A Southern Congressman

I get elected to Congress.

Now, I stand for certain elementary principles such as Liberty of Speech and Liberty of Religion, and people seem to be surprised about it. I see nothing strange about a Texan and a Southerner standing for simple rights, and being what is called a "liberal" or a "progressive." Especially when the New Yorker who expresses surprise generally does not even know the name of his own congressman or assemblyman.

All this perplexes me.

Then I have people tell me that I am broadminded. I am not. I am wondering by whom these mental qualifications should be judged—by me, by certain set rules, or by the people of New York City, San Francisco, or Memphis. What is broadmindedness?

Which makes me wander again. If anybody writes a book, he ought to be writing about something. So let us get our minds straight before we go on.

I think the most important thing for us to possess as a people is liberty, which later on I hope to define. So, since this is the most important, we will talk of it right here, and then in other chapters I will expand upon liberty in all its phases, get myself born and tell you some stories.

I am a Southerner, because I live in that portion of the United States. More than likely I am possessed of all the prejudices that a "gentleman and a Southerner" is supposed to have. I do not hate colored people; neither do I claim greater knowledge of them than Yankees, nor sentimental love for them. I do not despise people on account of race; but in order that my brethren in New York may be satisfied, let us say that I hate Negroes, which I do not, and that negroes should be shot, lynched, and deprived of their economic and civil rights.

At the national Capitol one day a large delegation came down from New York, representing the League Against War and Fascism. I finally left the House floor and went out to see them, because it happened that although the delegation was from New York City, there was but one Congressman from their whole state who might have come out and spoken to them, and he was away.

I hove on the scene with my Nordic blonde curls [footnote: Since the above was written, I am told that my hair is dark brown, and a Greek tells me my ancestors were Hellenes—well, I had always thought I was a Nordic blonde.], and Southern prejudices. I saw dark hair, some Semitic features—and something I had never seen before—a mixed delegation—Whites and Negroes.

I was asked to make a speech, right out on the Capitol steps. I started, but was not allowed to talk for over a minute or two.

Someone heckled me and demanded, in a sarcastic voice, to know something about "Southern Justice," hissing out the "S" like a stage villain.

I was sore. So I shot, "Where were Sacco and Vanzetti tried? In Alabama? In what prison do we find Tom Mooney? The Texas Penitentiary?" I gave tongue to a long list of civil liberty violations all over America, for I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and happened to have just read the list of violations.

As I looked over my crowd of Manhattanites, I realized that when they spoke of "Southern Justice" they were quite certain that the most terrible place on earth was the South. Like most New Yorkers, they did not see the forest for the trees. They were unaware of the multitude of abuses in their own insignificant island. I knew also that when they spoke of "Southern Justice" they meant the Scottsboro Case. Now, this case is neither better nor worse than other persecutions, mistrials, or violations of civil liberties in other parts of the country. The fact that the boys are black is no excuse, but certainly the legal conduct of the case has been fairer than that of Sacco and Vanzetti. One is racial, the other was industrial prejudice; no doubt the background of both is economic.

I now lectured my New Yorkers. I told them that in the South people were neither more nor less narrow-minded than they were in the East or West or in the North. I told them that I was sick of this business of New York City pretending to have all the intelligence and wisdom in the country; it was bad for us down South, and bad for those up North. The pacifists and anti-Fascists seemed very subdued and they listened quietly.

This gave me courage. So I proceeded to a point. I told them that the Bill of Rights was for all the people of the United States; that civil, religious and other liberties were supposed to be for everybody in the United States but that they were not being maintained anywhere in the Union. As I enlarged on my subject, I realized that I was developing an important truth, and unfolding a story which was as dear to my heart as it was true.

And there I came, by conversation back and forth, in contact with the Manhattan mind. Book-words were used, but they had no substance or sense. I was later to realize this more fully in attending meetings in New York, where words, sentences, whole paragraphs were thrown at audiences which meant nothing to the listeners, nor to the speaker himself . . . "proletarian ideology" . . . "economic determinism" . . . "crisis symptomology" . . . "the class struggle" . . . "fronts" (of all kinds) . . . these, I tell you, American people do not understand, and do not like. This kind of talk is a stumbling block in the path of anything progressive or sensible.

I told them, and I think I told them the truth, that one of the narrowest places on earth is New York. At least, I said, the South is no worse, and no better. You talk of share-croppers in Arkansas. What about your starving industrial piece-workers of New York? You worry about the Negroes of the South. What about the Negroes of Harlem, and the poor whites of the whole island?

There is likely more sectional prejudice in Manhattan than there is in the South.
The whole country is about the same; the exploiting groups teach us to hate and distrust each other, so that this exploitation may continue. South: dog-eat-dog, share-cropper kick "nigger," so the top dog can skim the lickins around the edge of the dollar-pot. North: Union against Union; farmers' organization against farmers' organization; fight the foreigner—all for the benefit of the dear old industrialist.
What are we to do? Obviously, our democratic liberties must be preserved, not just in New York or Arkansas, but in the Imperial Valley, Georgia, New Jersey, Colorado. . . .

I was thinking the other day: "When we had prohibition, we had the Volstead Act, with a horde of officers to enforce an un-right. Why not have an act to enforce and protect the fundamental liberties, civil and religious? Why not protect the constitutional rights of travel, speech, press, assemblage, freedom from unreasonable search?"

Let us take the various proposed anti-lynching laws. They are always approached in the slip-shod manner of degraded politics—catering to the Negro vote; chief advocates are the sentimentalists, and the few who are left in the East who are still marching on Harper's Ferry, book-singing their inhibitions away, evading their local duties and fighting a foe they will never have to meet. And since the approach is made that way, their defeat is encompassed the same way; by the opposite emotions: magnolia blossoms, the virtue of womanhood, economic prejudice, Jackson was a great general, and a lot of bunk about state's rights. . . .

It is apparent that an act must be made to cover the whole subject of constitutional civil liberties. It should guarantee that no man, White or Negro, shall be lynched, or beaten to death by rangers, local police, sheriffs or "special officers." And we must have not merely a regional or state interpretation of the Constitution, but a national one. A right is a right, whether that citizen is blue, green, lavender, or even yellow.

In the history of constitutions, rights have been stated affirmatively. The 18th Amendment was the first constitutional change which took away a right and made a negative statement. In any event, it was part of the Constitution, and a law was passed in pursuance of it, to enforce this single part of the Constitution. Hundreds of other rights are not covered by statutes, but the courts are supposed to protect them under the Constitution.
Hence it would appear that a statute should be enacted, setting up the machinery to enforce ordinary civil rights; such as travel, life, liberty, free speech, religion, assembly and press. Naturally, since all these rights proceed from the Federal Constitution, the set-up should be Federal and would be for the benefit of the Negro likely to be lynched in the South or the lettuce worker likely to be lynched in California—or to protect anybody who wants to preach, pray, talk, write, or move anywhere in the United States of America.
The grave necessity for all this is so deep that we can hardly realize it. I shall not use the old cliche that we are at the crossroads—but it is certain that with our ideas on government still wearing the frock coats of 1880, while our scientific achievements are ten thousand years ahead, there is every danger that civilization may crack completely.

Which means that we must hold back violence long enough to talk things out; possibly we can then make some fair solutions. If we do not, we fight each other to the death.

I want to make it plain that freedom of the intellect is essential to any civilization. In this I am not talking about the freedom to starve, or the freedom to be unemployed—all that is in the realm of economics. I am talking about the mind and the soul.