The Negroes Act: The Politics Of The New Negro

The Negroes Act: The Politics Of The New Negro

“The first act has come off very well, but who is going to write the second?” A local realtor addressed this question to the assembled “Central Committee” of the student movement in a large Southern city. The Negro businessman had been astonished, and only moderately gratified, by the sit-downs, the picketing, and the demonstrations which had taken place in a city he boasted of knowing so well and among a people he supposedly led. It was the end of May, after four months of activity, and he was meeting with the students for the first time. Sternly, though perhaps with a touch of embarrassment, he offered them “guidance” and warned them of “irresponsible leadership.” Warning and offer were reiterated by other men at the same meeting—banker, insurance broker, lawyer, newspaper owner, head of the Negro YMCA—a gallery of notables who spoke, as they did not hesitate to inform the students, for 80 million dollars worth of capital. The “notables” were willing enough to write a script for the second act, but I felt they would have liked also to change the cast. Their advice, however, was coldly rejected by the student leaders. With a rather cruel politeness, the students refused to discuss their future plans.

It was an extraordinary confrontation, this meeting between community and student leaders, an encounter of generations, and also of classes. The sons of the men who sat on one side of the room went to college (most of them) in the North. The parents of the students who sat on the other side of the room were (largely) nurses, coal miners, teachers, post office employees, railroad porters. The student leaders themselves were the products of a vast expansion in Southern Negro college enrollment since the late forties—an expansion in which the schools obviously reached far beyond the limited middle class. Indeed, it is likely that more lower class Negro children go to college in the South than in the North. And these, in largest part, are the “new Negroes” who made the sit-downs possible.

As a result of increased enrollments, there have appeared on the campuses large numbers of aggressive young men, fiercely hungry for success, for material goods and even fame. Having already come far, and being by no means inexperienced, these young men are realistic and sometimes cynical in their judgments of people. They know what to expect from their fellow Negroes and what from the white man. But they are extraordinarily idealistic about goods, both moral and material. They seem equally ready for a success story and a morality play, and I have no doubt that the civil rights movement is an adventure in which something of both is involved. The students are willing to take risks in the name of both prosperity and virtue. To experiment freely with the two is indeed novel in Negro life; the approach of the older leaders to either one is likely to be more fearful and devious...

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