Original Document
Original Document
Bayard Rustin, "The Negro and Nonviolence," 1942

Since the United States entered the war, white-Negro tension has increased steadily. Even in normal times, changes in social and economic patterns cause fear and frustration, which in turn lead to aggression. In time of war, the general social condition is fertile soil for the development of hate and fear, and transference of these to minority groups is quite simple.

Organized violence is growing in the North and South. The Ku Klux Klan is riding again, employing more subtle methods.

Negroes and whites in Southern iron ore mines, as well as in Mobile, Alabama, shipyards, are going armed to work.

Negro soldiers often are forced to wait at Jim Crow ticket windows while whites are being served, frequently missing their buses and trains. Often bus drivers refuse to pick up any Negroes until all whites are seated, sometimes causing them hours" delay. Scores of Negroes have been beaten and arrested in Memphis, Tennessee; Beaumont, Texas; Columbus, Georgia; and Jackson, Mississippi, for insisting on transportation on buses overcrowded because of war conditions. Beaumont has threatened severe punishment for violation of Jim Crow bus laws.

There have been numerous wildcat strikes, in both North and South, where white employees refuse to work with Negroes. Several white and Negro CIO officials have been attacked. One was twice assaulted by white workers for trying to get jobs for Negroes.

Negro soldiers and civilians have been killed by whites. On June 27, Walter Gunn of Macon County, Alabama, wanted on a charge of drunkenness, was shot in the leg, stripped of his clothes, and beaten to death by a deputy sheriff in the presence of Gunn's wife and children. A similar police brutality occurred on the streets of New York City when a liquor-dazed young Negro was killed for refusing to remove his hand from his pocket.

A soldier was shot in the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, because he refused to tip his hat to a local policeman and address him as "sir."

The world-famous singer Roland Hayes was beaten and jailed because his wife, who had taken a seat a "few yards forward" in a Georgia shoe store, insisted upon being served "where she was" or trading elsewhere.

On July 28, two Texas policemen, Clyde and Billy Brown, forced Charles Reco, a Negro soldier, into the back seat of a police car and drove him to the police station because in a Beaumont bus he took a vacant seat reserved for a white. During the ride they shot him once in the shoulder and once in the arm.

Racial feeling has increased since June 1942, when the Fair Employment Practices Committee began hearings on anti-Negro discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. It has been fed by the anti-Negro propaganda stirred up by Governor Dixon of Alabama, Governor Talmadge of Georgia, and Representative John Rankin of Mississippi. This propaganda has encouraged such minor politicians as Horace C. Wilkinson, who has suggested developing a "League of White Supremacy," to make sure "that this menace to our national security and our local way of life will disappear rapidly."

Governor Dixon, in refusing to sign a government war contract because it contained a nondiscrimination clause, said, "I will not permit the citizens of Alabama to be subject to the whims of any federal committee, and I will not permit the employees of the state to be placed in the position where they must abandon the principles of segregation or lose their jobs." Following this statement, Alabama's Senator John Bankhead wrote General Marshall, army chief of staff, demanding that no Negro soldiers be brought South for military training.

These and other humiliations have had a very marked effect on great masses of Negroes, who are being told by the press that "equality of opportunity and social and political recognition will come now or never, violently or nonviolently." The Pittsburgh Courier and the People's Voice, typical of the general Negro press, constantly remind the masses that greater economic and political democracy was supposed to have followed World War I. Instead, they pointed out, the Negro found himself the scapegoat, "last hired and first fired" in a period of economic and social maladjustment that has lasted until the present time. Thus the average Negro is told, "There can be no delay. What achievement there will be must come now."

An increasingly militant group has it in mind to demand now, with violence if necessary, the rights it has long been denied. "If we must die abroad for democracy we can't have," I heard a friend of mine say, "then we might as well die right here, fighting for our rights."

