The Southern Regional Council (SRC) is a reform-oriented organization whose headquarters are in Atlanta. The SRC is considered the successor organization to the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), with which it merged in 1944, and thus traces its history back to 1919. During the late 1940s and 1950s the SRC was unique in its focus on interracial cooperation and struggled against massive resistance in the South. The organization continues to promote voter registration, political awareness, and racial equality.
Hoping to overcome both poverty and racial injustice, white southern liberals created the SRC in a series of conferences held in 1943 in Durham, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Atlanta. Inspired and led by University of North Carolina sociologist and CIC leader Howard W. Odum (whose son Eugene Odum would become known as the father of modern ecology), many of the founders sought to create an organization that could promote Odum’s vision of regional planning and economic development. Odum attempted to promote economic growth and preserve the best aspects of southern culture through his regionalism. He and other white social scientists believed that the most pressing problem for the South (and the best method to address racial problems) was balanced economic growth.
Many African American intellectuals, led by Virginia Union University sociologist Gordon Hancock, believed that racial injustice was the most pressing issue facing the South in the era after World War II (1941-45) and must directly be addressed. He argued that the top priority of southern reformers must be the abolition of legally enforced segregation. Hancock organized a conference of African American educators in Durham, North Carolina, in 1943 to discuss postwar race relations. The Durham Conference adopted a resolution calling for an end to legally enforced segregation. The Richmond and Atlanta conferences followed, and the SRC was born early the following year in 1944. The council brought together academics, journalists, and concerned citizens in much the same way that the CIC had; indeed, many of the founding members of the SRC were veterans of the predecessor organization.
From the beginning, however, the SRC was divided between the regionalists who preferred to focus on broader structural reforms and those who advocated taking a principled stand against segregation. Odum’s colleague, Guy Johnson, and other regionalists argued that taking a public stand on the most divisive issue of the day would make it more difficult for the organization to achieve any progress on promoting its broader goals of regional and national economic planning. Lillian Smith, one of Georgia’s most notable authors and political activists in this period, was among critics of the SRC who argued strongly that the organization must forthrightly condemn segregation.
Opposition to Segregation
Ultimately Smith’s position prevailed. In 1949, after years of debate and discussion, the SRC adopted a resolution declaring that segregation “in and of itself constitutes discrimination and inequality of treatment.” The move cost the organization in the short term as many whites left. While a great many white moderates and liberals supported improved treatment of African Americans within the segregated system and supported Odum’s regionalist vision, a large number of them were not ready to abandon the “separate but equal” doctrine. Between 1949 and 1954 the SRC’s membership declined by almost half. Always struggling financially, the SRC faced even more difficult financial obstacles with the loss of so many members.
Yet the organization survived. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the SRC sponsored the formation of state Councils on Human Relations, committees of concerned citizens who worked to encourage and ease the process of desegregation. The Georgia Council on Human Relations (GCHR), formed in 1956, focused primarily on school desegregation in its early years. The GCHR worked closely with Help Our Public Education, also known as HOPE, in the late 1950s to advocate keeping Georgia’s schools open in spite of threats by the state legislature to close the schools rather than integrate. Through the 1960s GCHR cooperated with other civil rights organizations, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress on Racial Equality, in a variety of initiatives.
Politics, Research, and Regional Literature
The SRC also became a source of research and information on economic, social, and political conditions in the South. The council’s journal, originally titled New South and later renamed Southern Changes, and various reports and surveys provided important data for reformers in the South. The organization became heavily involved in voter registration and education campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1968 the council established its Lillian Smith Book Award, which is given to authors whose work enhances “racial awareness through literature.” Recipients have included Alice Walker, for Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973) and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983); Pat Conroy, for The Lords of Discipline (1981); Mary Hood, for And Venus Is Blue (1986); Melissa Fay Greene, for Praying for Sheetrock (1991); Anthony Grooms, for Trouble No More (1995) and Bombingham (2001); John Lewis, for Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998); Pam Durban, for So Far Back (2000); and Tayari Jones, for The Untelling (2005).