By John Egerton
Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994, pp. 1, 4-17
Of all the South’s home-grown efforts to tackle regional social problems arising from the depression and the war, none were more extensive and substantial than those of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the Southern Regional Council. When they were created—the former in 1938, the latter in 1944—they constituted the primary internal responses to Old South conservatism and white supremacy. Throughout the Forties, they provided the truest measure of liberal-progressive thinking in the region.
They were rivals in some respects, the more intensely so because of their similarities. Back and forth across the fence, they whispered criticisms of each other: too much reckless radicalism, too much conservative caution, too much activism, too much empty talk.
Many people, including a few key individuals who served in both organizations, wanted them to work together toward mutually shared goals; some hoped they would merge into a single, broadbased movement, an activist army for social reform. They never did unite, and neither grew to the size of a battalion, let alone an army, but both had a significant impact on the postwar South. If you want to know what was being said and done by white and black Southerners before 1954 to place the explosive issue of race relations on the public agenda, you have to look closely at the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.
The Council (as SRC was known by its regulars), emerged from the locust shell of its twenty-five-year-old predecessor, the Atlanta-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation. The Conference (as SCHW and its subsidiary group, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, were both referred to), was founded in Birmingham and later based in Nashville and New Orleans. The two organizations entered the postwar era in the summer of 1945 full of hope that the South was on the cusp of a great advance. By the end of 1947, that breakthrough was still within their long-range vision but not within their grasp, and the continuing struggles of both groups were a telling measure of the chronic division and instability within the South itself.
Academicians predominated on the SRC staff and board. Both Guy B. Johnson, the executive director, and his part-time associate, Ira De A. Reid, were sociologists, Johnson at the University of North Carolina and Reid at Atlanta University. (Reid was also the only black staff member.) Howard W. Odum of UNC was the Council’s president, and Charles S. Johnson, the soon-to-be president of Fisk University, was chairman of the executive committee—and both of them were sociologists too. George S. Mitchell, an economist, would soon join them, and there would be others from academia.
The SRC described itself as a leadership body, not a mass-membership organization; it had a large board of directors (seventy-five to a hundred members), and it hoped to develop branch councils in each Southern state, but its regional roster of rank-and-file recruits was never large. The staff and board were broadly representative of the region in terms of race and geography, but they were solidly, almost exclusively middle class, and only about a dozen women (all but two or three of them white) were members of the charter board and staff. Nothing about the organization could fairly be called radical. If any NAACP leaders, Communists, Socialists, or right-wingers were present—or even any elected or appointed public officials—they kept a very low profile.
Most of the prominent Southern black leaders of the postwar era were central figures in SRC, including all those who had started the dialogue in Durham and had held up their end of the discussion in subsequent meetings—Charles Johnson, Gordon Hancock, Benjamin Mays, P. B. Young, Rufus Clement, and others. Many of the best-known white liberals and progressives in the region also gave their names if not their energy to the Council (but, for reasons both various and complex, there were some notable exceptions, including Ralph McGill, Frank Porter Graham, Lillian Smith, and Jonathan Daniels). It had taken nearly two years of delicate maneu-
vering by dozens of active Southern men and women of both races to bring the Council to life in 1944. But even though the organization was finally on its feet, it was still a long way from being unified. Not only did those who kept their distance accentuate the disunity; internal factions also clashed over purposes and priorities. Usually, the underlying cause was that same old bone of contention that Southerners had been gnawing on for ages: segregation.
The most conservative faction of Council members came together around the notion that any overt attempt to eradicate segregation would be too antagonistic to the ruling elite in the South, and thus counterproductive. Their strategy was to acknowledge segregation as the existing law, and to pledge SRC to work within it. This group was predominantly white but included a few blacks as well. Some were pragmatists who reasoned that no progress was possible without support from the white establishment; others believed that the separate-but-equal philosophy could be made to work, and would be best for both races in the long run.
The liberal faction—also biracial—was convinced that the South was shackled by the ball and chain of segregation, and that both the black minority and the white majority would be permanently crippled if they didn’t cut themselves free. Here, too, pragmatism and ideology were at work, with some advocating desegregation as a more efficient and fair use of human resources, and others saying it was a constitutional or religious or moral imperative. In general, the anti-segregationists wanted
SRC to support the budding sentiment for an integrated society, and thus to be positioned on the breaking wave of history.
In between were the moderates—perhaps the largest faction of all. They wanted to avoid at all costs an up-or-down vote on segregation. Personal views aside, they were convinced that neither the separate-but-equal group nor the integrationists could win the larger society over to its philosophy. Fearful of a resurgent backlash that would cast the South down into its nightmarish past, they preferred to see the Council concentrate on programs and research that would deal with Jim Crow laws only obliquely, if at all. In general, they were philosophically opposed to segregation, but they expected it to prevail in the South for decades, even generations.
With Howard Odum presiding and Guy Johnson as executive director, SRC seldom wandered far off that middle road. So many problems cried out for attention; there was more than enough to be done, they said, without getting hung up in ideological debate. The Council spread its thin resources as far as it could, trying to bring help and hope to Southerners in need without unduly alarming the guardians of vested power. A modest annual budget of less than $50,000 was raised, with the Rosenwald Fund and other foundations providing most of it. In no sense was SRC an extreme group; everything about it bespoke caution, diplomacy, moderation.
