The Postwar Period
The effect of World War II was that again it produced a New Negro, one who had learned his lesson from World War I and came back ready to push for change in a much more concerted way. But they met a determined force ready to maintain the status quo.
- In 1945, Mrs. Geneva Jackson was arrested for not having correct change and “talking back” to the driver when he insulted her.
- In 1949, two children, ages 10 and 12, visiting from New Jersey were arrested when they sat near a white boy in the front of the bus. The children were not used to segregated busses. They were arrested nevertheless.
- In 1952, Brooks entered a Montgomery bus behind a white passenger. One of the men did not put money into the meter. The driver accused Brooks of trying to ride without paying. Brooks was no radical, but he had only recently had a drink. In other words, it was the wrong day and the wrong time to mess with Mr. Brooks. No one really knows what happened, except that the driver called the police who met the bus at a subsequent stop. There they shot and killed Mr. Brooks as he left the bus. Black Montgomerians were split over the Brooks case. Had he gotten out of place? Did he deserve to be killed over a dime even if he did step out of place?
- A year later, Mrs. Epsie Worthy got on a bus at a transfer point from another bus, and the driver demanded an additional fare. He refused to take the transfer. Rather than pay again, the woman decided that she did not have far to go and would walk the rest of the way. The driver wanted a fare whether she rode or walked. When she stepped off the bus, the driver was upon her beating her with his fists. Mrs. Worthy fought back and for a few minutes it was a free for all. In the end, Mrs. Worthy lost for when the police arrived, they took her to jail and fined her $52 for disorderly conduct.
Effect on Democratic Party
- The sum of the actions I just described led to the migration of many more minorities to the North, in particular northern cities.
- Extending a trend begun by Roosevelt, blacks identified with the Democratic party because they felt they had benefitted by some of the New Deal agencies.
- Harry Truman hoped to capitalize on the changing attitudes of African-American voters.
- Truman was a strange choice for a champion. As a shopkeeper in Missouri during the 1920s, Truman had paid the $10 membership fee to become a member of the KKK. He said it was the price of doing business in Missouri. One had to be sympathetic to the Klan. There is some validity to that.
- Truman’s support, initially very limited support, for black issues was still cautious. His sister, Mary Jane, said, “‘Harry is no more for nigger equality than any of us.’” (qtd. in William T. Martin Riches, The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance, 2nd ed. , 15) In that she was wrong.
Truman, the FEPC, and Civil Rights
- Remember that the FEPC had only been granted powers which extended during the war. At the war’s end, the FEPC was powerless to monitor and advice companies on non-discriminatory practices.
- The FEPC knew that the de-mobilization of the army would cause tremendous problems for blacks. They were right.
- The disproportionate dismissal of black workers started as early as the spring of 1945. One company in Buffalo laid off 9000 female workers. Black women were affected in a five-to-one ratio because they had been the last hired.
- By November 1945, the exodus of minority workers from wartime jobs had turned into a virtual rout. Discrimination was “rapidly approaching pre-war levels.”
- Truman’s first test of his support for the FEPC was the Capitol Transit Company of Washington, DC. The FEPC had been successful in changing the hiring practices of 16 transportation companies around the country, but had been stalled in DC for three years. Senior members of the committee had sought the support of the president. Three months passed, but still nothing. Finally, Truman refused to meet with the committee or support its challenge. He told them that to order the company to desist in its discriminatory practices was a violation of congressional law.
- Truman signed an order to extend the Committee, but he gave it only the ability to collect data. Congress stripped the FEPC of its funding. Essentially, it was a dead organization.
- Truman appointed a special committee on civil rights. The committee, chaired by Charles Wilson (the president of General Electric), published a report in October 1947, entitled "To Secure These Rights." The report advocated an anti-lynching law, abolition of poll taxes, protection of people during voter registration, integration of the armed services, denial of federal funds going to recipients that discriminated, and an end of segregation in interstate transport.
