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Civil Liberties in the South

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Are freedom of speech, assembly, and religion surviving in the South? Is there equality before the law? Is there genuine collective bargaining for labor? Is the right of suffrage enjoyed freely by the people? Is race prejudice at a minimum?

The consensus among informed Southerners is that conditions are better than they were a decade ago. Only one of the ten persons with whom the writer has corresponded in the preparation of this article feels that civil liberties in the South are less firmly rooted than they were in 1929. This dissenter believes “that the causes of industrial conflict are becoming more acute, and that in the South especially, organized labor has been accorded a very partial recognition, and that very grudgingly.” Eight others, scattered in all sections of the South, and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York are of the opposite opinion, although one or two feel that much of the recent improvement can be traced to the Roosevelt Administration, and that its replacement by a conservative regime in 1941 would inevitably bring retrogression.

It is apparent that violations of civil rights in the South, as elsewhere in the United States, occur more frequently in areas of employer-employee conflict than in any other sphere. Even the field of race relations appears to yield fewer denials of individual constitutional prerogatives. When the American Civil Liberties Union listed eleven major “centers of repression” in the entire country for the year which ended in June, 1937, six of the eleven were located in the South—a very high percentage for a region which incorporates only a fraction of the national area and population. While the theater of labor conflict in these six centers impinged in some cases upon the province of race relations, the fundamental reason why at least five of the six were rightfully denounced as “centers of repression” lay in the violent resistance which manifested itself there to the unionization of workers. The six which were blacklisted were Harlan County, Kentucky, the sharecropper country of Eastern Arkansas, and the cities of Tampa, Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans. It is gratifying to record that during the year which ended in June, 1938, the Civil Liberties Union found sufficient improvement in Arkansas, Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans to take each of them off the list. However, Memphis and San Antonio were added to the list, with the result that’ the South had four of the country’s eight “centers of repression” for that twelvemonth. Just as in the preceding year, all four were cited because of the violence committed within their boundaries against representatives of organized labor. Another survey of 332 cities by the Civil Liberties Union early this year, made on a somewhat different basis, concluded that “the worst communities belong to the Middle West, New England, and the South.” However, of the four with the lowest ratings in the entire United States, the South had three: Little Rock, Tampa, and New Orleans.

The charge that union men are “Communists,” “Reds,” or “agitators” is a frequent one in cities of this sort, and an authentic Communist is apt to be run out of town by the police—as Earl Browder learned in 1936, when he went to Atlanta to make an address. It was in the following year that Mayor Overton of Memphis made his famous announcement that “C.I.O. agitators, Communists, and highly paid professional organizers are not wanted in Memphis.” This was followed by a statement from Police Commissioner Davis, declaring that “we will not tolerate foreign agitators,” and that “we know Norman Smith and his whereabouts, and will take care of that situation very soon.” Within forty-eight hours, Smith, a C.I.O. organizer, was badly beaten up by a gang of men. Police Commissioner Davis then announced that “the city government is opposed to violence.” A different approach to the problem was made in Macon, Georgia, where an extraordinary city ordinance was passed to forbid the distribution of “any handbill, circular, pamphlet, poster, postcard, or literature of any kind”—a measure frankly designed, according to the mayor, to give the city council control over labor propaganda.

Sometimes, of course, the charge of Communism is justified, as in the sharecropper region of Arkansas, where the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union became affiliated with the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, a C.I.O. union, and later severed relations with it, after becoming convinced that the organization was under Communist leadership. While there is still resistance to unionization of the sharecroppers, officials of the S.T.F.U. state that violations of civil rights in Arkansas are far less frequent than they were five years ago, when their union was established, and that union meetings are now held openly almost everywhere in the state. Perhaps the chief benefit derived by the sharecroppers from this activity is the publicity which the sharecropper situation has received.

