During 1940–1950, Reverend Clayton D. Russell was a leading African American pastor in Los Angeles and one of the city’s most prominent “race men,” advocating for African Americans in jobs, transportation, civil rights, and education. He also ran for public office and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. His primary platform was the pastorship of the People’s Independent Church of Christ. He also headed the Negro Victory Committee, which was both an advocacy group and a protest organization; and served as president of the Negro Victory Markets, a food cooperative for African Americans in Los Angeles. Russell’s ministry served both the sacred and the secular interests of African Americans in Los Angeles during the 1940s. He was very successful in using his radio ministry to speak to and advocate for African American interests.

During 1940–1950, the Reverend Dr. Clayton Donovan Russell was a dynamic pastor, a leading “race man,” as African American leaders were then known, and a significant political force in Los Angeles’s black community (Figure 1). Over the years, scholars have mentioned Reverend Russell, the People’s Independent Church of Christ (PICC) that he pastored, and the Negro Victory Committee he founded in their analyses of African American public life in the 1940s.1 This essay goes further, zeroing in on the details of Russell’s ministry, especially the tactics he employed to raise the political consciousness and political clout of L.A.’s African American community in that critical decade. Russell merged religion and civil rights advocacy to promote the interests of African Americans, many of whom had come in the second great wave of African American migration to Southern California and were thus still trying to find their place in the rapidly growing city.2 Russell blended religion, popular culture, and politics into a force for change, even going so far as to search for allies in the Communist Party. For Russell and his supporters, “politics” was a multilevel process that extended beyond the ballot box: protests and demonstrations were key parts of Russell’s strategy. Indeed, although he was willing to participate in electoral politics, community-based direct action was his primary tool for effecting change. Unlike many African American pastors of his day, Reverend Russell took personal and professional risks when he believed them necessary to uplift his people.3 His ministry places him squarely within the “black social gospel” movement, an American tradition of racial justice activism by black churches that reaches back to the 1880s, through the founding of the Niagara Movement in 1905; the launch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) five years later; and, in the 1950s, the explosion of civil rights activism that coalesced around the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.4 Russell was likewise an integral figure in the so-called “long civil rights movement.” According to historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, that movement, like the black social gospel, stretched across time and space. It took root “in the liberal and radical milieu of the late 1930s,” continued through the “rise and fall of the New Deal Order,” accelerated during World War II, then extended through the 1960s and ’70 s. The long civil rights movement also “stretched far beyond the South,” sometimes generating fierce resistance there, as well as in the American Northeast, Midwest, and West.5

Figure 1.

Pastor Clayton D. Russell with Judge Leonard Kaufman, Los Angeles, 1948.

Courtesy of Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. collection, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Figure 1.

Pastor Clayton D. Russell with Judge Leonard Kaufman, Los Angeles, 1948.

Courtesy of Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. collection, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

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Sociologist Aldon Morris explains the fury that the civil rights movement generated among many white Americans, noting that, although “the civil rights movement was essentially a political phenomenon,” at its core, civil rights leaders like Russell were “struggling for power” that they could use “against whites.”6 This battle for power was especially marked in Los Angeles, which changed dramatically during Russell’s own lifetime. From 1900 to 1950, the city’s population jumped from a hundred thousand to almost two million. Because the vast majority of the newcomers were white and Protestant, historian Robert Fogelson tells us, the new white majority “subordinated and segregated the colored minorities,” although “not each group in the same way or to the same degree.”7

Clayton D. Russell (1910–1980) was born in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1928 and was ordained as a pastor in 1929. He attended the University of Southern California and Chapman College, though he never completed a college degree. In the early 1930s, he spent time in Denmark. When he returned from Europe, he served as an evangelist for a loose affiliation of independent and community churches in the Midwest.8 Russell assumed the pulpit of PICC in January 1936, following the death of Reverend Napoleon Greggs, the minister who had performed Russell’s ordination.

By all accounts, Russell was a charismatic speaker. His oratorical skills helped him build a local following. As historian Jeremy Young explains, charismatic relationships begin with magnetic oratory and related performance practices, both of which describe Russell. One of his most effective performance tools was “call and response” preaching, a long-standing tradition among African American pastors. The preacher’s “call” brings a “response” from the congregation, such as “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” “Preach,” and similar responses.9 By the fall of 1941, the charismatic and innovative Russell was a leader of L.A.’s African American community. Russell held as much status as Academy Award–winning actress Hattie McDaniel, prominent actress Louise Beavers, and actor Clarence Muse, all of whom attended PICC. Although the church was large—its sanctuary could seat up to twenty-five hundred—Russell reached beyond the sanctuary walls to the mass of working-class black Angelenos. His sermons were heard every Sunday morning on radio station KFOX as “The Visitor” radio program; by the end of 1941, the program was also rebroadcast on Wednesday nights.10 Russell blended the innovative with the traditional to build his congregation, combining the familiar “call and response” preaching style with explicitly political messaging, and incorporating such modern techniques as broadcasting his sermons over the radio.

