Irving M. Engel, John LaFarge, Roy Wilkins

Civil Rights Progress

VTR Date: February 22, 1959

READ FULL TRANSCRIPT

THE OPEN MIND
February 22, 1959
NBC Television

Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Roy Wilkins, Father John La Farge, Irving Engel

ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today: “Progress of Civil Rights over the Past Year.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher and author of “A Documentary History of the Unites States.”

HEFFNER: This is the end of Brotherhood Week sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and I think that as the television chairman of the local chapter I would like to thank this station WRCA-TV — for having devoted so much of its time to the subject of Brotherhood during this past week. I also think it is…appropriate for us to do our third annual report on Civil Rights on this day. You probably know this is the second time that we have brought to ether the panel that we have here right now, and of course the occasion two years ago when we did our first report was the publication of the American Jewish Committee’s “The People Take The Lead.” This as a survey of progress in Civil Rights over the past number of years.
We want to discuss Civil Hights over the past year or two. I think right now we ought to introduce the same guests that we had two years ago on February 17, 1957. Once again my first guest is Father John La Farge, Editor of the Artcyclopedia, and author of “An American, Amen!” My second guest is Reverend Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And my third guest is Mr. Irving Engel, President of the American Jewish Committee. Gentlemen, I think that I would look back at the transcript of our discussion two years ago and I will just ask what kind of progress, if any, do you think we have made in this area since we were together on February 17, 1957? I will ask you first, Mr. Wilkins.

WILKINS: I think there has been progress in a number of fields, and that has been accented of course by the difficulties, the conflicts, and some of the setbacks. I think if you have no progress you have no opposition, and the fact that we have had opposition means that there has been some forward movement. There has been forward movement in desegregation of schools; there has been forward movement in an appreciation of this problem in the north, and more of an adjustment and a willingness to tackle it. There has been some progress I think in legislation, the enactment of the Civil Rights bill of 1957. There has been actual progress in desegregation of school since two years ago. Of course, we have had a resurgence of…you might say, but against that we have had the final in Virginia through the courts of the destruction and the collapse of the massive resistance philosophy which has influenced the whole south on this. But it seems to me — and I hope my colleagues will agree — that we have had some progress in the two years. Nothing perhaps to write a book about.

HEFFNER: Well, I don’t know if the AJC has written this book. But let me ask this question. There was a certain feeling, there was a certain climate of opinion when we dis¬ cussed this two years ago at this very same table. It was one of optimism. You looked back over the last number of years, and particularly over the past year at that time with considerable optimism. Has anything changed since…together last time to give you different feelings or different quality to your feelings Mr. Engel?

ENGEL: Well, you are looking at me. I would say yes, but I think, though, that you have to take this in mind. You have to look at the whole picture. If you look at the whole picture of Civil Rights the first thing that strikes you is the situation with reference to desegregation of the schools in the south, and I think except for recent developments in Virginia, in the deep south the situation has gotten worse rather than better, and it may continue to get worse before it does get better. The leaders down there who should be trying to solve the problem are making it more difficult. They are defying the law, and the result is we are getting violence in opposition to the law. But when you look at really what has taken place in the various areas of discrimination, higher education, employment, transportation, we have made progress. Then the danger is that instead of being discouraged by what we see in the school situation we may get too complacent. There is still a tremendous job to be done. But I feel that we have made progress, and I think if I may explain this pamphlet of ours -¬ President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights issued its report in 1947 portraying graphically the gap between our professed principles and our actual practices, and giving a blueprint of the program for removing that great blot on our record. Beginning with 1948, a year thereafter, every year we have made this report which is a cumulative report of progress in the various fields — voting, schools, housing, education, employment, etcetera. And every year there have been items to be added to the list, and there have been items added in 1957 and 1958 since we last met here.

