Thursday, May 03, 2012

Forcing Social Equality on the American People

The Savannah News pinned the blame [for the Philadelphia transit strike] directly on "Mrs. Roosevelt's persistent efforts to force social equality on the American people." (p. 540)
Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time spends a fair number of pages on Eleanor Roosevelt's interest and work to take down barriers to equality for blacks.  I've covered some incidents in previous posts.  And here.   This post is  one more.  And given that people in Anchorage voted to deny such rights to LGBT Alaskans, it seems worth while to go back into history. The people opposing LGBT rights sound a lot like people who opposed rights for blacks back in 1944.

There had already been countless incidents of black service men in the South and southwest not being able to buy bus tickets (they had to wait in the colored line until all the whites had gotten their tickets, including people who came way after them) to get back to base, or get on buses that only had room in white sections, or being beaten, even killed if they tried to defy Jim Crow laws.  One story was of the outrage of not being allowed to eat in the white (and only) dining room, and watching German prisoners of war, eating inside.  (p. 521)

The War Department, finally in July 1944 required all military transport and facilities, including those in the South, to be accessible equally to all soldiers regardless of race.

The Fair Employment Practices Commission was set up to make sure racial equity was practiced for civilians in war needed jobs.  Mostly, Goodwin writes, they capitulated  to business, labor, and the Southern block.   They succeeded only when black workers filed complaints or businesses complied voluntarily.  (p. 537)

August 1, 1945 there was a massive transit strike in Philadelphia.  It began when a group of black workers requested the chance to compete for positions above the lowest rank.
Under duress, the company announced a new round of qualifying examinations, open to anyone, for the position of motorman.  William Barber, a young Negro who had started with the transit system as a laborer and worked his way up to a welder, was one of fifty who took the exam.  "The exam was a written test, math plus some general questions,"  Barber recalled.  "Eight of us passed.  I got a ninety-eight, one of the highest scores. . . " (p. 538)
But when Barber came to work the first day, there were no trolly cars on the street.  The white workers went out on strike with calls to keep the Negroes out and to refuse to teach them the jobs.  On the third day of the strike, FDR ordered the army to take control of the Philadelphia Transportation Company because people couldn't get to work at war related jobs, and things quickly turned around.
"The citizens of Philadelphia turned against the strikers.  "In whatever degree the PTC walkout is based on race prejudice, it is wholly indefensible and thoroughly un-American,"  the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized.  "It represents nothing but insult and injury to millions of Philadelphians." (p. 539)
And the Savannah News chastised Mrs. Roosevelt for forcing social equity on the American people.  But blacks now could have motorman jobs.
"The first runs were tough,"  William Barber recalled. "People spit at me.  I almost lost my temper, but I said, No, I'll just take it.  I'm setting an example.  And gradually things settled down.  I remember one day a woman with a bad attitude came in.  I called her stop and she missed it.  She started screaming at me.  "Look, lady," I said.  "If you don't leave in one minute, one or the other of us is going to be meeting our maker very soon."  With that, everyone on the bus burst into cheers and the lady shut up.  (p. 540)
Change can happen.  Social change can happen.  We're a long ways past 1944, but prejudice, while affected by social, political, and economic institutions, resides ultimately in people's hearts.  And many parents have stopped inoculating their children against hate and prejudice.  But when leaders take strong stands, backed by forceful action, things change.  Even in Philadelphia in 1944, it appears that most people were not worried about having black bus drivers.  They just needed strong leaders to make it happen.  Unfortunately, we don't have enough strong leaders in Anchorage to make discrimination against LGBT folks illegal.  And there seem to be enough religious leaders who think it's their duty to keep the discrimination legal.  Even today, almost 70 years after blacks got the right to be bus drivers in Philadelphia.

But ultimately, they can only delay the inevitable.  What's going to happen when a gay serviceman or woman is refused an apartment in Anchorage?  Fortunately, most people who rent are just concerned that the tenant pays on time and keeps the place in decent shape.  But every now and then someone loses a job or an apartment or a loan because of prejudice.  And many people live in fear that it will happen.   Is that what people mean by 'fear mongering'?


  1. I read a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. As a republican he would have been banned today.
    He was for conservation, against big corporations, concerned for the poor and was for women's right to vote. he also was crucified in the South and lost the vote, only because he invited Booker t Washington to the White house for dinner!
    60 years later, the democrats lost the South because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

  2. I'm sure Teddy influenced his neice's (Eleanor) ideas on civil rights, and probably Franklin's too.


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