(1951) Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Addresses the NAACP National Convention

Benjamin Mays, University of Chicago portrait, January 3, 1921
Public domain image

In 1951 Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, then President of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, was, was already one of the most prominent African American educators in the United States.  He influenced hundreds of young African Americans who came under his tutelage including undergraduate students at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King, and Julian Bond.  On June 27, 1951, Dr. Mays addressed the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which met that year in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Mays’s hometown.  His remarks appear below.

I feel I am qualified to speak on the emerging new south. I was born and reared in the south and excepting eight years in college and university in the east and west, I have lived here. I consider Washington, D.C. south. So when I speak of the south, I speak from years of vicarious living. In speaking of the new south, we should make it clear that there is no brand new south, that a new south is in the process of emerging, and that some parts of the south are newer than other parts of the south; some parts of the south more decent and more civilized than other parts of the south. One cannot generalize about the south any more than one can generalize about the north. What a Negro can say and do in one section of the south, and get away with it, he would probably be run out of the town and possibly killed or even lynched, if said and done in another section of the south. There is no over-all picture that fits the south. A northern Negro coming into the south for the first time, or one who has not known the south for a long time may be so surprised that things are as good as they are that he may return to the more secure north thinking that the new south has already arrived. On the other hand, another man of color from the north may run into an experience so shocking, so embarrassing and so nazi-like that he may return to the north thinking that absolutely no progress has been made in the south, in the area of human relations, in the last quarter of a century. Both impressions would be false.

Not only is there no overall picture that fits the south, there is no overall picture that fits Georgia. For example, in Atlanta segregation in the waiting rooms is complete; separate rooms, separate entrances, completely walled off. In Augusta, Georgia, 170 miles away, there is one waiting room with no partition – the only point of separation is, the back of the Negro row of seats joins the back of the white row of seats. The head of a Negro man can almost touch the head of a white man. In Atlanta, a taxi that carries white people must not carry Negroes and one that carries Negroes carry white people. In Columbus, Georgia, they are more civilized, at that point, than we are in Atlanta. A white taxi solicits the patronage of Negro passengers in Columbus. In Atlanta, politicians seek Negro votes; in some savage, uncivilized section of Georgia a Negro is lynched because he votes. In Atlanta, one outstanding building has segregated elevators; another building equally outstanding has no segregated elevators. The two buildings are less than 500 yards apart. Atlanta was at one time the home of the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the home of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

Where then is this new south? Or to be more accurate in what areas is the south becoming new? At the risk of telling you what you already know, permit me to spell out a few areas in which the South is becoming new. I shall attempt to avoid both pessimism and undue optimism. I shall attempt to tell you the truth.

The south is becoming new in the area of more respect for the Negro’s person. This Negro “boy” in quotation marks, is reaching adulthood; he is in the process of becoming a man in the south. It isn’t nearly as often now as it used to be, for an unknown, outstanding Negro citizen to called “boy.” He may be doctored but he is less likely to greeted “boy.” And the Negro is far less likely to accept the title, “boy.” Negroes in the south are losing their white relatives. They have fewer nephews and fewer nieces than they had 25 years ago. The terms “uncle” and “auntie” are getting to be relics of the distant past. There was a time, when it was like looking for a needle in a haystack to find a white person in the south who would call a Negro “Mister” or “Miss” or “Mrs.” It is getting to be a common thing now for Negroes to be addressed by their proper title – “Mr.” “Miss” and “Mrs.” There was a time when Negroes themselves were afraid to call other Negroes “Mister” or “Miss” in the presence of southern white people. This fear among Negroes has almost gone with the wind. Many southern whites not only would not call Negroes “Mister” and “Mrs.” But would even threaten Negroes who called each other “Mr.” and “Mrs.” ……..hearts of many a Negro. This accounts for the fact that a leading Negro woman in a southern city boasted of the fact, two decades ago, that all white friends called her “Jane” and that she loved it. The truth is, she was afraid that she would lose her job if she objected to being called “Jane.” I remember as if it was yesterday, when in high school I was adequately cursed and almost beaten because I went to a physician’s front door seeking a job and referred to a Negro friend of mine as “Mr.” Even at that early age, I did not frequent back doors and learned from my illiterate mother that it was a mark of good breeding to call people Mr. and Miss. It was exactly twenty-four years ago when my wife and I, as bride and groom, were reported to headquarters in a southern city because we insisted on referring to ourselves and other Negroes as Mr. and Mrs., and because we insisted on calling our Negro clients Miss, Mr. and Mrs. and wrote these titles before their names in their case records. I hope I am right in saying that this incident could not occur in that city today and in no other city of comparable size in the south. A new south is emerging in this area.

A higher regard for the Negro’s person is also shown in the fact that at the turn of the century lynching was an established and accepted institution in the south. In 1900, 107 Negroes were lynched. In 1920, when the National Association met here 65 Negroes were lynched; only 2 in 1950.

