After 70 years, the details of W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking speech at the Southern Negro Youth Congress are a bit blurry in Dorothy Burnham's memory.
However, the 101-year old human rights activist does remember the overall impact of the event she helped organize in Columbia on October 20, 1946.
“We were aiming to grow the movement of young people who were active in order to end segregation and discrimination,” Burnham said. She returns to Columbia Thursday to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the convention, where Du Bois delivered his famous “Behold the Land” speech in Benedict College's Antisdel Chapel.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. David Levering Lewis will deliver the keynote address at a public program at 6 p. m. Students from Allen University, Benedict College, and Booker T. Washington High School who participated in the historic 1946 event will also be in attendance. A reception and book signing in the Henry Ponder Gallery will follow the address.
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The University of South Carolina’s History Center and Center for Civil Rights History and Research and Institute for Southern Studies and the city’s Columbia63 project, Historic Columbia and Benedict College is sponsoring Lewis’ visit.
Born just after the Civil War in 1868, Du Bois was was a leading African-American sociologist, writer and activist. He was a founding officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of its magazine.
I was honored to be in the same room with him, to listen to him talk about what needed to happen to change the world in the South.
Dorothy Burnham, organizer of 1946 Southern Negro Youth Congress
“Dr. Du Bois was so active in the movement,” Burnham said. “I was honored to be in the same room with him, to listen to him talk about what needed to happen to change the world in the South.”
Esther Cooper Jackson, 99, another organizer of the 1946 gathering, said she knew she was witnessing a historical moment 70 years ago. “I certainly did. I was tremendously influenced by it.”
In his speech at the Columbia convention, Du Bois stressed that “the future of American Negroes is in the South,” a place he called “the battle-ground of a great crusade.” He urged young people to use every tool at their disposal – including friendship, mutual understanding and grit – to “build in the world a culture led by black folk and joined by peoples of all colors and all races—without poverty, ignorance and disease.”
Patricia Sullivan, director of USC’s History Center, says Du Bois captured the hope and optimism that immediately followed World War II, a time when racial segregation was still firmly in place throughout the South.
He “appealed directly to young women and men, black and white, to dedicate themselves to the struggle for freedom and democracy for however long it would take,” she said. “Most importantly, Du Bois was confident that regardless of the challenges, young people, working together, had the capacity to advance the cause of democracy, freedom and humanity. But he emphasized that this was a project that could take a lifetime and that the critical point was devotion, sacrifice and mutual cooperation.”
On Thursday, Lewis’ speech, “Our Exceptionalist Quagmire: Is There a Way Forward,” will reflect on Du Bois’ historic address in the context of current racial and political realities. Lewis is a two-time winner of Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, for part one and part two of his biography of Du Bois.
“Where are we going from here?” Lewis asks. “It’s quite a tangle of politics and cultural crises the country is going through. This is an unique moment in the life of our nation…We’re in a gridlock and there is anger the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1840s.”
If You Go
70th anniversary of the Southern Negro Youth Congress
6 p.m. Thursday at Antisdel Chapel at Benedict College, 1600 Harden St. Free. www.columbiasc63.com/category/events
9 a.m.: “Reflections on the Southern Negro Youth Congress: Columbia 1946.” This symposium will discuss the 1946 meeting as well as the history and legacy of the Southern Negro Youth Congress.
10:30 a.m.: Panel titled “SNYC and Its Legacy: Civil Rights, Youth Activism, and Black Lives Matter.”
Both events will be at Hilton Columbia Center Palmetto State Ballroom, 924 Senate St.
3 p.m.: Panel titled, "Recovering SC's Radical Roots, The Legacy of the Southern Negro Youth Congress,” at the Continuing Education Center Auditorium at Midlands Technical College’s Harbison Campus. The center, part of Carolina’s University Libraries, is home to the civil right collections of John H. McCray and Modjeska Monteith Simkins, both of whom were connected to the 1946 conference.