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Harry Allen

Negroes Seek New Paths
in Fight Against Jim Crow

(February 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 8, 22 February 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Discrimination against every race must go!” This was the keynote of Paul V. McNutt’s speech before the Negro Labor Victory Committee mass meeting at the Golden Gate Casino, Harlem, on June 28, 1942.

On January 12, 1943, the same Paul V. McNutt scuttled the projected FEPC public hearings on discrimination against the Negroes on the railroads.

In this brief six-month period is represented the very sharp retreat of the Roosevelt Administration before the Jim Crow bloc of reactionary Southern congressmen and discriminatory employers in the great cities, both North and South.

Color Caste System Remains

One need only note the abandonment of the anti-lynching bill, the anti-poll-tax law and the continuance of peonage and the chain gang in the South, to understand why the Negro people conclude that those in authority do not seriously intend – if they ever did – to end the color caste system – expressed in discrimination and segregation. So far as the Negro is concerned, these facts and conditions, in themselves, make a mockery of capitalist “democracy.”

Therefore, reliance upon the government to effectively or earnestly break down Jim Crow in various fields has sharply cooled among the Negro masses. “Their general attitude is one of mingled cynicism, resignation and indifference,” says the Pittsburgh Courier.

Does this mean that the Negro masses have given up the struggle and the hope for the achievement of their economic, social and political rights? Quite the contrary. Only, they are seeking other paths.

Look to Independent Action

First, they are searching for their own independent course, actions and organizations to serve their ends. They are not satisfied with promises for the future – no matter who makes the promises.

This explains the strong, militant support at first given by great numbers of Negroes to the March on Washington Movement for full rights to the Negroes now. However, when the weak, vacillating leadership of the MOW sidetracked this authentic mass movement into a “go easy” policy and dependence upon Administration favors, the Negro masses again felt betrayed, and they largely abandoned their support of MOW. The Negro masses today want a militant movement for their rights.

Second, the increasing trend among Negroes is to seek either support or a base in the organized labor movement. However, in making their appeal to union labor, the Negro press and leadership do so with varying reasons, and motivations. For instance, the Black Despatch (Oklahoma City, Okla.), influential Negro paper in the Southwest, editorially says:

“Union labor needs help just now, while more than ten millions have been withdrawn from the ranks of gainful employment. If the Negro remains on the outside of union labor during this period, what will be the Negro’s status later on, when ten million unemployed soldiers return from foreign battlefields to again seek their places in peacetime avocations?”

“It ought to be plain to every Negro on the outside of an insane asylum that unless Negroes now show intelligent and sympathetic interest in the problems of white labor, white labor when it returns from the war will be justified in lacking interest in black problems.”

Here it is necessary to note that the Negro leadership and press generally evade or ignore the class origins and development of Jim Crow. Thus, unavoidably, they run into a blind alley in attempting to interpret and resolve the special and double evils imposed on Negroes.

Hence, relating directly to the labor movement, it must be realized that the Negro press is controlled and directed almost exclusively by the Negro middle and upper classes who follow a policy suited to their particular class interests and situation. Specifically, for instance, note the business man’s outlook which largely pervades the Negro publications everywhere. However, the Negro professional elements, because their skills and abilities are even more patently unused or unremunerated than white professionals, are more inclined to admit the need for, or a combination with unions – qualified by their own class bias or interests.

In the case of the Black Despatch editorial, the attitude reflected toward unionism is not that of Negro and white workingman joining in common cause and organization from a class standpoint. Rather, it is a recognition of the necessity for an approach to organized labor to assure, if possible, some economic protection for Negroes, as Negroes, when war jobs are done, and mass unemployment and economic crisis again convulse the country.

The Labor-Conscious Negro

More significantly, however, there are growing numbers of Negroes who are calling for the complete integration of Negroes, as workers, into the labor movement on a fully equal basis. It is these Negroes particularly who demand an end to any remaining Jim Crow in the labor unions in the interests (1) of Negroes as Negroes, and (2) in order that the labor movement can most effectively combat the employing and ruling class practices of discrimination and segregation against Negroes and other minorities, and the bosses’ common exploitation , of white and colored workers.

It is in both these lights, therefore, that labor-conscious Negroes hail the establishment of the CIO’s anti-discrimination committee; Philip Murray’s appointment of the Negro, Boyd Wilson, to help cement the bonds of Negro and white workers in the Steel Workers Union; and the efforts of the Auto Workers and National Maritime Unions and other units, to get rid altogether of any remaining Jim Crow remnants, as symbolized, for instance, in mixed crews in the American Merchant Marine.

Conversely, the standing of the AFL is low among labor-thinking Negroes because of the AFL’s essentially do-nothing policy in eliminating widespread Jim Crow in many of its important unions. The rebuff to Philip Randolph at the AFL convention is a case in point.

Want No Jim Crow in Unions

War requirements, of course, are making it easier for Negroes to get jobs. However, the bosses otherwise are either against the hiring of Negroes or are for hiring them provided they can continue their established policy of dividing workers on color or racial lines, and thus more easily exploiting both white and black workers. Therefore, the recent establishment of a Jim Crow local (Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders & Welders) in the Portland, Ore., region only serves to convince Negro workers that AFL policy follows along the same pattern as the government and Jim Crow employers.

Obviously, those Negroes who are seeking a labor base for their protection will not for long tolerate, in this period, a labor organization which persists in Jim Crowing them. Nor will they be satisfied merely by the appointment of a Negro (Milton P. Webster, vice-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) as a member of an AFL post-war planning committee. They will insist on an end to Jim Crow NOW in the AFL, or turn more and more to the CIO.

What is more important to observe today is (1) the steady turning away of the Negro masses from a reliance on favors from above, from the government; and (2) the growing ability of Negro masses to distinguish the basic and important from the secondary and episodic (that is, they are laying their hopes and foundation in labor unionism and a working class orientation as against Administration sops, easily taken away – FEPC, etc.).

Administration policy more and more shows itself as reflecting the outlook and practices of the real rulers of this country – the big business interests. The Administration’s appeasement of, and reconciliation with, the blatant reactionary bloc of Southern Democratic politicians is only an important and potent symptom thereof.

Hence, even as labor must hereafter more swiftly relinquish its faith and belief in governmental agencies to achieve their demands (for example, the demand for representation on fundamentally anti-labor bodies such as the WLB, WPB, etc.), so likewise the Negro masses will and are experiencing the same disillusionment with an appeasement policy. Both Negro and white labor are driven toward a united policy and action by their common class interests against the exploiters and oppressors – the employing class.

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