The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Approaches to Social Justice Activism - Segregation, Integration and the National Conference of Social Work 1937 Conference

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Charles Senteio, MBA, Graduate Student Research Assistant, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Okemos, MI
Background and Purpose: Since its inception, the social work profession has attempted to address various social justice issues.  The National Conference of Social Work (NCSW) was a racially integrated professional organization during the Progressive Era, when few racially integrated national organizations even existed.  Nonetheless, flagrant incidents of racial discrimination occurred at the NCSW 1935 and 1936 annual conferences, despite attempts to minimize these incidents dating back to 1920.  Activism intensified after the 1936 conference; the 1937 national meeting occurred without racial incident.

Racial integration activism served as a case study for understanding how leaders approached this pervasive social issue. Eugene Kinckle Jones (National Urban League President), Jacob Fisher (Rank and File Movement Leader) and Edith Abbott (NCSW President) were integral in these efforts.  This historical comparative case study examines activism strategies and boundaries in advance of the 1937 conference.

Methods:  The historical comparative case study answers three questions: 1) How did social work activists influence significant social change during the 1930s? 2) What factors influenced their approaches? 3) How can these approaches apply to contemporary social justice issues?  We used a variety of original documents, including correspondence between Abbott, Fisher, and other NCSW leaders.  We also investigated Jones’ writings on racial integration of social workers.  We obtained primary data through investigation and correspondence with the Social Welfare History Archives, as well as historians and Jones’ biographer.  Primary data was selected, carefully reviewed, and analyzed consistent with historical methods (Williams, 2011).  This enabled understanding of how these leaders approached racial segregation, both within NCSW events and in the broader social work profession.  We also included direct quotes from meeting notes and correspondences to support key findings.

Results:  The three social work leaders all shared a value, racial discrimination was wrong; however, they each approached the issue differently.  While they agreed on racial integration at NCSW events, and promoted it in the profession, they did not agree on the boundaries of social work advocacy.  Fisher was adamant that social workers should advocate against racial discrimination across social structures.  Further, he urged the NCSW use its financial leverage to insist that hotels, restaurants, and bars agree not to discriminate.  Abbott bounded advocacy to racial integration at NSCW events.  Jones advocated for racial integration within the profession, focusing on creating opportunities for educating African American social workers.  Each worked together on their shared objective—eliminating racial discrimination at NCSW events—while maintaining different positions on the boundaries of their advocacy.  These conversations also forced social workers to confront racial discrimination, both within the profession and in the larger social environment.

Conclusions and Implications: The approaches to activism practiced by individuals at the head of leading organizations focused on various social justice activities, in the context of pursuing racial integration in the 1930s.  This case study provides an enduring example for various contemporary social justice activities.  It serves as a rich example—working effectively together despite core differences—that informs contemporary social justice activism across social work research, practice and education.