In June 1938, the U.S. government published “A Report on the Economic Positions of the South.” The report was created to bring attention to area’s crushing poverty. The report revealed systemic problems with the region’s wages, housing, child labor, education, water resources, etc. “The low-income belt of the South is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death. It’s large proportion of low-income citizens are more subject to disease than the people of any similar area,” reads a paragraph from a section entitled “Health.
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama website, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was influenced by human rights activists who wanted to hold a conference that would address oppression. Roosevelt thought a conference would be an ideal forum to “publicize the grim findings of the report and possibly rally more southern support behind the New Deal,” the website states. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was quite enthusiastic about the conference and pledged her support.
On November 20, 1938, the first meeting of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare was held in Birmingham. Among the 1,200 delegates were prominent liberals such as the First Lady, Bibb Graves, Alabama’s governor, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and activist Virginia Foster Durr. “During three days of panel discussions, the conference drew from throughout the South delegates who addressed labor relations, credit, education, farm tenancy, the poll tax, and constitutional rights,” states the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
It probably comes as no surprise that the meeting drew opposition. Twenty percent of the delegates were black. On the second day of the conference, Eugene “Bull” Connor, public safety commissioner, barged into the conference and ordered the participants to separate themselves. Blacks were made to sit on one side of the room and whites on the other. Determined to stand her ground, Eleanor Roosevelt sat with the black attendees. After a policeman told her to move, Roosevelt placed her chair between the two sections.
The SCHW’s existence was rocky; it suffered from lack of funds and charges of being a Communist organization, among other woes. The SCHW folded in 1948, but it is seen as a forerunner to important civil rights groups of the ’50s and ’60s.