Cross posted from http://kurzglobe.blogspot.com/…
New Jersey’s history is more interesting, tragic, triumphant and fascinating than most people know. As a history teacher my students know little about the state’s past, apart from where Washington slept and a few Revolutionary War battles. The more I study the pages of old newspapers, journals and letters the more I realize that the Garden State’s epic and sometimes disturbing past is worth writing about.
When it comes to great writers, Philip Roth is one of Jersey’s treasures. In 2004 Roth published an astounding masterpiece, a novel titled The Plot Against America. Set in a familiar alternate universe of the 1930’s and 40’s, Roth imagines Newark and the U.S. under the presidency of the isolationist Charles Lindbergh, and traces, in suspenseful and masterful style, how conditions for Essex County’s Jews deteriorate as Lindbergh’s fortunes rise. Scary stuff, to be sure, but just fiction, right? No one ever, of course, in real life proposed sending a large portion of a state minority off to camps or distant locales?
Tragically enough, various forms of ethnic deportation and cleansing were widely and publicly proposed, from some of the highest levels of Newark’s city government, in the summer of 1932. It was, in short, Newark’s own plot against America. Had it actually worked, sights similar to the coming Holocaust in Germany would have surely panned out on the streets of New Jersey’s largest city, with African-Americans as the target.
We need to paint the scene here, to understand the context of a horrifying proposal that almost came to be. In 1932 the Depression was already in its grinding third year, and Newark, as one of the East Coast’s industrial hubs, was hit particularly hard. The New Deal was still over a year away and no end to the troubles were in sight. Factories closed. The number of the unemployed ballooned and urban aid programs were scant. There was no unemployment insurance, Social Security or Medicaid to speak of. In Newark, most aid to the poor was in the form of free distribution of flour.
Within the Brick City’s economic cauldron, racial hatred festered. New Jersey’s African-American population had grown dramatically in the 1920’s as hundreds of thousands of blacks had fled violence and Jim Crowism in the South for opportunities in the North. In the booming economy of the 20’s many men did find jobs and a better life, but with the Depression, the ebbing tide stranded all ships. Black and White in Newark faced a new, seemingly permanent world of joblessness and desperation.
It was in this atmosphere that Owen A. Malady, Newark’s official “Overseer of the Poor,” along with several allies, proposed a terrifying plan. The city of Newark would act to “deport” or “resettle” most of its African-American residents “back” to the South. More specifically, the plot was that all black residents living in Newark for less than five years would be removed from the city and forced “back to Dixie.”
The scheme was publicly discussed and debated behind the doors of Newark’s stately city hall building on Broad Street. Some of the city’s commissioners wanted prompt action taken by the police, who would apparently engage in mass arrests, processing and forceful relocations. How the city would determine who was to be deported/arrested was never fleshed out. It probably would not have mattered anyway; I’m sure every African-American living in Newark would have been a target.
Though he rejected ‘force’, Malady was intensely determined to make his deportation plan work. He told one paper that he had written public officials, including governors, in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. He even called on local Essex County churches to assist him in his efforts.
Opponents quickly made themselves vocal in newspapers North and South. Writing in the Atlanta Daily World, one Jesse Thomas scorned the plan as regressive, unwise and blatantly unconstitutional. First, Thomas openly wondered why the City of Newark had discriminated in its deportation plans against African Americans? Hadn’t many white people settled in the city over the past half-decade? Additionally, from a logistical point of view, so-called “Southern Resettlement” wouldn’t help anyone, as:
“Practically every city in the South is already taxed to its limit in an effort to take care of those who are now unemployed and living on charity.”
And most importantly, Thomas wrote, why would it matter what region anyone came from who settled in Newark? Doesn’t every part of the nation belong to every inhabitant equally? Of course, Thomas was legally correct. The United States Constitution, in its “privileges and immunities clause,” blatantly forbids this kind of regionally-based discrimination.
Newark, to my knowledge, never did adopt this appalling mass deportation plan. And while the later New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration certainly eased poverty in Essex County, none of the programs (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps) were ever specifically targeted to help African Americans. Many New Deal agencies actually engaged in racial discrimination themselves. It would take World War II to bring full employment and opportunity back to Newark, but in 1932 that was still almost a decade away (and nobody knew it was coming at the time either).
The Great Depression is over, but the Great Recession is not. Though such schemes for mass deportations of minorities are fortunately non-existent in the United States, they’re currently enjoying resurgence in Europe. There, in nations like Greece and Hungary, Fascists are again on the march and ruthlessly targeting immigrants and Jews. And these Fascists are gaining political power by winning local and national elections. We need to remember, such conspiracies did once visit our shores. We can never let such ideas gain a serious audience again. We’re all in this economic mess, yes, but we’re in it together.