Decades later, attorney Walter L. Gordon Jr., a contemporary of Russell’s and a PICC member, confirmed the reverend’s popularity in the city’s African American community. In 1936, he recalled, “Clayton was very much in control of the whole town.” Gordon explained: “That is, Clayton had all of the glamorous people, the theatrical people, and people who were politically minded” attending the “Independent Church.”11 Describing Los Angeles in the 1940s, journalist R. J. Smith likewise called Russell a “box office star.”12

Although Russell was an early adopter of radio, African American newspapers were also essential in promoting Russell and his various causes. Between 1940 and 1950, his name appeared more often than that of any other local black community leader in L.A.’s three African American newspapers: The California Eagle, The Los Angeles Sentinel, and The Los Angeles Tribune. Russell appeared often in the Eagle, founded in 1879, the oldest African American newspaper in Los Angeles, whose publisher/editor Charlotta Bass was herself active in black civic life. Also influential in the African American community was the Sentinel, which began as an advertising sheet in 1933 and achieved a broad circulation by 1940. The Tribune began publication in 1940 and gained a wide readership by the end of the decade. Although Russell appeared often in local African American media, the white press seldom mentioned him.13

Russell spoke the language of recently arrived African Americans, many of whom had come to Los Angeles expecting to escape the violence, humiliation, and lack of opportunity they faced in other parts of the country. During the 1940s, the city’s African American population grew by more than a hundred thousand. Russell explicitly reached out to these newcomers, urging them to choose PICC as their place of worship. Black residents who arrived in L.A. during this decade were less patient than earlier arrivals and more militant in their demands. The Eagle lauded Russell for supporting the impatient in October 1946, calling him a “militant young minister.”14 Journalist R. J. Smith similarly observed that “Russell saw himself as a force for change.” “Some pastors” in Los Angeles in the 1940s “saw themselves as protectors of church tradition,” Smith observed, but Russell “had little time for iterations of habit.” He “attacked as ‘pulpit cowards’ those who did not see their calling as a commitment to improve” conditions for the city’s black community. Unlike his peers, concluded Smith, Russell embraced change and “switched direction as fast as he hopped off his Packard” automobile.15

Unbound by convention and tradition, Russell spoke optimistically about the future, in language that was easily accessible to working-class African Americans. Most importantly, he spoke out against the white establishment, including labor unions, the Los Angeles City Council, and the wildly popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. He took public positions that a majority of African Americans could not or would not take, but they admired Russell for doing so. The woman in the beauty shop, the man in the barber’s chair, passengers on streetcars spoke of Reverend Russell as someone like them—except that Russell wielded influence.

Critical to Russell’s influence was his weekly radio broadcast, “The Visitor,” whose name suggested its rationale: reaching out to the sick and to those who could not attend his services in person. His timing was ideal: radio ownership was widespread among American households from the 1920s forward, with audiences tuning in regularly for news and entertainment. Likewise, many Americans owned phonograph record players, for listening (and dancing) to popular music. Both were integral to creating and sharing a common culture among African American audiences. Jonathan Walton, one of the few scholars of African American religious broadcasting, explains that African American preachers took “advantage of the expanded social, political, and religious functions of mass media” in this era, “from the explosion of the ‘Radio Age’ in the 1920s to the commodification of the electronically recorded works in accessible and affordable formats such as the phonograph record.” Describing how radio and record producers took advantage of recording technology “to capture the aural vividness of black preaching,” Walton argues that “aside from the Bible, nothing has been more central to the circulation of the black church tradition than recorded and/or mass transmitted sounds of the worship experience.”16 Russell was ahead of his time in using radio to reach a broader audience: none of L.A.’s other large, established African American churches—First A.M.E., Second Baptist, or Wesley Chapel—offered a radio ministry.

Russell’s radio ministry has a broader significance to the long civil rights movement. As Walton explains, African American religious broadcasting was “invisible” to the general public. Thus, he argues, “the history of black religious broadcasting” is the history of religious blacks who constitute “the hidden and rejected underside” of a broader evangelical population in which black members were already marginalized. “For the majority of the twentieth century, these African American men and women were crying out from beneath the pages of recorded history so that they might become visible to the dominant white society.”17 This was the population for whom Russell spoke, using his radio broadcast platform as a tool to achieve civil rights and political empowerment for black Angelenos. As was true of his radio ministry generally, Russell was ahead of his time: using radio to advance political and social causes became common only in the mid-1950s.

As was true of African American religious broadcasting generally, Russell’s radio ministry in the 1940s was personality driven, crowd dependent, and entertainment oriented.18 One September 1939 sermon illustrates all three attributes. On the last Sunday of that month, Russell told a shocked audience that he would deliver his resignation the following Sunday. As he surely expected, his announcement created quite a stir. But listeners learned the following Sunday that his resignation would be purely spiritual. A California Eagle reporter was present to hear Russell’s sermon, “Resigned to the Will of God,” and reassured readers that the twenty-nine-year-old pastor “decisively put to silence a report of his resignation” by telling his audience, “I am not a quitter.” Wearing “a white robe with a high collar,” Russell delivered “a sensational sermon” that resulted—as Russell surely intended—in “32 additions to the church’s membership of 5,000.”19

Russell’s flair for the dramatic and his controversial sermon topics gained members for PICC, enhancing Russell’s own popularity as well as that of his church. His sermons intentionally provoked heated discussions—as when, in November 1938, Russell told congregants that “Negroes should revolt against any religious leaders, including myself, who do not take a definite stand against all conditions that are destructive to the value of life.” Here Russell took aim at religious leaders who did not speak out against the “unseemly conditions” that denied equality to African Americans. “We should openly rebel against those of us who stand in the pulpit before you,” Russell railed, but do nothing to challenge the status quo. This sermon challenged both ministers and the faithful to rethink their commitments. First, Russell urged both to use Christianity as a force for social justice. Second, he insisted that pastors who did not demand social justice were corrupt: they had been “bottled up by the pay-off route,” a problem Russell saw “in many cities throughout the nation, including Los Angeles.”20 Russell’s outspokenness made him controversial, but it also made him a force in the African American community.

