Engel, Wilkins, LaFarge

VTR: 2/17/1957
GUESTS: Irving Engel, Roy Wilkins, Father John LaFarge.

ANNOUNCER: THE OPEN MIND, free to examine, to queston, to disagree. Our subject today, Report on Civil Rights over the Past Year – 1956. Your host on THE OPEN MIND is Richard D. Heffner.

QUESTION: How, many Negroes did you say were in the country where you lived?

ANSWER: 17,000

QUESTION: How many paid their toll taxes?


QUESTION: How many registered?


QUESTION: And how many are now registered?


QUESTION: And who is that?


SPEECH: ..Negro citizens of Montgomery, Alabama do now and will continue to carry on our mass protest and we hereby authorize and direct the officers and Board of Directors of the Montgomery Improvement Association to do any and all acts that seems necessary to perfect our desires. (APPLAUSE) It is a movement of passive resistance, a non-violent movement, and we are fighting with the weapons of prayer and love.

MR. HEFFNER: In the last year, much emotion has been spent about signs like these. In Montgomery: Alabama, a Negro woman riding a bus was arrested for not giving a white man her seat. That was the last straw. And for almost a year, 50,000 Negroes walked, pooled their cars and almost broke the bus company’s economic back. There was violence. But the Negroes wouldn’t fight, Theirs was a passive resistance, Elsewhere there were some riots. Public schools, said the United States Supreme Court in 1954, should integrate with all deliberate speed. Two years later, this school integrated, and the national guard was needed. Why did some cities integrate peacefully, while others had riots? What did the United States Supreme Court mean when it said ‘with all deliberate speed?’ These are questions that we ask. Can we wipe out prejudice by law and judicial decision? Scenes like these have made the headlines, for successful integration isn’t as dramatic. Once again the Ku Klux Klan rode, But this time the Klansmen’s faces were uncovered and their numbers were fewer. What did all of this add up to? Did the past year give us any clue?

Scenes such as those you have just seen have made the headlines of course. Bad news is always news. Good news seems not, today. And yet today we want to give a summary report on civil rights throughout the whole country over the past year. We want to look at the different sides of the picture, and my guests today are quite well qualified to discuss this subject at great length.

First, Father John LaFarge, distinguished Catholic Priest and author of the very recent “The Catholic Viewpoint on Race Relations”. My second guest is Mr. Irving M. Engel, President of the American Jewish Committee. And my third, guest is Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Gentlemen, I think I would like to begin our program today, by referring to a little pamphlet “The People Take the Lead” that your organization has put out, Mr. Engel. It is a record of progress in civil rights from 1948 to 1957 and in this very excellent little volume which lists the progress that has been made over these past years, you say here, there can be no question that serious and delicate problems will remain to be solved in this question of civil rights. Time and patience will be required to change practices that have long been the only accepted patterns for millions of Americans. But you say each passing year makes it increasingly clear that the clock will not be turned back, that America will continue its ever-forward march toward one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I wonder how you can make the volume, entitled “The People Take the Lead” and this statement, stand up against the pictures that we have just seen that represent the stories we have heard about all during this past year.

MR, ENGEL: I think the first answer to that is to tell you a little something about this pamphlet, We must go back to 1947 when President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights headed by Mr. Charles Wilson of the General Electric Company issued its: report.

And I am confident that history is going to refer to that as one of the great basic documents of American freedom. Because it not only pointed out the gap that existed between American principles and American practices, but it also blueprinted a chart for future progress. I have had the conviction that it is the task of our genera¬tion to see that report is implemented. And so, beginning with 1948, the first anniversary of that report, we began bringing out this pamphlet “The People Take the Lead.” Each year, we brought out a new edition, bringing up to date the various steps of progress and I think if you get a perspective and see what has happened over the past 10 years, you see that there has been progress and that that progress is continuing, and perhaps the basic thing is that the problem of eliminating discrimination based on race, religion and national origin .s now on the American conscience, the conscience of the American people.

