Gradualism, South Africa, and Civil Rights

Gradualism, South Africa, and Civil Rights

By Steven F. Lawson

Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986, pp. 1-3

In February 1986, a white student from the University of Cape Town in South Africa paid a visit to my campus at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Twenty-six years after black students in the southern United States initiated their wave of sit-ins against segregation American style, this young South African offered his thoughts on eradicating his country’s version of apartheid. Rather than supporting divestment of funds from companies doing business in South Africa, he counselled against any economic sanction that would interfere with the Botha regime’s commitment to bring about change “in a peaceful and orderly fashion.” To do otherwise, he argued, would only succeed in plunging his nation into financial chaos, injuring both black and white South Africans alike and pushing the government further to the political right.

On the surface this native South African sounded reasonable. He was advocating the dismantling of the “dehumanizing system” of apartheid, and he cited the progress that had been made toward this end. Within the past two years, the Botha administation had repealed the Mixed Marriages and Immorality Act and announced modification of the Group Areas Act to permit blacks to own property in their designated townships. These measures, he asserted, have strengthened the hands of those like himself who are dedicated to working for change from within to “bring about peace and justice for all in a country with tremendous wealth and potential for all her inhabitants.” Accordingly, the correct position for Americans to take

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was to back the “constructive engagement” policy of President Ronald Reagan.

Reading these remarks as they appeared in my school newspaper, I was immediately struck by their similarity to those put forth by moderate segregationists during the Civil Rights Era. Though significant differences exist between the situations in the U.S. and South Africa, in both countries the response of ruling whites was much the same. In neither case did they want to alter fundamentally the system of racial control or share political power in any equitable arrangement. Like the Pretoria regime today, “enlightened” southern whites a generation ago advocated gradualism as the best approach to resolving racial conflicts. Willing to accept desegregation in principle, they attempted to delay its implementation for as long as possible. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Brown, moderates opposed school closings and other extreme measures of white massive resistance but devised pupil placement laws and freedom of choice plans to keep integration to a minimum. Furthermore, though the courts and Congress had struck down practices denying the right to vote on the basis of race, southern whites continued to employ literacy tests to keep three-quarters of adult blacks disfranchised.

Throughout that period, southern moderates pleaded for understanding and sufficient time to solve their own problems. They criticized meddlesome northerners for not comprehending the unique pattern of race relations that had developed in the South over three hundred years and warned that attempts to overturn longstanding folkways would plunge the region into violence and cause more harm to blacks than to whites. Just as white South Africans admonish that blacks will suffer most from economic consequences of divestment, so too did moderates warn that blacks would be harmed if the federal government cut off funds to segregated schools. They presented their brand of gradualism as the antidote to the racist potions of the likes of George Wallace, Orval Faubus, the White Citizens Councils, and the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, their prescriptions for change called for more deliberation and less speed, civilities more than civil rights.

The record of Governor LeRoy Collins of Florida illustrates the dilemma of the southern moderate. Elected to two terms beginning in 1955, on each occasion Collins defeated arch-segregationists in the Democratic primary. As governor he advocated modernization of Florida’s economic and governmental structures through attracting industry to the Sunshine State, expanding educational opportunities, and reapportioning the legislature. In the aftermath of Brown and Little Rock, Governor Collins pursued a middle course designed to keep public schools open, maintain the dual system of segregation, and avoid violent confrontations that would tarnish the image of the state with northern investors. Consequently, he refused to endorse legislative resolutions nullifying the Brown opinion, but at the same time he also supported laws permitting local school boards to assign students and teachers to segregated schools based on criteria other than race, such as intelligence, character, and potential for disruption. The governor insisted that the state did not have to defy the US Supreme Court to assure “that there will be no integration in our public schools so long as it is not wise in the light of the social, economic and health facts of life as they exist in various localities.”

In his final year in office, Collins began to reconsider his position in a fashion that should be instructive for his South African counterparts.

In 1960, blacks throughout the state mounted sit-in demonstrations to desegregate lunch counters in five and dime stores and other facilities. The governor publicly urged white Floridians to reevaluate the morality and fairness of a policy that prohibited blacks from eating in an establishment where they were allowed to shop. In addition, he created a biracial committee to facilitate the desegregation of these businesses. After leaving office, Collins moved even further toward embracing the goals of the civil rights movement as well as recognizing the necessity of federal intervention to achieve them. In 1965, he played a key role as President Johnson’s emissary in arranging an agreement that averted bloodshed on the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In the span of a single decade, LeRoy Collins had marched on his own personal odyssey toward the attainment of first-class citizenship for blacks.

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Activism rather than gradualism had triumphed.

Had the United States moved at the pace desired by southern gradualists, blacks would have continued to live under the yoke of second-class citizenship well into the twenty-first century. As Martin Luther King wryly observed during the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965, it would have taken 103 years at the rate they were going for local registrars to enroll all the qualified blacks who applied. Realizing that freedom is indivisible, black Americans and their white allies refused to wait that long. They not only resisted the new forms of segregation instituted to slow down racial equality, but also challenged the federal government to abandon its constructive engagement policy of allowing the South to manage its own affairs, as long as it did so in a respectable fashion. In the end, coercion by means of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, not voluntarism, broke the back of Jim Crow. Frederick Douglass summed up the lesson long ago: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The cosmetic reforms of the Botha regime are as intellectually shallow and morally bankrupt today as were those offered by southern gradualists during our age of civil rights. They did not succeed then, and they are doomed to fail in South Africa.

Steven F. Lawson is Professor of History at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and author of In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965-1982 (Columbia University Press).