Excerpt: Death Blow to Jim Crow, by Erik S. Gellman

During the Great Depression, black intellectuals, labor organizers, and artists formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) to demand a “second emancipation” in America. Over the next decade, the NNC and its offshoot, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), sought to coordinate and catalyze local antiracist activism into a national movement to undermine America’s Jim Crow system of racial and economic exploitation. In Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, Erik S. Gellman shows how the NNC agitated for the first-class citizenship of African Americans and members of the working class, which established civil rights as a necessity for reinvigorating American democracy.

In this excerpt from the book, Gellman describes the early days of Jim Crow in Washington, D.C., and the growing militant resistance to it that led to the formation of the National Negro Congress. (pp. 111-114):


Roosevelt’s robust 1941 definition of freedom [outlined in his “Four Freedoms” speech of January 1941] did not exist in late nineteenth-century Washington. During the Reconstruction era, Washington’s black citizens clashed with the all-white police force over restrictions of their civil rights. As soon as they gained the franchise, black citizens exercised their newfound political power to pressure the local government to hire several black officers. As historian Kate Masur explained, the local Republican Party “briefly dominated Washington politics and developed policies that favored laborers, municipal development, and an expansive vision of racial equality before the law.” Yet after citizenship rights expanded in the late 1860s, local blacks noticed that segregationist ideas began to creep into the city government’s debates. Parallel to the demise of Reconstruction across the South, narrow definitions of citizenship came to dominate in the decade that followed, and in 1874 Congress placed the District under control of a presidentially appointed commission.[1] Thereafter, although a bill to segregate streetcars failed, the federal government backed many other institutions that began to separate their clientele by race. “For fifteen years I have resided in Washington,” one black resident wrote in 1906, “and while it was far from being a ‘paradise for colored people’ when I first touched these shores, it has been doing its level best ever since to make conditions for us intolerable.[2]

As Jim Crow restrictions mounted at a gradual but effective pace, the deterioration of black citizenship in the District became especially apparent in the policing of crime. Calvin Chase, the editor of the black-owned Washington Bee newspapers, recalled with indignation how after the murder of his father by a white man the police made little effort to find the killer. Chase editorialized about racism within the police department but felt helpless to do any more about it. “The fever is spreading,” the Bee noted in 1905, and “the Negro is afraid to complain.” During the 1910s, the informal segregation effort by white elite Washingtonians became formalized by the Taft and Wilson presidencies. The white supremacist policy included a concomitant criminalization of African Americans in Washington. The number of arrests of blacks exceeded that of whites each year, and black newspapers reported story after story of policemen, particularly Irish ones, beating black citizens and prejudicially suspecting them of crimes before finding any evidence of their involvement.[3]

By the First World War, black citizens began to fight back. Washington’s black elite raised money to build self-sustaining institutions, like the YMCA on Twelfth Street in 1914, making strong black institutions out of segregated spaces in Washington. Meanwhile, less organized working-class blacks began to challenge more openly the enforcement of racial containment in Washington. Their acts of defiance led white newspapers like the Washington Post to report stories about them as criminals rather than as resisters of their own racial subordination. As happened in other cities after the First World War, the confluence of working-class militancy and enforcement of white supremacy resulted in a “riot” in Washington. Stirred up by the Red Scare atmosphere of the Palmer raids and sensational news reports of black men preying upon white women, on July 19, 1919, white soldiers stationed in Washington began to indiscriminately attack black citizens. This riot and others that summer differed from previous “riots” in that blacks fought back on a large and widely publicized scale.[4] African Americans in the District had brought in guns from Baltimore and distributed them at Seventh and T Streets to blacks who had just returned from the armed services. This militant self-defense, many blacks would later conclude, brought the violence to an end in five days and minimized the number of black victims. Moreover, black residents predicted that the police would intervene in the riot to protect whites and contain blacks. In the five days of fighting that followed, the police proved them correct; of the more than one hundred arrests made, over 90 percent were African Americans. During the decade that followed, white politicians and officials in the District tried to ignore the outbreak. The white press muted some coverage of black crime during the riot’s aftermath, and Congress never investigated the cause of the racial disturbance. The House Committee on the District of Columbia instead quietly reinforced Jim Crow barriers in the hope of quashing further disturbances.[5] By the early 1930s, District police began to enforce segregation in public parks for the first time since the Civil War. Meanwhile, government bureaucrats ignored civil service requirements about job performance and tenure to fire black employees solely based on their race.[6]

