|Source: Black Leadership Analysis|
The second National Negro Congress convened in Philadelphia's Metropolitan Opera house on October 15-17, 1937. The culminating events of the program on October 17 were broadcast on NBC radio nationwide, and the leading black voice was Asa Philip Randolph, then serving as the President of the National Negro Congress. Randolph was reelected as President of the Congress during this convention. A special feature of the broadcasted program was a two hundred-voice chorus that performed spirituals, including "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," and Mozart's "Gloria in Excelsis." According to the African American publication, The New York Age, the National Negro Congress of 1937 was attended by four thousand delegates.
White Rhetoric. . .
An opening meeting was held at Independence Hall on Oct. 15, and Mayor Samuel Davis Wilson of Philadelphia gave thirteen taps on the Liberty Bell to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery in the United States in 1865. However, the episode of the tapping of the Liberty Bell by Mayor Wilson is suggestive of the very racism that the National Negro Congress was concerned to oppose. Wilson had “tapped” the Liberty Bell before, in 1936 and more recently, on September 17, 1937, when he did so to represent the states that had ratified the Constitution between 1787-1790. Although Wilson presented a wooden mallet to the Congress afterward, his speech was less than satisfying, tainted as it was by a tone of racial condescension. This was particularly clear in his "you people" kind of approach, and his stated expectation that the primary duty of the black Congress was foremost their devotion to the United States Constitution. The Philadelphia Inquirer thus described the episode:
|Mayor Wilson and the Liberty Bell, 1937|
"The one animating motive which brings you to this shrine of independence," Mayor Wilson said to the 400 assembled delegates, "is your devotion to our Constitution. For your race, as representatives of the 15,000,000 colored people in America, you are affirming again your unswerving support of the Constitution and your loyalty to it.”
Not only was this political rhetoric, but more so the expressed presumptuousness of the racist society that Mayor Wilson primarily represented. Certainly, the assembled delegates of the National Negro Congress needed no lecture on devotion to the Constitution. For black people in the United States, reliance upon the Constitution was their last stand against an ever encroaching white supremacy that had come for their rights and freedoms time and again. After all, the delegates and attenders of this event were present because of what was at stake for black freedom in 1937, not the survival of the Constitution of the United States.
. . .And Black Reality
To no surprise, the real concerns that were expressed in the Congress were echoed in A. Philip Randolph's opening remarks, which reportedly were “militantly aggressive” in his “clarion call to Negroes everywhere to unite.” Indeed, the New York Age reported, a “[s]hadow fell over the deliberations of the Congress when Mrs. Ada Wright, mother of Andy Wright of the five imprisoned Scottsboro boys, described her own son's predicament in prison. Also present was Ruby Bates, “star Scottsboro defense witness” and activists working on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned black youths. The arrest and convictions of these five Alabama youths was a travesty of injustice and racism in the South and became one of the crisis episodes leading to the Civil Rights movement.
Other speakers at the Congress included representatives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Most memorable, however, are the presence of Alaine Locke, then head of the Philosophy Department at Howard University and Sterling Brown, renowned in 1937 as a young poet and author. Walter White, the notable NAACP secretary from New York City, was also present.
Shades of Brown
In the newspaper coverage surveyed, there is no mention of John Brown's legacy, although his picture was one of four images suspended before the audience, along with those of Abraham Lincoln, Richard Allen, and Frederick Douglass. The Congress meeting date, October 15-17, resonated with a sense of John Brown, given this was the date of the Harper's Ferry raid some seventy-eight years before. Philadelphia was a major center of black life and antislavery struggle in the 19th century, and the black community in the City of Brotherly Love had always held Brown in cherished memory. Max Barber, of Philadelphia, was the head of the John Brown Memorial Association, a black organization based in that city, and was present at the Congress. Barber was long involved in uplifting Brown's memory. However, as far as the available record is concerned, honoring John Brown in the 1937 National Negro Congress largely was assumed, not spoken. This was well, given the movement of history going forward. Up in Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had just assumed the pastorate of The Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-century was taking on its modern form. John Brown, even in memory, had long served the black community. But the 20th century was a new era, of rising black leaders and voices of reason and militancy that would finally render John Brown a revered relic more than a useful political icon. The times were changing.
Happily, however, the Congress did entail a historical retrospective. In the closing exercise on October 17, a program was held to honor the memory of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Allen's image linked the National Negro Congress to Philadelphia history and the black struggle. Honoring this black Christian leader signified the great problem of the United States--the same problem that John Brown also pushed against in his struggle against slavery: the pervasive racism of the white Christian church.--LD
"National Negro Congress Will Broadcast Program Over Nation-wide Hook-up," Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 9, 1937, p. 24.
"Rev. C. Mills Tells of Negro Congress," New Castle [Pa.] News, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 2.
"Today," Rochester [NY] Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 17, 1937, p. 53.
“4,000 Pack Phlia. Opera House At Opening Session Friday Of National Negro Congress,” The New York Age, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 1.
“Liberty Bell Rung for Negro Session,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 16, 1937, p. 2
“Negroes Pay Honor to Church Founder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 18, 1937, p. 2