History Lost and Found: Lessons of the Southern Negro Youth Congress

In an effort to put our organizing work into context and better understand the legacy we’ve inherited, the SC Progressive Network will explore our ancestors’ radical roots at our 20th fall conference, which will be held on Oct. 22 in Columbia.

The gathering of progressives from across the state will begin with a membership meeting from 10am until 2pm, during which we will tend to organizational business – including electing five new members to fill open seats on the executive committee. We will hear from our member groups about their projects, and look ahead to the upcoming legislative session. A full agenda will be posted next week.

After the Network’s meeting, we invite the public to join us for a symposium with some of the state’s leading activists and historians. All events will take place at the Harbison Campus of Midlands Tech.

The afternoon session – led by University of South Carolina historian Dr. Bobby Donaldson and political scientist Dr. Sekou Franklin – will detail the vanguard role that Modjeska Simkins and South Carolina’s black activists played during the 1940s in the long struggle for civil rights.

Our meeting marks the 70th anniversary of the 1946 Southern Negro Youth Congress conference held at the Township in Columbia, a little-remembered event that whose lead organizer was Modjeska Monteith Simkins. She ran a leadership training institute at what was then Harbison Junior College. Two dozen young blacks, mostly students, spent 10 days studying black history, politics, civics, world affairs and organizing techniques.

alkbpbhdhidgihgj1945 Socialist Workers Party Pamphlet

Simkins started working with SNYC in 1942, and helped establish 11 chapters across the state that turned out over 400 members to the October 1946 weekend conference in Columbia. More than 2,500 people, from Birmingham to New York, filled the Township auditorium with the intention of striking a death blow to Jim Crow.

It was an impressive gathering. Julian Bond’s father came from Atlanta. Angela Davis’ mother came from Birmingham. The legendary Paul Robeson sang. Labor organizers and Communist Party members came from the north, and delegates came from as far away as Latin America and Africa. Our best notes on the conference come from FBI files that reported 170 participants were white, mostly union and peace activists.

paulrobesonPaul Robeson

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois gave the keynote speech that Sunday at Benedict’s Antisdel Chapel.  The speech, Behold the Land, lifted up as among the nation’s best, rings true today. DuBois called on “young women and young men… to lift the banner of humanity… in the midst of people who have yelled about democracy and never practiced it.”

DuBois rose to national prominence in 1905 with the founding of the Niagara Movement that challenged Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist positions on segregation. He was instrumental in the founding of the NAACP in 1909, and the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1937.

web_du_bois_1946-1WEB DuBois

The Columbia SNYC conference was the largest human rights event the South had ever seen, with a class analysis of racism and a call for a mulitracial united front. By the time of the Columbia conference, black soldiers were returning from WWII to the hostile welcome of Jim Crow segregation. South Carolina was in the nation’s spotlight for having the last white-only primary, the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party crashing the 1944 national Democratic convention (20 years before the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party), and the blinding of Private Issac Woodard by police at the Batesburg bus station in February 1946.

Erik Gellman’s 2012 book Death Blow to Jim Crow claims that SNYC was more than a precursor to the modern civil rights movement; it was “the most militant interracial freedom movement since Reconstruction, one that sought to empower the American labor movement to make demands on industrialists, white supremacists and the state as never before.”

After WWII, white supremacists used anti-communism to beat back racial equality and labor organizing. We learned in our South Carolina high school history books that “carpet baggers and scalawags induced many of the ignorant and child-like Negroes to turn against the white people,” (Simms-Oliphant) and the Klan arose to beat back the 1870s Reconstruction and save the South.

Seventy years later, white supremacists like Gov. Jimmy Byrnes identified communists as the outsiders leading blacks astray. Simkins was “red-smeared up and down South Carolina,” and iced from the SC NAACP leadership in 1957 by black ministers who chaffed at her strong spirit and militant politics. The red scare effectively ended the militant era of civil rights, and domesticated the modern civil rights movement. That period is now recognized as one led by black ministers beginning in 1954.

DuBois called SNYC’s work the “second Reconstruction,” making the case that the gains of the first Reconstruction had been erased through the whitewashing of our history books. Now, ironically, 70 years after DuBois bemoaned the erasing of the first Reconstruction, we are studying the lost stories of the second Reconstruction of the 1940s – an astonishing period when the citizenry organized a serious challenge to the status quo – right here in South Carolina.

