Youth Finds Its Own Answers
THE AMERICAN YOUTH CONGRESS OF 1939
By Alan Hartman, An Article in Survey Graphic, August, 1939
THE 736 DELEGATES TO THE FIFTH NATIONAL CONVENTION OF the American Youth Congress put off celebrating the Fourth of July by 24 hours. Even their most rabid critics did not hold this against them as showing any lack of patriotism. They put off going to the World’s Fair for the same length of time, and when on the morning of the fifth they headed for the Flushing Meadow from Manhattan Center (the former Manhattan Opera House) in midtown New York, they had completed a declaration of independence which bears a congenital resemblance to the document signed in 1776.
The delegates came from 22 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. They represented some 4,700,000 organized young people and they wrote themselves a creed which won the outspoken appreciation of Eleanor Roosevelt in her address at a “21,000,000” rally, that being round figures for the sum total of all American youth. Their creed had been passed in the face of an attack upon the Congress that might have wrecked any similar body of adults which had not long before established tough bonds of mutual confidence.
WHAT WAS IT THAT GAVE THIS CONVENTION OF PEOPLE MY own age, I asked myself, such coherence under fire? This was my apprentice assignment at interpreting anything of the sort, and the Congress was new to me. I had tried to orient myself in advance with pamphlets and generous wads of mimeographed literature put out by the conference press bureau. As the Congress swung into action these flimsies came to life. I tried hard to be in several places at once, to disentangle conversational undertones, as well as speeches from the floor, and to eavesdrop as the delegates gathered in cafeterias given a clean bill of health by their union-minded confreres. After five days of the most strenuous sort of education, I felt very differently about my contemporaries. A thin crust of cynicism had dissolved.
How could one help it when formal distinctions go down the drain? Side by side were YMCA leader and labor union representative, young Methodist and young Communist, daughter of the deep South and Negro girl. Groups sprang up around issues rather than personalities. There was too much at stake in this meeting for anything else. Most of these young people had made sacrifices of time and money to get to New York. Out in California a lad who works among the migratory laborers collected money from 75 of his fellows and made his way East. Young leaders in scores of communities had worked out together careful plans for making the most of their five days. If the Congress failed to unite on the questions it met to discuss each delegate would have to go home and admit: “Those people back there are too busy looking out for themselves; so we’d better just look out for ourselves.” The hard times had long since taught them the futility of fighting it out alone.
It was back in 1934 that a few hundred representatives of youth organizations gathered in a classroom of New York University to reckon with the fact that 6 million young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were out of school and out of work. The American Youth Congress evolved from that first stormy meeting. There were years when its members made pilgrimages to Washington and appeared at Senate hearings in behalf of the American Youth bill. This never passed; but for the first time in history the Congress of the United States gave attention to legislation written by, for and about youth. The Youth Congress has contributed to the popular acceptance of the principles implicit in the National Youth Administration and growth of the annual appropriation from $35 million to $100. This year the President’s reorganization plan has realized one of its important objectives by establishing the NYA as an independent, non-relief service, with the twofold purpose of helping young people to fit themselves for work and saving them the heartbreak of looking for jobs that do not exist. Over the years, the Youth Congress has broadened out to include youth activities in local communities in such fields as health, recreation, education, civil liberties, peace and employment.
Five years’ experience has proved to the minds of its participants that if the youth of the country are going to count collectively they must stick to democratic procedures. The working principles of the Congress were arrived at through trial and error. A Declaration of Rights adopted at Detroit in 1935 expressed “unalterable” opposition to fascism. In 1936 at Cleveland, the Congress dropped this clause, deciding it was not its business to go on record for or against foreign ideologies. There have been communists in the membership from the beginning. In 1937 at Milwaukee, a delegate from the Italian American Civic League advocated that trade unions in the United States should be corporatized along Italian lines. He was promptly called a fascist; but the Congress rejected a move to expel him on the ground that no one should be penalized for opinions.
A glance at the Congress credentials for this year’s convention revealed no organization styling itself fascist or Nazi. But the Young Communist League was down in black and white, and to turn them out on the sidewalk, as the delegates saw it, would have been to violate the principle that the floor should be open to all comers willing to abide by its democratic procedures regardless of race, color, creed or political label.
