Commentary Magazine


Negro Strategy

To the Editor:

It is unfortunate that David Danzig’s otherwise thought-provoking article [“The Meaning of Negro Strategy,” February] was marred, especially in its closing passages, by a totally erroneous picture of the policies and performance of the AFL-CIO.

While Mr. Danzig showed meticulous scholarship in developing other aspects of his theme, in dealing with the labor movement he embraced the stereotypes of those disaffected liberals who now live comfortably by writing about the way unions have “degenerated” since they left. Take this passage:

Today with one-fourth of the nation still ill-housed, ill-fed and ill-clothed . . . the AFL-CIO is hardly more interested in speaking for the unorganized worker than the AFL was [during the Depression].

In the next paragraph, as though drawing a contrast, Mr. Danzig notes with approval:

The March on Washington . . . included among its ten points a request for a massive federal program to train unemployed workers—Negro and white; a national Minimum Wage Act that would give to all a decent living; and a broad Federal Labor Standards Act covering all areas of unemployment which are presently excluded.

The clear implication is that the measures urged by the marchers are of no concern to the AFL-CIO. It’s enough to make the mind reel.

Mr. Danzig must surely be aware that a Fair Labor Standards Act (covering minimum wages, maximum hours, child labor, etc.) has been on the federal statute books since 1937; that trade-union support was decisive when it was first enacted; that union leadership and union pressure, before and since the AFL-CIO merger, have been responsible for each subsequent improvement (1949, 1955, 1961); that the AFL-CIO is presently the one major force campaigning for a higher minimum, broader coverage, and shorter hours. . . . The truth is the exact antithesis of Mr. Danzig’s charge. Year in and year out, in good times and bad, the labor movement has been the only major force that has consistently pressed for action to eliminate poverty, unemployment, and the other economic and social shortcomings in American life. . . .

Perhaps the consistency of the AFL-CIO, as compared to others in the liberal community, can be illustrated by recalling an article by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the New York Times Sunday magazine in August 1957. Mr. Schlesinger, in words I am sure he now regrets, speculated on the future of liberalism in an era when the nation’s economic problems, by and large, had been solved. He acknowledged that there were a few pockets of poverty, a few unemployed, but nothing serious enough to maintain the crusading zeal of the liberals.

At almost the same time, the AFL-CIO Executive Council was saying that “Complacency over the state of national economic affairs must be replaced by positive policies, both public and private, to strengthen the economic and social order.” . . .

Concerning civil rights and discrimination, the primary subject of Mr. Danzig’s article—no one in the AFL-CIO has ever pretended that racial discrimination is unknown in the labor movement. But except for the Negro organizations themselves, the AFL-CIO (including its affiliates and its predecessor federations) has fought harder for civil rights in general and equal employment opportunities in particular than any other organization in America. Since the end of World War II labor has been pressing for statutory federal fair-employment-practices legislation (which at this writing has been adopted by the House and which, I predict, will shortly become law) and has always insisted that such legislation apply to unions as well as employers.

The AFL-CIO has from its creation been the strongest single advocate of civil-rights legislation of all kinds. In 1961, for example, Congressman Powell offered a bill to deny federal aid to apprenticeship programs which discriminated on grounds of race. The first witness at the hearings was AFL-CIO President George Meany, a product of the apprenticeship system, who expressed full AFL-CIO support for the proposal, arguing only that it was not an adequate substitute for an FEPC. Ironically, Department of Labor witnesses subsequently opposed the bill. Yet it is the labor movement, not the Kennedy administration, which Mr. Danzig assails.

Mr. Danzig dismisses the building-trades unions’ desire to maintain standards of workmanship, implying that such standards do not exist. It may well be true that, in a few unenlightened local unions, “standards” are used as an excuse to bar Negroes. But the standards are nonetheless real and important; and Mr. Danzig conveniently ignores the special pre-apprenticeship programs established by a number of trades to help disadvantaged Negroes to meet them.

Mr. Danzig fails to note further that it was the clamor of all-white unions in collective bargaining that put an end to discrimination in hiring and promotion in most industrial plants. Twenty years of progress have been wiped out in many instances by the drastic shrinkage of industrial employment. Whose fault is that? Certainly not the AFL-CIO, which has insisted all along that full opportunity was inseparable from equal opportunity. We did not need Mr. Harrington’s book to tell us that there was poverty in America, or that much of it was Negro poverty. (As a matter of fact, in the appendix to his book Mr. Harrington notes that many of his facts came from AFL-CIO reports. .)

While the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Retail Federation, and lesser employer groups were vigorously opposing FEPC, the AFL, the CIO and the AFL-CIO were vigorously endorsing it. And we have at least as much sensitivity to the wishes of our dues-payers.

The labor movement should of course be better than those other groups. We should be and we are. We are not good enough, and we know it. But when the AFL-CIO is attacked, as is the current fashion in some “liberal” circles, as a do-nothing, care-not, fossilized institution, I resent it. What’s far more to the point, my resentment is shared by the officials and staff members of the AFL-CIO as a whole, and is justified by the public record of the movement they serve. . . .

