"The Negro Voter: Can He Elect a President?"
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“The Negro Voter: Can He Elect a President?”

Journalist Theodore H. White received widespread acclaim for his “The Making of the President” series that analyzed election campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. As White points out in the following Collier’s article, African-American migration to Northern cities from the South made the black voter an important player in national politics by the mid-1950s. From 1910 to 1970, more than 6.5 million African Americans came North, with 3 million arriving in cities between 1940 and 1960. During the 1956 presidential campaign, Democratic Party candidate Adlai Stevenson attempted to win this black vote by voicing support for the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregated schools, a ruling incumbent President Dwight D. Eisenhower had refused to approve. Stevenson’s appeal to black voters, however, was muted by his opposition to using Federal funds or troops to enforce desegregation, a position he adopted to avoid alienating southern voters. In addition, in the 1952 race, Stevenson had selected as his running mate a segregationist Senator from Alabama, John Sparkman. In October, African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., announced his support of the President, and on election day, more than 60 percent of black voters also chose Eisenhower. This marked a shift in party allegiance by blacks who had voted overwhelmingly Democratic since the 1930s, when many changed from the party of Lincoln to support Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Eisenhower’s rout of Stevenson was attributed more to foreign affairs than domestic, the black vote continued to be a major factor in national politics.

Negroes now hold the political balance of power in America’s five biggest cities. These cities in turn dominate states that cast 156 electoral votes, three fifths the number needed to elect a President. The drama of this month’s national conventions will revolve in large part around the efforts of both major parties to convince American Negroes that politically they do not stand trapped, as one of their leaders has said, “between the known Devil and the suspected Witch.” Whichever party succeeds best may well swing the crucial Negro vote—and the 1956 election—next November . . .

Chicago, evening on the South Side, in the black belt, and the 2d Ward Republicans are meeting in the made-over store that holds their clubroom. Outside, through the open door on 35th Street, the sound of loiterers, chatterers, high-pitched laughter. Inside, 50 or so people on the shabby folding chairs, watching television, waiting.

The meeting opens with a hymn (“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour”), and the Reverend King S. Rains rises to talk. He’s just been down to Memphis on a “mother-trip,” the way he has gone to see his mother down South every year for 30 years.

“Been to a meeting down there of ministers,” proclaims the Reverend Rains; “heard more talk about voting in two hours than I’ve heard in Chicago in two years. Down there, they’re pledging themselves to get 70,000 more votes than ever before and they said to me, ‘What you doing in Chicago?’ I said we’re raising money to send to the bus strike in Alabama. You know what they said to me? They said to me, ‘You Northern Negroes don’t know what you’re doing. You’re like a man running to put out a fire with a bucket of water in one hand, bucket of gasoline in the other. That’s what you’re doing, raising money for the strikers in Alabama with one hand, voting Democratic with the other.’”

Long pause.

“And they’re right,” says the Reverend, his voice rising and breaking. “What are we doing up here? These knock-kneed ministers, eating chicken, getting fat, telling people to vote Democrat—and people listen to them! They know they’re lying when they tell the people to vote Democrat.” (Audience groans, murmurs, “That’s right.”) “Do you know we’ve got the balance of power in our votes? What are we going to do with it? The president of the NAACP, he told you the other day, he said we’re between the Devil and the Witch. He couldn’t come right out and say it because of his job. But I tell you what he meant—he meant you’ve got to vote Republican. I say so.”

The meeting goes on and I wander out. It is a long way from Chicago to the deep South—Eastland and Talmadge, Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy, bus boycotts in Montgomery and Tallahassee, all far away. But the winds blow hot off the embers of hate and carry strong to the North. How strong, one asks? Are they strong enough for the 2d Ward Republicans to stir a revolt of Negroes against Democrats in Chicago because Democrats in the South savage their kinfolk?

It is only three blocks east on 35th Street from the 2d Ward Republicans to the 2d Ward Democratic Club, but the Democratic answer to these questions comes squirming alive as one strolls: children on the street still playing long after bedtime, men sitting on the stoop, men eddying about the taverns. People oozing from the five-room flats where three families share each flat (inside, the penciled signs, three to a door—“For Barrett, Ring Once,” "For Patterson, Ring Twice,“ "For Henry, Ring Three Times”). Trash between the houses, paper litter, the sick stink of the stockyards staining the air with every shift of summer wind. Here the cold figures of census boil vividly in human congestion: Great Park Census Tract, 65,000 human beings per square mile, Douglas Tract, 48,000 (in white neighborhoods only 17,000 per square mile). Fifteen to 25 per cent unemployed here; one quarter of families in some tracts without fathers; of 17,000 Negro births in Chicago, an estimated 4,000 illegitimate.

