Five Decades of Activism
By Patricia Sullivan
Vol. 12, No. 1, 1990, pp. 5-9
“THE SOUTHERN MOVEMENT provided a permanent flame from which the rest of the nation could draw inspiration, light and heat. You were always there burning, percolating, in the dark sometimes, but going ahead, holding aloft even the smallest candle which ultimately became the blazing light leading…to freedom,” Ossie Davis proclaimed to several hundred people gathered at the New Pilgrim Church in Birmingham early in December. They had come to celebrate the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), and the five decades of activism joined with SCHW by the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) and the Southern Organizing Committee (SOC).
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Anne Braden, Modjeska Simkins, Virginia Durr, Rev. Ben Chavis, Hollis Watkins, Bob Zellner, and Pete Seeger were among the anniversary participants–a collective testimony to the rich legacy of the Southern movement for racial and economic justice. In his welcoming address, Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington highlighted a theme of the meeting. As we look back fifty years, and we look ahead, he said, we learn that “in the freedom struggle there is no ending which is not a beginning.” The weekend provided a special opportunity to talk about the kinds of changes that have been set in motion over the past half century, and celebrate the victories, “even as we look at the walls that are still in front of us.”
WHEN THE SOUTHERN Conference for Human Welfare was founded in 1938, it was “one of the most exaggerated expressions of change in the South,” remembered one of its early members. The Depression and the New Deal had shaken people from decades of political apathy and complacency. “A lot of folks were standing up…and talking and expecting things they had never expected before.” More than twelve hundred Southerners met in the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham over Thanksgiving weekend in 1938 to organize mass political support for New Deal economic reforms. Race became the issue when Police Commissioner Bull Connor enforced segregation upon the integrated gathering. In a symbolic act of defiance, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt placed her chair in the center aisle of the racially divided auditorium. SCHW organizers vowed that all future meetings would be integrated. Southern moderates quickly withdrew and labeled the new organization subversive.
The SCHW did challenge the structure of Southern society, a society based on disfranchisement laws and legalized white supremacy. From the beginning, SCHW organizers believed that economic and political democracy were essential to remedying “the nation’s number one economic problem.” In the opening round of the voting rights struggle in Congress, Virginia Durr and Joseph Gelders engineered the introduction of anti-poll tax legislation and organized a broad coalition of national support. Building on the expectations and political interests stirred by the New Deal and the war against fascism, SCHW organizers joined with the NAACP, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), the CIO and community groups throughout the South in a region wide voter registration effort. After the Supreme Court outlawed the all-white primary in 1944, the number of registered black voters in the South increased dramatically. The Talmadges, Bilbos, Eastlands, and Byrnes led a growing resistance, but a sustained movement for social and political justice had taken hold in the South.
In 1948 Clark Foreman, a founder and Executive Director of the SCHW, referred to the organization’s first ten years as “The Decade of Hope.” The McCarthy era followed; the Southern conservative attack on the Southern Conference movement was reinforced by the redbait-
ing politics of the Cold War. Born in the promise and activism of the New Deal era, the SCHW would not adapt to the conformist and exclusionary policies legitimized by President Truman’s “loyalty” program. Its activities culminated with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign in 1948. Under the direction of SNYC’s Louis Burnham and Palmer Weber of the SCHW, the Wallace campaign in the South expanded the campaign for political and economic democracy. Black and white candidates ran for office on the Progressive Party ticket, and Henry Wallace became the first presidential candidate to refuse to address segregated audiences in the region. The Wallace campaign demonstrated, however, that the fragile political coalition organized by the SCHW in the South could not survive an aggressive national Cold War consensus, and the organization quietly disbanded at the end of 1948.
BUT THE SOUTHERN Conference Education Fund (SCEF), established as the educational branch of the SCHW in 1946, continued. Under the leadership of Jim
Dombrowski, SCEF concentrated on ridding the South of segregation as the essential first step in moving towards the economic and political goals advanced by the SCHW. SCEF aimed to build interracial support for desegregation, and made a special effort to engage whites in the struggle. Its small staff endured constant threats, attacks and investigations as it worked steadily through the 1950s, helping to support indigenous civil rights efforts throughout the South. When Carl and Anne Braden learned that economic pressures were about to force leading black activist Amzie Moore out of Mississippi in the late 1950s, Dombrowski raised the money to secure Moore’s financial independence so that he could remain in Cleveland, Mississippi. In 1960, SNCC Field Secretary Bob Moses met Moore on his first foray into Mississippi; Moore became a crucial link between the student movement of the 1960s and a small but seasoned generation of Mississippi activists.
