THEY'RE MARCHING UP FREEDOM ROAD"Folks talk and they get to moving, don't they?" the sharecropper asked. The Southern Youth Legislature showed a new South astirring.
By HOWARD FASTDRIVING up to Columbia this time, from the south, we moved slowly, taking the dirt roads that wind through the Carolina cotton country. It has seemed to me sometimes that in all America there is nothing so beautiful as this middle Carolina country in the Fall, its weather so mild and gentle, its sky bluer than anywhere else, its land all heaped in wooded hummocks, with the cotton fields between, waiting for the second picking. And the roads, the sliced hillsides are such a red as no one sees elsewhere, a soft and indescribable earth color.
The cotton crop was good this year. Even for the second picking, the bolls were heavy, but those who do such things had made carefully certain that sharecroppers and tenants would not share the fortune. The cotton steal--manipulated by the speculators--had clipped thirty-five dollars off each bale, and thereby the children of the cotton belt will run no danger of the unique experience of full bellies.
Now and then, we stopped and spoke to the sharecroppers. This is the cotton belt, the Black Belt, an agrarian land where men till the soil--and when you are away from the towns, it is a Negro country. They are an indigenous folk, these Carolina Negroes, tall and slow-spoken, gentle, born and raised and bred on toil--yet preserving a curious virtue. The only way I know to describe it is to call it a cleanliness, and even that word does not explain why, after the generations they have suffered, they still strike you as the least hopeless people in this country.
We were on our way to the Southern Youth Legislature sponsored by the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was being held for the first time in South Carolina--not anywhere in South Carolina, not simply in a town in South Carolina, but at Columbia, the state capital, in the township hall, which seats three thousand people and is the largest auditorium in South Carolina.
And therein is more than a simple statement of fact, for Columbia is not merely a part of the South. It is the South. It is the nut kernel of the secession state; it sits at the core of the Black Belt, the cotton belt--and it is also at the ideological core of the whole filthy murderous creed of. racism and Jim Crow.
So when some of us heard that the Southern Youth Legislature--a representative progressive body, drawing on hundreds of organizations, but mostly Negro in composition--was to meet at Columbia, we anticipated almost anything. For Columbia has no industrial or trade union base; it has no militant progressive section; it is simply an agrarian center where anything could happen, but where--not so strangely--nothing did: that is, nothing happened in the way of provocation, in the way of violence. Yet a great deal, and more than a great deal, happened from our point of view--that of progress.
I say not so strangely, because those young leaders of Negro and white youth in the South planned and acted correctly; they massed their forces and set them on the march. A waystop on that march, which is only beginning, was Columbia, South Carolina.
The sharecropper we spoke with some thirty miles outside of Columbia was a tall, black, handsome man, and his five-year-old daughter had a face like an angel. We asked him about Columbia, and it might have been expected that he, who could not even read nor write, might not have heard that a conference was there. But he had heard--and he asked us if we were from the North.
"Yes, from the North."
"New York" we agreed.
He said that there was a mighty lot of talk in New York, grinning slightly. Columbia? A lot of talk in Columbia, too, he smiled.
"What do you think?
"Folks talk and they get to moving, don't they?" he said.
We drove into Columbia, and the town was quiet. One would not have known, from the look of the town, that history was being made there, that for the first time since Reconstruction in 1868, a thousand Negro and white delegates were meeting together in a youth legislature.
A LOVELY Southern town, Columbia is. It sits on a hill, and in every direction the fields and woodlands of Carolina roll away. At the highest point in town is the cupolaed state capitol, and directly in front of the state capitol is a statue of George Washington. A bronze statue, greened with time, but with that innate dignity and pride that I, at least, find in all monuments to the father of this country. But the sword is broken--the bronze sword and a part of the statue, broken and left broken these past four generations--to remind us, as a plaque under the statue tells you, of the vandalism of United States troops in the Civil War. I mention this only because it is so prominent a part of the great lie, the lie which tells us that there was good in that unholy counter-revolution which sought to destroy all we value in America, and which sapped the very life blood from the South.
But a lie is not imperishable. Half a mile from the capitol, the Youth Legislature was even then meeting. They had asked for the township hall, and it had been granted to them. In the great chamber and in half a dozen lesser rooms, the youth of the South, black and white, more than a thousand strong, were meeting and discussing, going through the living process of argumentation, and hammering out resolution after resolution:
We, the youth, demand an end to racism!
An end to Jim Crow, to economic discrimination, to the poll-tax!
Death to the lynchers! No longer will the Negro and poor white be second-class citizens! This is a good and beautiful and fruitful land--we ask for its fruits! They are ours by the holy right of heritage and labor! We ask for peace and we ask for bread, but we ask not meekly, no longer meekly, but with a voice strong enough to be heard in every corner of the land!
The resolutions will go to the 80th Congress, as the South's voice for democracy. A few hundred miles away, in another town named Columbia, in Tennessee, there was an outbreak of violence not long ago when a mob led by state police attacked and shot up the Negro quarter--but no one attacked these thousand militant young men and women, who sat framing resolutions as some day a people's congress will frame laws for the land. Nor were they afraid.
I watched them that Saturday night as they filed into the great hall for the public session. Already, the gallery was crowded with visitors, black folk and white folk who had come hundreds of miles to attend this session--field hand, teacher, worker, preacher, shopkeeper and others. Around the hall were hung large photographs of the twenty-two Negroes who had been elected to Congress in the Reconstruction, as if it were only fitting that they above all others should watch the truth emerging from their gallant and much-traduced struggle for freedom and equality.
The delegates marched in by states, and as each state took its place, there was a roar of applause. These were like regiments from the battle line--Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas--state after state, until representatives from all of the South were present. They had been sent by village committees, trade unions, colleges, churches, student groups. They listened to the speakers; they heard the young representatives of other lands bring personal greetings. They heard Max Yergan tell them of the struggles of colored people in Africa, and they listened to Paul Robeson sing, and talk of the Soviet Union, of other lands, of the common and worldwide fellowship of man that he--and uniquely he--seems to represent. The night before, they'd heard Clark Foreman, of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and on the night to come they would hear still others, leaders of hope and progress in the South.
So that way, there in Columbia, they made their history. The tale of the South is not one of unmitigated misery and reaction. Even as every situation contains within itself its opposite, so does the South, the most reactionary part of America, contain within itself the developing seed of what may be the leading progressive force in America. And the very madness of the Bourbons, as exemplified in their current campaign of terror, is hastening this process.
Change is the order of the day, and there are no limits to change. Let no one think otherwise than that the South is changing. That is the meaning of the Southern Youth Legislature.