Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"We Must March Forward!": Juanita Jackson and the Origins of the NAACP Youth Movement

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"We Must March Forward!": Juanita Jackson and the Origins of the NAACP Youth Movement

Article excerpt

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, American youth joined and formed an expanding array of organizations tackling problems of widespread poverty and protesting racial bigotry at home and increasing militarism abroad. Propelled by the rise of fascist and racist tyranny in Italy, Germany, Japan, and other nations on the international scene, American youth organizations, including the American Student Union (ASU), the American Youth Congress (AYC), the National Council of Methodist Youth, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Young Communist League, and the Young People's Socialist League, also sought to address the dismal state of "Negro-white relations" at home. A disparate group of young activists--socialists, communists, liberals, pacifists, Christians, and civil right advocates--linked their fight against white racist practices at home to the broader international fight against the spread of Nazism and fascism. (1) These young people longed for a more egalitarian society at home and abroad, and it was in this spirit that a national youth movement within the NAACP was reborn and situated within the context of the 1930s youth movements. This essay examines Juanita Jackson's leadership in the formation of a "national youth movement" within the NAACP between 1935 and 1938, focusing on the activism of the youth councils and college chapters.

The activism of NAACP youth organizations has been discussed by several historians. In Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience, August Meier and Elliot Rudwick showed that the NAACP was not monolithic and did not use litigation as its only strategy to secure black civil rights. Meier and Rudwick maintained that the activism of NAACP youth groups in staging nationwide demonstrations against lynching, initiating early sit-in demonstrations, and protesting other forms of discrimination demonstrates that NAACP groups did employ "nonviolent direct action strategies" in their fight for equal rights. In Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, historian Robin D. G. Kelley reported that the NAACP was not active in Alabama in the late 1930s, and this lack of activism created a political vacuum that was filled by the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), founded as an outgrowth of the militant National Negro Congress, which provided an outlet for black youth activism in that state. (2) More recently, Rebeeca de Schweinitz in If We Could Change the World: Young People and America's Long Struggle for Racial Equality examined the NAACP youth movement in the late 1930s, and found that "although reluctant to fully embrace direct action, the NAACP officially incorporated militant techniques into the program for young people." While de Schweinitz acknowledges that Juanita Jackson, the NAACP's first national youth director, was "a recent college graduate, former junior [NAACP] council member, and leader of Baltimore's direct action oriented City-Wide Young People's Forum," Jackson's role and activities in launching the NAACP's youth movement in the 1930s are missing from that account. (3) Jackson used her astute leadership abilities and personal charisma to create a successful youth movement within the NAACP, in which direct action protests were common. During her tenure as national youth director, the NAACP established youth councils and college chapters in 30 states and 128 cities throughout the United States. (4) Jackson's success in building a vibrant national youth movement within the NAACP can be attributed to her organizing and activist skills, rooted in a legacy of nonviolent direct action activism well established in her family, the Baltimore community, and the African American protest tradition.

MOBILIZING YOUTH FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

In a memorandum to the NAACP Board of Directors dated 2 February 1933, Walter White, executive secretary, bemoaned the lack of a definite program and activities for the "junior branches. …

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