Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights

Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights

Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights

Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights

Synopsis

During the Great Depression, black intellectuals, labor organizers, and artists formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) to demand a "second emancipation" in America. Over the next decade, the NNC and its offshoot, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, sought to coordinate and catalyze local antiracist activism into a national movement to undermine the Jim Crow system of racial and economic exploitation. In this pioneering study, Erik S. Gellman shows how the NNC agitated for the first-class citizenship of African Americans and all members of the working class, establishing civil rights as necessary for reinvigorating American democracy.

Much more than just a precursor to the 1960s civil rights movement, this activism created the most militant interracial freedom movement since Reconstruction, one that sought to empower the American labor movement to make demands on industrialists, white supremacists, and the state as never before. By focusing on the complex alliances between unions, civic groups, and the Communist Party in five geographic regions, Gellman explains how the NNC and its allies developed and implemented creative grassroots strategies to weaken Jim Crow, if not deal it the "death blow" they sought.

Excerpt

In May 1935, a dozen top black intellectuals and civil rights advocates, in collaboration with a handful of white allies, came together at Howard University to take “a candid inventory of the position of the Negro in our national economic crisis.” John Preston Davis, a Harvard-trained black intellectual and leading critic of the New Deal, introduced the three days of discussions by saying, “The first word is mine. But the last word is yours.” Despite the passage of a wide array of New Deal reforms, more than 4 million out of 12 million African Americans remained in poverty. “Looking fifty years into the future,” Davis portended, “nothing is presented for the Negro except maintenance of his inferior status by government fiat.” To reverse this dire prediction, Davis called for a radical restructuring of American values. He believed a mass movement needed to coalesce that would force the government to shift emphasis from “private property to protection of human beings.” While other speakers differed on strategy, all agreed with the urgency of Davis’s remarks. T. Arnold Hill of the National Urban League declared that “if the present trend continues,” black workers would enter a state of “economic peonage, every bit as devastating as plantation slavery.” If, however, African Americans “maintained a faith” of organizing black workers, “sufficient strength can be gathered” to then join “forces of white labor to halt . . . a future of permanent relief.” Drawing on his ten years of experience organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), Asa Philip Randolph also advocated for a labor approach to economic uplift. Black workers “not only must organize themselves,” he said, “but what is as important, they must pay the price in suffering, sacrifice, and struggle” because only “economic power” would bring about the larger goal of “industrial and political democracy.” the . . .

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