COMBINING CONFLICT AND CONSENSUS THEORY:
BLACK AND WHITE RESISTANCE TO THE FATHER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, THE REV. VERNON JOHNS
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
The Rev. Vernon Johns was the predecessor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, birthplace of the civil rights movement. Rev. Ralph Abernathy was a disciple of Johns' and served as a middle man between Johns and King to educated King on the importance of activism in the area of civil rights.
The prophet Vernon Johns was largely talking to a deaf world in America. He did influence a very important handful of men and women, but these disciples were only able to act in the North or after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education. There was no constituency for Johns's attacks against the system -- no support for the truth, not among whites or blacks. In such a situation, the real message of the prophet remained relatively unheard. The genius of Vernon Johns still to this day is relatively unrecognized. While almost everyone knows of Martin Luther King Jr., almost no one knows of Vernon Johns. Everyone likes the Martin Luther King, Jr. story because it is an American success story. Everyone was brave with King. But the Johns story is the story of the mass of blacks and whites accommodating to terrible evils. It was Johns who virtually alone spoke out strongly and unequivocally against the system of apartheid in America. Virtually everyone else opposed his larger message. Important to note is that both whites and blacks opposed Johns. Johns was constantly being fired from his preaching jobs, because he would not conform to the everyday concerns for social and political decorum of black congregations. The life of Johns illustrates how both black and white have been so damaged by the racist system that neither group has been able to appreciate fully his genius.
The period of the civil rights struggles has been covered abundantly in American writing. It is a wonderful story of brave men and women who selflessly worked for a better society. This concentration on a time of change is important and inspiring and therefore understandable, but it is highly misleading. In any society at any given time, the watchword is conformity and adaptability to social evils. Therefore, it is actually more revealing sociologically to study and understand the period before the birth of the civil rights movement when the society was static. What are people and society like in times that are not considered unusual or heroic? We shall see that, in fact, most people obey the societal norms even when these norms are wrong or even evil in a larger sense.
The struggle Vernon Johns experienced illuminates just how racism works in America. The life of Vernon Johns provides key insights into sociological theory. His life forces us to ask the question why both black and whites (conservatives and liberals) resisted the message of Vernon Johns. The life of Vernon Johns demonstrates just exactly what we are up against in fighting racism. In the South blacks and white liberals basically worked within the racist system to make modest improvements that failed to change substantially the apartheid system.
American sociology has not been very successful in building theoretical models that can explain American society and politics. One reason for this is that sociologists are too identified with the politics of the present. Focusing on the immediate present automatically puts blinders on sociologists. They are unable to focus on higher truths that are independent of political gains and losses in the present. And one of the most serious blinders is the inability of sociologists to see that the present day politics of different historical periods are the expressions of the various self-interests of competing groups of those times and generations, mostly conservative and liberal in the case of the United States. This identification of sociology with contemporary liberal politics has prevented sociologists from seeing that liberals themselves, including sociologists, engage in various forms of social control, including the censorship of politically unpopular (or politically incorrect) ideas.
The experience of Vernon Johns goes a long way to illustrate the underlying unity of sociological theories. Vernon Johns had to struggle not only against whites, but also against blacks; not only against conservatives, but liberals as well. These two groups actually cooperated with each other to insure the stability of the system of segregation in the South. The realization of the essential nature of this cooperation leads to a possible combining of two important sociological theories. The two great perspectives of conflict and structural-functional theories in sociology can be united in the story of the Southern system of apartheid. These theories have never been satisfactorily melded in sociology. But here they will be. We will see how the white racists of the South, both conservative and liberal, used their dominant position to establish a structural-functional system to insure that they stayed dominant and how blacks largely remained quiet and adapted to this segregated system, enforcing censorship on dissenters such as Vernon Johns in order to maintain the status they had attained.
Brief Introduction to Conflict and Consensus Theory
Sociology has had a long running inability to combine theories stressing consensus and stability (known as structural-functional theories) and theories stressing conflict and change (known as conflict theories). Usually the more traditionally liberal sociologists emphasize consensus theory, while the New Left sociologists place greater stress on conflict theory.