National organizations were limited to five delegates to the Congress who sat as “senators”; local groups to one “representative.” Thus there were 104 local trade unions registered at New York: AF of L, 36; CIO, 68. The two largest groups were the “YWs” and the Student Christian Movement. A referendum at New York showed that half of those in attendance go to church every Sunday.
KEEPING OPEN HOUSE TO MINORITIES, RIGHT AND LEFT, AND looking to unity through a positive American program rather than declarations on divisive philosophies from overseas, had laid the Congress open to the charge that the vast majority are “innocents,” led by the nose by communists and their “fellow travelers.” It was at this point that the attack came. There was premonition of it after the annual dinner of the Congress last February in New York at which Mrs. Roosevelt was given a fellowship to be awarded a student. There had been Democratic and Republican speakers.
In May the distinguished list of dinner patrons received the following letter:
You are listed by the American Youth Congress as one of the patrons of its annual dinner, February 21,1939. I thought you might be interested that this organization which claims to represent American youth, is merely one of the communistic front organizations.
In cooperation with leading citizens and several national youth agencies, I have compiled a factual study of this Youth Congress. This book, now being published, contains all the necessary data proving a tie-up between the Youth Congress and the Communist Party which controls it. As I am sure that you had no idea of the true nature of the Youth Congress when you consented to let them use your name as a sponsor, I thought it my duty to get in touch with you now, as there will be quite a public battle over this between constructive groups and the united front groups. I thought it best to give you an opportunity to decide on which side you will be.
I shall be glad to show you the proofs of this publication so that you may judge for yourself whether you wish to have your name associated with this American Youth Congress.
Murray Plavner had run for office in the Youth Congress in its early days and failed of election. Later he dabbled in youth organizations of various political colors. Now he turned up with an office in Rockefeller Center and enough money to print an expensive 100-page pamphlet, “Here Are the Facts: Is the American Youth Congress a Communist Front?” His expose was brought out on the eve of the Congress and it was not until the opening day that its officers got hold of a copy and were grilled about it in the press room. No attempt was made at an overall reply, but Congress releases singled out glaring distortions. Such as the implication that the Declaration of Rights of the Congress in 1935 was lifted from a Young Communist League pamphlet—when it had antedated it. And a photostatted copy of a letter from the Communist Party to the Milwaukee Congress—when, as a matter of fact, leaders of five political parties, Democratic, Republican, Farmer-Labor, Socialist, as well as Communist, had been invited to send such letters and did.
This pamphlet might have become just another item in the literature of propaganda, except for its sponsorship by the “leading citizens and several national youth agencies” Mr. Plavner had referred to. These were Homer L. Chaillaux, David Hinshaw, Victor F. Ridder, Michael Shaap, John M. Schiff and Gene Tunney. They called on the Congress to declare itself unequivocally “for American Democracy and against Nazism, Fascism, AND COMMUNISM”; held that it must choose between a discussion and action body, and that “the participating youth agencies must decide that they are willing to assume responsibility for their representatives in the Youth Congress.”
Saturday afternoon, timed to coincide with the opening session, came a blast from 16 anti-La Guardia members of New York’s City Council. On Sunday, a statement worked up among 56 members of the New York State Legislature was added to the hue and cry, with result that for three successive days it adroitly captured the headlines of the metropolitan press. For the most part, the reporters present did a reliable job of straight coverage, but the headline writers and the desk men who wrote the leads, on The Times no less than The Journal American, conveyed the impression that although the Congress had already roundly condemned fascism and nazism, its subversive controls had left out communism. And also conveyed the impression that a large patriotic rebellion was afoot among the young people themselves. Meanwhile Mr. Plavner set up shop in the Hotel New Yorker next door, and took pains to get himself accredited as a delegate to the Congress. Kindred spirits appeared with an anti-communist manifesto at a Sunday panel on interfaith problems. This resolution was “based on a belief in God, the inviolability of human rights, private ownership of property and internal peace.” It took the line that “while those groups which foster Communism, Nazism and Fascism are entitled to a free expression of their ideas under our Bill of Rights, they have no place whatsoever in the American Youth Congress.” However much the interfaith panel might have desired to point out that anything proper under the Bill of Rights was proper within the framework of the Congress, the resolution was ruled out of order. A flustered young patriot then brought up the resolution in the government panel. After some sharp debate he was advised to follow regular procedure and put it before the resolutions committee. But the insurgents thought better of this and decided to introduce it as an amendment to the creed at the first meeting of the “senate” that evening. By the time the “upper house” convened, word of this had spread and the gallery was crowded.
