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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Efforts to thwart the political uniting of African Americans and poor whites

Simkins ruminates about why efforts to unite African Americans and poor whites politically over time had ultimately failed. According to Simkins, those in positions of power played on fears of racial violence, particularly of a sexual nature, in order to thwart a political uniting of the masses. Her comments are largely based on her work with organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Negro Youth Conference during the 1940s and 1950s; however, she draws connections to similar political trends at the turn of the twentieth century and at the time of the interview during the mid-1970s, thus indicating important historical continuities.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

How would you assess the role that interracial organizations like SCEF and the Southern Regional Council have played in the movement in the South?
I can't fully assess it. I could just say that I don't think the South would be the same without what they did, because they opened the eyes of a number of people. The thing that the political power structure had against the organizations of that kind was the fear that they would bring the black and white mass together. And the power structure has always feared the combining of the forces of black and white masses. I can remember the first meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress I went to in Knoxville where there were miners, people in brogan shoes, overalls, just like they wear jeans around here now. The average person didn't think of wearing them then unless they were going to the field or going to the mines. And those fellows came out there with brogans, and overalls, and sunhats, and all of them were working and planning together. Well, the first thing they did when they got a chance was to red smear and disrupt the movement. Now, I think if the Southern Negro Youth Congress, for instance, could have gone on, there would have been a very great change in the South because the younger people would have worked together better. But the power structure doesn't want that. They don't want poor whites and Negroes getting along together. There's always been the effort, either obvious or subtle, on the part of the reigning element to keep the forces of blacks and whites apart. But they built it on the sex angle. They always say, "They'll rape your women. They want to marry your daughter." But they weren't thinking about that. They didn't care any more about a poor white than they did about a Negro. And they still don't. They just give them a little more deference because he's white like they are, but they don't give a damn about a poor white. They'll exploit him just like they will a Negro. I've seen it. I know what I'm talking about. So that was their affair. Why do they have to worry about Negro men and their women? If they hadn't power enough to hold their women, if somebody could take their women from 'em,, why, they ought to take 'em. You see? Just like I hear people say sometimes if a woman can't hold her husband why would she want to get mad with somebody else for taking him? She ought to be able to hold him, treat him right, give him good food, take care of him. You never find, for instance, as I heard an old preacher say once, you'll never find a dog leaving home and going to stay at somebody else's house if you're treating that dog all right at your house. He's not going anywhere else. Well, when you find the dog trotting over there every time you turn around, somebody's throwing him a bone over there. He never gets a bone over here, just gets some dry bread and maybe a kick in the fanny, you know? [laughter] So, they use that sex thing. And they have used it as a social equality angle. They wanted to keep those forces apart, and they wanted to see that Negroes wouldn't take your job. When the unions come in, they try to tell whites if you get a union, the Negroes will take your jobs. They'll be making much as you make, or they'll bring your salary down to theirs, and all that kind of stuff. It's to divide the forces. They have always done that, and that's the reason a white Populist is not able to get anywhere much in the South. You see, the old Populist movement was killed, killed and almost died being born, because certain people who were Populists, not long after Reconstruction, would have destroyed their scheme.
Did you hear or know anything about the Populist movement when you were growing up?
No. My father used to talk about some of those … I used to hear him talk a lot about Tom Watson in Georgia and his, you know, the effect that, you know … he always spoke pleasantly of Tom Watson and what he felt that his philosophy would do for the poor man. But they killed off Tom Watson. They kill off anybody who looks like he's going to do something for the poor man or for the masses, just like they're jumping on little old, that little old Carter, now, from Georgia. They're not going to give him an easy time, and they know that he can't do but so much with the Congress that, if he doesn't do it in the first year or two he's in there, after that the honeymoon will be over and he'll be burnt up. But the fact is, they are not interested in the masses or the people coming together. And they realize … I mean, history has repeated itself that you can't pressure the mass but so much before it revolts. I thought, I still think, I think things are a little easier now. But I would say six months ago, I believed fervently that we were moving toward a revolution in this country.