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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 >>

The Southern Regional Council transitioned to operating with a board of directors

The Southern Regional Council transitioned from seeking a mass membership to operating as a board of directors, but its leaders still sought black participation. Johnson oversaw a project to reform freight rates in the South without relying on federal intervention. One of the SRC speakers happened to speak against seeking help from the Roosevelts just before learning that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.

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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.

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And as time went on, it was obvious that this sort of thing was actually a financial burden. That if you promised them New South plus the pamphlets, pretty soon you were going to be paying more in printing and postage and so forth to service these people than you were getting from them on the average. And so we began to recede from this idea of a mass membership. And later on, as you may know, sometime up in the years after I left there, they made this new policy official, that there be no more members as such, and they went back precisely to the thing that the old Commission had, namely that the Council is a big board of directors. So, that little experiment in mass membership didn't pan out at all.
Do you have an idea what the proportion of blacks and whites . . . black and white response, was? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: No, I don't. Many of them would be people that some of us knew and we could tell, but there were many just little ordinary people who just wanted to pay their dollar and we had no way of knowing what their race was. I suspect that the majority were white, because certainly the mailing lists that we bought were much more likely to have white names on them, I think. You know, people's names would be on the list in the first place because they belonged to some organization or they subscribed to some journal or something of that sort, and they were likely to be white. Well, let's see, in '45, with the war closing, when we thought that we could see the war winding down (it was still pretty hot in the Pacific) . . . I organized a conference on the post-war South. Now, you know the Southern Conference in its original meeting had emphasized the South, Problem Number One. And I wanted this conference to emphasize The South, Economic Opportunity Number One. So, that was our subhead, you see, The Post-War South, Economic Opportunity Number One. Well, the idea behind this was that this would be something bigger than just race, I kept trying to get back to Odom's notion, you know, that this Council ought to be something besides race relations. And this turned out to be almost impossible. Sometimes I would propose something to the executive committee and one of the black members would say, "Well, that's not relevant enough to our problems." And some of them felt this way about that conference. And I had to argue with them and tell them that it would be open to everybody, that we wanted black participation. So, they finally authorized it. We got busy, we got some businessmen, lawyers, educators, black and white, or at least we invited them. And we set it up at the Biltmore Hotel. We had a morning session and an afternoon session. We had some government people there. And we got an expert on freight rates. This was one of our little non-racial ideas. You may not be aware of the long standing freight rate situation, by which ever since the Civil War, the Northeast has dominated this. And with Pittsburgh owning the Birmingham steel works, if you were an Atlanta contractor getting steel out of Birmingham, you paid precisely the same amount as you would have from Pittsburg. Now, to some of us, this was about as dirty as you could get. But all done under the authority of the Federal government, the Interstate Commerce Commission and all that. And we went in with some other organizations as parties to a law suit to try to get a federal court ruling on this, and they turned us down. So, we thought, "Well, we will try to make a little splash in this conference." So we had this expert, a lawyer on freight rates, to make one of the leading speeches. And he got a right good press on it and I think that it had a little bit of effect later on in stirring up the southern governors. This was really the key. So damn many of these people were a part of this whole business structure, you know, that they didn't much care for reform in freight rates. But finally, you got the southern governors a little agitated about it, and then later, years later, the Federal government did change these rates. They are much more equitable today. Well, this was one of our little notions. And then we had people talking about industry, post-war employment problems, I think that someone talked about returning veterans and what have you. And we had a young man down from Washington who had been a researcher for one of the Congressional commissions, I think the McCarran Commission. He had done a very good job, and he was very much up on all kinds of economic, industrial conditions, trade, cotton economy, and all sorts of things.
McCarran? Dr. GUY B. JOHNSON: I think that's what it was. Now, what this was about, I don't remember, but they had a report that was considered very important. It probably had something to do with trade and commerce. Well, I thought that it was a very interesting program. But, it turned out that only a couple of blacks came. Here we had hoped to get people like P.B. Young, Gordon Hancock from Richmond, and all kinds of people to come. And whites came from long distances, we had a good crowd. We had a Negro businessman from Florida, he had a little part on the program and I guess that is the reason that he came. And there were one or two others, and that was all. But we had a good program and good press and then later, we put together the main papers and got out our little publication called The South, Economic Opportunity Number One. Oh, an interesting thing happened. Right at the end of this meeting (this was in April of 1945, April 12 or 11) . . . this young man from Washington had been talking, he was the last speaker. And he did a very good job. He was a Yankee, he was not a southerner. I had not known him before, just a little contact after he had come to Atlanta. And he wound up something like this . . . "Of course, the problems in the South are, in the final analysis, going to have to be solved by the people in the South. Don't put too much reliance on the federal government or the New Deal or anything up there. They can do something, but they are not going to solve these problems. Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt are not going to solve them. They are your friends, but they can't solve them. You are not going to solve anything by going up to Washington to have tea with Mrs. Roosevelt." Those were practically his last words. And then I got up and thanked everybody and adjourned the meeting. And we were going out into the lobby and someone came running and said, "Mr. Roosevelt is dead."