The Price of NAACP Compromise Was Too High – Gerald Horne on Reality Asserts Itself (1/6)
Mr. Horne, author of The Counter-Revolution of 1776, says it was a turning point in the history of black America when the NAACP succumbed to the pressures of the Cold War – the effects of which are still felt today
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
That was Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852.
In the brains of Americans, perhaps nothing weighs on them more than the mythology of the founding of the republic. The American Revolution is seen as a beacon of hope, freedom, democracy, the Constitution almost a document handed down by God as were the Commandments to Moses.
Our guest today challenges much of this narrative, which still penetrates the American national psyche and politics. Joining us today is Gerald Horne. He has published over 30 books. He’s the former executive director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and author most recently of The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow.
JAY: So now joining us in the studio is Gerald Horne.
Thanks very much for joining us.
GERALD HORNE, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: So you’ve been exploring this nightmare that hangs over the American psyche for quite some time. But on Reality Asserts Itself, as our viewers know, we usually start with the sort of personal back story, and then we’ll get into some of your work, particularly on your book on the Revolution of 1776.
You didn’t choose what world you would be born into, nor did any of us. But what world were you born into?
HORNE: I was born in Jim Crow St. Louis, Missouri, some decades ago. My parents were from Mississippi. They’re both passed away. And I grew up with stories about the horrors of Mississippi, of lynching. I recall my mother telling me when I was growing up that when those who were defined as white were coming towards you on the sidewalk, you have to step off the sidewalk and step into the gutter. Certainly you’re not supposed to look them into the eye when you’re speaking to each other.
JAY: What year were you born?
HORNE: Nineteen forty-nine. And my parents fled from Mississippi, like so many others–Richard Wright, for example, the great novelist, had roots in Mississippi–but wound up in Jim Crow St. Louis, which, admittedly, was not the hell on earth that Mississippi was, but was no paradise either.
JAY: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
HORNE: Well, that’s an interesting story. The neighborhood I was born into in St. Louis was called Mill Creek Valley. I found it to be a stable working-class neighborhood, near stockyards. But the city fathers thought otherwise, and as often happened in so many cities during that period, the 1950s and the 1960s, there was this great project of urban renewal–otherwise known as Negro removal–and we had to abandon that neighborhood for another neighborhood in north St. Louis, where actually now my sister lives, in that house, which when we moved into it, it was a mostly white neighborhood, but shortly thereafter, magically, it turned into a mostly black neighborhood.
JAY: This is part of blockbusting.
HORNE: Well, yeah, blockbusting, urban renewal, Negro removal. It’s interesting. I’m doing a book now on the black press. Claude Barnett, he was the founder of the Associated Negro Press, and he made some of his early fortune–he’s black–through blockbusting. That is to say, after these black Americans started moving into this previously all-white neighborhood, the whites started panicking and began selling their property for a song. He would buy them up and then sell them for a higher price.
JAY: We did this story in Baltimore. A journalist named Antero Pietila did a three-part–we did a three-part interview with him. He wrote a book that this was entirely deliberate. Like, the real estate speculators were all–this was a planned thing to try to scare the hell out of whites. They would actually sometimes, in Baltimore at least, they’d even buy the houses for black families and then create the rumor that the prices are all going to drop, you have to sell, and, of course, as a favor to you, we’ll buy that from you.
HORNE: Right. Right.
JAY: What did your parents do?
HORNE: My father was attacked driver. He was a member of the Teamsters union, which used to bill itself, and maybe still does, as the largest union in the capitalist world. It has over 2 million members. He drove a truck for construction sites. And he was also a cab driver. My mother was a domestic, like so many black women of that era.
JAY: And what was the politics in the house? The Teamster politics could be anything, actually. It’s kind of–.
HORNE: Well, that requires a multiple answer. I grew up with stories about the Teamsters being influenced by organized crime and looting the pension funds of the workers, including the pension fund of my father, by the way, which left him in terrible straits. But I also grew up in a neighborhood in the city St. Louis where the Teamsters were led by a guy by the name of Harold Gibbons, who was actually unique amongst Teamsters leaders ’cause he was a social democrat, believe it or not, in the 1950s and 1960s, in Jim Crow, red scare St. Louis, took antiwar positions, took progressive positions on Jim Crow, which is partly how my father came to be a member of that union. So it was a contradictory situation in which I found myself.