Too little emphasis has been given throughout this controversy to the serious economic situation of the cotton planters, who are in many cases on the brink of ruin. These victims of the severe malaise of King Cotton are often far from being the ruthless exploiters of the poor described by some of our contemporary authorities on the South who have yet to cross the Hudson River traveling west. The predicament of thousands of cotton planters is not unlike that of numerous Southern employers whose businesses have been set up and operated for many years on the basis of non-union wage scales, and who suddenly find themselves confronted with a demand for the much higher union scale, which may mean bankruptcy. Violence against the union, under such circumstances, is never justified—and unions which indulge in sit-down strikes and other forms of lawlessness cannot afford to be too derisive, in any event—but the objections of such an open-shop employer to union organization are at least comprehensible. Furthermore, the vicious exploitation of workers in certain New England states, the widespread prevalence of sweatshops in those same states, and the arrogant attitude of certain employers there toward unions and the Federal government itself, should demonstrate that the South has no monopoly on such practices.

It is interesting to note, on the basis of material gathered by Mr. Arthur Raper of Atlanta, that far more strikers and labor organizers were killed in the South in the period immediately preceding the birth of the C.I.O. than subsequently. In 1929 and 1930, when Gastonia and Marion were in the headlines and the first great textile strike was on, seven strikers and one police chief were slain. In 1934 and 1935, no fewer than forty-two Southern laborers and organizers were killed in strikes. In 1936 and 1937, with the coming of the C.I.O., only five workers and organizers were killed in Southern labor disorders, and the total for the period from 1938 to date is nine. But while slayings have become less numerous, beatings have increased, and organizers are all too frequently set upon by company deputies, sometimes accompanied by irate citizens, or by non-union workers who have been persuaded, whether rightly or wrongly, that unionization will bankrupt their employers.

The sit-down has never been widely used in the South, but transgressions by union labor against the rights of employers or non-union labor occur here as elsewhere. Sometimes these transgressions are flagrant, as they were when “flying squadrons” of textile workers closed many mills in the Southeast by terrorization and other violent means in the A.F.L. textile strike of 1934. More recently, union pickets have used threats of physical force to prevent non-union men from going to work in various parts of the South, and at times of labor tension, there is too often coercion or intimidation of workers who do not wish to affiliate with the union. Fortunately, the South has been afflicted relatively little by the extremes of labor violence and racketeering which provoked such a reaction this year and last in certain Northern and Western states.

Because of the small number of Negroes in Southern unions, there has been comparatively little invocation of the race issue in labor clashes. At the same time, the Negro question casts its dark shadow over every phase of Southern civilization. There is reason to believe that the Negro is getting a better break than ever before, in most respects, although such legislation as the A.A.A. and the Federal wage-and-hour law may have been more harmful to him than otherwise. Restrictions in acreage have thrown thousands of Negro tenants and sharecroppers on relief, while the fixing of minimum wages has caused thousands more to be replaced by machinery, or by white workers, of whom there is such a large surplus. Many Negroes have, of course, benefited from this same legislation.

But if the Negro is frequently losing his means of livelihood through the operation of laws designed to promote his economic security, and if he is excluded from most labor unions, it can also be said that he is less apt to be lynched than at any time since the Civil War, that he is more apt to obtain justice in the courts, and that his educational opportunities are far better. This last can be attributed not only to the fact that Southern schools and colleges for Negroes have been undergoing a gradual improvement for decades, but also to the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Gaines case, wherein it was held that each Southern state must provide Negroes with facilities for higher education equal to those provided for the whites, or admit them to the white institutions.

The South seems to have reached a point where lynch law is approaching extinction in several Southern states. In others—such as Mississippi and Florida—the barbarities of lynching keep recurring, and there appears to be no hope of effective action by state or local authorities. The answer would be a Federal anti-lynching law with teeth in it, were it not for the violent feeling aroused in the South against such legislation by the filibuster of certain Southern senators early in 1938. Prior to that filibuster—in which the terms of the Federal bill were distorted, its purposes misrepresented, and a synthetic uproar created—the South appeared to be willing to accept such a law, and its passage seemed desirable. But after the statesmen from Dixie had shaken the Capitol rafters for weeks with apostrophes to the fair name of Southern womanhood, and had thunderously bellowed that the Wagner-Van Nuys bill was the greatest threat to “white supremacy” since Reconstruction, there were alarums from Harper’s Ferry to Eagle Pass, and the excitement hasn’t fully subsided yet. Hence it is extremely doubtful if convictions could be secured from juries in Federal courts below the Potomac, if the bill were passed and lynchers or derelict officers were brought to trial. If that surmise is correct, there would be no point in putting the law on the statute books—assuming, perhaps unwarrantably, that it would be constitutional—for it would not only be ineffective in bringing the guilty to justice, but it might damage interracial relations and result in widespread race conflict. For the present, then, it seems that we must resign ourselves to the disturbing thought that lynching will continue to be an occasional outlet for the atavistic impulses of the more orgiastic elements in the deep South. There is only a modicum of comfort in the reflection that whereas there were anywhere from forty-five to sixty-five Southern lynchings per year as recently as two to three decades ago, the number has declined to nine, eight, and twelve, respectively, in the past three years.

