The Limits of Interracial Compromise: Louisiana, 1941

Article excerpt

There is no little divergence of opinion as to the extent of segregation and discrimination in the interpersonal sphere. The literature tends to emphasize "interesting" individual experiences, which may be exceptions. In eliciting opinions as to the extent of segregation and discrimination, there exists enough divergence of interest to result in the collection of beliefs rather than facts. These beliefs are important data in themselves, but are no substitute for the facts.

Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944)

**********

IN 1941 AN AFRICAN AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL IN FRANKLINTON, Louisiana, explained to a researcher from Fisk University that race relations in the town had improved after a "series of murders" several years earlier, which had ended with the shooting of "one of these fresh crackers by a Negro." The principal, Robert W. Johnson, quoted with considerable pride a saying of local white residents: "You know, these niggers around here will kill you." (1) In Monroe, Louisiana, another Fisk investigator noted the "buoyancy of spirit" among local African Americans as well as their "recognition of racial separation." Although black citizens in Monroe understood "their place," the investigator learned from a black confidant that "white people also have their place. When they get out of it, these Negroes will put them back in it." Indeed, while riding a crowded local bus the investigator noticed "whites were sitting in the back and some colored people sitting near the front or middle." The confidant recalled a problem once "because a Negro sat in front of a white person." The black passenger insisted that "he was going to sit down. If the white man wanted him to get up, come up there and make him move." (2)

The team of black social scientists from Fisk University, who came to Louisiana in the fall of 1941 under the direction of the eminent sociologist Charles S. Johnson to study black elementary and secondary schools, recorded interviews and observations that are especially relevant in light of historians' growing interest in how black and white southerners together shaped their peculiar society during the Jim Crow era. (3) As historians like Robin D. G. Kelley and Michael K. Honey have shown, day-to-day black resistance, such as black passengers' refusal to abide by segregation laws on buses, became commonplace in southern cities during World War II, as round-the-clock defense production triggered overcrowding in urban areas. (4) But as testimony collected by the Fisk group in Franklinton and Monroe suggests, black Louisianians in late 1941 displayed self-confident behavior even without the stress of a population boom caused by the war emergency.

In fact, the Fisk investigators did not find the static system of white oppression and black powerlessness described in the "caste" monographs of their contemporaries, social scientists like John Dollard, Hortense Powdermaker, Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner of the late 1930s and early 1940s, or in the bleak interpretations of more recent historians like Neil R. McMillen and others. Instead the Fisk team noted in certain Louisiana parishes a more dynamic racial paradigm that grew from a variety of factors. Close kinship ties, similar economic concerns, and the important element of leadership, both black and white, contributed to the creation of a pattern of black assertiveness and white flexibility not usually attributed to race relations in the Deep South on the eve of World War II. Although the example of interracial compromise observed by the Fisk team in late 1941 reflected only a very fragile truce in a tension-filled Jim Crow society, it nonetheless suggests a degree of fluidity and protest in the pre-World War II era that historians are just beginning to understand. (5) The caste monographs, which focused on two towns in Mississippi, cannot be thought of as offering a definitive model of race relations across the South in the 1930s, any more than Birmingham or Selma, Alabama, can be considered as typical of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. …