- Truman was motivated by other factors. He was appalled at the violence visited upon returning African American servicemen -- there were 56 attacks on African Americans between June 1945 and September 1946.
- Truman told a friend, he was "opposed to social equality but he was in favor of equality of opportunity." This represents some movement on Truman's part.
- In June 1947, he told the annual meeting of the NAACP that “If . . . freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character.” It was the first speech by a president to the NAACP and it was the strongest statement on civil rights heard in Washington since Lincoln’s time.
- Truman hadn’t gotten there by himself. One group that put pressure on was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), established in 1942 by James Farmer and a group of Quakers who had been members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and whose aim it was to “eliminate racial discrimination and was prepared to use interracial, non-violent direct action" to achieve its end. Members of the organization had been involved in sit-ins in Chicago restaurants.
- Truman didn’t move to his more progressive civil rights position, he was pushed. But let’s not forget he was a politician.
- Truman hadn’t gone real far in favor of African American civil rights, but he had gone far enough to scare some members in his own party.
- Strom Thurmond, governor of South Carolina, walked out of the Democratic convention in protest to the party’s civil rights platform. He set up the Dixiecrat Party and ran as its presidential candidate. One scholar sympathetic to the Dixiecrats had this to say, “The Democratic party, then, no longer represented the South’s interests. It had become dominated by intellectuals, self-seeking labor leaders, and most poignant of all for white southerners, insensitive Negroes." (qtd. in Riches, Civil Rights Movement, 18)
- Let’s not go too far in celebrating the Democrats.
- Truman complained bitterly that his stand on civil rights was "deliberately misconstrued to include or imply racial miscegenation and intermarriage. My only goal was equal opportunity and security under the law for all classes of Americans." (qtd. in Riches, Civil Rights Movement, 18-19)
- Truman's position was too much for some, not enough for others.
- Henry Wallace had been vice-president under Roosevelt before Truman took his position. Wallace didn’t believe the Democrats had gone far enough on domestic issues and that Truman was too confrontational with the Soviet Union. Wallace (not to be confused with George Wallace) went to the South and directly campaigned for civil rights. All of his meetings were integrated. He refused to bow to intimidation and violence. In Columbus, Georgia, the KKK surrounded but failed to attack a Progressive rally because, the politicians later discovered, there were 100 armed blacks protecting them.
- Republicans did not blithely let African Americans leave their party. They had taken them for granted, and now wondered how they had let that occur. It wasn’t as if they had anything to lose in the South...they hadn’t won there in years.
- Created the National Council of Negro Republicans, but were unable to turn the tide.
- Not much changed with Truman’s election in 1948. However, he did desegregate Washington National Airport, his inauguration guests in 1949 were integrated, an he did appoint a black Judge, William Hastie, to the federal courts.
- The Justice Department supported cases against restrictive covenants and was prepared by 1950 to challenge the doctrine of separate but equal.
- Truman's most important action was to issue executive orders, including the desegregation of the armed forces. For more information, see: http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/desegregation/large/index.php?action=chronology.
Forms of Resistance
- A. Phillip Randolph was the best example of direct action in the 1940s. The NAACP was against direct action.
- The NAACP preferred legal challenges to remove inequity.
- The reaction to Brown was relatively mild in the Border States.
- The Supreme Court's enforcement decision (Brown II) threw everything into the hands of local authorities under the supervision of federal judges.
- Gov. Faubus’ actions in Arkansas moved the "middle," making them more sympathetic to black civil rights -- this was reminiscent of Johnson’s actions during Reconstruction.
- Black activism did not focus so much on economic issues as it did immediately after the Civil War, or as Randolph would have it. Rather, it gravitated toward the political, in part because Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were fighting for voting blocs and focused their efforts in the political arena.
- The power of African Americans was expressed primarily in local contexts -- in their own communities and cities.
- Was the push for desegregated lunch counters, schools, and bathrooms worth all the trouble? Yes. Because they fought against the power structure.