Wednesday, September 16, 2009

President Truman, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and my Grandmother

Yesterday, I mentioned my grandmother, Mrs. Harper Sibley (pictured at right), and her being on Nixon's enemies list. Her social activism -- and I guess this maybe where I get it from in part -- ran much deeper and, in 1946, allied her with Paul Robeson and the American Crusade to End Lynching. The full story is reported in Albert Einstein's FBI file, but the salient parts follow . . .

When his illness prevented him from attending the Washington anti-lynching rally, Einstein sent a letter to be delivered to the President by Robeson and the other ACEL leaders, but in view of what occurred at the White House, it's uncertain that Einstein's letter was ever handed to Truman.

After the rally, which drew some 3,000 protesters, a multi-racial delegation, including Robeson, Rabbi Irving Miller of the American Jewish Congress and Mrs. Harper Sibley, president of the United Council of Church Women and wife of the former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, met with Truman in the Oval Office. The gentlest term that might describe their meeting is confrontational. The following exchange emerges from a variety of newspaper accounts, the most detailed in the African American press: Almost as soon as Robeson began reading the group's statement calling for immediate Executive action to stop the lynch mobs, the President interrupted: The timing was not yet right for an anti-lynching law, he said, and the delegation ought to appreciate the fact that America and Great Britain were "the last refuge of freedom in the world." Somewhat less than appreciative, Robeson answered that Britain was one of the world's "great enslavers of human beings." Truman insisted that the moment was not propitious for a forthright statement from the Chief Executive, according to a report in the leading black weekly, the Chicago Defender, which added:

In terms which left no doubt in the minds of the delegation from the American Crusade to End Lynching, President Truman today emphatically refused to take the initiative to end mob violence and the spread of terrorism in America.[declaring] the whole question of lynching and mob violence was one to be dealt with in political terms and strategy.and patience must attend the final solution.

When Mrs. Sibley made a comparison between fascism against the Jews in Europe and fascism in America as levied against Negroes, the President showed impatience and a flare of temper.

Robeson said returning [black] veterans are showing signs of restiveness and indicated that they are determined to get the justice here they have fought for abroad. Robeson warned that this restiveness might produce an emergency situation which would require Federal intervention. The President, shaking his fist, stated this sounded like a threat.

Robeson's implied ultimatum that if the government would not provide protection, black people would defend themselves was, apparently, too much for Truman who promptly ended the meeting. (Robeson later told the press that his remarks were "not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper the Negro people.")

The ACEL delegation left the White House without having presented their complete statement-or Einstein's letter. Nonetheless, Truman or his aides had to have known about the letter. A copy had been mailed to the White House, and it had been quoted in the previous day's New York Times:

The delegation will deliver to Mr. Truman a letter from Dr. Albert Einstein stating that security against lynching is "one of the most urgent tasks of our generation.

"In the conviction that the overwhelming majority of the people favor security for all against illegal violence," Dr. Einstein wrote:

"There is always a way to overcome legal obstacles whenever there is an inflexible will at work in the service of so just a cause."

Although Robeson and the other organizers had hoped for a much larger turnout, the ACEL contributed to the growing movement for anti-lynching legislation. The protest rally received extensive media coverage: the N.Y. Times and Washington Post both headlined their stories with Robeson's implied ultimatum that the government must act to end lynching "Or Negroes Will." The African American press, on the other hand, emphasized Truman's weakness: The Chicago Defender headlined its story, "Truman Balks at Lynch Action" and the Baltimore Afro-American proclaimed: "Robeson Proves Ability to Handle Situation." The anti-lynching protest and the publicity seemed to spur the NAACP to intensify its own efforts against "Mob Violence." Refusing to work with Reds like Robeson, the NAACP had boycotted the ACEL protest, but afterwards accelerated a separate, more subdued lobbying effort-including a more cordial meeting with Truman and other top Washington officials.

Despite its ambitious name, the American Crusade to End Lynching was essentially a one-protest organization and ceased activity after its Washington demonstration. But it was a vital part of the ongoing tradition of confrontational struggle-as opposed to total reliance on legal suits and appeals-for civil rights in America. It would be another ten years before Rosa Parks and other working women of Montgomery took on that town's segregated buses and several more years before tens of thousands of young people joined in mass anti-racist actions, but in 1946 the rumblings had begun that would erupt into the civil rights movement of the 1960's.

That's my grandmother!!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

I should have added that your grand mother was a forth right courageous woman . Could you add the exact date of the Oval office meeting ? Robeson , Smedley Butler, Einstein and Rabbi Irving Miller of the American Jewish Congress were courageous pioneers in the struggle to end USA government sanctioned
murder of black veterans and others . In my view she added an essential ingredient to the ACEL..

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