America began to prepare for World War II in 1940 — a "War to Defend Democracy." But for nonwhite Americans, democracy was to largely a sham. Calls to defend democracy, sparked demands to make it real for all Americans regardless of race, creed, or color. A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP used the threat of a mass March on Washington in 1941 to compel President Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry and open defense jobs to nonwhites.
By mid-1942 the war was raging. Over a million Black and nonwhite GIs were serving in a completely segregated military to defend democracy. Even greater numbers were working in the defense industry to create the, "Arsenal of Democracy." They were restricted to the dirtiest, most onerous, most dangerous, and lowest paid jobs. Outside the plant gates, they endured racial violence and denial of their basic human rights. Lynchings, beatings, and police brutality were facts of life.
In October of 1942, fifty-seven Black intellectuals and academics gathered in Durham NC at North Carolina College for Negroes (today North Carolina Central University) for a Southern Conference on Race Relations. Their goal was to craft a "Southern Charter for Race Relations" that would "Set out specific demands such as the moral right to work for an honest living; the right to share equitably in the educational opportunities, without which [African-Americans] cannot function in a democracy." They were drawn from the African American elite — educators, ministers, physicians, businessmen, union leaders and social workers. Only five of them were women. They were all southerners because they didn't want their statement, which became known as the "Durham Manifesto," dismissed as the work of Northern agitators.
Some of them wanted a strong statement that thoroughly and unequivocally denounced and rejected segregation. Others feared that too strong a statement would alienate southern white liberals and moderates who they needed as partners so they sought more conciliatory language that indicated an openness to compromise.
[As used here, "moderates" favored less cruel, oppressive, and violent forms of segregation and racial hierarchy; while "liberals" wanted racial equality but only if it could be achieved without conflict, disruption, turmoil, or any diminution of their own power and standard of living.]
After a full day of discussions, a committee headed by Charles Johnson of Fisk University in Nashville was formed to draft the statement. The conference call and A Basis for Inter- Racial Cooperation and Development in the South (colloquially known as the "Durham Manifesto") was issued and published on December 15, 1942.
Response to the Manifesto from the Black press and African American intelligentsia was mixed. The Houston Informer called the statement an "historical achievement destined to play a large part in bringing about adjustments" and a blueprint for the future. At the other end of the spectrum, Durham's Carolina Times dismissed it, saying, "About the only purpose it can serve is to give Negro intellectuals in the South an opportunity to show off by appearing profound, ... the 'Leading Southern Negroes' ... no more have the leadership of the mass of Negroes in the South than if they didn't exist." Nationally, both the NAACP and W.E.B. DuBois (who had been invited to the conference but had not attended), supported the Manifesto.
Southern white supremacists either ignored or decried the Manifesto. Most southern white moderates and liberals reacted favorably. In April of 1943, more than 100 of them met in Atlanta to release a statement supporting the Manifesto and calling for further black-white dialogue to improve race relations. Subsequently, a biracial group formed the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in February of 1944 to work toward improving race relations in the South and advancing the goals and program of the Manifesto.
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