January 15-17, 1950: The National Emergency Civil Rights Conference in Washington, DC

HNN, Monday, January 14, 2008

On this day in history… January 15-17, 1950, over 4000 attend the National Emergency Civil Rights Conference in Washington, DC.

In the 1940s activists in the civil rights movement focused on the issue of fair employment practices, especially within the federal government. Their efforts culminated in the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). As J. J. Goldberg writes: “Their undertaking was a powerful show of force, and it created new momentum for civil rights in Washington and nationwide.” Goldberg, 128 Coming just years before the monumental Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the mobilization in 1949 and 1950 in support of President Truman’s civil rights program was a major development.

The first break in the employment battle came in 1941. A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader and civil rights activist, warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that if he did not create a temporary Committee on Fair Employment Practices, there would be a march on Washington in protest. The FEPC was formed to protect workers from discrimination in hiring in the Federal government. This was the beginning of the March on Washington movement, which worked on behalf of advancements for blacks, and was responsible for the National Council for a Permanent FEPC in 1944.

The leading figures in the National Council were Clarence Mitchell and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, who later served as its executive secretary. Randolph was co-chairman of the Council with the Reverend Allan Knight Chalmers of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, but Randolph was responsible for most of the decision-making. The National Council was, as Uwe Wenzel writes, “intended to function as a clearinghouse for all activities in behalf of permanent federal FEPC legislation including both public relations work and Washington lobbying.” (Miller, 50) The Council found support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, with liberal Republicans and Northern Democrats supporting proposals for a permanent FEPC.

To put pressure on Congress the Council issued press releases, and held rallies and meetings, where congressmen would speak in defense of civil rights legislation. Several hundred gathered at small meetings at churches, but there were larger affairs, including a rally held at Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000. Still the Council’s influence was limited. As Wenzel writes, while the meetings raised the morale of FEPC supporters, “the group was unable to place the issue of fair employment in the forefront of the American public’s attention.” (Miller, 51)

Although there were congressman who supported the initiative, it was difficult to persuade others to join because interracial issues were not important to their constituents. Supporters were unable to un able to get a final vote for legislation. Even worse, the debate incited Southern congressmen to close down the wartime FEPC in June 1946, by terminating funding to it. The National Council would never have the momentum again to act as the leader in the movement to create a permanent FEPC; internal strife within the organization and financial woes plagued it. The Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization would take over the fight for the FEPC in the late 1940s.

President Harry S. Truman wanted to push several civil rights measures including the creation of a permanent FEPC, but faced congressional opposition. Despite the Council’s lobbying efforts, the conservative Congress was not willing to pass Truman’s proposed legislation. After the Council was proven ineffective, Wilkins formed the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization committee. As Gilbert Jonas writes, it was a “call for a massive interracial lobbying effort in 1949 to be conducted by representatives of all sympathetic national organizations.” (Jonas, 156) The mobilization’s mission was “to break down opposition to the passage of the civil rights bills.” (Collier-Thomas, 37) It was a model of interracial coalition building. The coalition included over 100 black and white religious, political, and civil rights organizations.

Among the hundred organizations that supported the mobilization were several women’s organizations including the National Association of Christian Woman (NACW), the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and several sororities. It became important to add a women’s division, and in December 1949, the Women’s Division of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization was formed. Aretha McKinley, an officer in New York City’s NAACP office, headed the new division. The division’s purpose was to show black women what was at stake: “They have the right to speak up against unfair employment practices since these effect both themselves and their husbands, they are also concerned with discrimination and segregation as these questions apply to housing problems and so directly effect their homes. In addition women have the right to speak up for the future of their children.” (Collier-Thomas, 37)

The peak of the mobilization effort came on January 15-17, 1950 when more than 4,200 delegates from fifty-eight national organizations met in Washington to lobby their congressman to support the president’s civil rights program, and a permanent FEPC. Among the supporters was the Women’s Division, and hundreds of black women from numerous clubs, sororities, and organizations attended the conference. Collier-Thomas, 38 The conference was, as Jonas states, the “largest lobbying effort in the history of the nation.” (Jonas, 157) The participants spread over Capitol Hill in a massive grass-roots lobbying effort.

