Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement

Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement

Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement

Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement

Synopsis

In August, 1933, dozens of people gathered amid seven large, canvas tents in a field near Amenia, in upstate New York. Joel Spingarn, president of the board of the NAACP, had called a conference to revitalize the flagging civil rights organization. In Amenia, such old lions as the 65 year-old W.E.B. DuBois would mingle with "the coming leaders of Negro thought." It was a fascinating encounter that would transform the civil rights movement.

With elegant writing and piercing insight, historian Eben Miller narrates how this little-known conference brought together a remarkable young group of African American activists, capturing through the lives of five extraordinary participants--youth activist Juanita Jackson, diplomat Ralph Bunche, economist Abram Harris, lawyer Louis Redding, and Harlem organizer Moran Weston--how this generation shaped the ongoing movement for civil rights during the Depression, World War II, and beyond. Miller describes how Jackson, Bunche, Harris, and the others felt that, amidst the global crisis of the 1930s, it was urgent to move beyond the NAACP's legal and political focus to build an economic movement that reached across the racial divide to challenge the capitalist system that had collapsed so devastatingly. They advocated alliances with labor groups, agitated for equal education, and campaigned for anti-lynching legislation and open access to the ballot and employment--spreading their influential ideas through their writings and by mass organizing in African American communities across the country, North and South. In their arguments and individual awakenings, they formed a key bridge between the turn-of-the-century Talented Tenth and the postwar civil rights generation, broadening and advancing the fight for racial equality through the darkest economic times the country has ever faced.

In Born along the Color Line, Miller vividly captures the emergence of a forgotten generation of African American leaders, a generation that made Brown v. Board of Educationand all that followed from it possible. It is an illuminating portrait of the "long civil rights movement," not the movement that began in the 1950, but the one that took on new life at Amenia in 1933.

Excerpt

At 5:45 on the evening of Friday, August 18, 1933, the New York Central Railroad sounded its arrival at the hamlet of Amenia. the train had departed Grand Central Terminal nearly two hours earlier, then followed the Harlem Valley line north out of Manhattan toward rolling, rural Dutchess County, passing through the towns of Wingdale, Dover, and Wassaic before braking, slowing, and hissing into Amenia, New York, at the southern reach of the Berkshires. Just two and a half miles east of the town center rose Oblong Mountain, a thousand-foot forested foothill sheltering Joel and Amy Spingarn’s eight-hundred-acre estate, Troutbeck.

If the train whistle echoed as far as Troutbeck, it reached ready ears. That day the Spingarn manor had buzzed with preparations for the Amenia Conference, a three-day civil rights retreat held by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Joel Springarn was president of the board of directors. the Spingarns had hosted an earlier naacp conference at Amenia in 1916, one that had helped the Association to achieve national prominence. By reprising the event in 1933, the naacp hoped to reestablish its standing at a moment of economic crisis, floundering membership, and challenges from the radical left.

In anticipation of the conference, seven large canvas tents had been delivered and pitched on a flat field, having been trucked up from Manhattan along with several dozen sleeping cots, blankets, and sundry supplies—enough to host over thirty visitors for the weekend. Joel Spingarn planned to greet at least eleven of his guests who were arriving on the 5:45, then escort them in his limousine back down Leedsville Road to Troutbeck. Guests who drove themselves—from New York City; from Montclair, New Jersey; from Philadelphia; from Wilmington, Delaware; from Washington, DC; from Hampton, Virginia—followed Route 22 north to Amenia, turned right at the village center, then watched for the signs the Spingarns had placed all along the road: “This way to the Amenia Conference: Amenia Conference 1 Mile!”

Tracing the wooded curve off Leedsville Road toward Troutbeck, the Spingarns’ guests crossed an arched stone bridge over the Webatuck, a picturesque spring-fed brook, then rounded a cul-de-sac lined with tall, graceful sycamores first planted in 1830s. From the drive, a long front lawn (“not a lawn,” as one . . .

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