Henderson's militant approach to civil rights in wartime Los Angeles
For African Americans, World War II held out the prospect of unprecedented access to high-paying manufacturing jobs and the respectable lifestyle that attended them. World War H’s transformative possibilities inspired Henderson to envision the expansion of racial justice not only regionally, but nationally and internationally. Nowhere was the potential opportunity greater than in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest production areas. World War II provided the nation’s Blacks the opportunity to advance rights at home as they risked their lives defeating America’s enemies overseas. Civil rights activists referred to this two-prong victory strategy as the “Double V” campaign. Black leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat of a massive March on Washington prompted President Roosevelt to announce Executive Order 8802, which established a Fair Employment Practices Commission to ensure that non-Whites had equal access to manufacturing jobs in companies with federal government contracts. World War II made Southern California one of the most productive industrial regions in the nation, but Blacks were woefully underrepresented in these industries.9
To support labor, Henderson opened his church sanctuary for political rallies, providing both a practical place for organizing and a sacred space for these activities. Wuthnow argues that “sacredness inheres in the form” of churches, particularly those with grand architecture like Second Baptist, so that even nonreligious activities that take place there “take on a certain air of sacredness” (Wuthnow 1994, 58). As a pastor, his participation in these activities reinforced a sense of sacred purpose; as Wuthnow points out, “even occasional references to the divine in otherwise secular” gatherings turned them into public rituals set apart from everyday experience (Wuthnow 1994, 142—46). Thus, a minister could help to create a transcendent experience, even if many in the audience did not share the minister’s view. By conferring divine sanction on labor activities, Henderson helped legitimate them and to bring unions into the mainstream of Black life. Rather than worrying that labor would taint his own respectability, Henderson deployed his own stature to confer legitimacy on union activities.
While Henderson supported the local wartime civil rights struggle in various ways, his decision to support the local branch of the CIO was, at the time, a militant strategy that tested the boundaries of respectability (Kennedy 1999, 316,
Flamming 2005, 355). White business leaders in Los Angeles - a city notorious for its open-shop policies - were certainly critics, but many middle class Black Angelenos were also wary of organized labor, especially left-leaning organizations (Flamming 2005, 356). In March of 1943, Henderson sponsored a rally in support of the CIO with famed New York pastor A. Clayton Powell, Jr. as the keynote speaker (“Dr. Powell speaks” 1943, 1 A). Before the war, the Los Angeles CIO had paid little attention to African Americans. But labor demands and Black insistence on equal treatment forced the CIO to reinvent itself as a progressive interracial organization (Sides 2005, 62-63). An Eagle editorial praised the unusual partnership between middle-class churches and leftist labor, proclaiming that it would “bring together for the first time not only active Negro organizations but spokesmen for labor and the churches from all sections of Los Angeles. It is this unity which will block the sabotage of victory which lurks behind every act of racial intolerance in the Los Angeles war industry” (“Production for victory conference goal” 1943, 8A).
Henderson and other Black leaders in Los Angeles expressed their militancy on the national level as well. They organized several gatherings to address concerns about the just treatment of Blacks across the nation in the midst of the war -particularly the shameful treatment of Black soldiers, who were providing the most sacrificial service of citizens. In October 1942, Henderson sent a lengthy telegram to President Roosevelt in response to the lynching of three Blacks in Mississippi (“Second Baptist” 1942, 4A). The following year, when race riots broke out in major industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit, two thousand gathered at Second Baptist to denounce the violence (“Negroes must unify” 1943, Al). Second Baptist was also the meeting place for an emergency NAACP rally to protest the lynching of Black soldiers. Employing the language of civic respectability, the Eagle noted that Black soldiers “are making the supreme sacrifice for democracy, while they and their families are receiving none of the democracy which they are fighting for” (“NAACP drive” 1943, 3A). The following year, Henderson supported a petition for equitable rest quarters for soldiers (“Negro leader protests” 1944, 8). In these ways, Henderson linked the local Black public sphere with a larger national community engaged in the same struggle for rights.
Henderson’s vision for the war even extended beyond the nation’s borders. He perceived a historic opportunity to increase racial justice on a global scale. In 1943, he preached a sermon describing World War II as a “revolution” that “flowed from the desire for freedom on the part of all the people of the world,” and expressed his hope that the war would bring freedom to Africa and Asia, not just Europe. Racial conflicts were rooted in economic, rather than biological, realities and the only chance for postwar stability was an international organization that would express “the solidarity and unity of the entire human race.” Henderson clearly stated his opposition to Soviet-style communism, but still expressed admiration for the Soviet Union’s struggle for “the abolition of racial exclusiveness, equality of nations and the integrity of territories” (“Soviet is effective society” 1943, 7). The Communist Party in the United States was one of the few non-Black organizations to fully embrace racial equality in the 1930s and 1940s, so Black leaders, including those in Los Angeles, often offered support for communism or the Soviet Union (Sides 2005, 141).10 Henderson’s cautious praise of the Soviet Union did not test the bounds of respectability within the Black community; as long as Whites took no notice, his views remained unproblematic.