- The Longue Durée of Black Civil Rights:Understanding Climaxes, Commencements, and Continuities
The prevalent episodic narrative of black civil rights has often made fitful reading. Pace and plot have too frequently faltered in rough divides as decisive moments ebb and flow in the drama of crises, and too seldom have even glimpses of a coherent whole emerged. Of course, readers of history should never expect uninterrupted successions. Inflections, transitions, and turning points deserve attention and emphasis. Yet evolving structures and long-term developments also deserve attention and emphasis. The civil rights narrative has needed more sense of accretion, more sense of the continuities of black tenacity in drawing incessantly on past and present to push social practices in particular historical eras toward more just configurations, not by any single means but by any available means.
Erik S. Gellman's Death Blow to Jim Crow grew from his 2006 Northwestern University dissertation that Nancy MacLean directed and offers an opportunity to review understanding of the reach, roots, and routes of black civil rights activism. Gellman focuses on the National Negro Congress (NNC) and its independent youth affiliate, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). To evidence the NNC's and SNYC's careers, Gellman fixes on operations in five locations—Chicago; Columbia, South Carolina; New York City; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, D.C. The black intellectual activist attorney John Preston Davis (1905-73) serves as Gellman's main character in much of this five-chapter work, which includes an introduction, prelude, interlude, and conclusion. The Harvard Law School graduate Davis was a key NNC founder and guided it as executive secretary until late 1942.
The NNC held its inaugural meeting in February 1936 in Chicago. A May 1935 conference at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., spawned the organizing idea. The conference title told its focus—"The Position of the Negro in Our National Economic Crisis." It spoke to the dire condition [End Page 507] of blacks in the Great Depression and more. Heeding the need to do more than talk, a group of conference participants issued a summons to action.
The thirty-year-old Davis penned the call titled "Let Us Build a National Negro Congress." The thirty-one-page pamphlet published in October 1935 carried on its front cover the visage of nineteenth-century black abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass (1817-95), projecting connections between the black past, present, and future. Although Gellman does not make the point, the NNC recalled the antebellum Negro convention movement and, especially, the National Equal Rights League (NERL) founded in 1864, its auxiliaries, and its successor, the National Executive Committee of Colored Persons (NECCP), founded in 1869, which aimed at coordinating concerted black action across the nation.
Embracing the struggles against slavery and for true emancipation, the NNC strove to create a black-led, interracial mass movement for social justice. Davis proposed the NNC as a civil rights federation, a coalition drawing from every corner of the nation and every segment of society. The response at its inaugural meeting showed how well the NNC call resonated: 817 delegates representing 585 organizations attended the February 14-16, 1936, meeting in the Eighth Regiment Armory in Chicago's Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District. Academics, church officials, civic leaders, communists, community organizers, intellectuals, journalists, labor leaders, socialists, Republicans, Democrats, and more came.
Diverse perspectives appeared in the array of convention notables that included Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids President A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979); the Communist Party's 1932 vice-presidential candidate James W. Ford (1893-1957); Howard University's philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke (1886-1954); political scientist Ralph J. Bunche (1903-71); and law professor Charles H. Houston (1895-1950), who served as chief legal strategist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Elmer A. Carter (1890-1973) and Lester B. Granger (1896-1976) from the National Urban League; and writer-activist Langston...