When Fighting Racism Meant Fighting Economic Exploitation

Erik Gellman

Though often forgotten today, the National Negro Congress forged a black-led, labor-based coalition in New Deal America that fought white supremacy and the economic exploitation that undergirded it.

July 1946: People marching in a National Negro Congress protest against Georgia lynching cases. Washington Area Spark / Flickr

Interview by
Shawn Gude

There’s a tendency these days to pit race against class.

Cracking down on Wall Street, Hillary Clinton famously proclaimed, won’t end racism. Promoting a jobs program, Bernie Sanders’s critics chided, won’t stop racial profiling. Fighting economic exploitation, naysayers maintain, won’t bludgeon the fortress of white supremacy.

None of this would have made much sense to the National Negro Congress (NNC). Founded in February 1936, the NNC sought to build a mass antiracist coalition rooted in the labor movement that could attack racial hierarchy and the economic exploitation that undergirded it. Their goal was nothing less than the evisceration of Jim Crow and the elevation of black Americans to “first-class” citizenship — fulfilling the dreams of an egalitarian, interracial democracy first glimpsed in the Reconstruction era.

Weathering geopolitical machinations (which triggered a split in 1940), the NNC notched some notable victories before being done in by Cold War red-baiting. And despite its short life, the civil rights group has much to tell us about how to fight white supremacy.

Jacobin editor Shawn Gude recently caught up with Erik Gellman, historian and author of Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, to talk about the NNC’s mass-based organizing and its relevance to struggles today for a “Third Reconstruction.”

Shawn Gude

What was the National Negro Congress, and what was their strategy for challenging Jim Crow racism and racial hierarchy in the US?

Erik Gellman

The National Negro Congress was a civil rights organization that developed out of a conference at Howard University. That 1935 gathering featured a number of prominent black intellectuals and activists such as A. Philip Randolph, John P. Davis, and James Ford. The organization started in earnest with its first convening conference in Chicago in February 1936. Hundreds of delegates from different associations came together to foment what Richard Wright described at that gathering as a “Negro Bill of Rights.” In the midst of the Great Depression, they sought to devise new methods of racial advancement and to revive a radical strain of the Black Freedom Movement.

The NNC’s leaders conceived of the Congress as an organization of organizations. There were a lot of groups in black communities nationwide, and they wanted to capture all of this energy in order to wield power as a formidable partner within the emerging Popular Front coalition of the late 1930s.

Shawn Gude

How was the NNC different from other civil rights groups?

Erik Gellman

They were much more interested in class dynamics. They thought that working-class, labor-based activism had more potential than the welfare capitalism or Garveyite black nationalism that dominated in the 1920s.

Another difference was their attention to international anticolonial and antiracist networks. They were alarmed at the spread of fascism around the world — the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, the Spanish Civil War, and Hitler coming to power — and they believed that broad coalitions were necessary to fight fascism in all forms.

That strategy set them apart from groups like the NAACP or the Urban League, which sought more polite negotiations and favored the “talented tenth” approach of highlighting the most educated and elite African Americans. The NNC wanted to foment resistance from the working class.

More specifically, it placed black organizers in the emerging industrial union movement. It partnered with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize steel, packing, tobacco, auto, and other factory workers. The NNC and its southern youth offshoot, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) also highlighted female leadership, with prominent activists such as Thelma Dale (Perkins), Esther Cooper Jackson, Dorothy Burnham, Marie Richardson, and many others leading the charge in cultural, political, and economic campaigns, especially during the Second World War.

Shawn Gude

What did they see as the connection between economic exploitation and racism in the US?

Erik Gellman

They thought that racism was the key divider of the labor movement in America. Racism not only kept African Americans from succeeding and thriving, but it prevented white workers from unionizing and achieving economic security.

They also saw several emerging opportunities to build a broader, class-based movement. The Popular Front, which was coming together in 1935, drew together many groups that were fighting for a more progressive and radical expansion of the New Deal. There was also a new union movement, the CIO, which advocated a broader industrial unionism. To the extent that “civil rights unionism” (a term employed by Robert Korstad) did develop, the NNC’s network was a key catalyst.

The NNC also reinterpreted American history by placing African Americans at the center rather than the margins. They argued that black workers were key agents of cooperative American values and protest traditions. In this interpretation, they appealed to the slave rebels, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and the black-led democratic social movement of Reconstruction. They believed that this proud history justified their central role in the 1930s and 1940s in wielding a “death blow to Jim Crow” as a means to enact and expand American democracy.

A generation of white supremacist propaganda had nearly obscured the interracial democracy that existed in the South during Reconstruction. The NNC took a lot of lessons from that political-social movement, and tried to apply it in their own era that also included a depression, war, and postwar reconstruction.