HEFFNER: I suppose the question that occurs to me, and I would direct it to Father La Farge, is that Mr. Engel talks about the origin of this report, “The People Take The Lead,” and refer to President Truman’s leadership at that time. I know that in your most recent book, “An American Amen,” you have referred to the atrophy of leadership, and I wonder whether there is any connection between the origin of this particular project and your estimation of what has happened since we last met at this table?

LA FARGE: I think we might make it a sort of balance of the two things. I agree with both what Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Engel have mid; and there is certainly very definite progress. On the other hand, it is my view, which I had in 1957, I don’t know just how I expressed it then, but it seemed to me that along with evidence of progress you would have also a number of things in the other direction which were inevitable. In other words, a great many gimmicks could be found, methods of exciting prejudice, et cetera. A very good example, for instance, of that, is the fear campaign that some of our national publications, national weeklies have been — to my mind very unfortunately propagating. Then of course there is a lot of undercover stuff, to alarm people and scare people. A lot of that stuff has come up. A great deal of the fear and anxiety. The campaign has become more refined and more elaborate. But at the same time along with this fear cam¬paign there is also, I think, a stiffening of confidence on the part of people who were very much intimidated a year or two ago. They are beginning to get their nerve, and more people are willing now to speak up than they were perhaps a year or two ago. They are realizing that some of these organizations like the… Citizens’ Councils, et cetera, that after all, they are more or less bogeys, and they are beginning to stand up against them.

Moreover, I think there are islands being formed of moderate people and thoughtful people all over, people who probably are not saying very much, but who are possible not very idealistic, but they are seeing that these changes must occur, that the position of segregation is simply an impossible position. In other words, there is a growth of the sense of the impossibility, a growth of the sense of you simply cannot keep this thing up indefinitely. And it begins rather low plane of mere resignation, but then I think it will move on to the higher plane of better understanding the thing.

LA FARGE: Yes, they are still silent.

WILKINS: Yes, they are very silent. But we have no leadership on this emerging in the south.

HEFFNER: Well, I think that this question of leadership and the matter of the silent islands, I should imagine they have to be given voice before what it is they feel can be incorporated to our national climate of opinion. And this I guess is why I raise the question somewhat cynically as to the progress that has been made. I think, Mr. Engel, you point to the fact that there are additions each year to “The People Take The Lead.” This is true in a sense that history would have it so. We couldn’t go through a year without some additions of a housing authority in a particular city ending discrimination, et cetera. But isn’t it the matter of the climate of opinion and the posture we take generally?

ENGEL: Well, that’s the most important thing of all. If you think back to eleven years ago when this report first came out when we had a clear line of distinction drawn among the men who were enlisted or conscripted into our armed forces, when skilled artisans were deprived of a chance of jobs because of their race or their color or their religion, when the right to vote in a large part of the country has a mirage, and when of course the corrosive constant indignity of segregation in so many areas — not only schools, but housing, buses, theaters, parks, playgrounds, hospitals, even cemeteries. I think you have got to remember what that situation was. And with all of that, with all of these things happening, you didn’t read about Civil Rights in the papers. Today we have made all this progress and Civil Rights has become a first page item. I think it is largely because of what Father La Farge mentioned, and that is that our failure in Civil Rights is now beginning to weigh on the conscience of the American people. They are interested in it, they want to know about it, and I think when something rests heavily enough on the con¬ science of the American people they will do something about it.

HEFFNER: Well, you mentioned desegregation and I wonder whether this is an answer? Father La Farge, I felt before when we were talking that you feel it is not.

LA FARGE: Well, I say that desegregation of course in itself is not an answer to the problem, it is simply a condition necessary for the answer. It is just like going to a hospital — it doesn’t cure you of your disease. You may still have to be…on for whatever it may be. But it is a necessary condition for the operation. So that desegregation is removal of a condition or situation which itself blocks any progress, blocks any reconciliation. The work of reconciliation, the work of integration, in the full sense of the word, not just a mechanical thing of people being together in the same room, but actually working together, living together, working together in our community whether it is the religious community or the school or educational community or civic community, whatever it is, that is a process which demands all the resources of both spiritual and temporal.