The staff had its hands full. Ira Reid was assigned to direct a two-year study of racial discrimination in the South (soon narrowed to Atlanta, and then further to public transit in the city). George Mitchell, former director of a political action committee in the labor movement (and, like Reid, an ex-New Dealer), was hired to set up a program for returning veterans. Dorothy Tilly took over Jessie Daniel Ames’s old assignment as head of what had once been called “women’s work”; she soon developed it into an outreach program that opened Council branches in several states and enlisted church groups in various social-concern programs. A monthly magazine, New South, was launched in 1946 to replace Southern Frontier, the old CIC journal. A year later the Council started a radio series called “Southern Roundtable,” modeled after a popular discussion and debate program from Chicago. The moderator was a new SRC staffer, Harold C. Fleming, a native Georgian and an army veteran just out of Harvard.
Women were influential members of the Council, out of all proportion to their small number. Three whites and two blacks filled important offices or argued persuasively from within the ranks for a progressive agenda. Josephine M. Wilkins, a longtime leader of the Georgia League of Women Voters and founder of a social-action group called the Georgia Citizens Fact Finding Movement, became a Council vice president. Jane Havens of Florida and Alice Spearman of South Carolina shared Wilkins’s progressive vision. The two leading minority women were Grace T. Hamilton, executive director of the Atlanta Urban League, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, the veteran North Carolina educator whose involvement in Southern social reform reached back to the 1920s.
Teetering on the highwire between liberal activism and conservative caution, the Southern Regional Council inched along. Virtually every proposed program of staff action, every resolution praising or condemning the acts of others, every utterance of organizational policy or philosophy was subjected to the most intense scrutiny. Drafted statements in support of the Fair Employment Practices Commission and federal anti-lynching legislation, or in opposition to the poll tax and the white primary, were often watered down by fears of “what this will cost us”—meaning white friends in high places, money from foundations and other donors, perhaps even the Council’s tax exemption as a nonprofit organization. Ira Reid’s study of discrimination suffered the same cautionary fate; so did George Mitchell’s investigative report on the 1946
racial disturbance in Columbia, Tennessee. Council resolutions assailing mob violence were passed in response to the rash of lynchings that summer but they only highlighted the obvious impotence of law-abiding citizens beseiged by an epidemic of lawlessness.
The Council was constantly worried about lack of support, both financial and popular. All the way through 1947, its revenues were insufficient to support a budget of $5,000 a month for all expenditures, including salaries. Dues-paying members to that point totaled fewer than two thousand. Guy Johnson resigned that summer and returned to Chapel Hill; George Mitchell took his place as executive director and set a goal of five thousand members, with a commensurate increase in the budget. Ira Reid was also gone by then, having taken a teaching post in New York (Harold Trigg, a black educator from North Carolina, became the new associate director). In the winter of 1946, Howard Odum retired as Council president, and Paul D. Williams of Richmond replaced him. Only sixty-five people were in the audience when Williams spoke at SRC’s annual membership meeting in November 1947.
In his remarks that day, Williams cited the Council’s thoroughly biracial makeup as a model of cooperation and equity for others in the region to emulate, but not everyone was comfortable with such a self-conscious focus on race—or on SRC’s presumed virtues. Virginius Dabney, an influential figure of long standing, was one Council member who believed that calling attention to integration was an enormous tactical mistake.
“I can think of nothing more disastrous to the SRC’s future than its identification in the public mind with an effort to abolish the segregation system,” Dabney told Guy Johnson and others. “If SRC spends not only a good bit of its funds but a large portion of its energies in fighting segregation, we will lose both the battle and the war.” Responding to increasing national criticism of the South as violence spread across the region in 1946, Dabney had written a defensive piece for the Saturday Review of Literature entitled, “Is the South That Bad?” Said Ira Reid in emphatic response: “Yes!”
A single question and a one-word answer thus captured the essence of SRC’s—and the South’s—perpetual dilemma. Capable, earnest, well intentioned people, different from one another in many ways but having in common a lifelong bond to the South, were trying to work together to build a framework for the region’s future. But some wanted to follow the Old South model, and others thought it had to be replaced, and those in between were stymied, not knowing which planks to use and which to discard.
Howard W. Odum and Charles S. Johnson, ultimate symbols of the dilemma, were foremost among those who gravitated to the center. They had been primary leaders of the Southern Regional Council experiment from the very beginning. Johnson had drafted the vital document at Durham in 1942 that led to the founding of SRC, and Odum had spoken up at the right moment in Richmond in 1943 and saved the embryo Council from self-destruction. The two men were philosophical and tactical moderates who tried to persuade those on either side to join them in the middle and work cooperatively for the good of all. On most issues, Odum and Johnson could find common ground. But for all their wisdom and experience—as sociologists, as policy-makers, as sensitive human beings—they couldn’t see eye to eye on what to do about the burden of segregation.
Odum’s retirement from Council leadership effectively signaled the end of his durable dream: to create a powerful regional institution of research and development that would define the South of the future. Grand designs had always danced in his head, but he lacked the heart for conflict—without which no grand design could be realized. For all his temporizing and his abundant caution, Odum clearly understood the biracial nature of Southern culture. He knew it was race above all else that had set the South apart from other regions for centuries. He knew, furthermore, that the South would ultimately have to attain integration and equality within itself if it was ever to achieve those standards within the Nation. He understood those verities intellectually; it was their practical realization that stymied him.
Odum was advancing into the twilight years of his long and productive career when he quietly gathered up his papers and left SRC in 1946. It was a parting more significant than it appeared: The man with the regional plan was stepping down, his dream unfulfilled. He wrote The Way of the South that year, and published it the next. In it, he summarized and restated his concept of regionalism more succinctly than ever before. He saw the United States divided into six regions, of which the Southeast was one. These, he said, should be balanced and complementary—equal but not identical, different but not inferior or superior, integrated into a national whole but not homogenized. Through planning and cooperation, “the regional equality and balance of America” could be achieved. He viewed the ongoing dispersal of the South’s large black minority throughout the country as a promising development, and favored incentives to support this longterm process of “voluntary migration.”