Jack O’Dell observed that Southern Conference activists had to “work our way around the Cold War and find
our way back through Montgomery and the civil rights movement.” During the 1960s, SCEF’s history merged with the mass movement that broke through the political lethargy of the 1950s and finally succeeded in ridding the South of legalized segregation and disenfranchisement. In remembering these hard-won victories of the civil rights movement, however, the history has often been distorted, and the “movement” left motionless. The Southern Conference anniversary pointed to the deep roots of movement history and bore witness to the fact that the struggle continues. Nostalgia was noticeably absent from this celebration. While there were several veterans of the early SCHW years in attendance, they seemed impatient to act on with it.
IN A BRIEF TRIBUTE to the enormous changes of the last half century, ninety year-old Modjeska Simkins remembered the concentrated atmosphere of terror and violence that permeated Bull Connor’s Birmingham, a city where the Klan worked openly with the Police Commissioner. Whenever she was in Birmingham, the South Carolina activist recalled, she was always watching “out of the tail of my eye, not knowing whether some of those renegades would attack me.” Bull Connor is long gone, and Birmingham has a black mayor who presides over a progressive city government. But Mrs. Simkins observed that many gains secured in the past fifty years have been rolled back. “We’ve been knocked back down the hill by a do-nothing president,” she said, “and it looks like we’re going to have four or eight more years of ‘almost do nothin’. ‘We got to fight all the way back up the hill.”
Stetson Kennedy explained that many regional problems addressed by SCHW have become national in scope. He cited homelessness and widespread hunger, perhaps more prevalent now than during the 1930s. Absentee ownership used to mean Wall Street; now we think of Tokyo. “Mr. Charlie is gone with the wind, but Mr. Yakamoto is on the way and we don’t know where he stands except that he’s anti- union.”
Legalized segregation has been outlawed; now we have “desegregated racism.” “Back then, it used to be the Attorney General of Alabama or Mississippi or perhaps the Magistrate of Florida up before the Supreme Court arguing in favor of in justice and discrimination; but now it’s the Attorney General of the United States of America.” Much blood was shed and many lives lost on the road to free elections and voting rights. But, Kennedy asked, how “free” are elections today? Politics has become a state-of-the-art industry, run by the media and highly paid consultants, who manipulate symbols in a way that often results in “the American people voting over and over against themselves.” The notorious Southern demagogues of the past have been replaced by a more sophisticated, polished variety saying “read my lips.”
Community activists joined historians and students in workshops during the second day of the meeting. Individual discussion groups on the economy, labor, women, culture, education, and militarism worked to define current issues within a fuller historical context, and build a common agenda for action in the 1990s.
IN THE “ECONOMY of the South” workshop, John Gaventa, of Highlander Center, sketched the cycles of economic development over the past fifty years. Gaventa explained that the ambitious War on Poverty of the 1960s and the well-publicized industrial transformation of the “Sun-Belt” in the 1970s have run their course; yet steady economic growth and development has bypassed most of the region. The shift from an industrial to a service and financial based economy has proved elusive the gains of the sixties and seventies. Twelve million workers lost their jobs to plant closings in the first half of the 1980s; even more in the latter part of the decade. Companies lured South by the promise of cheap labor, resources, and tax concessions have moved on to exploit even better “deals” in other parts of the world. When U.S. Steel left Gary, W. Va., a town the company built, they took the street lights with them. During the 1980s, virtually no new jobs were created in rural communities; 60 percent of urban jobs are poverty level and offer no mobility. Job growth areas are affluent, white, and offer the best education systems.
WHILE THERE HAVE been dramatic changes in the South’s economic landscape during the last half century, they have been guided by the state’s promotion of a “business climate” which allows for the mobility and unaccountability of capital. Barbara Taylor, Bob Hall, and Pat Bryant described the enormous price exacted from the region’s resources, workers, and environment. Job-related injuries, illnesses and deaths have increased in the last twenty years. The South has become a dumping ground for hazardous wastes; the most significant variable in determining the location of chemical dumping grounds is race, noted Louisiana activist Pat Bryant, a factor that has not been addressed by the environmental movement. The vaginal cancer rate for African-American women in St. John the Baptist Parish is thirty times the national average; the lung cancer rate for African- American men in New Orleans is the highest in the world.
