Lindsey R. Swindall’s The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World presents a cogent and succinct examination of the black left during the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War. She argues that both the Southern Negro Youth Council (SNYC) and the Council of African Affairs (COAA) “illustrate well the black-labor-left collaborations” and “the global vision” connecting domestic lynching to colonial oppression (pp. 5–6). This claim advances the long movement thesis on multiple levels: it expands the movement’s chronological scope, underscores an international dimension, and highlights the critical role of anticommunist repression present long before Brown v. Board.
Swindall’s work details how both organizations emerged in the Depression era’s intellectual ferment of pan-Africanism and communism, applying both ideologies to find a solution for the material deprivations and civic powerlessness of southern African Americans left out of New Deal programs. Leaders like Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Max Yergan found considerable parallels that linked the U.S. South to colonization worldwide, especially in Africa. During the war, the COAA mobilized the rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter and FDR’s Four Freedoms speech to encourage decolonization efforts abroad as well as greater attention to civil rights abuses at home. However, [End Page 771] after the war, a wave of anticommunist repression sanctioning local segregationist hostility stymied these organizations. As just one example, hostile police demanded that SNYC’s 1948 conference in Birmingham follow local segregation statutes and then harassed and arrested speakers anyway. While SNYC’s and COAA’s organizational demise illustrates the power of anticommunist rhetoric, leaders remained active and helped connect early initiatives to decolonization, civil rights, and civil liberties successes domestically.
Swindall’s claim that black radicals not only drew strong parallels between segregation at home and colonization abroad but that each perspective helped inform the other proves convincing, as does her corollary that much of the U.S. government’s willingness to allow for civil rights reform was due to its inability to live up to its international image as a defender of freedom. As she notes, FDR’s Four Freedoms speech was “fundamentally problematic” when local blacks in the South lacked “freedom from want and freedom from fear, especially,” which left the federal government vulnerable to outside criticism (p. 68). Swindall artfully employs rich source documentation from the SNYC and COAA archives, such as history professor Raymond Logan’s observation that “the South is as fascist as is Italy or Germany”—providing a pithy summary of her argument (p. 35).
While the work does a brilliant job defending its central thesis with insightful sources, its attempts to cement these organizations’ legacies and connect them to the “classic” civil rights phase is more speculative. Swindall contends that SNYC and other leftist organizations “had prepared the way for the organizations that followed,” like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (p. 113). As an example, Swindall references SNYC’s efforts to support a Leadership Training School (LTS) in South Carolina, observing that future Mississippi NAACP director Medgar Evers attended the meeting but did not mention how the LTS was the forerunner for the Citizenship Education Program that coordinated voter education programs in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a claim that, among others, Katherine Mellon Charron’s Freedom’s Teacher (2009) establishes, illustrating connections [End Page 772] between the 1930s and 1950s movements. Further cementing these connections between Depression-era leftists and classic movement organizations would have strengthened an already solid work.
DAVID LAI is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. His dissertation project focuses on the role of religion in civil rights initiatives in Los Angeles.