Gradualism and The Negro

Shortly after the Supreme Court's decision in May, 1954, outlawing segregation in public schools, sociologists warned that race relations in this country were likely to become worse before getting better. The Till murder trial, the riots surrounding Autherine Lucy's attempt to enter the University of Alabama, the mobilization of white citizens' councils, the rantings of Eastland and Talmadge all point to the discouraging conclusion that the sociologists were right. But to say that tensions are rising and that extremists are capturing public attention is not to say there is no hope: the hope must lie with moderates, who can and must speak out, soon.

Once moderates begin publicly to support the Supreme Court decision as the law of the land, gradualism and moderation will no longer seem like evasive phrases invented by politicians as a substitute for a policy, but will emerge as the only possible means to effect one of the most difficult social adjustments in this country's history. To achieve real integration of races, not only in the South, but throughout the country, will require both a sensitivity and a restraint that have been virtually unknown in the past. But gradualism implies more than the ability not to shout when shouting seems justified; it also, and more importantly, recognizes the endless variations in local conditions within the South, within one state, or even within one county. What may be the solution for Jackson, Mississippi, is probably not the answer for Jackson, Tennessee, or Jacksonville, Florida. And one action that may successfully and painlessly bring integration to white and Negro high school students in an urban community may very well instigate racial hatred and violence in a rural area. The task of bridging the chasm between two vastly separate, and in most places vastly unequal, educational systems demands slow and careful planning on the local level. It is the community that knows best the community's problems, and it is here that the moderates must take their stand.

Gradualism implies one other attribute, more perhaps of mind than of policy. It is one often overlooked by Northern Crusaders who want to ride off on a charger--whether black or white--and blaze a trail for The Cause of Integration. And this is that the North, too, has its racial problem. True, it is somewhat hidden behind residential segregation or unwritten custom, but it is just as real, and just as wrong. The problem becomes more apparent when one takes a look at the statistics of the very few Northern Negroes who are adequately prepared for college or who have annual incomes over $5000. Once accepted as a national instead of a sectional problem, integration will seem less of an imposition on the South, and therefore more open to solution by those in the South who seem to fear imposition more than interposition.

Now all of this is not intended to sound like an argument for inaction and an apology for the "complexities of the situation"--complex as the situation may be. When William Faulkner warned the North: "Wait, wait now, stop and consider first," we agreed; but only so long as consideration is not both first and last. For there is, at the moment, a crisis of sorts: the Southern extremists, at least in the Black Belt, seem to have pretty firm control, and they are not going to give it up without a fight.

The question is, then, what is the best way to fight the racist extremists? Is it by taking an opposite but equally extreme stand and hoping that the result will be a position half way between, or is it by demanding, firmly and quietly, something less than the ideal, indeed aiming publicly for that middle position? We think the latter way--at once flexible and firm, quiet and forceful--is the better answer. To win the legal principle, it was necessary and right for groups like the NAACP to carry their test cases as far as possible, and press for sweeping rulings that would require federal action for implementation. But the principle, as far as law goes, has been won, and new tactics are required. Pressing for extremes now is not likely to achieve a synthesis at all; it is much more likely to produce a violent reaction that could obliterate all the progress to date. Press for moderate goals, we say, and win them.

Despite all the discouraging incidents during this second year after the Supreme Court decision, there has been one outstanding event which embodies what we mean by gradualism and moderation: the Montgomery bus boycott. It was a local affair. Local leaders began it, for limited, local goals. It did not even aim at complete integration on busses; it merely sought the right for Negroes to sit in white sections during crowded hours. The NAACP here operated at its best: its local members were acting not as pawns of what appears to many Southerners as a dangerous outside organization, but as respectable citizens of Montgomery. And for this attitude, and the quiet strength of the movement, the Negro in Montgomery gained new respect, as well as legal victory.

The boycott, of course, had nothing to do with schools. But if some of the principles of Montgomery could be applied to educational integration, slow but lasting progress is likely to result. And, indeed, slow progress is all that can be hoped for. This is not to say that the NAACP should not continue putting test cases through the local courts: it should. Nor is it to say that the U.S. Justice Department has been diligent in prosecuting violations of civil rights: it has not. Nor is it to argue that the President has exhibited the warm creative leadership that he could so effectively focus upon the national Negro problem: his leadership in this regard has been virtually nil. But what we do say, and what we have tried to show by various case studies in this special supplement, is that the nation's racial wounds can be bound up without malice and with success--if those involved in the delicate art of integration constantly have in mind both principle and practicality.