JAY: Because at the leadership level, the Teamsters had no problem supporting not only war, but Republicans or just about anything else that seemed to be in their immediate interest.
JAY: But at the same time, often quite a militant union when it came to, actually, wages and working conditions.
HORNE: They were not afraid to go on strike. And at the end of the day, it’s proper to say that the strike is the most potent weapon that a union has to wield. And if a union wields that weapon, that can compensate for a lot of deficiencies.
JAY: And the Teamsters defended their picket lines.
HORNE: Absolutely. They were well known for being able to use their fists and being able to use baseball bats and bicycle chains. It was a militant union, there’s no question about it.
JAY: And how much of that did you grow up in? How active was your father in the union?
HORNE: My father was not very active in the union, but I used to read all the publications, which would get mailed to our house–that’s how I know a lot about this history–although I have to confess that what I mostly remember about the Teamster publications is they used to publish jokes. You know, I remember a lot of the jokes. I don’t remember too many of the stories.
JAY: I’ve always been kind of intrigued–or trying to understand, I guess, is the better way to say it–that when a young black man or woman grows up in America, and the culture, the media, the schools are filled with his Americanism,–
JAY: –yet your parents are telling you stories about Mississippi, your own experience is an apartheid, racist experience, how does that jive with this feeling that I’m also an American?
HORNE: Well, Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP, a founder of pan-Africanism, talked about “double-consciousness”, this contradictory aspect, the “two warring ideals in one body” I think was the phrase that he used, which basically encapsulates what you just suggested.
With regard to myself, I think that I always took the stories of the so-called American dream with a grain of salt–or a shaker of salt, ’cause it did not correspond with what I knew and what my parents had told me. I think, unfortunately and sadly for a lot of black Americans growing up, it can lead to a certain kind of cynicism and a certain kind of despair, because they’re being bombarded with all this propaganda that points in one direction and the reality points in another direction. It can be quite confusing and quite destabilizing.
JAY: Now, you’re born in ’49. It’s just after World War II. What was your–I mean, I grew up–I’m born just a little bit after you are, and I know we grew up with all kinds of stories of World War II. I mean, television was one World War II show after another. And where was your father during the war? And what sense of that did you get growing up?
HORNE: Well, this is where some of my historical research probably is going to infect my memories. My father didn’t fight during World War II–not because he was a pacifist or an antiwar activist; it was because of his age. He was born, he thinks–’cause he didn’t really know, ’cause oftentimes birth records weren’t kept for black Americans in Mississippi–he thinks he was born in 1898, which would mean that in 1941, when the United States enters the war, he was a bit above the age they were looking for.
But since I’ve done all this historical research, I now know that, interestingly enough, St. Louis, black St. Louis, was a hotbed of pro-Tokyo sentiment, that is to say, that Japan had made an appeal to black Americans, as many real or imagined antagonists of the United States has done over the centuries–.
JAY: I’m going to interrupt you here.
JAY: We’re going to really dig into this. And this is actually a pretty good teaser, so you’re going to have to come back for the other parts, ’cause we’re going to dig into this whole thing of Japan positioning itself as the leader of the fight against white supremacy. But right now I want to stay on your story.
HORNE: Sure. I won’t go into–okay. It affects my memory.
JAY: But we’ll get there. But we need to get where you were then. And, like, I know for myself, and I think probably for most, I would say, white North Americans of our generation–you know, I’m born in ’51, so around this period–this was a big deal, the World War II narrative and, you know, we fought for freedom and democracy and all the rest, and against Hitler, and we used to have–as kids we used to have these songs ridiculing Mussolini and Hitler and things.
JAY: But I had a conversation with Danny Glover, who we both know, and he was telling me when he grew up World War II was practically off the radar. It wasn’t–unless you had a family member who was actually fighting, it was kind of not part of your narrative. It was out there somewhere. What was it for you?
HORNE: Well, I agree. Probably I have more memories of the war in Korea, 1950 to 1953, since I was born after World War II. And I recall an uncle who claimed–he wore a ring that he said he had cut from the finger of a Chinese soldier on the Korean Peninsula. I don’t know if that was true or not.
