Former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, Jr., in 1948 became the Presidential nominee of the Progressive Party. Wallace ran a spirited campaign which unlike almost any before, took on the question of racial discrimination and segregation against African Americans in the South. What follows is his September 13, 1948 radio address at NBC in which he describes in detail his calls for the end of both discrimination and segregation in the South and the rest of the nation.
Henry A. Wallace Speaking at Wheat Street Baptist Church,
Atlanta, Georgia, November 1947
Image Courtesy of ©Bettmann-Corbis
I have been in the South so many times and every time I have found many new things. But never were my eyes opened so widely as on my last trip. It is a strange experience to stand on the main street of an American town and to ask only for the right to speak—and to be denied that right. It is a strange experience to look into faces blinded by unreasoning hate, to see people who will not let you speak, when the words concern the improvement of the lives of the very people before you.
Yes I have seen the South many times: the thousands of unpainted shacks, the families living in houses with no doors in the door frames and no windows in the window frames; where a man and his family sleep in one room, all of them sleeping in one bed in cold weather, the children sleeping on the floor in warm weather. The people of the South are fine people: our aspirations are their aspirations. They are a patriotic people, a religious people.
And it is this that struck me on my recent trip: that the basic human need of the South is simply a reconciling of our daily action with what we are taught in the church and what we are taught in school. The foundation of patriotism and religion is the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. The Brotherhood of Man sets forth no limitation of color. The Constitution of the United States sets forth very specifically that the rights of citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color. I came out of the South utterly convinced that these denials of God and man are evils which can cost this nation its very life. And I am as thoroughly convinced that these evils can be eliminated without violence, to the greater glory of America.
You read the press accounts of my trip. The papers told you eggs were thrown at me; they told you I was booed. You read that in some cities local authorities would not permit me to talk to free American meetings, to unsegregated audiences. All of this is true but it is not the real headline. The real headline is that it is possible to do what some said was impossible – to hold unsegregated meetings in every Southern state and to hold them without incident. For example, in Memphis, where the Freedom Train could not stop, because it was said that unsegregated audiences viewing the great documents of American history, would cause “incident,” would produce racial violence – in that city I spoke to a meeting of several thousands – Negroes and whites – and there was no incident. I spoke to friendly, courteous crowds in Virginia, in Mississippi, in Louisiana – yes, in each of the seven Southern states I visited. No, the headlines about egg-throwing misrepresented the good people of the South. For, you see, we did not “invade a hostile territory” as some would have you think. We came at the invitation of brave and courageous southerners who have been fighting for decades to bring constitutional guarantees to their part of the country. Our trip merely focused attention on what has been in the South for the past hundred years – a deep, thorough-going desire for people to live out their lives in dignity and equality.
That, I think, is the real headline.
There comes to mind a small businessman who lives in Hickory, North Carolina. He makes chair frames; he employs 15 or 20 men. He had a great hope that the meeting in Hickory would be a success. And when we got through with the meeting (it had been a rather violent one), I asked “How do you explain that?” He answered: “Well, I know these people here, and I am sure that if you had a chance to speak to them, individually, face to face, 90% of them would agree with your program.”
But, you will ask, if people wanted to hear me speak, why couldn’t they? Let me answer by saying the worst attempts at disruption occurred in mill towns of North Carolina where the majority of spindles are owned by Northern corporations. It was in the steel towns of Alabama, dominated by Northern capital, where people were denied their constitutional rights of free assembly.
For when we came to the TVA areas of Alabama and Tennessee, there we received courteous and friendly receptions. For these people had learned that more income for small people meant more income for all the people: for farmers, for workers, for small businessmen, for Negroes, for whites.
They were beginning to appreciate that segregation means wage differentials for the South; means lower wages for Southern labor, means lower living standards for Southern people. Yes, the same labor that brings one dollar an hour in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brings only fifty cents in some of the towns where I tried to speak.
The meaning of segregation can be summed up in the fact that the average annual income in the south is five hundred dollars or more below the rest of the country.
It is this then – the wage differential and the depressed standard of living – that we challenged on our Southern trip.
And what was it, I tried to say? What was it that so inflamed people that they forgot the mandates of the Constitution and the injunctions of God? I said that the situation in the South imperils the North as much as the South, indeed it imperils the very life of our nation. I said that hate is a dangerous thing because it can be controlled and used against the people. I said that hate, also of a racist origin, had been used in Germany by Hitler – and this was a great danger to all Americans. And I said that a comprehensive program of improvement for the South would greatly strengthen both the South and the nation. I set forth that program: a program of unification of the South, white and black, behind an economic program, a sound financial and economic program that would put Tennessee Valley Authorities on all rivers, that would result in greater appropriations for schools, for hospitals, for making available more abundant fertilizer at lower prices. I said it was possible to increase the yield of cotton and other crops, to protect and encourage the small farmer – especially the 1,400,000 white sharecroppers and the one million Negro sharecroppers – who suffer today in such a terrible way. I said I wanted to end wage differentials in the South, so that if labor is worth one dollar an hour in the North, the same labor is worth one dollar in the South: I said I wanted to make certain that a man was paid according to his work and not penalized for the color of his skin or the section of the country in which he lives. I said I would like to see twice as high an income from agriculture in the South and twice as much industry.