A new south is emerging in politics. It is almost an accepted fact in most areas of the south that the Negro is not only going to vote but that he is entitled to the vote. Even in those sections where the whites intimidate Negroes and keep them from registering and voting, they know that this intimidation is short-lived and that Negroes are bound to vote and that day is just around the corner. In several metropolitan cities of the south white politicians literally beg for the Negro vote and make promises of what they will do in return for that vote. In Georgia, this now south in politics is only five years old; a babe in swaddling clothes. In a few scattered areas Negroes………..

A new south is emerging in transportation. In interstate coach travel, certainly from the north into the south, one does not have to accept segregation in travel. Day by day, Negroes ride unsegregated from New York City to points in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. Segregation has almost been wiped out in Pullman travel. The luxury of “lower 13,” at the price of a lower berth, in order to keep Negroes from the body of the car is almost history. And yet I had the luxury of a bedroom coming out of Savannah as late as June 6, 1951, and for the price of a lower berth. There is the tendency to put Negroes on the end in Pullman travel, lower 1 or 2, lower 11 or 12. But Negroes themselves can break this up, if they will. It is easy to get Pullman reservations now almost anywhere in the south. The insulting curtain on the diner is no more. Some stewards may try to seat Negro passengers at the end tables and here again Negro passengers can solve this problem themselves, if they will.

This emerging new south is pictured most dramatically in the area of education where staggering sums are being spent to improve the segregated Negro schools and where Negroes are now enrolled in several State universities in the south. Although more difficult to highlight, a new south is emerging in the field of medicine, health employment and religion. It is fairly common to find Negro physicians serving across race lines. Municipal hospitals are being slowly opened to Negroes. New jobs are being held by Negroes and here and there we find that Negroes can worship in so-called white churches without embarrassment. Although we have a long, long way to go, the Negro is receiving more justice in southern courts. And yet it is still almost impossible to get justice in the courts if a Negro versus a white person.

The new south is emerging in the minds of the leadership of the white south. Although it has hardly gone beyond the stage of “separate but equal,” the very fact that the south is trying to improve the quality of its segregated institutions, and will admit that they should be equal, is proof that a new south is emerging in their minds. Twenty five years ago, the ……….as good as theirs. The “separate but equal” doctrine has existed in theory almost from the beginning. But the south never intended when it made the laws to make Negro institutions equal to white institutions. If you ask me to prove this daring assertion, I would refer to the records. If the south has had fifty or seventy-five years to equalize educational opportunities for Negro and white citizens and has not done so, that alone is proof that the white south did not intend to obey its own law. But the great effort that is now being made to improve conditions in the segregated economy is proof that a new south is emerging in the mind of the white south; even though it emanates from the fear that Negroes will enter white schools.

This brings me to another aspect of the subject. Who is responsible for this emerging new south in the area of human relations? I wish could say that this emerging new south grew out of a conviction on the part of the south itself that it needs to change its practices in the field of human relations. I wish I could say that the politicians and statesmen of the south looked at their respective State Constitutions and examined their Federal Constitution and seeing that their practices in Negro-white relations did not measure up, set about themselves, voluntarily, to make thinks in the south new. I wish I could believe that this emerging new south resulted primarily from the churches. I wish I could say that the churches said to the south, look! Our practices in human relations do not conform to the Gospel we expound. I wish I could say that this emerging new south came about because in our colleges and universities so much truth and light were shed that the south, without coercion, agreed to become a new south. In all candor, I cannot say that. Any yet, I cannot deny the fact that voluntary movements, such as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Southern Association for the Prevention of Lynching, the Southern Regional Council, and certain church groups have gone far to develop a new south. But the relative speed with which the south has moved in Negro-white relations has resulted from other causes. Among these are the following:

1.    The Negro himself is more determined today to become a first class citizen. Beginning with World War I…………developed a world view. The more he fights for freedom in all parts of the earth, the more determined he is to achieve first class citizenship at home. The inconsistency of fighting for freedom in Italy, Germany, North Africa and Korea while denying it to citizens at home is becoming increasingly more embarrassing to America and to the south. Moving under the impact of this world situation, the Negro will never be satisfied until he is a first class citizen. The Negro’s increasing knowledge of his rights under the Constitution and his knowledge of what the Christian Gospel is, have also contributed to his determination to throw off the restrictions that bind him.
2.    Our legitimate fear of Communism, its terrific propaganda of racial equality and its bid for the minds of the millions of colored peoples in Asia have contributed to the development of this emerging south. It is clear as day that we cannot wage a successful war against Communism, with its propaganda claims of equality, while we deny freedom to black men in America, and in the south. The fact that the United States is the leading democracy in the world forces us to strive to implement our democracy at home.
3.    A new south is in the making in the third place because under the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we have found a coercive way to achieve more freedom and justice through the federal courts. The great gains in the last 25 years have come through coercive measures.

