The 1933 Conference That Helped Forge Civil Rights Unionism

Ninety years ago this month, at the Amenia conference co-organized by W. E. B. Du Bois, young black leftists argued for a mass politics aligned with the labor movement. Their radical approach set the stage for the civil rights unionism that would help topple Jim Crow.

A group portrait of men and women attending the NAACP-sponsored Amenia Conference in Amenia, New York, posed in front of tent, August 1933. (Library of Congress)

Ninety years ago this month, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hosted the 1933 Amenia Conference. Called as the NAACP neared its twenty-fifth anniversary, the group convened about thirty “coming leaders of Negro thought,” in the words of the invitation, to assess the state of the civil rights struggle.

That summer, the nation was mired in the fourth year of the Great Depression. The incoming Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised a New Deal in response to the economic calamity. NAACP membership was falling. The radical left — particularly the Communist Party, then leading the defense of the nine “Scottsboro boys” falsely accused of raping two white women — was challenging the NAACP’s relevance as the nation’s leading civil rights organization.

NAACP leaders grappled with how to respond. Joel Spingarn and W. E. B. Du Bois, founding editor of the NAACP’s monthly magazine the Crisis, favored hosting a small conference at Troutbeck, Spingarn’s home in Amenia, New York, about ninety miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley.

The plan was to gather at Troutbeck for a few days, with large canvas tents and folding cots for sleeping accommodation. Guests were welcome to walk the grounds, enjoy the gardens and swimming hole, and to play some tennis, if they felt game. But mainly they would talk. Spingarn and Du Bois hoped that their discussion would help the NAACP chart a course through the challenges of the Depression era.

They proposed to meet with a selection of the younger generation of black intellectuals and activists. After reaching out to contacts across the United States for suggestions, they sent invitations to a few dozen black women and men between, roughly, twenty and forty years old.

The more radical among them envisioned a mass-oriented approach aligned with the burgeoning labor movement, a departure from the traditional emphasis on racial uplift.

The Attendees

The black women who participated in the Amenia Conference included Virginia Alexander, a physician from Philadelphia; librarians; social workers, such as Anna Arnold (Hedgeman); and Frances Williams, one of several of the invitees who worked for the YWCA. Twenty-year-old college student Juanita Jackson (Mitchell) was the youngest of the group. In the conference photograph, Jackson is third from left in the middle row, wearing a dark dress with white trim around the collar.

Among the black men who made the trip to Troutbeck were several scholars, such as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, political scientist Ralph Bunche, and poet Sterling Brown. Charles Houston served on the Howard University faculty alongside Bunche and Brown, leading its law school. Roy Wilkins was on staff at the NAACP; Ira De Augustine Reid represented the National Urban League. Sitting to the right of Jackson, in a dark suit and tie, M. Moran Weston II was still in college. Wilkins paid for his train fare from New York City to Amenia station.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell in 1936. (National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons)

Over the weekend of August 18–20, 1933, the Amenia Conference delegates discussed the status of black freedom during a period of global transformation when the future of capitalism seemed uncertain. What, the attendees debated, was the best way to challenge racial oppression?

Some advocated for a pragmatic electoral approach. Roy Wilkins argued that black voters should back candidates willing to respect black Americans, no matter the party. Though white Southerners traditionally cast Democratic votes, he and others were eager to gauge the effectiveness of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Emmett Dorsey, a political scientist at Howard, emphasized the need to ensure that New Deal programs reached African Americans plagued by unemployment and bank failures.

Anna Arnold had observed this suffering in Harlem, working with stricken families; Virginia Anderson saw it in her patients in Philadelphia. The need for equitable relief was likewise clear to Louis Redding, a lawyer from Wilmington, Delaware, who worked with destitute clients.

Redding’s ears pricked up when Charles Houston spoke of how the NAACP could systematically challenge Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision that set the “separate but equal” precedent for de jure segregation. Challenging inequality between schools for white and black children in court could help crack Jim Crow education.

On the other hand, E. Franklin Frazier asserted that the full integration into American society — whether in schools or New Deal relief agencies — was not imminent. Should black Americans adopt a “radical Black nationalism,” focusing on black institutions while awaiting integration? Frazier wondered if black solidarity could serve “as a cohesive force among a people . . . exploited by the white master class in this country.”

Fighting Racial Oppression, Fighting Class Oppression

To Abram Harris, the key word here was class. In the conference photograph, the thirty-four-year old economist is standing next to his friend and intellectual mentor, W. E. B. Du Bois, in the back row, fourth from the left. A light-colored hat shades his face.

If his suit jacket looks loose, it was likely from weight lost during a recent bout of tuberculosis. But he had recovered enough by August to accept a ride to Amenia in Du Bois’s automobile.

Du Bois was keen to bring Harris to the conference because he offered a perspective that Du Bois considered crucial for the future of the civil rights movement.

Abram Harris. (Wikimedia Commons)

Abram Harris championed the creation of an interracial workers’ movement. He came to this view not as a union organizer but as a social scientist. After surveying conditions among West Virginia coal miners and black migrants in Pittsburgh and the Twin Cities during the 1920s, Harris believed that it was time to forge unity across — not to separate along — racial lines.

