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Bridging the Gap: The Commission on Interracial Cooperation

In 1919, a small group of men met in Atlanta to form the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), selecting Will Winton Alexander as their first director. North Carolina launched a state division in 1921. This month, Documenting the American South recognizes the 90th anniversary of the formation of this ground-breaking civil rights organization.

The CIC functioned as the major race reform organization in the South during the period between the world wars. The service of hundreds of thousands of African Americans in what was then known as the Great War highlighted the racial inequality under which blacks had suffered for so long. Though many whites tried to suppress any black agitation—the most violent resorted to race riots and lynching to convince black Southerners to "stay in their place"—a minority of progressive white men and women, encouraged in part by the performance of black soldiers in the war, hoped to open new lines of communication and address black problems. The CIC never openly challenged segregation or advocated racial equality, but it did strive for an end to racial violence and for better treatment for all classes of black men and women.

North Carolina, with over 2,500 members, had one of the group's most active branches. It was chaired by Greensboro banker Edward P. Wharton. The North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation (NCCIC) received an official charter from Governor Cameron Morrison, and each successive governor served as honorary chair of the NCCIC. Like its parent organization, the NCCIC focused its efforts on increased communication between leading black and white men and women and on educating the general public about various aspects of the "race problem."

Despite its mission, the CIC was not fundamentally a black civil rights organization. White male ministers, academics, and businessmen dominated the CIC throughout its existence. William L. Poteat and Howard W. Odum, both leading white educators, followed Edward P. Wharton as chairs of the NCCIC. Although African Americans were not excluded from joining the CIC, only a small number of black men and women, including leading educators, ministers, and businessmen, participated at first. Many kept their distance because of skepticism concerning the goodwill and true desires of their white counterparts. White women, including Fannie Yarborough Bickett, wife of then governor Thomas W. Bickett, were an important part of the CIC and NCCIC membership, though their activism was segregated into Women's Divisions and Committees on Woman's Work.

The CIC eventually opened branches in all of the former Confederate states plus several others. In 1944, the Southern Regional Council replaced the CIC. The NCCIC officially dissolved in 1951.

There is no published organizational history of the CIC. In addition to Jacquelyn Hall's work on Jessie Daniel Ames (see below), there are, however, a number of good studies of at least the white CIC leaders. Researchers may also wish to consult the papers of individual CIC members and well as the NCCIC records. All of these manuscript sources are available at the Southern Historical Collection.

Works Consulted: Earnhardt, Ann E., "Critical Years: The North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation 1942-1949," M.A. Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1971; Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and The Women's Campaign Against Lynching, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; Tindall, George, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.

Michael Sistrom