It is this under-valued people’s history that the Network is committed to lifting up, both at this conference and through its leadership institute the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights. While we’ve only recently discovered the importance of SNYC and Simkins’ deep involvement in that effort, the school is picking up where she left off, teaching similar solutions to sadly similar problems.

Network offers workshop to help protect the vote in November

ep-sign-300x231The SC Progressive Network and the National Lawyers Committee will hold an election protection workshop on Sept. 16 to prepare volunteers to monitor the upcoming general election. The Network has worked the past three general elections by responding to calls to the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline.

While most of the calls were from confused voters, some reported incidents of voter intimidation and efforts at vote suppression. Some calls were referred to SLED or the Justice Department.

We are seeking volunteers for Election day, as well as on the days leading up to it. Volunteers are needed to deliver signs to the county election boards for placement in the precincts, to monitor the operation of the voting computers, and to report problems at the precincts. A South Carolina Legal Manual prepared by the Election Protection Coalition is available to volunteers that answers a wide range of questions.

The workshop on Sept. 16 is to train volunteers to understand the laws governing elections and how to resolve problems. The training is free, and will be held at the Network’s office at 2025 Marion St., downtown Columbia.

For information or to RSVP, contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

Know your SC herstory? Download booklet profiling legal pioneer Sarah Leverette

sarah_leverette_cvovershotThe SC Progressive Network‘s recently published profile of Sarah Leverette, which is being distributed free in select spots in Columbia – including our office at 2025 Marion St. – is now available for free download here.

The booklet is the final of a set of booklets about three extraordinary South Carolina women: Leverette, human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins, and LGBT advocate Harriet Hancock. The two-year project was made possible by a generous grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, which shares our belief that history is our greatest teacher.

For information about the booklets, call the Network at 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

 

Sept. 21 is deadline for nominations to fill Network’s executive committee seats

mtg1The SC Progressive Network is accepting nominations to fill seats on its C-3 and C-4 executive committees. The Network is soliciting serious, dues-current members to run for office. Elections will be held at our fall conference Oct. 22 in Columbia. Nominations will be accepted until Sept. 21, with names forwarded to our nominating committee for consideration.

For details about the Network’s boards, committees and bylaws, see our web site.

To nominate someone, or yourself, send name and short bio to network@scpronet.com, or call 803-808-3384.

Network profiles three extraordinary SC women

In 2014, the SC Progressive Network was awarded a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission to produce a booklet about Modjeska Monteith Simkins. It was distributed free to readers in the Midlands, and was so well received that the Network ordered a second printing.

Last year, the Network received another grant from the Commission for two additional booklets, on gay rights activist Harriet Hancock and legal pioneer Sarah Leverette. The Hancock booklet came out in May; the Leverette booklet will be released in mid-August.

Becci Robbins, the Network’s communications director and author of the booklets, said of the project, “While I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, the booklets evolved into a package that now seems perfectly timed. Besides telling the stories of three phenomenal South Carolina women, they offer a chance to explore racism, sexism, and homophobia—problems continuing to fester in the nation’s addled psyche.

The booklet about Modjeska, whose grandparents were enslaved, reminds us of South Carolina’s grim past – and how it haunts us still. The booklet about Harriet went to press just days before the massacre in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 maimed in a gay nightclub.

And the last booklet about Sarah, who was born on the eve of women’s suffrage in America, comes out as the nation deliberates whether to vote for its first woman president. This historic election has come with the sad reminder in certain news outlets and on social media that misogyny is alive and well.

While the booklets provide no easy answers to the vexing problems we face, they give some historical context to help understand the current social and political climate in America and here at home. And they show the power a single citizen can have, given enough passion and commitment.
 
My hope is that these booklets will make their way into the hands of girls and young women who will be as moved and impressed as I have been by Modjeska, Harriet, and Sarah. It has been a great privilege to share their stories.”

Questions? Call the Network at 803-808-3384.

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Download this booklet to read about Modjeska’s extraordinary life.

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Click here to download Harriet Hancock booklet.

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The Sarah Leverett booklet is at the printer, and will be available in mid-August.

Federal courts find photo ID laws unconstitutional

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The argument the SC Progressive Network has been making about South Carolina’s photo ID law being a Republican plan to suppress the black vote has been taken up by new champions: federal judges across the country!

