The NNC grew out of discussions initiated by Communist delegates to the Joint Committee on National Recovery's (JCNR) conference in May 1935 on the economic status of African Americans under the New Deal. John P. Davis and Communist Party leader James Ford stressed the need to consolidate the strength of disparate organizations dedicated to fighting racial discrimination. The JCNR conference concluded by forming a committee of sixty prominent activists charged with organizing a National Negro Congress the following year.
The result was an unprecedented confluence of civic, civil rights, labor, and religious groups from across the nation. In February 1936 over 800 delegates representing 551 organizations and over 3 million constituents congregated in Chicago for the first NNC convention. A. Philip Randolph was elected President and Davis was elected as National Secretary. In keeping with their Popular Front orientation, Communists did not attempt to hide their affiliation but consciously deferred to non-Communist delegates. Despite lingering suspicion of Communist involvement, NNC delegates were able to agree on a broad program emphasizing the rights of African Americans to fair employment and housing, union membership and educational opportunities, an end to police brutality and lynching, and international and interracial solidarity against fascism. Over the next few years, local NNC chapters in Harlem, Chicago, and elsewhere became locus points for broad-based community activism against racial discrimination.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 signaled the beginning of the end for the NNC. The Communist Party's shift away from the Popular Front in the wake of the Pact alienated non-Communist NNC affiliates and their constituents around the country. A. Philip Randolph resigned in protest after the 1940 convention and was succeeded as president by John P. Davis. The Cold War further undermined support for the Communist Party in black communities and crippled the NNC as a movement vehicle.
Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Paul Buhle, "National Negro Congress" in Mary Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Geogakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990); Mark Soloman, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998).
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