I would like to just take up what Doctor Engel has said about the matter of conscience. Because there I think there is one definite progress, quite remarkable progress, in the last years — last few months, especially. There have been such remarkable declarations of the fact that this is a moral problem. We had the very fine statement of the Anglicans, the Episcopal clergymen, some time ago in which they brought that out. Then the…when we were talking that you feel it is not.

Well, I say that desegregation of course in itself is not an answer to the problem, it is simply a condition necessary for the answer. It is just like going to a hospital — it doesn’t cure you of your disease. You may still have to be operated on for whatever it may be. But it is a necessary condition for the operation. So that desegregation is removal of a condition or situation which itself blocks any progress, blocks any reconciliation. The work of reconciliation, the work of integration, in the full sense of the word, not just a mechanical thing of people being together in the same room, but actually working together, living together, working together in our community whether it is the religious community or the school or educational community or civic community, whatever it is, that is a process which demands all the resources of both spiritual and temporal. I would like to just take up what Doctor Engel has said about the matter of conscience. Because there I think there is one definite progress, quite remarkable progress, in the last years — last few months, especially. There have been such remarkable declarations of the fact that this is a moral problem. We had the very fine statement of the Anglicans, the Episcopal clergymen, some time ago in which they brought that out. Then the statement of the Presbyterians in the south, then the Methodists, and then on November 11, the statement of the Roman Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting in Washington, in which they said that the heart of the question was the moral question. That the question of segregation was a moral question from two points of view that they explained. And just a few days ago here in New York we had our own Catholic Archbishop — Cardinal Spellman testify before the Civil Rights Commission. Again, he insisted on the moral nature of this matter. That’s a question of moral integrity.

I think you might say, well, what is the effect of this? Well, the effect of that is not an immediate thing because you and I know that the effect of moral statements is not one of those things that you can immediately measure with a Geiger counter.

They reach the souls of people. But the fact of the record being there, the fact that this thing has been put down and stated, and stated publicly, and has gone down in the record is itself an advance, so though I agree with Mr. Wilkins on all these setbacks, at the same time I think that is an advance. I don’t want to exaggerate. I don’t want you to get the idea because we have had some moral statements that everything is going to be hunky-dory. It isn’t true.

ENGEL: Well, I would like to comment on that because undoubtedly all of these statements are very powerful and will ultimately have their effect. But we have to remember that a hundred years ago ministers of religion were quoting the Scriptures to justify the horrible institution of slavery. And today you can go down to the south and find them quoting Scriptures to justify segregation. So as Father La Farge suggested, these things don’t take place automatically. They are slow-moving, but they are ultimately, I think, effective.

WILKINS: I think they are too. I was going to add to that list, Father La Farge, of the pronouncement of the 312 ministers of Atlanta, which seems to me to take a good deal of significance because they were right there faced with the issue.

ENGEL: Yes, it’s easy for us up here.

WILKINS: Yes, and if I may say so, it is rela¬tively easy, or easier, for the Methodist council of Bishops, let’s say, or for the Presbyterian Board. But when you have to go around, and ministers have to face their congregations that next Sunday in their communities, and when they sign, 312 of them, this seems to me to be a manifestation—

ENGEL: I hope I will be pardoned if I mention the fact that the Rabbis in Atlanta were included in this?

WILKINS: They were indeed. That it was the Rabbis in New Orleans who first made one of these statements several years ago, long before this.

HEFFNER: Well, it interests me that you make that point, Mr. Wilkins, because a couple of weeks ago when we were talking on this program about the law in American life, naturally we came to this subject, and the point was made that it took much more courage in the south to stand by the principles that have been set down in 1954 by the Supreme Court against desegregation than it took here in New York or in Boston or in Pittsburgh or wherever you might be. But I wonder again whether there doesn’t have to be some translation of these moral principles into political terms, or rather the adoption by politicians — and I use this word as synonymous with statesmen — of the moral tone of the clergymen you have referred to?