Reverend Russell stood out from his fellow pastors in the African Amercian community, but he had a great deal in common with Aimee Semple McPherson, leader of the city’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The white Christian evangelist arguably wielded greater political and social influence than Russell, yet, in their public personas, both merged religion, social reform, and politics. As a McPherson biographer put it, “Sister Aimee” was a religious celebrity who “mastered print, radio and film for her use in her evangelical mission. Her integration of the latest media tools with conservative creed established precedents for the twentieth century’s most popular ministries.”21 McPherson’s 5,300-seat Angelus Temple provided Los Angeles with as much entertainment as any Hollywood movie studio. From the early 1920s until her death in 1944, she was one of the city’s most powerful civic leaders.22 She also had a radio station. In 1924, as part of Angelus Temple outreach efforts, she launched KFSG (K Four Square Gospel), which became an integral part of her ministry. KFSG broadcast McPherson’s sermons throughout the week, along with concerts, a Children’s Hour, and a constant stream of programs geared to the social welfare activities of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which McPherson envisioned “as a vehicle for a social revolution.” Even though McPherson’s politics and theology were conservative, she was fluid in her support of candidates for public office, such as endorsing Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover and, later, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.23

Despite all that they shared, Russell’s views on Christianity and politics were drastically different from McPherson’s. She had been openly supportive of Russell’s early ministry, even speaking at PICC in February 1936. But she and Russell split in the late 1930s, when McPherson was making efforts to establish her credentials as a staunch anticommunist. McPherson earned Russell’s ire in November 1940, when she thwarted a planned appearance by the African American poet Langston Hughes. Hughes had published his autobiography, The Big Sea, earlier that year, followed by a nationwide book tour. He was scheduled to give a luncheon talk at Pasadena’s Vista de Arroyo Hotel on November 15, 1940. But, unknown to Hughes, McPherson had organized a protest in front of the hotel over his 1932 poem “Goodbye Christ.” Labeling Hughes both an atheist and a communist, McPherson decreed that he should not be allowed to speak. Hundreds of noisy demonstrators converged outside the hotel with a sound truck and loudspeakers playing “God Bless America.” Completely taken aback, Hughes abandoned his talk.24

Discussion of the fracas was limited in the white press. On November 16, the Los Angeles Times reported that the luncheon had attracted five hundred guests, but that about one hundred protestors gathered to prevent Hughes’s presentation.25 Coverage in the black media gave more details. On the first page of its November 21 issue, the California Eagle reported that McPherson’s supporters, waving banners and dressed in the flowing capes that were her signature style, had staged a near-riot in front of the hotel.26

Further notices in the Eagle reveal that Russell responded immediately to McPherson’s attack on Hughes. Russell let the editors know that the title of his Sunday sermon would be “Goodbye Christ,” and Eagle editors included this information in its next PICC advertisement, published Thursday, November 28.27 One week later, the Eagle followed up with a report on Russell’s sermon, which included a photograph of Russell at his desk “as he worked in his study upon outlines of last Sunday’s gripping sermon on Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘Goodbye Christ.’” “It was on the basis of this work,” the editors continued, “that Aimee Semple McPherson, white evangelist, labeled Hughes a ‘black devil.’” “Rev. Russell’s sermon attracted huge throngs to the Independent Church of Christ,” the Eagle concluded.28 In the end, both McPherson and Russell gained what they wanted: wide media attention for their stands on Hughes’s “Goodbye Christ,” publicity that likely benefited each in reaching followers.

Russell’s outspoken support for the controversial poet reveals his skillful merging of religion, politics, and African American culture. In a later project, Russell combined forces with another local minister to present the Starlight Fiesta featuring Duke Ellington, a globally popular African American jazz artist whose records and live performances drew audiences of all races.29 More importantly, Russell’s advocacy for black artists had an explicitly political dimension. As was true in his conflict with McPherson, Russell’s efforts were often direct challenges to white authority.

Russell’s activism on behalf of black Angelenos became even more pronounced following U.S. entry into World War II. He put his significant social capital to work, galvanizing black support for the war effort and pressuring L.A. employers to hire African Americans. The charismatic minister used his oratorical powers to sell war bonds and, through PICC and the Negro Victory Committee (NVC), protested the racial discrimination that excluded African Americans from war work—activities that illustrate Russell’s significance in the history of the long civil rights movement.30

Complaints of discriminatory hiring practices emerged soon after the United States entered the war. To avert A. Randolph Phillips’s threatened march on Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. Although the order banned racial discrimination in defense industry hiring, Los Angeles unions and contractors continued to bar black workers. Russell responded in April 1942 with the NVC, an organization founded to fight discriminatory hiring practices via boycotts, demonstrations, and other direct action against offending employers. The NVC’s board of directors included such prominent black Angelenos as Reverend Russell, State Assemblyman Augustus Freeman “Gus” Hawkins, and Dr. Price Cobbs (a physician) and such labor leaders as George Anderson and Walter Williams of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and William Johnson of the Boilermakers union.31

