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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, July 22, 1990. Interview A-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

1944 founding meeting of the Southern Regional Council

Johnson recalls the somewhat heated 1944 founding meeting of the Southern Regional Council, where moderates and radicals clashed over the degree to which the organization should oppose segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guy B. Johnson, July 22, 1990. Interview A-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

GUY B. JOHNSON:
No, no, February of '44.
JOHN EGERTON:
Oh, the meeting to really form the organization.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Organize it, yes, and elect officers, etc.
JOHN EGERTON:
Had you already been chosen formally as the executive director?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Yes, well, they were authorized to select somebody. So at that charter meeting I was sort of pro forma. But they did have to straighten out some matters on policy and program and elect a board of directors, and then, of course, me, and a secretary-treasurer and what have you. Well, now, this was a good-sized meeting, and I don't know who had done the actual inviting of people, other than those who had taken part in the Durham and Atlanta meetings. But there were quite a number of prominent people, a few in business. I don't believe there was anybody in politics, but several editors.
JOHN EGERTON:
McGill was there at that meeting, I believe. He signed the charter at least.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Yeah, but he was not at this meeting.
JOHN EGERTON:
Already he had sort of made his exit by that time.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Well, I don't think he ever intended to give involved in the details of organization. He probably figured, well, today they're going to organize and it's not going to be very interesting. Well, I doubt if there are very many editors anyway who have the time to get out and spend a whole day at something extraneous. Well, now, let's see, there was a young man there who was from the sort of Negro Youth Congress, I believe that's what it was called. I knew some of those fellows, and I knew they were left-wingers. Get a whole bunch of them in your organization and they're going to make it sort of hard on you. But somebody had seen to it that this young fellow was there. He didn't last very long, but he wanted some input into the policies that we were going to have.
JOHN EGERTON:
That was a wing of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, if I'm not mistaken.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
I think so, yes. Well, the big argument that day was over our policy toward segregation. Oh, I rather expected this all along, and there were a number of people who would be our future members and were already members of the Southern Conference, like [Clark] Foreman, [James] Dombrowski, and then some of their local leaders.
JOHN EGERTON:
Aubrey Williams?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
I didn't meet Aubrey Williams for a while. He was pretty busy in the New Deal. So we got into a long discussion over segregation. My position was, look, I think all of us here, or practically everybody here, is against segregation, and to me it's just a tactical question of whether you want to begin by tagging the Southern Regional Council as a declared enemy of segregation. I said I can work with either approach, whatever it is. Well, I guess I didn't actually say much at the beginning of the meeting, but, I mean, Odum and Charles Johnson and a whole bunch of these black leaders knew what my stand would be. The upshot of this discussion was that some of the black leaders sort of turned the tide against beginning this organization with an open declaration of warfare on segregation. [Laughter] Carter Wesley, for instance, editor of the Houston Informer, a very able man and, oh, semi-militant, and a supporter of the NAACP and all that. He said, in effect, there's lots of problems here. This is not the Southern Interracial Council, it's the Southern Regional Council, and we've got to have interests broader than just race problems. It's a matter of strategy. I think we should refrain from any strong condemnation of segregation, and outline a whole series of things here that we are going to work on. I think many of the other oldtimers, like Charles Johnson and Benjamin Mays and Gordon Hancock, they all agreed. So they wound up with substantially what those statements, Atlanta and Richmond and Durham, had said. So it went on from there. But this discussion was sometimes very heated, very frank, especially by the people who were very strong in the Southern Conference and by this young Negro Youth Council fellow.
JOHN EGERTON:
You don't remember his name, do you?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
No, I forget that name. This scared the daylights out of some of these people who had fancied themselves to be liberal minded and had taken part in the preliminary statements, but now they got cold feet. A good example of that would be Walter Matherly, Dean of the School of Business at—oh, I don't know if it was Florida State or University of Florida.
JOHN EGERTON:
Just the discussion itself made him uncomfortable?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
Just the discussion, just scared him. They thought, "Well, my, look at some of these types in here. They're sort of hot-headed, you know. They're militant. They'll get this organization in trouble and get me in trouble." [Laughter] That was the main point, I think. So you had people like that, a dean of the School of Business, who had never before, I think, taken part in any interracial enterprises. And a business man from Tennessee, I forget his name now. And I think it just sort of scared Dabney a little bit. If McGill had been there and heard it. . . .
JOHN EGERTON:
It would have scared him, too.
GUY B. JOHNSON:
He would have been worried.
JOHN EGERTON:
Because none of these men were really integrationists?
GUY B. JOHNSON:
No. They certainly wouldn't want it declared with their names on it. So we got off to sort of a shaky start there, but we finally did come up with the board of directors.