I learned of an interesting and inspiring historical episode last week, when reading Brent Staples’ New York Times review of Ethan Michaeli’s book The Defender (about the Baltimore newspaper of the same name, which was one the most prominent of the black newspapers in the mid-20th Century).
As Staples tells the story, John Sengstacke, who was The Defender‘s publisher and the president of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, had a meeting in 1942 with Francis Biddle, Franklin Roosevelt’s Attorney General. The black papers had been extremely critical of Roosevelt’s embrace of segregation in the military, which (as Staples puts it) “ratified racial apartheid in the South and introduced Jim Crow segregation into parts of the country where it had been unknown.” Here is Staples’ description of the meeting:
Sengstacke found Biddle in a conference room, sitting at a table across which was spread copies of black newspapers that included The Defender, The Courier and The Afro-American. Biddle said that the black papers were flirting with sedition and threatened to “shut them all up.” Sengstacke responded that the papers were within their rights and that because they had urged African-Americans to support the war, they had an obligation to tell those readers about federal policies that showed contempt for them. He then added: “You have the power to close us down. So if you want to close us, go ahead and attempt it.”
Biddle was stunned. He must have seen that shutting down the papers would entail a public fight and perhaps even riots in the streets. His tone changed from hostile to solicitous when Sengstacke complained about being unable to reach federal officials with reporting questions. Doors that had been closed began to open. In 1944, Roosevelt, who had kept his distance since taking office, invited the Negro press barons to the White House and turned on that thousand-watt smile. Three days afterward, the first Negro press reporter started work in the White House press corps.
In addition to being inspiring in its own right, Sengstacke’s approach to the Biddle’s threat reminded me of Hank Rearden’s approach when threatened by bureaucrats under unjust laws at several points during Atlas Shrugged. For example consider the following scene in which a representative of the State Science Institute attempts to pressure Rearden into selling them ten thousand tons of Rearden Metal for an undisclosed purpose:
“A sale,” said Rearden, slowly, “requires the seller’s consent.” He got up and walked to the window. “I’ll tell you what you can do.” He pointed to the siding where ingots of Rearden Metal were being loaded onto freight cars. “There’s Rearden Metal. Drive down there with your trucks—like any other looter, but without his risk, because I won’t shoot you, as you know I can’t—take as much of the Metal as you wish and go. Don’t try to send me payment. I won’t accept it. Don’t print out a check to me. It won’t be cashed. If you want that Metal, you have the guns to seize it. Go ahead.”
“Good God, Mr. Rearden, what would the public think!”
It was an instinctive, involuntary cry. The muscles of Rearden’s face moved briefly in a soundless laughter. Both of them had understood the implications of that cry. Rearden said evenly, in the grave, unstrained tone of finality, “You need my help to make it look like a sale—like a safe, just, moral transaction. I will not help you.”
Rearden later makes explicit the premise on which he is acting. Injustice, to be sustained over time (especially on a societal level), requires on the sanction of victim — that is the victim’s participation in the pretense that his treatment is just. By withdrawing that sanction, the victim can expose the injustice and (in time) end it.
In Atlas Shrugged the once self-righteous villains turn timid and solicitous when the sanction of the victim is withdrawn. Critics often allege that heroes, villians, and conflicts such as Rand depicts cannot be found in the real world. But Biddle’s retreat in the face of Sengstacke’s intransigence is a perfect example of the moral phenomenon Rand describes. So is the eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling the Jim Crow system. Rearden could be speaking for this movement when he says:
If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims, in many more ways than you can see at present. And your victims should discover that it is their own volition—which you cannot force—that makes you possible. I choose to be consistent and I will obey you in the manner you demand. Whatever you wish me to do, I will do it at the point of a gun. If you sentence me to jail, you will have to send armed men to carry me there–I will not volunteer to move. If you fine me, you will have to seize my property to collect the fine—I will not volunteer to pay it. If you believe that you have the right to force me—use your guns openly. I will not help you to disguise the nature of your action.