Published in 1942 on behalf of the NVC, America! This Is Our Stand, an eight-page booklet penned by Russell and others, set out the organization’s agenda. The NVC insisted that it had only one priority: “Winning the War.” “This alone is our objective here and abroad,” Russell assured readers. But winning the war demanded full participation by all workers, which meant “the integrating of Negroes” into all phases of war work. The NVC pledged to use all the tools at its disposal, including “the Constitution” and Executive Order 8802, to that end. The group announced its plans for “a conference with the state board of education” and another with the United States Employment Service “to secure prompt action on the training of thousands of Negroes.” Russell called on the federal government’s War Production Board to organize “a statewide conference of Employers, Unions, Negro leaders, for the purpose of mapping detailed plans for the utilization of Negroes in Defense Industries.” For its part, the NVC would press “the War Production Board, Governor [Culbert] Olson, and the mayor” of Los Angeles, Fletcher Bowron, for “Negro representation on all policy making Boards, such as Labor Supply, Tire Rationing, etc.” Responding to the federal government’s plea to invest in America’s war effort by buying bonds, Russell announced that “a mass rally” would launch “a community campaign for the sale of war bonds” in the next few weeks.32 In mid-April 1942, an estimated thirty-five hundred people attended the NVC rally.33

America! This Is Our Stand was a call to arms for L.A.’s African American community, beseeching members to unite behind the U.S. war effort. At the same time, the booklet posed a direct challenge to white authorities, from President Roosevelt to Governor Olson to Mayor Bowron, with Russell insisting that they include black Angelenos in every aspect of civilian defense.

Russell’s work with the NVC and PICC fits squarely within the analytic framework proposed by sociologist Aldon Morris. Russell’s campaigns on behalf of black Angelenos emerged in the 1940s, in what Morris calls “indigenous” civil rights “movements of the dominated.”34 Russell, a charismatic leader, mobilized his followers to take collective action. Utilizing the resources at their disposal, including Russell’s established community networks, PICC and the NVC protested racial discrimination and demanded black equality in all aspects of war work.35 For their part, black Angelenos followed Russell because they identified closely with his vision and his mission.36

At the outset of World War II, Russell and most of the city’s black leadership aligned behind what came to be called “the Double V campaign.” The Pittsburgh Courier, then the largest black newspaper in the United States, launched the campaign on February 7, 1942, when it published a “Double V” insignia, “Democracy at Home-Abroad,” on its front page.37 Black Angelenos quickly declared their support for the Double V campaign, including such civic notables as Russell, Reverend J. Raymond Henderson of the Second Baptist Church, California Eagle publisher Charlotta Bass, the Golden State Mutual Insurance Company’s Norman Houston and George A. Beavers Jr., Louis Bloggett of Liberty Savings, the Urban League’s Floyd Covington, and Thomas Griffith of the NAACP (Figure 2). On Thursday, April 16, 1942, the Eagle published “United We Stand: An Open Letter to the Citizens of this Community,” announcing a mass meeting to be held three days later at the Second Baptist Church. Organized by Second Baptist’s Reverend Henderson, PICC’s Reverend Russell, and the NVC, the first four signatories were Bass and the Pittsburgh Courier’s Alemena Davis, Leon Washington, and Herman Hill.38 This meeting was what would later be called a “black swan” event, rare and unpredictable for bringing together an unlikely spectrum of African American Angelenos whose political views stretched from staunch Republican to communist sympathizer.39 By war’s end, these various factions would be at odds with each other.

Figure 2.

Pastor Clayton D. Russell with an unidentified man, Los Angeles, 1940s.

Courtesy of Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. collection, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Figure 2.

Pastor Clayton D. Russell with an unidentified man, Los Angeles, 1940s.

Courtesy of Walter L. Gordon, Jr./William C. Beverly, Jr. collection, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

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Russell’s wartime alliances soon brought him unwelcome attention. These allies included Louis and Mary Lou Rosser, who were PICC staff members, coauthors of America! This Is Our Stand, and—according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation—members of the Communist Party. The Rossers’ interest in the Communist Party should not be surprising; during the 1930s and ’40 s, the party had often aligned itself with African American causes and organizations. Other questionable figures served on the NVC’s board of directors, in particular CIO organizers George Anderson and Walter Williams. American law enforcement authorities had long been suspicious of the CIO, which, from its 1935 inception, included members of the Communist Party and expressed views aligned with the party’s positions on race and labor. Equally troublesome for Russell, he and the NVC worked closely with CIO organizer Revels Cayton, with known ties to the party, and Phillip “Slim” Connelly, another CIO organizer, whose wife, Dorothy Healy, was editor of the Daily World, the party’s newspaper in California.40

