On This Day in History… January 15-17, 1950: The National Emergency Civil Rights Conference in Washington, DC

By Bonnie Goodman, HNN, 1-14-08

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. She blogs at History Musings

On this day in history… January 15-17, 1950, over 4000 attend the National Emergency Civil Rights Conference in Washington, DC.

In the 1940s activists in the civil rights movement focused on the issue of fair employment practices, especially within the federal government. Their efforts culminated in the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). As J. J. Goldberg writes: “Their undertaking was a powerful show of force, and it created new momentum for civil rights in Washington and nationwide.” (Goldberg, 128) Coming just years before the monumental Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the mobilization in 1949 and 1950 in support of President Truman’s civil rights program was a major development.

The first break in the employment battle came in 1941. A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader and civil rights activist, warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that if he did not create a temporary Committee on Fair Employment Practices, there would be a march on Washington in protest. The FEPC was formed to protect workers from discrimination in hiring in the Federal government. This was the beginning of the March on Washington movement, which worked on behalf of advancements for blacks, and was responsible for the National Council for a Permanent FEPC in 1944.

The leading figures in the National Council were Clarence Mitchell and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, who later served as its executive secretary. Randolph was co-chairman of the Council with the Reverend Allan Knight Chalmers of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, but Randolph was responsible for most of the decision-making. The National Council was, as Uwe Wenzel writes, “intended to function as a clearinghouse for all activities in behalf of permanent federal FEPC legislation including both public relations work and Washington lobbying.” (Miller, 50) The Council found support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, with liberal Republicans and Northern Democrats supporting proposals for a permanent FEPC.

To put pressure on Congress the Council issued press releases, and held rallies and meetings, where congressmen would speak in defense of civil rights legislation. Several hundred gathered at small meetings at churches, but there were larger affairs, including a rally held at Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000. Still the Council’s influence was limited. As Wenzel writes, while the meetings raised the morale of FEPC supporters, “the group was unable to place the issue of fair employment in the forefront of the American public’s attention.” (Miller, 51)

Although there were congressman who supported the initiative, it was difficult to persuade others to join because interracial issues were not important to their constituents. Supporters were unable to un able to get a final vote for legislation. Even worse, the debate incited Southern congressmen to close down the wartime FEPC in June 1946, by terminating funding to it. The National Council would never have the momentum again to act as the leader in the movement to create a permanent FEPC; internal strife within the organization and financial woes plagued it. The Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization would take over the fight for the FEPC in the late 1940s.

President Harry S. Truman wanted to push several civil rights measures including the creation of a permanent FEPC, but faced congressional opposition. Despite the Council’s lobbying efforts, the conservative Congress was not willing to pass Truman’s proposed legislation. After the Council was proven ineffective, Wilkins formed the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization committee. As Gilbert Jonas writes, it was a “call for a massive interracial lobbying effort in 1949 to be conducted by representatives of all sympathetic national organizations.” (Jonas, 156) The mobilization’s mission was “to break down opposition to the passage of the civil rights bills.” (Collier-Thomas, 37) It was a model of interracial coalition building. The coalition included over 100 black and white religious, political, and civil rights organizations.

Among the hundred organizations that supported the mobilization were several women’s organizations including the National Association of Christian Woman (NACW), the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and several sororities. It became important to add a women’s division, and in December 1949, the Women’s Division of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization was formed. Aretha McKinley, an officer in New York City’s NAACP office, headed the new division. The division’s purpose was to show black women what was at stake: “They have the right to speak up against unfair employment practices since these effect both themselves and their husbands, they are also concerned with discrimination and segregation as these questions apply to housing problems and so directly effect their homes. In addition women have the right to speak up for the future of their children.” (Collier-Thomas, 37)

The peak of the mobilization effort came on January 15-17, 1950 when more than 4,200 delegates from fifty-eight national organizations met in Washington to lobby their congressman to support the president’s civil rights program, and a permanent FEPC. Among the supporters was the Women’s Division, and hundreds of black women from numerous clubs, sororities, and organizations attended the conference. (Collier-Thomas, 38) The conference was, as Jonas states, the “largest lobbying effort in the history of the nation.” (Jonas, 157) The participants spread over Capitol Hill in a massive grass-roots lobbying effort.

