Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

From a work in progress -- Alan Paton's view of America

Alan Paton graced this page a couple of years ago with ``A writer's reflections,'' an essay on what others' words have meant to the author of ``Cry, the Beloved Country'' and many more recent works. Now we are delighted to offer the public its first look at a chapter from the manuscript of Mr. Paton's work in progress, the second volume of his autobiography, to be published by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. This chapter is an account of visits from South Africa to the United States three decades ago, before the civil rights gains of later years. It begins below, with the next installment appearing tomorrow.

It was in 1946 that I bought in New York a railway ticket that cost $120. It was several feet long, and it would take me to Atlanta, New Orleans, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa, and back to New York, where Charles Scribner's Sons would accept my novel ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' My long journey was made without luxuries, except that the long-distance trains of 1946 were luxurious in themselves.

About these ads

My Collier's magazine journey of 1954 covered much of the same ground, except for Canada. My employers were very generous and I wanted for nothing. My traveling companion was Dan Weiner, an up-and-coming young photographer whose promising life was brought to a sudden end in an air crash over Tennessee in 1957. He was sturdy and thick-set, and possessed of an abundance of energy. Dan was a political radical, but of a typically American kind; he would say the most outrageous things about his country, but he would have been willing to die for it. Before we set out on our marathon journey, he took me to meet his wife, Sandra, and their daughter Dore, and his father, who had emigrated from Latvia to the United States in the early part of this century. Dan soon discovered that I was an admirer of the US and its Constitution and he was at pains (how seriously it would have been hard to assess) to convince me that American practice and American profession were poles apart. He once did this in the presence of his father, who rose to his feet and with gentle anger pointed to the framed copy of the Bill of Rights that hung upon the wall. ``That's why I came to America,'' he said, ``and I found it all true. Don't you ever speak like that again in my house.'' Dan had the grace to look ashamed.

Dan was a great idealist, especially in matters of race. Therefore he could not have asked for a more congenial assignment than to accompany me around America to prepare an article to be called ``The Negro in America Today.'' In 1954 the black American was in polite language a ``Negro'' or a ``colored'' person. It was considerably later that the Negro became a black. ``Negro'' was the word that I used in 1954, and it is the word I am going to use in this chapter, though it is now out of date. We left New York on March 31 and returned on May 11. We left with the blessings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, always known as the NAACP, and with innumerable introductions, to workers for the NAACP and the Urban League, to university presidents and teachers, to church leaders, newspaper editors, and to two state governors. I shall record only what seems to me to be the most memorable events of this journey.

Gov. James Byrnes was born in 1879 in Charleston, S. C. He had little formal education but took up the study of law and in 1903 was admitted to the bar. He was then to enjoy a distinguished career. He was a member of Congress from 1911 to 1925, and a member of the Senate from 1931 to 1941. His great elevation came in 1941, when he was appointed by President Roosevelt to the Supreme Court of the United States. However in 1942 the President called him away and made him director of economic stabilization; he was jokingly called the second president. In 1945 President Truman appointed him secretary of state, and in 1951 he became the governor of South Carolina. It was not because of the brilliance of his career that I went to see him, but because he was one of the most eminent opponents of racial integration, and of the NAACP. He resisted strongly and openly the drive of the NAACP and many civil rights workers to overthrow segregation in the schools. He graciously gave me an interview, and did not attempt to conceal or soften his whole-hearted rejection of integration.

A hard-bitten and professional interviewer may be able to drive a state governor into a corner, where he will turn on his tormentor, much to the delight of those people who like that kind of thing. I was neither hard-bitten nor professional, and for 20 minutes Governor Byrnes drove me into a corner, telling me how well he got on with Jews, and how glad he was to see that the son of a Jewish friend of his had reached a high position in a military school in the South. This gave me my first opening, for I had come straight from Fort Bragg, where I had seen white soldiers saluting Lieutenant Scott, a Negro lieutenant, and had heard them addressing him as ``sir.'' I had also talked with Lieutenant Webb, a Negro Baptist chaplain, whose spiritual charges were mostly white Southerners who brought to him their troubles, a thing which they had never done at home. He married them and baptized their children, and was invited to their homes. You couldn't pooh-pooh Fort Bragg; it was the home of the famous 82nd Airborne Division. The US Armed Forces were ordered to give equal treatment to whites and Negroes by President Truman in 1948, and Fort Bragg was in Governor Byrnes's own state of South Carolina, and is not to be confused with Fort Bragg, Calif. I told him about Lieutenants Scott and Webb, and asked him what he thought about it. His answer was immediate and direct, the kind of answer that one might expect from a man who had been secretary of state. It was not for him to question what the President had ordered to happen in the Armed Forces, but when soldiers and airmen went off the base, they were expected to obey the segregation laws of South Carolina. In the schools it was different; these were administered by the state, and segregation was the law.

The governor told me that segregation was a law of nature. Nature had her categories, and individuals in one were not found in the other. In the shoals of blackfish he never encountered a . . . (here I lost the word), but I think it might have been a whiting. This talk of a ``conflict in the soul of the South'' was nonsense. It was the Negro of mixed blood who was the unhappy man -- who, because he belonged to no order, fought unceasingly for the removal of all discrimination whatsoever. The NAACP was his instrument, and the governor gave as instances two of the outstanding members of the organization, Walter White, its director (who was to all appearances a white man with blue eyes), and Channing Tobias, one of its vice-presidents, a grave impressive man of light complexion. How he knew they were unhappy, I do not know, and I did not think to inquire. I had met them both, and they both cherished one supreme purpose, and that was to root out statutory race discrimination in the US. Neither of them was a fanatic.

