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Susan Green

Southern “Liberal” Resents
Exposure of Jim-Crow Facts

(11 October 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 41, 11 October 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Recently the New York Herald Tribune opened its pages to a veritable civil war fought, in print, between the North and the South. The provocation was a series of twelve articles written by Ray Sprigle, reporter and staff member of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called In the Land of Jim Crow, which, as can be guessed, was not pleasant reading. Whereupon the Tribune was bombarded by letters both approving and condemning Mr. Sprigle. Finally came a series of six answering articles by a journalist from the deep South, Hodding Carter, editor of the Greenville (Miss.) Delta Democrat-Times, hotly opposing Mr. Sprigle and his point of view.

What made Mr. Sprigle’s series important is that, with a Florida tan, a shaved head and a guide provided by Walter White of the NAACP, Mr. Sprigle passed the color line, from white to black, for four weeks. Thus he saw and brought to light many aspects and details of Negro life in the South that are not too widely known. On the other hand, Mr. Carter’s contribution is noteworthy because, a self-confessed “southern liberal,” he reveals what this rather recent growth – southern liberalism – is like. Readers of Labor Action who missed the exchange in the Tribune will be interested.

Lily White Murder

From Mr. Sprigle’s articles one learned that the public humiliations suffered by Negroes in the land of Jim Crow are not confined to segregation in buses, trains, stations, with the worst and the filthiest accommodations allotted to the Negroes. Not at all. In many Southern cities, for instance, the stores do not permit Negro women to try on dresses. In some stores cloths are put over black customers’ heads so they may not contaminate the hats they try on. In most places the colored customer must pick her hat and dress off the rack, and if she as much as touches an article, she willy-nilly has bought it. And did you know that Georgia’s entire coastline is barred to Negro bathers? Other Southern states have at least segregated beaches, but the makers of the rules in Georgia are afraid the Negroes may blacken the Atlantic Ocean. Negroes enter the lily white Atlantic lapping the shores of Georgia at the risk of being fined $50 and costs.

Segregation in the field of health at times brings wanton and unnecessary death to Negro patients. As is well known, all health facilities in the country are sadly inadequate. However, the inadequacy of hospitals and health facilities for the Negro is criminal, and the coldblooded exclusion of even dying Negro patients from lily white hospitals, as reported by Mr. Sprigle, is something hard to believe even for those who are well acquainted with the viciousness of Jim Crow.

Mr. Sprigle told of a young Negro mother in immediate need of a Caesarian at childbirth. She and her dentist husband lived in Clarksdale, Miss., where there is a good white hospital which does not accept Negro patients no matter what the urgency. Mrs. Hill was driven 78 miles to a Negro hospital. She died on the way, with her unborn baby. Again, two women badly hurt in an auto accident right outside of Dalton, Ga., where there is a 40-bed white hospital, had to be driven for nine hours to the nearest Negro hospital in Chattanooga. On arrival one of the women was already dead.

Sprigle cited similar tragic cases. He checked with the white hospitals involved, asking if it were true that under no circumstances do they accept a Negro patient. Neither letters nor telegrams brought any reply from any of the hospitals – which is answer enough.

Contrast in Education

“The pattern of 250 years of slavery still endures in the South. For 250 years, for instance, it was a crime, in some places, to teach a slave to read and write. And looking at some of the Negro schools in the South, it must still be a crime.”

Thus Mr. Sprigle on Negro education in the South. By and large, this general situation is widely known. Mr. Sprigle adds some not so well known facts. For instance, in the Mississippi Delta country, district No. 4, Madison County, the unusual situation exists that Negroes own about 90 per cent of all the land and pay 90 per cent of the taxes. But the Negroes have nothing to say about how the tax money is to be spent. The educational facilities for black and white respectively compare as follows:

The whites built themselves a new school consisting of five modern buildings designed by a good architect. There is a main school building, a vocational school building, a gymnasium, a beautiful bungalow for the principal. Fifteen teachers are employed, the minimum salary being $150 a month. On the other hand, only after persistent protests was a new school built for the Negroes. It is a square box on a dirt road, two partitions dividing the space into four rooms. One of the rooms has desks hammered together out of scrap lumber picked up out of the mud, the mud stains still present. The other three rooms have no desks at all, just home-made benches and tables. There is one toilet for boys and girls “leaning drunkenly in the wind.” Four teachers are employed, their pay running from $55 to $90 a month. The contrast speaks for itself.

