Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights. By Erik S. Gellman. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 354. $39.95.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 119–120, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Manning, C. (2014), Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights. By Erik S. Gellman. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 354. $39.95.). Historian, 76: 119–120. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_18
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
In this new study, the author argues that the National Negro Congress (NNC) played a leading role in the late 1930s through the mid-1940s-era Popular Front: a coalition of labor, civil rights leaders, and liberals who fought to expand New Deal reforms and rebuff fascism (4). Moreover, the NNC moved away from established civil rights groups by envisioning race as a material rather than a moral issue and as national rather than Southern in scope (4–5).
Erik S. Gellman contends that the New Deal brought new government receptivity to African American issues (9). Simultaneously, A. Phillip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Communist Party's defense of the Scottsboro Boys drew attention to connections between civil rights and labor issues while engaging the curiosity of college-educated African Americans who sought new civil rights strategies (11–12). These trend lines met in 1935 with the founding of the NNC, a coalition of activists who articulated a class- and race-based agenda (16).
Gellman then analyzes the NNC's early efforts to move thousands of blacks into unions as part of a plan to leverage their power in labor (20–21). He argues that this plan had effects in Chicago, with more Chicago blacks moving into unions even though national-level union leaders did not enact democratic programs.
Gellman then shifts his examination to NNC's youth affiliate, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), and its collaboration with the Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Union in Richmond, Virginia. This organization drive failed, he contends, but it set the precedent for interracial industrial unionism across the South (63–66, 103–107).
Moving back to the main organization, Gellman focuses on Randolph's split from NNC in 1940. Randolph's withdrawal shocked some contemporaries, but others argued that it made the NNC more streamlined for the civil rights fight. Gellman asserts that despite Randolph's departure, his later successes derived from the NNC's earlier activism (150–158, 162).
Gellman then tracks NNC's struggles through the war years. The war prevented NNC from using the tactics it employed in the 1930s. A new generation of female leaders, however, took the helm, focusing the group on education, creating alliances with unions, and campaigning to keep the NNC at the forefront of civil rights (164–166).
Gellman finishes with another analysis of SNYC and argues that the group linked a domestic civil rights agenda to an international campaign against fascism. Members of SNYC, for example, played key roles in the formation of the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party, which challenged the nomination of segregationist Senator Jimmy Byrnes to the vice presidency in 1944 (216–222). When they returned to South Carolina they connected with other international youth organizations and utilized Communist Party analysis to critique domestic and international politics.
This utilization of Communist analysis, however, led to a disavowal of the NNC as the Cold War rendered such connections untenable. Fortunately, Gellman's work has returned the NNC to its proper place within our understanding of the “Long Civil Rights Movement.”