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The National Negro Congress (NNC) (1935-ca. 1946) was formed in 1935 at Howard University as a broadly based organization with the goal of fighting for Black liberation; it was the successor to the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, both affiliated with the Communist Party. During the Great Depression, the party worked in the United States to unite black and white workers and intellectuals in the fight for racial justice. This period represented the Party's peak of prestige in African-American communities. NNC was opposed to war, fascism, and discrimination, especially racial discrimination. During the Great Depression era, a majority of Americans faced immense economic problems. Many lost their jobs and as a result, were forced to live at the margins of society. The crisis highlighted inequities for many African Americans, who were unemployed at higher rates than white.
Historically, many black workers were segregated and more often than not, racially discriminated in the labor force. In order to combat racism within their respective jobs, they had to establish a union. However, many of the unions around the depression era had exclusively white members, excluding African Americans from their protection and benefits. Black workers took initiative to unite against racism and classism. "John P. Davis and Communist Party leader James Ford decided to bring together meaningful organizations that would be dedicated in the ongoing fight against racial discrimination." Class does not embody one particular race, but transcends racial borders to integrate many ethnic groups alike to face a similar struggle: a class struggle.
The foundation of the National Negro Congress was a response to the historical oppression African Americans faced in the United States, in particular in the workforce. Given that black workers have been historically marginalized by being exploited from the time when they were slaved, the National Negro Congress advocated for black liberation through the many sectors of the African-American life.The NNC, as Gellman demonstrates, launched a broad and multifaceted assault on racism and economic exploitation. Forging alliances with organized labor, the Communist Party, and even mainstream civil rights groups, the NNC not only drew on the talents and resources of a cross section of organizations but also established a blueprint, Gellman contends, for subsequent generations of black activists. Though the NNC coordinated activities with an array of groups, it forgedParticipants included intellectuals from Howard University, civic and civil rights leaders, labor leaders and religious groups. White participation was not excluded. Black workers affiliated with the National Negro Congress advocated for integration into the larger and better funded unions such as the CIO. Although the CIO supported the foundation of the National Negro Congress to fight for civil rights and against racism, the communist aspect of the Congress deprived both organizations from having strong ties to each other: "During the late 1930s and 1940s, despite the efforts of the National Negro Congress and others, reactionary forces operating in the interest of capital increased their attacks on the CIO. The most backward anti-Communist propaganda was directed at the CIO. This was made more complex by organized labor's positive relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and its support of his policy concerning World War II."
There developed a division between those who supported communism, including its fight on behalf of African Americans, and those who only supported civil rights. With the loss of support from the CIO and AFL, African Americans were excluded from major unions. With the emergence of the National Negro Congress, the African-American community found refuge with activists identifying as communist. especially those who identify themselves as communist. Even with having a safe space to discuss about class struggle, Black workers did not have any radical union that took a stand against capital within the race framework. In spite of not having the support of AFL-CIO, they relied upon the militancy and communist-led organization of the NNC. Aside from challenging the concept of racism, members of the National Negro Congress advocated against the fascism abroad and the new deal in the United States.
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt resulted in a huge economic, political and social reform over the succeeding years. With the implementation of the New Deal, many African Americans in the North believed they had elected a new leader whose ideas were seemed radical. However most of these programs did not have any say or input of the African-American community. Therefore, most of the struggles that were faced for being black in the United States were neglected: "On a whim, Davis attended President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first National Recovery Administration hearing and noticed, in disbelief, that no one represented the interests of African-Americans. He contacted his friend Robert C. Weaver, another Harvard University graduate, and formed the two-man Joint Committee on National Recovery in 1933, challenging Roosevelt's New Deal programs. The two were determined to become the first full-time lobbyists for civil-rights in American history. They traveled the back roads of the deep and dangerous - for a black man - South investigating lynchings, voting rights violations of black Americans, and the squalid working conditions of black agricultural, textile and factory workers"
Because of extensive disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South, the powerful Southern Block in Congress represented only their white constituents. The black community from different sectors of the community began to form their own institution to address issues that pertain within the black experience. The National Negro Congress consisted mainly of Blacks, but not exclusively.
In the course of discussions at the Joint Committee on National Recovery's (JCNR) conference in May 1935 on the economic status of African Americans under the New Deal, John P. Davis and Communist Party activist James W. Ford expressed the need to consolidate the strength of disparate organizations dedicated to fighting racial discrimination. The JCNR conference concluded by forming a committee of sixty prominent activists charged with organizing a National Negro Congress the following year.