Meanwhile, Wilkins led a delegation that met with President Truman, where Wilkins listed the group’s demands. President Truman told Wilkins he had already pledged his support to the civil rights program and a fair employment law. The activists, said Truman, should focus their efforts on Congress:

YOU don’t need to make that speech to me, it needs to be made to Senators and Congressmen. Every effort is being made by the executive branch of the Government to get action on these measures. I have been working at them ever since I went to Congress. I went there in 1935, and that is a long time ago…. This is a serious situation. This civil rights program, which I have sent to the Congress on every occasion that it has been possible to send it, is one that is necessary, if we are going to maintain our leadership in the world. We can’t go on not doing the things that we are asking other people to do in the United Nations. I hope all of you will continue your hard work on the subject, and that you will make it perfectly plain to the Senators and Congressmen who represent your States and districts that action is what we want; and I think that is possibly the only way we can get action. (Truman, January 17th, 1950)

Despite the conference’s lobbying efforts the FEPC and civil rights legislation received a second defeat in the Senate in 1950, which seemed to mark the end of congressional support for such legislation. The debates in the Senate on Truman’s civil rights program focused primarily on the revival of FEPC. It should have been, as Truman biographer Robert Ferrell writes, “obviously fair and appropriate.” (Ferrall, 297) The committee would allow African Americans a chance for economic success. Still the Senate refused to pass the mneasure. Opposition came from Southern Democrats and Mid-Western Republicans.

Despite a lack of support for major civil rights legislation, Truman issued an executive order as a temporary solution. Executive Order No. 9980 created a Fair Employment Board within the Civil Service Commission. Its success was debatable because discrimination was often subtle and difficult to prove. Butr historians note some success was evident in the state department and the bureau of printing and engraving. (Ferrall, 297)

Despite the failure in Congress, the 1950 conference was considered a success and prompted the participants to create a permanent organization. At the conference, the coalition decided to form this organization, with a mission of lobbying for the passage of civil rights legislation. The result was the formation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a name that was formally adopted in 1951. The main Washington office would focus on lobbying, while the member organizations would serve in a supportive role, paying dues and educating their members about the proposed civil rights legislation. In practice Wilkins was the head of the new LCCR, although officially the ailing Walter White was the first director. The NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell served as legislative chair, Arnold Aronson as secretary and labor attorney Joseph L. Rauh as LCCR counsel. Randolph still remained focused on the FEPC and decided not to join the LCCR executives. The LCCR, as Wenzel writes, became “the most successful interracial alliance.” (Miller, 53)

The LCCR, created out of the January 1950 conference, “became a force in United States politics.” (Gates, 251) Clarence Mitchell’s lobbying efforts were central to its later success. He spent endless hours roaming the halls of Congress and became known as the “101st Senator.” (Gates, 251) Although the National Council and National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, and then the LCCR worked tirelessly for the creation of a permanent FEPC, their efforts were in vain initially, they found success by playing an important role in getting the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 passed through Congress. In 1964 the FEPC was finally created.

Sources and further reading:

Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, eds., Africana: An A-To-Z Reference of the Movement That Changed America, (Running Press, 2005).

J. J. Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, (Addison-Wesley, 1996)

Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life, (University of Missouri Press, 1996).

Gilbert Jonas, Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909-1969, (Routledge, 2005).

Patrick B. Miller, Therese Steffen, Elisabeth Schäfer-Wünsche, eds. The Civil Rights Movement Revisited: Critical Perspectives on the Struggle, (LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2001).

Nina Mjagkij, ed., Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, (Garland, 2001).

Bettye Collier-Thomas and Vincent P. Franklin, eds., Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, (NYU Press, 2001).

Harry S. Truman, “Remarks to a Delegation From the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization Conference,” January 17th, 1950.

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January 4, 1896: Utah is admitted as the 45th State of the Union

HNN, Tuesday, January 1, 2008

On this day in history…. January 4, 1893 US President Benjamin Harrison granted amnesty to those who committed Mormon polygamy, and on January 4, 1896, Utah was admitted as the 45th state.

First & Second Attempt

Utah’s long quest for statehood was finally officially granted in 1896. It was a long struggle for Utah’s Mormons to convince the U.S. federal government that their territory should be admitted to statehood. From the first attempt at statehood in 1849-50, the major point of contention was the Mormon’s embrace of polygamy. The Mormons’ second attempt at statehood, was simultaneous with the Republican Party’s first presidential campaign in 1856. Republican opposition to polygamy was akin to its opposition to slavery; both were condemned in the party platform as the “twin relics of barbarism.” According to recent historical scholarship the number one reason that it took Utah nearly fifty years to be admitted to the Union was because of the practice of polygamy. As historian Joan Smith Iversen writes, “Whereas Mormon historians once held that polygamy was only a diversionary issue raised by anti-Mormons who really opposed the power of the LDS church, recent interpretations by [Edward Leo] Lyman and historian Jan Shipps have found the polygamy issue to be critical to the anti-Mormon struggles.” (Iversen, 585)

In 1850, Congress refused the first request for statehood for a prosposed state named Deseret based on the lack of the requisite number of eligible voters and the huge size of the state. Instead, President Millard Fillmore signed into law on September 9, 1850 the bill creating the Utah Territory with a new border, an initial step on the path to statehood. Damaging the prospects of the Mormons was the admission after repeated denials that one of the church’s religious principles was patriarchal (plural) marriage. It was disclosed that leading male members of the church were encouraged to marry more than one wife. The announcement elicited a negative response from the general American public, and political opposition from the federal government to all Mormon requests for Utah statehood. The government made it known to the Mormons that as long polygamy was condoned and practiced in Utah, statehood would not be granted.

