home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

"The Negro in America Today": South African Novelist Alan Paton Dissects the Racial Situation in the South in the Year of Brown v. Board of Education

Alan Paton’s first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), communicated the tragic dimensions of South Africa’s system of apartheid to a world audience. In 1954, Paton was asked by Collier’s magazine to observe and interview Americans about this country’s system of racial segregation. In the first of two articles, Paton interviewed students, government officials, NAACP members, church leaders, and soldiers in Washington, D.C., and in the Deep South around the time that the Supreme Court, in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, ruled segregated “separate but equal” public schools unconstitutional. Like earlier visitors from abroad—such as St. Jean de Crevecoeur, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Gunnar Myrdal—Paton offered a uniquely comparative perspective as he searched for answers on the current state of segregation and future prospects for the integration of American institutions.

When I was invited by Collier’s to come to America, and to write on The Negro in America Today, I came with eagerness. There is hardly a person this side of the iron curtain—or, for all I know, the other side—who would not jump at the chance to visit this exciting country, with its great cities and buildings and bridges, its astonishing material accomplishments, its wealth and resources, that waken in everyone who sees them the most varied emotions, sometimes of envy, but almost always of wonder.

But this material wealth and accomplishment is not the only cause of wonder. There is hardly a country in the world whose people are not found here. America has made most of them into Americans, with a loyalty to their new country which no other can surpass. Most of them came to seek some kind of freedom, from poverty, from persecution, from tyranny—from slow or sudden death. Millions have testified that they found what they had sought.

Still, not all came to be free. The Negro came to be a slave, and to trouble the conscience of America forever till he was free. In 1863 he was emancipated, but not made free. His history has been a history of hope and despair, of acceptance and rejection, of justice and terror, a story so noble and tragic that it is one of the greatest of the epics of mankind.

Through this history is said to run a golden thread. Americans, anxious to justify their country, tell the world that the Negro grows freer and freer, and that the walls of segregation are at last tumbling down. Is this true? Is the Negro at last being taken into the American nation, as an American amongst Americans? Is he beginning to enjoy every right and to share every duty that Americans enjoy and share? Is this happening at such a pace that the end is no longer in doubt?

Those are the questions I asked myself . . .

The Capital

“This is a wonderful country,” said the student from Tobago, “but things still happen that shake one’s confidence. Two friends and I were walking back to Howard [University] after seeing our dance partners home. It was after midnight, and there were a hundred people in the street, all white except ourselves. Yet it was to us the police had to speak: ‘Come here, boys; where are you going; where do you come from?’ They were friendly at once when we said we came from Howard, but it was disturbing to be singled out like that.”

This fear of the police, or resentment against them, or perhaps only uncertainty about them, I found among Negroes all over America, deepening from North to South, decreasing to East and West. . . .

I had the honor of meeting Mr. J. Ernest Wilkins, Assistant Secretary of Labor. He is the first Negro to hold sub-Cabinet rank, though a somewhat similar appointment was made as far back as 1911. I congratulated him on his appointment.

“It is more an honor to my race than to me,” he said. “But it is also important to the United States. It will help us in our tasks abroad.”

“Will it be 43 years before another such appointment is made?” I asked him.

“I am certain it will not,” he said.

“What is the future of the Negro in America?”

“It is full of hope,” he said. “It has never been so full of hope.” . . .

Not everything in Washington is wonderful. I was taken to see the slums; I was not much shocked, having seen those of my own country, but I noted that Washingtonians were very much ashamed of them. The influx of Negroes into American cities always causes problems, of overcrowding, slums and white resentment against the inevitable expansion of Negroes into the suburbs. Washington has been guilty of every kind of housing discrimination, but segregation has been virtually ended in public housing, at least. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, mindful of America’s responsibility in the world, jealous for her Constitution, and desirous that her Capital City should be beyond reproach, have lent their powerful support to policies of nondiscrimination.

While in Washington I met United States Senator John C. Stennis, of Mississippi, and talked to him about the pending Supreme Court decision. He was completely opposed to school integration. If it were ordered, he said, he was sure that white and Negro leaders would meet and work out an agreement amongst themselves for self-imposed segregation. Where agreement could not be reached, private schools would be opened for white children, and the public schools for Negro children would undoubtedly get less money.