The sociologist acknowledged that regional equality presupposed citizen equality irrespective of race—but this, too, would have to be achieved voluntarily, and over an indefinite period of time. He rejected out of hand any
“coercive enforcement by the nation of a non-segregation economy advocated by many agitators.” Was he, in his heart of hearts, still unable at that time to see thoroughgoing equality as a positive good? The record is fuzzy on that crucial point. His readers, though, were left to draw a virtually inescapable conclusion: In Odum’s eyes, the segregated and inequitable and divisive “Southern way of life” was not yet a subject open for debate and negotiation; for the foreseeable future, it would remain the prevailing reality.
In his private reverie, Charles Johnson must have read Odum’s words with deepening discouragement. The two men had known each other for more than twenty-five years; they were professional associates, collaborators, personal friends. But Johnson had written in the Durham Manifesto that he and his fellow black petitioners were “fundamentally opposed to the principle and practice of compulsory segregation in American society.” Quietly but firmly, he had always made clear his conviction that “separate but equal” was a flawed and failed principle of law and social custom. He obviously wanted the United States and its constituent assemblies to abolish segregation and discrimination based on race. By those lights, he came dangerously close to belonging to the band of rivals dismissed by Odum as “agitators.”
Johnson had spent his entire career trying to build bridges—from the past to the future, from a closed South to an open Nation, from a prevailing attitude of white supremacy to a new belief in multiracial democracy. As a young man, he came to see that race relations—the interplay between the white majority and the colored minorities—would be America’s glory or its doom, and he devoted himself wholeheartedly to a pursuit of the glory. For his pains, he had been called just about everything in the book: a reformer, an accommodationist, a liberal, a conservative, an integrationist, an Uncle Tom, a diplomatic gentleman—and now, an agitator. If he and Howard Odum, the quintessential centrists, couldn’t stand together on the rock of race, the prospects for the Southern Regional Council were bleak.
Simultaneously with Odum’s The Way of the South in 1947 came Johnson’s Into the Main Stream, published by the University of North Carolina Press. It was a book of “promising signs in the South’s development toward better human relations,” and a search for the one main stream by which all Americans could be transported to full citizenship. No doubt thinking of his white friends, Johnson wrote with empathy and insight:
The fear of disturbing the controls of the racial system frequently places restraints upon progressive action in racial matters of any sort. Always there are in every locality a few well-meaning humanitarians willing to do something, but action carries a responsibility that only the stoutest hearts can sustain for long…. That is undoubtedly why it so often happens that the intellectual liberals who know what should be done are torn between their private convictions and their public caution, and the most forthright declarations of the need for change are made by persons who are estimated by the community to have so little weight as to be innocuous.
As a board member of both the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Charles S. Johnson no doubt saw clearly how much alike the two organizations were, and yet how different. The leaders of SRC were—to use Johnson’s descriptive phrase—”intellectual liberals … torn between their private convictions and their public caution.” Those who
directed SCHW were more action-oriented and more candidly expressive of an equalitarian point of view. It was precisely because of those “forthright declarations” that they were widely regarded as radicals and extremists with little influence on the majority of Southerners.
It would be hard to make a solid case, though, that they were really radicals. Middle class, white, Southern males accounted for almost all of the officers and staff of SCHW, as they did at SRC, and the Conference’s board of directors was roughly three-fourths white and 85 percent male—again, much the same as SRC’s. Even by Southern standards, they weren’t all that far out, either; it would have been more accurate to call them liberal Christian Democrats—and that, too, was an apt description of SRC. (Cross-fertilization was heavy between the two organizations. SCHW President Clark Foreman was a member of the SRC board, and SRC staff members George Mitchell and Ira Reid were on the board at SCHW. At least a half-dozen others, including Will Alexander, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lucy Randolph Mason, Aubrey Williams—and, of course, Charles Johnson—served on both boards.)
The accusations of Communist sympathy that shadowed half a dozen or so Conference stalwarts between 1938 and 1942 had driven off almost all of the suspects; only John Preston Davis’s name was still on the list of SCHW officers and directors—and Davis, former head of the National Negro Congress, had moved to Pittsburgh and was no longer active in the organization. If Communist influence had ever truly penetrated the SCHW, it had long since been filtered out. But right-wing opponents never tired of hurling the charges—and the Conference gave them a larger target by refusing to exclude any potential members solely because of their political beliefs.
The Conference was generally more liberal than SRC—in its activism (protesting, circulating petitions, lobbying), its associations (with Northern liberals, the labor movement, the NAACP) and its pronouncements on the issues of the day. It went on record in 1946 against “discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, color, or national origin,” calling it “fundamentally undemocratic, unAmerican, and unChristian.” Even so, the leaders chose not to attack Jim Crow laws explicitly at that time, taking instead the New Deal tack that the way to relieve blacks of the yoke of discrimination was to give them political and economic power. That might have been considered radical when members of the Roosevelt administration advocated it in the 1930s, but it was the standard position of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing now. If there was anything revolutionary about SCHW’s goals in the midForties, it was their announced intention to bring about genuine majority rule in the oligarchic South, where roughly three of every four adults didn’t vote, and most of the ones who did were in some incumbent politician’s hip pocket.