1.    Without court action, the Negro would not yet have the ballot in most states of the south
2.    Without court action, we would not know that restrictive covenants cannot be enforced by law.
3.    Without court action, we would still be segregated in the dining cars of the south.
4.    Without court action, we would not be as near as we are to the equalization of salaries in the public schools of the south.
5.    Without court action, we would not have the School Board of the south seeking to equalize facilities.
6.    Nor would Negroes be in several of the State universities of the South.
7.    Without court actions the Negro state colleges would have never gotten the millions they have received in recent appropriations and the millions more they will receive.

Now, I want to make two significant observations from these data.

1.    Human nature is just about the same the world over. People who occupy the vantage point do not voluntarily relinquish it nor share it except under one of two conditions: The privileges will be shared if it seems profitable to the man on top to share them; or he will share them if it becomes too uncomfortable not to share them. The struggle for free participation in American life must continue for years to come. It will not be handed to the Negro on a silver platter. Nor will it come merely because we succeed in increasing the number of Ralph Bunches and Charles Drews or Marian Andersons and Mary McLeod Bethunes; nor will it come primarily because we are upright, honest, and true; nor because we are patriotic and loyal. All those will help. But there is nothing in history to sustain the optimism that by being competent and good and patriotic a suppressed people will get its rightful place in society. The use of the courts to gain full participation must continue along with goodness, competence and loyalty. It is not true as Mr. Washington thought that if the Negro proved himself worthy, citizenship rights would be willingly given; nor as Mr. Du Bois once believed that, if the Negro proved that he was the intellectual equal of the white man, the walls of segregation would come tumbling down. If Mr. Du Bois and Mr. Washington had been theologians they would have known better.
2.    The second observation proves that a new south is definitely in the making because of the calm with which the south has accepted change. Within a decade one section of the south after another has seen radical things take place. Negroes have had the ballot restored to them, salaries equalized in education, segregation abandoned in interstate travel, curtains abolished in dining cars and Negroes have entered southern universities. Contrary to the teaching of the gradualists the south……. There have been no race riots, the moon continues to shine, the sun continues to rise, and the south has taken the courts’ decision with considerable poise and calm. This ladies and gentlemen, is the new south a-dawning. Like the rest of the country, when the highest court of the land speaks the south obeys. The south too respects authority and the Supreme Court. The way the south has accepted the change is the most encouraging thing that has happened in this area.

Briefly, how determined then is the south to end segregation and discrimination? My candid opinion is that the vast majority of the white south is not determined to put an end to segregation and discrimination. I believe the number of white persons in the south that is willing and determined to eradicate segregation by law and custom, all across the board, is microscopic. Either the number is microscopic or they are afraid to stand up and be counted. There are many, for the seasons already stated, who are willing to work for an unattainable goal: equality in segregation. I think they are sincere, but mistaken, misguided , and doing wishful thinking in believing that imposed, legal separation can be equalized; especially impossible when one group makes all the laws and enforces them, serves on all commissions and sets the policies, holds all the power and administers it and collects, holds, and distributes all the money. When one group gets so righteous that it can become that objective in the administration of justice, there will be no need of segregation. The abolition of segregation in other areas of the south will come as its abolition has come up to now, in education and travel, when segregation is declared invalid by the courts in which case the south will fall in line. I do not believe the white south will give up segregation without a struggle. It will hold onto it as long as it can. The majority of the white leadership of the south might be described as Jim Crow liberals contending for equality but separate equality. It is conceivable that segregation may be disregarded by the public even before state laws are repealed. I am not wise enough to say when legal segregation in the south will end. But I am convinced that it cannot last much longer.

As for Negroes, a few are determined that segregation must end. I fear though that most Negroes are not………. If determination is to be measured by the number of Negroes who are willing to pay for their freedom by fighting for it through the orderly process of the law and courts and by paying for it by contributing annually to organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Regional Council, the determination is not very strong. If we are able to own Cadillacs, Packards, and Buicks; if we are able to live in expensive homes; if we are able to spend several hundred dollars a year socializing, and if we are able to spend much money on cigarettes, tobacco, and liquor, we are able to support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If all Negroes were determined, if half of them were determined, if one-fifth of them were determined, an organization like this would never need money. The fact that we have to plead and beg for support is conclusive proof that we are not willing as a group to be free, And I make bold to assert that if we are not willing to pay for freedom, we do not deserve it. The fact that some Negroes in some sections are even afraid to support the NAACP is further that all Negroes are not determined to be free. If the Jew were segregated as we are, he would raise millions for his defense.

But the few of us who are determined to make America and the south the greatest citadel of democracy on earth and who believe that a Christian democracy is best for us and for all peoples, better for us than Fascism or Nazism or Communism, will continue the fight; convinced that time, the universe, and even God fight on our side.