Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior
Publication Year: 2006
In his long and fascinating life, black activist and intellectual Max Yergan (1892-1975) traveled on more ground—both literally and figuratively—than any of his impressive contemporaries, which included Adam Clayton Powell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and A. Phillip Randolph. Yergan rose through the ranks of the "colored" work department of the YMCA, and was among the first black YMCA missionaries in South Africa. His exposure to the brutality of colonial white rule in South Africa caused him to veer away from mainstream, liberal civil rights organizations, and, by the mid-1930s, into the orbit of the Communist Party. A mere decade later, Cold War hysteria and intimidation pushed Yergan away from progressive politics and increasingly toward conservatism. In his later years he even became an apologist for apartheid.
Drawing on personal interviews and extensive archival research, David H. Anthony has written much more than a biography of this enigmatic leader. In following the winding road of Yergan’s life, Anthony offers a tour through the complex and interrelated political and institutional movements that have shaped the history of the black world from the United States to South Africa.
Published by: NYU Press
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This book is the culmination of a journey of three decades. It mirrors the odyssey of its subject and the larger migrations of millions of diasporic peoples, first and foremost those of African descent, or “Africans born in exile,” as Kwame Nkrumah often described them. Because the author shares that designation, this cannot be an impartial undertaking. At its start, Max Yergan’s biography seemed a straightforward...
Frequently Used Abbreviations
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Introduction: In Search of Max Yergan
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In the summer of 1916, a 24-year-old African-American man stood on a platform at Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The airy site held enormous significance for the entire assemblage, especially several Black YMCA secretaries, their White ecumenical and philanthropic benefactors, and the youth they were attempting to groom for future service. It was here that John Brown led his raid against the...
Beginnings: Boyhood, Baptists, Bangalore
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At the dawning of the twentieth century, Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois correctly anticipated that the supreme challenge of the century would be “the problem of the color line.” From the vantage point of many Americans of African descent his words rang resonantly, fueling divergent ideas and actions, regional, national, and supranational in scope. For one, Max Yergan, the more relevant of...
World War One
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Max Yergan’s World War One experiences were atypical for Americans of African descent. They were also unusual for doughboys serving overseas after maturing in North America. They began in Asia, continued in Africa, and, after a return home, culminated in Paris once the armistice was declared. Max had two “bits” of overseas service, one beneath the Union Jack, another under the Stars and Stripes. Each had...
South Africa, Part I
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On January 2, 1922, Max Yergan became the pioneer African-American YMCA secretary allowed into the Union of South Africa. The following fourteen years, the span of his missionary service, saw acute ferment within both himself and his mission field. The events he witnessed during his term occurred at a critical stage of the development...
South Africa, Part II
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Max Yergan’s public identification with radical left politics surfaced around 1931. Until then he balanced three sets of interests: one local (his overseas-based South African YMCA mission work); one transatlantic (lingering concern for North America); and one increasingly internationalist, shaped by the YMCA, SCA, and WSCF. Christian and secular...
Progressive Leader, 1936–1948 [Includes Image Plates]
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Upon returning to the United States Max Yergan fully dedicated himself to a life of left-wing activism. This took three forms. First, he deepened his connection to the National Negro Congress, becoming first its Harlem and then its national representative. Second, he concentrated upon building the new International Committee on African Affairs (ICAA), both domestically and internationally. Third, he sought to...
About Face, 1948–1975
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The retreat from a prominent position within the Left that had characterized Yergan’s behavior during 1947 intensified during 1948, becoming increasingly public as his attempt to offer a less critical face to the fierce Cold Warriors now ruling postwar Washington met opposition inside the Council on African Affairs. In the People’s Voice Max’s solution was to eject left-wing elements while issuing a series of...
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In 2002, after pursuing leads on this biography for a quarter of a century, this writer was able to examine the Max Yergan papers at Howard University. Though they contained no “smoking gun” of any kind, as they had been vetted prior to their donation, they did confirm a number of the suspicions that arose from close study of Yergan’s letters, essays, speeches, sermons, and other documentary source material written...
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Researching the life of Max Yergan resembles reconstructing African history. In spite of a documentary plethora, there is a paucity of prima facie evidence. Though he left a rich record, scores of silences, some deliberate, others mere happenstance, persist, perhaps permanently. Materials available concerning various aspects of the professional life of Max Yergan, if surprisingly abundant, do present special problems. They are...
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About the Author
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Page Count: 390
Publication Year: 2006