In many ways structural functionalism is an application of the classic laissez-faire theory to society. In other words, all the parts balance each other for an overall beneficial equilibrium. If one part of the system is changed, this has ramifications for all the other parts. Many wonder why people in control of institutions get so upset with attempts to change the system. But this attitude is somewhat understandable because these institutions are often the result of the careful working out of fragile compromises between the competing groups in the society.
What's wrong with structural-functional theory? It was not inherently a politically conservative view, but it has often been used by conservatives. Complimentary to this approach is the emphasis on the role of ideas. The structural-functionalists followed the sociological tradition set by the German theorist Max Weber, who emphasized values as an antidote to the materialism of Marxism. Consequently, structural-functional theorists stressed the importance of values over structural and economic variables. Some of the outstanding theorists in this tradition were Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.
From the conflict perspective, ideas are important, but not as important as human competition and selfishness, of which ideas are primary reflections. As a general rule, social structure is primary, values and ideas are secondary. Values and ideas are primarily used to justify an existing social structure, so the less privileged in the society will accept the unequal distribution of the good things of life, including power, status, and wealth. Values and ideas are an extension of the power struggle between social groups.
The power struggle over values goes on continually. Every day there are battles to determine whose values and ideas will dominate in the various institutions of society. Obviously, it is usually the values of the most powerful group(s) that predominate. If the value system does not serve to justify the self-interest of a group, then the value system will be modified. If a group's values have been substantially contradicted by changes in the social structure, the old value system will be abandoned and a new one adopted. Samuel Eliot Morison (1972, 2:268-269) provided a good example of how people would even abandon their religion if it conflicted with their economic self-interest. He noted that in antebellum times the proportion of evangelical religions in the South increased as the evangelical ministers argued that the Bible justified slavery, while Catholic and Episcopal church membership remained stationary as their clergy stayed neutral on the slavery issue.
Conflict theory stresses who gets what; to put it crudely, who's getting richer and who's getting screwed. In all too many societies, one dominant group prevails over the others. In advanced industrial societies, power is more equally distributed among plural elites, but in the United States several groups, especially minority groups, are significantly underrepresented in the halls of power. Stemming from Marxist theory, conflict theory emphasizes that in heterogeneous societies where there are many competing groups it is through power that a dominant group becomes dominant. Becoming dominant involves conflict. Then pains are taken to develop consensus to justify and legitimize the new social order.
What's wrong with conflict theory? To exercise power brutally takes too much effort. It is much better to set up a system of social control that makes the system seem inevitable and perfectly logical. This is where structural- functional theory comes in handy. Even in democratic societies, social control is the primary tool used by those who have worked out a compromise in the conflict between competing groups. Both sides apply social control to control their own supporters and to do battle with their opponents. In fact both conservative and liberal groups are in agreement about a few of the dominant rules in the society, and they agree to apply social control techniques to make sure everyone is the society follows these rules.
The Unity of Conflict and Consensus Theories
The two theories of conflict and consensus actually compliment each other. Social conflict theory is the primary theory because social conflict is the primary force in society. Any society is most readily understood by discovering which group or groups hold power in the society. Those who hold power largely get to determine how the society is structured as to its social structures, politics, values, and ideas. Compromise and getting along are important concepts, but these are worked out by competing and conflicting groups. Structural-functional concepts, however, are very important, not least of all, to the conflicting groups.
The Jim Crow system of segregation in the South was a detailed code of conduct, values, and beliefs that provided for the proper behavior of both whites and blacks so that the whites could maintain their power over the blacks. It is important to stress that the structure comes first and the values and beliefs, including prejudice, come second. The values and beliefs are a very important component of the system, but they are secondary to the primary feature of the unequal distribution of the good things of life. Values and beliefs then reinforce the unequal distributive system.
