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Problem at a Negro College in Atlanta: Education for Privilege or Equality?

Goals of Civil Rights Movement Conflict with Desire to Conform

By Frederick H. Gardner

Liberals in the North seem happily convinced that the vast majority of southern Negroes (and certainly all the students) are participating in something called the civil rights movement. The idea that Negroes share a unanimity of outlook is bought with each copy of The Fire Next Time.

But in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the nation's important centers of Negro education, distinctions in social position and point of view are far more important than the spiritual generality which Mr. Baldwin perceives. There are rich and poor, exclusive and excluded, professionals, laborers, domestics and unemployed. Within the academic community there are the intellectually concerned and the financially preoccupied. To talk of the "spirit of the Negro people" in Atlanta is to ignore the presence of a rigidly structured Negro society, led by an upper crust as jealous of its privileges, as pretentious and snobbish, as any upper crust anywhere in America.

Nor is there an embracing civil rights movement that can pursue its objectives irrespective of Negro class structure. Hunter Street, the main drag in black Atlanta, separates a stately complex of Negro colleges from the hectic offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The proximity is misleading: Morehouse and the other schools in the Atlanta University system are training Negroes to meet the standards of middle-class participation in American society, while SNCC's field workers are out to change the political and ethical bases of that society.

Washington's Influence

Atlanta University is the institution which W.E.B. DuBois had to leave at the start of the twentieth century. His radical critique of Negro education had cost the school the support of Northern philanthropists and DuBois decided that a political action group such as the National Association for Colored People would provide a more efficient framework in which to work for Negro advancement. With the departure of DuBois, Negro higher education fell almost totally under the influence of Booker T. Washington. Today the radicalism of DuBois finds its extension in SNCC (significantly, the SNCC Chairmanship is awarded annually to a student who will take off a year from school to work for civil rights "in the field"), while Washinton's emphasis on emulative technical proficiency provides the educational heritage of Morehouse and the other outstanding Negro colleges. The leaders of Negro higher education, pushed perhaps by the dynamic of the appeal for civil rights, are trying to reconcile the two strains.

Education and Equality

Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse since 1940, is a man of acute social vision, deeply committed to the equalitarian goal. "It is too easily forgotten," Mays warns, "that the most important step in Negro progress is excellent education. Negroes who have attained the skills necessary to make contributions in business, government and technology, are not going to be easily denied their constitutional rights."

To the extent that agitation for civil rights does not conflict with academic obligations, Mays encourages students to participate. The president urged undergraduates to engage in the sitins that swept Atlanta in 1960-61. "But," he recalls, "we were not prepared to alter the level of excellence expected from our students. Faculty members were asked to let students make up work missed, but time spent in jail was not considered an excuse for inadequate scholarship."

Under the leadership of Mays, one of the most respected college presidents in the nation, Morehouse has improved the quality of its teaching, expanded its facilities, and sent more and more graduates on to higher training. But the problem that Washington did not come to grips with still remains: the intellectual and technical proficiency of a segment of the Negro community will not guarantee a better life for the majority. Education, to many Negroes just as to whites, represents an exemption from the plight of the masses rather than a responsibility to improve that plight.

Polish

In holding up for emulation the "excellence" of American society, some members of the Morehouse faculty sanction its conformity, competitiveness and tendency to define education as an investment. One professor described his daughter as "all the money I ever made. She works half as hard as I did and makes five times as much." From freshman orientation week until graduation, Morehouse students, probably more than most American undergraduates, are reminded that their education represents a special financial opportunity.

One need hardly condemn Madison Avenue values from hairdos to Buicks, to question their relevance at a Negro college: what kind of equalitarian does a status seeker make?

There are faculty members at Morehouse (and it is worth noting that college teachers are stationed at the top of Negro society in Atlanta) who flatly violate the principles of social responsibility that Mays would embue. On the way to a sociology class an army veteran majoring in psychology explained that he felt the need for "polish" as a prerequsite to equal treatment in the society-at-large. The significant difference between this young man's preoccupation with polish and President Mays' emphasis on excellence became clear when the class began:

The professor centered his discussion of the family as an institution around a list of grievances which, according to the text, contribute to familial unhappiness. "Look at this number 48 on the list," he urged. "Now this 'slovenly in appearance' is terribly important. How many times have you been walking down the street and seen a woman sweeping up the porch, looking totally unkempt. And how many times do you imagine a husband will come home early and find his wife looking slovenly? Now this is the kind of thing that can be avoided. It's not a question of income, but of your breeding and your training and your emotional maturity."