Meanwhile, Wilkins led a delegation that met with President Truman, where Wilkins listed the group’s demands. President Truman told Wilkins he had already pledged his support to the civil rights program and a fair employment law. The activists, said Truman, should focus their efforts on Congress:

YOU don’t need to make that speech to me, it needs to be made to Senators and Congressmen. Every effort is being made by the executive branch of the Government to get action on these measures. I have been working at them ever since I went to Congress. I went there in 1935, and that is a long time ago…. This is a serious situation. This civil rights program, which I have sent to the Congress on every occasion that it has been possible to send it, is one that is necessary, if we are going to maintain our leadership in the world. We can’t go on not doing the things that we are asking other people to do in the United Nations. I hope all of you will continue your hard work on the subject, and that you will make it perfectly plain to the Senators and Congressmen who represent your States and districts that action is what we want; and I think that is possibly the only way we can get action. (Truman, January 17th, 1950)

Despite the conference’s lobbying efforts the FEPC and civil rights legislation received a second defeat in the Senate in 1950, which seemed to mark the end of congressional support for such legislation. The debates in the Senate on Truman’s civil rights program focused primarily on the revival of FEPC. It should have been, as Truman biographer Robert Ferrell writes, “obviously fair and appropriate.” (Ferrall, 297) The committee would allow African Americans a chance for economic success. Still the Senate refused to pass the mneasure. Opposition came from Southern Democrats and Mid-Western Republicans.

Despite a lack of support for major civil rights legislation, Truman issued an executive order as a temporary solution. Executive Order No. 9980 created a Fair Employment Board within the Civil Service Commission. Its success was debatable because discrimination was often subtle and difficult to prove. Butr historians note some success was evident in the state department and the bureau of printing and engraving. (Ferrall, 297)

Despite the failure in Congress, the 1950 conference was considered a success and prompted the participants to create a permanent organization. At the conference, the coalition decided to form this organization, with a mission of lobbying for the passage of civil rights legislation. The result was the formation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a name that was formally adopted in 1951. The main Washington office would focus on lobbying, while the member organizations would serve in a supportive role, paying dues and educating their members about the proposed civil rights legislation. In practice Wilkins was the head of the new LCCR, although officially the ailing Walter White was the first director. The NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell served as legislative chair, Arnold Aronson as secretary and labor attorney Joseph L. Rauh as LCCR counsel. Randolph still remained focused on the FEPC and decided not to join the LCCR executives. The LCCR, as Wenzel writes, became “the most successful interracial alliance.” (Miller, 53)

The LCCR, created out of the January 1950 conference, “became a force in United States politics.” (Gates, 251) Clarence Mitchell’s lobbying efforts were central to its later success. He spent endless hours roaming the halls of Congress and became known as the “101st Senator.” (Gates, 251) Although the National Council and National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, and then the LCCR worked tirelessly for the creation of a permanent FEPC, their efforts were in vain initially, they found success by playing an important role in getting the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 passed through Congress. In 1964 the FEPC was finally created.

Sources and further reading:

Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, eds., Africana: An A-To-Z Reference of the Movement That Changed America, (Running Press, 2005).

J. J. Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, (Addison-Wesley, 1996)

Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life, (University of Missouri Press, 1996).

Gilbert Jonas, Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909-1969, (Routledge, 2005).

Patrick B. Miller, Therese Steffen, Elisabeth Schäfer-Wünsche, eds. The Civil Rights Movement Revisited: Critical Perspectives on the Struggle, (LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2001).

Nina Mjagkij, ed., Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, (Garland, 2001).

Bettye Collier-Thomas and Vincent P. Franklin, eds., Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, (NYU Press, 2001).

Harry S. Truman, “Remarks to a Delegation From the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization Conference,” January 17th, 1950.

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