In order for the power groups to control society, they have to use a structural-functionalist model to guide them in constructing and maintaining their desired society. Even the idea of equilibrium, for which the functionalists have been criticized, is actually very useful. There is a form of equilibrium in any society, because the groups in charge make sure that the various parts of society combine to insure the equilibrium of the whole. This equilibrium is not natural, but rather enforced by those in power. It is actually designed by both liberals and conservatives. They insure that the society is in equilibrium. It is a designed and controlled equilibrium, not one that happens in a natural way, as in the theory of laissez-faire capitalism. That concept of equilibrium has a conservative connotation, but a designed and controlled equilibrium has room for all political positions: conservative, liberal or radical connotation. The equilibrium is always the result of the total amount of conflict in the society.
The way the system works is in the following manner. As expressed in the conflict theory, various groups of people become the dominant group in a society largely through the ecological working out of various demographic variables including race, ethnic, class, and regional variables. There are many different combinations of these variables that produce a dominant group, but whatever the dominant group it will soon use the system described by social-functionalists to make sure the dominant group stays dominant.
The dominant group(s) establish the equilibrium worked out with the leaders of the disadvantaged. In the case of the system of Southern apartheid, the structures of the new equilibrium were the various offices of the white and black institutions. These all performed important parallel functions in maintaining the existing conservative equilibrium.
There was a white power leadership in the south as all students of race relations know. However, few realize there was a parallel system of power distribution among the blacks. These two power systems paralleled each other and cooperated to make the overall system of Jim Crow work with the least inefficiency. The leaders of both systems could actually see themselves as morally superior to others, because they kept the system from suffering from terrible outbreaks of violence such as lynchings and murder.
One could go over each of the black institutions that paralleled the white institutions, but there is not the space for that here. The nature of black cooperation can be illustrated by the experience of J. L. Chestnutt, Jr. (Chestnut and Cass 1990:49-50) in Selma, Alabama and at Dillard University. J. L. Chestnut, Jr. became an attorney and civil rights activist in Selma. As a young man, Chestnutt was influenced by Shields, a local black man in Selma somewhat like Vernon Johns. Chestnut wrote a paper for his high school class in which he argued that the people the black community looked up to as leaders did not deserve to be followed. He started with Booker T. Washington, eased up to Jemison, and then landed on the school principal. What was really interesting was the reaction of the teachers. The English teacher was outraged. "What in the world possessed you to write such a paper?" she demanded. "She was offended by what I had written about Jemison, "one of the finest men in Selma," and she thought I was doing a great disservice to black people by attacking our heroes. She was especially infuriated by what I'd written about the principal." The teacher demanded that he apologize to the principal. She told the other teachers and everyone was shocked.
He wrote a paper (Chestnut and Cass 1990:64) at Dillard University that was similar to his high school paper. "My argument was: Both colleges taught accommodation and didn't dare teach anything else because they were financed from the same pocket -- white America. . . . I said Dillard was teaching a different fantasy of black leadership than Talladega, but a fantasy no less. It was a fantasy I could not live with. . . .The paper was the talk of the campus. Some of the faculty felt it was a personal attack on everything they represented." But what was the alternative?
Today, white sociologists often defer to black sociologists in the field of race relations, being especially cowed by references to their non-blackness and hence their supposed lack of understanding. This is a fallacious approach. Their is an equally valid approach that says that too much involvement with a problem can blind one to larger truths. The fallaciousness of the white sociologists deference to skin color is seen in the existence of parallel black Jim Crow institutions that helped maintain the apartheid system in the South. Blacks were no more objective than whites when it came to the race problem. They were both accommodating to the racist system.
Southern black and white liberals had the best of both worlds. They felt they were good people resisting racism. And yet they did not see that they lived, worked, and, more importantly, thought and wrote within the racist system. But southern liberals never saw that they were working within that system. They carry the illusion that they were working for change. It was not until the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that a direct assault on the apartheid system would begin.
