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Pearl S. Buck left a legacy of civil rights advocacy

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Author and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck supported many causes during her remarkable life. Among her most important fights was Buck’s early battle to promote civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Nobel Prize winning author moved to Bucks County, in Hilltown, in 1935. By then, Buck had spoken out publicly on a regular basis against “race prejudice.” Within a decade, Buck’s writings and speeches would be tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Before her return from China in 1934, Buck wrote a moving criticism of American politicians who were blocking anti-lynching laws for Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League. During the 1930s, Buck’s writing about racial equality appeared mostly in Black-owned newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Age. Such efforts received few mentions in the mainstream press, which portrayed Buck as an international celebrity, or as a novelty as a popular woman author in America.
By late 1941, Buck’s media image changed when she began criticizing the federal government’s discrimination policy at military subcontractors and its general policy of military segregation. On Oct. 19, 1941, Buck spoke at a regional meeting of Soroptimist Clubs at the Doylestown Inn.
Her comments were squarely meant for a white audience about the need to end segregation. “I realize it is a touchy problem, but I feel it is important,” she told an audience of 200 people. Buck said she had written to 12 prominent White leaders and media figures asking them to help raise awareness of race prejudice. She had two responses. Columnist Dorothy Thompson joined Buck to meet with Black leaders, while popular radio columnist Raymond Gram Swing refused. There was little or no response from the other 10 people.
A month later, Buck confronted The New York Times in one of the most significant events of her career. On Nov. 12, 1941, the Times editorial page claimed that a recent Harlem stabbing was not a racial problem, but an economic issue to be addressed with more job opportunities for Blacks along with more policing. Buck’s 2,300-word response set off a public debate into December.
“Race prejudice and race prejudice alone is the root of the plight of people in greater and lesser Harlems all over our country,” she told the Times. Buck also said prejudice against Black workers in defense industries had to end. A week after the Pearl Harbor attack, Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas had Buck’s letter read into the Congressional Record during hearings about defense sector discrimination. Most importantly, the New York Times gave Buck a frequent platform during the war to write op-eds about racial equality for an international audience.
Buck’s writings also caught the FBI’s attention. Agency reviewers considered her comments about military segregation as “sabotage” and criticized Buck’s connections to what it considered a “Communist front” – the American Civil Liberties Union – which opposed segregation and the government’s internment of Japanese-American citizens. By 1946, the FBI concluded Buck was not a Communist but “all of her activities tend to indicate that she considers herself a champion for the colored races, and she has campaigned vigorously for racial equality.”

By the late 1940s, Pearl Buck’s role as a civil rights advocate changed for several reasons. Buck and her husband Richard Walsh focused on their new adoption agency, Welcome House, which sought to help biracial children. And Buck decided to openly write about her intellectually disabled daughter, Carol, and campaign for more awareness about that group.
That didn’t stop the Washington, D.C. school district from banning Buck from speaking at a segregated public school in early 1951 because she had not been “cleared” by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Buck told the Perkasie News-Herald the ban was really related to her opposition to school segregation in Washington. Howard University, the NAACP, and local ministers in Washington soon condemned the ban, followed by the Washington Post and numerous newspapers nationally after Buck published her intended speech for Black students at Cardozo High School.
Buck’s importance to the civil rights movement had been well-established by then. Later in the 1950s a young minister sent Buck a personally dedicated copy of his book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “To Pearl Buck In appreciation for your genuine good-will, and your great humanitarian concern. With warm regards Martin L King Jr.” King later served on the Welcome House board of directors.
Today, Pearl Buck is known for her efforts at Welcome House and her career as a bestselling author. But her fight for equal rights is an important example we can all learn from – when Pearl Buck spoke out about injustice at the height of her international popularity.
Scott Bomboy is a historian who has written frequently about local and national topics. He will be speaking online for Pearl S. Buck International at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 about Buck’s civil rights legacy.
Registration is required for the free online event at https://pearlsbuck.org/civilrights/.


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