Sunday, September 22, 2013

Soldier Reports on Jim Crow

My father died only five months ago and it remains difficult for me to live in acceptance; to believe that his formidable personality, intellect and influence are no longer present in my life. Yet in memory; in the way I think; in what I appreciate; in the faithfulness of my life he is surely present.  Many treasured objects also conjure his presence. These days it is this trove of letters that make him so very alive in my thoughts. Enthusiastic response to previous mention of these letters here and their historical significance  prompt me to revisit them. The letters were exchanged between my parents from mid-1943 to November 1945 and cover the period just before his draft into the US Army Air Corps; his stateside service largely in Meridian, Mississippi, one semester of study at Georgia Tech, Atlanta; their marriage in August 1943; two periods of living together near the base; and his overseas assignment to an air weather reconnaissance squadron on Guam in the Pacific. In the spring of 1944, the period discussed here, my father was a few months short of his 23rd birthday. He graduated from a New York city public high school in the Bronx and completed about three semesters of City College of the City University of New York. When he received his draft notice he was working as a machinist apprentice.

Demonstration for Voting Rights Act of 1965
We have recently celebrated the history-making, soul uplifting event of the 1963 March on Washington, a plea for the civil rights of all citizens of the nation. We have also marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church which killed four young girls just weeks after the March. It is with these events in mind that I have been reading my father's letters and appreciating his witness to a time some have forgotten, to atrocities hard to comprehend. His reflections provide such valuable context to our acts of remembering; the context of full appreciation of the situation that existed in our country at that time and long before.

Many comments about the sad plight of the of the Negroes are sprinkled through Dad's letters. By March, 1944 my father had spent over a year in Mississippi and my mother had joined him there for about six weeks. Each had become all too familiar with the Jim Crow south. With his letter of March 22 begins a brisk exchange concerning events of the kind caused him to write on March19, "No Sweetheart, there is nothing in this damn South, not even the joy of Spring - nothing but hatred and discrimination."

Many have said to me, "You should write a book." I resist because I know what research would be required. I've had to do some here to get the full import of this episode. Turns out that a Senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, a Democrat, had risen through the ranks to become head of the Senate's District of Columbia Committee. It has been said that he ruled the city like a plantation owner. He called Clare Booth Luce a "nigger lover"; praised Hitler; and declared  that whites were "justified in going to any extreme to keep the nigger from voting." For years he blocked anti-lynching laws."  In his book Washington Goes to War journalist David Brinkley wrote:

Bilbo seemed to hate everyone: communists, Jews, union leaders, union members, anyone who could, by any definition, be called a foreigner, and above all, of course, blacks. And Bilbo never hesitated to make his hatreds known.
When he ran for the Senate in 1934, he denounced an opponent as "a cross between a hyena and a mongrel...begotten in the nigger graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow, and educated by a fool."

When he received a hostile letter from a woman named Josephine Piccolo in New York City, he wrote back and addressed her: "Dear Dago."

As one of the nation's most outspoken racists, Bilbo hated the fact that nearly half the residents of the city he helped administer were black. "If you go through the government departments," he once said, "there are so many niggers it's like a black cloud around you." He repeatedly introudced a bill to deport all Negroes to Africa and once suggested that Eleanor Roosevelt be sent with them and made their "queen." Throughout his tenure on the district committee, Bilbo judged almost every proposal on the basis of its effect on race relations. Anything that might benefit blacks -- and in a city whose black population was growing rapidly, that was most things -- he opposed. Nothing outraged him more than the effort in 1941, by blacks themselves, to confront racial discrimination in employment.

That sets the stage for my father's reportage on March 22

Mia Dia,

As always, the radio in Tech Supply was babbling to itself this afternoon - being peacefully ignored in talk and in the hard rain outside. It continued to be ignored until it drew attention to itself with the outbursts that made all of us, there in the building, keep quiet and lend our ears to the most criminal and flagrant contribution to [the] Negro problem I ever heard.

Darling, you've never heard anything like this. You've seen it, being here, but to have heard this is to gain insight into problem as the South sees it - or should I say refuses to see it.

I am only sorry that a printed copy of the speech is not available...but the best I can do now is to as you to accept these quotations. We were all so moved that Kuspeil said, "That man is starting the next war right now." I can't write what I said.

The issue was the Mississippi (?) broadcast of a speech by Senator Bilbo made from the state capital - Jackson where he addressed the legislative bodies of this fair state in joint session. The subject, which must keep these warped people awake at night, was the Negro and social equality.

From the start you could see the vicious farce the whole thing was with half an eye. For the benefit of the untrained audience he seemed to adopt a benevolent attitude, but he gave himself away with some of the worst hateful and bared faced statements I ever heard. Remember they came from a Senator for State consumption.

He covered his subject, beating the drum of White Supremacy, the Negroes Place and the Color Line in the well worn language of the Baiter, he finally came to the climax of his comparison between the North and the South. Stating this climax as if the North had the worst disease known to mankind - rather than seeing it for the southern problem that it is.

He hit his nail on the head like this. In bringing up the "dreadful progress" the negro is making toward equality he mentioned the equality extended the Negro at the Washington [DC] C.I.O. canteen. Here, he said, an equal number of whites and negroes were served in the same place by an equal number of white and Negro waitresses - all eating together. With this he illustrated his point, kept quiet a moment to let it sink in, and the brought up the artillery. "Can we conceive of such a thing, such unheard of social equality?"

That Honey, is unheard of for this man of the stone-age - twice the Governor of this beautiful State.

But the real dynamite came later when continuing to analyze what trouble the North is creating by extending equality - get that Sweet - we create the problem, not they. He said, "If the North thinks we want to live like that, we will tell them, our nigger lovin' Yankee Friends, to go straight to Hell." And that is a quotation.

So this is how they solve a problem. No, in reality he's not trying to do that, only to maintain the whites here on the backs of the Negroes. By the way, he couldn't say that word - he said "Nigger".

But he belied his false benevolent attitude by saying, "White Negro lovers should be treated like we treat the niggers." This swept away all he said about negro benefits here, bringing into focus the fact that much treatment is considered the worst punishment. Then how are the Negroes treated with benevolence?

The shabbiness of his argument also appeared when enumerating the rights of equality a negro has here, he drew laughter from the audience by saying they have equal space rights on public conveyances. Yes, its a joke to them. But I'd hate to be in their shoes when the negro turns the worm here. These people can't see the problem for what it is, they refuse to recognize it as their Frankenstein - rather, they feed it. He pointed to our difficulty with the riots, but didn't mention that these were caused whenever color lines were drawn - to the just resentment of the negro. Those lines are dirty rags these southerners drag up with them and see them stimulated by the enemy to create conflict. Actually we have much less resentment and strife than they do here, where they are sitting on a volcano they've built themselves.

Honey, I am pretty sore tonight.

In his next letter my father enclosed a newspaper clipping from the editorial page of the Jackson, Mississippi Daily News of March 20, 1944.  Bilbo was not a lone racist mad man in a position of power. The editorial reads:
An (sic) United Press dispatch from Washington says:"The United States office of education
 today called on white educational institutions in the South to open their doors to negro scholars."
And here's telling the responsible head of the United States department of education, whoever
 he may be, to go straight to hell.
The South won't do it - not in this generation and never in the future while Anglo-Saxon blood
continues to flow in our veins.
Nobody but an ignorant, fat-headed ass would propose such an unthinkable and impossible action.
The speech and the editorial appeared in 1944, 19 years before the March on Washington in 1963 and 21 years before the Voting Rights Bill was enacted as the law of the land.
The story will continue in the next post.


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