Liberals do not believe that they are in the business of social control, but rather that they are fighting the social control system of the conservatives. But actually, both conservative and liberal intellectuals in America engage in social control. Liberals are more like conservatives than they are different from them. Liberals may be slightly more concerned about the underprivileged, but this concern is best seen as a reflection of the overall political wishes of the liberal groups, including their desired life-styles, values and ideas, but liberals, like conservatives, engage in social control, especially within their own liberal ranks. This is obvious in the life of Vernon Johns, who was constantly censored not only by conservatives, but also by liberals of the South and North.
The reason why American sociologists have not seen this inherent cooperation between conflict and cooperation theory is that they have seen themselves too much as the good guys in the conflict. According to their version of conflict theory, the bad conservatives are using their social control techniques and theories of structural-functionalism to prevent the good liberals from attaining the equal society. What they do not realize is that it is not a matter of good and bad, but rather relative degrees of evil. All competing groups, conservative and liberal, compromise in creating society. It is a compromise between the two groups, both of which are motivated by self-interest. There are of course various degrees of self-interest. Conservatives do rank higher on the self-centered end of the selfishness scale. But even though liberals may be somewhat less self-centered they are still primarily selfish in orientation. Liberal intellectuals who are well-paid support the underdog in the society because they see these people as allies in creating a more decent society that is more acceptable to the liberals. But the compromise equilibrium is a working out of relative selfishness. The liberals do not ask for an immediate equal society, but rather support small changes over time. And liberals have often supported evil societies. For instance, liberals in the South supported the separate but equal society. They were less selfish than their conservative counterparts, but they still supported segregation. Egerton (1994) clearly shows how the Southern intellectuals, even those working in the field of civil rights, constantly failed to take a clear stand against segregation.
Vernon Johns: A Case of Liberal Censorship
Where is the support for anyone who refused to accept the system? The answer is no where. You are on your own if you refuse to work within the given racist system.
Society permits only those to speak who agree to work within the system. Johns said that blacks refused to fight. They were too scared for their jobs, their prestige, their status, their very lives. Johns would not accept fear as an excuse. And many times it was an excuse. Witness the fact that blacks never really had an underground press. If the Washington/Moton accommodationists or N.A.A.C.P. gradualists were really afraid of the whites (but still filled with passion to overcome the system) then why was there never an underground press or an underground resistance into which Vernon Johns could have tapped? The reason is because the blacks, liberal and conservative, as well as the whites, both liberal and conservative, worked within the larger racist system. The fact is that the apartheid system lasted for almost one hundred years, if you date it from the movement of the federal troops out of the South in 1876 to the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s. Now that is a long time to be a gradualist. And, as a matter of fact, change did not come through gradualism, but rather through a second civil war in which the federal government used force, constantly calling out the army and the National Guard to enforce integration and prevent violence, to ensure the South would change.
Liberals most often refuse to cite or quote real dissenters, or even to acknowledge them. They often ignore the dissenter, pretending that they do not really existed, except possibly to allow them to exist on the fringes of the inner circle of influential intellectuals.
Vernon Johns was neither a gradualist nor an accommodationist, therefore he was one of the very few Southerners that publicly dissented from the Jim Crow system. And yet both white and black authors want to dismiss him as an eccentric. Wouldn't you have to be eccentric to go up against everyone? Doesn't a prophet, from the point of view of the Philistines, have to be eccentric? And shouldn't the authors who insist on dismissing Johns as a virtual eccentric wonder if they themselves are not also Philistines?
Liberal "Feel Good" Approaches
In dealing with the Southern racist society, liberals chose to work within that society for small changes that did not fundamentally change the racist structure. They often made suggestions for changes or carried out actual changes that only slightly improved the situation for those disadvantaged by the system.
