restricted access 25. A Bona Fide Negro
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~ 25 ~ A Bona Fide Negro Three years ago, in a wave of sympathy for civil rights agitators in the South, the student body voted to raise funds for a scholarship for some Negro thrown out of a university for participating in sit-ins. . . . We got much more than we bargained for. The student selected was a bona fide Negro, alright. —“here we go again,” editorial, Clark Scarlet, november 5, 1964 I guess it was just my fundamental inclination for agitation that pulled me into organizing a group and pushing it into action—agitation or the limelight, or both. A full-page photo of me appeared in the Clark yearbook my first year over the caption: “Injustice Rankles Me into Leadership , Though Ego Plays Its Part.” So when I returned for my last year at Clark and started our Worcester Student Movement up again, I wasn’t content with a single agenda of tutoring. After a summer of directly confronting the powers that be in the nation’s capital, tutoring no longer provided enough agitation for me. Ultimately, inspiration came early that fall in the person of Norman Thomas. Six times he had been the Socialist Party’s candidate for president, and each time he had lost. Even so, this was no Harold Stassen of the leftwing fringe. The steadfast firmness of his demand for morality and decency had left a mark and made him a legend, even among those who disagreed with him. When we brought him to speak at Clark, he was near eighty and showing it. Hosting Thomas in Worcester gave me a sense of personally interacting with history and of being graced to be in the shadow of one of the century’s great heroes. I helped him in and out of the car, up the steps to the off-campus guest house where he was staying, and, later, to the podium where he spoke. Although he trembled as he talked and was nearly blind, he had a volcanic spirit. Oddly, his physical decline accentuated the strength of a bona fide negro 215 his spirit and his commitment to his beliefs. Even though he knew by then that he would go to his grave without seeing the ascension of his ideology, nothing in America was going to change Norman Thomas. As he was a generalist, he spoke across the whole spectrum of the day’s issues—the arms race, full employment, and the still obscure disaster unfolding in Vietnam. His solution to the civil rights issue was disarmingly simple, yet revealing of the depth of his perception of the American condition. If we were to treat everyone as if they were “white,” he said, “then we could try to have all the white people treated right.” His brand of socialism was steeped in a love for his fellow man above all. His challenge was a summons of good men and women to action. Following his visit to Clark, I soon took as my own his summons to action. But Worcester was a world apart from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the South, whites had simply pushed us beyond the limits of what we could accept , even with our ingrained mind-set of acquiescence. The southern white segregationists were narrow-minded, irreligious, and undemocratic. Inevitably , as black people grew in awareness of the American experience because we traveled more, went to college, and read books, we became uncomfortable with acceptance and began to demand change. And, just as inevitably, the segregationists were offended that blacks would have the temerity to insist upon change. They got their backs against the wall and tried to withstand the challenge, while the country, after a century of tolerating this segregationist rule, finally had to make white segregationists aware that the Civil War had indeed been lost. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that a society without the means of change is without the means of its own selfpreservation . If Burke was right, the civil rights struggle seemed a certain victory because the South appeared to have lost the ability to change. In Massachusetts, while the bigotry was not so open, the racist behavior was just as dehumanizing for blacks. I observed a sophisticated eastern reserve that was used to ignore the racial contradictions that northerners didn’t care to confront. The contradictions are not ignored in the hope that they will disappear but to affirm that they are beneath concern, insignificant. Clark was viewed as a bit left-wing, and it had its...


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