“But, Senator, I hear that more and more Negroes are voting in Mississippi.”

“They will have a very difficult assignment,” he said. This remark he would not explain further to me. But he told me that relations between whites and Negroes were good, and were disturbed only by “agitators from the North,” amongst whom he mentioned specifically the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“If our Negroes were left alone,”said the senator, “they would be happier in their own schools. The NAACP overlooks the fact that the advance of the Negro must come about by his own efforts.” . . .

The Big Change . . .

The South is beyond question a different place from what it was when I last visited it. One gets a vivid impression that the Deep South, the Deep South of the grossest inequality, the worst discrimination, of murder and violence, is slowly retreating. Its theories of white supremacy and segregation are slowly being forced into the Gulf of Mexico, where they will be drowned, thus holding water for the first time. World opinion, the Constitution and the courts, the determination of Negroes to be Americans, the conviction in the conscience of America that Negroes should be Americans—all these are forcing the white supremacy advocates of the Deep South back on their heels.

The so-called white primaries are gone, outlawed by the Supreme Court. The poll tax as a requirement for voting remains only in five states. The number of Southern Negro voters has risen, from 250,000 in 1940 to 1,250,000 in 1952. Negroes hope there will be 3,000,000 in 1956. . . .

Governor Byrnes

I had the privilege of an interview with Governor James Francis Byrnes of South Carolina. I have a great respect for governors, especially one who had been a Justice of the Supreme Court, Director of War Mobilization and Secretary of State. The governor is seventy-five years of age, but does not look it.

Governor Byrnes justified segregation to me on the ground of “natural orders.” Nature, he said, had her categories, and individuals from the one were not found in the other. In the shoals of blackfish one never encountered a . . . . . (here I lost the word, but I hope that it might have been a whiting). He said that this talk of “conflict in the soul of the South” was nonsense. It was the Negro of mixed blood who was the unhappy man—who, because he belonged to no order, fought unceasingly for the removal of any differentiation whatsoever. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was his instrument.

I asked the governor about the U.S. Army posts in the South, where no segregation was permitted. How could such practices be tolerated by a state whose own practices were diametrically opposed? He replied that if these were the policies of the Army, there was nothing more to be said; but the Army would be expected to respect the segregation policies of the state when it went off the post.

In this reply one sees clearly the final yielding of the South: the state will not ultimately oppose the United States. . . .

In America the opinion of the nation, formed by conscience and Constitution, moves inexorably away from segregation. In South Africa the opinion of the nation, (at least, the enfranchised part of the nation), formed by fear and prejudice and a desperate kind of justice, moves fatefully toward more and more segregation. There the central government is bringing pressure to bear on the universities to cease admitting nonwhite students. There the army, controlled by the central government, could not depart by one inch from the national policies, even if it would. The conclusion is inescapable that the American South will in the end have to retreat from a position which is intolerable to the nation, and intolerable to its truest self. . . .

Clarendon County

I visited School District No. 22, Clarendon County, South Carolina, and talked to William Ragin, of Route 2, Box 4, Summerton. He bought his farm in 1942, one hundred acres at $100 per acre. Today he owns everything on it, and owes no man anything. William Ragin is a small, spare man, with a way of smiling as though he knows of some pleasant thing private to himself.

Mr. Ragin was one of the small band of NAACP members who started the court case that culminated in the Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. They went from house to house asking the parents of more than 1,000 Negro children to sign a petition claiming their children were denied the equal protection of the laws. Most of the people were afraid to sign, but eventually 25 did. Of these, some dropped out “when the steam got up.” They were told they would lose their land or their jobs or suffer in other ways, if they kept their names on the petition. (The moving spirit of the group, the Reverend Mr. Joseph A. De Laine, by way of foretaste, lost his house; it burned or was burned to the ground—which, no one discovered. The fire engine came out, but finding that the house was beyond the city limits, it turned back again.)

The first court hearing was in Charleston, in 1951. Over the proceedings hung a grim weight of white disapproval, but the petitioners held on. They lost this first battle, but it was at this time that Judge J. Waties Waring presented a dissenting opinion in which he said that if segregation was wrong then the place to stop it was in the first grade and not in graduate colleges; segregation was per se inequality.

Mr. Ragin followed the case right up to Washington, but it was a different Washington from what he had once known. “I made it my business to eat in one of those places that I couldn’t eat in before.” . . .

