[This article originally appeared in the April 1948 issue of Nieman Reports.]
As a personal preface to these comments, I would like to point out that they have been delayed because of my absence from Greenville on a speaking trip which was largely devoted to explaining and defending the Southern reaction to President Truman’s civil rights proposals. For the benefit of those irresponsibles who continue to brand me as “Anti-Southern” and an “outsider” I might add that such defense isn’t being made altogether to Southern audiences, which would be pretty easy; and that in making it, I have tried not to lose either a sense of balance or a sense of humor.
So much for a maverick’s preface.
Four of the President’s proposals have particularly aroused the majority of white Southerners. They are the recommendations for federal legislation to eliminate the poll tax in national elections, to create a Fair Employment Practices Commission, to end segregation in interstate public conveyances in the South, and to make lynchings a federal offense.
For the record, I’d like to restate my own convictions as to the four controversial points. I would like to see the remaining seven Southern states abolish the poll tax by state action as five have already done. But I am unalterably opposed to federal action. The states have the constitutional right to set their own suffrage qualifications as long as they do not specifically eliminate any racial or other group in the population. The poll tax in itself is no more of a bar to Negro voting than it is to a white man’s voting, and is no longer a basic factor in the prevention of Negro suffrage. In both the poll tax and no-poll tax states in the South, Negroes are voting in increasing numbers. I have said before that this process is inevitable, and the South must concern itself with the education of the Negro for citizenship. Repeal of the poll tax by the federal government does not contribute to such education. It must come on the state and local level if it is to come sanely.
The recommendation for Fair Employment Practices legislation is unreal and, as The New York Times puts it, an attempt to enforce tolerance with a policeman’s billy.
As for federal anti-lynching legislation, I cannot see why there should be such great opposition to any law that might protect a man’s life more fully. On the other hand, lynching is the only crime that has decreased in the past 20 years, despite the fact that it is also the crime for which it is apparently impossible to obtain a conviction in the South. The striking reduction of lynching has been accomplished by public sentiment in the South, and that sentiment may eventually result in the conviction of lynchers themselves. If a federal anti-lynch law would hasten the day of punishment for lynchers, we’d be for it. But Southern citizens would still form the juries, and it is their hearts rather than the legal jurisdiction that must be changed. The law seems utterly useless.
The demand for an end to segregation in public interstate transportation is somewhat bewildering. I had thought that the Supreme Court had already held such segregation to be unlawful; and if this is true, the President seems to be gilding the political lily. The white South and certainly the majority of Southern Negroes are in agreement that any tampering with segregation is unreal and dangerous; but progressive Southerners are convinced also that there must be equality of facilities—as guaranteed in the constitutions of the Southern states and ignored in practice—if segregation itself is to be maintained. It is the South’s refusal to provide equal but separate facilities for Negroes that has brought this issue to a head.
There are several general observations and conclusions that should be made.
The first is that President Truman’s proposals are deliberately political. They are aimed at the possibly decisive Negro vote in the East and Midwest and at the left-wingers who have deserted the Democratic Party for Wallace and who might be lured back. The President and his advisors are obviously assuming that he can retain the Southern vote, despite the threatened rebellion. That is now doubtful.
A second is that the rebellion itself can hardly do more than insure a Republican victory, without success of the Eastland plan to divert the South’s electoral votes to a Southern candidate and thus throw the election into the House of Representatives.
A third observation is that President Truman’s proposals are symptomatic of a widespread and unfortunate reliance upon federal authority as a cure-all.
A fourth observation concerns the South itself and its future. Our own contribution to our present political and social tragedy is that we have so largely ignored the corollary to state’s rights, which is state responsibility. For example, the Southern states are committed in their several constitutions to equal, separate educational systems. Not until the South’s back is against the wall are we embarking on the splendid and visionary plan of the Southern Governors’ Conference to create Negro regional centers of higher education, and otherwise to provide equal educational facilities for Negroes. That program is the South’s best answer to its critics. Only by such action can we prove and continue to prove that the South itself can handle its own racial relations and live up to its responsibilities. I believe we can.
The greatest danger from President Truman’s program is that an angry, frustrated and fearful South may forget that the South’s 10 million Negroes had nothing to do with it. As in Reconstruction, they may again be the longest victims of a resentment that should be directed not against them but those outside the South who harry us. Our targets should be the political cynics and the unrealistic zealots above the Mason-Dixon line and the unyielding reactionaries below it, who have jointly brought us to this tragic pass.
Delta Democrat Times, Greenville, Mississippi, February 10.
Hodding Carter, Editor-Publisher of the Delta Democrat, Greenville, Mississippi, is a 1940 Nieman Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1946.