Southern Regional Council
Established in 1944, the Southern Regional Council (SRC) grew out of a series of meetings between black and white members of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) who were searching for an alternative approach to remedying the ills of southern society. The CIC was founded in 1919 by “southerners of good will” who wanted to end racial violence and create racial harmony in the South in light of post-World War I racial tensions. Waning in popularity and support among white liberals and black moderates, the CIC was on the verge of collapse by the early 1940s until its executive director, Jessie Daniel Ames, set forth a plan to reconcile the different agendas and demands of southern blacks and whites in order to revitalize the organization. The result was the creation of the SRC, an interracial council devoted to “regional” research and development. Taking over the CIC’s financial assets and its headquarters in Atlanta, the SRC was headed by a president and four vice presidents as well as two governing bodies, a board of directors, and an executive committee. In contrast to the CIC, the SRC attempted to divide equally the membership of the board of directors and the executive committee between blacks and whites in order to demonstrate its commitment to interracial activism. SRC also continued the tradition of being financed by northern foundations and the contributions of its members.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Guy B.Johnson and President Howard Odum, white sociologists at the University of North Carolina; Executive Committee Chairman Charles S.Johnson, a black sociologist and president of Fisk University; and Associate Director Ira De A.Reid, a black sociology professor at Atlanta University, the SRC worked to solve “southern” problems without casting them in terms of race. As Odum noted, the SRC’s aim was to administer programs that would benefit the disadvantaged classes of the South rather than just African Americans, in the hopes of building consensus for racial reform in the process. Taking this regional approach, the SRC incorporated most of the CIC’s programs including the support of state and local interracial committees, the cooperation and assistance of church and women’s groups, the continuation of publications such as The Southern Frontier., and the adoption of educational programs for improving race relations. But more significantly, the SRC also adopted the CIC’s position on segregation. Believing that social equality was a long-term goal, the leaders of the organization recognized that the New Deal and World War II had strengthened white southerner’s commitment to the separation of the races and that the immediate goal of the SRC should focus attention on what it could do immediately to improve the lives of all the region’s people.
However, just as in the CIC, the issue of segregation proved divisive for the SRC. Within a month after its founding, the SRC was bombarded with dissenting voices concerning its ideology and approach to the racial situation in the South. Among those who spoke out against SRC were novelist Lillian Smith and English Professor J. Saunders Redding, arguing that the organization's attempts to conciliate the white power structure made its actions suspect and that the SRC needed to set an example by publicly denouncing segregation. At the same time that the SRC was criticized for not being liberal enough to eliminate segregation, the organization was under attack by white conservatives like David Clark, editor of The Textile Bulletin, who believed that the SRC was fomenting subversive activity by promoting racial cooperation. Heeding these outside pressures, the SRC chose to reexamine its policies as early as 1947. However, it was not until 1951 that the board of directors adopted a resolution that clearly outlined the organization's intention to work for an American society free of racial discrimination. Accordingly, segregation was no longer an acceptable practice and every individual deserved the opportunity to "enjoy a full share of dignity and self-respect."
One of the SRC’s main purposes was the gathering and dissemination of information as part of its goal to educate private citizens and public officials on a wide range of issues including civil rights, segregation and desegregation, police brutality, violence, unemployment, housing, suffrage, and racism. The SRC’s Information and Research Departments collected materials such as newspaper articles and literature about the South, conducted surveys of southern communities, and drafted reports on their findings. Closely tied to the Information and Research Departments was the Publication Department through which the SRC disseminated the information and data it collected. The SRC’s main publication was The Southern Frontier, first published by the CIC, which experienced several name changes throughout the 1960s and 1970s but remained the primary source of information on the organizations activities and programs. In addition to its serial publications, the SRC published a wide range of pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, and special reports to publicize the findings of the Information and Research Departments. Another significant publication was the SRC’s series of Leadership Reports, produced and distributed between 1959 and 1964. These reports dealt almost entirely with school desegregation and overall problems of race relations in the South during that period.
Though serving as a clearinghouse of information remained vital to the SRC’s goals, the organization also continued to support the work of the state and local interracial committees first established by the CIC. Under the leadership of the SRC, these state and local groups changed their names to Councils on Human Relations, a transformation that helped to emphasize the SRC’s commitment to regional development of all peoples of the South. Maintaining their original purpose, these councils encouraged individuals to join interracial activities and create specific programs to alleviate problems in their communities. The work of the state and local Councils on Human Relations proved vital to the success of the SRC in carrying out its goals and programs on the local level.
The Veterans Services Project, which operated between 1944 and 1951, was the first large-scale program initiated by the SRC. Recognizing that postwar racial tensions could destroy any hope of racial conciliation in the South, the SRC launched this project to gather statistics and other information pertinent to the reintegration of returning World War II veterans, especially African American veterans. Through this project, the SRC investigated possibilities for employment, job training, resumption of high school and college education, housing, and financing of small businesses for ex-military personnel. Furthermore, by documenting the number of black and white veterans who were taking advantage of these opportunities, the SRC could assist federal, state, and private agencies in redirecting their programs to include more eligible veterans.