Conference President Foreman and James A. Dombrowski, the executive secretary, were more advanced in their views on race than most of the other whites in the organization—or, for that matter, those in the Southern Regional Council. Both men had shown by word and deed years earlier that they recognized segregation as a white problem that was crippling the South. Still, it was one thing to hold that view personally, and quite another to espouse it as organizational philosophy; not even SCHW was quite ready for that. Instead, the Conference concentrated on labor and voting rights issues (the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax was one of its major projects)—and unlike SRC, it was aggressive enough to draw a visceral response from the likes of Mississippi’s bombastic Senator Theodore Bilbo. This “mongrel conference,” this “un-American, communistic outfit of white Quislings” that caters to “negroes, Jews, politicians and racketeers,” was demanding repeal of poll
taxes and other measures the senator held dear. “III were called upon to name the Number One Enemy of the South today,” he thundered, “it would be the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.” Cleverly, Foreman and Dombrowski used the quote as an endorsement in reverse.
During the first year or so after the war, SCHW far outpaced SRC in size and scope. Its membership was close to three thousand by the end of 1945, and fiscal receipts for the year totaled almost $85,000 (one-third of it from labor unions). Membership was concentrated in the Southern and border states, and branch chapters were organized in some of them, with Georgia and Alabama having the strongest. To boost its lobbying and fund-raising capabilities, the Conference also developed large and active membership groups in Washington and New York. On any given issue, SCHW had both the resources and the activist inclination to make a bigger impact than SRC.
It was in 1946, an ominous year of instability and crisis for the South and the Nation, that the Southern Conference for Human Welfare reached the pinnacle of its strength—and, almost simultaneously, found itself caught up in a train of events that led to its own unraveling.
From headquarters in Nashville, Foreman and Dombrowski had wide latitude and authority to act for a compliant board of directors, and they concentrated on laying the foundation for a mass-membership organization. Two South Carolinians were hired as traveling recruiters: Osceola McKaine, the black political organizer who had co-founded the Progressive Democratic Party in his state, and Witherspoon Dodge, the white former minister whose organizing skills had recently been utilized by the CIO unions. Mary McLeod Bethune, back at her school in Florida after more than a decade of service in Washington, also made a speaking tour in behalf of SCHW. As a result of these and other outreach programs, Conference membership quickly doubled, and by the end of the year was said to have reached ten thousand.
A series of successful fund-raising events outside the South (starring such famous personalities as Joe Louis, Orson Welles, and Frank Sinatra) led to heady SCHW predictions of a $200,000 income for 1946 (the actual total turned out to be more like $120,000). Judging by the national exposure and the rising numbers, any casual observer might well have been impressed; the Southern Conference was starting to look like a force to be heeded. In a reorganization aimed at achieving greater flexibility and clout (and to prevent SCHW from losing its tax exemption because of political activity), the officers and directors decided in January 1946 to create a new entity:
the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Under the plan, SCEF would be a tax-exempt body engaged in teaching, publication, and other forms of non-political persuasion, leaving SCHW free to pursue activist goals in the political arena. Both would answer to the same administrative and governing hierarchy.
All these new developments were full of promise. But even as they raised the hopes of Southern progressives, negative currents radiated out of the Conference. Since the first assembly in Birmingham in 1938, a steady falling away of erstwhile supporters had continued year in and year out, until the number and quality of losses gave pause even to the most loyal defenders. In war and peace, these defections continued.
Forget for a moment the ones who never darkened the door: McGill, Dabney, Daniels, Carter, and other journalists; Odum, Guy Johnson, Paul Green, the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and other academics; Gordon Hancock, P. B. Young, Grace Hamilton, Jessie Daniel Ames, and other blacks and women. Look past the quickly disillusioned, too—Francis Pickens Miller, John Temple Graves, W. T. Couch, Howard Kester, H. L. Mitchell. These were not the hard-to-lose; the Southern Conference never really had them in the first place. But it could ill afford to do without the services of those who had quickly seen in SCHW the possibilities of genuine reform, and had worked together for that goal. Frank Porter Graham, Louise Charlton, H. C. Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maury Maverick, Mollie Dowd, Benjamin Mays, Mark Ethridge, F. D. Patterson, Rufus Clement, and Tarleton Collier were among them; their absence left a void. Another was Joseph Gelders, the controversial Birmingham radical and suspected Communist who had been a key figure in the founding of SCHW; he settled in California after serving in the army in World War II.
And one more important name: Lillian Smith. She had stayed away from the first meeting in 1938—citing, among other things, her suspicion that Communists were playing too much of a behind-the-scenes role in the organization. But so many people she admired and respected kept imploring her to join; finally, she agreed to attend the 1940 session in Chattanooga, and then in 1942, Smith accepted a seat on the board at the urging of Foreman and Dombrowski, both of whom she liked and trusted. After Strange Fruit catapulted her to fame in 1944, she had less time to be involved with SCHW, and in May 1945 she resigned from the board. But in her characteristically blunt and direct way, she skipped the polite excuses and told Foreman and Dombrowski exactly why she was quitting.
“You see, my dreams of the Conference were so different,” she wrote. “I saw it as a great coming-together of Southerners” in an assembly free of segregation “by color or religion or bank account or sex or the kind of job we work at or the political beliefs we hold …. I wanted us to prove to our country that democracy works.” But for all its talk of majority rule, she said, SCHW was actually being run in a grossly undemocratic fashion—”like a labor union”—by a little clique of officers and board members. She wasn’t one of those insiders, and didn’t want to be. And so with that, the independent lady from Old Screamer Mountain took up her lonely post outside the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, as she had a year earlier outside the Southern Regional Council.
Not only was the loss of old allies hurting SCHW; from the perspective of wary Southerners, so was its choice of new ones. When racial tension flared in February 1946 at Columbia, Tennessee—right outside the back yard of the Conference, so to speak—Jim Dombrowski worked with Walter White and the NAACP to investigate, and together they set up a national defense committee for those arrested in the disturbance. It was the first time a Southern-based biracial organization dared to work openly with the activist civil rights group from New York. For that, and for his open criticism of local and state officials,
Dombrowski was denounced by the Nashville Banner and other Tennessee papers, called before a grand jury, and characterized by the American Legion as “a seasoned, well-trained agitator for the Communist Party.”