Statistics cascade through the mind here, each with a face and a sorrow: of all the women in Chicago’s county jail, 69 per cent are Negro; of all the men, 62 per cent; of all the forlorn on relief, 72 per cent Negro; of all the clients of public housing in Chicago, seeking shelter of the government, 70 per cent Negro. And in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, kindred figures grimly repeat themselves.

Of all the strollers on 35th Street this summer evening, 65 per cent are Southern born, brought North by hope and fancy to the jungle of the city, with less than five years of primitive village education—less, as sociologists point out, than functional literacy for city life.

Wandering and trapped, compelled and pressed by the white world around them, flailing out in anger and desperation, frightening and perplexing their white neighbors (who flee to the clean new suburbs where Negroes cannot follow), they have become a group, a voting bloc, a community conscious of its wants and strength. These are people whom Northern politicians all too frequently like to consider as a regional, distant, Southern problem—a problem to be deplored and denounced as a faraway offense against American morality.

But they are here, now, in Chicago, groping to make up their mind about what kind of President of the United States suits them best, weighing their power, weighing their need, here in Chicago, against the hate that prickles them as they read of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, their states of birth. Republicans rouse their conscience. But 2d Ward Democratic headquarters is here to help, now, in Chicago, where they live.

Up one flight is the office of Congressman William Dawson. I had been to see him that afternoon—a sturdy, powerful man of seventy, of golden voice and flowing eloquence.

Dawson is a Democrat neither by birth nor upbringing, but by conviction, which is stronger. “I was born in Dougherty County, Georgia,” he says, “just one step this side of Hell. I stood guard with my father all one night to stop a lynching when I was fifteen. I hated the word Democrat when I came North. I saw them bring Negroes up from the South in World War I and stuff them in here, into 4 1/2 miles of black belt, until it was the most populated spot on the face of the globe. I saw them ripping basements out of stores, pushing people to live in rat-infested filth until the black belt was the damnedest pesthole ever conceived by the mind of man.”

What made him a Democrat? Roosevelt, it seemed; Roosevelt cared. Roosevelt brought assistance, relief (“Negroes would have died like flies if he hadn’t kept his hand on the money until it got to them”).

In the party which Dawson joined, he found leverage, dignity, power. Power, finally, as the strongest Negro boss in the country; power to dump a mayor of Chicago (Martin Kennelly) because of the way that mayor’s cops were treating his people; power to appoint, promote, reward—and help.

Dawson’s headquarters is open 365 days a year to service the people of the South Side’s squalling streets. Service for mothers who need public aid for dependent children, old folks who need pensions, families seeking public housing, bright young men wanting appointment; defense of the rights built into Negro thinking by a generation of welfare agencies (“My people got rights. They’re entitled to consideration. Some of the biggest Simon Legrees there are work in these relief agencies,” says Dawson). Service, here in Chicago, not crusades against the dragons of the South has made Dawson’s base solid. From this base his control has spread to a five-ward empire; and the largest deliverable bloc of votes in Illinois has made him the most powerful Negro in American politics, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But still he remains ward chairman of his 2d Ward, answering his phone, providing service.

Yet there is a rumbling on the South Side now. Younger people and labor people call him a “white-man’s Negro” or, worse, “ bandanna-head.” What’s he done about civil rights? they ask.

Dawson bridles at the implication. Mississippi is a long way off. Speeches on Chicago street corners won’t help. Hysteria has brought a whole lot of new leaders all trying to prey on his people’s emotions. Only experience, knowledge, above all, politics can help. And if you’re in politics, you try for all you can get for your people (“all that ain’t tied down”); but above all you remain loyal to party and country. At times indignant, then gentle, then solemn, then crafty, his words cascade out, and by any standards this is a big man. He sticks by his philosophy: “I’m a congressman first. I happen to be a Negro, and the question of race comes second.”

How well will this philosophy stand up in the race of '56?, one asks. How many 2d Ward Negroes will stay with the 2d Ward Democratic Club in exchange for the services Dawson provides: the sewing classes for mothers, the children’s drawing classes, the protection from police? How many will abandon the Democratic ticket in Chicago because only by striking at Democrats everywhere can they strike at the party that gives power to Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, Georgia’s Herman Talmadge and the other men they hate in the South?

