In this essay, I examine the influence of the Great Depression
and World War II upon the African American leadership. Special
attention will be placed upon the perspective of several black
leaders of the era, especially A. Philip Randolph who became the
black leader during the mid-1930s. I explore the significance
of Randolph's emergence by comparing his leadership with that
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP). This essay shows that a pivotal change of black thought
formed the backdrop of Randolph's emergence.
Before the Great Depression, the guiding principle of black
organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League
had been the "talented tenth," which laid emphasis not
upon the ordinary but the gifted personalities of the race. Because
of this, their organizational nature was not always suitable to
voice the aspiration of working-class blacks. However, with the
advent of the Great Depression, the significance of the "talented
tenth" declined sharply. When New Deal recovery program did
not improve but worsened the economic conditions of African Americans,
African American leadership became increasingly alarmed and began
to consider organizational reform. One of the principal figures
to propose the organizational reform in the NAACP was W. E. B.
Du Bois, who advocated the "voluntary segregation."
His proposal, however, met bitter opposition. Although Du Bois
envisioned to foster self-help of blacks through the utilization
of the racial resources, which sometimes derived from the racial
segregation, most of the established leaders of the organization
could not agree with his opinion. Consequently, after the heated
controversy, the NAACP Board of Directors eventually decided to
affirm sweeping opposition to segregation, which led Du Bois to
resign from the Board. After his resignation, the reform effort
was led by Abram Harris who was a staunch supporter of Du Bois.
By establishing the Economic Advisory Committee and the Workers'
Council, Harris intended to dilute the centralized power of the
Board and to encourage working class initiatives in the NAACP
programs. However, the Board engaged in prolonged discussion of
his proposal and finally took the teeth out of it. Ensuing resignation
of Harris meant that the reform efforts within the NAACP came
to a halt.
While the NAACP engaged in the bitter intra-organizational
fight, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), with
A. Philip Randolph as its president, finally won the recognition
from the major railway company. Following this success, Randolph
gained a foothold in the American Federation of Labor and began
to attract the attention of young black dissidents who planned
to build the united-front of black organizations, the National
Negro Congress. The fact that the founding meeting of the NNC
chose Randolph as its president marked his ascendancy in the black
leadership. Yet, the NNC ceased to play a significant role in
racial affairs by 1940. In retrospect, the founding of the NNC
itself did not indicate the development of the black protest movement,
rather it meant the pressing urgency of some black leaders who
recognized the deficiency of the established black organizations.
These leaders had to face the severe reality: There was no consensus
of opinion in black community. Accordingly, when the third convention
of the NNC was held in 1940, no less than a third of the delegates
had become whites, mainly from the labor unions. It was at this
convention that Randolph, who had advocated independence and self-help
of the black people throughout his activities, announced his resignation
from the presidency.
Previous studies of A. Philip Randolph have characterized him
as one of the few African-American leaders who perceived that
class oppression underlay the problem of black America. Indeed,
his power base was the trade union, which gave him a unique position
in the African-American leadership. However, when he led the organizing
drive of the BSCP, he appealed not to class but to race consciousness
of the black porters. He agitated that the porter who had self-respect
could no longer stay content with the paternalism of whites Furthermore,
while Randolph forged an alliance with the American Federation
of Labor, his relationship with the AFL was not always harmonious:
He did not completely rely upon the white brothers of the railway
industry and regarded the independence of the black union as indispensable.
Therefore, one of conclusions of this essay is that A. Philip Randolph should not be regarded as a labor leader in a conventional sense. Beginning in the 1934 convention of AFL, he indefatigably fought racial discrimination in labor unions by claiming to expel unions which did not accept black membership. In this respect, his faith in the inter-racial unionism was indeed one of his major characteristics. However, he did not view blacks' interests from the point of class, but from race. He, while seeking to cooperate with the whites, gave the priority to African-American's organizational independence and self-help. Secondly, although the race consciousness was a main vehicle which brought about the success of the BSCP, it was not enough to unite all elements of African-Americans together because the African-American communities were not so homogeneous as the Pullman porters were. This accounts for one of the reasons why Randolph's leadership brought about the different results. These conclusions seem to be inconsistent with the prevalent characterization of the 1930s. Scholars often regard the era as the time when leftist or/and radical organizations succeeded to unite working class Americans across the racial line. However, black activists of the 1930s such as Randolph did not completely discard their racial identity. While vigorously pursuing their race interests, they were struggling to forge an alliance which could initiate viable programs. In later years, this tenacious hold of racial perspective on the part of blacks remaining intact, blacks finally succeeded to forge the civil rights coalition, and it is this perspective that formed the basis of the Black Power of the later era.