Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference for the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association

February 05, 1944

MR. IRA LEWIS [Pittsburgh Courier]: There is one very pressing question that is causing the colored people lots of concern. I think that we represent here perhaps five or six million readers, and that question is posed to us at all times. It is a grievous and vexing one. It has to do with the treatment of our boys in the armed services. They haven't been treated right by civilian police, and by the M.P.'s. We know of instances where soldiers on furlough have come home and taken off their uniform, on account of intimidation.

And they think, Mr. President, that that is your responsibility. They think that you alone can correct that. I think you can put your hand right on the question, which will do more towards strengthening morale and making more for unity and making the Negro citizen believe that he is a part of this great commonwealth. Just one word from you, we all feel, would do that. Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: I am glad you brought that up, because I have been in touch with it. It is perfectly true, there is definite discrimination in the actual treatment of the colored engineer troops, and others. And you are up against it, as you know perfectly well. I have talked about it—I had the Secretary of War and the Assistant—everybody in on it. The trouble lies fundamentally in the attitude of certain white people- officers down the line who haven't got very much more education, many of them, than the colored troops and the Seabees and the engineers, for example. And well, you know the kind of person it is. We all do. We don't have to do more than think of a great many people that we know. And it has become not a question of orders—they are repeated fairly often, I think, in all the camps of colored troops—it's a question of the personality of the individual. And we are up against it, absolutely up against it. I always think of the fact that it probably is improving. I like to think that mere association helps things along.

I always think of two or three years ago- not an election trip—I was down in Chattanooga. A very interesting thing happened. I was going all around to the points of interest in Chattanooga—I think I dedicated one of the dams—and I drove with Governor Cooper through the streets, the southern end of Chattanooga, through the Negro section.

And there was tremendous enthusiasm to see the President. And suddenly we came onto this broad avenue that was running south, we came to a place where all the enthusiasm quit and stopped; and there were a good many colored people on the streets, but they just stood there, they were completely apathetic.

And I turned to Governor Cooper. I said, "What's the matter with these people?"

He said, "You are not in Tennessee any longer, you are in Georgia." (Laughter)

That is a very interesting thing.

Now in Tennessee the great majority of Negroes in Chattanooga are voting; they can take part in the life of the community. You get across this invisible line, you pop over into the State of Georgia, not one of them can vote. Now that is just a plain fact. It's an interesting fact. Just, as I said, hands down- (demonstrating)—no enthusiasm at all; and a block further back everybody saying, "Hello, Mr. President," and so forth and so on. They are all right in Tennessee. People in Tennessee are just as well off as before. I don't know what they are kicking about in Georgia, which is my State, unfortunately.

And there is just one thing in here—(indicating a prepared statement presented by the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association)—the only thing I didn't agree with, and that is a thing which your Association, I think, could do something about. You talk about people in other countries. We all know that they are very different from Americans in every way. I will give you one example—something has got to be done about it in time.

Last year I went to a place called Gambia in Africa, at the mouth of the Gambia River. Bathurst is the capital. I think there are about three million inhabitants, of whom one hundred and fifty are white. And it's the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. I was there twice. The natives are five thousand years back of us. Disease is rampant, absolutely. It's a terrible place for disease.

And I looked it up, with a little study, and I got to the point of view that for every dollar that the British, who have been there for two hundred years, have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It's just plain exploitation of those people. There is no education whatsoever.

And then a very interesting thing. They had no religion except the old forms of voodooism, which were tribal and came down through the centuries. The one religion that is gaining today in Gambia and contiguous colonies is Mohammedanism. Now people don't know about that here. Those people, of course, are completely incapable of self-government. You have got to give them some education first. Then you have got to better their health and their economic position.

The reason the Mohammedans are getting on so well is that the Mohammedan priest comes down to a village, and he has a few tools in his pocket. He has no money. And he goes and lives in a hut with some family, And the next morning he gets a stool and starts his trade, and he makes little silver ornaments or something like that—some little hand trade. And pretty soon the children gather around him, and he talks to them. Pretty soon one or two grownups gather around him. Well, in the course of six months he has got a Mohammedan church. And he hasn't got any missionary society back home that pays him a salary. He makes his own way with his little trade. And the result is that Mohammedanism is gaining all through Africa at the present time. The Christian religion is not. The Mohammedan priest is a practical fellow.

Now the agriculture there is perfectly pitiful. The one main asset is peanuts, and the natives grow a lot of peanuts. How do they grow them? They have been growing them now for years, and they still use a pointed stick. Nobody ever saw a plow in Gambia. The British have never done a thing about it. The only road out of Bathurst, the capital, we built out to the airport. The rest of the travel is up the Gambia River, but not back into the country at all, only right by the river.

Now, as I say, we have got to realize that in a country like Gambia—and there are a lot of them down there—the people, who are in the overwhelming majority, have no possibility of self-government for a long time. But we have got to move, the way we did in the Philippines, to teach them self-government. That means education, it means sanitation, it means all those things. And that would be just as good for every white American to know as every colored American; but we don't know.

Now, because of your traditional, historic Association, it would be a perfectly grand thing if your Association could send two or three people out there, as a committee, to write stories about what is needed.

I am taking up with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the present time—I think he will see the point—the general thought that the United Nations ought to have an inspection committee of all these colonies that are way, way down the line, that are not ready to have anything to say yet because the owning country has given them no facilities.

And if we sent a committee from the United Nations, and I used the example of Gambia, to go down to Gambia, "If you Britishers don't come up to scratch—toe the mark-then we will let all the world know."

Well, the Prime Minister doesn't like that idea. And his comeback was, "All right, the United Nations will send an inspection committee to your own South in America." (Laughter)

He thought he had me.

I said, "Winston, that's all right with me. Go ahead and do it. Tell the world. We call it freedom of the press, and you also call it 'pitiless publicity'—you can right a lot of wrongs with 'pitiless publicity.'"

It would be a grand thing. I wouldn't mind if we had a committee of the United Nations come here and make a report on us. Why not? We have got some things to be ashamed of, and other things that are not as bad as they are painted. It wouldn't hurt at all—bring it all out.

So, if your Association could do something like that -teach us a little bit more about the world ....

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference for the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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