American Youth Congress
The student movements of the Depression era were arguably the most significant mobilizations of youth-based political activity in American history prior to the late 1960s. As time passed, many local youth organizations became more organized in their pursuit of progressive government, and in 1934 the American Youth Congress (AYC) came together as the national federation and lobbying arm of the movement as a whole.
Although the AYC was founded as an organization that was critical of the Roosevelt administration for not having provided enough relief to impoverished young Americans, by the end of the 1930s they had become what Joseph Lash described as “a student brain of the New Deal.”1 This remarkable transformation was largely due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, who took special interest in the politics of the student movement and helped convince the AYC that partnering with the White House in pursuit of achievable goals would accomplish more than deriding the New Deal and undermining the president. ER’s sympathies naturally lay with the brash young students who composed the AYC’s leadership, such as Joseph Lash, but in courting their support she also revealed the depth of her political savvy. For the rest of the 1930s the first lady was able to use the prestige of the White House in combination with political support from the AYC to protect the National Youth Administration from its opponents in Congress. In return, ER protected the AYC from its right-wing enemies, including the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who sought to discredit the organization in 1938. Meeting with AYC leaders the night before their committee appearance, Eleanor advised the young students on how to handle the questioning process. Furthermore, in a show of solidarity with the AYC, Eleanor attended the committee hearings as a private spectator and then invited the young students back to the White House for a meal.
Between 1936 and 1939 the AYC reached the peak of its activity. During these years it lobbied vigorously for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) for male college students. It formulated a Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, and some of its members even fought alongside Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, however, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, a decision that bitterly divided young American leftists. Communists within the organization’s leadership were able to engineer the AYC’s official support of the nonaggression pact, and this in turn alienated large numbers of AYC supporters, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Without the support of its most important allies, the organization quickly became broken and powerless. The AYC ceased to exist shortly thereafter, but its demise signaled the larger death of empowered student activism in the United States for the time being. It would not achieve a resurgence until the Johnson administration when dissatisfaction with American conduct in Vietnam once again ignited student unrest.
1. “The Student Movement of the 1930s: Joseph P. Lash, Interview,” New Deal Network, accessed at: http://newdeal.feri.org/students/lash.htm#26.
Beasley, Maurine, Holly C. Schulman and Henry R. Beasley, eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001, 17-19.
Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, 599-603.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project accessed on March 24, 2014 at: http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/american-youth-congress.cfm.