Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW)

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SOUTHERN CONFERENCE FOR HUMAN WELFARE (SCHW)

The Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), formed in 1938, was the product of an alliance of southern liberals and radicals, black and white, who sought to bring the full force of New Deal reforms and Popular Front ideals to the South.

In its original incarnation, the SCHW was an extremely diverse collection of men and women united by the common goal of revitalizing the southern economy. The founders sought to create an organization that could take advantage of the Roosevelt administration's increased interest in improving the stagnant southern economy. With the support of the president, who had recently classified the South as "the nation's no. 1 economic problem," in November 1938 the SCHW held its inaugural meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. Attendees included business-leaders, labor organizers, politicians, sharecroppers, and newspaper editors; of the 1,200 in attendance, approximately 20 percent was African American.

The SCHW sought to create broad-based support through advocating economic reforms, with a focus on improving the lives of the southern workers and farmers. While deeply committed to creating an interracial movement, the SCHW leaders also worked to prevent the race issue from dividing their fragile coalition. This approach lasted less than two days. On the second day of the convention, Birmingham police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor forced the group to adopt segregated seating in the meeting hall. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a featured speaker at the convention, famously placed her chair on the line dividing the races. The SCHW pledged not to hold any future meetings where segregation would be required, although the leadership steered clear of more sweeping denunciations of segregation. Even this attempt at moderation, however, alienated some early supporters, particularly after critics used the controversy to label the SCHW an advocate of racial equality. Throughout its ten-year history, the organization's ambivalent position toward the increasingly pressing question of racial segregation would prove a major point of division.

The SCHW's most significant policy initiative was its attack on the poll tax, an issue that perfectly encapsulated the organization's approach to reform. The poll tax was used as a tool of both economic and racial oppression. The anti-poll-tax campaign thus became a centerpiece of the SCHW's effort to create a labor and farmer coalition, to address civil rights concerns, and also to minimize the potential backlash of white southerners uncomfortable with the idea of racial equality. Although the campaign failed to achieve its ultimate goal of pressuring Congress to pass an anti-poll-tax bill, the SCHW brought much-needed attention to the voting rights issue in the South.

In 1948 the SCHW disbanded, the result of a chronic lack of funds, increased attacks on the organization for its connections with Communists, and internal rifts over its wavering position on racial segregation. Its auxiliary, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, continued to function with a more limited agenda, focusing predominantly on the civil rights issues that, by the late 1940s, had largely supplanted the movement for a working-class alliance envisioned by the founders of the SCHW in 1938.

During its ten-year life, the SCHW had two primary accomplishments. First, it successfully highlighted the benefits of an interracial working-class movement, even as this approach to social and economic reform lost momentum in the years following the Depression. Second, and more importantly, it did this in the South, the part of the country where such reform was not only most needed, but also where it faced the largest obstacles.

See Also:HIGHLANDER FOLK SCHOOL.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Krueger, Thomas A. And Promises to Keep: The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, 1938–1948. 1967.

Reed, Linda. Simple Decency & Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement, 1939–1963. 1991.

Sullivan, Patricia. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in theNew Deal Era. 1996.

Christopher W. Schmidt