And I have the firm conviction that when anything is on the conscience of the American people, sooner or later they will do something about it,

MR. HEFFNER: Do you feel the same way, Father LaFarge?

FATHER LaFARGE: I feel the same way as Mr. Engel. Of course my memory naturally, goes back a little further than his or Mr. Wilkins, but I think the progress is so varied in such a great number of different ways. One of the points that strikes me particularly, Mr, Heffner, is that if we just go back, say 125, 130 years ago, a number of things that were assumed then as being perfectly normal would be considered as perfectly preposterous this present day. I mean the mere fact of discussing these questions, and bringing them out in public and taking them as a matter of course would then have been considered a very strange thing for anything, except a few very dedicated people.

I think there is an enormous development in the public conscience, showing itself in innumerable ways. The field of education the field of schools, is almost commonplace, you might say on almost every lecture platform. I am particularly interested of course, in the press. I follow it a little more closely, and in our press, practically a single week does not pass that there isn’t something. mean that in a very literal sense – in practically all our magazines on this topic.

And any exception to that is very rare in the sense of any opposing view, the enormous amount of publicity that is done along the lines of civil rights, So I don’t mean to be unduly agitated about the outbreaks of violence and prejudice, as grave as they are.

MR. HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you, Mr. Wilkins, just how satisfied you are. Let’s say that some progress has been made. How satisfied are you with that progress?

MR. WILKINS: Well, I don’t think any of us around this table is satisfied. I think we all believe that this is a continuing crusade. And I do think with Mr. Engel that you have to look at this thing with a little perspective over the years, and Father LaFarge has brought up more years then the rest of us can chalk up, and when you take a look down the long vista I suppose we have made enormous and ever spectacular progress. But if you look at the last year, and I understand that that’s what you want to talk about today, if we look at the last year it seems to me we have to view it with mixed emotions. I prefer to say: “Yes, there has been progress, because of the obvious signs of conflict and apparent lack of progress.” In other words, I believe that the demonstrations of violence, for example, the Klans, the burning of the crosses, the pronouncements, the actions against groups and individuals — I believe that these themselves are testimony to the fact that this matter, as Mr. Engle has said, is on the conscience of the American people, and that there is such great weight behind us as it is now conceived by the opponents that the only effective weapon, or at least the last desperate weapon, must be violence.

MR. HEFFNER: Well, you say “the only effective weapon” and then you change it. But how effective will violence be?

MR, WILKINS: It won’t be, It hasn’t been; it never has been…You never control a people. Well, take Hungary, where we have the best example. They were ten years under violence, ten years under the utmost repression, and yet at the first opportunity all of man’s desire for freedom, flared forth, even against tanks and guns and international complications and apparent hopelessness.

MR. HEFFNER: You feel then that the violence itself is a sign that people who wish to continue segregation are up against the last final barricade.

MR. WILKINS: It’s a confession that they’ve lost, —

MR, HEFFNER: A confession that they’ve lost, or a last attempt to win?

MR. WILKINS: Well, I think it’s a confession that they’ve lost. Whenever you have to resort to violence to beat down the idea of freedom, then you’ve lost, no matter whether you hang on temporarily for a year or two or even ten years — you’ve lost.

MR. HEFFNER: Yes but let me just threw this in, historically this doesn’t seem to be so true. Violence has been used or had been used in the past, and in the post-civil war period, and it was a means for maintaining the status quo. Why is it going to be any different now?