Few of the Democratic delegates who assemble in Chicago this month will have the time to wander the pavings of 35th Street less than a mile away from the stockyards convention hall. But their actions and decisions will be magnetized, nonetheless, by such rumblings as stir the 2d Ward. For these are questions that reach far beyond Chicago’s 2d Ward, or the parishes and hill counties of the South. The relations of white man and black man in our country have become in this year, 1956, for the first time since the Civil War, one of the central imponderables in the great struggle for our Presidency.

In the past 10 years, all American politics have buckled under one of the great movements of history—the mass migration of millions of American Negroes from the lands of humiliation in the South to the democracy of the big cities of the North. Here, bewildering and perplexing the crowded cities, they have found finally the power to alter the shape of American life.

The new political power of the Northern Negro rests upon two things: his irresistible growth in numbers, and a fresh, superbly gifted leadership.

Up until 1910, only one lifetime ago, the Negro was strictly a Southern resident and Southern problem; 90 per cent of all American Negroes then lived in the South. Today, two wars and an industrial boom later, 35 per cent of the nation’s almost 18,000,000 Negroes live in the North and West. Each year, in their paths, follow scores of thousands more.

Between 1940 and 1950, the Negro population of our great cities jumped by a phenomenal 66 per cent, while in some (Chicago, New York, Philadelphia) the white population actually declined. Since then, according to Collier’s current survey, the movement, rather than slowing, has speeded. By the beginning of this year, Chicago’s 1950 count of 492,000 Negroes had grown to an estimated 670,000 (an unbelievable 32 per cent jump in half a decade; University of Chicago statisticians predict a Chicago one-third Negro in texture by 1980); Detroit’s Negro population had jumped 100,000 or 33 per cent (to 400,000) in this half decade; Los Angeles' by 48 per cent (to 254,000); Cleveland’s, Boston’s proportionately. A score of smaller cities—San Francisco, Gary, Buffalo, St. Louis, New Haven, Baltimore, Toledo—have seen similar or sharper rises.

What suddenly draws all political attention to the Negroes in 1956, however, is their phenomenal concentration in the queen cities of five of the biggest voting states of the country: New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan. These states cast 156 electoral votes, or just 110 short of a Presidential majority. And in the great cities of these states, the Negro population percentage runs from a high of 21 per cent in Philadelphia (Mayor Richardson Dilworth unofficially sets it higher, at 25 per cent) through 19 per cent in Detroit, 17 per cent in Chicago, 11 per cent (excluding Puerto Ricans, who represent another 6 per cent) in New York, 11 per cent in Los Angeles.

For almost 20 years, this vote has been the most solid property in the political estate of the Democratic party.

Years ago, to be sure, the Negroes, still wedded to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, were just as solidly Republican and regarded the Democrats among themselves as freaks. (“I remember,” says Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “when I was young in Kansas City, the kids threw rocks at Negroes on our street who dared vote Democratic.”) But Franklin D. Roosevelt changed all that; his New Deal was aimed directly at Americans in distress, and distress has been house companion of the Negroes since their history began. With Roosevelt, government came to mean Social Security, relief (“Let Jesus lead me and welfare feed me,” was a depression chant of the Negroes), unemployment compensation, housing, strong unions open to Negro membership. In overwhelming, earthquake proportions, the Negro vote became Democratic in 1936 and 1940.

As war and boom sucked Negroes north to the big industries and the Democratic tutelage of the great unions they joined, as Harry Truman, one of their favorites, broadened the Roosevelt tradition, their vote became ever more solid. By 1948, when Truman squeezed out his hair’s-breadth win over Dewey, carrying Illinois by 33,612 votes, California by 17,865 votes, Ohio by 7,107 votes, no practicing politician could ignore the fact that the Negro vote in these states was one of the vital margins by which the Presidency of the United States had been won.

Varying from state to state, the Negro vote now usually runs Democratic by margins of three to one, four to one, and, in some cases, nine to one. In many states, this vote is absolutely indispensable to Democratic strategists. The ardent civil rights position of Governor G. Mennen Williams of Michigan and Governor Averell Harriman of New York springs from deepest conviction, to be sure. But a Democrat without such convictions would have a tough time being elected in those two states. . . .

Potential power as great as this is too stupendous a fact to be concealed—least of all from those who shape and lead it.

