A CONGRESS JIM CROW DIDN’T ATTEND
Between 1938 and 1942 Ellison contributed numerous articles and reviews, signed and unsigned, and two short stories to New Masses. “A Congress Jim Crow Didn’t Attend” is a narrative essay with personal and public overtones. In it Ellison uses the Third National Negro Congress as an early occasion for speculation on “the ambiguity of Negro leadership.” As he soon would do in pieces like “The Way It Is,” Ellison celebrates the courageous lives and voices of ordinary Negroes, even declaring that “the age of the Negro hero had returned to American life.” It was published in New Masses, May 14, 1940.
WE drove all night to beat the crowd. We were going to Washington to attend the Third National Negro Congress. Fog hung over the Delaware roads, over the fields and creeks, so that we could not tell water from grass, except in spots where the fog had lifted. Our headlights brought no answering reflection from the red glass disks on the road signs. Coming out of some town the driver failed to see a road marker and almost wrecked the car. It shook us awake and we talked to keep the driver alert.
Then two things happened to give the trip to the Congress a sharp meaning. It was the sun that started it. It appeared beyond the fog like a flame, as though a distant farmhouse was afire. One of the boys remembered Natchez, Mississippi,* and began talking about it. I felt depressed. A friend of mine was from Natchez and some of the victims had his family name and I wondered if any had been his relatives. We talked about conditions down south and I hoped someone from Natchez would attend the Congress, so I could hear about the fire firsthand.
Outside of Baltimore we began passing troops of cavalry. They were stretched along the highway for a mile: Young fellows in khaki with campaign hats strapped beneath their chins, jogging stiffly in their saddles. I asked one of my companions where they were going and was told that there was an army camp nearby. Someone said that I would find out “soon enough” and I laughed and said that I was a black Yank and was not coming. But already the troops of cavalry were becoming linked in my mind with the Natchez fire. Where were the troops going? We in the car were going to the Third National Negro Congress—but what did that mean? Then I was aware that all five of us in the car were of army age and that just as suddenly as the troops had appeared atop the hill, we might be called to war. Here we were, young Negroes, bitter about the conditions responsible for Natchez and faced with the danger of war, heading for Washington, D.C.
I thought about the Congress. I remembered that some of the Negro papers had been carrying glowing accounts of army life and of the joys of the black French soldiers. Would there be many at the Congress who had succumbed to these stories? John L. Lewis had asked the support of the Congress in forming a new political movement—possibly a third party—to continue the New Deal measures forsaken by Roosevelt; what would be the response of the Congress? There were rumors that one of the Congress leaders had sold out; how would the rank and file react? Would I find in Washington an affirmation of the Negroes’ will to unity and freedom that would remove the deep sense of the danger of war which had made the sudden appearance of the troops of cavalry seem like a revelation of our fate?
For years Negroes have struggled for that unity, seeking to find their allies; sometimes gaining, and sometimes losing ground. And in all Negroes at some period of their lives there is that yearning for a sense of group unity that is the yearning of men for a flag: for a unity that cannot be compromised, that cannot be bought; that is conscious of itself, of its strength, that is militant. I had come to realize that such a unity is unity of a nation, and of a class. I had thought vaguely of the Congress in such terms, but it was more like a hope to be realized. I had not thought to seek this sense of affirmation in it. Now I realized that this was the need it must fill for myself and for others.
Negroes from the North, South, East, and West were heading for Washington, seeking affirmation of their will to freedom. They were coming with their doubts and with their convictions. It was more than just another trip to another congress. When we entered the suburbs of Washington I noticed that the car moved much more slowly than before and started to ask why. But I remembered: there is always that fear among Negroes going from the North into the South of running afoul of Southern custom and Jim Crow laws. The driver knew that we were driving into the capital of the United States—and of legal Jim Crow. The car nosed its way cautiously.