This is a tragic statement. It is tragic also how isolated the average Negro feels in his struggle. The average Negro has largely lost faith in middle-class whites. In his hour of need he seeks not "talk" but dynamic action. He looks upon the middle-class idea of long-term educational and cultural changes with fear and mistrust. He is interested only in what can be achieved immediately by political pressure to get jobs, decent housing, and education for his children. He describes with disgust the efforts in his behalf by most middle-class Negro and white intellectuals as "pink tea methods–sometimes well-meanin" but gettin" us nowhere." It is for this reason, in part, that the March on Washington movement, aiming to become a mass movement, has tended toward "black nationalism. " Its leadership, originally well motivated, now rejects the idea of including whites in its constituency or leadership. One local official said, "These are Negroes" problems and Negroes will have to work them out."

The March on Washington movement is growing but at best is only a partial answer to the present need. While the movement already exerts some real political pressure (President Roosevelt set up the FEPC at its request), it has no program, educational or otherwise, for meeting immediate conflict. To demand rights but not to see the potential danger in such a course, or the responsibility to develop a means of meeting that danger, seems tragic.

Many Negroes see mass violence coming. Having lived in a society in which church, school, and home problems have been handled in a violent way, the majority at this point are unable to conceive of a solution by reconciliation and nonviolence. I have seen schoolboys in Arkansas laying away rusty guns for the "time when." I have heard many young men in the armed forces hope for a machine-gun assignment "so I can turn it on the white folks." I have seen a white sailor beaten in Harlem because three Negroes had been "wantin" to get just one white" before they died. I have heard hundreds of Negroes hope for a Japanese military victory, since "it don't matter who you're a slave for."

These statements come not only from bitterness but from frustration and fear as well. In many parts of America the Negro, in his despair, is willing to follow any leadership seemingly sincerely identified with his struggle if he is convinced that such leadership offers a workable method. In this crisis those of us who believe in the nonviolent solution of conflict have a duty and an opportunity. In all those places where we have a voice, it is our high responsibility to indicate that the Negro can attain progress only if he uses, in his struggle, nonviolent direct action- a technique consistent with the ends he desires. Especially in this time of tension we must point out the practical necessity of such a course.

Nonviolence as a method has within it the demand for terrible sacrifice arid long suffering, but, as Gandhi has said, "freedom does not drop from the sky." One has to struggle and be willing to die for it. J. Holmes Smith has indicated that he looks to the American Negro to assist in developing, along with the people of India, a new dynamic force for the solution of conflict that not merely will free these oppressed people but will set an example that may be the first step in freeing the world.

Certainly the Negro possesses qualities essential for nonviolent direct action. He has long since learned to endure suffering. He can admit his own share of guilt and has to be pushed hard to become bitter. He has produced, and still sings, such songs as "It's Me, Oh Lord, Standin" in the Need of Prayer" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." He follows this last tragic phrase by a salute to God–Oh! Glory, Hallelujah." He is creative and has learned to adjust himself to conditions easily. But above all he possesses a rich religious heritage and today finds the church the center of his life.

Yet there are those who question the use of nonviolent direct action by Negroes in protesting discrimination, on the grounds that this method will kindle hitherto dormant racial feeling. But we must remember that too often conflict is already at hand and that there is hence a greater danger: the inevitable use of force by persons embittered by injustice and unprepared for nonviolence. It is a cause for shame that millions of people continue to live under conditions of injustice while we make no effective effort to remedy the situation.

Those who argue for an extended educational plan are not wrong, but there must also be a plan for facing immediate conflicts. Those of us who believe in nonviolent resistance can do the greatest possible good for the Negro, for those who exploit him, for America, and for the world by becoming a real part of the Negro community, thus being in a position to suggest methods and to offer leadership when troubles come.

Identification with the Negro community demands considerable sacrifice. The Negro is not to be won by words alone, but by an obvious consistency in words and deeds. The identified person is the one who fights side by side with him for justice. This demands being so integral a part of the Negro community in its day-to-day struggle, so close to it in similarly of work, so near its standard of living that when problems arise he who stands forth to judge, to plan, to suggest, or to lead is really at one with the Negro masses.

Our war resistance is justified only if we see that an adequate alternative to violence is developed. Today, as the Gandhian forces in India face their critical test, we can add to world justice by placing in the hands of thirteen million black Americans a workable and Christian technique for the righting of injustice and the solution of conflict.

Credit: Courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin
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