And what has happened is that American Negro leaders have become aware of their strength; and they are determined to use it this year.

Any white American in whose mind the image of Negro leadership is still yesterday’s fuzzy picture of Booker T. Washington is today completely out of touch with reality. A whole constellation of action groups has matured among Negroes of the North in the past 10 years of progress; they operate on every front of what Negro leaders like to call “the power structure of America.” The NAACP is the senior, legal arm, prying open opportunity after opportunity through the courts; the Urban League fights on the industrial front, wrenching open closed jobs in field after field; the Negro church has come alive, vibrant, passionate, inflaming politics with religion; prosperity has brought the Negro community businessmen of wealth and prominence; the labor unions have trained and educated men of depth and drive; a Negro press of constant and effective indignation amplifies and magnifies them all among their own people.

At the summit of these groups stand leaders too brilliant and diverse to be capped by any single figure: Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, victor of the historic Supreme Court decision on school integration, tall, sardonic, gay, almost mischievous; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of NAACP, polished phrase maker, eloquent, calculating; Alex Fuller, the solid, burly, easygoing vice-president of the Wayne County CIO; bitter brooding, delicately handsome Edwin Berry of the Chicago Urban League; the grave, solemn, grizzled veteran Julius Thomas of the National Urban League; Congressman the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., flamboyant, graceful; or City Councilor the Reverend Marshall Shepard of Philadelphia, dedicated, robust, untiring; and others, too many to note. . . .

These men know their strength and they recognize their moment. For, in the past two years, there has been a flare-up of Negro emotions in America unprecedented since the days of Reconstruction. This flare-up dates precisely from the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate the public schools of America; which, in turn, provoked the last-ditch reaction of the white South—the murders in Mississippi, the white Citizens' Councils—which, finally, has shaken Negroes North and South to the resistance and reaction that now daily make headlines all across the country.

In Chicago, a Negro social worker organizes a handful of Negro housewives in a voter-registration campaign. Her pamphlets say: “Don’t Get Mad—Get Smart, Register!”; and in two years her volunteer committee has jabbed Negro registration in the South Side up from 200,000 to 275,000. In Detroit, a Negro doctor decides to invite a few friends for dinner to raise money for the Montgomery strike; the dinner grows in a few weeks to a community affair and $32,000 is raised in an evening. Says Senator Jim Watson, New York’s only Negro state senator, “Why, I’ll be walking down Amsterdam Avenue and a stranger will grab my arm and say, ‘What’cha gonna do about that Miss Lucy girl, man?’” Pastor Martin Luther King, hero of the Montgomery bus strike, comes to speak in Brooklyn and thousands crowd the church to overflow the sidewalks outside. The temper shakes family loyalties. In Detroit, the aged and ailing father of Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr., tells me, “We’ve got to get rid of Eastland and I don’t care how—even if it costs my son his seat.”

The temper goes deep. Traditional political loyalties teeter-totter in slums, at bars, in poolrooms, on street corners. In one day’s doorbell ringing on the South Side, I interviewed 21 people (too fragmentary a cut from which to draw final political conclusions, but one learns that the Negroes are disturbed). Five weren’t going to vote or wouldn’t say (“Neither party is worth a damn,” said one auto worker on the street corner), nine thought they’d stay Democratic, seven thought the Republicans would do more for civil rights (“I read everything I can get my hands on,” said one. “I’m a Democrat, but I’ll go for Ike nationally. We got to do something about this Eastland; and that Talmadge, he’s worse.”).

Julius Thomas of the Urban League sums it up: “The events that have followed desegregation have affected the Negro community more than anything else in my lifetime. The communications have been so vast on TV, radio, the press that it’s right there at the top of consciousness. You’ll hear it all the way down to the poolroom and the barbershop, men saying, 'Those S.O.B.s, do they think forever they’re gonna push black people around because they think we got no brains?”

However deep this indignation is, it should be recognized that, for the moment, it is governed by responsible leadership. As Thurgood Marshall says, “We sit on the lid.” Beyond this is other, almost sinister leadership. The whole structure of organized Negro leadership today flinches at violence; but on the fringes of the Negro community are other violently intemperate men, as racist as the white Citizens' Councils, who can rouse full savagery against any hapless white minority engulfed in Negro slums.

Conscious thus of their voting power, of the indignation underlying it, Negro leadership has this year worked out a precise program to be wrung from both major parties.

