Week 10 Notes

We’ll spend the first hour of this week’s meeting watching Episode 3 of The Promised Land. Last week we got everyone to Chicago, this week we’ll see how they did once they arrived. The film and the readings provide a sort of commentary for one another: the film tells what it was like every day, through the eyes of the people who lived it, while the readings give us a perspective on the historical forces that were beginning to operate in Chicago and elsewhere. These forces were to culminate, of course, in the southern civil rights movement whose story we’re all familiar with. The northern background Gregory and Ottley describe might be less familiar, but was, as they show, “not just prelude but precondition” (Gregory, p. 237) to the gains of the 1960s.

Here as throughout his book, Gregory takes the optimistic point of view at every opportunity. Blacks broke through existing ghetto boundaries in the ’40s and ’50s. Were they just filling a vacuum left by white flight? Gregory prefers to credit actions by aggressive organizations and courageous individuals. Were new employment opportunities for blacks brought about by a fear of international embarrassment during World War II? Gregory emphasizes the importance of black alliances with the New Deal and the daring threat of a black March on Washington. Some of our group members have been skeptical about Gregory’s sunny outlook, and it might be something we’ll want to talk about.

Gregory looks closely at how black political power led to important advances in housing and employment opportunities, and gives us the statistics to show that these increased opportunities brought about real improvements in living standards for urban blacks.

He concedes that some of this new power can be attributed to what he calls “context.” As we’ve seen, blacks landed in big cities just as those cities achieved their greatest importance in the national scene. They arrived at a time when labor unions were gaining strength as well, and even when blacks were excluded from (or helped to break) those unions they often benefited from the unions’ efforts. Black migrants were also fortunate enough to find two competing political parties in many of the cities they settled, and quickly realized that their leverage could swing the balance of power.

But although circumstances and context helped, they couldn’t account for all, or even most, of what blacks achieved during this period. While Gregory may overstate the case, there’s no questioning that blacks were skillful in developing, using, and finally perfecting the strategies and tactics that won victories in the north before turning south in the 60s.

First, blacks registered to vote in great numbers, often immediately upon their arrival in the city. The right to vote was one that had long been denied them, and it had symbolic as well as practical value for them. Blacks registered in higher proportions than did whites in many areas.

Next, they formed alliances: with left-wing groups (especially the Communist Party), with Democrats, with labor unions. Here it was especially important to have a black intelligentsia in place. Those in Harlem, for example, were able to form alliances with the New Yorkers who later became key New Deal players. FDR was New York’s Governor before his election to the Presidency, and he brought many key staff members (and policy innovations) with him to Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt was a friend to many black leaders, and exercised her power on their behalf.

These connections paid off big in 1941, when the spectre of a black March on Washington led the Roosevelt Administration, fearing international embarrassment and possibly widespread rioting, to issue Executive Order 8802, outlawing job discrimination in defense work. EO8802 didn’t come close to ending job discrimination, but by establishing the FEPC, it provided a focus for future organizing efforts and a wedge for litigation and activism.

The battles for expanded housing opportunities and integration of public facilities were fought one at a time from coast to coast. Once again, tactics developed in these battles (sit-ins, boycotts) were transferred to the south when the time came. As Gregory points out in his discussion of both the employment and housing struggles, even when results were marginal, the resulting development of techniques was crucial to the larger cause.

Opening up new neighborhoods and integrating unions had real consequences for the way blacks lived. Real incomes went up and the infamous “kitchenettes” began to fade into history. But Gregory points to another change that, although less substantive, paid dividends down the road. Mass media, led by publications such as Fortune and Life magazines, began to depict blacks more favorably. We’ve already read the Life article on the 1943 Detroit riots (find it here, starting on page 93), and he cites others, too (all of which are accessible at Google Books). Part of this change was due to the unrelenting pressure of black leaders like Walter White of the NAACP, but there’s no doubt that some was due to a real change in attitudes, at least in the north.

In this week’s reading, we get another chapter from Ottley’s New World A-Coming, a concise history of the Magnificent Bluff and the signing of EO8802. We also get a look at the original signature copy of EO8802, which Ottley points out was “the first presidential order affecting Negroes directly since Lincoln’s day.”

A. Philip Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was one of the key players in the runup to EO8802 and a central figure in the American labor movement and the cilil rights movement. This little video is from a CBS News  story on the Pullman Porters, their union, and Randolph’s role. there’s a 15-second ad at the beginning – be patient, and please enjoy!

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