What they hoped to do in the mid-to-late 1930s was to push the New Deal as far as they could to the left, enhancing democracy and even creating it anew, as their ally Langston Hughes famously illustrated in his poem “Let American Be America Again.” They thought that an activist federal government could regulate capitalism and put human rights ahead of property rights to ensure that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments of the Constitution worked for all Americans.

They certainly did not achieve the revolution they had envisioned. But some pieces of the Second New Deal of the mid-1930s, like the Wagner Act, the Resettlement Administration, and other government legislation and programs, were more progressive than the first wave of New Deal legislation. I think that this was the result of groups like the National Negro Congress catalyzing civil rights activities across the country and applying pressure from the left.

Shawn Gude

What did the NNC’s work look like on the ground? Their organizing focus and tactics really varied from chapter to chapter.

Erik Gellman

I focused on six different locations where the NNC and SNYC were particularly active during their existence between 1936 and 1947. My book was the first to tackle the NNC, but should not be the last. Scores of local councils emerged across the nation, fomenting creative antiracist campaigns that should be further explored.

I discovered that the NNC was different than, say, the NAACP, which functioned as a top-down organization. In some cases that organization even suspended local chapters’ charters when national leaders disapproved of their actions. The NNC valued creativity in grassroots organizing. Antiracist activism developed in uneven ways across the country, and NNC activists in these places were given the leeway and autonomy to move in different directions.

One of my book’s chapters, for example, examines the late 1930s Southern labor movement in Richmond. I found it fascinating that the Southern Negro Youth Congress organized tobacco workers’ unions there well before the CIO even dared to organize black workers in the South. It showed me that black workers were at the vanguard of the Popular Front, which had great potential to break apart Jim Crow. But, as Ira Katznelson discusses in his book, Fear Itself, the “southern cage” of white supremacy was formidable, hampering the democratic potential of New Deal policies.

Later chapters look at other dynamics. My chapter on World War II focuses on New York City, where activists led the way in navigating the political opportunities (such as electing Ben Davis to City Council and Adam Clayton Powell to Congress), but they also operated under limitations imposed by their allies during the Second World War. In those years, unions signed “no strike” pledges, and Communist Party leaders said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Don’t do anything on race until the war is over.” But yet the NNC, led by a dynamic group of black women, fomented new forms of antiracist activism, politics, and culture that reinvigorated the NNC to come out fighting as soon as the war ended.

The last chapter of the book delves into South Carolina, which was a very interesting location in these years. Between 1945 and about 1947, a black-led left-wing network there really did believe that they could kill Jim Crow. Before the Cold War had become entrenched, these activists possessed an optimism coming out of the war that democracy could be brought to the United States. They took an internationalist perspective, which explains why the NNC was the first African-American organization to petition the newly formed United Nations for human rights violations.             

Shawn Gude

I thought DC was a really fascinating case. The NNC there did some labor organizing, but because the city had less of an industrial base, it did a lot of anti-police violence work as well. You note in your book that in 1939, the Baltimore Afro-American reported that after the activism and the petition drives of the NNC, not one African American had been killed by the police in DC in the past year. That’s pretty remarkable. And they also connected police violence to labor repression and strike busting. So at the same time they were fighting police violence against African Americans, they were also tying it to their efforts to craft a multiracial, labor-based coalition.

Erik Gellman

They connected the ideas of economic security and bodily autonomy, especially in DC, where black neighborhoods were carefully policed and segregated. They related these issues of racial violence to economic insecurity. They fostered a large coalition that connected police brutality to lynching, a strategy that challenged and ultimately angered Walter White of the NAACP.

White conceived of the anti-lynching campaign more narrowly, negotiating with the Roosevelt administration and limiting the fight to a potential anti-lynching bill in Congress that ultimately failed. The NNC attacked anti-lynching as part of a wider frame, encompassing police brutality, debt peonage, and economic insecurity. John P. Davis referred to this as the “lynch spirit” because these forms of brutality intertwined to keep African Americans economically and socially impoverished.

Shawn Gude

Can you talk about the NNC’s split in 1940?

Erik Gellman

At the NNC’s 1940 convention in Washington, John L. Lewis, then the head of the CIO, spoke in opposition to entering the war. Lewis was not a Communist, but he did not want another war fought by working-class men for what he determined was the benefit of corporations. John P. Davis, who had been the executive secretary and architect of the NNC since its inception, backed Lewis’s demands, but more from a Communist-influenced perspective.

To put this moment in context, in 1939 the Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Germany. Almost overnight, Communists and some of their leftist allies begin to preach that getting involved in another world war would sacrifice working-class people for imperialist aims. Then protest politics changed dramatically in the other direction when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, making for what I call “ideological whiplash.” After the second shift back to the Popular Front, Davis resigned as the head of the NNC.

