I had a slightly hard time sleeping this morning, so I read a few chapters of Billy James Hargis‘ 1960 book, Communist America…Must It Be? Hargis was a right-wing evangelist whose popularity was at its heyday during the 1960’s. One of the chapters I read was “Communism and Racial Tension.”
I corresponded with Hargis when I was a kid. I was researching right-wing attitudes on Martin Luther King, Jr., and I was curious about his views on King, segregation, and the civil rights movement. Hargis said that he did not support segregation, since integration was the law of the land. But he was still critical of Martin Luther King.
I wish that he had sent me the book that I read this morning. I actually got that on Amazon about a year ago. (Amazon is amazing, isn’t it?)
Right-wing books are fun yet tedious. They’re fun because there’s a sense of drama to them. They have clear good guys and bad guys, though, unfortunately, the good guys usually lose (which is why we need to vote for Goldwater or donate money to the John Birch Society, or Hargis‘ Christian Crusade). And, interestingly, the people society labels as “good” and “bad” are usually depicted quite differently in these books. FDR is a socialist dictator. Joe McCarthy is a brave patriot. Growing up as a child and a teenager, I relished these books because they allowed me to challenge authority, in this case, my history teachers, the media, and the narrative that they presented to me.
But the books can be tedious because they’re very well-documented. Don’t let anyone tell you that right-wing pamphlets lack any basis in research! They have lots of quotations from politicians and mainstream news outlets. None Dare Call It Treason is replete with footnotes. Unfortunately, however, I don’t usually have the ability to verify whether or not they’re quoting their sources accurately, since they are pretty old books.
Hargis‘ argument on race is more or less the same spiel that Jesse Helms had as a commentator. Let me quote from my latest post on Helms:
“As a media commentator, [Helms] was critical of the civil rights movement, Brown v. the Board of Education, and civil rights legislation…Yet, he did not view himself as a racist. He thought that African-Americans actually liked segregation, and that all these outsider activists were agitating the situation. For him, whites and blacks could arrive at a mutual solution to racial conflict, without agitation or outside federal interference.” Add to that the idea that Communists were behind the racial agitation, and you have Hargis‘ position.
Hargis opens his chapter as follows: “From Birmingham, on September 1, 1959, the Southern Negro Improvement Association of Alabama sent a 350-word telegram to President Eisenhower indicating that most Southern Negro[e]s don’t want forced integration. The group asked for a government-sponsored poll of Southern Negroes to prove the point.”
That actually checks out, or (more accurately) it doesn’t appear implausible. I did a Google search on “The Southern Negro Improvement Association of Alabama,” and one of the links was The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. – Google Books Result. There, we read that King disapproved of a speech by Dr. Collier P. Clay, a seminary president. Clay’s speech condoned segregation, and he gave it at an event sponsored by the Southern Negro Improvement Association of Alabama.
Hargis also quotes Davis Lee, the African-American publisher of The Anderson Herald at Anderson, North Carolina. Lee praises the South for exposing blacks to Christianity, and he presents a friendlier relationship between whites and blacks in the South. “Because of the interest that Southern White people have in us,” Lee writes, “the Southern Negro owns more business, more homes, has finer schools, and controls more wealth than do the Negroes anywhere else in the world.”
In other parts of Hargis‘ chapter, however, we see that the picture is not entirely rosy. Hargis acknowledges that there are differences that whites and blacks in the South need to resolve. But he wants them to do so peacefully, without protests and agitation. Hargis also refers to an October 5, 1958 civil rights rally in Washington, D.C., which attracted thousands of whites and blacks. Hargis maintained that Communists were instigating tension between the races. The implication is that, if the Communists were not involved, whites and blacks would be content with their situation, or at least resolve their differences in a peaceful manner. But would thousands attend a civil rights rally because they’ve been misled by the Communists? I think they were protesting real problems.
Yet, Hargis does document that the Communist Party wanted to exploit racial tension. Manning Johnson was once on the National Negro Commission of the Communist Party in America. After he left the Party, he wrote Color, Communism and Common Sense, in which he discussed the Party’s goal of stirring up racial agitation. Johnson was critical of integration because he saw it as harmful to African-Americans. He wrote:
“The blind drive of Negroes for complete integration hurts Negro business because the Negro, bitten by the integration bug, will give all his business to white establishments. [Regarding integration of schools,] the whole issue boils down to taking Negro children out of one school and transferring them to another so they can be seated with white children on the assumption that only in this way will the Negro child get an education. What really is being implied is that the 113,000 Negro teachers in Southern schools are inferior, incompetent and unable to teach the children of their own race…it is a question of the liquidation of the Negro school and the Negro teacher under the guise of integration…”
This quote from Johnson reminds me of arguments against school busing that I’ve heard from African-Americans. For some African-Americans, busing undermines the African-American community. One African-American woman told me that, at one time, blacks lived together in communities and looked out for one another. If a black doctor lived near another black family, for example, he could mentor a child from that family on how to become a doctor. The community was that close. But busing undermined that by removing African-American children to far-off areas of the city, for long periods of time during the day. (The bus trip could be pretty hefty in itself!) As a result, a well-intentioned government mandate ended up disrupting the community it was designed to help.
One part of Johnson’s book that Hargis does not quote actually acknowledges the reality of racial discrimination. That’s what attracted Johnson to the Communist Party in the first place! Let him explain:
“Like other Negroes, I experienced and saw many injustices and inequities around me based upon color, not ability. I was told that ‘the decadent capitalist system is responsible,’ that ‘mass pressure’ could force concessions but ‘that just prolongs the life of capitalism’; that I must unite and work with all those who more or less agree that capitalism must go. Little did I realize until I was deeply enmeshed in the Red Conspiracy, that just and seeming grievances are exploited to transform idealism into a cold and ruthless weapon against the capitalist system–that this is the end toward which all the communist efforts among Negroes are directed.”
And so even one of Hargis‘ sources does not believe that the American South was a paradise. He just thought that Communist and liberal cures were themselves pretty deadly.
I’m not sure what to make of the Southern Negro Improvement Association of Alabama. There were African-Americans who actually condoned segregation (and they weren’t the Malcom X types)? Maybe they wanted to work within the system, thinking that protests would worsen their lot. I’m not sure what their motivation was.