In February 1936, the first national meeting of the Congress was held in Chicago. It was a confluence of civic, civil rights, labor, and religious groups from across the nation; over 800 delegates representing 551 organizations and over 3 million constituents attended. A. Philip Randolph was elected President and John P. Davis was elected National Secretary. In keeping with their Popular Front orientation, the Communists in attendance did not attempt to hide their affiliation but consciously deferred to non-Communist delegates.
The foundation of the National Negro Congress is therefore a result and a product of resistance used by the oppressed to confront the national government. Self-determination was a concept that was used as agency for protection against racism as explained in the purpose during the first National Negro Congress in February 1936: "The magnitude, complexity, and danger of the Negro's present condition demands the mobilization of overwhelming mass pressure and force, which can only be achieve through the agency of a National Negro Congress ." Analyzing the current conditions of their experience in the United States allowed African Americans to realize the failings of government institutions. The main leader, A. Philip Randolph, was instrumental in gathering not only socialists and communists but was able to organize massive popular participation by African Americans. By struggling against not only racism but capitalism, the leadership under Randolph was able to forge relationships with white workers and intellectuals. Bridging race gaps among black and white workers, the notion of segregation was often challenged. Issues such as class was a way for ethnic groups to bridge some differences; what was at stake was the root of the economic and political turmoil they were placed in: capital and capitalism.
But in order to cultivate change within the workforce, A. Philip Randolph had to cultivate change through the regulations of the National Negro Congress: "As part of its attempt to bring blacks into the labor movement, the Congress became a leading force for ending the racial restrictions on membership in many unions. In 1934, A. Philip Randolph had urged delegates at the American Federation of Labor convention to order 'the elimination of the color clause and pledge from the constitution and rituals of all trade and industrial unions' and the expulsion of all unions which maintained 'said color bar.'"
The communists believed that working cooperatively could help black and white workers ease racial tensions, rather than competing against each other. among the workers would ease and if unification were to ever happen, it would be accomplished through the struggle of black and white workers. In addition to the racial division that existed among larger, powerful union was the wage black workers were earning in contrast to the white workers. For example, in the book the National Negro Congress: A Reassessment by Lawrence S. Wittner, the author explains the miserable conditions suffered by African-Americans workers and their generally low wages.
"Blacks had a crucial position in the emerging struggle, as well as a vital stake in it. In 1936, there were perhaps as many as 85,000 Negro steelworkers- 20 per cent of the laborers and 6 per cents of the operators in the industry. Restricted to the worst jobs, with intense heat and noxious gages, they also encountered a wide network of racially discriminatory differential - averaged $3.60 per day."
Through the commodification of black workers, industry and unions treated them as bodies that produce profit. The exclusion of black workers from white-dominated unions was used to dehumanize black workers. The National Negro Congress validated the struggle and existence of Black Americans in the United States. Noticing that the National Negro Congress was drifting into left-wing sectionalism, Randolph reinforced the tradition of prioritizing the black community first above organizations and ideologies: "sensing the drift of the Congress toward left-wing sectarianism, A. Philip Randolph fought back in behalf of its traditional aims of racial integrity and black unity... He rejected Congress affiliation with both major parties, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and with the Soviet Union: none, he noted, placed the interests of Negroes first". The interests of numerous radical parties were not founded in the principles of race. As a matter of fact, they only saw class struggle as a problem for Americans. The negligence of race further deprived many African-Americans from amplifying their voice about their experience in the labor-work force. It was something that can be seen as divisive because generally black workers who belonged, if not lower than a poor working class man, to the working class that is considered diversified among its members. Moreover, Randolph believed that if the National Negro Congress were to ever be in the dependency of radical and revolutionary party, it should never be subjugated or controlled by the party for their own advantage: "Appealing to the Congress, he asked for a leadership that would be 'free from intimidation, manipulation or subordination... a leadership which is uncontrolled and responsible to no one but the Negro people." With no tying to any political affiliation, Randolph wanted the National Negro Congress to be free from any biased decision regarding the African-American struggle. By being independent from any political party, he is creating space of grassroots organizing. The interest of the people should come from the people themselves and that is what is Randolph is imploring. The very act of defiance is resisting. Although he advocated for the integration of black workers to the AFL-CIO, Randolph wanted the National Negro Congress to be a separate entity; a space where black workers from the AFL-CIO can use for their affirmation of their struggle as a black working class.
Despite lingering suspicion of Communist involvement, NNC delegates were able to agree on a broad program emphasizing the rights of African Americans to fair employment and housing, union membership and educational opportunities, an end to police brutality and lynching, bringing black laborers together in unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and international and interracial solidarity against fascism. Over the next few years, local NNC chapters in Harlem, Chicago, and elsewhere became locus points for broad-based community activism against racial discrimination.