Using our Past to Build the Future
By Wendy S. Johnson
Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 3-4
The struggle for racial equity in the South has no timetable. As we advance the eighty-year mission of the Southern Regional Council-to promote racial justice, protect democratic rights, and broaden civic participation in the Southeastern United States-we must heed the lessons of decades past.
Marion A. Wright, Council president in 1952 wrote “SRC is the lengthened shadow of many men and women.” Since the beginning of our predecessor organization in 1919, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, Southerners and our nation have been radically transformed. In the midst of this movement for change has been the Southern Regional Council, driven by the single-minded purpose of conquering racism and inequality, through research, education and action strategies.
Our history demands that we look back and borrow, as often as we need it, the wisdom, courage and lessons of our past.
Those who came together in the first twenty-five years of SRC’s existence, as the (CIC), had a strong dose of moral courage and purpose. They were black and white ministers, teachers, sociologists and presidents from leading black academic institutions and white Southern colleges and universities. The leadership of women in the CIC began to rise, with Jessie Daniel Ames and others as they organized an anti-lynching education campaign. The CIC believed that constructive ideas and sound information were important requirements to promoting racial change in the South.
Significant inroads against the longstanding injustices of Jim Crow were made over the last half century. The period of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s gave us some of the most powerful legislation of the last century-legislation that embraced themes of inclusion, freedom, justice and democracy and was fueled and forged by the civil rights movement.
For the next three decades, political transformation continued with the policies of Harry Truman, including the desegregation of the armed forces. Staff provided assistance to President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, regularly briefing the Committee on the main concerns of the South. This activity marked the beginning of SRC’s commitment to federal intervention in civil rights, a position that set the organization well outside the white mainstream in the region.
True dismantling of segregation, albeit slow, began with the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision knocking down the pillars of Jim Crow segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ( introducing the concept and practice of affirmative action) and the Voting Rights Act 1965 were the final blows to de jure segregation.
Black voting rights emerged as a the main postwar issue for the Southern Regional Council. The 1944 Texas case Smith vs Allwright, a landmark Supreme Court decision banning the all-white primary-opened the door for black political participation throughout the South.
The Voter Education Project established a precedent for institutional cooperation. The VEP used the organizing efforts of five civil rights organizations-Urban League, CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC- to do registration projects in communities. SRC served as the conduit for foundation money and the coordinating body to field staff.
SRC adopted a policy to service the national press on its coverage of race in the South as a strategy to influence public opinion. A reasoned and liberal view on desegregating the South was given voice by northern newspapers, especially the New York Times, since liberal Southern newspapers were nonexistent.
Today, inequalities still persist and our challenges are much more complex. Employment discrimination continues to be a fact of life, even for highly educated minorities. Just witness over the last decade the range of lawsuits alleging racial discrimination in some of America’s largest companies.
Even though we have removed poll taxes, literacy
tests, and other barriers to the political process, we are confronted today with new complex influences in voting. Majority Black and Latino districts have been overturned by federal courts or legislative action–racial bloc voting and the growing influence of money in politics have all combined to disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.
SRC is concentrating on specific action strategies for the 21st century. We believe that young voters are important to the electoral process and the advancement of progressive policies. Our new Youth Empowerment Project seeks to increase the number of voters ages 18-24 using research and intervention strategies. Our award winning audio documentary, Will the Circle be Unbroken? highlighting the civil rights movement in five southern cities, will serve as important curriculum in the middle grades and high schools.
Over the last decade our education programs have focused on helping middle school principals, teachers, administrators, and parents affect the key elements that create a school culture that nurtures learning for all children. We now face a new landscape in public education and must rethink our role in the education reform conversation.
Our work over the last eight decades has prepared us well for our newest initiative, Partnerships for Racial Unity. The historical signature of race relations has been the Black and white divide. While that struggle persists, the recent influx of immigrants into the region demands that we must implement programs acknowledging the changing racial and ethnic demographics. SRC will serve as a catalyst for strong alliance-building between Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. Multi-racial and multi-ethnic coalition building will allow us to amass our strength to achieve the goals of fairness.
The South of the future is in the hands of people like you and me–representatives of new and mature communities. We must lead the way and shape the new order of fairness and justice. We must hold up the mirror of history and meet the challenges of building an America as good as its promise.
Wendy S. Johnson is executive director of the Southern Regional Council