The Conscience of
Percival Leroy Prattis

Journalist Foretold the US-Iran Tragedy In 1953

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | April 18, 2014                     

“History will show that Mossadegh was the answer to the prayers of the Iranian people.”

Percival Leroy Prattis (1895-1980)

Percival Leroy Prattis (1895-1980) was a journalist, reporter, foreign correspondent, and executive editor of the highly influential, nationally circulated black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier.

A World War I combat veteran, Prattis first gained notoriety as a newsman for exposing racial discrimination in the military. In 1947, he became the first “Negro journalist” to be admitted to the U.S. Congress (House and Senate) press galleries.

During his distinguished career Prattis also met, interviewed or corresponded with such figures as John F. Kennedy, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Lena Horne, Averell Harriman, Haile Selassie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. Dubois, Adam Clayton Powell, Richard Nixon, Paul Robeson, Carl Rowan, Ralph Bunche, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Muhammad, Kwame Nkrumah, Lyndon B. Johnson, Josephine Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addition to his duties as editor of the Courier, Prattis also wrote a weekly column, The Horizon which evinced his rational, humanitarian perspective on a variety of pressing topics. One theme which animated him was the connection he saw between the racial divide domestically and the Cold War.

“If the United States can find a way to win the friendship of the colored peoples of the world, there need be no fear of Russia or communism”, he wrote in 1951. “But the United States cannot win that friendship without demonstrating that she is friendly and fair to the colored peoples within her borders. That is why the fight for the rights of Negroes in this country is in essence a struggle to put the United States right with the world and to strengthen its hopes for the future.”

Prattis saw the fight for racial emancipation as a patriotic duty, and was unreticent in saying so. “Negro leaders who contend for the rights of their people, who try to change the heart of America, are helping their country”, he argued. “When they back down, they betray their people and their country.”

While on an NBC radio panel with news colleagues in March 1951, Washington Evening Star reporter Doris Fleeson challenged this approach, suggesting that the black press “tone down” its coverage of race discrimination in order to not feed Soviet propaganda interests. Prattis disagreed completely, responding further in a subsequent column:

“The Negro Press is trying to help, not hurt, the United States. It wants so many Americans to become ashamed of America’s ways, racially, that they will act to wash her sins away. If the influence of the Negro Press could lead to the actual practice of Christ’s teachings of brotherhood in this land, the Negro Press would have been instrumental in creating an all-powerful moral force in behalf of America. The peoples of the world would know that they had no further cause to fear and distrust the United States. They would know that we had finally and truthfully taken our position on the side of the weak and oppressed, even though colored.”

Percival Leroy Prattis (1895-1980)

Prattis’ unflinching dedication to civil rights was intertwined with his conception of being a dutiful citizen. “What seems good for only the Negro is for the good of all Americans”, he wrote. Yet segregation, he maintained, to the nation’s detriment, “denies Negroes access to the blood stream of American society”.

The conscription of young black men in the U.S. Army, then fighting and dying in Korea to defend “the democracy they did not enjoy”, also rankled. Remarked Prattis in June 1951, “How can a man, a real man, who is spat upon, cheated, segregated, jim-crowed, humiliated and insulted almost every day of his natural life as a civilian, be expected to forget all of this when he becomes a soldier and be made to feel that his country offers him something for which he should give up his life?

The Iranian oil crisis was a topic which he returned to repeatedly in a series of mindful and probing columns. He once explained why it engrossed him: “My interest remains alive because what is taking place in Iran is a prime example of the kind of behaviour on the part of Western nations which angered the peoples of Asia and Africa, white, black, brown and yellow.” Prattis believed the British were treating the Iranians as inferior, and criticized them for refusing to work for Iranians and for not sharing knowledge on oil production methods.

Prattis’ writings on the nationalization dispute, in fact, would come to the attention of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company itself, which directly responded to his charges point-by-point. Prattis published them without comment in an August 1951 column.

When Iran accepted Averell Harriman as mediator, Prattis was heartened by the news and believed the U.S. ambassador would act in good faith. In his estimation, the stakes were dire. Invoking the possibility of World War III, Prattis warned, “Why should we go along with a British policy of domination which is bound to lead to war? Americans may think Iran has little significance to them. But if war breaks out over Iranian oil and the Iranian desire for independence, we “ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

The outcome may not have been war, but it was still calamitous. Three weeks after the U.S. and British sponsored overthrow of Iran’s democratic government, a disappointed and exasperated Prattis wrote a column calling into question U.S. foreign policy in various international spheres. He observed that the United States always found itself going against the people—and Mossadegh, he emphasized, definitely represented the people.

“And what does the Shah represent?”, asked Prattis. “What does he know, or care about democracy or freedom?”

Throughout his distinguished journalistic career, spanning roughly half a century and two world wars, Percival Prattis advocated equal rights at home and engaging with nations in a “spirit of brotherliness and mutual dependence” abroad. Generations later, his thoughts still resonate.

