Articles Issue #29
BY Touré F. ReedSeptember 9, 2019
BY Touré F. ReedSeptember 9, 2019
In 1938, the National Urban League’s (NUL) Lester Granger delivered a speech entitled “Challenge to the Youth” to the NAACP Youth Council at the Association’s 1938 Annual Convention. “Challenge to Youth” laid out Granger’s views on black civil rights during the New Deal. Granger not only stressed the need for collective agitation, but he also described what he believed to be a change in black political culture. Specifically, Granger asserted that young blacks whose political sensibilities had been informed by the New Deal were more-savvy and politically sophisticated than his own New Negro generation. Granger was not simply trying to woo his audience with the trope that each subsequent generation is smarter than the previous—no matter the evidence. Granger believed that the New Deal had established the foundation for a more equitable society for working people, that promised far greater rewards for black Americans than were possible via racial uplift—with its emphasis on self-help and respectability. According to Granger, both the New Negro and the New Deal generations were united in the view that African Americans were due dignity and equality as American citizens; however, the critical flaw shaping the perspective of his generation, Granger claimed, was their belief that simply adopting the attitudes of proper citizens as individuals would result in black equality. The New Deal generation, by contrast, understood that equality required collective action. Granger stated: “the individual young Negro today is wasting his time when he tries to carve out for himself a little niche of personal security, disregarding what happens to his fellows.”1
Like most other black leaders of the Depression decade, Granger was clear that the chief challenges confronting African Americans in the 1930s were poverty and unemployment. Granger, therefore, contended that blacks must mobilize around economic concerns. Fortunately, New Deal era black youth had learned, what Granger called, the principal lessons of the “new common wealth.” First, they must fight for “the man at the bottom” because anyone could find him/herself there in modern times, Granger asserted. Second, blacks must forge appropriate (economic) alliances with whites. Granger went on to say:
Slowly and painfully young people are learning the Negro’s fight for freedom is not a fight of the Negro for Negro freedom, but that the Negro’s fight is only a small part of a nation-wide struggle—not of ten or twelve million Negroes, but of fifty-five millions of Negroes and whites, the majority of the population of this country.2
Granger’s speech to the NAACP’s Youth Council was partly autobiographical. Born in Newport News, Virginia in 1896, Granger was a member of the black elite. His father, William Granger, was a Medical Doctor. While Granger’s five brothers followed in their father’s footsteps, he pursued a professional path of his own making. After earning a BA from Dartmouth College in 1918, Granger served as a lieutenant in an artillery unit attached to the, all black, 92nd Division during World War I. After his honorable discharge, Granger embarked on a career in social work, securing positions as executive officer in a number of black uplift organizations—most notably the National Urban League. His early work in organizations such as the Negro Welfare League (NWL) of Newark and the Manual Training and Industrial School (MTIS) in Bordentown (1922-1933) reflected Granger’s embrace of individual solutions to societal problems such as racial prejudice and economic inequality. Indeed, these groups attempted to combat racial inequality by providing blacks vocational training and cultural tutelage.3 Granger’s departure from the MTIS for the National Urban League was, thus, a logical career move, as the NUL was the most prestigious and influential black uplift organization of the era.
Still, Granger’s career with the NUL would mark a shift in his approach to the problems confronting black Americans that would be reflected in the evolution of the National Urban League’s uplift project. Granger’s speech to the NAACP Youth Council was, thus, not simply autobiographical, but it offered a window onto the impact of New Deal industrial democracy on the uplift politics of the National Urban League—and, of course, black politics generally during the 1930s and 1940s. The New Deal’s efforts to redress the problem of under-consumption, at least in part, through unionization—best exemplified by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or Wagner Act—transformed not just the workplace, but American democracy. Aware of the contradictions between the Jeffersonian democratic ideal still celebrated by most Americans in the 1930s and the realities of industrial society, New Dealers sought to use government, as President Roosevelt stated, to “assist in the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order.”4 The right to unionize was at the center of this agenda. New Dealers ultimately understood collective agitation in the workplace as a public good. Unionization enhanced workers’ purchasing power and, along with entitlements, afforded dignity and security to the nation’s producer classes. This social democratic turn in American political culture tilted the focus of African American civil rights away from narrow calls for racial equality, that basically accepted economic inequality as a given, towards broader demands for economic justice. New Deal industrial democracy would also encourage political militancy among black activists, who came to identify mass protest as a responsibility of citizenship.
In the case of the Urban League, the Workers Councils—which were led by Lester Granger from 1934 to 1938—were the clearest expression of the impact of industrial democracy on civil rights and black uplift. Founded in 1910 by black sociologist George Edmund Haynes, the NUL was established, partly, to facilitate rural black migrants’ transition to industrial cities by addressing the material and cultural barriers to black integration. In contrast to the NAACP, the Urban League eschewed direct challenges to racist policies and practices. Proceeding from the view that blacks would only overcome whites’ visceral prejudices through proper conduct, the League developed programs intended to acculturate migrants and impoverished blacks. The NUL and its locals likewise encouraged employers and landlords to provide deserving blacks access to decent jobs and housing. The group’s emphasis on self-help, has led some scholars to cast the League’s philosophy in the conservative light of Booker T. Washington. Though the Urban League was firmly imbedded in the conservative wing of the Civil Rights Movement, the group’s approach owed more to the bourgeois liberalism of the famed Chicago school of sociology than the Wizard of Tuskegee. Still, even as Chicago sociology equipped Urban Leaguers with powerful intellectual tools with which to counter the thrust of eugenics, i.e. scientific racism, Chicago school race-relations models such as social disorganization/ reorganization and ethnic cycle ultimately led Leaguers to emphasize the needs of middle-class blacks, as these individuals already possessed the cultural and intellectual attributes necessary to demonstrate the race’s capacity for assimilation. The Urban League’s identification of respectable behavior as essential to black integration, likewise led it to occasionally assist employers and landlords in weeding out undesirable workers and tenants.5
While the Urban League’s work during the 1930s continued to reflect a preoccupation with the interests of middle-class African Americans, New Deal industrial democracy would inspire the social work organization to take an activist turn. The League first began to mobilize black workers in 1933 through its Emergency Advisory Councils (EAC). The EACs set out to combat discrimination in recovery programs by both lobbying officials in the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and other New Deal agencies and by encouraging black workers to demand their fair share of relief. Blending petition and interest group politics, local EACs achieved some success in breaking down barriers to relief programs in Chicago and other cities.6
In 1934, the NUL’s efforts to mobilize black workers took a more militant direction—as alluded to in Granger’s 1938 “Challenge to the Youth” speech— with the creation of the Workers Councils (WC). The brainchild of T. Arnold Hill, longtime director of the Urban League’s Department of Industrial Relations, the Workers Councils identified collective agitation, rather than personal responsibility, as the surest route to black economic equality. Workers Councils thus educated blacks about the implications of federal recovery efforts and labor law. WCs likewise mobilized grassroots protest campaigns, such as the Councils’ 1936 campaign demanding an antidiscrimination amendment to the Wagner Act. Finally, the Workers Councils encouraged African Americans to join in common cause with white workers in labor unions. After centralizing operations in the Workers’ Bureau, headed by Lester Granger, the WC spread like wild fire. At the conclusion of four years of operation, the Workers Bureau established more than 70 Workers Councils in 21 states representing tens of thousands of black workers.7
The Workers Bureau’s calls for increased black participation in the union movement required the group to work directly with organized labor. The WB continued the NUL’s longstanding efforts to encourage the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to open its ranks to African Americans.8 Though the AFL ignored the WB’s calls for racial fair play, the Urban League would find an important ally in the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations. Founded in 1935 by United Mine Workers’ President John L. Lewis, the CIO focused principally on unskilled and semi-skilled laborers who comprised the core of the nation’s industrial workforce. Since most African American workers were unskilled, the democratic potential of the CIO’s industrial focus was clear to the WB’s Lester Granger from the outset. The comparative racial liberalism that characterized the CIO’s organizing drives in the steel industry, between 1936 and 1943, would affirm the Urban League’s commitment to the industrial union. The NUL’s Workers Bureau, thus, not only encouraged African Americans to affiliate with CIO locals, but in 1938 the Urban League would dissolve the Workers Councils, turning over their work in support of black unionization to the CIO.9
The Workers Councils’ official calls for black political mobilization and interracial working-class solidarity were indicative of the League’s newfound militancy. Some prominent Leaguers had expressed an interest in interracial unionism dating back to the 1920s; however, the League’s partnerships with employers and its reliance on wealthy philanthropists ensured that little would come of these calls prior to the WC. The Workers Councils’ workers’ education programs are therefore best understood as a product of the New Deal and the related leftward drift of American politics. Still, as I have argued elsewhere, “the Urban League’s identification of interracial unionism as an instrument of uplift was neither altogether novel nor indicative of a commitment to left-wing politics. Indeed, the Councils’ calls for interracial unionism were shaped by the social work group’s longstanding embrace of sociological race-relations theory.”10
Since the 1920s, League officials had reflected on interracial unionism’s potential for promoting goodwill between blacks and whites. Leaguers such as CUL/NUL Director of Research Charles S. Johnson alluded to this issue in the famed Chicago Commission on Race Relations Report. According to the CCRR, labor market segmentation and union discrimination were among a number of issues contributing to the 1919 Chicago race riot. In its efforts to stave off similar conflagrations in the future, the CCRR suggested that greater equality in the workplace might, in time, reduce racial animosity. “Through contact and association with Negroes during working hours” the Commission argued, “white workers may come to look upon Negroes, not as members of a strange group with colored skin, but as individuals with the same feelings, hopes, and disappointments as other people.”11 The Chicago Commission on Race Relations Report “only implied that interracial unionism might counter ethnic prejudice;” however, in 1925 the T. Arnold Hill and the NUL would sponsor a worker education program whose overarching aim was to elevate “the relationships between the races in the ranks of organized labor.”12
The League hoped that fostering a sense of camaraderie between black and white workers might defuse racial tensions. Rather than reflecting radical sensibilities of Marx or Lenin, Johnson and the NUL’s interest in interracial solidarity was rooted in Chicago School of Sociology race relations models such as ethnic-cycle theory. Ethnic-cycle presumed that ethnic/racial group assimilation conformed to a five-stage process consisting of: contact, competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Even before the New Deal, then, some Leaguers identified unions as a vehicle through which to facilitate blacks’ assimilation into the American mainstream, socially and economically. As New Deal era labor legislation legitimated the union movement by establishing collective bargaining as a public-good, the League expanded on its efforts to enhance blacks’ economic, political, and social standing via unionization.13
Even during the New Deal, assimilation theory continued to influence Leaguers’ perspectives on unionization. Indeed, T. Arnold Hill believed that interracial working-class solidarity had the potential to foster mutual empathy between blacks and whites. In a 1937 publication, Hill identified unions as a potent means of combating apathy among blacks while simultaneously defusing racial tensions. Echoing a central claim made by W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, Hill argued that the ruling class had used race as a wedge to stave off interracial class coalitions since slavery. Hill asserted that the union movements of the New Deal era— particularly the CIO, with its comparatively liberal racial policies— showed the promise of interracial class alliances. Hill believed that interracial trade unionism was indispensable to improving black workers’ wages and working conditions. He was equally clear, however, that such efforts promised racial amity. Specifically, Hill argued that organized youth groups had already shown their capacity to neutralize racial animosity. Bringing black and white youth together for a common aim, he argued, such groups “have not only inoculated others with the germ of good-will toward their fellow men but have marshalled a new force of militant opinion for economic reform and cooperative efforts in social welfare and social reorganization.”14
The Leagues assessment of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee’s (SWOC) 1937 southern union drives harmonized with Hill’s perspective. Specifically, the Workers Bureau argued that black unionization might create “a new type of interracial relationship….” Since the union movement fought for the protection of labor’s rights, the League argued that CIO affiliates would “find themselves… defending the civil liberties of Negro workers even at the risk of supporting ‘social equality.’” Though the Workers Council Bulletin did not provide a detailed discussion of specific policies, it did contend that black CIO affiliation held the potential to engender the kind of interracial solidarity necessary to transform both the workplace and the broader society. If SWOC were to organize blacks “on a basis of democratic equality,” the WB argued, African Americans would necessarily have real influence in the workplace. Keenly aware of organized labor’s growing political power in the late 1930s, the Bureau likewise argued that unionization promised African Americans influence over American politics. “For the first time since Reconstruction,” the Bureau asserted, “Negro citizens of the south will have a chance to join in large numbers with white citizens in democratic efforts for civic improvement.”15
Two years later, the National Urban League’s organ, Opportunity, revisited the democratic potential of SWOC’s southern organizing drives in an article by Alfred B. Lewis entitled “The Negro Worker and His Union.” Echoing the Workers’ Bureau’s assessment, Lewis argued that the CIO’s campaign in Birmingham, Alabama augured a major shift in the region’s racial politics. Like the Bureau, Lewis believed that SWOC’s commitment to interracial trade unionism would play a decisive role in African Americans’ quest for racial equality by equipping blacks with a tool that was capable of both improving their employment prospects and chipping away at Jim Crow. Arguing that black civil rights required interracial solidarity rooted in mutual interest, Lewis asserted “it would seem clear that, in the long run, the most effective attack on segregation,” would have to come from organizations “including both whites and Negroes,” in quest of “economic advantage for the group as a whole.” According to Lewis, “unions [were] a perfect example of such groups.”16
As I stated previously, Granger’s speech to the NAACP Youth Council was not simply a reflection on his idiosyncratic sensibilities, but it was also a window onto the philosophy shaping the work he directed via the National Urban League’s Workers Councils. Indeed, the labor orientation of the League’s uplift philosophy during the New Deal was illustrative of a general leftward drift in American and African American politics during the 1930s and 1940s. As scholars such as Eric Gellman, Risa Goluboff, and Jonathan Holloway have noted, black activists during the New Deal and World War II came to perceive racism as an outgrowth of class exploitation. The NUL, the NAACP, and the Communist influenced National Negro Congress (NNC)—three of the most influential civil rights organizations during the New Deal and World War II—would all identify unionization as a crucial component of black equality.17
With the creation of the Workers Councils, however, the Urban League would institutionalize a labor-oriented civil rights agenda before the more militant NAACP and even prior to the creation of left-wing National Negro Congress (NNC). To be sure, the NAACP’s Second Amenia Conference had recommended adding worker education to the group’s program as early as 1933. Nevertheless, institutional constraints prevented the NAACP from embracing black trade unionism as a civil rights strategy until the end of the decade. Ironically, the very philosophy that led the NUL to adopt a comparatively conservative approach to African American racial progress in the decades preceding the New Deal—its emphasis not just on employment, but the group’s interest in adjusting the attitudes of workers, black and white—likely influenced the Urban League’s decision to adopt a more militant approach to civil rights just a year into President Roosevelt’s first term.
Granger and the League’s promotion of trade unionism as a vehicle for civil rights highlights the problem with the commonplace disposition to view the NUL and NAACP through dichotomous lenses like Bookerite or Du Boisian. Such frameworks not only look past institutional politics’ sway over the scope of these civic groups’ agendas, but they may also obscure the influence of changes in the broader political landscape over the parameters of African American civil rights. In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” Judith Stein traced the tendency of American historians to reduce black political movements to potted frameworks such as “accommodation and militance, self-help and protest” to a reflexive reification of race. As Stein put it, students of African American politics too often treat black led movements “as mechanical successions of protests against racism and withdrawal into self-help,” which functions to mystify race—divorcing racism “from the concrete and complex experiences of social groups in particular circumstances.”18
Stein explored the explanatory deficiencies of off-the-shelf dichotomies such as accommodationism and integrationism by examining Booker T. Washington’s rise to prominence within the context of the Populist insurgency. As Stein argued, northern philanthropists and southern elites heralded Washington’s accommodationism not as an alternative to DuBois’s militant integrationism, but rather Washington’s vision for a politically inert black laboring class, promised to quash the comparatively egalitarian, interracial Populist movement.
In the 1890s, the Populist insurgency reflected the common material interests of African American and white agricultural workers who had been squeezed by crop-lien and marginalized by Republican and Democratic parties that had identified a ready supply of cheap, tractable labor as essential to the New South’s commercial and industrial development.19 To be sure, the Colored Farmers Alliance—which attracted about 1.25million members at its peak—was committed to issues such as voting rights and personal safety. According to Stein, however, Populists did not see these as simply black issues. Democrats, not whites, sought to suppress blacks and other constituencies antagonistic to their legislative agenda. For Populists, then, ousting Democrats equated protecting the franchise for black men. More to the point, African American and white Populists alike embraced economic programs—such as cooperative exchanges and subtreasuries—and legislation intended to loosen the grip of planters and the south’s nascent industrial class over the working man. Stein is clear that many white Populists, like most other whites, harbored racial prejudice. She contends, however, that African American and white agrarians’ shared material interest fostered a sense of solidarity that would break under the weight of election fraud, violence, and intimidation, rather than ingrained attitudes.20 According to Stein, this is the context that gave rise to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy—a political project that, in contrast to the CFA’s grassroots, egalitarian political movement, was imposed on most blacks by the northern philanthropists, and southern planters and industrialists who financed Washington’s career.21
According to Stein, historians had generally failed to situate Washington’s rise within the context of Populism—despite the CFA’s large membership—because the tendency to view black politics through a narrow lens of “racial struggles” excluded political movements, like the CFA’s, “that encompassed but transcended racial goals.”22 Though many scholars have noted the labor turn in black civil rights during the New Deal and World War II, the long Civil Rights Movement framework—which proceeds from the view that African Americans have been united in a fight against a trans-historical racial oppression— has led even many of the historians who acknowledge the labor orientation of New Deal era civil rights politics to look past the proximate influences informing both the break from the clientage model of politics that was dominant before the Depression decade and the Civil Rights Movement’s turn toward attitudinal—rather than political-economic— conceptions of racism during the Cold War. According to Stein, Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty—a sweeping history of civil rights activism in the north—suffered from this very problem. “Because his purpose is to record the long history of black activism… Sugrue,” Stein asserted, “slights assessments, non-racial sources of change, and the structure of power that activists faced. He rarely evaluates strategies that transformed institutions and social relations and those that did not.” Stein went on to say that since Sugrue not only eschewed both exploration of “the activists’ ideas” and the efficacy of their political platforms, he constructed a narrative that ensured that readers would “never meet an activist who had bad politics.”23
For Stein, “bad politics” would be defined as a program that not only failed to address capitalism’s role in generating poverty and inequality but “bad” political frameworks were also incapable of mobilizing a large enough base of support to catalyze political change. Stein’s The World of Marcus Garvey made clear that Garveyism—with its reification of race and its identification of entrepreneurialism as an engine of racial uplift—was “bad politics.” According to Stein, Garveyism’s reliance on a language of racial solidarity was intended both to shore up a loyal base of consumers for black entrepreneurs who were incapable of competing with large, white-owned businesses for market share and to obscure the fact that entrepreneurial uplift could, as is its nature, only benefit a small stratum of elites—the burgeoning class of black businessmen whose economic fortunes and aspirations hinged on the uncomfortable marriage between the economic gains African Americans had made during the Great Migration and residential segregation in the urban North.24
Unlike Stein, Lester Granger was not a Marxist. Nevertheless, Granger’s “Challenge to the Youth” presumed—much like Stein— that a “good politics” for African Americans centered on efforts to create a more equitable distribution of wealth for all Americans, which might only be achieved via interracial coalitions built on common material interest. In the era of anti-racism and reparations, Granger’s calls for interracial working-class solidarity might seem naïve. But this is so only if one reifies race or forgets, or just does not know, the lessons of the past. In 1938, Granger would not have had the benefit of the kind of hindsight that informed Stein’s assessment of black politics. Nevertheless, his instincts about the promise of the “new commonwealth” for African Americans were basically correct. Though some are quick to dismiss the necessity of interracial political alliances by pointing to their short shelf-lives, such individuals should take a page from the book of Judith Stein and compare the track records of the disparate interracial political coalitions— spanning the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations— that were indispensable to the victories of the modern Civil Rights Movement, whatever the movement’s shortcomings, with that of the racial “self-help” projects advanced by the likes of Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey. Because blacks remain overrepresented among the unemployed, the poor, and the working class today, any serious effort to redress racial inequality necessitates—just as it did in Granger’s day— that tens of millions of blacks forge political alliances with similarly situated whites as well as Latinos, Asians, and others.