My mother was a big supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And I think that that affected my memories or has affected my memories. In fact, my oldest sister was named Mary Eleanor Horne, Eleanor after Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary after, of course, Christian Mary. And I think that that suggests the kind of household in which I came into being.
JAY: Now, your father was a member of the union. He wasn’t that active.
JAY: You growing up in St. Louis, the overall arc of the American narrative, I assume, was very strong. It’s a pretty racist city, as was Baltimore. When do you start to kind of question all of this at a more profound level?
HORNE: Probably when we were forced to move from Mill Creek Valley to North St. Louis, ’cause it didn’t–even at that age it didn’t make sense to me, and then moving to set North St. Louis, entering a previously all-white school, ’cause I’d gone to all-black schools up until the age of ten or 11, and then at that age entering all-white schools and then being subjected to sort of normal everyday Jim Crow by people who basically didn’t know any better. So I think that begins to shape my–.
JAY: What’s an example of that?
HORNE: Well, you know, the black scare, that is to say, people getting nervous when you’re around, you know, clutching their handbags or–. You may know the story of Reggie Jackson, the former baseball player. When he goes to the New York Yankees in the 1970s, he lives in an apartment building in Upper East Side of Manhattan. He gets on an elevator with his dog and he tells the dog to sit, and all the white people in the elevator sit down on the floor of the elevator. So this was sort of the black scare. People are sort of intimidated by your presence, nervous about your presence. And then, of course, they might just decide to do a preemptive strike against your presence.
JAY: And did they?
HORNE: Yeah, we got into fights, fracases of various sorts, on racialized basis.
JAY: Go back to this idea of Americanism. And at some point, I know, ’cause I know your story, you come to a far more radical analysis of just whose America is this. When does–talk us through the arc of getting there.
HORNE: Well, as you know, during the 1960s the United States was under a lot of pressure with regard to its Jim Crow practices, because it professed to be this paragon of human rights virtue in the battle with the former Soviet Union. And so there was pressure to desegregate. And it was under those conditions that I got admitted to Princeton University, an Ivy League school. And I think when you go to an Ivy League school in the 1960s being black, I think it could either cause you to want to join the U.S. ruling elite or to rebel against the U.S. ruling elite. And I fell into the second category.
HORNE: I’m not really sure. I mean, when you say “why”, I’m trying to contrast myself with my classmates who fell into that other category. And I’m not really sure why they fell into that category and I fell into the category that I did. I’m not sure.
JAY: You kind of–Bob Moses had sort of the same kind of opportunities to go to elite schools and kind of made a somewhat similar choice to join the civil rights movement and become an activist. But what is it that tips that? Because obviously the path was clear for you. You could have made a success.
HORNE: I don’t know. Probably because I was interested a lot in writing and studying history. And as they say in the business world, that’s not easy to monetize. And so that probably predetermined my path, because, as you know, there are lots of starving writers in the United States of America. It doesn’t provide that many options.
JAY: Who inspired you in those days?
HORNE: You mean historical figures or day-to-day figures?
JAY: Whatever. I mean, is that part of the kind of choices you made?
HORNE: Sure. I would say in terms of historical figures the people you might suspect–Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, figures of that sort, that is to say, black Americans who were intellectuals, who were political activists, who were trying to make a difference, who were trying to radically transform not only this society but the world. So those were the kinds of people I aspired to be like, who I looked up to, and, actually, who I’ve been writing about.
JAY: You come of age not kind of in the–you grow up in and become of age during the Cold War, the height of the Cold War, but particularly McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities. Communism, socialism, even radicalism, is almost akin to being a traitor. How much effect did the Cold War have on you?
HORNE: Well, as you probably know, in the black American community it’s a bit different. I mean, certainly that community’s affected by the Cold War. But then, as now, the general consensus in the black American community was not so much if you were hard on communism, but whether you were hard on white supremacy. That’s what they were concerned about. And if you were hard on white supremacy, then you’d get a lot of leeway, you got a lot of respect. And I think obviously that helps to shape people’s consciousness. Now, how people decide how hard they’re going to be on white supremacy and what path that’s going to take is a separate question.
JAY: You got very involved in the movement against apartheid in South Africa.