September 12, 1953

By P. L. Prattis

Is There Someone, Somewhere, Strong Enough to Help US?

Percival Leroy Prattis (1895-1980) OF COURSE, I’m just a plain, ordinary, American citizen, lacking the broad knowledge and keen insight some of our public leaders have, but, for the life of me, I can’t understand some of the things which are attempted to be done in the name of America, my America.

I feel bad because I feel responsible: that is, as a citizen, I think I share some of the responsibility for my country’s public behavior. I think we have been wrong on a number of fronts recently. I shall enumerate these fronts.

First, I think we have been compounding the mistakes made from the beginning in Korea. I think our military made a mistake by entering into an agreement with Korea to divide the country at the Thirty-eighth parallel. We divided Korea; now we find we cannot put her back together again.

Although, even at my age, I’m willing to shoulder a musket, or to use words as lethal weapons to ward off the encroachment of communism upon this country, or its infiltration into our system, I’m not yet personally convinced that we should have used twenty billion dollars of American wealth and suffered 150,000 casualties to keep the Koreans from adopting any political system they wanted. I would have let them decide—by negotiation or force. I don’t want to buy Asian political toeholds at the price we’ve had to pay.

FURTHER, I know doggoned well I would not have let that intransigent and intractable old Cato, Syngman Rhee, [South Korean President] twist my arm as he has been doing.

First place, I would not have been pulling out his chestnuts.

Second place, if I had, and he had acted up as he has, I would have put him in his place. He’s a dictator—if there ever was one—with a paid staff busy propagandizing right here in the United States. Talk about subversion. How about the subversion from Rhee and his gang?

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) Second, I think we are wrong on Iran and Mossadegh. As soon as the Iranian royalist mobs drove Mossadegh to cover, we rushed words of congratulation to the useless fop, the Shah, then let it be known that if they wished any money, we were willing. We had, bluntly, turned down Mossadegh only a few weeks before and told him to make up with the British.

History will show that Mossadegh was the answer to the prayers of the Iranian people. All the Asian peoples today want to manage their own houses and to control what’s in them.

IN OTHER words, their aspirations are nationalist. The ruling monarchies of the past have sold out the people’s interests. That’s why the various peoples have risen to oust the old regimes.

Mossadegh didn’t think the Iranians were getting fair play for their oil from the British. So, when the British would not agree to a fairer price, and to control of this Iranian natural resource by the Iranians, Mossadegh forced the British out. He was acting in the interests of the Iranians.

But the British reacted by saying, in substance, “If we can’t control the oil and get it at our price, then we won’t let him sell it at all.”

So they set up a barricade of battleships so that the Iranians couldn’t sell their oil. Oil is their biggest income source. The British action was a squeeze play to catch Mossadegh between economic pressures. When these pressures began to be felt, the Commies naturally moved in. The British created a situation made to order for the Commies.

*    *    *

BUT NOW they have succeeded in toppling the old premier, who represented the people’s interest, from his position of power. And what does the Shah represent? What right has he to help from the so-called free world?

What does he know, or care about democracy or freedom? He is pure autocrat, aristocrat—and coward to boot.

But we are quite willing, after the aspirations of the people have been thwarted, to take this autocrat to our bosom, dub him Freedom’s knight and stuff his pockets with our money.

It’s a crying shame!

Then to Morocco. There, too, the people are crying to run their own country. France, which has had a strangle hold on the country for years, doesn’t want to let go. So she engineers a coup and forces the leader [Sultan Mohammed V] of the nationalist group out.

Even as in Indo-China, she fights against the nationalist aspirations of the people—and we try to confuse the issue by calling it Communist stuff. It isn’t Communist.

*    *    *

THE COMMUNISTS only move in and exploit a situation when they find us on the other side from the people.

We line up with France against the people in Indo-China and we do the same thing in Morocco. Always, always, always, we play ourselves into a position where we are against the people.

The foregoing mistakes don’t include the one on India in the United Nations by virtue of which we split our side wide open.

Isn’t there someone, somewhere, sane enough and strong enough to correct our errors and put us on the right path?

Lessons of Korea | Republican Arraigns U.S. War Drive (1951)
Lessons of Korea | Republican Arraigns U.S. War (Nov. 1951)


More from P. L. Prattis:

The Negro Press Should Do Its Utmost to Destroy Racial Evils in America | March 31, 1951

British Kept Iranians From Learning Western Oil Production Methods | June 2, 1951

British Should Share Oil Profits and Learn to Take Orders in Iran To Ease Tensions | June 9, 1951

Britain’s Attempt to Force Iran to Yield on Oil May Provoke Third World War | Sept. 29, 1951

American Negroes Should Be Concerned About What Is Happening in Egypt | Nov. 17, 1951

Related links:

Indian Writer Hails Dr. Mossadegh As “Hero of the East” (1954)

CIA Drafts Official U.S. Statement For After 1953 Coup In Iran

Sociologist Horace Cayton, Jr.: Black People Can Learn From Iranians — Nov. 17, 1951

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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