Next Steps: Charles S. Johnson and Southern Liberalism

Article excerpt

Charles Spurgeon Johnson would never forget a childhood affront. Born on July 24, 1893, he grew up in Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border, the son of a well-educated and well-respected Baptist minister and a mother who supplemented her public school education with "an uncommon amount of intelligence and social grace." Johnson remembered his parents as knowing "all of the Negroes and most of the white families that had any standing at all," and as living "on terms ranging from tolerant indifference to restrained cordiality with all of them." He remembered Saturday afternoon shopping excursions with his mother, afternoons completed with a visit to the town's drugstore soda fountain and a trolley car ride home. Bristol was no idyllic racial oasis - racial distinctions manifested themselves in the small concentration of black businesses near the red light district and in the racial seclusion of poorer blacks, and Bristol played host to its own mob-instigated lynching, a "drunken spree" the town "consciously tried for a generation afterwards to live down." Nevertheless, lines of communication between blacks and whites were open and well used.

When the local paper carried "a furtive note" about new race legislation, the import seemed distant until the clerk at the drugstore, always friendly and overly generous with his servings of ice cream, nervously busied himself when Charles and his mother arrived one Saturday afternoon and ignored them until the owner appeared, expressed his "respect for the family" and for Charles's "father's profession and character," but alerted them that "something had happened, it seemed, and that he could not serve us any more at the counter." The conductor on the trolley car, too, underwent a sudden change of attitude and behavior. Friendly assistance was replaced by a "strange grimness and determination" as he directed blacks to a special corner of the car. "These friendly old men were now the agents of a new and obnoxious policy." For Charles Johnson and other local blacks, "it was the beginning of a new self-consciousness that burned."(1) Charles S. Johnson had found his cause.

As a sociologist, teacher, writer, researcher, editor, college president, commission member, foundation advisor, and full-time reformer, Charles Johnson dedicated himself to adjusting America's attitudes toward its black citizens and to improving the condition of race relations in the country and especially in the South. His father was a preacher but Charles Johnson, himself, had little of the charisma so often associated with southern preachers. He led no mass movement. He shunned controversy. His name was far more likely to appear in a byline than in a headline. But Johnson's role as a powerful black leader, as one of those giants upon whose shoulders Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement stood, is no less substantial for its lack of publicity. For thirty years he served as the consummate race diplomat in a hostile territory - the American South.

This essay will provide a glimpse of Johnson's activities and ideologies as he attempted his constructive collaboration with southern white liberals in an undying effort to improve race relations where they were most miserable.(2) A specific examination of Johnson's relationship to southern liberalism is appealing for a number of reasons: it highlights the significant contributions of a man who tended to work outside the spotlight; it adds to an understanding of black leadership in the South; and it provides a southern black view of southern liberalism, a view under-examined in many accounts of the movement. The scope of this exercise allows a complete exploration neither of Charles Johnson nor of southern liberalism. Instead, this essay provides an analysis of the intersection of Johnson's life with the spirit and the strategies of the southern liberal movement, particularly as manifested in his relationship with two organizations, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation [CIC] and the Southern Regional Council [SRC]. …