Thus, Washington became a Jim Crow city by the 1930s, but during this decade, a new phase of black resistance began to emerge on the campus of Howard University. Founded during Reconstruction and largely funded by federal appropriations, Howard exemplified W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of a talented tenth. In the 1920s, a campaign against white paternalism inside Howard University led to the 1925 appointment of its first black president, Mordecai Johnson.[7] Over the next few years, Johnson changed the dynamic at Howard. As he would later acknowledge, any teacher who did not have a strong concern for the rights of African Americans was not worthy of teaching at Howard.[8] Thus, Johnson hired young African American intellectuals, including Ralph Bunche, Abram Harris, E. Franklin Frazier, and Emmett Dorsey, whose work in the social sciences in the 1930s focused on economic-based solutions for racial discrimination. “Patience with older, more traditional social remedies was fading with each passing year,” one scholar concluded about these professors, and “socio-economic policies of the New Deal became intertwined with daily life in black Washington.”[9] At the depth of the Depression, in 1932, students created the Liberal Club to protest social ills that went beyond the campus. Advised by Ralph Bunche, the organization’s members immersed themselves in New Deal politics and experimented with more confrontational forms of activism. After Liberal Club member Lyonel Flourant attended an International Student Congress against War and Fascism in 1934, he and other students became particularly interested in stopping the spread of fascism to places like Ethiopia and began to seek remedies for homegrown forms of fascism. The following year, the Liberal Club at Howard joined over 100,000 other college students in a nationwide strike against war and fascism. Singing “Ain’t Going to Study War No More” as they marched across campus, antiwar protesters became an annual spectacle at Howard in the late 1930s. Moreover, these students increasingly sought to join political movements outside campus by joining in protests against fascism and racism in Washington.[10]

Coordination between these intellectuals and activists came as a result of a 1935 conference by John P. Davis, head of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, and Ralph Bunche, faculty member in the Social Science Division of Howard. This historic conference laid the groundwork for the establishment of the NNC. Titled “The Position of the Negro in Our National Economic Crisis,” the campus conference at Frederick Douglass Hall featured a broad political spectrum of participants, including intellectual and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, socialists like A. Philip Randolph, Howard professors like Bunche and Emmett Dorsey of the Economics Department, Communist leader James W. Ford, and Howard Myers, a government adviser to the New Deal’s National Recovery Act. After the conference some of the leaders in attendance retired to the home of Ralph Bunche for further discussions. Through their conversations, they decided on the need to unify black organizations into a “United Front,” which led to the formation of the NNC.[11]

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From Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, by Erik S. Gellman. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Erik S. Gellman is assistant professor of history at Roosevelt University.

  1. [1]See Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 8-12, 125, 159, 213.
  2. [2]Constance Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), 126-79, quote from 163.
  3. [3]Ibid., quotes from 166, 173.
  4. [4]For a comparison to Chicago’s 1919 riot, see the conclusion of James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  5. [5]Green, Secret City, 180-213; Federal Writers’ Project, Washington, City and Capital (Washington, D.C.: Works Progress Administration, Government Printing Office, 1937), 81-82.
  6. [6]Hilmar Ludvig Jensen, “The Rise of the African American Left: John P. Davis and the National Negro Congress” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1997), 327.
  7. [7]Raymond Wolters, The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).
  8. [8]Thelma Dale Perkins, interview by Erik S. Gellman, May 20-24, 2003, Chapel Hill, N.C., transcript, 1.
  9. [9]Jonathan Holloway, Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 41.
  10. [10]“375 Delegates at Brussels War Enclave,” January 16, 1935, and Lyonel Flourant, “In the Vanguard,” October 2, 1935, both Hilltop, Howard University newspaper, Washington, D.C.; “Ain’t Going to Study War No More,” May 2, 1936, and “H.U. Students Join National Antiwar Strike,” April 25, 1936, both Baltimore Afro-American, Washington, D.C., edition; Perkins, interview by Gellman, transcript, 1, 7-8.
  11. [11]“New Deal and Race Discussed at Conference,” Chicago Defender, national edition, June 1, 1935; Journal of Negro Education 5, no. 1 (January 1936): 1-125; Holloway, Confronting the Veil, 69-83.