The state is spending more and more money on public schools; the cost goes up by leaps and bounds.

In 1944 South Carolina schools cost $16,000,000.

In 1949 they cost $34,000,000.

In 1954 they will cost $65,000,000.

In justice, it must be said that most of this increase is going to Negro schools. Governor Byrnes, speaking to the South Carolina education Association last March, stated that Negro schools had been given two thirds of a sum of $94,000,000 allocated for use over a period of years as part of a far-reaching building program; that meant an expenditure of $106 for each white pupil and $271 for each Negro pupil. “We are forced to do in a few years what our fathers and grandfathers should have done in the past seventy-five years,” the governor said.

I was able to visit one of the Negro schools in Clarendon County that had not yet benefited from the new dispensation. It was moving enough to see its forlorn state, its broken windows, its pathetic equipment, its sagging foundations. But more moving to me was the sight of the Stars and Stripes and under it these words:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Strange people, the colored people, who through such scorn and rejection have clung so fiercely to the ideal of America. Strange country, that, careless of liberty and justice and indivisibility, yet raises a William Ragin to restore them to her, and gives to a small, spare man the heart to fight for justice, and defeats him in place after place, so that he may have a victory in Washington. . . .

Going to Church

. . . The number of white and Negro Protestant Christians who worship together is negligible. It is right to remember that the segregated housing patterns of America make integration in church life difficult; but segregated churches also play their part in maintaining segregated housing, by themselves consenting to a practice that they know to be un-Christian.

The Quakers have a noble record in regard to race relations. A color bar in a Quaker meeting would be unthinkable, and almost every Quaker school and college is open to all. Yet there are at least three exceptions—in Maryland, in Washington, D.C., and in North Carolina.

The Colored Churches

The whole church situation is further complicated by the fact that the Negro, who has fought so hard to enter the Army, the college, the school, the bus, the restaurant, the theater, shows no desire to enter the predominantly white church. He has made his own church. In his own church he is the preacher, the bishop, the church officer. He can be humble, but he can sit where he likes. . . .

Politics and Morality

I was lucky to meet Pastor M. E. Perry of the (white) Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, and to hear his views. Mr. Perry agreed that 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, but he thought it good that it should be so, because of the real differences between Negroes and white people. “The best Negroes want to become the best Negroes that ever lived, not to become whites; no advantage whatever will come to them out of integrated schools. God ordained the races; people who rise from nationalities have remained truer to themselves than others.” . . .

God did not approve of intermarriage, he was sure. He had made quite a study of the South African scene, and he approved the policies of its government. Mississippi was too casual in its segregation practices, and it would be better for all concerned if there were a stricter separation of the races. He thought that the whole movement for desegregation of the schools was inspired by politics, not by morality. It would be better if each state were to interpret the American Constitution for itself.

Mr. Perry is a member of the Southern Baptist Church. Nine thousand of his fellow Southern Baptists met in convention at St. Louis shortly after the Supreme Court decision was announced and roared their thanks for it, only 50 member dissenting. So Mr. Perry’s views are no longer representative of his church. . . .

Equality in Uniform . . .

The ending of segregation in the schools would be the greatest moral event in America since the passage of the three great post-Civil War Amendments, which abolished slavery, established the citizenship of Negroes and provided them, legally, with equal voting rights. The only comparable event would be President Truman’s Executive Order No. 9981, of July 26, 1948, in which he declared equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services. On July 21, 1951, the Army revealed that integration of fighting units was being achieved in Korea. At the end of 1952 there was no all-Negro unit left in the Air Force. Today 98 per cent of the Negroes in the Army are in integrated units. It was declared that by September 1, 1955, segregation would disappear from every post school.

At one time a Negro soldier was first a Negro, and only after that a soldier. But there were tales of his death and heroism; some enjoyed the experience of his companionship and his unselfishness. The fact of his willingness to die for America so wounded the conscience of his country that his inferiority became unendurable. It was a thing no longer to be borne when an inferior man died a superior death. Furthermore, many high officers, questioning whether segregated units could fight for America with all their heart, thought integration would mean a better fighting force.

I thought I had better see this integration for myself.

. . .The Army . . .

It was unforgettable to walk with the lieutenant, and to see him saluted by white soldiers. It did something to me, so that for a time I could ask no questions, while strange emotions of wonder, pride and humility possessed me.