There was much discussion and disagreement about the complex array of problems raised by the panelists. But there seemed to be general agreement that politics is the only way out. Now that all Southerners finally have the
vote, it is possible to work towards the goal of economic democracy which guided the founding of SCHW a half century ago. Economic development, participants agreed, needs to be considered within the broad context of issues addressed in the other workshops.
In discussing the role of women in the South’s progressive movement, panelists outlined a history of interrelationship of race, class, and gender, and suggested a broad context for the women’s movement in the 1990s. Jewell Handy Gresham told how the abolitionist movement gave birth to the modern women’s rights movement. As a national woman’s movement developed, a tension developed and has persisted between those who would focus on white, middle class goals, and those who view the women’s rights movement as an integral part of the larger struggle for human rights. Georgia State Representative Nan Orrock insisted that the issue of reproductive rights must be understood as more than the issue of abortion rights, and, indeed, provides an opportunity for broadening the focus of the women’s movement. The crisis in health care, the issue of child care, and the failure of the public education system should be part and parcel of the reproductive rights movement. Orrock urged the organized women’s movement to make a more conscious effort to incorporate working-class women and women of color into positions of leadership, and at the same time warned progressive activists that to dismiss the women’s movement as an exclusively white middle class phenomenon.
WHILE LOOKING towards the future, participants sought to recover a history that would illuminate the larger contours of the struggle for racial, economic and political justice. The workshop on racism identified historical amnesia as a major contributing factor to the nature and persistence of racism in America. Judge Margaret Burnham told about the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a pioneering organization of African-American youth whose history paralleled the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. From 1937 until 1948, SNYC activists participated in organizing workers and registering voters throughout the South, helping to build the progressive coalition of voters that showed such promise in the immediate postwar years. SNYC enjoyed the support of prominent African-American leaders, fraternal organizations and churches. By the late forties, however, SNYC was isolated and ultimately destroyed by redbaiting, and since then its history has been largely neglected and forgotten. Yet that history tells about the power of effective organizing before the FAX machine and foundation grants, when chicken dinners were a major source of fund raising. And it tells about the essential role young people have played as organizers and leaders in the freedom struggle. The importance of reaching out to youth, and encouraging them towards their unique and vital potential was a central concern throughout the two day meeting, eloquently addressed by Brenda Davenport, Rev. Chavis, Representative Mabel Thomas, and others.
THE FINAL PROGRAM began with a candle-lighting ceremony honoring the heroes and heroines of the Southern movement. Ossie Davis and the Children of Selma paid tribute to Hosea Hudson, Joe Gelders, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Clark Foreman, Aubrey Williams, Modjeska Simkins, Ella Baker, Myles Horton, Palmer Weber, Lou Burnham, Virginia and Clifford Durr, James Dombrowski, Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth, Anne and Carl Braden, and, joined by participants, named countless others who have led the South, and the nation, forward. Pete Seeger called the name of Fannie Lou Hamer. Virginia Durr remembered Hugo Black. Other voices named Paul Robeson, E. D. Nixon, Septima Clark, and many more. “With the help of God and struggle and leadership and song and living and burying and marching and singing we have come a long way toward helping this country define what its Constitution outlined way back in 1787,” celebrated Ossie Davis.
And the struggle continues, was the refrain. The unfinished agenda of the freedom movement has been redefined by the challenges and possibilities of the late twentieth century. What does equality mean in a society where adequate education, health care, and housing is beyond the reach of growing numbers? How, asked Ossie Davis, do we effectively challenge the divine right of greed, which reigns in America? The answer, suggested Rev. Ben Chavis, lies in the fundamental changes released by the unravelling of the Cold War and the dramatic gains made by democracy movements in other parts of the world. Shaped by the tradition and promise of democracy, the Southern Organizing Committee for Racial and Economic Justice and countless other groups and activists are building a strong link into an uncertain future. But the times, noted Jack O’Dell, make us mindful of Martin Luther King’s admonition that “the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice.”
Patricia Sullivan is the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Civil Rights at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Charlottesville, Va.