Third & Forth Attempt

The Federal government also took steps to force the Mormons to abandon polygamy. In 1862 during the third failed attempt for statehood Congress was considering legislation to prohibit plural marriage. The Morrill Anti-bigamy Act banned polygamy and dissolved the Mormon Church. It was never effectively enforced, but Congress refused to grant an 1867 request to repeal it.

In 1872 there was a forth attempt at statehood that included a ratified constitution presented to Congress. The Mormon majority was still insisting on calling the new state Deseret, even after the area was named the Utah territory. Congress again said no.

The anti-polygamy crusade heated up. In 1874 Congress passed the Poland Act, which established district courts in Utah, making it easier to prosecute polygamists. In 1879 in the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Waite ruled that Mormon polygamy was “disruptive of peace and good order, threatening the foundations of the country,” therefore upholding the Morrill Act. Iversen, 588 However, the crusade did not stop there. The Anti-Polygamy Society of Salt Lake City was established a year later in April 1880, when the women members of the group sent a petition to first lady Lucy Hayes requesting help to save the wives of polygamist husbands. The group, which changed its name in August 1880 to the Woman’s National Anti-Polygamy Society, pressed Congress to unseat polygamist George Q. Cannon, Utah’s territorial representative to Congress.

Fifth Attempt

In 1882 a mixed Mormon and non-Mormon constitutional convention requested for the fifth time that Utah be admitted as a state. This time the proposed constitution established Utah as “a republican form of government” and adopted the use of the name “Utah.” Congress again refused. As Larson writes, “Utah would not be admitted without complete divorcement of church and state and abolition of plural marriage.” Poll, 258 In 1882 a law was passed criminalizing polygamy.

Sixth Attempt

When the Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected President, the Mormons hoped that statehood could finally be pushed through, since the Democrats had always been more supportive, while the Republicans pushed for anti-polygamy legislation. But two years later the U.S. Senate passed the Edmunds-Tucker bill, which would force the LDS Church to forfeit property in excess of $50,000, and would abolish woman’s suffrage in the territory if polygamy continued. In February 1887, the bill passed both houses and Cleveland allowed it to take effect without his signature.

Still Cleveland tried to ease tensions in the manner in which he filled Utah territorial positions. Church emissaries developed an understanding with the President and some of his closest advisors, including Solicitor General George A. Jenks.

In their sixth attempt at statehood in 1887, the Utahns included a constitutional clause prohibiting polygamy (Jenks wrote it). Mormon Church leaders thought it was better to control the polygamy situation themselves, and believed the constitutional wording was enough of a goodwill gesture. Still, the Church hierarchy would not give up polygamy as a tenet and practice. Congress doubted that the Utah constitutional amendment against polygamy would be enforced, and denied statehood.

The Woodruff Manifesto

The denial showed that the Church had to do something to something to show the Mormons would end polygamist marriages. The Church attempted several goodwill gestures in 1889, first withholding the authority to perform the polygamist marriages and then razing the Endowment House on Temple Square, where many polygamous unions had been performed. This was still not enough; the Church had to make a more formal declaration against the practice, especially after the introduction of the Cullom-Struble Bill, which would have denied the vote even to non-polygamous Mormons. Church representatives sought intervention from the Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who had Republican support from Utah. According to Larson and Poll, Blaine “promise[ed] to halt congressional action on Mormon disfranchisement if the church ‘got into line.’ ” Poll, 388 He held off the passage of the bill as long as the Church would ban polygamy.

The backlash from Washington forced the President of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, to finally relent. The official proclamation, known as the Woodruff Manifesto (September 24, 1890), declared that Endowment House had been razed and denied that polygamous marriages had been performed in 1889. The manifesto concluded, “and now, I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from conducting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” (Poll, 372)

The Secretary of the Interior, John W. Noble, did not accept the manifesto as authoritative “without its acceptance by the [church] conference.” On October 6, 1890, the Mormons gathered and unanimously approved the manifesto. The historian Howard R. Lamar has called the move “the policy of superior virtue and patriotic conformity.” (Poll, 387) Washington remained cautious about the manifesto, and President Benjamin Harrison still did not believe Utah should be admitted as a state. But the church’s action finally persuaded the territorial governor, a zealous anti-polygamy crusader, that Utah deserved statehood.

