July 19, 1892
April 11, 1975
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, educator and civil rights leader Max Yergan attended Shaw University, graduating in 1914. Shortly thereafter he received an M.A. degree from Howard University. In 1915 he was hired as a traveling secretary with the student division of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in New York City. During World War I he worked in India, then was sent to Kenya to organize YMCA units among Indian and African troops in the British army. Although not an ordained minister, he was named a chaplain by the American army, and he briefly served with African-American troops in France.
In 1920 Yergan was appointed senior secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA and was stationed in South Africa, where he remained for sixteen years, working mainly with college students. He combined missionary work and improving educational facilities for black South Africans. For his efforts he received the Harmon Award in 1926 and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1933. He published two sociological reports, Christian Students and Modern South Africa (1932), and Gold and Poverty in South Africa (1938), in which he described the horrible living and working conditions faced by black African gold miners.
In 1936, claiming he had done all he could for Africans within the YMCA framework, Yergan returned to New York. City College hired him as a professor in history, one of the first African-American professors at an integrated college. Among the courses he taught was Negro History, the first such course taught outside black colleges. In 1937, with the support of Paul Robeson and others, he founded the Council on African Affairs (CAA)—then the International Committee on African Affairs—which promoted interest in Africa and lobbied against colonialism, and became its executive director.
While in New York, Yergan grew active in Harlem communist political circles. Together with Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., at the time an ally of the communists, he published a newspaper, The People's Voice. He also became active in the communist-dominated National Negro Congress (NNC). In 1940, after A. Philip Randolph resigned as executive director, Yergan was named to lead the organization. He led the NNC in its opposition to military preparedness programs and its support of Powell's successful mass transit boycott in New York City during 1940–1941. In 1941 the Communist Party promoted Yergan as a candidate for the New York City Council, but Powell convinced him to drop out of the race.
After 1941 Yergan supported the war effort but spoke out in favor of decolonization and African self-determination and against discrimination in the army. During the war years the CAA grew in size and power, and Yergan devoted more time to it. In 1946, at a CAA meeting in New York City, Yergan accused the Truman administration of opposing African freedom. In 1946 he led a delegation of the NNC to the United Nations to present a petition against "political, economic and social discrimination against Negroes in the United States," and lobbied against poll taxes in southern states.
Sometime in 1947, however, Yergan underwent a dramatic shift in his political views and turned away from his former associates. In October of that year he resigned from the NNC, by then largely inactive, claiming that "Communists sought to sabotage the decisions of the board." In December, after the U.S. government charged that the CAA was a subversive organization, Yergan affirmed its noncommunist character. In 1948 the CAA board, led by Robeson, opposed the statement. Yergan claimed that a communist-led minority had seized control of the CAA in order to attack American foreign policy. Yergan attempted to seize the organization's property and brought suit against Robeson's procommunist faction. He was expelled from the board and resigned in October.
In later years Yergan became an increasingly strident anticommunist. In 1948 he testified on communist involvement in civil rights efforts before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. During the 1950s and 1960s he lectured and wrote articles for conservative magazines and was a leading consultant on Africa to the U.S. State Department. He was also rumored to be an FBI informer. In 1962 he organized and chaired the Free Katanga Committee, which worked against UN involvement in the former Belgian Congo and supported the Belgian-backed Katanga secessionist movement of Moise Tshombe. In 1964, while speaking in South Africa, Yergan praised the country's apartheid policy as a "realistic policy" in a "unique situation," which gave Africans "dignity and self-respect." During the 1970s he spoke in support of Ian Smith's white minority government in Rhodesia. These actions prompted widespread criticism that Yergan had "sold out," and that his earlier activism had been self-serving and insecure. Yergan died near his home in Ossining, New York, in 1975.
Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Lynch, Hollis R. Black American Radicals and the Liberation of Africa: The Council on African Affairs, 1937–1955. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Naison, Mark. The Communists in Harlem During the Depression. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
greg robinson (1996)