The lieutenant came from Los Angeles, from a city where he said he felt he was free. He had joined a segregated Army in 1948, and had been sent to a post in Kentucky. It was a painful experience for him. He had heard what it might be like, but he was unprepared for the reality. He left the Army, though he had chosen it for his career.

But he came back to it again in 1951. This time it was different. It was “wonderful.” I asked him about the towns close to Army posts, about Columbia, South Carolina, where all the Negro soldiers on a bus had been arrested because one Negro man took a vacant seat next to a white woman. I asked him about the neighboring town of Fayetteville.

“I don’t go there much,” he said. “What can a colored man do there at nights? All the things I would want to do are reserved for whites.” . . .

. . . The Navy

Charleston, South Carolina, is a city of history, old houses and famous gardens; but it is also a city important to our story. For here Federal Judge J. Waties Waring, Charleston-born and -bred, descendant of slave owners, ruled in 1947 that Negroes must not be excluded from voting in the “white” Democratic primaries. In 1948 he said that any person who tried to circumvent his ruling would be jailed. He and his wife were ostracized by the white people of Charleston, but the Negroes looked upon them with new respect. For the first time in his life the judge had Negro friends. They came into his house and ate at his board. It was just as well, for no one else did. Collier’s of April 29, 1950, called him “the lonesomest man in town.”

For Judge Waring and his wife this was the crossing of a great divide. They identified themselves completely with the cause of full citizenship for the Negro in America. For the judge in particular it was a hard fight; he was nearly seventy years of age, but he did not rest till he had thrown the last prejudice out of his heart and mind and soul.

Among those colored people who gathered round the Warings in Charleston were Dr. A. T. and Mrs. Ruby Cornwell. Dr. Cornwell is a dentist, a gray-haired, quiet, friendly man. By virtue of his title, he is excluded from the great Southern battle of Mr. and Mrs., but his wife wages it unceasingly. She will not buy in a shop where they withhold her title, nor where they do not allow colored women to try on a dress. She was one of those who brought the local repertory show of Porgy and Bess to an untimely end, because there was to be segregation in seating. Yet she does not see herself as a crusader. She is of gentle rather than aggressive nature; but with discrimination, segregation and second-class citizenship she will have nothing to do.

Through the kindness of the Warings, I found myself the guest of these two people.

Immediately on arrival, Mrs. Cornwell asked me what I should like to do; I said, visit the Navy Base, and see the shipyard, where I heard segregation had been banished.

Accordingly, her friend, Mrs. J. I. Hoffman, and I and Mrs. Cornwell, seated in that order in the front seat of the car, set out for the shipyard. Mrs. Cornwell has since recorded in a letter: “He was quite sensitive to the amount of attention we were receiving—more so than I was, I think.” . . . All three of us were doing not only what we had never done before, but what may never have been done before in Charleston. . . .

The two ladies suggested that they would stay in the car, so that I could have the tour to myself. I told the commander this, and that my two friends were colored ladies. He would have none of it. He went over to the car, shook hands and introduced himself, put us all in his own vehicle, and took us around the shipyard. He told us the story of the cafeteria, which was ordered to be desegregated, and took us there. Most of its white clientele had now deserted, preferring to buy their food at desegregated snack bars, and take it away.

There are thousands of workers at the shipyard, both white and Negro, working together on equal terms, but prevented from eating together by Southern taboo. . . .

Homes and Jobs

The integration of the armed services, and of workers in dockyards, and of facilities for those workers, was a tremendous victory in the war against segregation. The decision to integrate the schools, implementing the Supreme Court ruling, would be yet greater. It would mean far more than that white Americans are going to be decent, and let the Negro into the schools; it would be a recognition that the children of slavery are to be brought into the nation, finally and forever, and that everything that belongs to the nation will belong to them.

If that is the true implication, then one must recognize that integration in the schools could be nullified by residential segregation and discrimination in employment. Every fighter against segregation knows that these are the two great battles that remain to be won. How does America stand in respect of these? The remainder of my trip around the United States, to the West Coast and to Chicago, Detroit and New York, was devoted mainly to finding the answer to that question.

Source: Alan Paton, “The Negro in America Today,” Collier’s, 15 October 1954, 52–66.