Another violation of civil rights occurs in those areas of the South where peonage is still practiced, usually with Negroes as the victims. There was a dramatic example of this in Warren County, Georgia, during 1937, when a mob organized by local planters forced Negro workers at the point of guns to go into the cotton fields and pick cotton for wages well below those prevailing in nearby counties. A Southern economist and student of interracial matters who investigated this episode reported that the same thing happened “in a less dramatic and brutal manner in many other cotton belt counties.” At about this time it was revealed that a somewhat different method was employed by certain turpentine camp operators in Florida. They were taking truckloads of newly arrived Negro laborers to the commissary, issuing them supplies, sometimes at exorbitant prices, and then invoking a section of the Florida code under which implied legislative consent is given to wholesale peonage. In Arkansas, the legislature has recently struck so hard at the fee system that constables apparently will no longer be able to arrest impecunious persons, mostly Negroes, on misdemeanor charges, have them fined one hundred dollars, and then hustle them off to certain privately-owned plantations to work out the fine in chains.

The disfranchisement of millions of Southerners, both white and colored, by means of restrictions upon the franchise, is a practice which must be considered in any appraisal of the current state of civil liberties in the region. Chief among these restrictions is the poll tax, a levy which has been held to be technically within the law by the Supreme Court, but which holds the number of voters in eight Southern states down to a mere fraction of what it would otherwise be, and hence affects directly the ability of Southerners to fight at the ballot box for their civil and other rights. In the presidential election of 1936, only twenty-four per cent of the adults in the nine states which then had the poll tax went to the polls, whereas in the other thirty-nine states, seventy-two per cent did so. Since then, Florida has repealed its tax, but the levy remains in Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. It not only requires an outlay of from one to two dollars per year for the privilege of voting, but in several instances the payment must be made for two, three, or even eighteen years. This last reference is to Alabama, where the would-be voter under forty can be required to pay his back tax for each year since he became twenty-one.

The poll tax and other barriers to the ballot box in the South were erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a weapon against the excesses of Reconstruction and in order to insure “white supremacy.” The conditions which brought forth this legislation have changed utterly since the turn of the century. North Carolina abolished its poll tax in 1920, and wisely substituted a literacy requirement for registrants. The skies haven’t fallen there, nor has “white supremacy” disappeared, although the total vote is now nearly three times heavier than that cast in Virginia. Kentucky, Louisiana, and Florida also have eliminated their poll taxes, but there is tremendous resistance to liberalization or abolition of this requirement elsewhere—some of it honest and disinterested, some dishonest and selfish. Political machines which are already entrenched naturally do not wish to take their chances with hundreds of thousands of new voters, so they favor the status quo. All who believe that the “better classes” should rule are against any change, together with many who live in areas where the Negroes are more numerous than the whites. Elements which object to the modernization of antiquated state and local governments, and which oppose the enactment of additional social and labor legislation, so sorely needed in most Southern states, also want no change in the poll tax laws. They do not seem to be troubled by the fact that the democratic process becomes atrophied where the electorate is so sharply limited, or by the fact that the influence of the eight poll-taxed states in the Democratic National Convention may hereafter be almost nil, since delegates may be apportioned partly on the basis of the number of Democratic voters in those states. And while many opponents of poll tax revision believe that the levy acts as a check upon office-seeking clowns and demagogues, the worst mountebanks who have represented the South or any other section in Washington during the past forty years were chosen under the poll tax system.

Undoubtedly the clamor for poll tax revision is growing louder, but the obstacles in the way are substantial. In addition to those already mentioned, there is the difficulty of securing enough votes for liberalization or abolition, when the chief beneficiaries of such a step cannot cast their ballots on the issue. In Arkansas, for example, the legislature voted to abolish the poll tax in 1937, but the move was defeated in the popular referendum the next year, partly because thousands of those who were most anxious to eliminate the tax didn’t have the funds necessary to take part in the voting.

