Background to Civil Rights in America
A great many—if not most—people make a practice of judging shop merchandise by the display in the window. A policy such as this often leads to confusion, if not error. Much the same might be said for many of those who would analyze the civil rights struggle in America. They concentrate upon the propaganda and personal utterances of spokesmen involved in the struggle and gain an image of the causes, thereby, that is inaccurate to some extent and generally confusing. Slogans such as “Equality”, “Justice”, “Freedom ”, etc. are important in generating enthusiasm among the rank and file membership; they constitute the window display. But if one is to understand the problem it is necessary to get behind the slogans and examine American capitalism and its basic needs. Since the Supreme Court of the United States is a top agency of American capitalism, no better research can be recommended than an examination of their edicts over the years.
The Dred Scott Decision
Every American school child has been made acquainted with the basic details — if not the underlying significance — of the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s court declared, 5 to 3, that Scott could not be a citizen because he was a Negro and that he was not freed from his original slave status merely because he had twice established residence on soil that was guaranteed free by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Whatever the attitude today towards the “morality”, “justice”’ and “mercy” of the Supreme Court of 1857, one can be certain that it reflected the prevailing opinions of their time. But more important, they reflected the needs of American capitalism. Southern plantation capitalism was still an important—even if a rapidly deteriorating—part of the United States economy and plantation capitalism operated on a foundation of chattel-slave labour. Chief Justice Taney and his Court were not about to endanger the sanctity of private property nor is it likely that many, aside from an Abolitionist minority, regarded the justices as black-hearted scoundrels.
Even in the North, feeling against the institution of chattel-slavery in the Southern states was not widespread and the Abolitionists were not by any means popular. But they carried on their activities. In Boston, for example, they soap-boxed on the Charles St. mall of Boston Common and they placed posters in Negro neighbourhoods warning the coloured people against conversing with white strangers lest they divulge information that could lead to the capture of runaway slaves. It took the secession of the Southern states from the Union to bring on the Civil War and to end the legal system of chattel-slavery.
“Separate But Equal”
By 1896 American capitalism generally, and Southern capitalism in particular, had new problems. In the North, industry had grown rapidly under the command of the “ malefactors of great wealth ’’—Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc. —There was area enough, what with the developing frontier, and wage-labour enough with the deluge of poverty-stricken immigrants, to obviate the need for expansion into the deep South. So the South remained largely a region of small scale, low wage, capitalism. Southern white capitalists had found it advantageous to foster a myth of white superiority and a policy of white supremacy. By keeping Negro labour power generally well below minimum subsistence standards, white labour power was stabilized at a level high enough to satisfy a type of ego that is happy to be “better off” than others, even if considerably below national averages.
The Supreme Court, while not necessarily Southern in sympathy, could reflect the attitudes of American capitalism, generally, and still deliver a verdict on Negro rights consistent with the demands of Southern capitalism of the time. So in 1896 the Supreme Court decided that the State of Louisiana was not in violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution when it introduced segregation of Negroes in railway passenger cars. Again in 1908 the “nine old men” decreed that it was entirely constitutional for the State of Maryland to set up segregation in schools. So legalized segregation (“separate but equal”) became perfectly natural, normal, moral, and the height of justice in the South and everybody, including such revered Negro leaders as Booker T. Washington, seemed happy at the new development in American democracy. . .
“. . . With all Deliberate Speed”
until 1954, when an entirely new set of circumstances—developed over a period of years and accelerated since the end of World War II—became reflected in a new and opposite Supreme Court decision. In fact, the decision on desegregation in 1954 placed a legal stamp upon a movement that erupted in the wake of a rapidly developing industrialization of the Southland. It is one thing to compel Negroes to take a back seat and refrain from “contaminating” the white man’s schools and his pools when the region is pretty much a sleepy backwater. It is quite another problem, however, to segregate the coloured population—particularly the small section with higher educational qualifications and incomes on a par or higher than the vaunted “American standard ”. As big Northern industry moved into the South and as the South became a part of the 20th. century the pressure for “equal rights” under the Constitution reached boiling point and in many instances the lid was blown off in demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots in major cities both South and North.
Not only had it become evident that the “separate’’ Negro facilities, schools, etc. were far from equal, indeed decidedly inferior; it had also become evident to the Supreme Court that the very concept of separateness denotes inferiority and constitutes a violation of the 14th. Amendment, Melville W. Fuller and his Supreme Court of 1896 and 1908 notwithstanding.
But why had the Negro movement reached its present dimensions as late as the mid years of the 20th. century ? Why not in 1900, or in 1920, or 1940? There are those who might infer that Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court is composed of men of higher moral calibre that the courts of Roger Taney and Melville Fuller. Or perhaps, even, that the moral qualities of the nation are higher today than in 1857 or 1908. Even if we accept that this is true, the question remains; why this should be so at this particular time; All evidence points in one direction. Segregation, except in special instances, is not in the interests of American capitalism today on either the domestic scene or, especially, the international arena. The rapid appearance since World War II of a number of new nations populated and ruled by coloured people has doubtless influenced the conversion of an ardent segregationist such as Lyndon B. Johnson into an outspoken champion of Negro civil rights. And only the more backward states of the Old Confederacy refused to go along with him in November, 1964. For Mr Johnson today represents the interests of the total national capitalist class of America and segregation has now become a positive menace to those interests.
Civil Rights and Emancipation
Despite the continuing opposition to the Civil Rights Law enacted by Congress in 1964, in parts of the South there seems to be a general compliance. It is but a matter of time until only the most dominant of all discriminations—between workers and capitalists—will remain.
There is no denying the heroism displayed by rank and file Negro and white workers — even children — against fearsome odds. From the “sympathetic” liberals who would have them not ask too much too quickly, from the bigoted and dangerous Birch Society members, Ku Klux Klansmen, and even from Southern “law and order”, those who struggle for civil rights find a great many cards stacked against them. But the civil rights groups, themselves, are in a sense reactionary. They organize—for the most part—on the basis of loyalty to America and they demand for Negro workers nothing more than the opportunity to compete equally in the sale of labour-power. They cater to the myth of racialism even to the extent of building an image of a glorious history in Africa. They encourage and foster religious practice among their following. In short, they balance their militancy with the sheeplike propaganda so important to capitalism, and they hide the greater struggle, in which workers of all colours are brothers.
HARMO (BOSTON, MASS.)
“America’s 15,000,000 negroes are its single most under developed human resource, and they cannot reach their full potential usefulness until they are thoroughly integrated with the white population. . . . Only when negro and white families can live together as neighbours, when negro children and white children can play together, study together, go to the same church —only then will the negro grow up properly prepared for his place in the world of work.” The Manchester Guardian, (15.5.56).