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The Continued Relevance of Essays on Civil Rights by Prominent African American Intellectuals

Published in 1944, What the Negro Wants was a direct and emphatic call for the end of segregation and racial discrimination that set the agenda for the Civil Rights Movement to come. With essays by fourteen prominent African American intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Roy Wilkins, the book explored the policies and practices that could be employed to achieve equal rights and opportunities for Black Americans.

Originally gathered together by distinguished Howard University historian Rayford W. Logan in 1944, our edition of the book includes Rayford Logan’s introduction, a new introduction by Kenneth Janken, and an updated bibliography. It is part of our African American Intellectual Heritage series.

In order to share these voices more widely, the University of Notre Dame Press has released an ebook version.

Kenneth Janken has written a guest post to explore the relevance of the book to today’s continuing struggle against racism and inequality.

This spring’s and summer’s wave-upon-wave of protests against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, Confederate and other racist monuments, and for Black Lives Matter have stimulated among organizations and individuals, participants, and observers a search for historical insight into what many believe is a pivotal moment. The work of intellectuals who are in or observe the movement is in increased demand, as can be seen here, here, here, and here, to offer only four different perspectives. University of Notre Dame Press’s re-issue as an e-book of the 1944 classic collection What the Negro Wants offers the interested public still another point of comparison to another movement stimulated by earthshaking change.

As I wrote in my introduction to UND Press’s 2001 reprint of the collection, What the Negro Wants “was a programmatic milestone in the history of the Civil Rights Movement…”

What the Negro Wants, a collection of essays by fourteen African American leaders, was edited by Rayford Logan, the prominent African American historian at Howard University. It went beyond other well-known books by African Americans on the race question published over the previous fifteen years.…The contributors[,]…prominent African Americans of all political persuasions and from the South as well as the North declared that segregation must end. The debate in the post-World War II era would no longer be about reforming the old system but about constructing a new one.

While the publication history of What the Negro Wants, its critical reception by Blacks and by different white audiences, reveals much about the United States at the end of WWII and hints at the mass struggle for civil rights that was little more than a decade off, I wish to use the occasion of the e-edition to adumbrate two themes in the collection that have particular relevance to today.

First, while the contributors’ unanimity on the demand for an immediate end to Jim Crow segregation quickened the emerging consensus that animated the Civil Rights Movement through the mid-1960s, the agreement did not extend to the entirety of African American political life.  Considerable differences remained concerning tactics, strategy, and ideology. They were not insignificant and, in many ways, were tied to class position, geographic location, and institutional affiliations and the ways those institutions were connected to other parts of American society. These differences were not papered over with slogans or generic calls for freedom, but rather were openly probed, argued, and defended in numerous venues over the years, including journals, newsletters, newspapers, meetings, and public conferences, and involved not only specialists but also the general educated and interested public.

The unanimity was stimulated by new conditions brought on by three years of America’s participation in WWII and the domestic and international contradictions the war sharpened. The demand for national unity to defeat fascism abroad increasingly could not be squared with national, regional, and local policies relegating African Americans to second-class status, denying them the franchise in the South and decent and equal treatment in the spheres of housing, education, medicine, and employment everywhere and enforcing subordination with the swing of the policeman’s truncheon. The masses’ rejection of the status quo took shape in the Double-V campaign—victory against fascism abroad and at home—pioneered, not incidentally, by some the contributors to What the Negro Wants. And as an Allied victory took shape in 1944, it also became increasingly clear that the international status quo was indefensible, and the peace would have to be founded on the ideal of a decolonized world of independent and equal nations.

Which leads to the second theme: The contributors expressed and explained their demands with great attention to their historical moment.  Their analysis did not make claims that invoked resistance to a timeless racism or white supremacy. They explained how these scourges supported distinct economic and political systems that enriched the nation’s elites, the titans of industry, agriculture, and finance. Labor historian and college president Charles Wesley’s essay, “The Negro Has Always Wanted the Four Freedoms,” paid homage to African Americans’ centuries-long resistance to oppression but situated their changing actions and demands in specific historical periods. Trade unionist and Congress of Industrial Organizations leader Willard Townsend wrote in “One American Problem and a Possible Solution” of the fight against exploitation before and after Emancipation and during the Reconstruction, the establishment of Jim Crow, and the Great Depression and war, identifying both similarities and discontinuities. W.E.B. Du Bois’s “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” described his efforts to descry a plan that accorded to changing material and ideological conditions, not a static system.

What endures from What the Negro Wants is the approach of the contributors to the matters before them. They situated their answer to the question, What does the Negro want? in their understanding of the historical processes that brought the country to the convulsive point in which they found themselves. Their demand was unqualified. Rayford Logan in his essay, “The Negro Wants First-Class Citizenship,” rejected the notion of a gradual solution or one that was limited by white southern sensibilities and the responses of those African American political figures who felt pressure to conciliate them. In “Certain Unalienable Rights,” Mary McLeod Bethune compared the 1943 uprising in Harlem in response to reports of the beating of a Black soldier by a policeman to the Boston Tea Party as well as to India’s campaign against British imperialism. Willard Townsend cautioned against a narrow emphasis on the disparity of Black workers’ conditions compared to whites: were we to eliminate the wage differential between African Americans in the South (where the majority lived) and southern whites, that would still leave all southern workers (and not just southern) well below the wage required to support a family of five, while leaving the capitalists’ wealth largely undisturbed. While fighting all manifestations of racist discriminatory treatment (and encouraging white workers to join the fight), like disfranchisement, exclusion of Blacks from membership in labor unions or their relegation to segregated and powerless union locals, a color bar in employment, their exclusion by law, regulation, or custom from social benefits, and against the state’s or the mob’s naked use of force to quell African Americans’ discontent, black workers needed to embrace an “aggressive” union movement to organize the entire working class to restrict the system of private profit, which is at the root of exploitation. On balance, the approach of the collection, worth bearing in mind today, places racism not outside history, but studies it as part of historical processes and political economy.

Kenneth Janken is a professor in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina. He wrote new introductions to the 2001 edition of What the Negro Wants and the 2002 edition of Walter White’s classic study of lynching, Rope and Faggot, both published by University of Notre Dame Press. He is the author of Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual; White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP; and The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s. You can reach him at krjanken@email.unc.edu.

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