WILLIAM HINCKLEY, WHO WAS TO RETIRE AFTER FOUR years’ service as national chairman, had greeted the delegates at the first session. Sunday evening the chair was taken by Jack McMichael, who heads the National Intercollegiate Christian Council, and who was later elected national chairman. Hour after hour the young Georgian presided until he had to give over because of a nose bleed, so great was the tension, though there was no disorder or explosive oratory. Only an eye-witness can appreciate the cost in sheer physical fatigue of the determination of this youthful assembly to give a democratic hearing to all.
The anti-communist amendment was introduced by Alfred M. Lilienthal of the Republican First Voters League, a prospective candidate for the New York City Council. He characterized as “pussyfooting” the clause in the creed of the Congress “opposing all undemocratic tendencies and all forms of dictatorship” and demanded that the “senate” condemn communism by name. One after another, a procession of “senators” came to the microphone and opposed the amendment as a violation of the fundamental principles of the Congress. When Joseph Cadden, executive secretary of the Congress, called out Murray Plavner to explain the motive back of his moves, Plavner replied lamely that he had always worked hard for the organization. By this time the “senate” was beginning to realize the publicity value inherent in a red-baiting story and that the worse the split in the Congress on the communist issue the bigger the headlines. When Mr. Lilienthal plainly insinuated that the press would paint the Congress indelibly red unless they condemned communism, feeling crystallized against him and his amendment to the creed went down.
On Monday morning the creed was laid before a thoroughly aroused plenary session, with James B. Carey, the young national secretary of the CIO, in the chair. Here it was that the insurgents made their last stand. Debate was at fever heat when their case was wrecked because one of their speakers was identified as an avowed anti-Semite. When he refused to repudiate the charge of “Coughlinism” hurled at him from the floor, the game was up. By acclamation the Congress rejected the anticommunist amendment and adopted its creed intact. The chairman tried to hammer down the uproar but the delegates were not to be deprived of the pleasure of cheering the knot of insurgents as they marched out of the hall after calling on “all patriotic Americans” to bolt the Congress. Chairman Carey had an alternative to offer. He appealed to all believers in democracy to sit down and the delegates climbed down en masse from their chairs.
H. L. Mencken, on from reporting a Townsend convention, characterized the session as “a swell show.” Meanwhile the credentials committee had been busy behind scenes and came in with a report. Of the nineteen organizations bolting, twelve were found to exist only on paper when their addresses were checked. One “delegate” gave as his address a convent in Brooklyn. A careful estimate placed the national membership of the rest at 1000 or a fiftieth of one percent of those represented by the Congress as a whole.
Next morning, resolutions were up, and the delegates having held to their procedure in the face of an attempted stampede, and their positive creed adopted, now grasped the nettle of the charge leveled against them. They did it at their own time, in their own way, with discrimination. With only one abstention, and with delegates of the Young Communists supporting the resolution, they adopted the following:
WHEREAS, the American Youth Congress is devoted to the principles of true democracy and the great constitutional freedoms of speech, of petition, of the press and of religion and of assembly:
BE IT RESOLVED that this Congress of Youth record its opposition to all forms of dictatorship, regardless of whether they be Communist, Fascist, Nazi or any other type, or bear any other name;
That this Congress accord full freedom of speech and discussion to all young people, regardless of race, creed, religion, or political label, whether Republican, Democratic, Socialist, Communist, Fascist, or any other; and
That this Congress be open in all its activities and its gatherings to all persons, regardless of race, creed, religion or political label, who are willing to abide by the principles of democratic procedure.
What Lay Behind the Headlines
PEOPLE WHO GOT NO NEARER THE CONGRESS THAN THE headlines in the New York papers had no clue as to the substantial work which was the main order of business of the Congress: its theme, organization for needs. There is to be a published record of the discussions that went on in eight study panels, in which they were counseled by nationally known experts. The delegates settled down with three sound pieces of advice. Their indefatigable executive secretary underlined that the Congress was not just a glorified bull session; and panel chairmen were quick with the gavel when speakers ran off the track;. Helen Harris, New York City director of the NYA, encouraged the delegates to find their own answers and create their own leadership regardless of pressures from the older generation. While the delegates took no vote on ancestor worship, there proved to be nothing sacrosanct about the U. S. Congress and the handling of measures at its 76th session.
