Many of the sessions so moved me that tears of joy and satisfaction well-up into my eyes; at times breath became only short-winded gasps. It was great, great, great!” – Rose Mae Withers Catchings to Louis E. Burnham, November 1946, describing the recent All-Southern Youth Conference held by the Southern Negro Youth Congress in Columbia, South Carolina.
The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) lasted only for a relatively brief period in the first half of the twentieth century, but , along with the closely allied National Negro Congress, it has been described by historian Erik Gellman as the “most militant interracial freedom movement since Reconstruction” up to that time. SNYC grew out of the 1936 National Negro Congress meeting and would officially form at a meeting in Richmond, Virginia, in February 1937. At its peak, SNYC operated chapters in ten southern states, and boasted a total membership of nearly 11,000 individuals.
Before it disbanded in 1948 (under pressure from the FBI because of its close ties with the Communist Party USA), SNYC members had been involved in a variety of economic and political organizational efforts including voter registration, anti-lynching campaigns, lobbying of the Fair Employment Practices Committee to end employment discrimination against black workers in the south, sponsorship of a touring political drama performance in the rural south, and labor union organization drives.
One of the largest single meetings of SNYC was the Seventh All-Southern Youth Conference—held at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina between 18 and 20 October 1946—which included thousands of “militant, courageous Negro youth of the South . . . dedicated to the struggle for freedom . . . [and] determined to achieve that freedom in its lifetime.” The conference was billed as a Southern Youth Legislature, but SNYC officials declared that they did “not come together as a mock legislature,” rather, they would “take these laws to the CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES…so that they might have concrete evidence as to what Negro youth wants and will have as law in the United States.”
The legislature formed committees to consider youth and labor, peace, veterans’ affairs, education, and farm problems, held hearings on voting and civil liberties, and then convened as a body to consider committee resolutions.
Some of the most influential black leaders of the early twentieth century also addressed the legislature in the evenings. A last minute illness kept New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., from delivering the keynote address on Friday the 18th, andh is place was taken by Columbia newspaperman and founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, John Henry McCray. Saturday night was capped by a musical performance and speech by international singing and acting and star and outspoken civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
Sunday concluded with a speech entitled “Behold the Land” by W.E.B. DuBois, one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century, delivered to a standing room only crowd in Benedict College’s Antisdel Chapel. In it, DuBois declared the American south the “firing line,” not just for the “emancipation of the American Negro,” but also for the “emancipation of the colored races” of the world and for the “emancipation of the white slaves of modern capitalistic monopoly.” Following his speech, DuBois was presented with a “Book of Reverence,” for his “unparalleled achievements . . . monumental labors . . . and principled struggle on behalf of the Negro people of the United States and the unfree peoples of all the world” by SNYC executive secretary Esther V. Cooper.
Women played a vital role in the operations of SNYC from its inception. On the national level, Esther V. Cooper (later Esther Cooper Jackson) a native of Arlington, Virginia, and a graduate of Oberlin College and Fisk University was the most well-known. She was present at the founding of SNYC and served as the organization’s executive secretary from 1942 through 1946. A. In 1945 Cooper received a Rosenwald Fellowship and represented SNYC at the World Youth Congress in London.
At the time of the Columbia conference, the above quoted Rose Mae Withers Catchings, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native, was the organization’s president and described as the “spokesman of the South’s most articulate youth movement.” At the Columbia legislature she spoke at the Keynote Public Session on Friday evening with John Henry McCray and Clark Foreman, chaired the Peace Committee and the full House of Representatives on Saturday, and delivered the meeting’s closing remarks after DuBois on Sunday.
Dorothy Burnham served as the organization’s educational director beginning in 1941 and was responsible for SNYC’s “research, publication, and publicity.” During the summer of 1946 she also proxied for Esther Cooper at the Paris meeting of the World Federation of Democratic Youth.
Recruitment and advisement on the local level was spearheaded by two women from Benedict College, senior Ethel Bigby and religious education instructor Ethel Williams. Veteran Columbia civil rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins was also heavily involved in SNYC activities in South Carolina in 1946. She served on the national organization’s advisory board and was the organizational force behind a ten day Leadership Training School conducted at Harbison Junior College in Irmo, South Carolina, in August 1946. This school featured daily courses on black history and world affairs and practical classes focused on political organizing.
Below are details of the biographies of women included in the “Souvenir Journal” issued by SNYC for the 1946 conference:
Beginning on the evening of Thursday, 20 October, Columbia SC 63, the University of South Carolina’s History Center and Center for Civil Rights History and Research and the South Carolina Progressive Network are sponsoring a three day event to commemorate the Seventieth Anniversary of this monumental event in Columbia.
Thursday, 20 October 2016, 6:00-9:00 PM: David Levering-Lewis, Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University will deliver a lecture at Benedict College’s Antisdel Chapel, the same location from which W.E.B. DuBois delivered his “Behold the Land” speech in 1946. Levering-Lewis has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, one for each volume of his biography of W.E.B. DuBois (published in 1994 and 2001).
Friday, 21 October 2016, 9:00 AM-12:00 PM: Two public panels, “Reflections on the Southern Negro Youth Congress: Columbia 1946” (9:00-10:15) and “SNYC and Its Legacy: Civil Rights, Youth Activism, and Black Lives Matter” (10:30-12:00) featuring scholars and activists at the Hilton Columbia Center Hotel. Dorothy Burnham, now 101 years old and an attendee of the 1946 SNYC meeting will be present.
Saturday, 22 October 2016, 3:00-7:00: Public panel, “Reconstructing South Carolina’s Radical Roots: Lessons of the 1946 Southern Negro Youth Congress,” focusing on the history of Harbison Junior College, training sessions run there by Modjeska Simkins and SNYC in August 1946, the radical nature of the SNYC, and the continuation of Simkins’s and SNYC’s vision and activities in today’s Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights and the South Carolina Progressive Network. This event will be held at the Midlands Technical College – Harbison Campus, originally the campus of Harbison Junior College. Reception to follow. No registration required.