In August 1943, these associations prompted the FBI to open a file on Russell. In the first entry in that file, an eight-page “Synopsis of Facts,” the agent reported that Russell was “the pastor of People’s Independent Church of Christ Los Angeles,” was a “very active Negro leader,” and that he held “offices in the NAACP and Negro Victory Committee.” The agent described Russell as “a militant crusader against Negro discrimination,” who demanded “removal of racial barriers against Negroes” and “equal social and economic rights” for African Americans.41 Most concerning to the agent were the overlaps between Russell’s views, which followed the Communist Party’s “program of anti-discrimination,” and his association “with known Communists.”42 Yet FBI operatives remained uncertain about Russell’s own communist credentials. “Confidential sources of the Los Angeles Field Division failed to reveal that suspect is a member of the Communist Party.”43

The “Background Information and Subversive Tendencies” section of Russell’s FBI file noted that he was close to newspaper publisher Charlotta Bass. The agent found this concerning as well, noting that “subject does not confine his church activities to religious matters,” which the agent clearly expected should be Russell’s only concern.44 Instead, Russell used “sensational measures and sensational programs to gain attendance at his church and add to his personal following.”45 The agent questioned Russell’s sincerity: although “Russell’s activities are always ostensibly in behalf of bettering the condition of the Negroes,” the agent suspected that Russell’s first priority was bringing “his name before the Negroes” and engaging in activities that “will give him additional publicity.”46 The FBI kept Russell’s file open for another six years.

Fortunately, the FBI’s interest in Russell had little immediate impact on his work with the NVC—perhaps because, as historian Scott Kurashige notes, Russell and the NVC kept their focus on employment for African Americans. As one might expect of an organization with Communist Party and CIO connections, the NVC “placed working class concerns at the center of Black community politics.” More importantly, by “mobilizing a large base of African Americans around a proletarian agenda,” the NVC “forced established leaders, such as Russell’s ministerial peers, to get involved” in its efforts to force government, industry, and union leaders to open up employment opportunities to black Angelenos, if only so they did not “lose touch with their flock.”47

The one hundred thousand African American newcomers who found their way to Los Angeles in the 1940s were the backbone of the NVC. As historian Harlan D. Unrau argues, these newcomers were more likely to identify with the NVC than with the Urban League or the NAACP.48 Black newcomers’ need for work, in turn, shaped the NVC’s agenda.

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, Russell and his associates knew that they had a readymade constituency for forcing unions and employers to desegregate. Russell’s weekly radio broadcast, “The Visitor,” and the city’s three African American newspapers were important in getting this message to the community. Yet the most effective communications tool in the African American community was still word of mouth. It was word of mouth that began the NVC’s first major collective action: a march on the local offices of the United States Employment Service (USES), the federal agency responsible for recruiting workers for defense work.49 In July 1942, Russell and NVC leaders heard a rumor about a USES employee who claimed that African American women were not interested in or qualified for war work. Russell mentioned the rumor in his next Sunday broadcast, and on the following Monday morning, more than a thousand women descended on USES offices requesting applications.50 The end result, reported the California Eagle, was that USES agreed to push defense contractors to hire African American women.51

In less than two weeks’ time, the NVC had forced USES to place African Americans in defense jobs. But USES wavered in its commitment to placing African American workers. As one observer reported, “many USES employees, including those in Los Angeles,” succumbed to local prejudices and agreed when employers demanded white workers, sometimes “even encouraging…discriminatory employment requests.”52

After pressuring USES to be aggressive in placing African Americans in defense work, the NVC opened battle on a new front: job training. Many workers needed specialized training to secure employment in the defense industry, but, by the middle of 1942, no defense worker training centers were located in the city’s African American or Latino neighborhoods. The NVC successfully pressured the Los Angeles Unified School District to open training centers in black neighborhoods. By the end of August, the Eagle announced that Jefferson High School, located near the Central Avenue district where many black Angelenos lived, was offering drafting, math, pipefitting, and metalworking classes at times that could accommodate African American workers.53 These successes in forcing USES and the school district to force open defense industry jobs for African Americans solidified the NVC’s reputation as a major force in the community.

Gaining African American access to job opportunities and training was a positive step up the employment ladder. The next step was transporting them to their new jobs from homes in the Central Avenue corridor. The NVC set its sights on desegregating the Los Angeles Railway (LARy), a privately owned streetcar and bus system that served large sections of Los Angeles. When the United States entered the war, many LARy workers were drafted or volunteered for military service, with the result that, by autumn 1942, LARy was facing labor shortages. Not surprisingly, white and black newspapers reported the situation differently. On September 9, 1942, for example, in an item titled “Labor Shortage,” the Los Angeles Times reported that LARy was seeking part-time bus and streetcar operators whose working hours would permit them to work short shifts.54 That December, the Eagle explained the impact of LARy’s labor shortages on African Americans: LARy had responded to short staffing by cutting service to black neighborhoods, especially the U car, the rail line running from 12th to 52nd Streets along Central Avenue. As a result, close to three hundred buses and streetcars were out of service.55 No doubt the collapse of Central Avenue streetcar service prompted the NVC to apply pressure on LARy to hire African Americans. Like defense industry contractors, the transit company had proved reluctant to desegregate its labor force.56 In the spring of 1943, the NVC began pressuring LARy to hire and train African American motormen.57