His lecture was speckled with practical advice. "Don't think of buying a home or a car until you have $3,000 to $5,000 safely put away. If you spend money you don't have it . . . Make it your business to go to church. Some men bring their families to church and make it their business to pick them up afterwards. Now that's good, even if they go have a drink in the meanwhile."

It would be very wrong to assume that this individual instruction and this particular course typify education at Morehouse; any exchange program that sent Harvard students to the Morehouse campus would put them in contact with a vital student body and a number of remarkable, exciting teachers. But no matter how reluctantly it is reported, one should not forget that this sociology course does embody an important strain in Negro higher education. The ethos it propounds can be traced directly to Booker T. Washington, who advised in a sermon at Tuskegee Institute:

"We might as well settle down to the uncompromising fact that our people will grow in proportion as we teach them that the way to have the most of Jesus and in a permanent form is to mix with their religion some land, cotton and corn, a house with two or three rooms, and a little bank account. With these interwoved with our religion, there will be a foundation for growth upon which we can build for all time."

Conventionality

According to the text used in the sociology class described above, a happy family consists of people who are "careful with money, conventional regarding religion, morals and politics." Almost reflexively the class endorsed the text's conclusion that unhappy wives have husbands who are "somewhat radical" on these matters.

It occured to no one in the class that he was in fact "somewhat radical" on the most dramatic political question in America today. Nor was it brought out in the subsequent discussion that such an endorsement of conventional mores, if made at a Southern white school, would amount to a segregationists' reaffirmation.

The unwillingness of Morehouse students to challenge the premises of American social and political policy was illustrated during the debate between that college and Harvard on April 4. Harvard took the affirmative side of the question: "should the non-communist nations form an economic community?" Citing Time magazine as an ultimate fiscal authority, the first Crimson speaker said the issue at hand was how to "instill a spirit of capitalistic enterprise in the underdeveloped nations while safeguarding the interests of American investors." The Morehouse debaters agreed with these objectives, and made no references to questions of neo-colonialism; nor did they question the alleged congruity of American interests and those of the underdeveloped nations.

Inside the System

Northern liberals who hope the Negro's life experience will impart a shap sense of injustice and a propensity for social criticism had best revise their estimates. Many of the acknowledged victims in America, whether trade unionists fighting for organizational rights in the thirties, or Negroes demanding civil rights in the sixties, regard themselves as victims of accident, not policy. The belief is that the system works, and the trick is to get inside the system, not to change it.

It is time for liberals to realize that the centuries in the ghetto might impart an equalitarian strain to the emergent Negro middle class, but they might just as likely foster a deep and powerful opportunism. One need only consider the Jewish middle class in New York, a generation removed from the pograms of Eastern Europe, yet vigorously upholding a segregated network of schools and homes. The institutional lip service that Jews pay, to equality through the B'nai B'rith precisely parallels the sanctimonious references to civil rights that free the consciences of Atlanta's Negro middle class.

SNCC

But the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is hardly flattered by lip-service acknowledgement, nor is it bothered by the vicissitudes that have characterized civil rights activity on the twelve pleasant acres of the Morehouse campus. In the summer of 1961, as the first wave of sit-in activity receded, the Committee decided that "if the movement was to have meaning for the millions of degraded, disenfranchised, and exploited Negroes in the Black Belt South, someone would have to take the theories, methods, practices and actualities of direct action and voter registration to them."

SNCC is militantly equalitarian not only in rhetoric but in practice. Its field secretaries seek to break down class barriers in the Negro communities they enter, and to impress upon doctors, teachers, and professionals the need to stand by farmers, laborers and domestics who must also win the vote. Not the drama but the democratic tone of SNCC activism represents a challenge to the black bourgeoisie that has long secured itself privileges in the name of civil rights.

Radicalism

In the SNCC offices, just off Hunter Street, radicalism is not a strange word or concept. A copy of Malraux's Man's Fate lies ostentatiously on a mantel piece, preventing copies of the National Guardian and the Reporter from blowing away in the Georgia breeze. A picture of several field secretaries hangs on the wall, entitled in pencil: "Three who make revolution." Asked to explain that, a member of the office staff smiled: "Well, if we get Eastland beaten someday, that'll be a revolution, won't it?"

At Morehouse and the other colleges in the Atlanta University complex a Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, loosely affiliated with SNCC and composed of student body presidents and representatives, is sustaining day-to-day interest in the equalitarian movement. President Mays is particularly proud of this committee, citing it as proof that Morehouse undergraduates are developing a sense of social responsibility that validates the technical side of their education. Perhaps the spirit of critical education will return to the academic community by the political road it chose in departure.

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