I asked the governor about the crucial case that would be heard by the Supreme Court in Washington in May, Brown and others against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., a suit which, if successful, could bring an end to school segregation, but it was clear that the governor would not die fighting at the barricades. After all he had once been a justice of the Supreme Court, and one did not defy a decision of that august and revered body. It was time to bring the formal interview to an end, but he informed me that he did not use the word ``nigger''; also that his secretary had a great admiration for me as a writer and I must meet her. We concluded by having an animated discussion about the wonders of Kruger Park, though I am not certain as to whether the governor had been there or not. We parted on the most amicable terms, and I told him he did not look his 75 years. I also realized again the strange power that the law, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court exercised over the citizens of the US.

Dan Weiner, who had behaved with great decorum during the interview, exploded as soon as we were out of sight and earshot. Did I realize now what America was really like? How could I sit still and listen to such obscenities? It was quite clear that Dan had not been mollified by the governor's friendly references to the Jews. I told him to cheer up. We were going to visit the great Navy base and dockyard at Charleston, where segregation had been banished. And on the way we were going to see Mr. William Ragin, a member of the NAACP, who had brought suit in 1951 protesting against the inferior accommodation at the school of his small son Glenn. Mr. Ragin was not asking for integration, he was basing his case on the famous Supreme Court decision of 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Court gave its blessing to segregation, but announced the doctrine of ``separate but equal.'' Segregation was legal if the separate facilities were equal. Mr. Ragin was now claiming equal facilities at his son's school.

About these ads

Mr. Ragin was a small spare man who owned over 100 acres and buildings on his farm in Clarendon County, free of all debt. He was also a man of great courage, as all the members of the NAACP in the Deep South had to be. He drew up a petition asking for equal school facilities, and took it to the parents of more than 1,000 Negro children. He got 25 signatures, but even some of these dropped out ``when the steam got up.''

The first hearing was in Charleston in 1951, and over it was hung a black pall of white disapproval. Mr. Ragin lost his case, but a historic dissenting opinion was given by Judge J. Waties Waring, who said that if separate facilities were to be equal, the place to start was in the first grade of school. But he went further and made the shocking statement that ``segregation is per se inequality.''

Judge Waring, who was born a Southerner, had taken his first momentous step in 1947, when he ruled that Negroes could not be excluded from voting in the ``white'' Democratic primaries. He and his wife Elizabeth were ostracized by the white people of Charleston, and Collier's magazine of April 29, 1950, called him ``the lonesomest man in town.'' But the Negroes of the city were overwhelmed. For the first time the judge and his wife entertained black people in their home. This was for Waties and Elizabeth Waring the great divide of their lives. For the judge in particular it was a hard fight. He was nearly 70 years of age, but he had made up his mind to throw the last prejudice out of his heart and mind and soul.

Mr. Ragin did not accept his defeat in Charleston. He followed his case right up to Washington and there he won. As a result the education authority built ``a new piece on the school.'' Mr. Ragin told me that his father taught him to have no hate for anybody, ``but he said I was an American and I had to stand up for my rights.''

A good word for Governor Byrnes. In 1954 he told the South Carolina Education Association that a sum of $94 million would be spent on new school buildings in the coming years, and that meant that $106 would be spent for each white pupil and $271 for each Negro pupil. ``We are forced to do in a few years what our fathers and grandfathers should have done in the past 75 years,'' said the governor.

I visited one of the Negro schools in Clarendon County that had not yet received a share of the governor's $94 million. It was moving enough to see its forlorn state, its broken windows, its pathetic equipment, its sagging foundations. But more moving to me was to see the Stars and Stripes, the proud flag of the United States of America, and under it these words:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Strange people, the colored people of the US, who through such scorn and rejection have clung so fiercely to the ideal of America. Strange country, though so careless of liberty and justice, yet raises a William Ragin to restore them to her, and gives to a small spare man the heart to fight for justice, and defeats him in place after place, so that he may have a victory in Washington.

My own country is also a country of great diversity, but there is no common loyalty that can bind us all together, unless it be the physical land itself. We have no Constitution (except of course the bare legal instrument), and we have no Bill of Rights. We have a highly respected Supreme Court, it is true, but it has no powers to test the laws of Parliament in terms of a Constitution. In the US the Constitution is sovereign, in South Africa it is Parliament that is sovereign, and up to the time of this writing, August 1984, it is an all-white Parliament, representing some 16 percent of the total population. America is full of faults and inequalities, but she has the instrument to abate and remove them. The process is endless, of course, but it always has been since the beginnings of human time. America also has another advantage that we do not possess. All Americans speak -- with different degrees of competency -- the same language. We do not. We have two official languages, English and Afrikaans, but we have at least a dozen ``home languages.''

It was time to move on, this time to Charleston, where I hoped to visit the Navy base and dockyard, which had also been ordered to integrate by President Truman.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.