Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Do we have
Liberty and Justice
in the 
United States

By Arneth L. Hartsfield

Some searching questions on the present application
of the Bill of Rights

    IT I quite obvious even to the casual observer, that though we do have conditions of unparalleled liberty and justice in the United States, we have at the same time very apparent injustices and conditions unrelated to liberty.

    The great majority of these conditions have in the past, been suffered by racial or national groups under the guise of social, cultural, or racial inequality.  During the last decade there have been two new major groups exposed to these same conditions.  These groups are the unemployed and the migrant. They are both sufficiently large to warrant close study.  The fact that all racial groups are represented gives evidence of the need for a new approach.  If the real reason for this mistreatment were biologically inherent in the groups, why did it not stop when no new "inferior group" was to be found?  In our own fruited valleys of California, for instance, the American Indian, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Hindu, the Armenian, the Filipino, and the Mexican have all suffered exploitation.  Why did it finally turn on the "white American" and try to pass it off by labeling them as separate groups of "Arkies", "Okies", and "Texans"?

    Are we ready to admit that the true American is an inferior racial class?  Between 1935 and 1940, over one-half million unemployed persons entered this state by automobile alone.  Of these homeless and jobless migrants, four-fifths were white families.  Individuals of any kind may turn hobo and wander around dodging work, but whole families do not.  These Americans (how else may we classify them?) have found that civil rights without economic rights are only half a loaf, and if economic rights are lost over a long period of time the civil rights follow to leave no loaf at all.

Because of the excellent representation of all races in the ranks of the migrant, because the group is sufficiently large (four million in late 1939) for intensive study, and also because its very mobility accents all the grievances of the unemployed figured alone;  let us study this migrant, "our own refugee", and see if he should be satisfied in his own "Sweet Land of Liberty".

Of course we all have freedom of religion, but the migrant is usually busy working on Sunday.  If not, he is most likely traveling to his next job, or more often, to a rumor of a job.  Even if it should happen that he is not otherwise engaged, and he feels the need of spiritual blessing more than the need of physical rest, the gasoline, and the car in general, are far too precious to use on such a mission.  Very seldom, indeed, is a church within walking distance of the whole family, the old, the young, the sick and the well.  On top of all this is the task of venturing unclean, diseased, and ill clothed, into a strange and unfriendly congregation.  Bitter experience has taught the migrant that he cannot expect a Christian-like reception.

    Freedom of speech does not include the privilege of talking against bad working conditions,  low wages,  lack of sanitation,  absence of education for the children, etc.  To speak of these is to invite personal injury,  fines, and imprisonment for disturbing the peace.  Along with these go the label of "red" or "agitator", and the accompanying blacklist.

    This is indeed a dear price to pay for a bit of freedom.

    Closely allied to freedom of speech is freedom of assembly.  This freedom is never forbidden or even questioned if used to slave in the fields.  Any assembly to voice rights or to petition redress is assembly for unlawful purposes, an incitement to riot, or a conspiracy to disturb the peace.  Ask the Salinas lettuce pickers, the pea pickers of Imperial Valley, or the cotton pickers of San Joaquin on this score.

    What about freedom of the press?  The migrants own no presses and there are very few that express their views.  The growers are the permanent residents.  They either own the presses or control them through advertisements.  The migrants' voice is not heard.  His freedom of the press is even missing as a reader,  due to such factors as a high percentage of illiteracy, the lack of pennies to spare for reading material, and the absence of of deliveries of newspapers to the migrant camps.  Even if this were not true, it is uninteresting to read about strange people and events in place of the "newsy" old home sheet.

    A foreign student of our democratic form of government would wonder why these unfortunates do not vote their troubles away.  This too is a nonexistent freedom to the migrant.  In addition to the residence requirements, the same difficulties face their attempts to get to the places of registration and voting as are met in getting to church.  Literacy tests and identification are used to unfair advantage.  The cumulative poll tax in four states (ranging from 2-24 years) may place a value of over $45 on the right to vote once.