I proposed a program of government spending in the South in the amount of one billion dollars a year for the next four years. I urged that only a tiny fraction of the funds now being spent to renazify Germany, to remilitarize Japan, to support the anti-democratic governments of Greece, Turkey and China – be put to work for the good of the people of the South and the good of America. I proposed less help to the feudal lords of the Arabian states in their war on the Jewish people, and more to the democratic people of the South in their war on pellagra and soil erosion.
And it was these proposals – always my proposals for constructive projects – which provoked the attacks. These were the ideas that brought out the eggs and the hate.
I repeat, I came out of the South with the utter conviction that segregation, racial prejudice and Jim Crow, can cost America its life. For these evils are not simply problems of the South. No, the lynchings and knifing of Negroes in the South have their counterparts in every part of our country. A mob wrecks a Negro’s home in Detroit; police run down citizens of Harlem; Mexican-Americans are railroaded to jail in Los Angeles. In Northern restaurants, in western schools, in mid-western hospitals, it is the same and even the children’s genes are infected. In the nation’s capital, the marble tournament to determine who is the best player in Washington does not allow competition between Negro and white children.
I say our failure to live by the Constitution, our failure to abolish segregation strikes at the roots of America. This is an issue above politics, for whatever denies the freedom of the Negro, destroys the freedom of the whites. Pity the persecuted, but pity the persecutor more. It is a cancer that eats into the very moral fibre of the American people.
And the eyes of the world are upon us: the colonial peoples of the world are watching us, assessing us by our treatment of Negroes and other minorities. And they ask: “What do Americans really mean by democracy?” Do we mean the democracy of Mississippi where three-tenths of one percent of the Negro citizens vote? Do we mean the democracy of Tom Dewey who would restore the Italian bankers to their former positions of empire as rulers of the colored people of Africa? Do we mean the democracy of Harry Truman, who proclaims a nonsegregation policy for the Army, and sits by while his Southern secretary of the Army deliberately violates the policy? Which is the true policy, the world is asking – the words or the deeds?
I have said I believe in the Brotherhood of Men and in the Constitution. But I do not suggest that more preachment of the doctrine of love can straighten out some of the denials of the Brotherhood of Man in the South. No, certain violations of the words of God may have to be stopped by legislation – and while you cannot legislate love, you can legislate against certain acts of hate.
I used to think that time, long drawn out time, would handle these evils. But since World War II, I know that time is far, far shorter than it used to be. I know that today we are in desperate need of a solution which respects the dignity of the human soul. And the old parties cannot give us this solution even if they would. For Mr. Dewey’s party is the party of corporations whose profits are rooted in discrimination, the party of wage differentials. And Mr. Truman’s party is held together with the cement of discrimination. Both are parties of profit – and they have found prejudice a profitable business.
No. The solution lies in a break with the old parties. It lies in organizing what is best in American life – the deeply felt religious and patriotic urges of the people all over America.
Yesterday there was tragic news from Georgia, the 28-year old father of six children, Isaiah Newton, was shot to death in front of his family because he had insisted on using his citizen’s right to vote. When I read the story of Isaiah Newton, I was reminded of a story they tell in the South – of a story which reveals the spirit that will free the South.
It was in the same state of Georgia – just two years ago – that a young Negro veteran named Maceo Snipes learned that by Supreme Court ruling he had a right to vote. No Negro had voted in his county since reconstruction, but Maceo Snipes went down and registered.
The following morning he was sitting on his porch and a white man came up and killed him with a shotgun.
His funeral was held the next day and in the midst of the funeral oration, Maceo’s mother rose and moved up through the crowd, up to his coffin, where they waited to lower it into the earth. And she asked her second son to come forth. He was seventeen. And she said to him: “Put your hand on this coffin – and swear on the body of your brother that when you got to be twenty-one, you’re going down to the courthouse to do what he did – to vote.”
If you ask me the meaning of the Progressive Party, I should say it is this: We are dedicated to seeing that the six children of Isaiah Newton shall vote and live as free Americans; and that all today’s children shall have the opportunities which our Constitution, our Christian tradition, and our great resources make possible.
Henry A. Wallace, “Text of Radio Address,” University of Iowa Library Archives