Albert J. Zack. Director
Department of Public Relations
AFL-CIO
Washington, D.C.

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Mr. Danzig’s article showed insight into the “new” radical movement . . . but his treatment was too simplified. . . .

My major criticism is of his onslaught against gradualism. This attack . . . is contrary to the reality of the American social scene. The Negro ethic is not that of the majority of the white middle class. . . .

The author’s announcement of Negro solidarity, moreover, is a bit premature. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area the majority of the Western Negroes refuse to accept the in-coming Southern Negroes en masse. It seems acceptance still takes place on an individual level—even among Negroes . . . and its requirement is demonstrated social responsibility.

R. H. Dennison
Oakland, California

_____________

 

To the Editor:

David Danzig observes in the Negro revolution “a radical departure from the traditional conception of civil rights as the rights of individuals.” Today, we are told, an individual’s rights and privileges are determined by the power of the group to which he belongs. This “radical departure,” however, is based only on Mr. Danzig’s failure to distinguish between “civil liberties”—the traditional rights of individuals as defined in the First through the Eighth Amendments—and “civil rights”—the demands of group members for equal treatment with other group members. While civil rights are, by definition, linked to group membership, the civil liberties enumerated in the Constitution still apply to individuals who demand the freedom to be eccentric.

One would hope that an individual’s rights and privileges will never rest upon anything more transitory than the constitutional provisions which are their present foundation. Before any group can achieve equality of treatment with other groups—in education, housing, or employment—its individual members must perforce enjoy the right to agitate, to dissent, and to disbelieve. Civil liberties must be freely exercised before civil rights can be safely won.

Jerold S. Auerbach
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I have read David Danzig’s “The Meaning of Negro Strategy” several times with considerable care and have become firmly convinced that it is one of the most perceptive statements I have seen anywhere regarding the true essence of Negro-white relations in this country today . . .

When Mr. Danzig recognizes that the real issue is not “special consideration” or “compensation” but rather “adopting realistic measures which will begin to correct a profound tendency in our society to exclude and penalize the Negro,” he is realizing that the tentacles of the Southern oligarchy have reached out to clutch American life from Mississippi to Massachusetts.

The informed Negro leadership knows this but many of us alleged intellectuals or liberals have not yet appreciated the power and reach of that octopus called “the Southern way of life.” If labor or the liberals or the institutionalized religions do not join the Negro in this struggle, he will make the fight anyway, like England—alone—until the free world catches up with him . . .

Mr. Danzig clearly understands the role of “quotas” and “preferential treatment,” etc., knowing that the name of the weapon or tool does not necessarily define how it will be used.

I am writing . . . almost to plead that Mr. Danzig’s article receive the widest possible readership, that . . . it be brought to the attention of federal, state, and municipal officials at the policy-making level—advisers to the President, his cabinet, selected members of the national legislature, and heads of various executive departments, as well as of . . . governors and those around them that make policy . . . Outside of official and governmental channels, it should be read by individuals and organizations who are opinion-makers. I have in mind especially “liberals” and “moderates”—black and white alike . . . This piece of writing may do much to cement basic understanding between the leadership of Jewish and Negro groups which have often been strained by unsophisticated expressions in publications issued recently by both groups. . .

Frank S. Horne
Consultant on
Human Relations

Housing and Redevelopment Board
New York City

_____________

 

Mr. Danzig writes:

Labor’s advocacy of both civil rights and a broad economic program to improve the conditions of the unorganized as described by Mr. Zack is well known, and I heartily applaud it. But advocacy is no substitute for a program supported by adequate budget and staff aimed at organizing the unrepresented segment of American society to speak politically in its own interests. The organization of Negroes and whites, the unemployed, the partially employed, the young, the aged, etc., who comprise America’s poverty-stricken millions, is labor’s responsibility. A full-fledged program to eliminate poverty and discrimination is likely to result only from the political action of those most affected, and it is labor’s traditional role, for reasons both of humanitarianism and self-interest, to use its skills and resources to organize this segment of society. One would hardly expect the Chamber of Commerce, for example, to organize the unemployed. Certainly I share Mr. Zack’s regret that the Chamber does not support FEPC and declare itself in favor of anti-discriminatory measures which we all know are just and necessary.

But it is precisely out of regard for the traditional role of labor in strengthening the political voice of the underdog that one criticizes labor for not filling this role adequately.

I do not quite understand to what Mr. Auerbach is objecting. It appears to me that he is in agreement with my contention that the civil rights of the individual are strongly influenced by the status of the group to which he belongs. While I would not wish to press the point, the relationship of group status to civil liberties is also at times all too apparent. Consider, for example, the treatment accorded the Japanese-Americans in the last war, the many Negro protesters currently imprisoned in the South, and the fact that the growth of civil liberties for union organizers was directly related to the increase in the political and social power of the labor unions.

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