Henry A. Wallace, the Vice President of the United States from 1941 to 1945 and the future candidate for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, chose the National Convention of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma in December 1947 to outline his views on racial equality. The significance of the speech's title appears in its last two paragraphs. The entire speech appears below.
Henry Wallace Campaigning with Adam Clayton Powell
in Harlem, 1944
Image Courtesy of Marge Frantz
I have not come here to address the convention of this great American fraternity—older than the state in which it holds its convention—in order to repeat simple truths.
I have not come here to recite facts about conditions you know fully well as I do—and which you have learned at more bitter cost.
Nor have I come to demonstrate my knowledge of the contributions the Negro people have made to building and defending this great nation.
These are themes better saved for audiences which have less grasp of the problem. I used them recently in talking to large and receptive audiences in key southern cities. I have used them, no less importantly, in many northern cities. It is vital to prick consciences in the self-righteous North.
I am her to say: Jim Crow in America has simply got to go.
But I am not here to recite the economic facts and figures which support the case. If there were no such facts, the simple immorality of segregation and discrimination is enough to condemn it. It is enough to demand our every effort to destroy it.
I have come here to state my belief that the abolition of Jim Crow has top place on the agenda of a program for national defense. I have come to say that until it is abolished the words “democracy” and “freedom” and “justice,” used so glibly to support our foreign policy, will ring hollow thorough-out the world.
I come to you as a liberal fellow American, one who served in the New Deal Administration which did more than any Administration since the time of Abraham Lincoln to improve the living conditions of the Negro people. Yet I made these points only to emphasize that whatever we white, unprejudiced democratic Americans have done, whatever the New Deal did, has been far less than enough. It has been less, far less than our principles demand.
Today we must be as stubborn in our devotion to principle as the Abolitionists of a century ago. The times demand it. The defense of our country demands it.
I am here to state my opinions as to why so many of us who have been genuinely devoted to the elimination of prejudice and its fruits, have not been fully effective in fighting for our belief. I state these opinions with the hope that they will help us find a more successful course for the period ahead.
First, let me state my impression that our greatest weakness has been a failure to take the offensive. We liberal, un prejudiced white Americans have never failed to answer please for the defense of the rights of our Negro brothers; but we have not maintained a day-to-day offensive to demand complete justice.
We Must Take the Offensive
I mentioned a minute ago the necessity for pricking consciences in the North. Many of us who live outside the South have been vigorous spokesmen for change in the south. We have looked at the civil rights statutes on the books of many northern states and have assumed airs of self-righteousness. We have contrasted them with the quite opposite laws—the laws imposing segregation—which are found in the South. In using this base for self-righteousness, we have been kidding ourselves. We have taken pride in statutes, but we have not taken leadership to see that the laws have meaning. When we are willing to face facts, we know that discrimination and segregation in the North are only slightly less brutal than in the South. Yes, when we face facts we know that restrictive covenants are the most despicable examples of priority for property rights over human rights. We have taken pride in a lesser evil. But in an evil all the same.
Sometimes we have been handicapped by our own liberal philosophy. We have been too tolerant of intolerance. We have let the intolerant assume the offensive. We have permitted ourselves to be forced into defensive roles.
I think today of the utterly nauseating spectacle of hearings before the House Un-American Committee. I think of its great drive against liberals, progressives, and Communists. This drive is not made against these groups, including the Communists, because they are advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence. It is directed against them because they have demanded that we give meaning to the words “equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness.”
Every uttered truth produces a tremor in those who live by lies. The truth is truly dangerous. It eats up prejudices and devours hate. The House Committee has taken the offensive against truth. It is trying to silence the writers and artists and political leaders who are most adept at carrying truth to the people It is trying to intimidate into silence the professors, teachers, scientists, and ordinary citizens who like to speak the truth. It is receiving whole-hearted assistance from the craven men of the motion picture industry. It will receive similar assistance fro the “big money men” on the boards of trustees of universities and colleges. The Un-American Committee is a fortress for the defense of Jim Crow.
I can remember—sometime back—joining with others in protesting to the movie industry against the use of certain stereotype characters of Negroes and Jews and other minorities. We pointed out that these portrayals—these stereotypes—helped to perpetuate prejudices. Although this accomplished some good, it was essentially a defensive act. We have not been equally vigorous in demanding positive contributions form the motion picture industry toward the elimination of prejudice.
The movie industrialists buckled under to the Thomas-Rankin Committee because they feared for their markets. They thought the American public would condemn Hollywood for harboring progressives. They worried that the people would boycott movies, even though no evidence of subversion had been uncovered.
Let’s Talk Back to the Film-Makers
Yes, the movie magnates worry about their markets. Like many other huge industrialists they value profit above human needs. I think it is time that we talk to them in their own terms.
Let them use the full powers at their disposal in the fight for the abolition of segregation
and discrimination—or let them feel the organized resistance of millions of white and Negro Americans. Let them know that we shall not support an industry which is afraid of fundamental American principles. Let them show the same respect for freedom-loving Americans that they have shown for the defender of the Klan, John Rankin, and his compatriot, J. Parnell Thomas. If we can’t get results by appeals to principle, let us talk in language they understand—in the language of box office dollars. Other groups have found it possible to get results from these profit-made moguls. It is time for our counter-offensive. An industry truly interested in the dramatic arts, in the defense of American liberty, and in legitimate box office receipts can find no richer source of material than in the successful struggles of groups of Negro citizens and individual Negro leaders.
The fight against the House Un-American Committee and all congressmen who abuse their powers is a major battle for all Americans, white and Negro.
Many of you remember the war-time activities of Andrew J. May, a congressman from Kentucky. You remember that he used his powers as chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee for private profit. But the act of Andrew May’s which was far more despicable, the act for which he was not convicted in court nor even in the public press, came at the peak of the war. The few dollars of profiteering for which he was sentenced caused the people no irreparable harm, but his actions in stopping the distribution to troops of scientific material to combat prejudice—specifically the pamphlet “Races of Mankind”—was a crime of enormous implications.
Such abuses of power are all too frequent. Some are publicized; many more go by virtually unnoticed. They are the truly subversive, un-American activities. When I speak of taking the offensive, I mean that we must pin the label of subversive where it properly belongs. We must pin it on the Rankins, Coxes, and the others who breed prejudice and defend segregation and discrimination. They are the enemies in our midst.
The New Deal Administrations were accused by the southern poll taxers of going beyond the southern doctrine of “gradualism” in helping to improve the living conditions of the negro people. By comparison with our needs at this period of history, the New Deal record looks like “gradualism” itself.
We Have Problems in Common
In reviewing our record and in charting a course for a more successful and productive future, we must recognize that the problems of the Negro people are fundamentally the problems of all workers, farmers, small businessmen, and professional people. We must recognize that the problems of the South are vital problems of the entire nation. We have known these facts. We have spoken them. But too often we have acted as though they were problems separate and apart.
It is four score and seven years ago since we were forced to act upon the fundamental premise that this nation could not survive half-slave and half free. Today we must act upon the equally fundamental premise that a strong and democratic America cannot be built while that one-third of our people who live in the south, Negroes and whites alike, remain the common victims of an oppressive economic, political, and social system. It is a system which bears a striking resemblance to the hated fascism we so recently fought a war to destroy. It, too, must be uprooted.
The problems of the Negro people lie at the very heart of the problem of the South; and the problems of the South are basic to the critical problems of our entire nation.
The cancerous disease of race hate, which bears so heavily upon Negro citizens, and at the same time drags the masses of southern white citizens into the common quagmire of poverty and ignorance and political servitude, is not an isolated problem to be attacked completely apart from our other national problems. It is part of an ever more dominant philosophy of dollars above men, of property values over human values. The Jim Crow system pays handsome profits to a small number of men in positions of economic and political power. Jim Crow divides white and Negro for the profit of the few. It is a very profitable system indeed.
We have only to examine the wages paid to white and Negro workers in southern agriculture and industry to see how profitable this system is. We find, of course, that Negro workers receive many millions of dollars less pay than the same number of white men doing similar jobs. But that is only part of the profits from Jim Crow. We look further and find that southern white workers receive far lower wages than their brothers in the north. It is then that we get some measure of the tremendous fortunes which are wrung out of the hides of white workers by a system which divides Negro and white and increases the exploitation of both. America’s trade unions must be strengthened for they are trying to fight Jim Crow.
