From 1938 to 1948, the Birmingham-based Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) tried to bring long-overdue New Deal-inspired reforms to the South. In particular, the organization was committed to improving social justice and civil rights and instituting electoral reform in the region by repealing the poll tax. Perhaps the most noteworthy of a number of organizations that grew out of the movement for regional reform in the 1930s, the SCHW folded because of funding problems and charges of harboring Communist sympathies, but it laid the groundwork for future civil rights activism.
Turpentine Camp The SCHW arose at a time of anemic economic recovery in the South during the later years of the Great Depression. By 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that his New Deal programs, a number of which aimed to modernize the South, were failing to take hold in the region. Eager to unite southern liberals behind his effort, Roosevelt convened a body of scholars and writers to investigate economic and social conditions in their region. Their ensuing publication, A Report on the Economic Conditions of the South, detailed the region’s desperate poverty. It also declared that the region was “the nation’s number one economic problem,” because of low industrial and farm wages, low family incomes, and few public services.
The report was nearing completion when Roosevelt was visited by Joseph Gelders and Lucy Randolph Mason, two of the South’s most determined reformers. Gelders, an organizer for the International Labor Defense, was a Birmingham native who worked tirelessly to eliminate poverty and racism in the South, and Mason, who hailed from a well-to-do Virginia family, was the public-relations representative for the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) in the South. Gelders had long envisioned a region-wide conference to address the repression of civil liberties in southern cities, and in Mason and Roosevelt he found a receptive audience. Roosevelt saw in a conference the opportunity to publicize the grim findings of the report and possibly rally more southern support behind the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt, always a more enthusiastic supporter than her husband, warmed to the idea immediately and widened its scope, suggesting that the conference address all of the problems afflicting the South, including segregation, limited educational opportunities, and low wages.
Clifford and Virginia Durr The Southern Conference for Human Welfare held its inaugural meeting in Birmingham on November 20, 1938, in the Municipal Auditorium. The attendees consisted of leading southern liberals, including Supreme Court justice Hugo Black; Aubrey Williams of the Works Progress Administration; Mary McLeod Bethune, James Dombrowski, one of the organizers of the Highlander Folk School; Alabama governor Bibb Graves; and activist Virginia Foster Durr. During three days of panel discussions, the conference drew from throughout the South delegates who addressed labor relations, credit, education, farm tenancy, the poll tax, and constitutional rights.
Roughly one-quarter of the 1,200 delegates were African American, and a number of them spoke publicly at the program. Whereas the liberal aspirations of the conference already provided plenty of fodder for its critics, its interracial nature was particularly unsettling for many white southerners. In fact, the conference was interrupted on its second day by Birmingham’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who famously informed attendees that they were forbidden to “segregate together.” The participants reluctantly complied, seating whites on one side of the auditorium and African Americans on the other. The conference did not immediately challenge segregation, but it did condemn the enforced segregation within Birmingham. The incident garnered widespread negative publicity for the conference in local newspapers, and some prominent politicians left the organization after the Birmingham meeting.
Many politicians also left the SCHW after its inaugural meeting because of rumors that the organization was a Communist front. In the 1930s, charges of Communist infiltration were almost always linked to liberalism on the race issue, especially in the South. Given its pro-labor stance and its interracial nature, the SCHW was a natural target for anti-Communist critics. Although most delegates at the first meeting came from solidly white, middle-class backgrounds, and few if any delegates were admitted Communists, such charges haunted the organization throughout its short life.
A far bigger problem for the organization than its critics was a chronic shortage of funds. Financial woes forced the cancellation of the 1939 meeting, and the SCHW continually struggled to pay the modest salaries of its small staff. Not until the months after World War II, when the organization held a series of fundraisers that often featured celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles, did its finances begin to improve significantly. Bolstered by their success, the officers voted in 1946 to create the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), which would be the educational arm of the SCHW. James Dombrowski of the Highlander Folk School became director of the SCEF and edited its newspaper, the Southern Patriot. The following year, the SCEF became a separate organization and actually survived the SCHW by a number of years; it was particularly active during the civil rights movement. The SCEF differed from the SCHW primarily in that it was nonpolitical; whereas the SCHW tended to work through political channels, the SCEF worked largely through teaching and publishing. The main thrust of its work was to eradicate segregation in the South’s schools and colleges.
Joseph Gelders At roughly the same time that the SCEF was formed, membership in its parent organization began to decline. Many labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO, felt pressured to disavow Communism or anything that suggested radicalism. As the unions distanced themselves from the SCHW, both financially and ideologically, the organization was effectively crippled. The SCHW had long refused to take a hard anti-Communist stance, a position that marked it as a sanctuary for radicals and for which it paid dearly in the postwar years, when it was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even some of its most stalwart supporters, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, began to distance themselves from the organization, unable to weather the criticism.
The SCHW became badly divided internally over whether to support Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace or President Harry Truman, the Democratic nominee, in the presidential election of 1948. SCHW officers met in November 1948 and voted to end the floundering organization.
By most standards, the SCHW could be judged a failure. Its ranks were comprised of so many strands of liberalism that it was nearly impossible to develop a coherent agenda. It never became the mass organization that it wanted and needed to be, and most of its membership was drawn from the middle and upper classes of the South, rather than from the rural and urban working class that could have benefitted most from its work. Most of its initiatives failed, and it never succeeded in ushering in a New Deal-inspired liberal revolution in the South. It remained for a later generation to overturn Jim Crow segregation, and the disfranchisement of African American voters was not seriously challenged until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the short-lived organization was that it existed at all.
The SCHW was significant, however, because it provided one of the earliest interracial public voices against segregation. It was a model of interracial cooperation at a time when Jim Crow was still deeply entrenched in southern culture. The South is often seen as a bastion of conservatism, but for a brief period in the 1930s and early 1940s, a vibrant strand of liberalism ran through southern politics and culture; the SCHW was one of the fullest expressions of southern liberal thought.
- Durr, Virginia Foster. Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr. 1985. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
- Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
- Krueger, Thomas A. And Promises to Keep: The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, 1938-1948. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.
- McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.