Such charges were old hat, of course; the right wing had fired them at SCHW since 1938, and at Southern liberals in general for a lot longer than that. But something profoundly different was at work in 1946. In the wake of World War II, the surviving political-economic systems of capitalism and communism were fighting for world dominance. The United States, in league with its traditional allies in Western Europe, was trying to hold the line against communism in Eastern Europe and the Pacific rim. The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was pressing its advantage all along the postwar border with the West (a dividing line that Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill, in a March 1946 speech in Missouri, would call an “iron curtain”). Communist regimes in China and elsewhere were also putting pressure on the possessions of the crumbling colonial empires. Soon, Russia would have the atomic bomb, and the arms race would escalate ominously. A little later on, one-time South Carolinian Bernard Baruch would coin a phrase that gave the unofficial but deadly serious East-West conflict a name: the Cold War.
On the domestic scene, the United States was drifting to the right in reaction to world events. The Soviet Union, never esteemed by American conservatives, was quickly relegated from World War II ally to Cold War adversary. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other forces within the federal government stepped up their activities as spy chasers, and countered the espionage work of the Communist world with secret ventures of their own. Tensions between management and labor over jobs and wages deteriorated into verbal and sometimes violent battles punctuated by slanderous assertions of treason; the American labor movement was under heavy pressure to disavow communism and take a patriotic turn to the right. Suddenly, anti-communism was not just a rumbling bass note, like distant, rolling thunder; it was a howling tornado in American political life.
For many a left-wing organization like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the consequences were enormous. It was not that they changed their ways of thinking and acting, and took up a more radical and adversarial and unpopular stance; what really changed were the rules of the game. The pressure for political and social conformity increased, and dissent was equated with disloyalty. In the South, anti-Communism raced through the culture like an electrical current. Its power to shock and stun was demonstrated in dramatic fashion by the example of SCHW and its relationship to organized labor.
The most intimate ties had always bound SCHW to the labor movement, and particularly to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Many Southern CIO leaders, including William Mitch, Paul Christopher, and Lucy Randolph Mason, were influential figures in the Confer-
ence. SCHW also tried to stay on good terms with the rival American Federation of Labor, and even saw itself as a potential bridge for the eventual reconnection of the two confederations. In April 1946, the more liberal CIO announced the beginning of its second “Operation Dixie” organizing drive (it had conducted another such campaign four years earlier), and the following month, the AFL started a Southern drive of its own. But labor was already feeling the pinch of anti-communism, and when Van A. Bittner, director of the CIO’s Southern initiative, announced the plan to the press, he went out of his way to say they wanted no help from Communists or Socialists—and added, “That goes for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and any other organization living off the CIO.” AFL leaders, guarding the right flank, quickly upped the ante by characterizing the CIO itself as a hotbed of communism.
These two blows—one from the CIO’s Bittner, and the other delivered by George Googe of the AFL, a former vice president of SCHW—were devastating to Clark Foreman, Jim Dombrowski, and others who thought their relationship with the unions was unbreakable. Helplessly, they saw Mitch and Christopher and Mason lose influence in the CIO as Bittner climbed. The unions not only cut off most of their financial aid to SCHW; they also fell away from their prior commitments, nurtured by the Conference, to embrace integration and racial equality. As Foreman put it later, “the leaders of ‘Operation Dixie’ resorted to opportunism in the hope of making the CIO respectable in the South.” Needing even less prodding from the right, the AFL did the same.
The loss of union money and members had many repercussions for the Conference. The field organizing work of Osceola McKaine and Witherspoon Dodge, so successful in the beginning, was now at a standstill. The two men had not only been recruiting members for SCHW but for the unions as well—and pushing voter registration for good measure. The labor movement had funded these efforts. But McKaine and Dodge struggled through the summer without receiving salaries or expense money; finally, they had to resign.
The Southern Conference had suffered a crippling reversal of fortune, swift and unexpected, but the full effect wouldn’t set in until later. In the fall of 1946, the leadership decided to move the organization’s headquarters from Nashville to New Orleans (thinking, mistakenly, that the cosmopolitan old city might provide a less hostile environment). The fourth Southwide convention of SCHW—and the first since the 1942 meeting in Nashville—was booked into the city auditorium of New Orleans for three days, beginning November 28.
More problems arose. City officials, giving in to local protests, canceled the auditorium lease to prevent a racially integrated assembly, and only a last-minute move to the hall of the local carpenters’ union saved the day. Fewer than three hundred official delegates registered, though upwards of twelve hundred people attended the opening session. The speakers included Senator Claude Pepper, Walter White of the NAACP, Mary McLeod Bethune, Aubrey Williams, and Georgia’s lame-duck Governor Ellis Arnall, recipient of the Conference’s Thomas Jefferson Award. For the first time, Frank Porter Graham and Eleanor Roosevelt were absent; there was no telegram of support from the White House, as in past years, and the CIO delegation was greatly diminished. But the most troubling development arose after the convention adjourned, at a meeting of SCHW’s officers and executive committee.
To Jim Dombrowski’s complete surprise, Clark Foreman proposed—and the committee affirmed—a plan to widen the distinction between SCHW and the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which had been established earlier in 1946. In effect, Foreman wanted SCHW, under his leadership, to become a national political-action committee for left-wing causes (including Henry Wallace’s bid for the White House); the Washington and New York chapters would serve as its principal bases. Dombrowski didn’t figure in those plans; his role would be to direct SCEF and its narrower regional agenda. The way he and many others saw it, he was being offered a sop, a consolation prize.