Underlying this program, first of all, is a principle again most aptly put by Julius Thomas: “It is not any longer a question,” he says, "of how a white man feels a colored man should be treated. It’s now a decision of law that he should be equal. The question is how we interpret the laws of the country—it’s what the South must do to conform to the law of the land. The Negro now has a completely different status. The law is on his side now. Whoever discriminates against him is a criminal, is breaking the law."

Coupled with this principle is the tactic of legislative enforcement. In practice, this year, Negro leadership fastened on the civil rights bill, HR 627, a bipartisan measure, as the acid test of every politician’s good will. To press it, the NAACP’s Washington director, the astute Clarence Mitchell, fashioned the first full-blown lobby for Negroes, a group of 40 or 50 congressmen known as the civil rights bloc (California’s James Roosevelt and Chet Holifield, Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott, New York’s Edna Kelly, Massachusetts' John Heselton among others) whose members caucus regularly and carefully mesh their action with the NAACP legislative program. On the floor this bloc might influence 200 to 250 votes. By the time this article appears in print, HR 627 will have passed or failed and the congressmen who supported or opposed it will be marked in the NAACP’s books for future support or retaliation. Neither party will be able to wriggle out of blame among Negroes if this bill fails. Said Roy Wilkins to the NAACP convention a few weeks ago: “The Republicans will say that they proposed the legislation but the Democrats would not pass it. The Democrats will say that they had little chance to pass it because the Republicans delayed so long in submitting it. Both parties hope we will be fooled by this double talk . . . they have been busy scratching each other’s back while we have been left out in the cold.”

HR 627, the bill in which so much Negro emotion was invested, was an omnibus bill of many good intentions. But its operational mainspring was the power it gave the federal government by injunction and intervention to defend the Negroes' right to vote in the Southern states—and prosecute white men who stop them. Any substitute civil rights measure denying this objective is, in Negro thinking, only a palliative, however enlightened. For, from this tactical objective of Southern voting rights, as from some commanding salient on a battlefield, hangs the Negro strategy of the future.

This strategy is as simple as it is profound. It is to alter totally the patterns of Southern custom and life. “It does no good,” the leaders of the NAACP say almost to a man, “to send a rescue party south or mourn a colored man murdered in Mississippi. But if the federal government guarantees the Negro the right to vote down South, everything changes. No outsider can do anything about a Negro-hating sheriff in Tallahatchie County, but if Negroes vote they can change the sheriff. Arguing about segregation up North does little good—but if Negroes sit on school boards down South, they can act for themselves.”

Negroes speak of this objective from their own parochial point of view. But on the broad scene, the attainment of this objective will change our national politics at a stroke. For the Old South, with its familiar voices in Congress—so often distinguished, so often antique—will be dead. The new men it sends to Congress, to be elected in large part by colored votes, must speak in different accents entirely. Then, truly, the roots of Congress change and politics lurch into new, uncharted seas.

And this, fundamentally, is what Negro leadership is demanding of both national conventions this month. . . .

Basically, for the Negro, what is at issue in this campaign is not principle, but timing—which party’s candidate will go faster, which will move sooner. Nor are the Negroes themselves insistent on explosive immediacy. “We walk a tightrope,” said Roy Wilkins. “We want to move, but there must be no explosion, no bloodshed. If there’s bloodshed, our people down South get hurt worst of all. There mustn’t be bloodshed. If there’s bloodshed, it’s disaster, for it wipes out all the middle ground of white good will down South, the very people we need as friends if we’re to succeed.”

It would be missing part of the enormous drama of American life if the Negro surge of 1956 were seen only in terms of one campaign. To see its historic meaning one must draw back and see the Negro migrant to the Northern city against the political development of all the migrant groups who have gone before. For the Northern cities of America, with all their squalor and violence, have been radiant centers of freedom and democracy for all the world. Each immigrant group that has found dignity and freedom there has been educated to use its power to give the same values to its folk at home. Thus did the Germans of the 1848 migration work for the freedom of Germany; so did the Irish of Boston, New York and Chicago help to create a free Ireland; so did the Jews of the East Coast help to create a free Israel; indeed, in Pittsburgh in 1917 the Czechs of Pennsylvania actually outlined the structure of the first free Czechoslovakia. Each group has used its vote and power to sway American support for American ideals everywhere in the world. And now the Northern Negro is using his vote and power to do in America what other minority groups have done for their brethren overseas.

Source: Theodore H. White, “The Negro Voter: Can He Elect a President?” Collier’s, 17 August 1956, 19.