This is a moderately interesting, marginally satisfactory study of two organizations operating between the 1930s and the 1950s. Both the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the Council on African Affairs were formed in 1937, arising largely out of socialist (sometimes communist) sentimentalities sparked by the Great Depression and the efforts of the New Deal to aid suffering Americans. Both ended rather abruptly, the SNYC in 1949 and the Council of African Affairs in 1955, in no small part because of the Red Scare and the targeting of leftist organizations.
Lindsey R. Swindall narrates the story of these two organizations, their involvement with African American leaders such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, and their ideals, their messages, their initiatives, and their successes as well as failures. She is enamored with the publications of these organizations and the intellectual nature of their arguments. She is also focused on the Pan-African nature of how both organizations approached their endeavors. This, of course, was especially the case with the Council on African Affairs, which was firmly in the middle of the anticolonial movement then underway in various colonies in Africa. World War II advanced this cause much more than any group in the United States could hope to do, but this Council advanced the larger cause as much as anything by calling consistent attention to it.
Swindall is at her best in her pen pictures of leaders in these organizations. She is a biographer of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), and as one might expect her characterization of this intrinsically fascinating individual is compelling. She also profiles writer Lorraine Hansberry, a mainstay of the Council on African Affairs’ periodical, Freedom, which provided urbane and thoughtful perspectives on what was happening in Africa. Beyond her longstanding role working with this organization, she was also the author of A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Unrelentingly Marxist, Hansberry was fascinated with activities in Africa and sought to bring to the African diaspora knowledge of events on the continent. Swindall’s short biography of Hansberry and her efforts is excellent.
Aside from a modestly interesting dual-discussion of two organizations over about a twenty year period, this book will be useful largely to those who are investigating what Swindall calls the “long civil rights movement.” One of the differences of opinion that has motivated historians of the American civil rights crusade has been periodization. When did it start, and when did it end? What characterized its various aspects, etc? Historians can endlessly debate these questions. Eschewing the specifics of this debate, Swindall notes that the civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision or the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. It goes back much earlier, Swindall notes, and both the SNYC and Council on African Affairs were significant parts of those earlier efforts.
Fair enough. This is a reasonable history of these two organizations, but little more. It is not, unfortunately, a well-rounded study of the African anticolonial movement in the U.S.; if that is what the reader is seeking, seek it elsewhere. Moreover, it is also not a full-blown history of the struggle for civil rights in the American South—even during the period between 1937 and 1955—so if readers are looking for that story, also look elsewhere.