The 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals that struck down the North Carolina photo ID law on July 29 ruled “the demonstrated ingenuity of state and local governments in hobbling minority voting power… imposes cures for problems that didn’t exist.”

Most recently, the three-judge appeals court in Richmond ruled that North Carolina’s photo ID law was unconstitutional. It also voided new NC laws that cut early voting, ended same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.

Although North Carolina’s “reasonable impediment” ballot for registered voters without a photo ID was modeled after the SC photo ID law, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Anita Earls advised that the ruling doesn’t automatically apply to South Carolina. Earls has 20 years of experience as a top attorney in the Voting Rights Section of the US Dept. of Justice. The SCEJ has been advising the Network on voting rights laws, and was a party to the North Carolina case.

Responding to the Network’s inquiry about the ruling’s impact on South Carolina, Earls said, “We think that there are some important distinctions among reasonable impediment schemes, and even though the North Carolina provisions were modeled on the South Carolina law, there is no immediate and automatic invalidation of South Carolina’s photo ID requirement as a result of this decision.”

Earls said that what won the fight in North Carolina was the difficulty in getting the free photo ID there. The operation was poorly run by the state DMV, rather than by each county board of elections, as in South Carolina. Opponents of the photo ID law in North Carolina were able to prove that people had a hard time getting the free ID and that many of the impediment ballots were not counted as required by law.

The task before opponents of the South Carolina photo ID law is to gather the data on the impact of the law on the 202,484 registered SC voters who the State Election Commission identified in 2012 as not having a DMV photo ID.

Network Director Brett Bursey recently requested the State Election Commission to provide a tally of how many of the provisional ballots cast in the 2014 election were for lack of photo ID, and how many of those impediment ballots were rejected. “I was told that the state Election Commission did not gather those numbers and I would have to go to each of the 46 counties for that information,” Bursey said. “Without that data, we can’t determine if our photo ID law had the same impact on black voters as it did in North Carolina.”

The Network will be seeking the information needed to determine the law’s impact.

Election update: working a rigged system – and winning!

In keeping with the Network’s analysis that there are few races that aren’t preordained in South Carolina, through gerrymandered districts and other tools that rig the system, SC ProVote, the Network’s C-4, picked two campaigns on which to spend our resources.

In the campaign for Senate District 17 (Fairfield, Chester and York), we supported Mike Fanning, a progressive candidate who we thought had a solid chance at winning. In the other campaign, our mission was to remove the Lee Bright from Senate District 12 (Greenville, Spartanburg) by promoting his Republican opposition.

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Mike Fanning speaks to at the Network’s annual fall conference at Penn Center.

We are pleased to report that our preferred candidates won in both races.

Progressive Network member Fanning forced a run-off and beat the longtime Democratic incumbent Creighton Coleman. Network volunteers made hundreds of phone calls and our Rock Hill chapter knocked on many doors in the York County portion of the district. We are thrilled that he will be an ally in the State House.

Sen. Lee Bright, the indefatigable bigot who wages futile battles against civilization, will not be going back to the Senate. Our upstate members made calls to Democrats encouraging them to vote for Spartanburg attorney Scott Talley in the June primary. We know Talley from his time in the House and consider him rational. While we don’t expect Tally to be progressive, we are reminded that there are no permanent friends, or permanent enemies in the legislature, only temporary allies.

Crossover voting in the primary has long been a taboo. But now that political districts have been drawn to insure Republican dominance of the legislature, Democrats in these districts won’t have a say in who represents them unless they vote in the Republican primary. 75% of the 170 legislators are chosen in the primary, so the majority of citizens only have one person to vote for in the general election – like the old Soviet style elections we used to make fun of.

The Network has long argued that we can’t rely on an electoral system that is driven by money and corporate influence to solve our problems. We must take on and sustain, the long, hard task of building a popular movement with the power to make real change.

Network staff part of lawsuit against Turbeville’s long practice of “highway robbery”

SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey and Communications Director Becci Robbins have joined in a lawsuit against the town of Turbeville for writing municipal traffic tickets Bursey claims are unconstitutional. He estimates Turbeville has been writing these tickets since 2003 and bringing in about $1 million a year.

Read full story in The State.