Not surprisingly, the FBI took a dim view of the NVC’s campaigns to force USES to hire African American defense workers and to push LARy to hire black motormen and bus drivers.58 But these were only a fraction of NVC pursuits in the 1940s. For example, at the beginning of 1943, the NVC raised over $63,000 for war bonds ($957,876.82 in 2020 dollars).59 Russell pressed for construction of housing for war workers and fought to overturn the residential covenants that prohibited sale or lease of housing to black Angelenos.60 He was also outspoken in his support for the Mexican American community in August 1942, when the death of a Hispanic male at a reservoir known as “Sleepy Lagoon” prompted the Los Angeles Police Department to round up more than six hundred Mexican American youths, male and female. Seventeen Mexican Americans faced murder charges, twelve were convicted and sent to San Quentin prison, and the remaining five served time in a local jail. The convictions were reversed on appeal in October 1944. Russell made it a point to stress that such attacks on Mexican Americans hindered the war effort.61

At the same time he was organizing the NVC, Russell was also organizing the Negro Consumers and Producers Cooperative Association (NCPCA). In February 26, 1942, a brief notice appeared in the California Eagle inviting readers to an NCPCA meeting at PICC.62 It was no accident that the notice appeared in that issue: one week earlier, on February 19, President Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation “of all persons deemed a threat to national security” from the West Coast, leading to the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. Relocation had a direct impact on the mostly black Central Avenue district, where many African Americans shopped for food at small corner stores operated by Japanese Americans. Black community leaders intended their Victory Markets to fill the food supply vacuum created by Japanese internment. The Victory Markets were an extension of Russell’s ministry.63 Five hundred members of PICC invested $1,700 ($27,424.17 in 2020 dollars) to launch the NCPCA.64 By war’s end, five Negro Victory Markets were in operation, all funded by NVC stockholders.65

The NVC’s Victory Markets did more than supply groceries in black neighborhoods: leaders intended the venture to serve as economic incubators. As Scott Kurashige observes, the NVC characterized the NCPCA as a “genuine effort” by residents of majority-black neighborhoods “to own their own community.” Although the cooperative markets struggled to compete with the city’s established groceries, they awakened the consciousness of black consumers to support black-owned businesses. Equally important to households struggling to feed their families, the NCPCA’s cooperative buying power helped black consumers overcome the unequal distribution of rationed food between white and black neighborhoods.66

The NCPCA’s board of directors reflected the NVC’s commitment to cross-class coalition building in the African American community. Two board members, Isaiah Robinson and James Robinson, were janitors; the board’s manager was Theodore Albritton, who gained release from San Quentin in 1941 (after serving time for murder), with the assistance of Charlotta Bass, who was also a member of the Victory Markets board. Other civic notables included attorney Crispus Wright; Reverend S. A. Williams of St. Paul Baptist Church; and Celes King, manager of the Dunbar Hotel, noted among black travelers as the best black-owned hotel in the United States. When the first Victory Market opened, the California Eagle ran a full-page advertisement extolling its virtues, including an exterior photograph, two interior views, and a photograph of the store’s all African American staff. Calling the market a “venture in economic progress,” the text described the stock offering that launched the NCPCA, with investments ranging from $5 to $500.67

Unfortunately for Russell, the Victory Markets fell on hard times after the war ended. Rumors circulated in March 1946 that the NCPCA was failing, prompting the Eagle to report “Victory Markets Not a Failure: Report Is False.” According to the notice, Russell had recently addressed a stockholders’ meeting. His statements were contradictory: on the one hand, he assured investors that the NCPCA was on sound financial footing; on the other, he noted that managers were taking steps to keep the Victory Markets competitive. Russell offered to return the money of any investor who wished to withdraw from the cooperative, but, according to the report, there were no takers.68 However, the Los Angeles Tribune reported in July 1946 that the NCPCA faced ten suits totaling $5,967.08 ($80,371.98 in 2020 dollars) in liability; in six of the cases, the NCPCA had offered no defense, leading to default judgments.69 By August, reported the Sentinel, claimants had seized Russell’s personal automobile. That same month, Celes King admitted that he had resigned his NCPCA directorship four years earlier because of financial irregularities. Former board member James Robinson filed suit against Russell and the NCPCA, claiming and collecting $1,000.70 Issues relating to NCPCA business practices dogged Russell over the next three years.

As busy as he was with the NCPCA, the NVC, and other concerns, Russell remained an active pastor to the People’s Independent Church of Christ, which continued to attract recent arrivals to Los Angeles. On Sunday, August 4, 1946, for example, eight people joined PICC. One new congegant hailed from Houston, Texas, and one each came from Santa Barbara, Chicago, and Fort Worth, Texas. Only one new member had left another local church for PICC from a local church.71 Through the 1940s, PICC was ascendant in its outreach.

In August 1943, the National Council of Community Churches, of which PICC was a member, held its convention in Los Angeles. Russell was then completing his second term as president of the Council. He asked for a third term, but the Council rejected his request. The response of the black-owned Sentinel reveals that Russell’s controversial leadership style had alienated some black Angelenos. “Mr. Russell,” the Sentinel reported, had “aroused the suspicion among members of the council that he intended to make the council a national political organization for his own selfish purposes in much the same manner he has done with the local PICC.”72 Sentinel editors clearly objected to Russell using his church and congregation as a political organization, though they did not reveal Russell’s “self purposes.”