FATHER LaFARGE: I’d like to answer that question. My own thought is that there’s violence and violence. I mean violence use din what you mir:ht pall a normal way to maintain a status quo in a political sense, versus violence here used in appealing to very elementary emotional passions. This is the white supremacy issue, racism, and so on and that of its very nature spreads. It cannot be contained locally. And that is the great weakness of this whole business. That they would like, these fanatics would like to keep this stuff under control; they don’t want it spreading all over the nation, because they know that the moment it spreads over the whole nation it’s going to meet with the instant repudiation of the nation as a whole,

Consequently the very fact of its virulence is going to seal its own doom. You get some of these characters down there, these types that behave in a perfectly loony fashion and go off half-cocked, they do two things: number one, they intimidate, but they also disgust the decent people in the community itself, of which there are a very much larger number than I think any of us realize; all through the south there are thousands and millions of people who detest all this kind of thing; and secondly they simply lose themselves in public opinion at large. They become repudiated by the whole nation. In other words they can’t contain themselves within any particular limit. I think that’s the great weakness. They create an enormous amount of trouble at present, particularly in repressing the decent people, but at the same time they create so much resentment over the country that they frustrate their own ends.

MR. ENGEL: That’s right. I think every time one of those demagogues is shown on the television you may be frightened at the violence of what he says and his temporary power. But also you sense that the American people realize what he stands for and that they don’t like it; they don’t want any part of it, and sooner or later they will insist that that type of thing not be recognized in America.

MR, HEFFNER: Well, you talk about the thousands, the tens of thousands, the millions of Southerners who are disgusted by violence. I wonder if I can again ask Mr. Wilkins whether he feels that the majority of southern whites are repelled by the violence, and whether they are ready to go along, given our emphasis on the national conscience for desegregation.

MR. WILKINS: I think they are repelled by violence — let me answer the first part of the question. I think there’s no doubt but that we have a vast majority — when I say “vast” I mean more than 55 per cent in the south — who are opposed to this sort of thing. In fact, if you just limit it to violence I think 75 or 80 per cent of the south is against violence. At least they say they are. But now as to whether they are for integration or not, I’m not so sure, and at this point I’m not so concerned. I’m concerned with law and order, and the development of the concept of obedience to law. And then we can come to the integration question.

MR. HEFFNER: I wonder how you can divide the two up, since certainly in the school eases there is the matter of integration, observing the law, and this means observing integration, the process of integration. How can you, separate the two then?

MR. WILKINS: Because you have situations like you have in Clinton, Tennessee, where the majority of the town’s population, while reluctant to accept integration, nevertheless determindd to do so, and went through all of the motions — the city council, the school board — they adopted the policy. The only reason you heard any more from Clinton after that was because of John Kasper and the outside agitators who came in and stirred up the minority that was opposed to integration, Now it strikes me that the happenings in Clinton do not cast any reflection on the majority of the citizens there who wanted to obey the law; it casts reflection on the minority which was willing to follow rabblerousers and continue to disobey.

MR. HEFFNER: Do you think that a majority of southerners are willing to obey the law, if the law says desegration?

MR. WILKINS: Well it isn’t quite that simple. There are so many…Mr. Engel here spent part of his life in the south, Father LaFarge spent part of his life in the south…there are so many factors operating on the white southerner, even the man of good will and good intentions.

MR. ENGEL: There are so many different sections of the south which are entirely different.

MR. WILKINS: Exactly so. So that you can’t say “what do we do with a state like Texas?” where west Texas and south Texas desegregated their schools without any trouble whatsoever; east Texas has been obdurate; even from county to county it varies, does it not, Mr. Engel.

MR. ENGEL: That’s right.

FATHER LAFARGE: Perhaps I could make my point just a little bit clearer. That I’m not. so terribly concerned about what’s happening in the south because, after all, I’m a northerner and I’m living in the north and I’m out of it, except for what I see and what I’ve learned. But what I am concerned about is the country as a whole, And I believe that if the American conscience as a whole is aroused I think then it will give the opportunity to those elements in the south — even if they are only a minority to be able to straighten things out down thereAfter all, the problem is going to be solved locally.