In their five years of close association, Foreman and Dombrowski had not grown closer. They were quite different in temperament and personality, with Foreman more of a political schemer (even his friends acknowledged that he was sometimes aggressive, ruthless, devious, manipulative), and Dombrowski more inclined to the quiet, persistent, stubborn pursuit of an idea or a principle. In the months that followed, the reorganization was delayed, and a compromise preserved the status quo while each man rallied support from within the organization. More people departed, including Mrs. Bethune, Lucy Mason, and Margaret Fisher, director of the Conference’s strongest state chapter in Georgia. Thus stalemated, SCHW limped through the first half of 1947 with its loyalties divided and its resources drained.
By late spring, Foreman was poised to refocus the energies of SCHW into the Wallace campaign, which was by then a virtual certainty. Dombrowski was still resistant to reorganization, but at length he did agree to leave SCHW in favor of SCEF. Before either of them had made a move, however, one more problem landed in their laps. In an apparent effort to embarrass both Henry Wallace and SCHW, the House Un-American Activities Commit-
tee in June published a lengthy report, allegedly based on nine years of undercover work, condemning the Southern Conference for Human Welfare as a “most deviously camouflaged Communist-front organization.”
Condemnation of the report was widespread, from the Southern press to the Harvard Law Review, but great harm was done nonetheless. Among the many people smeared by innuendo, halftruths, and unsupported assertions of fellow-traveling and disloyalty were Foreman and Dombrowski, Frank Porter Graham, and Herman Clarence Nixon, one of the original organizers of the Conference. Nixon’s untenured faculty position at Vanderbilt University was jeopardized when publisher James Stahlman of the Nashville Banner, a university trustee, tried—but failed—to get him fired. Ralph McGill, who had a weakness for the soft soap of the red hunters, also took up the attack on SCHW, suggesting in his column that the organization was Communist infiltrated. He later printed a partial and narrowly technical retraction of his assertions, after being threatened with a lawsuit.
A long season of anti-Communist reaction had begun in the United States. That probably would have been enough, by itself, to destroy a small and vulnerable organization like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, but its demise was hastened by self-inflicted wounds. Still and all, SCHW would hang on until the end of 1948. Ironically, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, the orphaned “weak sister” in Clark Foreman’s scenario, would last for a lot longer than that.
The new rules of the Cold War game were especially penalizing to the Southern Conference, but they were also hard on the more moderate Southern Regional Council, and on others interested in reformist ideas and progressive change. SRC had a fairly strong and diverse base in Atlanta, primary support from academic and religious circles, and good connections with the press; moving cautiously, it played for time and a change in the political climate. Elsewhere in the region, few if any organizations made much headway in advancing a liberal agenda in the overheated months of 1947 and 1948.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union had entered the 1940s in a state of impotence and disarray, buffeted by internal conflict over socialism and communism and external hostility to unions of any kind, let alone one that practiced racial equality. Thanks largely to the sympathetic help of Aubrey Williams, the NYA administrator, Mitchell worked for a couple of years with the National Youth Administration in Washington before resuming leadership of the shell-shocked STFU. In 1948, the tiny union was saved from oblivion by an eleventh-hour conversion into the National Farm Labor Union, an affiliate of the AFL; Mitchell would run it on a shoestring from a slum-area office in Washington for twelve years before returning to the South. Though he was active in the labor movement for almost two more decades, neither the irrepressible H. L. Mitchell nor the Southern Tenant Farmers Union would be instrumental in the region’s postwar struggle for reform.
Howard Kester, one of Mitchell’s closest allies in the STFU and another of the old-school radicals of the 1930s, went through a similar eclipse after the war. Throughout the Forties and early Fifties he held a variety of jobs, mostly in the South, all the while keeping an active hand in the tiny Fellowship of Southern Churchmen that he and a handful of others had founded back in 1934 as a liberal expression of their religious faith. Kester was a pioneer among white Southerners working openly for racial integration, starting as a student YMCA leader in the 1920s. His low profile in the postwar years may have
resulted in part from a loss of stamina after more than twenty years of activist involvement. No doubt it was also a consequence of the growing hostility to social progressivism in the South.
And then there was the Highlander Folk School. Others, like Don West and Jim Dombrowski, had come and gone from the Tennessee training center for adults, but co-founder Myles Horton remained. By war’s end, Highlander was mainly serving as an instructional component for organized labor. Lucy Mason and Paul Christopher of the CIO served on its board, and so did George Mitchell of the Southern Regional Council, a former CIO official. The AFL also made use of the school’s facilities, and both groups accepted (though at times without much enthusiasm) Highlander’s commitment to racial inclusion and equality in its operations.
When the Cold War blew its frosty breath on labor, Highlander got the same stiff-arm treatment from both the AFL and the CIO that the Southern Conference for Human Welfare received. When the going got tough, labor turned out to be disappointingly similar to other institutions (the church, the university, the press): strong on ideals in the abstract, but weak on their actual defense. And there was another similarity: Many Southern labor officials who worked for change in the region in the Thirties and Forties—Mason, Christopher, William Mitch, Steve Nance, John Ramsay, Ernest Delpit, William Dorsey, H. L. Mitchell, and numerous others—proved to be more committed to the ideals of racial and social equality than were the institutions for which they worked. Most of these men and women continued as individuals to support and serve Highlander, SRC, SCHW, and other liberal initiatives in the region long after the CIO and the AFL had abandoned ship.
