Sidelines activist: Charles S. Johnson and the struggle for civil rights
Although Charles S. Johnson (1893-1956) called himself a "sidelines activist, his advocacy for racial equality was never watered-down or half-hearted. His strategy was to work indirectly, sometimes behind the scenes, to influence public policy and to mobilize groups with special concerns for the tragic plight of rural black sharecroppers. In coalition with an embattled band of southern white liberals he pressed the federal government to end lynching, the poll tax, "separate but equal" schooling, and other racial inequities of the Jim Crow era. Throughout his career he played the vital role of building bridges between the races, specifically in gaining white philanthropic support, in conducting sociological research, and in stimulating activism in the black community.
This is the first full-length biography of Johnson. Together with W. E. B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier he has been defined as a "founding father" among contemporary black sociologists. His career as a professional sociologist was only one aspect of a many-sided life which took him from the small town of Bristol in southwest Virginia into the greater world of crisis and conflict. In Chicago he conducted landmark research on the devastating race riot there in 1919. In Harlem in the twenties he directed research for the Urban League, edited its journal Opportunity, and functioned as "entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance", paving the way to publication for such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. He returned to the South and Fisk University, where for a quarter of a century he conducted research on the South's twin system of economic and racial exploitation. Two of his books -- Shadow of the Plantation(on the South's declining feudal cotton economy) and Growing up in the Black Belt (a study of black youth and its problems in the 1930s) -- are recognized today as classics. In the last ten years of his life Johnson served as the first black president of Fisk University, one of the most important of the historically black colleges.
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