MAY 18, 1946
NEW YORK, Friday—Last night I went to a benefit for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. In his little speech, Mr. Clark Foreman, told us that they had chosen the play because it dealt with a situation which was not a southern situation, but a national situation, one which as a nation, we have to face. Their organization has to be a national organization because we have to face these questions and deal with them, not as something affecting just the south, but we must recognize that these things affect the life and thinking of the whole people of our nation. The Southern Conference needs help from the north, not for the south alone, but for the north as well, since one cannot segregate thinking. Thoughts cross invisible lines and permeate the country as a whole, and this problem of race relations is present in every part of our nation.
"On Whitman Avenue" in which Canada Lee plays the principal role is really a very interesting play. I read it in manuscript, as I told you before, but last night was the first time that I saw it on the stage. The first act might go on in any one of our neighborhoods, but it does not grip you all the time, because in the theatre you must telescope situations to make them keep you keyed up to a high pitch. The second act, however, never lets you down for a minute. I can understand why some of the critics here in New York gave this play bad reviews, but none of the reasons which they gave will be the real reasons why it will not play to full houses.
We, the people, today are in a period of retrogression. We do not want to be reminded of our unpleasant shortcomings, we do not want to face up to the big problems that we have to meet as a great people if we accept our place of leadership in the world. It is much easier and pleasanter to be a little people and so much less responsibility. "On Whitman Avenue" shows you not on a written page, but just as though you were living it, something which actually might happen to you. The real estate board in your neighborhood might squeeze you just as they threatened to squeeze Ed Tilden. The saddest line in the whole play is the one when he tells his daughter that the Bennets who have to move out and who seem to have lost everything, really have lost less than the Tildens because the Bennetts are sinned against, but they can keep their self respect while the Tildens are hopeless pawns and can't respect each other or themselves.
It is a tragedy, but a simple everyday tragedy, and the tragedy is not that a few people were intimidated, were afraid, were common place people. The tragedy is that there are so many just like them and that we will have to find an even greater number of people with courage and integrity who are willing to recognize the fact that the world must move and that when it moves, some of the things we have cherished in the past are bound to be destroyed. Perhaps we can build up some things that are even better if we have the courage and belief in the future.