In all of the organizations that struggled to extend and expand the liberal-progressive initiatives of the Thirties into the post-World War II period, a familiar litany of common failings could be heard. Whether radical or moderate, aggressive or low-key, they were plagued by a chronic shortage of money and members. None of them managed to raise funds in the South as well as they sometimes did among liberals in the North, and none could have survived for long without those Yankee dollars. What’s more, they couldn’t put together anything that approached the dimensions of a mass movement in the South—and without the numbers, they couldn’t get the press or the populace to take them seriously as an influential force for change.
Failing these two crucial tests, the Southerners then reduced their prospects for success still further by fighting among themselves almost as tenaciously as they battled their common enemies. From one small and resource-poor group to the next—and even within the ranks of some, like the Southern Regional Council and the two wings of the Southern Conference—people who desperately needed to join forces often spent their energy drawing swords against one another. For right-wing reactionaries who were starting to play their anti-communism card, this competitive and divisive behavior of their enemies was a welcome windfall.
It was probably inevitable that the campaign against communism in the Nation would be joined in common cause with the campaign against social change in the South. Racial equality had always struck the Southern ruling elite as an insanely radical notion, probably Communist in origin. Anxiously, they stayed on the lookout for subversive outsiders—agitators sent to stir unrest among the black masses. Whites who harped on racial issues, and those who tiptoed into the social arena by talking about class inequality or the scourge of poverty and ignorance, were maligned as troublemakers—and Southern whites of that ilk were singled out as the most dangerous of all. From the narrow perspective of the rulers, anyone who believed that the existing social contract needed revision was already a fellow traveler and an enemy of the public good.
“Communism has chosen the Southern Negro as the American group most likely to respond to its revolutionary appeal,” wrote U. S. Army Major R. M. Howell in an intelligence report in 1932. Eight years later, Congressman Martin Dies expanded the assertion: “Moscow has long considered the Negroes of the United States as excellent potential recruits for the Communist Party.”
In his militantly anti-communist book, The Trojan Horse in America, Dies said the House Un-American Activities Committee had uncovered evidence of a massive attempt by the Soviets to win black support—mounted, he said, because “Moscow realizes that it can never revolutionize the United States unless the Negro can be won over to the Communist cause.” But even the Texas congressman, fulminating reactionary that he was, conceded that the strategy wasn’t working. Its failure, he concluded, was “a tribute to the patriotism, loyalty, and religion of the Negro.”
African Americans never had much use for communism. According to the most widely quoted estimates, the number of blacks who belonged to the Communist Party in the United States probably never exceeded eight thousand—a tiny fraction of 1 percent in a population of over thirteen million. Aside from a few highly visible converts, blacks kept their sights on the longstanding promise of democracy. You could almost count on the fingers of one hand all of the prominent Americans of African descent who became entangled with the Communist Party in the
Thirties and Fortiesߞand several of them were out of the picture by the time the war was over.
Richard Wright gave up on the party in the early 1940s—and then, a few years later, more or less gave up on his country. James W. Ford, thrice the Communist Party’s vice presidential candidate, was seldom heard from after his last appearance on the ticket in 1940. John Preston Davis, linked to communism through the National Negro Congress, an organization he sparked in the Thirties, went on to write for the Pittsburgh Courier, to publish his own journal, Our World, and finally to gravitate to the political mainstream as a paid employee of the Democratic Party. The few who continued to stand on the firing line as left-wing activists in the fight against discrimination eventually paid a heavy price: Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., all of whom had butted heads with white authority throughout their careers, were to find in the Cold War deep freeze that their political troubles as “dissidents” were just beginning.
But the near-universal rejection of communism by Southern blacks did nothing to convince the spy-chasers of their loyalty. As far back as the 1920s, secret U.S. police and military units were closely monitoring suspected Communist efforts to recruit black Americans; they kept up the surveillance without interruption for fully half a century, stealthily invading the privacy of thousands of individuals but uncovering virtually no enemy agents. The black minority was not the only target, of course. Throughout most of that period, spying by government operatives on all kinds of left-wing organizations suspected of having the remotest interest in communism—including virtually every group seeking social reform in the South—was a routine practice and an open secret.
Despite all the dire warnings about Communist infiltration in the South, the fact was that only two or three states—Alabama and North Carolina, and possibly Louisiana—registered enough of a red presence during and after the war to leave even a trace fifty years later. The labor movement in Louisiana was said by some to be deeply tinted with a red hue, but in all the charges and counter charges of patriotism and disloyalty that swirled around the CIO and the AFL, it was hard to separate fact from fiction. In any event, the militantly anti-Communist Catholic Church, an unsleeping watchdog and a dominant public force in the state, was always far more influential with the working-class population of New Orleans and south Louisiana than any other religious or political body.
In North Carolina, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers union local in Winston-Salem had close ties to the Communist Party in the 1940s, and was directly responsible for the rapid growth of the NAACP there. Both the union and the party encouraged active participation in local politics, and those who did get involved soon were able to see positive results: A local black candidate, Kenneth Williams, won a seat on the city board of aldermen in 1947. His backers said he was the first African-American public official in the twentieth-century South to win an election against white opposition.
Another Carolina locale where there was Communist activity after the war was Chapel Hill. Junius Irving Scales, a native of Greensboro and an ex-GI, returned to the University of North Carolina in 1946 to find a loosely united coalition of students and faculty members active in local chapters of the American Veterans Committee, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and the Communist Party. Scales became an officer in all three groups, which shared many of the same social goals: avoiding World War III, combating racism, promoting organized labor, and raising the South’s standard of living.