It’s going to be solved by the people in the different localities, using their own wisdom and their own intelligence, with both races working together. But on the other hand they have to have the backing of the nation as a whole. They…it’s a delicate thing: we don’t want to interfere with theni….I say “we” — we who are not in the south — on the other hand, they do need our support, and I have the feeling that if they feel most definitely, more definitely than they do, that they have the country as a whole behind them, I mean these elements that are decent, they’ll be able to accomplish more down there. Take Roy Wilkins’ own organization, the NAACP — well now they’re encountering, as we know, a terrific amount of opposition in the south, all kinds of things said about them; it’s entirely unjustified. But on the other hand, if that organization feels that they have the backing of the country as a whole, they’ll be able to function much more. So it’s a question of background and of national support. And it’s a tremendous thing to have the whole United States with you,

MR. HEFFNER: You talk about conscience. What role does religion play in formulating this conscience?

FATHER LAFARGE: Well, religion, that’s its function to formulate conscience. It has, on the one hand….religion has the utterances of various religious leaders which have reminded people of the general truths of the ten commandments, the truths of justice, which are preached by the religious teachers of the world; it’s had a tremendous effect, which is very striking, of reminding people that this topic does come within the bounds, the purview of religious practice and religious

That you can’t compartment them, which of course a very large number of perfectly good people would like to do. They’d like to feel that this thing is one thing and that our religion is another, something you can put on and put off like an overcoat. But I think it has had the very startling effect, the disturbing effect, on a great many people, of doing what a southern physician, in a country town, who’s a friend of mine, remarked recently. He said that, after some pronouncement of his own bishop on this matter, and he said: “Good Lord, I’ve been a very devout and religious Christian all my life, and I’ve been a great, always been very faithful to my bishop, in my church localities, but I never brought the two things together in this connection before.” It does arouse a connection in their minds,

MR., ENGEL: Of course on of the basic tenets of the Jewish religion and the Christian religion is the fatherhood of God from which stems the brotherhood of man. And the segregation and discrimination against another man because of his race or his religion is absolutely contrary to that basic principle,

MR, HEFFNER: Well then let me ask this question: do you agree on this: How effective has organized religion been in expressing these opinions involving itself in this area?

MR. WILKINS: Oh, I think the Montgomery, the Reverend Martin Luther King movement, has demonstrated what religion can do in arousing the conscience of the people on this matter. Of course it has infused the Negro community in the United States inaway that never could have

The greatest error of the segregationist in this whole struggle, Father LaFarge and Mr. Engel, has been, or was, the arrest of the Negro ministers in Montgomery. This fired the whole Negro community from Maine to California, the whole church community, every minister, negro minister, felt himself identified with King. Every Negro congregation in the country felt identified with the Montgomery congregations. And the white people who had the religious motivation in this matter felt aroused by King. This is the single outstanding example of the arousal of the Christian conscience, or let me say, the religious conscience in America, on this question. I think it has been very effective.

MR, ENGEL: It’s not limited to America. Because since last week, when Reverend King appeared on your program, it was announced that held been invited by Nehru to come and visit India, and accepted.

MR. HEFFNER: Well, I’d still like to follow up on this question. You say that some things have been done, in terms of religious motivation. I . used the word and I’ll use it again, Mr. Wilkins, are you satisfied with what has been done?

MR. WILKINS: Well I feel that the churches of allaiths..I’m reminded of Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis in New Orleans giving very firm and courageous leadership on this question in New Orleans, which was a hotbed of resistance. And I’m reminded of the work of the Catholic committee of the South; I’m reminded of the resolution and actions of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, and the National Council of Churches.

And I’m aware of what southern white ministers have done, Protestants, Catholics and Rabbis, what they have done on this question in their individual communities where they didn’t have the protection of the big city of New York, or great urban opinion. They only had their own religious convictions and consciences to keep them going. And they’ve done a tremendous job. Now so good that they are, that you are satisfied. Who’s satisfied? You have $50, and you want $500. If you have $500 you want $50,000

MR. ENGEL: As a matter of fact, Father LaFarge touches on that in his book, and I hope he won’t mind if I give it a plug. I hope people who are interested will buy it. But you say there at one point as I recall, Father LaFarge, that this whole question about the stand of the bishops and most of the priests in your church, but the difficulty is getting down to the masses who, as you say, for all their lives and for generations before them, have compartmentalized this problem, failed or refused to see that it was in violation of their religious principles, and that they need education.