ENGEL: Well, you are looking for evidence that there has been some regress to offset the lack of progress in other areas. Take this commission on Civil Rights that was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and which took so long to get going. Yet they have done two things, which have been extremely important. They have gone down into Alabama and have shown and it was on television, it had tremendous impact — white men who were almost illiterate acting as registrars and refusing the vote to professors at Tuskegee Institute who had PhD’s. Then they come to New York and hold a two-day public session with representatives of all groups — and I was there when Cardinal Spellman made his really eloquent statement — told of the fact that in the north we have discrimination, we have not closed this gap, or done all that should be done. It made first pages all over the country. I happened to mention the really unpardonable situation with refer¬ence to housing covenants in Washington. Already one bill has been introduced to prevent the recording of deeds of such covenants, and another one is about to be introduced. The papers gave a great play. I think there are going to be committee hearings on it. I am hopeful that something will flow from it.

HEFFNER: Well, of course you mentioned that we are looking for the evidences of progress. I wonder whether we aren’t even more looking for what has to be done now?

ENGEL: That’s what I said. We shouldn’t get complacent because of the progress that is being made. And of course this hearing in New York on the r art of the Commission, on Civil Rights, showed how far New York, which I believe has taken the lead in these things — how far we are from achieving what, ought to be achieved. As a matter of fact, I testified principally with reference to the discrimination against Jews in housing in New York, and just today R;Ot some editorials from southern papers attacking me, attacking New York, and saying, why doesn’t Senator Javits want the troops ordered out to come to New York to see that the Jews are admitted to these houses?” Of course the difference is that here it is not being done by law; the law is against it, the leaders are against it, and nobody, when I testify that way, nobody burns a cross in front of my house or explodes a bomb in my synagogue.

HEFFNER: And yet the sentiments expressed in those editorials are sentiments that I think one would have to stretch one’s imagination to feel some affinity for. Not the negative aspect, but the positive aspect, because if we are talking about a moral issue — not talking so much about the law now — I think maybe this is the area in which we all have a great deal of work to do.
ENGEL: And we cannot insist that the south clear up its situation if we close our eyes to what exists in the north. There is no question about it.

WILKINS: That’s true, but I feel very definitely that we fall into a kind of trap if we allow the south — rather not
the south, because there really isn’t a south any more, it is all broken up, and you can’t say the south any more, but if we allow the segregationist philosophy, or tactic, or gimmick I prefer to call it, of trying to get us to don sack cloth and ashes and to look inward at out own sins and to permit them to continue sinning, then I think we fall into a trap. And I have been a little alarmed at this self-abnegation of the north in which they say, “Well, now we are reality too so we shouldn’t say anything about the south.” Well, gentlemen if we don’t say anything about the south and if we don’t talk about the south and if we don’t accuse the south not wrongly, but rightly, because their sins are there for everyone to see — if we don’t do that then we are guilty of condoning a sin. Pointing a finger and saying that you are guilty too doesn’t excuse the south.

ENGEL: Yes, but I did not mean by any means-¬

WILKINS: I know you didn’t.

ENGEL: –that we should cease our pressure on that.

HEFFNER: Mr. Wilkins was answering the point that I made, and I think that I made it more to set the answer than anything else. And yet, on the other hand, we certainly cannot afford to take a holier—

LA FARGE: Would you agree to this, that certainly we cannot take a sackcloth and ashes on ourselves and say that they are the sinners and everybody else is all right? But on the other hand there seem to be the two things that can be reconciled. In other words, we can speak more freely about the situations in the south if we are also speaking very freely about the situations in the north. Certainly in some of our northern communities, there are violent and grave examples of racial prejudice, and very shocking things. I could mention such cities I know of.
Only a couple of days ago I received in the mail a terrific broadside of a most violently racist character in one of our northern cities which is supposed to be an enlightened place.

