people over the question how far voluntary segregation is an effective weapon in the struggle for Negro rights. And finally, to my mind, the white and black coal miners in the Birmingham District have presented the ultimate solution by forming together in one common union to fight shoulder to shoulder for their common interests.

What has all that I have said to do with the YWCA and a better approach to race relations? I ask you to approach the question both form an organizational standpoint and from an individual standpoint as outstanding and respected citizens of your several communities. I ask you to take the question out of the realm of abstractions and to re-state it in terms of human relationships. Then whatever you do either as an organization or as individuals will depend upon the end result you are attempting to achieve.

We are not attempting to push you to the point of destruction. But we do emphasize that leadership in time of stress inevitably involves a certain amount of experimentation and risk. And the only way you can remain a potent social force in your communities is to accept the responsibilities and risk that incorruptible, courageous leadership brings.

We are not asking you to take up the cross out of any sentimental interest in the Negro. But we do ask you to move forward to free white America from its senseless phobias and its contemptuous arrogance toward all peoples of non-Nordic stock. In this we appreciate the magnitude of your task. We understand that there are some things you can do with your generation, and probably some you cannot do. But you can make our generation open its eyes and realize when it is cutting off its nose to spite its face, as the South is doing when it squeezes the Negro's wages and in consequence cuts down his consuming power in the community. We do expect you to throw all your energies twenty-four hours a day in a fight for elemental justice without regard to race, class or creed.

I say nothing about the extravagance, the duplications, the waste of a bi-racial system. If you really want a bi-racial system, and are willing to pay the price to have an honest, equitable one, so far as I am concerned you are welcome to it. But I suggest that if you do perpetuate a bi-racial system, if you are interested in the so-called purity of your racial stock, if you are anxious to keep mulattoes and octoroons from passing for white and living and marrying among you as they are now doing, then as a matter of self-protection you should make it so easy for a Negro to live a full, free and advantageous life on his own side of the line that there would be no advantage in his passing for white. Remove all his handicaps and there will be no point in his denying his racial identity.

Finally we beg you to save young America from the blight of race prejudice. Do not bind the children within the narrow circles of your own lives. Teach them to hear the song without hating the singer. Make the understand that it is just a question of reconciling the want and desires of different human beings, each equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It does not lie with me to lay out for you a program of ways and means. If I can assist you to a proper attitude, you will find the ways and means out of your own wisdom and experience. To my mind the proper attitude is the concrete human approach. When black and white both realize that the race issue is just a question between different human beings, half the difficulty will be over. And each of us in his way and her way will be making his and her contribution to a United States of America which will be finally united, Christian and free.

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