They met 76 years ago today. In 1942 America, race relations were not going well. The United States was at war overseas, but there were social battles taking place throughout the South, too.
Blacks and whites from everywhere in the South came together in Durham, North Carolina for a meeting called the Southern Conference on Race Relations.
These were men looking for a way forward for blacks in America. They felt the survival of American society was in the balance.
Blacks coming back from World War I did not experience the same respect and admiration as the white soldiers. These brave and patriotic men returned to a segregated society where they were treated as second-class citizens.
The members of the conference wanted to change that so that the soldiers returning from World War II would have a different experience.
Here is a small part of the statement of purpose for the conference: “Let us bear ever in mind that the soul of the South and nation are at stake no less than the fortunes of the Negro race…Should our just demands be denied by the white South, we can still appeal to the conscience of the nation; and failing here, we can appeal to the Supreme Court of History, before the Great White Throne of the Future. Oppressed groups of whatever persuasion have always the assurance that in their struggles for deliverance they have Time and Right and God on their side…”
What came out of the meetings was called the “Durham Manifesto,” and here are some of the main proposals that were reached:
1. Under Political and Civil Rights, they advocated for full voting rights for black citizens, the removal of the poll tax and the elimination of white primaries (only whites could vote in primaries, so their candidates were always the choice in the general election).
They also included a very specific recommendation concerning the police and blacks: “Civil rights include personal security against abuses of police power by white officers of the law. These abuses, which include wanton killings, and almost routine beatings of Negroes, whether they be guilty or innocent of an offense, should be stopped now, not only out of regard for the safety of Negroes, but of common respect for the dignity and fundamental purpose of the law.”
In a similar vein, they discussed lynchings: “Although there has been, over the years, a decline in lynchings, the practice is still current in some areas of the South [at least 3,959 lynchings of African-Americans in twelve southern states between 1877 and 1950, including 76 in Virginia], and substantially, even if indirectly, defended by resistance to Federal legislation designed to discourage the practice.”
The conference members also opposed the usual practice of the exclusion of blacks from serving on juries.
2. Under Industry and Labor, they recommended equal pay for equal work for blacks, their inclusion in all “unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled branches of work” and the rejection of barring blacks from labor unions.
3. For “Service Occupations,” they suggested “a wholesome environment, living accommodations, food, uniforms and rest rooms, all of an approved standard.” They also recommended “the ability to organize labor unions and provisions for old age insurance, unemployment compensation, workmen’s compensation, the wage and hour act, and other benefits of Social Security legally provided to workers of other categories.”
4. Under Education, positions taken included greater expenditures for the education of blacks. They did not push for desegregation (that would take about 10-plus years to get through the courts and about 25-30 years to become a reality). They also felt black teachers should be compensated at the same rate as white ones.
5. With Social Welfare and Health, they felt that there should be “mandatory provisions that a proportion of the facilities in all public hospitals be available for Negro patients.” They also advocated that black doctors, nurses and social workers be given equal opportunities to work.
These are only a handful of the recommendations made at the conference. It is interesting to see how far our country has come since 1942, but also how far we have to go. Just think, the same KKK that was lynching black people then marched through the streets of Charlottesville last year.
In November, we have the chance to vote for men and women who want to continue the journey toward equal rights for ALL Americans throughout the country.
Of course, that is for people who get that chance to vote—there are allegedly attempts in Georgia, Florida, North Dakota (Native Americans) and elsewhere to suppress minority voting.
Let’s also remember the problem of racial gerrymandering in Virginia that has yet to be resolved.
We should feel the same urgency today that was expressed in the Durham Manifesto. Part of the conclusion of the Manifesto says it best: “Local issues in the South, while admittedly holding many practical difficulties, must be met wisely and courageously if this Nation is to become a significant political entity in a new international world…Herein rests the chance to reveal our greatest weakness or our greatest strength.”
As with many of our forefathers (and mothers), let us choose strength.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.