Once in Washington, the first thing to do was to go to convention headquarters and make arrangements for rooms. We drove to the Department of Labor building. It is a new building and we were relieved to see so many Negro faces, to find them in charge. Delegates were already grouped about the big lobby; it hummed with conversation. They looked up expectantly as we came through the high portals. We made our way to the tables arranged about the lobby where a number of girls were busy registering delegates. They were pretty girls and we were surprised; usually the pretty girls avoided that part of conventions. We were registered and given credentials: a delegate’s card, a badge, a list of instructions, which, among other things, told us to buy a meal ticket. Under Section 2 it told about housing:
After your meal ticket the next important thing is a place to stay. We have done our best. But Washington is a Jim Crow town. We have not broken down Jim Crowism … in large hotels. But we have made history in the matter of housing accommodations for Negroes. First: for 119 delegates we have accommodations in the modern up-to-date Washington Tourist Camp—four blocks away from our place.… Second: for 250 delegates we have arranged for the building of an entire village a few yards away from the Washington Monument and two blocks away from the convention meeting place. You will be housed in waterproof tents with wooden floors—clean linen—individual cots—warm blankets. There will be ample facilities for showers.…
Also listed were rooms in private homes. I asked why the village had been built and was told that it was a protest against the miserable housing conditions for Negroes in the capital city. So stretched out beneath the long shadow of Washington’s monument, we found lying a village of tents like those discovered by Steinbeck’s Joads. Not far away is where the annual Cherry Blossom Festival is held.
Returning to convention headquarters, we find the delegates pouring in. There is a steady roar of voices. We look about for acquaintances.
“Look! What’s that guy’s name?” I look up; a short man with a high forehead and glasses squeezes past.
“That’s John P. Davis.”
“Davis, the national secretary?”
“But I’ve seen his pictures. I thought he was a big guy.”
“He’s big, all right,” someone says. “He told off Dies.”
“Thought that was Ben Davis.”
“Yeah, but this one told him too.”
A tall man in a cattleman’s hat has been listening: “Now wasn’t that something?” he says, “Both of ’em got him told. All my life I been wanting to see some of our Negro leaders go down there to Congress and let them know how we felt about things. Didn’t think I would live to see it, but it happened. And that’s why I’m here this morning!”
The lobby is still filling. There are young people and old people, both from the farms, the small towns, and the cities. I can tell the New Yorkers by their manner, their confidence. But there are also many faces that I learned to know in the South. And I know that someone has sacrificed to get them here. Some are farmers, others sharecroppers. They look stiff in their “Sunday” clothes. There are many whites also. And on the lapels of both whites and blacks are to be seen the maroon and white “Stop Lynching” buttons. I walk about the lobby, from group to group, trying to see if I can pick out those from down where being militant, being a man, carries a penalty of dispossession, of flogging, of rape charges, of lynching death. They too are here; one, James McMillian, a preacher-coal miner from Kentucky, has felt the sting of a lynch rope around his neck and lived to tell about it. His first question is, “What’s being done about the Anti-Lynching Bill?”
I talk with a steelworker from Gary, Indiana. He speaks about the war and ties it up to the convention. He is well informed. Passing another group I hear:
“I come over three hundred miles to this congress.”
“Where you come from?”
“I come from Zenia, Ohio.”
“Hell, you ain’t come nowhere. I come all the way from Texas!” the other said proudly.
Behind me now, someone is saying: “They tell me John L. Lewis is going to be here.”
“That’s right, it’s here in the program.”
“You know, I been wanting to see that guy. I want to get up close, so’s I can see what he looks like.”
“He sure is talking my way these days. Because from what I know about the Triple A and the FSA out there in Arkansas where I come from, he’s talking sense!”
“He sounds all right to me, too, but I want to see what he looks like.”
“Well, he’ll be here.”
I walk inside the auditorium where the convention is to be held. The carpet is thick and deep blue, the ceiling high and soothing to the eyes. In front, on both sides of the speakers’ platform, there are gigantic columns that seem to pull you upward, out of yourself, as your eyes follow them aloft.
The auditorium had that overwhelming air usually associated with huge churches, and I remembered what André Malraux once said about the factory becoming for the workers what the cathedral formerly was, and that they must come to see in it not ideal gods but human power struggling against the earth. The building is dedicated to labor. I hoped that what was to happen there during the Congress would help bring nearer that transformation of which Malraux wrote. When I walked outside the building I learned that it was, for the three days of the convention, sacred ground. I suggested to one of my companions that we go uptown for a bite to eat in a cafeteria. He reminded me simply that we were in Washington.
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Ellison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.