In this delta country many places do not even pretend to provide school buildings of any kind. Of 121 Negro schools in one county, only 31 were so-called school buildings, the rest were in churches, lodge halls and even garages. Yet the school money in this county comes from a two per cent sales tax paid by the population, half of which is Negro. However, as Mr. Sprigle stated, as much is paid simply to haul white children to and from their schools as is expended for the whole Negro educational program. More could be related along these lines from Mr. Sprigle’s report. The abysmal lack of educational facilities for Negroes is so important because, as Mr. Sprigle pointed out, next to the right to vote freely, education for his children is most ardently wanted by the aware Southern Negro.

Grand Larceny

Mr. Sprigle also did well again to call public attention to the iniquitous sharecropping system. “This share- cropping in the South is grand larceny on a grand scale, and the Negro is the victim,” wrote Mr. Sprigle. He told of the lot of a so-called prosperous Negro sharecropper in Georgia, for 29 years a cropper under “The Man” – the all-powerful landlord. In 1946 his crop consisted of 14 bales of cotton and six and a half tons of peanuts, for which “The Man” allowed him $800 for the whole year. In 1947 his crop rose to 17 bales of cotton and 10 tons of peanuts, for which he was allowed only $700 for the entire year’s work. Mr. Sprigle figured that at the current prices the cotton was worth $3,400 and the peanuts $2,000, a total of $5,400. Technically the cropper is supposed to get one-half of the value of his crop, in this case, $2,700. Deductions are made for the hire of a tractor, for fertilizer, for the commissary bill and so on. But $2,000 definitely looks suspicious as deduction for these items. However, nobody but “The Man” knows how calculations are made.

The sharecropper never gets an accounting or statement from the landlord. “The Man” has to account for his figures to absolutely no one. In the Mississippi Delta region, where King Cotton holds sway over the most fertile land in the world, “the last outpost of feudalism in America” thrives on the sharecropping system of robbery.

Though Mr. Sprigle did not state the following conclusion from his facts – and, by the way, his facts are more important than his conclusions, which are rather superficial – one can see that the economic absolutism of the sharecropping system must be battered down and ended. Any Fair Employment Practices Law that does not require that “The Man” make strict accounting to the sharecropper for his crop will do nothing at all for this most exploited section of farm workers. It is to maintain this system of feudal robbery that the bourbons of the South want to keep the Negroes in ignorance and without political and civil rights.

A progressive program for the Negro must, therefore, include the demand for fair employment practices for the sharecropper.

Carter’s Contribution

Now to go to Hodding Carter’s contribution to the discussion on Jim Crow. In the first place, he accused Mr. Sprigle, in crossing the color line, of indulging in a stunt rather than in useful procedure. Mr. Carter stated that Mr. Sprigle revealed nothing of which people, North and South, are not already aware and “which increasing numbers of sensitive, compassionate and fair-minded Southern whites are combatting openly and successfully.” Mr. Carter expressed doubt that any investigation under the exclusive guidance of the NAACP could give a comprehensive picture of the whole Negro question in the South. He accused Mr. Sprigle of choosing the two worst Southern states, Georgia and Mississippi, for his exposures. And he pointed the finger of counter accusation: “... prejudice isn’t directed solely to black skins or limited to the South.” Which nobody would deny and which gets us nowhere except to show how deeply a Southern liberal resents publicity for the ugly facts of Jim Crow in his section.

