I was drawn to the work of the Southern Regional Council because of its distinguished progressive history, and because of a strong family connection to this history.
The Council traces its origins to 1919. In that year, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation was founded in Atlanta in response to the epidemic of racial violence that swept the country in that year. This epidemic included the landmark Chicago race riot, which was the occasion for Charles S. Johnson’s first major publication, The Negro in Chicago.
Throughout the 1920’s, the Commission mediated and organized concerned citizens willing to work to improve race relations in the South. This work included a campaign to reshape the coverage of African Americans in the media. In the 1930’s, the Commission initiated the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Notable Commission publications during the period included The Tragedy of Lynching by Arthur Raper, as well as two works that are widely credited as having helped to shape rural policy during the Roosevelt Administration: Sharecroppers All, by Ira Reid and Arthur Raper, and The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy by Charles S. Johnson.
Toward the end of the Second World War, Southern progressives felt the need "to attain through research and action the ideals and practices of equal opportunity for all peoples of the region." In 1944, following a series of meetings of Black and White leaders, the Commission was transformed into the Southern Regional Council. The Council’s first President was Howard Odum, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. The first Chair of the Council’s Executive Committee was Charles S. Johnson, who then served as President of Fisk University. Some of the Council’s early funding came from Dr. Johnson’s contacts in the philanthropic community.
In the ensuing years, the Council worked in the courts and in local communities to encourage speedy desegregation of public schools; formed a Task Force on Hunger which helped to shape the Food Stamp Program; supported rural economic development through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives; began the registration of two million voters through the Voter Education Project; worked to implement the Voting Rights Act through the development of redistricting plans and by encouraging the election of African Americans to public office; chronicled the Civil Rights Movement through its award-winning audio series “Will the Circle Be Unbroken"; celebrated progressive writing about the South through the Lillian Smith Book Awards; and exposed barriers to civic participation throughout the South.
The Council’s recent work has followed a progressive path that was charted long ago by leading Southern progressives, including my grandfather Charles S. Johnson. I am honored to be among those continuing along that path in a new century.