For black leftists during this 1939–1941 period, charting a path forward and retaining these larger coalitions was complicated and confusing. While NNC president A. Philip Randolph had previously attacked others for red-baiting the NNC, by the 1940 conference he had become convinced that the organization had become too influenced by its principal allies — the CIO (and Lewis) but especially the Communist Party. As head of the AFL-affiliated Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph did not have a strong CIO allegiance. He was a Socialist Party stalwart going back to the First World War in New York, where he had a long history of sectarian fighting with Communists. The 1939 shift away from antifascism and the Popular Front convinced him to sever ties with them. As a result, Randolph resigned as president, and many socialists and liberals went with him. The NNC split apart in 1940.

But I argue that the split was not totally debilitating to either group. Randolph and his allies went on to lead the March on Washington Movement, whose chief achievement was to threaten a march of 100,000 black people on Washington. FDR blinked and issued Executive Order 8802, which led to the Fair Employment Practice Committee and opened up some wartime jobs to African Americans. Meanwhile, the NNC started working on its own campaign that paralleled Randolph’s demand for war-industries jobs. They protested discrimination in large aircraft manufacturing plants in Baltimore and Los Angeles and opened up these and other war-industries jobs through campaigns of their own.

In short, the NNC and Randolph continued with vigor after 1940, but the tragedy of this split was that neither group was able to build the kind of mass movement that they had once dreamed of in the late 1930s.

Shawn Gude

Can you talk about the demise of the NNC? It’s really a story about the advent of the Cold War.

Erik Gellman

The Cold War was not inevitable in the form it took. It was only by 1947 when its network got pushed on the defensive and allies abandoned them that they started falling apart as an organization.

The government listed the NNC and SNYC as “Communist Front” organizations and proceeded to harass, deport, and even jail its members. And the group’s main allies — the Communists and the CIO — reacted in ways that further compromised them. The CIO decided to go along with the anticommunism in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Its leader, Phil Murray, issued a directive that forbid unions to work with the NNC, among other groups. As a result, NNC members became cut off from the very industrial union movement they had helped build just ten years earlier.

And then the Communist Party, rather than trying to retain a Popular Front coalition-type politics, decided to go in a more sectarian direction and sent key black leaders underground. In my view, this strategy was self-defeating, because small “c” communists, fellow travelers, and mid-level black CP members got exposed and traumatized by the House Un-American Activities Committee as well as other local anticommunist groups.

Thelma Dale Perkins, an NNC leader whom I interviewed for the book, said that one day in 1947 she realized that the organization could not survive. She personally carted all the NNC records over to the Schomburg library in Harlem because she knew that would be the only place where they would be protected rather than used as evidence by McCarthyites or destroyed by the very activists who worked with the NNC out of fear of persecution.

Shawn Gude

Overall, what were the successes and failures of the NNC? And what lessons does the organization have for current struggles against racism and exploitation?

Erik Gellman

The key to the NNC is to understand that these people believed that they would destroy Jim Crow in their own generation. That’s important, because historians have often treated the thirties and forties as the “prelude to the Civil Rights Movement.” But these radicals were not saying among themselves, “You know, we’re going to build the seedbed for the next generation to come along and get the job done.”

They did not accomplish the goal of destroying Jim Crow, and there are many reasons why, but to conclude that they failed elides what they accomplished in their own time. In many ways, they undermined the ideological underpinnings of Jim Crow in the North and the West and to some degree in the South. They fostered a new militant black culture and experimented with forms of street-based mass protest politics. They also helped propel a generation of black union workers into stable blue-collar jobs. And their conception of “civil rights,” a term just emerging in their era, as based on economic security and human rights, left behind an important model, especially since the 1950s–1960s movement at first submerged these concepts as priorities.

And despite Cold War red-baiting, connections remained between this 1930s–1940s generation and the generation of civil rights activists that followed. As one anecdotal example, the SNYC in Alabama included Sallye Davis, whose young daughter, Angela Davis, grew up in this context. These connections are not just coincidences.

The NNC was also an interesting group because of its attempts to try to organize an organization of organizations. It sought to build broad, black-led antiracist coalitions, and in building them, to push them to become more militant. Its story is instructive in our own era of tremendous economic and racial inequality. Groups have emerged to combat these issues, but they may need to work in broader coalitions to achieve their goals.

Overall, I think the New Deal and Second World War era was a really creative period for protest politics both culturally and politically. I think activists today should learn from its victories as well as the mistakes that limited its impact. Just as people in the NNC saw Reconstruction as a key period, today we might look back to the protest politics of the late 1930s and ’40s, which speak urgently to our contemporary problems. Police brutality, economic inequality, and fascist ideas and policies were endemic in 1939, and they’re endemic in 2019.