The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

on the World Today

IT HAS been twenty-one years since Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his monumental book An American Dilemma that “not since Reconstruction has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in American race relations, changes which will involve a development toward the American ideals.” It was Myrdal’s thesis that the American dilemma was “the ever-raging conflict” between the American ideal, expressed in “high national and Christian precepts,” and all the specifics of economic, social, and sexual jealousies which dominate the personal habits and impulses of white Americans.

In retrospect, it is extraordinary that the Negro in America has been so patient; if Myrdal was wrong, it was only in his timing. But the summer of 1963, sparked by the hideous fact of dogs and fire hoses used against protesting Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama, has lit up the racial scene from border to border for all Americans to see and ponder. And this is the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation. The meaning of that great act. and of all the ideals of the American system, now cries out for full satisfaction.

In the midst of World War II. Myrdal’s inquiry in the United States led him to conclude that “Negroes feel that they cannot afford to sell out the rights they have under the Constitution and the American Creed, even when these rights have not materialized and even when there is no immediate prospect of making them a reality. At the same time Negroes show, by taking this position, that they have not lost their belief that ultimately the American Creed will come out on top.” But making the American creed come out on top takes far more than mere proclamation, mere exhortation, mere elucidation, however vital all these are. And it is this problem which now faces the Kennedy Administration for the rest of its tenure of office, regardless of the outcome of the current struggle to win from the Congress tools with which to effectuate the aim.

How much violence?

The great question, the question which has so greatly troubled the President, the Attorney General, and others in the Capital has been whether the transformation now can be made with only a minimum of violence or whether it will loosen emotions, in both whites and blacks, to the point of staining the American character.

In the history of our society, various segments have struggled, often with violence, to escape from conditions which they found intolerable. Farmers became Populists, and though they failed to elect Bryan President, they won a new position in society. Immigrants battled their way out of the lower East Side and fought with rocks in the streets for recognition that their racial and religious backgrounds were no bar to their Americanism. Perhaps the most apt comparison to what is taking place this year was the struggle of the laboring man in the Depression years of the 1930s, a struggle in which newly organized labor took the law into its own hands by means of both bloody strikes and peaceful sit-downs inside the factories.

Yet in none of these cases was the difference of race, of religion, of occupation between the minority and the majority as critical as is the difference of black skin from white. The increasing fluidity of American society, its great mobility, and its heightened sense of religious toleration, however imperfect that may still be, all made accommodations far easier than is possible in the race situation now. But the critical factor in earlier cases of changing positions in our society was the same factor which now must be critical if the new transformation is to succeed: the sense of justice, of fair play of the majority — in short, the validity of the American creed.

The Negroes brought to our shores in bondage numbered no more than 400,000; today the Negroes number some 20 million, and they are an increasing minority in many Northern states and a decreasing minority in the South. The problem is clearly a national problem, as the President has emphasized.

The road to equality

It is a tribute to American justice that the landmark in the Negro’s movement toward equality in our society was the Supreme Court’s public school desegregation decision of nine years ago. Since then the high court, insulated from the political buffets, yet sensitive to the political winds, has moved ever forward to break a long series of racial barriers. Looking back, one is impressed by how little was done by the executive, especially by the Eisenhower Administration, to ease in those changes.

Nor can the Kennedy Administration claim to be blameless. While it did step up the pace toward equality by numerous executive acts, both nationally and in the District of Columbia (with a Negro majority and the number of black-skinned diplomats increasingly rapidly), Kennedy has followed the Eisenhower policy of gradualism. Not until the Negro was driven into action by the acts of the white extremists at Birmingham did the Kennedy Administration move to the core of the problem. Perhaps there has been no better demonstration of Kennedy’s pragmatism and of the often exhibited gulf between rhetoric and action.

Still, when the moment of truth arrived, the President clearly saw it and responded. He began what might be called an enveloping operation, a political flanking movement. Before he sent his legislative proposals to the Congress, where he knew from personal experience that the battle would be rugged, he sought to build a public climate of opinion which would shift the basis of the congressional argument.

The University of Alabama crisis came in the midst of this effort, and it caused the President to speak out to the nation by television and radio.

He did so in a manner which put the issue to the American conscience. In a sense, his speech was a second Emancipation Proclamation.

As the President told the nation, the passage of legislation by Congress will not solve the problem. That is why Kennedy has sought to rouse the conscience and the good judgment of the nation’s businessmen, its mayors and other state and local officials, its labor leaders, and its clergymen. The great problem for the Negro leaders has been to keep on the pressure but not to let it get out of hand, not to let it produce a counterreaction, a wave of fear and resistance among the whites.