Three years later, Russell gave credence to the Sentinel’s suspicions. In August 1946, the National Council of Community Churches held its annual meeting in Baltimore. Russell and a delegation of supporters attended, then chartered a train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. From Union Station, the group marched down Constitution Avenue to the Department of Justice, then to the White House. Officials at both stops received Russell and his entourage.73 Russell later spoke fondly of this 1946 outing, which he described as a “demonstration.”74

Russell’s public activities reveal an ambitious and restless man. Pastoring one of L.A.’s largest churches would have satisfied most men. The challenge of creating successful social service agencies through their church would have kept most pastors busy. The NVC, Victory Markets, National Council of Community Churches, and constant advocacy on behalf of black Angelenos would have been enough to fully occupy the attention of several pastors, let alone one. But not Russell. In the spring of 1946, he decided to run for political office, setting his sights on the Second District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, held by white incumbent Leonard Roach. This was Russell’s district, stretching from Alameda Street on the east to Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, north from 9th Street, south to Imperial Highway. A majority of the the city and county’s African Americans lived in the Second District. Charlotta Bass supported Russell’s candidacy, as did local undertaker S. P. Johnson, an influential lodgeman as well as a stalwart of the Second Baptist Church, and Thomas Griffith Jr., president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. In addition to Roach, former state assemblymember Frederick M. Roberts ran for the seat. Neither black man won, and Supervisor Roach held his seat.75

After the election, the Sentinel criticized Russell’s run for office as ill-advised and costly.76 Russell responded defiantly, telling his congregation that, if the opportunity presented itself, nothing would stop him from running for public office again.77 His next political adventure came in 1948, when he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He remained in Philadelphia afterward to attend the Progressive Party’s nominating convention.78 Russell clearly had the politics “bug,” yet he never ran for public office again.

Russell’s run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1946 was part of the black community’s ongoing efforts to elect black representatives in a city that, unlike New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, had no majority minority election districts. African American electoral success meant building biracial coalitions to support black candidates. Between 1910 and 1950, several African Americans successfully ran for public office in Los Angeles. In 1918, Frederick M. Roberts was elected to the California General Assembly in the majority-white 74th Assembly District. Roberts held his seat until 1934, when he was defeated by another African American candidate, Augustus Hawkins.79 In 1939, Faye Allen, an African American woman, was elected to an at-large seat on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.80 In 1945, the year before Russell’s campaign, longtime ally Charlotta Bass ran unsuccessfully against a white incumbent for a seat in the city’s seventh council district (also part of the Second District).81

Russell left PICC in 1953 to found the nondenominational Church of Divine Guidance, where he remained as pastor until his death in 1980. In 1979, Russell participated in a California State University, Long Beach, oral history project in which he spoke on the role of local African American women in the wartime defense industry. He reflected on his ministerial career and the work of PICC in 1940s Los Angeles. In response to questions about the NVC, Russell explained that it was “an outgrowth of the spirit of the leadership of PICC.” Russell acknowledged that, by pressing for black equality in all aspects of civic life, including defense work, he and PICC “were changing the whole complexion of religion.” Russell saw no distinction between preaching from his pulpit and fighting for black jobs. For a minister, he asked rhetorically, “what is the greater sin”—leaving his pulpit, going out into the community to agitate for black jobs? Or was the greater sin sticking to his pulpit, letting his congregation “pay [his] salary and…church expense[s]” when “your congregation [is] unemployed,” and “you are doing nothing to help them get a job.…What is the greater sin?”82

In his interview, Russell called his ministry “an extension of the social gospel movement.” Although he was fuzzy about dates and times, Russell remembered clearly the mission of the NVC, which began “I think about ’41 or ’42,” soon after the United States entered the war, when he and his allies founded the NVC “for the purpose of implementing our anti-discrimination” programs, especially fighting to desegregate unions, opening defense industry jobs to African Americans. “We engaged in struggle with the trade unions” to end their discrimination, recalled Russell, but “also [to] help the war.”83

Russell remembered that the NVC filled needs that neither the NAACP nor the Urban League addressed. Neither group was explicitly focused on Los Angeles. “They didn’t tackle local issues,” he recalled. They “raised money and sent it to Washington.” Moreover, the NVC was more militant than either group, both of which “were conservative in those days.” Russell recalled the first day of the NAACP’s 1942 national convention, which it held “at 24th and Griffith in Second Baptist Church.” But on that day, “our Victory Committee marched on the USES,” demanding that it place African Americans in defense industry jobs.84

With his seemingly boundless energy, Russell blazed a trail, using the new medium of radio to serve both sacred and secular causes. As many leaders had before him, Russell also relied on the local press to deliver his message to the African American community. The city’s three African American newspapers paid close attention to Russell’s activities throughout the 1940s and beyond. With a pulpit, a weekly radio broadcast, and an indefatigable personality, Russell was in a unique position to advocate for the religious, labor, and political interests of his constituency. Even though his influence declined following the end of World War II, Clayton D. Russell remained one of the leading voices in L.A.’s African American community. His greatest impact was the merging of the pulpit, politics, and activism before, during, and after the war to shape African American participation in all aspects of civic life, foreshadowing the techniques that later civil rights leaders would employ in coming decades.

1.

E. Fredrick Anderson, The Development of Leadership and Organization Building in the Black Community of Los Angeles from 1900 through World War II (Saratoga, CA: Century Twenty One, 1980); Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Kevin Allen Leonard, The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006); Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); R. J. Smith, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance (New York: Public Affairs, 2006); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans’ Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

2.

Robert M. Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 198.