With the publicity attack on the convention in full blast, word came from Boy Scout headquarters questioning the propriety of letting a local Boy Scout troup act as couriers at a Congress dominated by communists. The reply went back that they were busy as a guard of honor to the wife of the President of the United States. Mrs. Roosevelt talked to the assembly with practical hard sense. She advised them “to learn to say what you have in your mind clearly and concisely…. You will find that it will help you greatly in expediting your work and in being understood not only by your own group of people, but it will make it more difficult for people who desire to misunderstand you and misinterpret you.”
Thelma Dale of the Southern Negro Youth Congress was able to report back to her constituents that her fellow delegates had gone on record against all discrimination in schools and the sports world, and for the introduction of Negro history in public school curricula. The Congress favored a re-examination of American schoolbooks in order to insure the teaching of the role played by each national, racial, and labor group. Mary Jeanne McKay, president of the National Student Federation, represented southern youth councils. On the opening day she offered to sing “Dixie” when the chair limited her to three minutes speaking time. But in those few minutes she got across the important point that southern youth is just as alive as youth anywhere but has fewer tools to work with. She chaired the panel on opportunities for education which blazed away at legislators in such states as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York for slashing educational budgets. The Congress set aside a ten-day period from Lincoln’s Birthday to Washington’s Birthday for “Youth Brotherhood.”
CREED OF THE AMERICAN YOUTH CONGRESS
I dedicate myself to the service of my country and mankind.
I will uphold the American ideal which is the democratic way of life. I will help assure its bounty to all races, creeds and colors.
I will maintain my country, founded by men and women who sought a land where they could worship God in their own way, as a haven of the free conscience and the free religious spirit.
I will safeguard the heritage of industrial development, technical skill, natural resource and culture which has made my country the inspiration for the youth of all lands, and I will use whatever talents I have to add to that heritage.
I will be a social pioneer, helping to forge new tools for an era in which education, the chance to make a decent living, the opportunity for health, recreation and culture will assure the fullest development to all.
I will respect and defend the Constitution, keystone of American liberties, which includes the Bill of Rights granting freedom of press, of speech ant assemblage. I will seek progress only within the framework of the American system of government, which is founded on the principle that all political power is inherent in the people, and I will oppose all undemocratic tendencies and all forms of dictatorship.
I will help make the United States a force for peace and pledge that my patriotism will not be at the expense of other peoples and nations, but one that will contribute to the brotherhood of man.
I will not permit race prejudice, religious intolerance, or class hatred to divide me from other young people. I will work for the unity of my generation ant place that united strength at the service of my country, which I will defend against all enemies.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
IT RECEIVED A REPORT ON A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ORIGINAL American Youth bill by which the government should set up a Youth RFC with a self-liquidating fund of $500 million, from which young people between the ages of 16 and 30 might borrow to finish their education, to provide medical care, to help them marry and establish a home and family. This was the outstanding project advanced at the New York meeting.
In the panel on opportunity and security for urban youth, Richard Brown of the American Youth Commission charged that educators have been training youth for impossible goals and urged that these “refugees from realism” take into consideration the need of training for vocations. Discussion of apprenticeship came from Sol Silverman, Furniture Workers Union, and Ian McInnes, Navy Yard Apprentice Association, and William Marshall, United Auto Workers. (Continued on page 507)
James B. Carey, who looks absurdly young to be not only secretary of the CIO but president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, was chairman of the urban youth panel and the Congress’s supreme authority on parliamentary law. He moved through the proceedings with Robert’s Rules of Order (revised) upheld in one hand and an ever-ready gavel in the other. It was no easy job for him to persuade labor delegates to abandon the idea of securing resolutions from the Congress on current strikes and grievances. The delegates finally united in support of the Wagner Act without amendment, the Wages and Hours Act plus an amendment to include categories of workers not now provided for, and the prompt ratification of the federal Child Labor Amendment.
4-H Clubs were well represented in the panel on rural youth, which adopted resolutions favoring the extension of federal loans to young farmers and supported the Cooperative League in the expansion of present cooperative facilities among farmers.
