The Immigrant Within


The compass needle of Negro policy swung in that direction as a result of historic paradox. The Democratic party, ancient bastion of Southern segregationism, became the sponsor of the New Deal, whose programs for public relief, employment, and housing did not discriminate. The federal government under Franklin Roosevelt did not bring blacks into the Promised Land, but it did feed them some manna in the wilderness. In 1933 more than 2,000,000 Negroes were receiving some form of public aid. In 1935 the figure ran to 3,500,000. About a third of the 120,000 dwelling units built by the United States Housing Administration up to 1941 were for Negroes. Ten per cent of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ youthful membership was black. The Works Progress Administration had a marked effect on black employment rates, and a black blues singer chanted after 1936: … I went to the poll and voted, I know I voted the right way So I’m asking you, Mr. President, don’t take away that WPA.

So the Negro was swept into the New Deal coalition, along with white farmers, workers, homeowners, and small businessmen, and gave thanks at the voting machine for AAA, TVA, homeowners’ loans, bank-deposit insurance, social security, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act. Then World War II and postwar prosperity opened economic doors wider. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of Negro males in nonfarm labor went from 1.8 million to 2.8 million; ten years later it had risen to more than 3.5 million. In those twenty years the number of blacks in white-collar occupations rose from 149,000 to more than a half million; in skilled workers’ and foremen’s slots, from 130,000 to 407,000. In 1950 only 0.3 per cent of Negro families earned more than six thousand dollars a year. By 1960 that had risen to 13.9 per cent. In 1940, 4-5 per cent of blacks finished high school, and 1.3 per cent completed college. Twenty years later these percentages had nearly tripled. Blacks might see some of these figures—legitimately--as puny, but forward movement is visible.


Meanwhile, legal and political victories made the headlines—integration of the armed forces during and after the Korean War, the Supreme Court’s schooldesegregation decision of 1954, the bus boycotts and the lunch-counter sit-ins and the freedom rides of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the breaking of a Senate filibuster to pass the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the historic Voting Rights Act as a legislative climax in 1965. The continued shift of blacks to the cities began to produce, in the customary way of immigrant groups, black faces in city government. In seven of the twelve most populous cities in the United States in 1960, Negroes formed more than 20 per cent of the population. After 1962 five such cities were sending Negro congressmen—all Democrats —to Washington. In the mid-igoo’s one Negro, Robert Weaver, was appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and another, Thurgood Marshall, was named to a Supreme Court seat. Black voting strength was receiving traditional forms of recognition.

Yet by that time the picture was not all rosy. Blacks had made definite gains in an absolute sense, but relatively they were well behind the rest of societv. A white youngster was much more likely to go to college than a black. Negro professional, managerial, and clerical workers had median incomes of $3,700 in 1965, with a figure of $5,400 for comparable whites. Only one Negro highschool graduate in three landed a skilled or white-collar job, while two out of three white graduates did. The likelihood that a white college graduate would become a manager or an official or a proprietor was three times greater than it was for a college-educated black. And at the base of the economic pyramid, black unemployment, especially among young males, always far outstripped that of whites. Civil rights or no civil rights, it was still Depression time for millions of black Americans.

The Negro, in short, was getting a smaller slice of a growing pie. The frustration of the black masses seemed to melt very slowly in the intermittent sunshine of white “benevolence.” Impatience fed on aroused expectations. Wrote Langston Hughes∗:

∗Copyright 1951 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted from The Panther and the Lash , by Langsten Hughes, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?