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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, December 16, 1974. Interview B-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Black activists should have built a broader base in the 1930s

Guy Johnson analyzes the effectiveness of the NAACP and black activism in general in the late 1930s. He argues that black organizations should have been more militant and that the NAACP should have done more to build a broad base of support and provide voter education.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, December 16, 1974. Interview B-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

At the time that you were pretty disillusioned with these voluntary interracial organizations to do anything about racial problems, what did you see as possible solutions? Where would you have looked for hope? In the '30's, say? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: Well, I thought along two lines there. One was that the black people themselves, if they really organized and worked hard at it, could do a great many things themselves that were not being done. And secondly, that blacks could be more outspoken and militant than they actually were and still get away with it. I think that there was a strong tendency for them to overplay the caution and the "don't rock the boat stuff, you know". And if somehow, they could have raised the whole level of . . . well, militancy, gone up the scale a little bit, the world wouldn't have gone to pieces, they wouldn't have been lynched. In other words, I thought they were too cautious. And then thirdly, I felt that until there was really some basic change in the structural situations, in other words, the legal aspects, that things wouldn't really see any drastic change.
Were you ever involved at all in the NAACP? Which was working to change the legal . . . Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: No, I would send them a contribution occasionally, and that was considered sort of daring. You wouldn't advertise it.
Were there strong NAACP chapters in North Carolina? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: No. For a long, long time, there were scarcely any in the South. Some of the larger cities might have one. And they never had their annual convention in the South until 1939.
They had it in Atlanta? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: No, they had it in Richmond. That was the first time. That recalls an incident which involves meetings in the South and also involves me and the NAACP. I had been asked by the Virginia State College for Negroes to give their commencement address in 1939. And I prepared this address, or I started, and I was greatly delayed by other things, one of which was getting ready to go to New York and starting to work for Myrdal. And I finished writing this speech partly on the bus going to Petersburg and then put the finishing touches on it in a classroom at the college after I got there. So, I just had the one manuscript copy. I gave the address and it was on Negro leadership and strategy. And the basic point was this, that the NAACP for all its leadership and efforts in this legal field, lacks a really big, broad base of support among the black masses, especially in the South, where they need it the worst. So, I praised them for what they had done and the legal tests they brought and the cases they had won and all this. But I said that I thought they were weak in terms of adult education, of trying to sell their program to the common people. And I said, well, for instance, they have never had an annual meeting in the South. And I know that this goes against the grain, but if they are out front working for these black people in the South, then I think that their leaders might suffer a little inconvience and hold a meeting in the South and get a look at things. Well, I went on like this. And another illustration was this, that if you could get rid of say, the poll tax, and allow many more blacks to vote, someone ought to be paying attention to how many of them actually take advantage of this. And you ought to have a program out there to get them to vote and teach them something about participation.