Molly Guinness

50 years on, the battle for civil rights continues in America

50 years on, the battle for civil rights continues in America
Text settings

Fifty years since the first civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, America still has huge problems with race. Only this week a federal investigation into the killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson last year concluded that the police there were racist. They’ve been making millions of dollars by targeting black people and issuing tickets for minor traffic infractions. Across America, black people are still poorer, less educated and more likely to go to gaol than white people. In 1962 The Spectator’s New York correspondent Murray Kempton wrote:

In the best of cases, to be a Negro in America is to have a station below your capacities… The American economy sometimes seems almost designed for the care and feeding of incompetent and unproductive white men. The trade union flesh-peddler, the sheriff of Holmes County, the television producer, the loud man in the saloon, all those luxuries of a wasteful society, have really no excuse for our contributions to their comfort except being citizens and white.

There were signs though that things were changing.

The white South is at the unpredictable mercy of its coloured children, they arise one morning and decide that today is a day to go to prison and they go down to a restaurant in company and ask for service and are arrested. Albany has lost count of them, now; there are perhaps 200 of them, ranging in public stature from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, the American Gandhi, to little boys vaguely remembered as Willie Something-or-other.

For nearly three years now, at unexpected Southern places, Negro adolescents have sat down at lunch counters habitually reserved for White customers, and have gone to prison. Most of them endured this once or twice and are now forgotten. But a few—perhaps fifty—found a commitment, and wander the South, supported by the charity of poor Negroes, going in and out of gaol, arrested some of them twenty times. They are the leaders of the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and in the main they are graduates or expellees from Southern Negro colleges.

And they define America as unique among the nations of the world. Their parents quite often were menials; they are the products of an educational system generally accepted as inferior. They confront Southern policemen whose custom it is to address every Negro below fifty as ‘boy’. They meet county sheriffs whose violence of nature is community legend; they disappear into prisons that are objects of reverential terror to the natives. They enter frightened and emerge laughing. There could not be more than fifty of them; but, in some strange grudging way, they survive and enforce the respect of gaolers who had not until now imagined that the Negro prisoner could be a man.

The following year, when President Kennedy called 30 civil rights leaders to the White House and said he hoped there wouldn’t be any major demonstrations while he was away on a tour of Europe, he didn’t get a completely satisfactory answer. One of them was A Philip Randolph.

Randolph has emerged at the centre of Negro leadership in nearly every crisis that has preceded a breakthrough: President Roosevelt signed an executive order giving Negroes an equal chance for wartime jobs in 1943 after Randolph threatened a march of thousands to Washington. President Truman integrated the armed services in 1948 after Randolph looked him in the eye and told him with majestic courtesy that he would advise every Negro to refuse to accept induction into a segregated army. Randolph’s return to the centre of leadership is a sign that the challenge of the Negro has become total, radical and aimed not at a place in the society that is but at the achievement of the society he wants.

For nearly a generation now American society has been successful in putting its poor in places where its comfortable could not see them; now the Negro has broken through and one Negro leader is calling upon all the other poor to follow. The issue is suddenly larger and the terms higher than we had ever before imagined. The Negro comes, not just to change the history of his country but to complete it.

The economic problem, the stuff you can’t effectively legislate for, has never gone away, as Mary Benson predicted in 1964.

 The fact is, as Michael Harrington wrote in his book The Other America: If all the discriminatory laws in the United States were immediately repealed, race would still remain as one of the most pressing moral and political problems in the nation…The American economy, the American society, the American unconscious are all racist.

All civil rights leaders, as well as the minority of militants, regard the target as the ‘power structure.’ Yet this phrase seems to mean something different to each user. Perhaps sometimes it is an evasion for something said to me by a beautiful, fragile young mother in the South: ‘I don't think we’ll get anywhere until we open up the apple that is the American way of life. But I’m afraid that what we'll find at the core will be so rotten that we'll shut it up quickly again.’ I asked a Negro intellectual whether civil rights leaders think in such terms. ‘I doubt if they would articulate that they want to change society; they would say their object is integration,’ he replied. ‘Besides they would veer away from anything that might label them as red as well as black!’

Commenting on this week’s report into the Ferguson police, the US attorney general described “a community that was deeply polarised; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterised interactions between police and area residents.”

Murray Kempton’s description from 1964 isn’t much different.

We have tried by law—we may even have succeeded in life—to assure the Negro the right to have his hair cut where it pleases him. We cannot yet assure him of the right to walk about unmolested by policemen and unafflicted by official injustice. America has yet found no way to assure these rights to any of the poor, and the Negro is the Poor; Mississippi fights as it does because it is the only society which has assured the poor white freedom from police prosecution because he is not a Negro, and because in Mississippi, if one is not Negro, one is immune from the treatment normal for the poor at the hands of policemen anywhere on earth.

As laws gradually began to change, race relations did not improve. In 1966, Sterling G Slappey wrote an article for The Spectator after he moved back to Georgia after 13 years in London. He was shocked that relations between black people and white people were worse than he’d ever known them.

Hatreds have increased rather than diminished. Contacts, once common between whites and blacks, are utterly destroyed… Even in the most peaceful areas there seems to be increasing tension between the youngsters. Negro youngsters have taken to imitating their elders since I was last in the South by picking fights with white children. It is often the other way around, but whichever group begins the trouble, something is going very wrong when the children fight each other.

On almost any day you can hear in the South from civil rights leaders, on the Negro side, or from Southern political leaders, on the white side, that certain laws need not be obeyed. These laws, say the whites, conflict with the wishes of various groups, so therefore they ‘nullify’ them or consider that the state has ‘interposed’ itself and its more acceptable laws between the citizen and Federal law. Negroes say, in effect, the same. ‘Pay no regard to the white-oriented state laws. Heed only your conscience and Negro-oriented Federal law.’ This totally undemocratic attitude, be it from white or black, may be the most grievous thing of all because it advocates the end of the rule of law.

Is it possible that the Negroes have been goaded—or have degenerated—to the miserable point of today, for example, where they happily observe ‘Bump Day’? This is the thing to do down South. On ‘Bump Day’ Negroes go up and down the public walkways hunting whites to bump aside.

Negro domestics in the South are now getting even (or so they appear to feel) with their white employers by substituting salt in sugar bowls just before a dinner-party. They childishly get on the telephone hour after hour dialling the numbers of white women just to make the instrument ring and cause worry. This hurts and annoys the whites, but it would seem to hurt the perpetrators more.

There seems to be progressively less and less affection or respect between the races. In all truthfulness there never was, when I was a youngster or at any other time, much respect among Southern and Northern whites for Negroes…There was an abundance of affection between the races: and it moved both ways, white for black, black for white. I find practically none today. Instead, we have a period of dislike, distrust and disrespect between the races.