Mr. Carter declared that Mr. Sprigle’s “bill of particulars just isn’t so.” If so, wrote Mr. Carter, there would be “either mass emigration or bloody revolt” – a contention which cannot be taken seriously. Mr. Carter stated that the abuses Mr. Sprigle reported could have been more true in his childhood than now. The Negro in the South of 25 or even 15 years ago is the one Mr. Sprigle is describing, according to Mr. Carter.

To refute Mr. Sprigle’s report Mr. Carter cited his own town of Greenville, Miss., also in the delta region. In the town of 32,000 population one half are Negro, and in the county of 75,000 population three-fourths are Negro. A recent bond issue of a million dollars for schools in Greenville was divided to provide $650,000 for Negro schools and $350,000 for white schools, taking into consideration that Negro schools are more needed. Showing progress on another front, Mr. Carter reported that the homicide record of the past year showed no killings of Negroes by whites and no lynchings of Negroes, nor any lynchings in that county for over forty years, Mr. Carter is hopeful of more improvement – of course, without interference from the North.

The measure of his liberalism, however, can be found in his comment on the sharecropping system. He did not wish to whitewash it, he said, and admitted the defrauding of the cropper by the landlord. But he pointed out that there are also honest white men and that “no better system” has been devised. So speaks a Southern liberal about one of the greatest economic injustices of all time, except to add that if the Negro is exploited by the owner, the latter in turn is exploited by other interests.

Mr. Carter’s basic approach can be gleaned from the following quotation:

“The Southern white is increasingly overcoming all but one of the emotional biases inherited from the 250 mutually blighting years of a master and slave relationship. That one exception is the white South’s insistence upon segregation in the mass. And that exception will remain throughout the ascertainable future, regardless of any federal legislation aimed at its discontinuance.”

Disaster in Justice

Mr. Carter places his faith in economic change, which he sees taking place. He pointed out that the one- crop system is going, that small farms are on the increase, that man- and-mule methods are giving place to mechanization that will force sharecroppers to leave the South for other sections of the country, that the specialist in production is becoming more popular than the overseer with the whip, that industry is entering the South to stay. Mr. Carter hopes that the South will receive a greater share of the national income, which will mean better individual incomes and a higher standard of living. He feels that the distribution of Negroes throughout the country, thus ending in the South the “specter of Negroes outnumbering whites three and four to one” will do more than anything else to break down segregation.

Mr. Carter branded “synthetic” the planks in the platforms of the Democratic, Republican and Wallace parties on the Negro question, written to catch Northern Negro votes and not to solve problems of the South. With this it is easy to agree. He does not see how these programs will get anywhere because “you can’t enforce tolerance with a policeman’s billy.” He feels that if tolerance is “enforced,” 30,000,000 Southern whites will rise solidly against it and that the only thing that would save the South from disaster would be if the Negroes themselves refused to take advantage of the new laws. To which one must comment that conservatives (and Southern liberals) always see disaster in disturbing the status quo.

All the interference Mr. Carter wants from Washington is federal aid to education, a broadened national health program, national slum clearance, soil conservation and resettlement, and so on. He is not for the lifting of the poll tax because in itself it won’t raise political standards. The economic level must be raised, then follows education, according to Mr. Carter’s formulation. He does not look at the other side of the coin, namely, that since the Negro is really not so dumb as not to know what he wants, his free vote would help him to arrive at a higher economic and educational level.

The above is, obviously, not an attempt to analyze the position of. a Southern liberal as presented by Hodding Carter, nor to posit the socialist solution as against his, but is mainly a report for the information of Labor Action readers. Nor has this article taken up Mr. Sprigle’s conclusions because they seem less important than his factual report. Neither of these writers even mentioned the increasing solidarity between the black and white worker in the South in those very industries Mr. Carter spoke about, and the basic work done by the unions in the South, especially the CIO, in breaking down prejudice, segregation and inequality.

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