While the small number of voters in most Southern states serves to deaden the political capacity of the Southern electorate, the existence of anti-evolution laws in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas constricts the intellectual horizons of wide areas, and at the same time basically affects religious freedom in those areas. Several ineffectual efforts have been made to repeal the Tennessee law under which John T. Scopes was tried in the “monkey trial” of 1925, but the state stands firm for Genesis, secure in the touching faith of the statesman who sponsored the anti-evolution bill in its legislature, expressing the conviction that the Bible was dictated by God in the English of the King James version.

One of the agencies responsible for foisting this legislation upon the former Confederacy is the Ku Klux Klan, happily now moribund, but a formidable force in the middle 1920’s. Efforts are currently being made to revive it, and a new Imperial Wizard has lately been installed in Atlanta for the purpose of pumping new life into the organization. Published reports have it that the retiring Wizard, Hiram W. Evans, was not sufficiently anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and that J. A. Colescott, his successor, will fill this requirement more adequately. Exhorting the kludds, klaverns, and klonvocations to greater heights of prejudice and bigotry, Imperial Wizard Colescott declared at the time of his election that the Klan would represent the “native-born, white, Protestant, Gentile” population of America.

If one can judge the future by the recent past, the C.I.O. will be a major object of the Klan’s hostility. In Florida, where the K.K.K. is especially strong, and where it completely dominates the government of Tampa, a strike of C.I.O. citrus workers was broken last winter by Klan intimidation. The Klan has also been demonstrating actively in Georgia against the C.I.O. Nevertheless, it has experienced difficulty in finding a formula sufficiently arresting to captivate the populace, and the racket is clearly showing signs of bogging down.

The South, in the past, has been more anti-Catholic than anti-Semitic, but the publicity given European anti-Semitism may cause the K.K.K. to devote special attention to Dixie’s infinitesimal minority of Jews. All the thaumaturgy it can summon will be turned against the Southern “non-Aryans,” if poor Southerners seem sufficiently gullible to blame the Jews for their woes. Fortunately there is reason to believe that most Southerners are unreceptive to such balderdash. Fortune Magazine’s survey of anti-Semitism made in the spring indicated that anti-Jewish feeling is on the increase in the large cities of the country, but not in the towns, villages, and rural regions—which comprise the great bulk of the South. Another evidence of the sentiment in the cotton states is seen in the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception accorded Mr. Grover C. Hall’s four thousand word signed editorial in The Montgomery Advertiser, entitled “The Egregious Gentile Called to Account.”

On the other hand, there are disturbing tendencies in the South, no less than in other parts of the United States. The vast quantities of pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda which are emanating from Silver Shirt headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, and the similar activity in Chattanooga are sufficiently disconcerting. Against such manifestations can be placed such a heartening episode as the unanimous reelection this year of Mr. Sol Blatt as speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

What of anti-Catholic sentiment in the South today? Would the nomination of a member of the Catholic Church for the Presidency revive the frenzies of 1928, when Al Smith’s nomination threw four states into the Republican column for the first time since Reconstruction? The consensus is that the effects of such a nomination would be much less devastating than they were eleven years ago, because of the weakness of the Klan and the general lessening of anti-Catholic prejudice.

Certainly freedom of religion and all other civil rights in the South will receive more adequate protection in the future than they have in the past, if the projected Council on Southern Regional Development incorporates a bureau whose function will be the safeguarding of these rights. This Council is designed to further a program of long-range planning for the South in agriculture, industry, race relations, and allied spheres. A final decision remains to be made as to whether the agency is to stress action and policy, or whether it will confine itself to research and conference. Should it elect the former alternative, its good offices and prestige would be of incalculable value in guarding those liberties which are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and which, more than all else, serve to differentiate our civilization from that of the totalitarian states. The Council may decide that it cannot enter this realm, but whether it does or not, there is reason for believing that the civil liberties of Southerners enjoy better protection today than they have ever done before. The road has been hard and difficult, and many more obstacles must be surmounted, before the end of it is reached. But indisputable progress must be recorded.


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