Jim Crowism puts many millions of extra dollars every year into the pockets of the owners and rulers of the south. It is “good business” for the few; but it means ignorance, disenfranchisement, poverty, undernourishment, disease, terror and death for the many.
During the past decade, because of the war and other emergencies, we have pulled our punches in the fight against the money-changers and monopolists. F.D.R. waged that fight magnificently and successfully in the middle thirties, and it is a fight which must be resumed. The war-time recess in this fight is part of the reason for our failure to make headway in the fight against Jim Crow. The fight against monopoly dominance is at the very core of the fight to abolish segregation. The extended armistice in the fight against monopoly has delayed the end of colonial rule over the south. We have known that those who profit from the traffic in human misery in the South are not exclusively southerners. We have known that the big Wall Street interests dominate the southern economy. We have known that our fight for justice in the South is doomed to fail unless we carry the bigger fight. We must act on this knowledge.
Jim Crow Pays Profits
As we take the offensive to lick Jim Crow, we must keep our eyes on the principal opposition—the big interests for whom Jim Crow is profitable. We must not be distracted into fights against their other victims, their tools—the prejudiced and bigoted workers and farmers and small business people who have been so warped by their economic masters that they do not respond to principled appeals. We must talk to these sad victims in language they understand. If they see a clear picture of the concentration of economic power in Wall Street; if they see clearly Wall Street’s domination of Washington; and if they can be made to see the high day-to-day costs they pay for a system of Jim Crow, we shall win strong allies in our fight against Jim Crow. The freedom of all workers, farmers, small businessmen, and professional people, North and South, white and Negro, rests on our fight to destroy Jim Crow.
The full democratic power of our government must be used to enlarge and protect the lives and liberties of those millions, both white and Negro, who are now the common victims of Jim Crow. The new session of Congress must take positive steps to extend to all the people of the South their constitutional right to vote, regardless of race, creed, or economic status. The whole network of devices by which the masses of common people in the South are kept from the polls must be utterly and completely destroyed. We can’t demand free elections in the Balkans and be passive about restrictions to suffrage here at home. It is time for the President to use the power and influence of his office to help win free elections for the people of the South. The Department of Justice must us its full resources to put a stop to the whole bagful of tricks by which southern registrars and other officials deny Negro citizens the vote.
The Time to Strike Is Now
The Republican Party controlling the present Congress must be reminded of its 1944 convention pledge to outlaw the poll tax barrier to free elections.
The 1948 elections must see the greatest outpouring of southern white and Negro votes in all our history. It will take immense courage to challenge Jim Crow. But the time to strike is now.
The time has come to demand actions from the bi-partisan coalition which is so concerned with freedom abroad and so oblivious to the needs for greater freedom at home. It is time for action to defend Americans at home. Such action is more essential to the maintenance of peace than the defense of American corporations abroad.
The admirable report of the Special Committee on Civil Rights is not action; it is no more than a welcome prelude to action. It must not be pigeonholed. We need no further investigations—we didn’t need this one—to know that a federal anti-lynch law is a necessity. The time is long past when we liberal Americans can be pacified with reports and promises of action. Our readiness to accept reports in place of action is one of the big reasons for our failure to be fully effective in the fight against Jim Crow.
Lynchings, serving to intimidate Negro Americans, may be useful to those who would keep some of our people submerged, but none of them dare defend lynching openly.
The contention that a federal anti-lynching law violates states’ rights has no validity. The power of our federal government is used to interfere in the internal affairs of half the countries in the world; it can certainly be used to defend Americans at home.
Poll taxes and lynch laws are only two of the hateful devices used to maintain Jim Crow which must be completely destroyed. No less important is positive action to enlarge and equalize the educational opportunities of American children—especially in the South.
We cannot rest easily with a shameful picture you know better than I—the picture of dilapidated and barren Negro school houses in most of the rural South; the poorly paid teachers, the extremely meager—or non-existent school transportation facilities; the scores of southern counties where there are absolutely no high school facilities for Negroes, and the severely limited and substandard college and professional facilities.
