A Plea for Straight Talk Between the Races

"The old hypocritical kind of communication between the races has broken down, and that is good. We can now build good human relations on truth, honesty, and sincerity"

Many well-meaning intelligent people have argued since the May 17, 1954, decision of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the public schools that communication between the races has broken down. They contend that, as a result, the racial situation in the South has grown worse. The plain truth is that, up to a few years ago, Negroes and white people in the South never had honest communication.

Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other. It is true that, for decades upon decades, Negroes and white people have talked to each other. But it was conversation between a "superior" and an "inferior" a "man" and a "boy," and conversation between "master" and "servant." In this relationship the truth could seldom, if ever, emerge.

For nearly a century the South made itself believe that Negroes and white people were really communicating. So convinced of this were the white Southerners that they almost made the nation believe that they, and only they, knew the mind of the Southern Negro. They were sure that the Negro was satisfied with segregation and with his subordinate role in American life. If only the Communists, the Yankees, and the N.A.A.C.P. would leave the Negro alone, they said, he would live happily forever within the confines of legal segregation. All the Negro wanted was equality within the segregation pattern.

The fallacy in this argument lies in the fact that it was based on falsehood from the beginning. White people got their information from two main sources: one source was their cooks, maids, and chauffeurs. These servants wanted to hold their jobs, and so they told their white employers what they wanted to hear—the Negro is happy with segregation. Most of the white people of the South—and the North, too, for that matter—have never known the cultured and trained Negro. The white South's other source of information was equally deceptive. Many Negro leaders led white Southerners to believe that if the impossible doctrine of separate but equal could be attained—separate schools, but equal; separate jobs, but equal; separate hospitals and recreational facilities, but equal; separate transportation and separate eating establishments, but all equal—Negroes would be satisfied. Many of these Negro leaders courted the favor of the whites either because they were economically dependent upon them or feared that unfortunate economic and physical consequences would follow if they told white people the truth. If what is communicated is false, it can hardly be called communication.

Let me give one illustration. In 1942 a group of Southern Negro leaders met in Durham, North Carolina, to draw up a manifesto in which Southern Negroes would speak plainly to Southern whites, setting forth the aims and aspirations of the Negro people. It was a magnificent document except for one thing. We did not speak with complete candor. Considerable time was spent trying to decide whether we should say in that manifesto that we wanted to see legal segregation abolished in every area of American life. Those of us who wanted to speak with complete honesty on this point were overruled. Every Negro who met in Durham was opposed to legal segregation and wanted it abolished. But we didn't say it. Did we communicate the truth to the white South? Nevertheless, the manifesto was worth while, because out of this meeting came the Southern Regional Council, which in recent years has declared itself in favor of the abolition of a segregated society and is doing magnificent work in this time of crisis.

Negro members of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which was the forerunner of the Southern Regional Council, never did advocate the abolition of segregation. This is not to reflect discredit on the commission; it did a job that needed to be done, but honest communication hardly ever prevailed. I recall vividly a discussion held by Negro members of the Regional Council after one of their state meetings. They all admitted that they did not say what was in their hearts and minds. It was plainly acknowledged that if their true desires about the abolition of segregation had been expressed, the meeting would have been broken up and further meetings would have been impossible. The two races met and talked about what they thought was expedient. At that time, and up to about a decade ago, Negro-white relations were so sensitive that Negroes dared not challenge the institution of segregation. No Negro dared to advocate its abolition publicly. Negroes were hoping against hope that the "separate" would someday be made "equal."

Prior to 1935, the year Negroes began to sue for the equalization of educational opportunities, it was accepted by both Negroes and whites that educational facilities and salaries for whites would be better than those for Negroes. In the early years of the 1930s a high official of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation said publicly, "The only way to advance the education of the Negro child one step is to advance the white child two steps." In this way the white community would accept the advance of the Negro child.

We are now beginning to communicate without hypocrisy and without fear. The May 17, 1954, decision of the United States Supreme Court cleared the air for honesty between the races. The Negroes' contacts in wartime and through travel, and the uprising of suppressed peoples everywhere, have also helped to clear the air. Negroes do not wish to be branded as inferiors by being segregated, and they want to walk the earth as human beings with dignity. This idea was beautifully expressed by the Negro college students in Atlanta when they said, in "An Appeal for Human Rights": "We will 'use every legal and nonviolent means at our disposal' to end segregation."

Negroes have communicated their aspirations through the federal courts, with the result that many public schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and some of the public schools of Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida have been desegregated. There has also been desegregation in bus and train transportation and in the state universities of the South, except in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; and in golf courses and in airport restaurants.

For a year Negroes boycotted the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and finally the buses were desegregated by federal decree, although the atmosphere was tense and there was fear of race riots. The Montgomery boycott resounded around the world; and no one could mistake what the Negroes in Montgomery were saying.

Negro students have continued to fight for desegregation. On February 1, 1960, four freshmen from A and T College in Greensboro, North Carolina, started the sit-in movement. Almost immediately, students in colleges throughout the South joined them. Each campus demonstrated in its own way. Students in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas participated. Many were arrested. How effective the demonstrations were can be determined by the fact that the officials of Kress, Grant, and Woolworth agreed to desegregate their lunch counters in sixty-nine Southern communities. Prior to this announcement, twenty-eight Southern communities had desegregated some of their restaurants.

A new type of demonstration began in Atlanta, Georgia, when twenty-five Negro students and two or three white students attended six white churches on August 7. They were welcomed in four churches. In two they were not so warmly received. From the newspaper accounts, there were attempts at segregation in these two.

The demonstrations will continue, and the goals the students seek will be achieved. Their cause is just. Enlightened public opinion is sympathetic. Both political parties in their platforms approved the students' method of protest. The Negro students are determined to be free. Just before a thousand students of the six Atlanta Negro colleges marched through Atlanta to Wheat Street Baptist Church, in defiance of state officials' threats and in celebration of the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, they sang: "We will be free, We will be free, We will be free someday, Deep in our hearts, We will be free, We will be free someday." After they assembled in the Wheat Street Baptist Church, they sang: "That old Negro, He ain't what he used to be." For the first time since Emancipation, Negro youths are willing and proud to be arrested and serve time in jail for a cause they believe to be just.

Has communication broken down? The old hypocritical kind of communication between the races has broken down, and that is good. We can now build good human relations on truth, honesty, and sincerity.

Has progress in race relations been set back, as the conservatives claim? Not at all. I am convinced that as I travel throughout the South today I experience more friendly feeling toward me and receive more decent treatment than at any other time in my sixty years. I have never before felt so much like a free human being in the South as I do today.