ENGEL: Well, now I think we can be heard better in the south. Those people who are — we are talking about leaders, those are the people who try to have some leadership, those are the people who are trying to make themselves heard, and those are the people who are trying to emerge and can more more readily if the northerners can encourage them by doing a little work up north too. If it can be said everybody in the north is against the south, no matter how justified you are, it wakens your position. I am thinking of the people in the south themselves. I have talked to a lot of southerners recently on this very matter, people from Arkansas, and from other places, and some of the places right in the thick of things. They say it is a great help to them in their battle they try to do rather feebly what they can — if we in the north can say now we are treating this as a national problem. It is a national problem; it is a world problem. And I think we have to keep bringing that idea out all the time; this is, although there is this particular situation in the segregationist states, nevertheless it is a world problem, an international problem.

HEFFNER: I suppose one of the troubles is that people use that point of view, as Mr. Wilkins said, as a diversion¬ary tactic.

WILKINS: That’s right. That’s the only objec¬tion I have. I agree completely with the idea that the north cannot afford to be hypocritical on this matter. But I would say something to the southerners, “Look, we are doing something about ours, or we are trying to it. We have this commission, we have this law, we have these societies free to operate. We are free to protest and do anything we like, and we are changing things in the north, maybe not as fast as we should, but we are working at it. You come and do likewise. Show me that you are trying to do something about it in the south and not simply resting back there and saying, “Well, they are just as bad as we are and we aren’t going to move until you do something.” This is a diversionary tactic. It is a national problem, it is an international problem, but I am just leery, a little, of the tactic of divert attention.

HEFFNER: What tactics do you advocate? We will get down to the question of what are we going to be able to look back at next year at this time. What tactics—

WILKINS: Father La Farge mentioned something in his opening remarks that I think we need to remember at all times, and that is that one of the dark spots in this whole picture is the suppression of dissent in the south. In the north you can express yourself if you like on nearly any controversial subject. But the southerners, who wish to dissent or even wish to debate or to discuss, are not free to do so. And I think one of the objectives of the next year ought to be an attempt to establish freedom of discussion of the issue so that it can be explored. I don’t know how we do that. Here arises the question of leadership, the question of islands, the question of contacts — for example you can’t debate this issue in a southern college. They come north. They send their debate teams to New England, New York, the Middle West, and they will debate segregation. But a New York team can’t go down to Alabama or Georgia at the University of Georgia, say, and debate segregation. They won’t listen to a speaker down there who believes in desegregation. And until we can have this exchange of communi¬cation, this reestablishment of good old American free speech, then we aren’t going to make progress.

HEFFNER: Do you think this part of freedom is also the key to freedom, Father La Farge?

LA FARGE: I think so, very much so. We are sending people over to Soviet Russia to talk to students over there, inviting them to come over here, and yet there are certain parts of the United States where we can’t go and talk. I think that’s an extraordinary thing.

HEFFNER: How are we going to remedy that though? Do you think religion and morality, the appeal to morality is going to count greatest here?

LA FARGE: Well, that’s the $64 thousand question.

ENGEL: I think there is one thing that might be mentioned–

HEFFNER: In a half minute.

ENGEL: –and it has been said by Father La Farge in one of his books; and that is, we have got to recognize that this is not a problem of the members of the minority that are concerned, but a problem for all Americans, and every American who really believes in the principles of America and wants to see this American dream realized, has got to join in the fight.

HEFFNER: On our series on anti-Semitism we concluded, one of the speakers did that this wasn’t a problem for Jews, it was a problem for all Americans. But the mail we received indicated there were a good many people who didn’t feel this way. But this is that point at which to end this year’s report. Thank you so much, Mr. Engel, Mr. Wilkins, and Father La Farge.

We will be back next week on The Open Mind when our subject will be “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” See you then, when we talk about Russian and American education.