That great historic hoax called “separate but equal” Negro school must be ended. There is not, and there never can be, equality of educational opportunity in a system of segregated schools. This system is not only an impossible drain on the financial resources of the South, but it is a system which is intended deliberately to maintain suspicion and hatred between Negro and white and to keep the masses of both people in virtual ignorance. The Supreme Court, as well as Congress, must discard the “substantial equality” doctrine.
I realize full well that the administration of public education in the states is beyond the scope of federal legislative control, but the federal government can and must make tremendous contributions toward enlarging and equalizing educational opportunities through appropriations to the states. Such grants-in-aid must be made under a plan sufficiently rigid to prevent discrimination. Many a white American, eager to help the Negro people, has insisted that education is essential. Some have used “lack of education” as an excuse for present atrocious conditions; with others it is a genuine belief of the need for greater education. In any case, all proponents of more education must be enlisted in the fight for adequate federal aid. From an Administration which demands an annual expenditure of two million dollars for an outrageous program of compulsory military training we must demand the dollars which can enlarge and equalize educational opportunities in the South and in rural areas in other sections of the nation.
We Must End Job Discrimination
The abolition of the educational props to Jim Crow must be accompanied by an end to the widespread employment discriminations which bar millions of Negroes, Jews, Catholics, and foreign-born Americans from decent jobs.
During the war, under Franklin Roosevelt, our federal government began a serious attack upon the problem of discrimination in employment. The vital and struggling Fair Employment Practice Committee did heroic work in opening up job opportunities. But now, like so much that Roosevelt fought hard to build, the FEPC has been allowed to die—almost without a struggle. Peacetime employment is reverting again to the widespread discrimination on grounds of race, creed, and national origin.
President Truman did, indeed, ask the Congress for permanent FEPC legislation. Yet no observer on Capitol Hill has seen the power which the Administration can command thrown into a serious fight to guarantee the adoption of a permanent FEPC law. Nor, indeed, has any action been taken to combat the job discrimination which exists under the President’s nose in the administrative departments of government. The thousands of Negro federal employees, who held good jobs during the war, are rapidly disappearing.
I have said many times—and I say again—that the President does not have to wait upon Congress to correct this sordid condition. If he can proclaim so-called “loyalty oath” witch-hunts against civil service workers who show the least tinge of progressive thought then he can, if he really wants to, proclaim an Executive Order barring discrimination in federal employment.
I would remind you, too, of another broken platform pledge solemnly proclaimed at the Republican Convention in 1944. It was the promise to pass permanent FEPC legislation if the Republicans got control of Congress. They now have such control.
It is obvious, I think, that we—both white and Negro—have pulled too many punches in our past fights against Jim Crow. This must stop. We have every moral principle and every economic and social fact on our side. There is no reason to compromise or relent in the fight against Jim Crow.
The True Hope
There is a particularly hateful expression, used innocently at times by many white Americans—it is a line about “The Great White Hope.” I say to you and to those who speak of “White Hopes” that the true white hope is a well-organized, intelligently-directed Negro minority fighting for full justice. The measure of success or failure of American democracy can be found at all times in the conditions of our thirteen million Negro citizens. The great Negro organizations—fraternal, social, economic, and political—have greater powers than they have ever used. I beg of you—do not compromise. You are indebted to no one for the crumbs of justice you have been thrown. Gratitude should be reserved for genuine favors; not idly bestowed for simple justice.
As we enter one of the most critical years in world history, we must overcome our weaknesses in order to fight successfully. We must distinguish between words and deeds.
“What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? Can that faith save him f a brother or sister be naked, and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, go in peace, be ye warm and filled; and yet he give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?...Faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” (James)
Before I take leave of this audience—and in thanking Alpha Phi Alpha for the opportunity to address you—let me say that I am haunted by a single, grim fact—pulled out of dry statistics as I wrote an address a while ago.
It is the fact that a Negro child born this day has a life expectancy ten years less than that of a white child born a few miles away.
I say that those ten years—those ten extra years for millions of Americans are what we are fighting for. I say that those who stand in the way of the health, education, housing and social security programs which would erase that gap commit murder. I say that those who perpetuate Jim Crow are criminals. I pledge you that I shall fight them with everything I have.
Henry A. Wallace, “Address by Henry A. Wallace Before the National
Convention of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Tulsa, Oklahoma,” December 28,
1947, Manuscripts, University of Iowa Library, Iowa City, Iowa.