Civil-rights leaders, even those renowned in their lifetimes, are destined; it seems, to be forgotten by fickle publics. So it has proved with John P. Davis a Harvard-trained lawyer and activist intellectual. John P. Davis along with A. Philip Randolph was quite clearly the most important black leader and civil-rights leader in the thirties and the forties. Despite the upsurge in Black Studies in the sixties, seventies and into eighties, there seems to be a tremendous gap between the era of Booker T. Washington, W.E. Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance and the 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education decision and Martin Luther King. Well what happened during that gap was - John P. Davis and the National Negro Congress.
On a whim, Davis attended President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first National Recovery Administration hearing and noticed, in disbelief, that no one represented the interests of African-Americans. He contacted his friend Robert C. Weaver, another Harvard University graduates, and formed the two-man Joint Committee on National Recovery in 1933, challenging Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The two were determined to become the first full-time lobbyists for civil-rights in American history. They traveled the back roads of the deep and dangerous - for a black man - south investigating lynchings, voting rights violations of black Americans, and the squalid working conditions of black agricultural, textile and factory workers.
They generated national front-page headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, when testifying before Congressional hearings that price supports are ruining black farmers and that the pending Social Security Act does not cover millions of black and white domestic and farm workers. Davis and Weaver also charged the Roosevelt Administration with refusing to forcibly back anti-lynching, anti-poll tax legislation and laws assuring black factory workers will be paid the same wages as white workers for the same or similar work. “Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act - NRA- stands for Negroes Robbed Again,” Davis testified. The Roosevelt Administration offered them both high-level, high-paying government jobs. They refused the offers, continuing their civil-rights work.
In 1935 John P. Davis, of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, called upon African-American organizations to unite forces and to work for the solutions of basic problems facing the Negro. The National Negro Congress (NNC) was the idea of Davis and his preocupative interest of the Negro problem was set forth in the pamphlet "Let Us Build a National Negro Congress."
On February 14-16, 1936 in Chicago, 817 delegates representing 585 organizations and 5,000 observers responded affirmatively to Davis’ call: "Let Us Build a National Negro Congress." A diverse group, whose sponsors included Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph J. Bunche , and philosopher Alain Locke of Howard University, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, James Ford of the Communist Party, Lester Granger and Elmer Carter of the Urban League, Charles Houston of the NAACP and poet-activist Langston Hughes signed the National Negro Congress's call.
Today, Davis has faded from the memory of most. This unjustly forgotten civil-rights leader deserves recognition more than anyone else for the one of the first sincere efforts of the 20th century to bring together under one umbrella black secular leaders, preachers, labor organizers, workers, businessmen, radicals, and professional politicians, with the assumption that the common denominator of race was enough to weld together such divergent segments of black society.
His initial vision was to have a congress of black America with representatives coming from every state and county. The hope was to build a representative assembly of black America, put issues before them and vote. The NNC wanted to take these issues to the U.S. Congress with the support of 15 to 20 million African-Americans. During its first four years, with A. Philip Randolph as president, the NNC was extraordinarily successful.
Within five months Davis reported that local councils had been established in twenty-six cities. Seventy locals were eventually formed across the country. The local councils initiated campaigns on a number of issues, including the depiction of blacks in school text books, police brutality, housing conditions and employment. They mounted mass petition drives, picketed retail stores, organized rent strikes, and secured grants for neighborhood improvement. From 1938 to 1940 the NNC worked more closely with progressive interracial organizations and individuals. Specifically, the NNC joined the industrial organizing struggles, supported progressive politicians, and cooperated with Communist Party.
The NNC organized several mass demonstrations in support of progressive candidates and legislation such as the Wagner-Nuys anti-lynching bill, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and for inclusion of domestic and agricultural workers in the Social Security Act. By 1940 the NNC had become very influential and was ready to take center stage as the leading civil-rights organization. At that time, the communist party had taken a greater role in the NNC. In 1940, about a third of the 1,285 delegates were white representatives from CIO labor unions and the CPUSA.
Many moderates took exception of the NNC’s aggressive turn to the left. The Urban League's Granger fretted that the NNC had become a "subsidiary" of the CIO. A. Philip Randolph contended the NNC had abdicated its independence to New Deal democrats on the one hand and to the Soviet Union, via the CPUSA, on the other hand. Ralph Bunche became disillusioned and Davis was charged with holding all the disparate groups together. Davis countered red-baiting, by contrasting Randolph's allegiance with the blatantly racist American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the NNC's alliance with the CIO. At the 1940 convention these issues came to a head and Randolph resigned from the NNC.
Davis lost Randolph as president and was at odds with the communist party. He was very unhappy in 1942 and decided to leave the NNC at the beginning of 1943. The NNC continued for another four years as a communist front organization without Davis and his connections. When people read the history of the NNC, the read the way in which it ended.
By the time it goes out of existence, the NNC is on the Attorney General’s list for subversive organizations. Historians look back on the NNC as just another communist front organization. This may have been the case from 1943 to 1947, and may have been true for some of the NNC’s local councils from 1941 to 1947. However, the NNC was the most radical democratic civil-rights organization black America had seen in this century.
As a result of cold-war scholarship and anti-communist scholarship in the fifties and the sixties, history was written such that the NNC was dismissed and as a result John P. Davis’ legacy was dismissed. Historian, Hilmar Jensen notes, there could not have been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a Robert Moses or a Martin Luther King organizing in the south if there had not been a John P. Davis training a whole generation of young people in the NNC and its youth arm, the Southern Negro Youth Council in the 1930’s and the 1940’s.
A lot of those young people became activist in the 1950’s and the 1960’s and marched with Martin Luther King and organized in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Many went to Washington, D.C and lobbied in the great tradition of John P. Davis. Although they may not have known his name, his spirit is very much apart of what the civil-rights movement accomplished. John P. Davis’ career was marked by breadth of vision. He fought for African-American rights, seeing them as universal human rights.
He firmly believed that what he did for his race served America, and that his service to America was good for his race. Recalling his dangerous trip to the Republican front lines during the Spanish Civil War, he affirmed his solidarity with the struggle for democracy everywhere, and at the same time, implicitly warned that democracy’s triumph is never inevitable. He was always proudly an American who dreamed the American dream of democracy. “The older I grow”, he concluded, “the more certain I become that Candide was wrong: Ours is not best of all possible worlds.”