HORNE: At Princeton. Most of those student movements in the late 1960s when I was an undergraduate, a lot of them focused on antiwar movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and focused on bringing black studies departments into universities. For some reason–and I’ll have to think about why–we got involved in pressuring the university to divest itself from investments in corporations that had holdings in South Africa. In retrospect, that probably had something to do with the fact that we had a number of students from the African continent who matriculated alongside us, and that was probably the influence that pushed us in that direction. We wound up taking over buildings with regard to that project, and we did quite a bit. And that put me on a track in the anti-apartheid movement. I was active in that movement–actually, I guess you could say I’m still active in that movement, ’cause now I write a lot about Southern Africa. But at the time, as an undergraduate, I was an activist. And when I was living in New York in the ’70s and in the ’80s, I was an activist around the anti-apartheid movement, organizing concerts, raising money for the ANC, African National Congress of South Africa, SWAPO of Namibia, MPLA in Angola, organizing picket lines, demonstrations, all sorts of things.
JAY: You’ve written–just to go back to a comment you made a little earlier about the Cold War wasn’t such a big thing in black America, the anti-communism, but you’ve also written that the civil rights movement, many of the leaders made a kind of a deal to receive some compromises in exchange for being quite rigorously anti-communist. And there were a lot of blacks involved in the communist movement, and you’ve written about that. So it wasn’t a nonissue.
HORNE: No, it wasn’t a nonissue. I was just speaking on the micro level in terms of being an individual in St. Louis, for example, in a particular neighborhood.
JAY: Ordinary public opinion.
HORNE: Exactly. But, yes, I mean, if you look at the figure of W. E. B. Du Bois, he’s sacked from the NAACP in 1948 precisely on Cold War grounds. He continues moving to the left. The NAACP continues moving to the right and to the center. That was a turning point in the history of black America and the history of the United States as a whole, because interestingly enough, despite what some people may think, the NAACP, which is headquartered, as you know, right here in Baltimore, was not as active as it could have been or should have been on the question of the war against Vietnam, for example. And I’ve written quite recently that that was a fundamental and profound mistake, because I don’t think the leaders recognize that so much of our progress, that is to say, black Americans’ progress, was dependent upon international public opinion, and international public opinion was quite hostile to the U.S. role in Vietnam. So by putting all their eggs in Washington’s basket, in some ways they made a fundamental strategic mistake, which we’re still paying for.
JAY: And this is–when King makes his speech against Vietnam, he talks about–I can’t remember if he uses the phrase–“conspiracy of silence”, I think. But essentially that’s what he’s talking about.
HORNE: Yes, well, yes, Riverside Church, I think it’s April 1967, a scant year before he’s assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, he makes that famous speech. And even before then he was crusading in his own way against the war in Vietnam. But as you know, there’s always been this idea of the Faustian bargain that black American leaders have to make; that is to say, in return for not being subjected to being bludgeoned into submission, they make concessions in order to survive. And as NAACP leaders will tell you, a number of organizations have fallen by the wayside. The NAACP is still standing. So that would be their response if one of their leaders were sitting here.
JAY: What would your response be?
HORNE: Well, I think the price was too steep. Everything comes with a price. And I think that the problem was that the concessions that they made, the compromises that they made did not put us in a situation from which we could advance, because there are compromises that lead you and leave you with the ability to fight another day so that you can advance, and then there are compromises that leave you in a weakened condition. And I think the compromises they made were in the latter category, not least because we, that is to say, black Americans and others, won the right to sit at a lunch counter but did not win the right to have enough in our paycheck to pay the bill, because part of what was going on during the movement against Jim Crow was the crushing of trade unions. Most black Americans were from working-class backgrounds, like my parents, for example, and when trade unions were weakened and crushed, that meant that what we might have gained on the so-called race front we lost on the class front. And as you weigh the equities and liabilities, I think in many ways we came out worse. Which is why you hear so much nostalgia, interestingly enough, particularly amongst young people, for the Jim Crow era. And, of course, they didn’t live through the Jim Crow era like I did, and so, therefore, their memories of it might be a little hazy, but I think what they’re expressing is unease with those compromises and unease with where those compromises left us. And I think they’re also expressing unease with the institutions that had to go under as a result of those compromises.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue this discussion in the next part of our series of interviews with Gerald Horne on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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