One of the most important lessons learned from the Veterans Services Project was the extent of labor problems in the South. Addressing the issues of workmen’s and unemployment compensation, protective legislation, job discrimination, job training, and unions through various means, the SRC decided that it was essential to initiate a program that specifically focused on labor issues. Therefore in 1965, in cooperation with the National Institute for Labor Education and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the SRC established the Labor Education Program. Working until 1973, the Labor Education Program volunteers struggled to expand southern labor unions to make them more inclusive of minorities and women and promoted the economic development of the South, best exemplified in the creation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1968.
In the field of civil rights, the SRC took great strides after 1951 to redress racial inequalities in southern society. Apprehensive of direct action, the SRC decided to focus on eliminating the barriers to African American suffrage and investigating the impact of segregation on African American education. Under the auspices of its Councils on Human Relations, the SRC embarked on a campaign to survey the extent of desegregation of southern schools after the Supreme Courts 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Reporting their findings to local, state, and federal agencies, the SRC was able to assist in the evaluation of the progress of desegregation efforts in southern communities. Given the violent reaction among southern extremists to the Brown decision and the slow course of desegregation, many local and state Councils on Human Relations launched petitions to endorse immediate or gradual adoption of federal school desegregation policy. Because so many public school systems opted to close schools rather than desegregate them, the SRC supported the 1958 Help Our Public Education (HOPE) program, initiated by the parents of black Atlanta school children who sought to keep Georgia’s public schools open. In 1959, the SRC expanded its support of local desegregation efforts and conceived the Save Our Schools campaign for other southern states to be carried out by local and state Councils on Human Relations.
Turning to the extension of voting rights for African Americans, the SRC joined with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Urban League (NUL), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in the creation of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in 1962. With the expressed purpose of educating poor and black southerners about their voting rights and assisting them in registering to vote, the VEP helped to increase voter rolls in the South by 11 percent by April 1963. The SRC served as a clearinghouse for information gathered during the project and provided strategy-planning and administration for the organizations involved. After the initial voter registration campaign of 1963, the VEP expanded its efforts to include citizenship training, educational conferences, support of black candidates, and the publication of voter registration materials. The VEP continued as part of the SRC until 1970, when federal law prohibited voter registration organizations from receiving more than 25 percent of its funding from a single source. After separating from the VEP, the SRC continued its commitment to voter equality through a number of campaigns including the Southern Legislative Research Council, which provided aid to black elected officials throughout the South; a 1979 redistricting project, which sought to improve voter participation in more than 2,000 jurisdictions in the South; and a 1982 voter education project, which led to the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In the late 1960s, the SRC came under fire again as critics condemned the council for challenging civil rights organizations that purged whites from their ranks and for rejecting the violent tactics of some black power activists. Many southern black leaders believed that the SRC had become little more than a sounding board for white progressivism and believed that its policies no longer reflected a true commitment to racial equality. These charges were symptomatic of the country’s changing racial climate and created tensions between the SRC’s black staff members and white administrators. The SRC’s response was to step away from the front lines of racial reform and refocus attention on its role as a clearinghouse of information in order to achieve its goal of promoting racial justice, protecting democratic rights, and broadening civic participation in the South.
The SRC expanded its range of concerns, collecting information and publishing a variety of reports on issues such as hunger, public health, migrant labor, and prison and urban conditions. In the 1970s, the SRC initiated a “governmental monitoring project” to study the social impact of federal laws and political agendas. In the 1980s, the SRC became an avid critic of the Reagan administration’s federal policies on welfare, voting rights, and affirmative action. Throughout the 1990s, the SRC sponsored a number of programs including Community Fellows for Public School Change and the Mississippi Delta Principals Institute, which promoted education reform, and Experts-in-Training, which sought to preserve minority voting rights. Moreover, the SRC provided leadership training and technical assistance to AmeriCorps, the volunteer organization established in 1993 by President Bill Clinton that incorporated Volunteers in Service to America and National Civilian Community Corps. In 1994, the SRC launched a landmark civil rights radio documentary project titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” as part of an educational program to assist the American public in understanding civil rights issues of the past and the future. Debuting in 1997 on Public Radio International, this award-winning radio documentary series traced the civil rights movement of five southern cities through first-person narratives.
From its inception, the SRC has remained true to its policy of regional development by helping southerners confront the fundamental social and economic problems that have plagued their region since the Second World War II. The SRC remains a viable organization, dedicated to correcting social injustices and creating opportunities for all people of the South.
Allred, William C., Jr. “The Southern Regional Council, 1943–1961.” M.A. thesis, Emory University, 1966.
Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
McDonough, Julia Anne. “Men and Women of Good Will: A History of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Southern Regional Council, 1919–1954.” Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1993.
Plowman, Edwin Lee. “Analysis of Selective Strategies Used by the Southern Regional Council in Effecting Social Change in the South.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1976.
Southern Regional Council Papers, Special Collections, Robert W.Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, Georgia.
SEE ALSO Alabama Council on Human Relations; Arkansas Council on Human Relations; Commission on Interracial Cooperation; Florida Council on Human Relations; Georgia Council on Human Relations; Louisiana Council on Human Relations; Mississippi Council on Human Relations; North Carolina Council on Human Relations; South Carolina Council on Human Relations; Tennessee Council on Human Relations; Virginia Council on Human Relations; Voter Education Project