Racial problems in the US

Letter on US Racial Problems from British Embassy in Washington to Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, December 11th 1957 (FO 371/126719)



December 11, 1957




In my despatch No. 62 of the 3rd of March, I said that racial problems, although at present most apparent in the southern part of the United States, were by no means confined to that part of the country. Some weeks ago I received from Her Majesty’s Consul-General in Chicago a despatch (copy enclosed) which provides confirmation of this.

2. Mr Mason’s despatch summarised a routine report by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, a department of the City Government. The report showed that, between the 21st of July and the 4th of August, there took place in Chicago no less than six major racial disturbances, each involving more than a hundred people; in one case a mob of white people, who had gathered to torment a group of a hundred negroes, were estimated to number some 5,000. Apart from these large-scale disturbances, there were numerous relatively minor incidents. In the course of the two-week period hundreds of people were hurt by sticks, stones and bottles, and much damage was done to property. It appears that the racial situation was worse than usual during the period covered by the report, but the despatch is nonetheless disquieting.

3. Subsequent reports from Her Majesty’s Consular Officers in other northern cities with large negro populations showed that racial problems were less acute outside Chicago; but they made it clear that there was every reason for anxiety. In Philadelphia, for example, the rape of a white girl by a number of negro youths last September was followed by wide-spread fighting between gangs of white and negro youths, which continued almost every night for two weeks. Her Majesty’s Consul-General there noted a growing belief among white people that the leaders of the negro community should bring about a decrease of lawlessness amongst their own race before seeking any further privileges. (The negroes, who constitute 20% of the population of the city are responsible for 70% of the crimes of violence. These figures, which are parallelled in many other northern cities, are largely attributable to the fact that the negroes’ average income is only half that of the whites; but this consideration does not often occur to the latter.) Her Majesty’s Consul-General further noted a belief on the part of white people that negroes constituted a drain on public resources by their dependence on public assistance of various kinds, and a conviction that they were unduly pampered by the authorities, for political reasons. Her Majesty’s Consular Officers in New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati reported varying degrees of feeling between the two races, but no recent incidents of large-scale physical violence.

4. Little news of these disturbances is reported in the Northern press. In some cities the authorities, with some reason, deliberately hush up racial problems for fear of aggravating them. In others, where the authorities may be favourable to factual reporting, the newspapers themselves adopt a policy of silence. Often, as Southerners take pleasure in pointing out, those which are most indignant about the situation in the South are most reticent about racial problems on their own doorstep. There is consequently little widespread public knowledge of what is going on, and there is a danger that matters could get to the point of explosion before anyone outside the affected area knew there was anything seriously wrong.

5. In short, the picture of Chicago painted in Mr. Mason’s despatch does not, for the present at least, reflect conditions in other northern cities. But the despatch shows how serious racial problems in the North may become. With emotion so near the surface a relatively calm situation can change suddenly. The troubles in Philadelphia might easily have got out of hand; and Detroit, although now quiet, was only fifteen years ago the scene of a three-day race riot, which cost thirteen lives and was only brought under control by the use of Federal troops. Since the troubles at Little Rock, the spotlight of race hatred has been exclusively on the South; but the danger of riots in the North is still present.

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