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George Schuyler: Journalist, Individualist, and Courageous Contrarian

Historian John Henrick Clarke said of him, “I used to tell people that George got up in the morning, waited to see which way the world was turning, then struck out in the opposite direction.”

If that’s all I knew about George, I’d have a strong bias to like him. Iconoclasts and contrarians are usually courageous. They are often right when the world is wrong.

The George that Clarke referred to was the celebrated and prolific African-American writer George S. Schuyler (1895-1977). Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he grew up in Syracuse, New York. He served both in the US Army and in a prison for going AWOL to protest the racism he saw in Woodrow Wilson’s military. He should be remembered today primarily for his more than five decades in journalism, during which he eloquently assailed Jim Crow, Big Government, socialism and communism, and even the civil rights movement.

Typical of the caustic but effective prose for which he was praised by his friend and mentor H. L. Mencken, Schuyler once called politicians “the only class in society that is charlatan enough to offer a cure for everything.”

A young Schuyler flirted with socialism briefly, even joining far-Left organizations until reading their boilerplate scribblings opened his eyes. In his autobiography, Black and Conservative, he wrote:

I asked my stepfather what a socialist was, and he told me that the Socialists were people who wanted to divide up all the wealth other people had accumulated by industry and thrift. I couldn’t see the sense in that, and I can’t see it now, after having read much of the standard socialist propaganda “literature” available. Indeed, it was reading socialist tracts and apologetics that turned me definitely against all collectivism.

By 1925, when he was hired to write for the Pittsburgh Courier, America’s leading black-owned newspaper, Schuyler was well down the ideological path that would eventually put him on the campaign trail for Barry Goldwater in 1964. For almost 40 years, Schuyler wrote the Courier’s editorials and two columns per week. He exerted an influence in the country well beyond the Courier’s peak subscriber base of 350,000.

Bill Steigerwald, a long-time feature writer for major papers in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and author of the riveting book, 30 Days a Black Man, describes Schuyler’s writing:

What he wrote was sophisticated, politely contentious, simultaneously conservative and radical, irreverent, contrarian, and politically-incorrect—then and now. No subject or person was too small or too big to be spared Schuyler’s unique sting. … Schuyler was living proof of the obvious but often forgotten truth that black Americans—like any racial or ethnic group—were unique individuals and not monolithic in their thinking or their voting habits.

In 1931, Schuyler found time to do something no African American author had previously done: He published a successful science fiction novel. Titled Black No More, it told a story of a scientist who invents a process that turns blacks into whites. In his biography, George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative, Oscar R. Williams hailed it as “a masterful satire on racism.”

Schuyler was the rare journalist who challenged organized labor at a time when its popularity was far higher than it is today. He knew that black workers were victimized by racist unions who put the heat on employers not to hire them. In his autobiography, he addressed the issue as he had done in his columns:

Labor unions were many and strong, especially in the skilled trades, and invariably drew the color line. Even if a shop was not unionized, there was a “white” union that made it the better part of wisdom for an employer to discriminate against a colored applicant for work. People are prone to forget that it was not until after World War II that Negroes began to make any important inroads into the ranks of organized labor….

In February 1939, six months before the infamous Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact stunned most of the world (and which secretly agreed to divide Poland via joint invasion by Germany and the Soviet Union), Schuyler wrote in the Courier:

In practice there is no difference between Communism and Fascism. Both are anti-democratic, both are dictatorial and ruthless regardless of the alleged reasons, both brutally suppress minorities. It is a cruel jest to say there is any basic difference between them or any fundamental antagonism. There is privately more in common between Hitler and Stalin than there is between Roosevelt and Chamberlain. I should not be at all surprised to hear shortly of a Moscow-Berlin alliance.

In the early years of WWII, Schuyler urged black Americans not to support the war until their civil rights were respected. Having served in the military himself, he had tasted its racist policies under Woodrow Wilson firsthand and saw how shamefully that administration treated returning black soldiers. He also lambasted Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans during the war, arguing that it was racist and “placed our democracy on a par with dictatorial European and Asiatic countries.”