In contrast to Vernon Johns, James Baldwin talked about these kinds of approaches when he spoke of "feel good" speeches. He had heard these so often that he came to dismiss them somewhat contemptuously. One such was reported in November of 1942. Miss Lillian Smith, a co-editor of the magazine South Today, told the students of Morehouse College in Atlanta that it is vitally important for the Negro and white races to acquire mutual understanding. (J&G, Nov. 14, 1942:4) If this could come about, then there would be a common ground on which to work to uproot the seeds of distrust and hate which long have been planted, she said. She pleaded for an understanding of her race whose children are taught from the cradle up that Negroes are to be treated as inferior. One way of solving the race problem is to have personal friends with members of the other race, and this friendship must be based on equal ground. Much good can come through the training and education of children, Miss Smith stated. Mothers are beginning with their children, she said, and college students can help by beginning in their own homes and steering their younger brothers and sisters into the right channels of thinking. These types of approaches just makes the racist system more liveable -- it does not change it. From Lynchburg the paper (April 17, 1937, p. 1) reported that "The Christian virtues of love and cooperation were listed as the only sure cure for interracial bitterness and hatred by the main speakers" at the eighteenth annual conference of the Virginia CIRC. Even the great black preacher Mordecai Johnson once urged that "Christianity Capture the Will of the State." (J&G, Nov 28, 1942:6)
System Change: A Structural Approach to Racism
A structural approach to prejudice sees human beings as adjusting to structures, whether they be good or bad. The vast majority of humans want to have a relatively quiet life in which they can make a good living for themselves and their family. A structural approach does not pit black against white, but sees them both as victim of a terrible structure against which they both have to fight. Black and white have a common stake in overcoming racism.
Johns emphasizes the importance of structure (WVD April 20, 1940:7). The troubles arising from the supposed differences between black and white human beings pale in comparison to the troubles arising from human beings period. It is an evil structure that allows humans to express their most evil side so freely. For instance, the structure of slavery hurt both blacks and whites. Change the structure and the structure forces humans to repress much of their selfish, brutish impulses.
"The Southern leaders declared that southern civilization could not exist without African slavery, but it does exist without African slavery . . ." He cites the accomplishments of such blacks as Booker T. Washington, singer Marian Anderson, and the scientist Dr. George Washington Carver.
"The legal change to the status of freemen did change our actual condition. No argument is needed. We are justly grateful for the change. So are the white people who once opposed the change with their very lives." He adds that "the white race has juster reasons for welcoming the change. For the changeless law of justice binds the oppressor to the oppressed and as close as sin and suffering are, we march to fate abreast!" He adds that the emancipation of the slave brought the two results of freeing the body of the Negro and freeing the soul of the southern white. He adds that both white and black people together should work for a civilization which will be built for the good of all. "Such a society none will wish to overthrow for none will profit by its downfall."
In one sense it serves very little purpose to criticize existing black organizations. The NAACP and the NUL do the kind of job that they are good at and they do it well and they should be accepted for what they are. Rather, if one wants change the system one has to go outside these organizations and build a new organization that does not accept the compromise between conservative and liberals, while still maintaining relations with the other two organizations. In essence this is what Martin Luther King Jr did. While establishing his own organization, he still maintained good relations with the others.
For the period in which Vernon Johns lived, both conservative and liberal American thinkers worked within the contexts of a racist American system. The liberals dedicated themselves to making gradual reforms in Southern society, without questioning whether these gradual reforms would ever really change the fundamental racist character of the South's institutions. Liberal theory has always underestimated the impact of race on American society and politics and, because of this, liberal reforms, such as the first and second reconstructions, failed. These programs were characterized by the too little/too late nature of liberal approaches and ideas.
Real change in the Southern system had to be structural change, not small adjustments to a racist society. Most liberal changes come in cycles. So far the racist system in the United States has only undergone two such changes, the first and second civil wars, 1861-1865 and 1954-1965. The hope is that the example of Vernon Johns will help us understand these large scale cycles and help prepare for the next one.
Only the prophet can see beyond conservative and liberal to the future, largely because he sees beyond contemporary politics to larger truths. The real change comes from explosions of the system from people who look beyond the system to a completely different one -- one that involves different structured relationships.
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