The Home Stretch

There remained one issue that Washington wanted resolved before Utah’s petition could be accepted; the people had to establish branches of the two national political parties. Until that point the political parties were aligned with religious beliefs; the Peoples party was Mormon; the Liberal party was non-Mormon. The system blurred the division of state and church that characterized the American political system, and was the last barrier to statehood. As the historians Gustive O. Larson and Richard D. Poll write: “As long as the People’s Party functioned as the political arm of the Mormon Church, the church-state struggle was certain to continue, with the Liberal Party blocking every approach to membership in the Union. With the ‘twin relic’ out of the way, it became increasingly clear to moderates in both parties that the road out of territorial subordination must be by way of national political affiliations.” (Poll, 387)

In response Utah’s population, which was still 90 percent Mormon, decided to adopt the national political parties. Although traditionally the Utah territory was more inclined to side with the Democratic Party, while Cleveland had been in power the party had not reached out enough to the Mormons. It seemed more beneficial to side with the Republicans, especially since they were in power. Still, many of the Mormon members supported the Democrats. Apostle Abraham H. Cannon wrote in his journal on June 9, 1891 that he feared the support for Democrats was a hindrance to statehood: “The danger of our people all becoming Democrats . . . is feared, and the results of such a course would doubtless prove disastrous to us.” He continued, “It is felt that efforts should be made to instruct our people in Republicanism and thus win them to that party.” (Poll, 389)

To secure statehood the Church dissolved the People’s Party on June 10, 1891 and established a two party system by arbitrarily dividing the membership equally into two groups. The dissolution of the People’s Party caused President Cleveland to send a telegram of “Congratulations to the Democracy of this Territory on their organization.”

After the Mormon Church abolished polygamy and the People’s Party, the leaders tried to protect those Mormons who had been prosecuted for polygamy by requesting amnesty from President Harrison. On December 21, 1891, the Church leaders submitted a formal petition for amnesty endorsed by Governor Arthur L. Thomas and Chief Justice Zane. President Harrison was reluctant to grant it, since it was an election year and would alienate voters. But after he lost the election, he agreed to the grant of amnesty. Republican leaders thought it would vindicate the party since they promised to help the Mormons gain statehood, and Utah’s admission as a state had political significance. On January 4, 1893, Harrison granted amnesty and a pardon “to all persons liable . . . by reason of unlawful cohabitation . . . who since November 1, 1890, have abstained from unlawful cohabitation.” In July the Utah Commission proclaimed that “amnestied polygamists be allowed to vote.” (Poll, 392)

Utah was in the home stretch to finally become a state. On July 16, 1894, President Grover Cleveland, in his second term, granted a pardon to all, restoring civil rights to all former polygamists who had been disenfranchised. At the same time he signed the Enabling Act which Congress passed delineating the final steps required to advance to statehood. As the New York Times reported at the time, “The signing of the Utah Bill for Statehood closes one of the most remarkable contests in the history of American politics. The Territory has been an applicant for statehood and really eligible in population and wealth for many years….The struggle over polygamy and the Mormon Church has deferred it admission until the present time.” (NYT, 7-18-1894)

All that remained was to hold a constitutional convention. On November 6, 1894, voters elected 107 delegates to the convention in Salt Lake City; 77 were Mormons and 30 were polygamists. On March 4, 1895, the delegates met to frame the new state’s constitution, which included this clause: “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.” (Utah Constitution) The constitution was completed on May 6, 1895, signed on May 8, and ratified at the general election on November 5, 1895.

Finally, on January 4, 1896, Utah was admitted as the 45th state in the Union. Its entry was based on the Mormon Church’s renunciation of polygamy. Most of those outside the church believed the issue of polygamy was put to rest, but some critics remained suspicious that many of the plural marriages that were performed before 1890, were not in fact aborted. Still B. Carmon Hardy writes, “To most outside the church, however, Mormonism appeared honestly and forever to have put its greatest evil away. The [Woodruff] Manifesto had succeeded in its intent and Utah had won its star in the flag.” (p. 153) Although Utah was admitted into the union over a hundred years ago the polygamist past of the Mormons still haunts them, as Mitt Romney has discovered in his quest for the presidency.

Sources and further reading:

Constitution of the State of Utah

Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America, (UNC Press, 2002).

B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage, (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

Joan Smyth Iversen, “A Debate on the American Home: The Antipolygamy Controversy, 1880-1890,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 4. (Apr., 1991), pp. 585-602.

Gustive O. Larsen, The Americanization of Utah for Statehood, (Huntington Library, 1971).

Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood, (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

Richard D. Poll, et al. eds., Utah’s History, (Utah State University Press), 1989.

Jonathan D. Sarna, ed., Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream, (University of Illinois Press, 1997).


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