Harris acknowledged that the NAACP achieved laudable legal advances during the 1910s and 1920s. The Supreme Court’s Guinn v. United States decision in 1915, for instance, reflected its success in outlawing the “grandfather clause” that inhibited black voting rights in Oklahoma. But as he researched the NAACP’s record for his landmark 1931 book The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement (coauthored with social scientist Sterling Spero), he counted its lack of a labor program as its greatest shortcoming.

At Amenia, Harris insisted that it was time to rethink the “race question.” No transcript recorded his exact words, but he put it this way in The Black Worker:

Negro leadership of the past generation has put its stress on the element of race. Their people’s plight, they feel is the plight of race. They turn a deaf ear to those who say that the Negro’s plight is the plight of the working class in general.

Harris strongly supported antilynching laws. He favored pragmatic politics, scrutiny of the New Deal, and overturning Plessy. But radical change, the young leftist argued, required building an interracial mass movement among black and white workers. Without economic equality, there would be no political or civil equality.

Harris summarized his argument in the Amenia Conference Findings Report, writing that “the welfare of white and black labor are one and inseparable.” His peers at the Amenia Conference tended to agree. The NAACP would do well to strengthen its economic program.

“Unite All Labor, White and Black”

As the conferees left Troutbeck after their weekend together, Harris was determined to press the NAACP in his preferred direction. He agreed to take an unpaid role with the civil rights group, creating a Committee on the Future Plan and Program of the NAACP. Over the next year, he led a study of the NAACP’s past agenda and recommended future changes.

“The adoption of the economic program contemplated here,” Harris wrote in the report, “calls for a reformulation of the Association’s ultimate objectives.” The Association ought to host labor conferences, both locally and nationally, and to challenge racial discrimination in unions. In sum, its goal should be to “foster the building of a labor movement, industrial in character, which will unite all labor, white and black, skilled and unskilled, agricultural and industrial.” The NAACP’s system of local branches offered a ready-made infrastructure for “centers of education” and interracial collaboration among workers.

It is difficult to overstate the transformation that Harris was proposing. Local branches of the NAACP were typically the bastion of the black middle class. Black attorneys and dentists hosted meetings and paid annual dues. They sought dignity and opportunity within Jim Crow America.

In Wilmington, Delaware, for instance, the local NAACP labored to convince city newspapers to capitalize the word “Negro.” It took nearly two decades for branch members to compel the Delaware legal establishment to permit the first black lawyer in the state to pass the bar exam. That young man was Louis Redding, a graduate of Harvard Law School with a penchant for Brooks Brothers. He empathized with Harris’s plea to reinvigorate the NAACP, but a labor organizer he was not.

The NAACP did not, in the end, adopt the Harris plan. Yet, many of Harris’s peers shared his conviction in a broader, democratic mass movement for civil, political, and economic equality.

The National Negro Congress, founded in 1936, embodied this spirit. Among the Amenia delegates, M. Moran Weston II participated in the New York branch, which became the Negro Labor Victory Committee during the World War II years. As its name implies, the organization brought the civil rights and labor movement together and was most known for its “Negro Freedom Rallies.” Staged between 1943 and 1945, these spectacular pageants dramatized the power of an interracial workers’ coalition to defeat fascism abroad and racial oppression at home.

With the wave of mass unionization in the 1930s and ’40s, unions like the Packinghouse Workers, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Tobacco Workers put into action Abram Harris’s call for a civil rights unionism. The Packinghouse Workers fiercely opposed the color line dividing workers, the Tobacco Workers in North Carolina fought Jim Crow on the plant level, and the Sleeping Car Porters, helmed by A. Philip Randolph, used their base of support to launch the March on Washington movement of the 1940s. While McCarthyism decimated many left-led unions in the 1950s — invariably those with the strongest commitment to racial equality — the labor movement still played a crucial role in the “classic” civil rights era of the mid-1950s to mid-1960s.

Within the NAACP, too, younger leaders strengthened and broadened its mission. After the Amenia Conference, Charles Houston left Howard to serve directly for the NAACP. Until his death in 1950, Houston spearheaded a systematic strategy of undermining segregation in public education that resulted in the epochal Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A sleeping car porter employed by the Pullman Company at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois, January, 1943. (Jack Delano / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

The NAACP also hired Juanita Jackson following the Amenia Conference. A dynamo youth activist, Jackson helped form the City-Wide Young People’s Forum, arguably the leading civil rights organization in Baltimore during the early 1930s. With the NAACP, Jackson traveled the country stoking mass support for the group’s legal and antilynching efforts. She created a network of youth councils, whose participation in the NAACP infused new passion and members through the end of the decade.

Jackson left her role with the NAACP in 1938, but the youth councils would remain a force within the organization over the next decade, through the dawn of the more widely recognized civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Echoes of Amenia

Thirty years before a quarter of a million civil rights supporters assembled on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 — “probably the biggest march of union members in American history up to that point” — a far smaller contingent of young black leaders met in Amenia, New York.

Their contributions reveal the 1930s as a crucial period in civil rights history. Black activists and intellectuals during this era strengthened ties between the civil rights and labor movements. They broadened the scope and membership of the NAACP, enhancing its mass appeal.

By the early 1960s, they were no longer “coming leaders of Negro thought,” but veteran black freedom fighters whose efforts had helped topple legalized segregation and create a national civil rights movement.

And in the case of Abram Harris, they presaged the movement’s turn from civil rights to economic rights in the late 1960s. As Martin Luther King put it shortly before his death in 1968, as he stood with striking sanitation workers in Memphis: “With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”