Opening Up the Apple
By MARY BENSON
ONE year ago I was with Medgar Evers, the friendly, moderate but extremely determined Negro leader in Mississippi. On the previous night a petrol bomb had been thrown at his car. Two weeks later he was assassinated. Now, while his widow, Myrlie Evers, addresses civil rights gatherings throughout the States, urging 'Don't let my husband die in vain,' his alleged assassin--twice tried, twice freed when the white juries could not agree—is being Med in Mississippi. It was to the memory of Mr. Evers and of the dead schoolgirls in Birmingham that James Baldwin dedicated his play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, and the frontispiece to the play is an etching of a hideous cry of anguish and rage.
If I repeat myself, it is because the present mood of many Negroes can only be explained by these killings, symbolic of so much white violence over so many decades, together with the failure of the great March on Washington, symbolic of how grotesquely inadequate have been the gains in the struggle for civil rights.
Yes, there have been and are small victories: the opening of a public park and a lunch counter here and there, the admission of a handful of Negro students to this and that school; represent- ing the 'tokenism' that Sargent Shriver, who will direct the war on poverty, described recently as `widespread cheating.' Yes, there are likely to be larger victories: the passing of the Civil Rights Bill (but how much costly, time- and talent- consuming litigation will be needed before Negroes enjoy the rights?); the 'war' on poverty (but is it more likely to be a skirmish?), and other local advances.
Meanwhile, self-styled liberals who could afford to be indignant at the use of police dogs, fire hoses and electric 'prods in the South, are predictably losing their liberalism as increasingly Northern Negroes, at last mentally free from the 'shackles of inferiority' that bound them, refuse
to accept the status quo of poverty, of unemploy- ment and slums, and reject the soothing talk that gradual change is the American tradition.
The fact is, as Michael Harrington wrote in his book The Other America:
If all the discriminatory laws in the United States were immediately repealed, race would still remain as one of the most pressing moral and political problems in the nation. . . . The American economy, the American society, the American unconscious are all racist.
And so repeatedly one comes up against recogni- tion of this fact. All civil rights leaders, as well as the minority of militants, regard the target as the 'power structure.'
Yet this phrase seems to mean something different to each user. Perhaps sometimes it is an evasion for something said to me by a beautiful, fragile young mother in the South: 'I don't think well get anywhere until we open up the apple that is the American way of life. But I'm afraid that what we'll find at the core will be so rotten that we'll shut it up quickly again.' I asked a Negro intellectual whether civil rights leaders think in such terms. 'I 'doubt if they would articulate that they want to change society; they would say their object is integration,' he replied. `Besides they would veer away from anything that might label them as red as well as black!'
Bayard Bustin, who organised the March on Washington and who, as one of the strategists in the movement will organise action at the time of the political conventions, affirms that the North's problems cannot be solved without challenging the fundamental economic and political principle of American society. And he points out: 'People get excited at the stall-ins and sit-ins at the World's Fair. Why don't they get excited about the destruction to democracy, which is the Southern filibuster in the Senate?'
From St. John comes a quotation to reveal the depths of the American crisis as interpreted in Baldwin's play. Significantly, though it represents the perception of the Negro minister whose son has been murdered by a white man, it also repre- sents the devastation wreaked by society and the American unconscious on the man—one of the poor whites. . . .
I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.
One Negro leader put it now: 'a washing- machine society . . . of tinsel and shabbiness.'
Of course, the ambition to partake of just this is widespread among many Negroes, and for them arrival among the material comforts of the middle class is OK. But among the intellectuals, among many ordinary people, among a few leaders, particularly the younger ones, the ferment goes on, not formulated in ideological terms (yet?) but philosophical.
`What the Negro needs is a definition of aims and goals, just who are we fighting,' says John Killens, whose profound war novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, was cited for a Pulitzer Prize. 'It is the American establishment that has to be taken to task for our condition--not the Governor of Mississippi.'
Killens believes 'that any writer's essential task is to expore the truth to the bitter end.'
For the writer is out to change the world. He is the subversive—every time he sits down at the typewriter he is out to change the world, to include everybody, not just the privileged few. He has to say the emperor has no clothes on.
And of America he says:
Americans are still under the illusion that they are the new world. But they are decadent, jaded, have had all the thrills. .. . Negroes are the only people here as a people who are for change. Eyeryone else feels- sorry for the poor Negro but other than that thinks it is a wonder- ful society.
How can such aspirations, and the aspirations of Martin Luther King and all the others who sec the struggle for freedom not as a struggle for the Negro alone, but for the white man too, how can these be translated into action so that the American way of life can be transformed? At a time when some thinkers—among them George Kerman and Walter Lippmann—are apparently questioning whether the political system can cope with the revolutionary social and economic changes in America, when enlightened trade unionists see the answer to the racial problem as largely economic, can they see the `unique and momentous opportunity' given to Americans by the upheaval of the great civil rights movement?
In a magnificent essay, The Black Revolution: Letters to a White Liberal, Father Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, states the 'frank and brutal facts' facing Americans: that 'this upheaval is going to sweep away not only the old-style political machine, the quaint relics of a more sanguine era, but also a great deal of the mana- gerial sophistication of our own time;' that there is 'a serious possibility of an eventual civil war which might wreck the fabric of American society.' Unless, that is, the unique and momentous opportunity is taken, with all Americans recognising that the Negro crisis is their own crisis, that through the creative non- violence permeating so much of the Negro struggle comes the possibility of Establishment and underprivileged participating in a new and creative solution of what is their common problem. We must either love each other or we must, die,' President Johnson said recently.