FATHER LAFARGE: But social morality, I think, Mr. Engel, always makes rather slow progress. The very nature of the thing — it isn’t because people are averse, or because they are necessarily worngheaded, but application of morality is always, it is always difficult when it is not something very obvious to somebody. Let’s take for example, somebody steals your wallet. The average person thinks it’s the wrong thing. But in business, some transactions, why it may take a lot of explanation to show that something’s done in the stockmarket, or something, is wrong.

The same way throughout our whole field of social morality; it isn’t an easy thing for the mind to grasp. And we naturally have a terrific resistance against it, so that –

MR. ENGEL: Well that brings up something else that Reverend King said last week. And that is that the privileged class always is reluctant to give up its privileges. And usually some form of force or pressure is required in order to bring that about.

MR. HEFFNER: Well of course that reminds me of the question, and I think it’s a major question I wanted to ask and that is: what is the future going to hold; what are the obstacles in the way to continuing this progress that you gentlemen see? What are the problems to be faaed and resolved.

MR. ENGEL: Well may I again, if I may answer this, refer to Father LaFargets book. He brings out a very important and basic factor in this picture. And that is that the problem of the minority that’s the subject of discrimination and mistreatment is not the problem of the members of that minority. Itts a problem of all Americans, Every American who believes in the principles of America, who wants to see the American dream realized,who wants to see America really justified in holding itself out as the leader of the forces of democracy, every such American must join in this fight.

MR. HEFFNER: Mr. Wilkins, how do you look to the future?

MR. WILKINS: I feel that we’re going to make still more progress; if you want to take the particular area of school desegregation, there has been desegregation each school year and there are the court decisions that are piling up and building a body of law on this matter seem to make it inevitable that this progress will continue. At least, in everything but let’s say the hard core areas, where I look for, Father LaFarge, the moral pressures finally to crack this, coupled with a little practical political action.

MR. HEFFNER: Well, where are you people going to go from here? Where is the NAACP, what’s its next step, major step?

MR. WILKINS: We’re working on the problem of housing; were working the matter of voter registration and citizenship education. We conceive this to be basic and bedrock. Of course we’re working on civil rights legislation in the Congress.

MR. ENGEL: ‘Could I interrupt right there.. Because you asked about evidence of progress. For the first time, I guess in 80 years, this year there appears to be a fairly good chance that we will get some form of civil rights legislation. It may not be complete or satisfactory, but it will be some form and it will be definite progress. And last year it didn’t seem possible.

FATHER LAFARGE: I’m a great believer, Mr. Engle, in getting something on the record, in getting something started.

Its going back to our friend Dr. Martin Luther King, getting on the record that people, Negroes, can in those very adverse circumstances, do something on their own. The same way if you get civil rights started, it’s getting the thing on the record, getting through that barrier that nothing can be done, nothing can be said, nothing can be legislated on it. I think that’s the important thing.

MR. HEFFNER: With one minute left, let me just ask what can an individual do?

FATHER LAFARGE: Well an individual, first of all he can inform himself. And, this is extremely important. Get his own personal example, which is still more important, and then thirdly he can encourage those who are working in this field, and give them real serious encouragement by trying to learn what they’re trying to do, finding the aims of their organized work. The individual can work alone, as a lone individual, or he can work with organizations, there are both fields open to him. That depends a great deal on his own personality; And finally, he can pray, and ask Almighty God, for his Grace, for in the long run everything depends upon the Grace of God, the help of God.

MR. HEFFNER: Thank you so much, Father LaFarge, Mr. Engel, and Mr. Wilkins, This week we’ve given a summary report on civil rights over the past year.

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