In the fall of 1946, the U.S. Communist Party sent thirty-six-year-old Sam J. Hall into the Carolinas as its district chairman. A native of Alabama, he had worked as a reporter for the Anniston Star and a Birmingham labor newspaper before joining the navy the day after Pearl Harbor. Already a Communist by that time, he served honorably in the military for four years, two of them on combat duty. In North Carolina, the short, chubby, amiable, soft-spoken Hall acted and sounded more like a Rotary Club regular than a scheming radical. He didn’t conceal his purposes; he trumpeted them. In February 1947, he ran advertisements in several North Carolina newspapers announcing a Communist recruitment drive, and in a long interview with the Raleigh News Observer he stated his and his party’s aims in terms that could have served as the credo of a devoted liberal Democrat: to help the working class, to defend democracy, to prevent fascism, to erase poverty. Only one aim sounded a little strange: to bring about “the establishment of Socialism by the free choice of a majority of the American people.”
The News Observer story, quoting unnamed sources, reported that “there are not more than 200 to 250 Party card holders in both North and South Carolina, and approximately one-fourth of these are affiliated with the Communist Club in Winston-Salem.” Whether or not those numbers were accurate, the fact was that the party never grew to any strength in the region; by the end of 1947 it had peaked and fallen, its various factions chased in all directions by the deepening anti-Communist hostility of the larger society.
Alabama probably had more Communists in the 1930s than any other Southern state, and Birmingham, the hub of party activity, was a busy left wing political site in spite
of regular harassment from Eugene “Bull” Connor and his police department. A weekly tabloid, the Southern News Almanac, began there in January 1940 with under-the-table help from the party; among its principal staffers were Joseph Gelders, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare organizer, and Sam Hall. The lively little journal had its own distinctive character. One of its most curious features, rich with the flavor of religious radicalism, was a regular column contributed by two white preachers: the well-traveled radical Don West, a native Georgian, and Fred E. Maxey of Leeds, Alabama.
Two other Birmingham-based organizations of the early 1940s kept strong ties to the Communist Party: the League of Young Southerners, mostly-white group of youthful radicals spun off from SCHW, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an offshoot of the National Negro Congress. LYS was first called the Council of Young Southerners when it was organized at the founding assembly of SCHW in Birmingham in 1938. Helen Fuller of Alabama and Howard Lee of Arkansas headed it in the beginning, and Lee continued his close association with it.
The Southern Negro Youth Congress was larger than LYS, and it lasted longer. Beginning in 1937 with a two-day conference in Richmond, the SNYC met once a year until the war started—each time in a different city—and then erratically after that, until it folded a year after its eighth conference in Birmingham in 1948. In a little over a decade, SNYC nurtured leadership qualities in dozens of young black Southerners, including Ed Strong, James E. Jackson, Jr., and Esther Cooper, all Virginians, and Alabamians Ethel Lee Goodman, Herman Long, and Sallye Davis. (Two decades later, notoriety would follow Davis’s daughter, militant Communist Angela Davis.)
For as long as they existed, LYS and SNYC tried hard to work together across racial lines, and they succeeded to a degree, even though the laws and customs of segregation made that exceedingly difficult. Not all of their members were Communists, and in many ways the two organizations showed refreshing flashes of independence from orthodoxy of any stripe—but still, the party connections were there, as Robin D. G. Kelley showed in Hammer and Hoe, his revealing history of communism in Alabama. (Kelley asserted, incidentally, that Gelders, Lee, and Don West were Communists, though all three of them steadfastly denied the connection throughout their careers.)
Many of the young Southern activists of this period, white and black, found the primary outlet for their idealism in either the League of Young Southerners or the Southern Negro Youth Congress. However much they may have had in common with some of the aims and purposes of communism, most of them were something other than deep-dyed, ideologically devoted Communist Party loyalists. They were interracialists, democratic Socialists, progressive reformers—and in their own way, devoted Southerners too. More than they wanted to destroy the South or turn it over to outsiders, they wanted to make it a place that met the needs of all its native people.
Of course, most mainstream Southerners didn’t see them in that way at all; they saw them as dangerous troublemakers, and treated them as such. The young activists were red-baited with increasing vehemence during and after World War II. The League of Young Southerners folded before the war was over. The Southern Negro Youth Congress held on until 1949, by which time even their former allies in the labor movement, the university, the church, and the NAACP had distanced themselves from the organization.
The “invisible army” of Alabama Communists—including several labor union locals—could never have called itself large or powerful or even united. Its ranks thinned rapidly after 1945. By the time the reactionary forces of anti-communism were ready to smoke out all of Alabama’s subversives in the late Forties and early Fifties, there was no one left for them to attack.
The South—out of step, as usual, with the national march of events—generally experienced less Communist subversive activity than the other regions of the country. As for anti-Communist reaction, it found a warm and inviting climate when it swept in like a winter wind out of the North. Southern politicians were adept at damning Yankees and the feds with one breath, and demanding government support (for agriculture, military bases, protective tariffs) with the next. In the name of Americanism, these same right-wing lawmakers now insisted that the national government they loved to hate should go to any extreme, including suspension of civil liberties, in order to subdue and vanquish the encroaching red enemy.
Significantly, for the first time on a major issue, the Southerners were joined in their anti-Communist extremism by a large and growing reactionary force of arch-conservative Republicans from all over the country. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the Rebels joined the Yankees. The national epidemic of postwar anti-Communism was essentially a made-in-the-North pathology engineered by right-wing Republicans; whether or not they also shared the anti-integrationist feelings of their Dixie brethren, they certainly gave them a conveniently sheltered platform from which to mount their attacks. Thus protected by outside interests, the segregationist Southern Democrats proceeded to dine freely on red herring for the next generation.
John Egerton is the author of eight books about the South. An independent writer of non-fiction, he has been exploring his native region since the late 1950s from bases in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. His book, Generations: An American Family, won the Lillian Smith Book Award in 1984.