In a Suppressed Civil Rights Novel, Lessons about Georgia Politics

by Patrick Chura,
University of Akron Columnist

Georgia Senate Candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are brothers. Rev. Warnock states this week in a CNN interview with Fredricka Whitfield. He also said he was honored to campaign alongside Ossoff and agreed that the two were “running as a pair.”

Ossoff is a Jewish son of immigrants who was mentored by John Lewis; Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, grew up in public housing. At this moment of national reckoning on race, their bond is itself a message and a promising symbol.

By coincidence I recently discovered an unusual book in which a similar cross-racial brotherhood is the main idea. A Long Day in a Short Life is an early civil rights novel by Jewish leftist Albert Maltz. Written in 1953, the book was for years effectively suppressed. It was rejected by nineteen publishers before finding a home in 1957 with a press whose communist affiliations guaranteed that it wouldn’t be widely read or reviewed. Nevertheless the book teaches us that while strong black-white alliances seem new to Southern politics, they have a long history in grassroots resistance.

The novel’s central character is Huey Wilson, an 18 year-old from a poor but striving black family. Wilson works by day, takes classes at night, drives himself hard and dreams of becoming an attorney. He is first seen on a picket line leading a demonstration against Jim Crow segregation in the Washington, DC school system in 1946.

After the protest, Wilson is stalked and savagely attacked by four white men. He is rescued in the nick of time by a middle-aged white passerby, Tom McPeak, who doesn’t know Wilson but heroically jumps into the fight on the younger man’s side.

Immediately the police frame Huey Wilson for the crime of being black, cooking up fake charges of felony assault while the white would-be lynchers get a slap on the wrist. McPeak is also charged, but he is offered a deal: he can go free if he will leave town without testifying and thereby clinch the frame-up that will saddle the black man with a twenty-year sentence.

The rest of the novel takes place in the course of one day in a Washington prison and revolves around the question of what McPeak will do with his dilemma. Initially the white man turns away from Wilson because the matter seems hopeless, a race-based injustice that is “as old as the United States itself, and wouldn’t be solved in a day.”

But as Wilson and McPeak converse, they find common ground. McPeak is spot-welder in a Detroit auto factory. From his experience leading labor actions, he has shed his racist upbringing and learned the adhesive power of common interest. He realizes that deserting Wilson would be exactly like scabbing on his fellow workers. To him, “unity” is not an abstract word; it’s the only real tool for achieving change.

McPeak tells Wilson about something taught to him by a black worker during a 1930s sit-down strike. When a laborer wants to better himself, there are two keys to open the door. One of them is white and the other black. Wilson interrupts to finish the thought: “We’re the two keys in this situation, aren’t we Tom? If we work together, we can open this jail door for us both.”

For the two men, the metaphor of the keys constitutes “a bottom truth.” With Wilson on his side, McPeak is “stronger than himself” because he is not alone. He envisions a partnership that exemplifies human brotherhood on the highest plane. This is one idea that decides McPeak in favor of testifying for Wilson against the frame-up.

Another factor in McPeak’s decision is pure defiance, that Maltz calls “an explosive resentment of arbitrary authority.” The thought of the men around him, prisoners black and white who “stuck together in the face of Authority,” stirs McPeak with pride in humanity.

As a Jewish leftist, Albert Maltz knew something about racism and defiance. A gifted writer who proved himself in multiple genres, he was also famous as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of film industry figures who challenged the constitutional legitimacy of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War. For refusing to cooperate with the congressional investigation, Maltz was fined, jailed for ten months, and thwarted as a writer for almost twenty years.

In altered form, the defiant brotherhood embodied by Rev. Warnock and Jon Ossoff may change Georgia and therefore the country. Opponents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are two of the richest members of the Senate from a state notorious for brutal voter suppression. The uphill but already inspiring fight to unseat these crooks reminds us that alliances like Warnock-Ossoff have profound value as powerful threats to the status quo. I hope that the fictional Tom McPeak’s warning to the bigots in Maltz’s novel will ring true in Georgia: “You better get off that Confederate dime you’re standing on–it’s got no money value anymore.”