Delegates interested in housing went on a “slum tour.” The lobby of Manhattan Center was decorated with signs reading: FREE CHEST X-RAYS IN COCKTAIL BAR and BLOOD-TESTS—STAMP OUT SYPHILIS, which dramatized the work of the panel on public health and preparation for marriage. This panel, under the chairmanship of Margaret Cummings, supported the Wagner Health bill.
That on recreation, sports and cultural activities, Roland Young, panel chairman, cited the Baltimore Youth Council, which had made a map of the city and checked every church, school, movie, political club, every saloon, tavern and dance hall. As a result of this investigation, a Mayor’s Committee on Recreation was set up.
WHEN HIPOLITO MAXCANO TOOK THE FLOOR THE CONGRESS threatened to turn into a forum on Puerto Rico. He and Julia Rivera of the Puerto Rican Youth Congress laid their program before the panel on peace action urging “the extension to Puerto Rico of all the social legislation of the New Deal . . . and the recognition of the right of the Puerto Rican people to decide their political destiny by means of a free and sovereign plebiscite.” The Congress recognized this right and went on to endorse the Good Neighbor policy, urging the extension of government credits to Latin American republics, mutual defense against totalitarian force and cooperation through labor unions.
Amendment of the Neutrality Act was endorsed overwhelmingly by the peace panel. A substitute motion, introduced by Fay Bennett of the Youth Committee Against War, which called for the retention of mandatory embargoes without distinguishing between aggressor and victim, was defeated, as was the Ludlow referendum.
The creed adopted by the Congress pledged the delegates to make the United States a force for peace but it further pledged them to place their united strength at the service of their country and to defend it against all enemies. An alternative creed which a small group of Socialist sympathizers introduced—internationalist in tone and outspokenly anti-militaristic—was set aside. Several absolute pacifists were unable to subscribe to the creed adopted by the majority of the Congress. J. Carrell Morris, president of the United Christian Youth Movement and a vice-chairman of the Congress, criticized the creed as being unduly nationalistic. But unlike the dissident group of “Americanists” at the opposite extreme who bolted the Congress, this minority remained to cooperate where they could.
Save for the delegate from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the new national chairman, Jack McMichael, was perhaps the only delegate who has seen the realities of modern warfare at first hand during his year in China. However much sympathy may have been expressed for people of other hemispheres, the most popular panel began at home and was on participation in government and politics. This opened with a three-cornered debate between a Republican, a Democrat and an American Laborite. The point stressed by the adult advisers was, if political organization in your community is bad, get in and bring it up to scratch—cynicism will accomplish nothing. A practical twist to this counsel was given by Gael Sullivan, young henchman of Mayor Kelly of Chicago, who urged youth to participate in politics. He was heckled by a young Republican from Brooklyn on the extent of corruption in the Kelly machine. John Longo, who also had his troubles with Republican hecklers, delivered a machine gun attack on the Hague administration in Jersey City. Nine months in jail had been this young man’s thanks for dabbling in local politics. Longo warned that allowing machine politics to get entrenched in any community was fatal to civil liberties.
There were delegates who felt, taken altogether—in the attacks upon it and the resulting line-ups—the American Youth Congress gave a preview of the 1940 campaign. After bolting the Congress a splinter of the insurgent group set up a Joint Committee for the Defense of American Ideals and sent a telegram to Mrs. Roosevelt accusing her of disloyalty to American youth. Such tactics, well publicized, constituted a backhand slap at the New Deal—a blurring of issues likely to be seen on a national scale next year.
The clear thinking and firmness of the delegates, on the other hand, demonstrated that democratic procedure need not be victimized by concerted campaigns of smearing, labeling and ambiguity. In the mind of one observer is the hope that the Congress will draw in more Catholic youth, more farm youth and more of that vast army of youth as yet unorganized.
The Congress wound up in a late evening celebration in the World of Tomorrow. The gaiety did not serve to obscure an image in the minds of the more thoughtful. That afternoon the delegates, spread out fanwise on the floor of the Czecho-Slovakian Pavilion, listened to a boy speaking from a balcony. Twelve months earlier he had been one of them in the World Youth Congress at Vassar; now he was without a country and it was not even deemed safe to tell his name. Whatever else the young people may have learned in New York, in that moment they knew the worth of being American in the year 1939.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hartman, A. (1939, August). Youth finds its own answers. Survey Graphic, 28(8), 492. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/youth-finds-answers-1939/.
Source: New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org/survey/39b11.htm. (March 22, 2014).