Every movement, in time, runs out of steam, and this will be true of the 1963 Negro drive for equality. Neither the Negro nor the nation can physically or emotionally sustain too long a campaign at fever pitch. Obviously, the tactic of the stalwarts, both in and out of Congress, is to delay, in hope that the pace will lessen. But if the President trims his requests to those in power either in or out of Congress, if the result of this historic summer is less than it ought to be, then the nation will have failed to meet its challenge.

The obligation of the Congress

Even before the President’s proposals were presented to Congress, the racial bars began to drop with amazing rapidity in the South, where they were based on statute, and in the North, where more devious means have been used to maintain them. Regardless of what the Congress does, progress this year will clearly be the most sweeping in any single year since emancipation. But the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court compose the federal government. And the Congress, the voice of the nation, now faces a supreme test of both its ability to act and its responsiveness to the new demand that it fulfill the American creed.

One can argue and dispute the specifics of the Kennedy program; indeed, the program underwent considerable change during its gestational period, when it was previewed by congressional and other leaders. This is the process of democracy in arriving at a concensus, the will of the majority, without acceding to the tyranny of a minority, be it black or white. Since the program certainly is not representative of the tyranny of the black minority, the basic question is whether those unwilling to compromise can enforce the tyranny of a white minority.

Legislative log jam

In recent years, about this time, the congressional log jam really begins to pile up. Senators and representatives have almost given up the idea of getting to the seashore or the mountains with their families, so they tend to hide in the air-conditioned Capitol and dash out of Washington on long weekends. The result is a slow pace for the legislative mill and a gradual pileup until the denouement, usually around September.

This year, with a controversial tax bill and now a major civil rights program, Congress is likely to be in session until Thanksgiving. In the process, a lot of legislation will be passed, and not all of it will be good. A key question, unanswered so far, is whether the Administration will hold to its determination to let the wheat farmer suffer the results of the whopping defeat of the KennedyFreeman proposal to impose the tightest controls ever on planting in exchange for high prices. Just how much the civil rights division will affect such a problem as wheat is hard to tell, but the chances are that it will increase the possibility of no new legislation until next year.

If there is no new bill, the Administration is convinced that wheat prices on next year’s crop will begin to slide. By spring, when prices are down and the farmer has started to flood the bins with a huge new crop, so the reasoning goes, the 1964 referendum (for which no new legislation is required) will reverse this year’s Administration defeat. That occurred once, years ago, in the case of tobacco, and the tobacco farmers have been strong advocates of strict controls ever since.

Federal aid to education is another major program likely to be caught in the jam, though basically it is the religious issue which precludes any real advances. Since the Administration is moving on civil rights, however, it could hardly deny the logic of antisegregation amendments to a school measure.

Perhaps the most important facet of the school-aid problem is the rethinking of Catholic educational leaders — indeed, of many high in the church hierarchy — of the entire problem of parochial schools. The situation has reached a point where there is public discussion of dropping the first six grades, or of dropping instead the high school years, or of working out a shared-time program which would put parochial students in public schools for certain courses that are expensive to provide.

The basic reason for all this discussion. whatever may come of it, is the population curve. There simply are far too many children in Catholic families for the parochial schools to handle. Existing schools have expanded classes to the point where they compare, more often than not, unfavorably with nearby public schools; for example, classes of forty or more, compared with twenty-five or thirty, are common.

Furthermore, the services of nonpaid nuns have had to be greatly supplemented by those of paid lay teachers in order to keep the schools in operation. Finally, there is a realization that even federal aid, if the constitutional bar could be vaulted, would not be enough. Seventy percent of the Catholic school population is concentrated in ten populous states, but federal aid would be spread across the nation, and by some proposed formulas those ten states would all be in the lower third of states requiring federal assistance because of their relative wealth.

The post-war baby boom, central to the problem of both public and parochial schools, also is at the heart of much other legislation before Congress, measures ranging from the domestic peace corps, designed in part to combat juvenile delinquency, to the Kennedy tax program, designed to create new jobs for the millions now coming into the labor market.

Mood of the Capital

In early summer, Washington was more concerned with domestic issues than with foreign problems. True, the foreign crises were everywhere, but the lull in the WashingtonMoscow confrontation throughout the spring, enhanced by the internal Communist bloc schism, gave the Capital time to turn its eyes inward. Only the very rash would dare predict the outcome by year’s end of the Negroes’ second drive for emancipation. Yet only the most callous could deny the feeling in their bones that this is a historic moment for the United States and for the American ideal which has so long sustained it.