We at the Foundation for Economic Education are proud that George S. Schuyler ranks among the many distinguished authors of works we published. In 1956, he wrote The Case for the Private School, which is archived at FEE.org. This passage from it is even more relevant today than it was 65 years ago:

Many American parents feel rightly that they, and not the State, should be responsible for what their children become; that education should be divorced from political control; and that those who prefer private instruction for their children should not be taxed for the upkeep of facilities which they did not choose nor curricula to which they do not want them exposed. There is a growing feeling that top administration and control of government school systems are too remote and too difficult to influence, that parents are mere robots in a machine that leaves little individual choice. 

Never one to eschew controversy, Schuyler was the most prominent African American journalist to criticize the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. He saw most white Americans as non-racist people of goodwill and feared that protests and civil disorder would stall the racial progress he observed over his lifetime. In this, he was old-school, typified decades before by Booker T. Washington. Both men believed in self-help; gradual, organic change; moderation and compromise; and a focus on black enterprise. Their preferred route to eventual equal rights for blacks was to cultivate fair treatment from whites through entrepreneurship and personal character.

Schuyler urged that activists like Martin Luther King Jr. should start businesses to employ fellow blacks instead of marching in the streets. This was a view that increasingly isolated him from a black community impatient after decades of Jim Crow. Without changing the hearts and minds of white Americans who still held racist attitudes, he felt, civil rights laws would not be enforced, or would be counteracted by white hostility, or would inflame tensions between the races, or all three. Largely over these issues, Schuyler and the Courier parted ways in 1964.

An intellectual himself, Schuyler increasingly found himself on the other end of the spectrum from the leading intellectuals of the 1960s. But if anything, his views only hardened. Freedom, to him, was a principled position from which he would not budge. He wrote,

The tragedy of so many intellectuals in the contemporary world is that while opposing extreme forms of totalitarianism, they are themselves half-totalitarians; that is to say, they express a desire for a society which is half-controlled, half-regimented, half-planned, part capitalist and part socialist. This strange hybrid they will find (indeed, have found) to be a Frankenstein monster which, ironically, they have a great responsibility for creating.

Thus, the Fabian [Britain’s “democratic socialists”] of yesteryear becomes inexorably the totalitarian of tomorrow, and ultimately the victim of his own creation. Horrified by some evils and excesses in a free society (which will always be imperfect) he turns hopefully to the blueprint of a controlled society which promises a heaven on earth in the very near future. But since the individual must always be imperfect this side of paradise, his society must always be imperfect, and the more absolutely it is controlled by single committees or groups of imperfect men with unlimited power, the more imperfect it is likely to be.

In the late 1960s, two family tragedies struck Schuyler in quick succession. His only daughter Philippa died in a helicopter crash. Deeply depressed by the loss, his wife Josephine committed suicide not long thereafter. George continued to write and give speeches as his health declined. He died in 1977 at the age of 82. The last paragraph of his autobiography summarizes his life’s work:

There are forces in the world that want us [America] to fail, and conspire toward that failure, which means disunity and destruction. We are here blessed with the right of mobility, the right of ownership, the privilege of privacy and development of personality, and the machinery of peaceful change. These gifts and gains it is the purpose of the conservative to defend and extend, lest we perish in the clutch of collectivism. These gifts and gains I have been trying in my small way to preserve.

George S. Schuyler was his own man. Once his mind was made up, he told you where it was. It didn’t matter to him if nobody agreed. Nobody ever could say that he was afraid to take a stand. The only thing you find in the middle of the road, he believed, was a dead skunk.

Agree with him or not, you have to respect such a courageous contrarian.

For additional information, see:

The Case for the Private School by George Schuyler

Classical Liberalism and the Problem of Race in America by Richard Ebeling

George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative by Oscar R. Williams

30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South by Bill Steigerwald

George Schuyler (1895-1977) by Samuel Z. Hamilton at BlackPast.org

Black and Conservative by George S. Schuyler (autobiography)

This article was originally published on FEE.org

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