NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965 by Thomas L. Bynum (review)
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Reviewed by
NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965. By Thomas L. Bynum. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013. Pp. 226. $49.00 cloth)

Any mention of African American youth in the civil rights struggle will evoke images of the sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Rarely (if ever) is the NAACP involved in this popular history [End Page 532] of youth activism because, as an organization, it is often considered staid and legalistic. In this respect, Bynum’s monograph on NAACP youth groups is an important historiographic development that places youth activism into the long civil rights history and shows that 1960s radicalism was but part of a tradition of youth activism dating back to the 1930s.

Bynum has inserted NAACP youth members into the civil rights narrative in a comprehensive manner, although his book builds on the work of Rebecca De Schweinitz (If We Could Change the World [2009]) while having none of her legal or philosophical depth. Indeed, Bynum’s book has a broad approach and often misses nuance that local or state studies can give. Indeed, the very concept of youth required further examination as De Schweinitz does in her research. For example, the debate that the NAACP undertook on who exactly is youthful is mentioned in a footnote (p.155, n21). The concept of teenager had to be invented in a materialistic age and the debate of the delineation between childhood, young person, and the transition to adult was ongoing. Did the concept of youth in society change from the 1930s to the 1960s and was that reflected in NAACP organizing? There is little practical or structural deliberation given to the fact that organizational youth leadership was regularly decapitated through the aging process. NAACP college chapters had perennial problems of summer holidays and students who undertook paid work and studied rather than being activists. Sometimes the youth abandoned NAACP groups due to its conservatism and control by the adult branch, but often they just got older and moved on. However, the idea that young people contain special talents and are free from the constraints reserved for adults certainly required further acknowledgement.

There is little development of gender or leadership theory and, therefore, the book feels somewhat old fashioned at times. The author highlights major female leaders of the NAACP youth wing, such as Juanita Jackson and Ruby Hurley, but does not explain why they were able to exert their leadership. Was it unique to the NAACP that women could become major organizational leaders? Was it youth [End Page 533] activism that allowed young and single women to pursue leadership? Interesting and important characters are often introduced, yet very little is made of their contribution beyond reporting with scant detail. For example, Muriel Gregg, a promising leader who joined the NAACP field staff in 1955, followed a familiar pattern for women by resigning to get married. Bynum states that Herbert Wright, NAACP youth secretary, “commented that the association needed someone as efficient as Gregg but with a better personality” (p. 69). This is quite a statement and really needs analysis. Was Gregg rejected by the NAACP due to being a strong female leader in a patriarchal organization? Similarly Herbert Wright, whose career went from student activist to NAACP leader, is underdeveloped in these pages as a major personality who developed the youth councils during the 1950s and seemed to have an intuitive understanding of how to build up a youth movement.

Overall, this is a standard text that reports on an important aspect of neglected history. Its strength is in its focus on generational conflict between youth and adult members of the NAACP. However, there was so much more to be considered.

Lee Sartain

LEE SARTAIN is a senior lecturer in American history at the University of Portsmouth, England. He is the author of Invisible Activists (2007), Borders of Equality (2013) and co-editor of Long is the Way and Hard: 100 Years of the NAACP (2009). He is currently working on black youth movements of the 1940s and 1950s and also on a project on the U.S. South during the Great War.


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