    The poll tax in eight states is aimed at the poor (5 million whites and 4 million Negroes)  and hits the migrant full blast.  These conditions and the ones they are protecting are the roots of the miseries that force the "South" to add ever increasingly to the swelling ranks of the migrants.

There are in many cases no plans whatever for health, housing, or education for the migrant.  He just exists--or dies.  The doctor is slow and the hearse is fast.

    On the racial side of the picture the Negro forms the largest group and suffers even more. His ranks are composed mostly of poor, unemployed, and migrants.  Thus, he suffers all their woes plus the injustice of a rigid caste system.  From the former he has the same meager chance to escape that is open to all other members of that class, but under our present conditions he can never escape from the caste barriers regardless of his merits.

    Are the Germans barbaric, or even unique, with their warped conception of racial superiority?  The southern white man had this opinion of the Negro, and I quote from "Deep South",  by Allison Davis: " . . . the Negro is a lower form of organism, biologically more primitive, mentally inferior, and emotionally undeveloped.  He is insensitive to pain, incapable of learning, and animal like in his behavior."

    Such an opinion is applied to all Negroes since any exception to this description is completely ignored.

    Lynchings have taken place this year in Sykestown, Mo., and Texarkana, Texas.  Rome, Ga., was the scene in July of the severe beating of the famed tenor, Roland Hayes, by the occupants of a shoe store when his wife refused to sit far enough back in the store.  Instead of being saved by the police, Hayes suffered even more severe beatings from them on the pretense that he had disturbed the peace.  In answer to the thousands of letters of protest, Governor Eugene Talmadge made statements to the press that gave clear evidence of the justice Hayes may expect.  Excerpts for the statement are:

    "Governor Eugene Talmadge today advised any Negro who does not like the State's segregation laws 'to stay out of Georgia.'  'We are going to keep the Jim Crow laws and protect them and will not allow the whites and the blacks to be taught in the same schools and colleges in the State of Georgia.  Outside influences know nothing about the traditions and conditions here and should not interfere with the friendship between the two races of long year's standing'."

    Attorney General Biddle seemed to be too busy at the trial of the German saboteurs to be satisfactorily contacted.  How can we expect the Negro to remember Pearl Harbor when "Sykestown", "Texarkana", "Governor Talmadge", "Rome", etc., are so fresh in his mind?  What kind of democracy is so broad as to give trial in its highest courts to enemies of war trying to destroy that democracy, and at the same time is so narrow as to close its eyes on a citizen and a great artist who has done nothing to show disloyalty, and yet has suffered embarrassment, humiliation, and disfigurement?  How can we be big enough to bury Nazi U-boat survivors in our most honored military cemetery and still be so small that Negro soldiers and officers are afraid (with just cause) to venture outside of the military grounds in some places in the South?  Why is the Negro soldier in the South trained for the most part without guns?  Are we taking any steps to see that these injustices are being corrected?

    The destinies of great nations are being decided by the common man from memories of how they are now caring, or how they have cared in the past, for the races and peoples under their rule.

    Suppose we should need the Negro or the migrant to win this war?  Can we expect their undivided loyalty from the members of the past without their holding out for promises of a better future?  After the bargaining, it may be too late for any of us to win.  "America's own refugees" are an aftermath of former wars.  What does the future hold after this "war to outdo wars"?  Will from four to six million Americans continue to wander desolately across the broad fact of their country, strangers within their own gates, aliens in their own land,  and exiles in the land of their birth?  Will 13 million Negroes (one-tenth of our population) continue to hear and read of freedom and live in social slavery?

    These people want their share of the freedom and equality that we have enough of to give to the rest of the world.  If they are to have it, we must prepare to live up to what we are fighting for.  We will have to be willing to spend and sacrifice just as much to see that all our people get liberty and justice as we will have spent destroying a people who said we could not have it.

This article appeared in the September, 1942 issue of the Fireman's Grape Vine.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved.