AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

Lecture 11

 - Depression and Double V


The 1930s was a decade filled with economic, legal, political, and social controversy. In this lecture, Professor Holloway looks at the Great Depression and the federal government’s responses to it, including the New Deal’s impact on African Americans, both materially and symbolically. As the federal government openly courted their favor, African Americans organized various political groups to monitor federal activities. In the second portion of the lecture, Professor Holloway examines the achievements of the Black Cabinet, the injustices of the Scottsboro Boys’ case, and the efficacy of the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns, led in Washington, D.C., by the New Negro Alliance. As much as the 1930s were about retrenchment for African Americans, they also reflected new political possibilities and new forms of political expression within black America. Thus, as Professor Holloway reveals, the roots of the modern civil rights movement are all part and parcel of New Deal America.

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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

AFAM 162 - Lecture 11 - Depression and Double V

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Great Depression [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  For the purpose of this week, we’ll essentially be resting in the 1930s, essentially. It’s a week’s worth of lecture dealing with the Great Depression. In October of 1929, the stock market crashes, and in a quick cascade of events, Herbert Hoover, then the President, finds himself out of office and Franklin Roosevelt is elected promising a New Deal, a New Deal for America. This week’s lectures are about the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and several critical moments and developments related to the African American experience. And I want you to–We should all start with a basic understanding of my approach to the nineteen–to the 1930s. If the twenties can be understood as the decade of the New Negro, a new sort of social and cultural and political world view, the 1930s needs to be understood as a decade of retrenchment and political advancement. We’ve seen this before, going into the late nineteenth century and into the turn of the twentieth century. And we’re just seeing a–a new cycle of people gathering themselves up and articulating new visions and new agendas, or new, new methods to pursue on these agendas for the future.

As far as retrenchment, after so many cultural celebrations and giddiness of the jazz age, as, you know, the soldiers that have returned, the economic downturn made a different–not new really, but a different set of priorities come to the surface. The economy’s in tatters and African Americans are the hardest hit. And as far as political advancement is concerned, along with the retrenchment comes a range of political responses to these setbacks that demonstrate an independence of spirit among African Americans as far as political possibilities. Now this retrenchment and political advancement, I don’t want to make too much of a big deal. One can identify these themes in any particular decade or moment in time of course. But there is–there’s something very special I think about the 1930s as far as these aspects are concerned.

The 1930s forms the backdrop for the modern civil rights movement, that movement that is popularly thought of as occurring from Brown v. Board’s decision in 1954 up until King’s assassination. As you’ll come to understand very quickly, that notion, boundedness of the civil rights movement, is really sort of discarded by historians at this point. And many historians are talking about a long civil rights movement, a movement that predates the Supreme Court decision and goes back a decade or more. I’ll talk more about this in a–in a week or so, this phenomenon of the long civil rights movement. But regardless of where one decides to sort of start the civil rights movement, you need to understand the thirties is clearly the seedbed, the moment where a whole new range of political strategies are going to be articulated, and these grow out of this moment of retrenchment, trying to gathers–gather oneself together in light of economic despair.

Chapter 2. The New Deal [00:03:30]

Now I want to cover the story of the 1930s. I mean for any era, there’s too many different stories one could tell, but I want to explore the themes of retrenchment and political advancement in the 1930s via a number of stories. And this covers this lecture and Wednesday’s lecture. I’ll be talking about the Black Cabinet, the Scottsboro boys, the New Negro Alliance, the National Negro Congress, Marian Anderson and the March on Washington movement. This is a series of different–different kinds of events that really marked, marked us right through the 1930s with the March on Washington movement taking shape in 1941. Throughout this whole era, or this era–the umbrella covering this era, is the New Deal, and that’s what I want to start off with very quickly, so we have just a–sort of a shared understanding of what the New Deal is doing and why it’s important.

So the stock market crashes in October Twenty-Nine. The country’s economically destabilized, millions are thrown out of work. Black and white unemployment skyrocketed, but blacks are particularly hard hit. Job shortages and old fashioned racism combine in such a way that a familiar–familiar rallying cry would be hear–heard at job lines and such when a black person showed up. And I’m quoting, “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job.”  A time of economic stress, good old fashioned racism makes itself known loud and clear. Even in such major cities like Atlanta, some sixty-five percent of, of employable blacks needed public assistance. This is economic devastation. Hoover believed in volunteerism and thought the economy would turn itself around without government intervention. But by the time he realized the scope of the problem, he found himself losing the presidential election. FDR’s elected, promises a New Deal.

Now the New Deal’s a massive federal experiment in big government. It was an alphabet soup, as, as historians refer to it, an alphabet soup of agencies, each representing different forms of federal intervention. And I’m putting a–sev–a whole bunch of them, not all of them, up on the board here, and I’m going to very quickly go through them to help you understand the scope of the change. You have the FSA, or the Farm Security Administration, and the Agricultural Adjustment–Adjustment Administration, two that are organizations that are very important to African Americans, aside from being important to all Americans, because African Americans are still predominantly–although it’s shifting–still predominantly an agricultural population. They had the National Recovery Act, the NRA–that and I’ll get into a little more about the NRA, it’s very important, in a few minutes–that among other things establishes the minimum wage, or establishes minimum wages is the better way to put it. And there’s a very curious relationship with African American–African Americans and the jobs that they hold.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural–Rural Electric–Electrification Administration, these are up here really to point out what kind of radical change the New Deal is really all about. This is an era when they’re actually bringing electricity for the first time to large parts of the country through, through the TVA and hydroelectricity and rural electrification. It’s a radical reordering of how the country’s going to work. National Youth Administration, NYA, which as we’ll see, I’ll talk briefly about it later on, is one of these many administrations that has a Negro division, and the Negro division becomes important. I mean I’ll, I’ll–You can bookmark it for the moment. Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, literally putting mostly men to work by digging ditches, planting trees, giving them some sort of job to do so they can get some wage from the federal government, so they can feed themselves. Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the PWA turns into the WPA, doing work on public projects. Social Security is established, the Securities and Exchange Commission is established, the FDIC, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. All of these are brand new during this era.

So what we consider the essential work of the federal government is, in our contemporary moment is essentially created during the New Deal. All is a radical attempt to end the Great Depression. And we have been wrestling, we, political leaders, activists, have been wrestling with the legacy of the New Deal ever since. Now the point of listing all of these agencies up here is not just that many of these had a direct effect on African American employment and, as you’ll see, political possibility, but it also will bring into–I’m sort of for–projecting here a bit–it will underscore changes–how can I…not changes–articulations, new articulations of changes in terms of the limits of the federal government. We’ll see during our lecture of the civil rights movement, there’s a core issue and that’s the fed–limits of federal government versus states’ government. With the explosion in the size of the federal government, you can see this problem looming ever larger on the horizon.

Now very basic questions, was the New Deal successful?  It’s all an experiment. And economically, the answer is mixed. Yes, there is no doubt, it saved millions from starvation, I mean, literally saving folks from starving to death. But the economy doesn’t actually turn around until the U.S. begins arming Europe as it heads toward Second World War. When the U.S. becomes a military factory and then itself becomes involved in the Second World War, that’s when the economy turns–absolutely booms and it turns around at that point. So economically it saves people from starving but it doesn’t turn the economy around. Politically, it’s much more complicated. From an institutional standpoint, there’s no doubt that the New Deal’s significant. Whether it’s successful I guess might be an interesting word to wrest with here because, as I said before, it makes the modern American political state. It does it in the space of just a few years.

Now from the standpoint of the African American experience, was the New Deal successful in terms of politics here?  There’s a real mixed record. On the ground, too many federal programs were left to local administrators to run. So you have–and this is where something like the Farm Security Administration, Agricultural Administration–Adjustment Administration, are really important. Federal policy is saying you’re not going to discriminate. Everybody’s going to get a sh–a cut of this New Deal. But the bailouts are handed out at the local level, at the local Farm Bureau, let’s say, and localized racial practices simply just don’t disappear. So you have growing out of the New Deal, or during the New Deal, American farms being saved, but the farms that are being saved overwhelmingly are those that are white-owned and not black-owned. So when you think of the New Deal from the standpoint of did it benefit African Americans, you can look at federal–at, at the sort of national policy and see something, non-discrimination pacts, but local level’s where it really matters, you see a very different story there.

Now just as some of these–many of these New Deal programs were doing something important by being non-discriminatory in their language, and then therefore at the local level being more complicated, they weren’t all perfect at the federal level of articulation. And this is where the NRA, the National Recovery Administration, really needs to be understood. As I said before, the NRA designed a set of minimum wages, basically wage standards, across the country. So, for instance, if you are rolling steel, you’re going to get paid a certain minimum wage. If you are–boy, of the billion and a half jobs, I can’t think of anything right now. If you’re–[laughs] God, pick a job–you are doing some other mechanized thing, how’s that for a complete bailout?  You’re going to get paid a certain set wage. Now the reason I was flailing here, because there are certain areas the NRA doesn’t address the minimum wage, and I kept wanting to say those things; That’s why I was fumbling. It does not establish minimum wages for people in agricultural sector. It does not set minimum wages for people doing domestic work. Guess what African Americans are mostly employed in: agricultural work and domestic work.

Now there are all kinds of reasons that people who conceived the NRA had for not putting floors at, at certain wages for certain industries, agriculture and domestic work in this case. They weren’t explicitly about, “Oh, let’s stick it to these people.”  But the fact was, the effect was, they were sticking it to these people, to farmers in general and to people doing domestic work. The NRA then becomes a symbol for how little the New Deal was doing for black America. Long term effects, there’s no doubt, very important, and we’ll see that in the next couple of weeks, from the concept of what the federal government is. From an institutional standpoint, there’s no doubt, it’s important, it’s critical, it’s saving lives. When it comes to black life on the ground, a mixed bag. When it comes to NRA, which had really more power than any other of these administrations to change the quality of black life, to sort of bolster it up, no dice. So African Americans start calling the National Recovery Administration, the letters NRA, referred to as Negro Rights Abused, Negro Rights Assassinated, Negro Removal Act, Negroes Ruined Again.

Chapter 3. The Black Cabinet [00:14:38]

Now we’re talking bread and butter issues here. But politics of course exist at the symbolic level, and when it comes to African Americans, there is no doubt that symbolically, the New Deal was an overwhelming success. The political symbolism of the New Deal for blacks came mostly through the establishment of a group called the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, the Black Cabinet. They’re the same thing. The Black Cabinet was an unofficial–it’s important to understand that part–an unofficial collection of race advisors, and that was their title, who stood in various places in Roosevelt’s administration. This was the first broad-based group of federally appointed bureaucrats and administrators who were African American, at the federal government–in the federal government’s history. Prior to this moment, you might have Frederick Douglass appointed to federal position, Booker T. Washington being consulted by the President about certain kinds of ideas and policies. But in the New Deal, you’re actually getting a, a cadre of African Americans with federal appointments, working within the administration on a full-time basis.

The members of the Black Cabinet were all highly-educated and all male, with the lone exception of Mary McLeod Bethune, who was the one, well, one female. Seems my, there we go. Mary McLeod Bethune. And the spelling is correct and the pronunciation’s correct, it’s “McCloud.”  Mary McLeod Bethune, the sole female in the Black Cabinet, who also happened to be regarded as the cabinet’s leader. Now the Cabinet, the Black Cabinet, leaves no discernible policy record or legacy. Their job, the job, the things they did were mainly accomplished behind the scenes. And, in fact, I, I know this, this–I planned to write my dissertation on the Black Cabinet, only to discover, once I got here, there was no record. So, new dissertation topic.

Their job was mainly conducted behind the scenes, so you’d have a Secretary of the Interior, or a Secretary of Agriculture, wanting to, you know, find out what’s going on with black America. They have a race advisor, and they would assign him–overwhelmingly him, of course, except for Mary McLeod Bethune–the task of finding out, or being the, the touchstone to, to understand what’s happening in black America. And there might be an issue bubbling up, say in the National Parks or some other place, that the race advisor might know about, and would put sort of a bug in his boss’s ear, and it might gently change administration policy, or maybe even law that way. But we don’t actually know the literal changes they made. But we do know that they were very important symbolically. And the most important person symbolically in this regard is Mary McLeod Bethune.

Bethune, who’s the head of the Negro Youth Division of the National Youth Administration, an educator, lifelong educator, and then, most importantly, a close friend of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Bethune is seen, seen to be the voice of black America in so many ways, in this, in this, in the, the Black Cabinet, that is, because she had access. And there was–it was op–it was not a secret. It was well known that if you wanted to talk to Franklin Roosevelt and you’re African American, you had to go through Eleanor Roosevelt, and if you wanted to talk to Eleanor Roosevelt, you had to go through Mary McLeod Bethune to get access. So the Black Cabinet needs to be understood as the first political insiders in black America, and I’m talking high politics here. This is an era where the Black Cabinet officers would be trotted out. Pictures of them, or sometimes themselves literally, trotted out, sent on sort of as part of a delegation to a particular area of town, the country, representing the federal government to a black enclave. And they were seen as embodying the fact that Roosevelt cared. Whether you’re talking Mary McLeod Bethune or somebody else, Roosevelt cared because he had people appointed to express or deal with, address their concerns. This is how they’re symbolically so important, and it’s also important to know that over the course of the 1930s, during FDR’s presidency, through the interventions of the New Deal, sometimes literally, most often symbolically, African Americans turn from a Republican voting population to a Democrat–Democratic voting population. A complete shift by the time you get to the late 1930s. The Black Cabinet’s important in that process. 

Chapter 4. The Scottsboro Boys [00:20:25]

Now just as you’re seeing the establishment of the first sort of professional administrators, bureaucrats, African American, in the federal government, certainly at high level, there is–this is also an era of incredible political setback and disappointment. So you see the great political possibility of the Black Cabinet, but you also see events happening in the early 1930s that horrify black America. The most famous of these cases was the Scottsboro boys scandal. On March 25th, 1931, a white boy comes off of a train, passing through Tennessee and the northern tips of Alabama. He comes off the train with a bloody head and claims that there was a big fight between black and white boys on his freight train that just passed through town. A posse forms. The train is stopped at the next station. The posse looks for and arrests the nine black boys who happen to be on the freight train. Now what the posse had not expected–and that would have been the end of the story, if that was all that had happened. What the posse had not expected to find were two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. And they were found in the same freight car as some of the black boys.

As soon as Ruby Bates and Victoria Price are brought out, they see all of the police and the posse around them, and they’re with these black boys, they immediately size up the situation and declare they’ve been raped. This changes everything. The nine boys are accused of rape, become known as the Scottsboro boys. That’s where the, the court cases were being held, in Scottsboro, Alabama. They range in age from twenty to thirteen. There were one or two brother pairs, but they didn’t know each other, essentially. They all happened to be there. But word of the rape spreads like wildfire, and the next day, a mob of two thousand people forms at the jail where they’d been kept, urging the release of the boys so that, quote, “southern justice” could be handed out. The National Guard is called in immediately to keep them safe, which is remarkable in and of itself. The media does not help matters when it, when it comes to this particular case and the fact that, you know, the word of this vicious attack starts to spread. As they start the process of sending the boys to trial, the media, several quotes from different newspapers:

“How much farther apart than night and day are the nine men who perpetrated these frightful deeds and a normal, kind hearted man who guards his little family and toils through the day?”

Okay, not too offensive.

“We still have savages abroad in the land, it seems. Let us have the solace of knowing that at least we have risen above this justice of savages.”

A reference to the fact that, that the mob that wanted to kill the Scottsboro boys did not succeed. So with an editorial, giving a collective pat on the back to folks who did not resort to the same kind of savagery those boys did. But then you’d have editorials like this:

“The rape was the most atrocious ever recorded in this part of the country, a wholesale debauching of society, so horrible in its details that all of the facts can never be printed. It savors of the jungle and the meanest African corruption.”

This is pre-trial media. Not very helpful for a defense case. At seven AM on the day of the first trial, thousands are lined up, trying to get a seat inside. And you–it’s hard–you can’t really tell from this image, [gestures up at the screen] but as the, the group goes this way, you can see it where the electric lines are cutting across, the line goes beyond the screen, beyond the, the actual image. Thousands are lined up hoping to get into the courthouse to see justice be enacted. Well, the boys had no money, they’re dirt poor. They have a defense attorney assigned to them who’s completely incompetent. They face an all-white jury. This is Alabama practice. No blacks are allowed in the jury rolls. And, within two weeks, the boys are indicted, tried, and all but one are sentenced to death. The nature of the defense, the speed of the trial, the fact that it was not a jury of their peers, angered African Americans and other parties. One party got–was moved to act very quickly, and that’s a group called the International Labor Defense, the ILD. The ILD is the legal arm of the Communist Party, and the ILD comes to the Scottsboro boys’–boys’ rescue immediately, claiming they were given an inadequate defense, and all these different things already cited. “This was not justice; you need to have a retrial.” 

Now the Communist Party in the USA has been around since 1919 or so. It’s been reaching out in sort of tentative ways to African Americans, with, with, you know, middling success really, increasing but middling. The NAACP’s been around a solid decade longer, so one would presume they’re right there rushing to defend them. Well, the fact is, no. The NAACP holds back. It holds back for a very important reason. It did not want to tar its own image by defending possible rapists and individuals who clearly did not adhere to the NAACP’s middle class ideals. This is really important to think about–to understand about the NAACP. It was from its very founding a middle class organization, dedicated to uplift in legalistic and political ways, assimilationist in its ideology, assimilating to white norms, white–so-called white middle class norms. The Scottsboro boys did not fit that model, and the NAACP was afraid of defending them for fear of a negative association.

The Communist Party sees this as an, an incredible opportunity, as a way to organize African Americans to become more sympathetic to the Communist Party. The Communist Party claimed that defending the Scottsboro boys was tantamount to fighting Southern racism and economic repression. So the Communists did not have super success with African Americans, because they were saying it’s all just about economics. And African Americans are saying, “Well, race kind of matters too in this country.”  The Scottsboro boys was the, was the window of opportunity for the Communist Party to broaden the scope of what it’s going to talk about as it relates to the African American experience. This transpires and the NAACP’s livid. It wants to be the organization really dedicated to addressing black concerns, and it’s very concerned that the Communist Party is involved, because the radicalism of the Communist Party was, was the, was about the last thing that’s going to be welcomed in a politically and socially conservative south.

So the NAACP doesn’t want to get involved because it–it would be tarnished by these boys’ activities, but they also recognized that with the Communist Party getting involved, it might be a death, a death sentence for these boys, because no one wants to hear from the Communists. And certainly as the Communists saw this as a way to open up a discussion about Southern racism, NAACP thought that, you know, “You’re, you’re pulling too many things together here, and trying to–basically you’re trying to develop racial insubordination in the South. This is not the way to go.”  The Scottsboro boys’ case because–becomes the cause célèbre of the 1930s. All of the issues we’ve talked about in this course so far are wrapped up in this history: manliness, civilization, culture, race, class, power, politics, and protest, they’re all here. The NAACP wanted more than anything else for a fair trial, and began to think, “Well, maybe we should get involved, because we might be able to win long-term advantage for African Americans by changing the way that trials are organized in the South,” since there were no blacks on the jury rolls; that might help further legal challenges and other movement opportunities down the–down the road.

And the NAACP, you know on a quick side story, it knows the South very well, far better than the Communists did, who were mostly northern and urban at this point. And they reach out, the NAACP reaches out quietly to try to find lawyers for the Scottsboro boys who are competent. And they talked to George–Congressman George Huddleston, someone Alabamans considered a fiery left winger. But being liberal on white issues in the South did not necessarily translate into being a liberal on, quote, “black issues” here. Huddleston’s response to the quiet overture from the NAACP to support the Scottsboro boys’ defense, and I quote here,

“I do not care whether they are innocent or guilty. You can’t understand how we Southern gentlemen feel about this–this question of relationship between Negro men and white women.”

Simply put, the fact that the boys were on the freight–the same train as the two white girls was enough for Huddleston. He couldn’t touch it; it’s toxic. So the very basic chronology of the case is as follows. In 1931, the boys were arrested and convicted. In 1932, the Supreme Court overturns their convictions, saying the boys lacked adequate counsel. The fact that they’re still alive is really nothing short of a miracle, to be honest, and this is through the ILD’s efforts. In 1930–in February 1933, Ruby Bates, one of the two women who was found on the, the train, writes a letter declaring that the boys never touched her, that’s it’s all made up to protect their honor. A month later, a new trial begins and Samuel Leibowitz, an ILD attorney from New York, offers new evidence, but is considered to have been too tough on Victoria Price, the, the hold out. And to her, to her death, she claimed that this was–that she had been raped. Samuel Leibowitz presents new evidence, but was considered too tough on Victoria Price, thus violating Southern codes of honor. After one day of deliberation, Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro boys, is found guilty. The prosecutor is saying openly, “Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.”  This is the atmosphere of this case.

NAACP blames the I–the Communist Party and the ILD for this conviction and that–and at that point realizes, or decides, they have to get involved if they’re gonna–if there’s going to be any hope of saving the rest of the boys. By 1935, the ILD and NAACP are formed together in a coalition to defend the boys. The Communist Party’s actions through all of this gave it a new base of intellectual and political support, within Harlem certainly, and black America in general. The Scottsboro boys’ mothers go on a world tour, supported by the Communist Party, to rally support for their sons, but also for workers’ plights, for workers’ plights around the world. And this is really–this point is important. The Communist Party makes major inroads in Harlem in particular, and you can see here in this image, this is a Scottsboro boys rally. And above my hand here there’s a big sign, a big poster, and the words you can make out there is talking about workers, and below it, Scottsboro boys. The Scottsboro boys themselves were, were vagabonds, hobos riding the rails, not uncommon during this period in time.

The Communist Party gets involved and as a way to sort of justify its involvement certainly, but also to rally other people around the cause of the Scottsboro boys, starts talking about them as, as workers. “This is what happens to workers in the United States under a capitalist system.”  The Scottsboro boys’ mothers are sent on these international world tours and they’re coached about how they’re going to talk about the worker’s plight, that the Communist Party cares about the workers of the world, and at the end, it’s a demonstration–it’s, it’s proven by the way that they’re advocating on behalf of their boys. As we start to learn more about the Scottsboro boys’ mothers’ tour, their world tours, we’re discovering the extent to which they were–manipulated is too strong a word–but how they were so highly scripted, the mothers that is, in terms of what they were supposed to say and not say and how they were being sort of handled at all times to make sure they stayed on message.

Now, be that as it may, whether there was a level of manipulation here or not, the fact is the Communist Party is making incredible efforts on behalf of the Scottsboro boys, and the case is followed everywhere. And this actually–This is actually another image from Harlem. And this–I’m sorry you can’t really make it out here, but in a sense, this is a, a, a version now of what you’d see–what do they call those things in Time Square, those scrolling messages?  This is an update on the trial, when Patterson is found guilty. And there’s a commentary written down in chalk on this blackboard. People are gathered around it to find out what’s happening with the Scottsboro boys. Now what happens to them?  They get arrested in thirty-one, a new case in, in thirty-two. New cases in thirty-three, in thirty-three, a coalition in thirty-five. More hearings were held. Half the boys are released within a few years of the original incident. The other half languish behind bars, and the last one, the last Scottsboro boy is released, no longer a boy, in 1950.

The Scottsboro boys’ cause became the focal point of rallies across the country, in Harlem, as these images show, black college campuses. The Scottsboro boys’ cause became the sites of numerous political protests, and it really speaks to the new era or new philosophy about black politics during this era. These rallies are not the rallies of Garvey’s Back to Africa dreams. They’re not the silent protest marches, protesting against lynchings. The Scottsboro boys’ rallies, although they are rich in symbolism about the black–the black boys being workers, they also start to change political affiliations and movements on the ground. The Scottsboro boys’ rallies are, in so many ways, explicitly political. And these rallies, in this way, are new to the, to the scene as far–far as black Americans were concerned. And we’ll see how this is articulated in movement politics in–in our next lecture.

So taking together the Black Cabinet and the Scottsboro boys’ case, represent two sides of new political possibilities and new forms of political expression within black America: high politics and, for lack of a better phrase, the low politics, but also becoming topics of international conversation in terms of the black political situation. It’s a time of change. Oh one image here I forgot, before I tell a quick story. This is a poster. I mean the Scottsboro boys went on tour. In 1937, Willie Robinson and Eugene Williams came to New Haven to tell of the “horrors of hell and the pleasures of heaven.”  They came to the Emanuel Baptist Church to talk about their experiences in, in, Scotts–in the, in this case. It’s a local story in this way, but it’s part of a larger international phenomenon.

Chapter 5. The New Negro Alliance [00:38:07]

Now I want to switch gears quickly from the Black Cabinet and the Scottsboro boys to talk of the New Negro Alliance. And I’ve got six minutes to tell what I used to do in a lecture, so hang on. The New Negro Alliance is a local articulation–this is local being Washington D.C.–of a larger national phenomenon, “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns. “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns. And it speaks to this new sort of form of political organizing that I’m suggesting is there with the Scottsboro boys and the, the Black Cabinet. So I’ve seen certain ways the New Negro Alliance pulling together embodying this new political philosophy. That’s why I want to tell this story very quickly. So there are these campaigns across the country where black–blacks would organize and say, “We’re not going to buy at the local thrift store, because they won’t employ black workers in this black neighborhood.

In August of 1933, this philosophy, this political movement, lands in D.C. where the owner of the local hamburger stand in black Washington, in, in the area, U Street district near Howard–Howard University, sort of the major black shopping enclave in the city. When the the guy who owns the hamburger grill fires the two black workers he has and hires two white kids in his place, wants to give them jobs. You know, everybody’s desperate for jobs since it’s the Great Depression. Within hours, a picket line’s formed at the hamburger stand, in the spirit of “Don’t buy where you can’t work.”  “We’re not going to patronize the store anymore, because they won’t let our type, our folks, black folks, work in this place.”  And this is a white owned store, if that part wasn’t clear. It should have been. Next thing you know, an–a group is organized. Two or three young men in college, just heading out of college, called the New Negro Alliance. One of these “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns, and the city becomes electrified, black Wash–Washington that is, as New Negro–New Negro Alliance starts holding rallies, putting up posters. This is about staying out of People’s drugstores. You know, “They won’t employ blacks in the store, we’re not going to shop there any longer.”  To all fine–to all fair-minded people, justice is, is essential to Americanism. People’s is not just being racist; they’re being anti American.

Other pair–posters would go up, fliers, again, about People’s Drugstore. “Don’t cheat on your race. Stay out of all People’s Drugstores.”  And so equating People’s Drugstores to an overseer whipping a poor black laborer. Now this is sort of the angry political art of a, you know, college age students. You know how you guys are. But the New Negro Alliance really became remarkable for the way that it brought in all these different sectors of, of black Washington. The most respectable members of Washington start joining picket lines. “People’s is unfair, no colored clerks in colored neighborhoods. Stay out.”  In short order, the New Negro Alliance starts getting success after success. The local dairy, People’s Drugstore, the cigar shop, all these places start to hire black workers, but there’s a hold out. The hold out is the Sanitary Grocery Company.

The Sanitary Grocery Company is the most important grocer in Washington D.C. during the era. It’s in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. Sanitary Grocery employed black workers, but as back office workers, stockroom boys, or janitors. These were the lowest paying jobs in the store and they were also the invisible jobs. New Negro Alliance comes up to them and says, you know, “The best paying jobs in your store, aside from being managers, are the cash register clerks. Why don’t you have any blacks in those positions?”  Sanitary Grocery gave its explanation, gave its reasons, and the New Negro Alliance puts up picket lines like this one. This is just one person, but starts putting up picket lines around Sanitary Grocery. Sanitary Grocery is not going to fold like these other places fold, and so starts its own political campaign with photographs of all the black workers, you know, dressed in nice uniforms, smiling for the camera. You know, “Sanitary Grocery works–you know, we work for Sanitary Grocery, support Sanitary Grocery.”  So they’re trading fliers, pamphlets, media bout–you know media shots for a–for a long time. It starts becoming a legal case.

The New Negro Alliance activists reach out to Howard University Law School. This is a pre–pro–prologue to the lecture next week. They reach out to Howard University Law School, and says to the law school students, “We need help organizing a court case here.”  And they start getting legal counsel from some of the law students and some of the law professors. Because it’s in D.C., a court case can become a Supreme Court case very quickly. The le–the issue–the legal issue, Sanitary Grocery Company is saying, “You cannot picket in front of our store. You’re not an employee.”  Just like this minister is picketing in front of People’s. He didn’t work at People’s. Sanitary Grocery is go–Sanitary Grocery is saying, “If you don’t–if you aren’t an employee of the company, you aren’t allowed to picket.”  New Negro Alliance said, “This is a free speech issue. We can picket.”  And it becomes a Supreme Court case.

And in 1938, aided by the attorneys at–the attorneys in training and the, the faculty at the law school at Howard, the Supreme Court offers a decision in The New Negro Alliance versus Sanitary Grocery Company. And in that decision, it says that it’s protected speech, picketing that is. As long as you’re not interfering with the business at hand in terms of blocking the entrance, let’s say, it’s protected speech. And as such, these rallies, these–the work of the New Negro Alliance, is perfectly constitutional. It’s a major boost to the labor movement, as it happens, and it really makes great changes for the New Negro Alliance. It further, you know, underscores its importance. It also tells a really interesting story at the end. There’s a coda that I think is really humorous, but tells you something about the way these things operate.

Sanitary Grocery Company was the most important grocer in the city, and the last thing it wanted or needed was to be affiliated with a Supreme Court case that it lost, especially losing to African Americans. So the Sanitary Grocery Company ceases doing business under that name, and it becomes Safeway.

For those of you who know about Safeway, yes. I mean Safeways are actually disappearing now, because they’re being bought up by other conglomerates, but Safeway’s a major change–well, last I knew, still a major chain in–in California. And they’re still in the D.C. area, although they are slowly going away, being bought up by, last time I checked, which is a couple of years ago, it was–it was owned by the parent company of–that also owned Vond’s, Pavilion’s, Dominic’s, Carr’s, Randall’s, Tom Thumb’s, Grocery Works. I think it’s a big Canadian conglomerate. But this is, I mean it’s a humorous coda for those who know Safeway. There’s no mention anywhere of Safeway’s history, corporate history, of this actual–actually happening. Corporations don’t want to be tainted with, well, lack of success or really bad news. And in the case of the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign in Washington D.C., they had both. And so Sanitary Grocery Company ceased to exist. It started operating under a new name. This is the potential of the new black politics: high politics, low politics, somewhere in the middle politics, and you’re going to start seeing in tomorrow’s lecture and in the, in the lectures over the next couple of weeks, a new kind of organizing mentality, operating at all levels, that starts to change the landscape of the American scene. Thanks so much.

[end of transcript]

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