3.

David S. Neumann, “A Respectable Military: Rev. J. Raymond Henderson and the Civil Rights Struggle in Los Angeles, 1941–1963,” Southern California Quarterly 100, no. 4 (2018): 471–504.

4.

Gary Dorrien, “Recovering the Black Social Gospel: The Figures, Conflicts, and Ideas That Forged ‘The New Abolition,’” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Summer–Autumn 2015), https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/recovering-the-black-social-gospel/.

5.

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–1263, 1235.

6.

Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Community Organizing for Change (New York: Free Press, 1984), 217.

7.

Fogelson, Fragmented Metropolis, 198.

8.

Smith, Great Black Way, 75–76:

9.

Jeremy C. Smith, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), xviii.

10.

Walter L. Gordon Jr., interview by Lorn S. Foster, November 18, 2008, in writer’s possession; Clayton D. Russell, interview by Sherna Berger-Gluck, November 7, 1999, Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive Collection, California State University, Long Beach.

11.

Ibid.

12.

Smith, Great Black Way, 78.

13.

White-owned newspapers of the era included the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Examiner, Los Angeles Mirror, and Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

14.

California Eagle, October 10, 1946, 5.

15.

Smith, Great Black Way, 75.

16.

Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Evangelism (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 19.

17.

Ibid., 33.

18.

Ibid., 5.

19.

California Eagle, October 5, 1939, 7.

20.

California Eagle, November 17, 1938, 6.

21.

Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3–4.

22.

Ibid., 8.

23.

Ibid., 80.

24.

Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1940, 2.

25.

Ibid.

26.

California Eagle, November 21, 1940, 1.

27.

California Eagle, November 28, 1940, 5.

28.

California Eagle, December 5, 1940, 5.

29.

California Eagle, August 14, 1941; Benjamin Cawthorn, “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy and the Fight for Equality in Wartime Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly 98, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 5–58, 34.

30.

On Californians’ participation in the long civil rights movement, see Mark Brillant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

31.

Clayton D. Russell, “America! This Is Our Stand” (Los Angeles: n.p., 1942).

32.

Russell, “America!”; Anderson, Development of Leadership, 149–156.

33.

Kurashige, Shifting Grounds of Race, 139.

34.

Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 27 ff.

35.

Ibid., 275.

36.

Ibid., 278–279, 282.

38.

California Eagle, April 16, 1942, 1. The other signers were Baxter Scruggs of the Young Men’s Christian Association; Floyd Covington of the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League; Tom Griffith Jr. of the NAACP; George A. Beavers Jr. of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance; and Rev. J. Raymond Henderson of Second Baptist.

39.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).

40.

Anderson, Development of Leadership, 149–156.

41.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Clayton D. Russell File, September 23, 1943, 1, in writer’s possession.

42.

Sides, L.A. City Limits, 62–67; Josh Sides, “You Understand My Condition: The Civil Rights Congress in L.A.’s African American Community, 1946–1952,” Pacific Historical Review 67, no. 2 (May 1998): 233–251.

43.

Ibid., 2.

44.

FBI, Clayton D. Russell File.

45.

Ibid., 2.

46.

Ibid.

47.

Kurashige, Shifting Grounds of Race, 135.

48.

Harlan D. Unrau, “The Double V Movement in Los Angeles during the Second World War: A Study in Negro Protest” (MA thesis, California State University, Fullerton, 1971), 87.

49.

Russell interview.

50.

Kurashige, Shifting Grounds of Race, 141; Sides, L.A. City Limits, 61–62; Russell interview.

51.

California Eagle, July 16, 1942.

52.

Sides, L.A. City Limits, 61.

53.

California Eagle, August 31, 1942.

54.

California Eagle, February 19, 1943.

55.

California Eagle, December 18, 1942.

56.

Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1942.

57.

California Eagle, February 19, 1943.

58.

FBI, Clayton D. Russell File.

60.

Smith, Great Black Way, 92.

61.

Leonard, Battle for Los Angeles, 161.

62.

California Eagle, February 26, 1942.

63.

Kurashige, Shifting Grounds of Race, 139.

65.

Kurashige, Shifting Grounds of Race, 139.

66.

Ibid.

67.

Anderson, Development of Leadership, 159.

68.

California Eagle, March 7, 1946.

69.

Los Angeles Tribune, July 2, 1946; Westegg.com, The Inflation Calculator, https://westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi?money=5967.08&first=1946&final=2020.

70.

Los Angeles Sentinel, August 1, 1946.

71.

Archives, People’s Independent Church of Christ, 5856 West Blvd., Los Angeles, California.

72.

Los Angeles Sentinel, August 25, 1943.

73.

California Eagle, May 9, 1946.

74.

Russell interview.

75.

California Eagle, May 9, 1946.

76.

California Eagle, June 13, 1946.

77.

Los Angeles Sentinel, July 18, 1948.

78.

California Eagle, July 15, 1948.

79.

Roberts was elected in the 74th District to serve in the California State Assembly, where he served from January 6, 1919, to January 5, 1931. He was elected to one term in the 62nd District, serving from January 5, 1931, to January 7, 1935. Like many Republicans in the New Deal era, Roberts was swept from office in the 1934 midterm elections, when voters elected the Democrat Augustus Hawkins (also African American) to take his place. For more on Roberts, see Robert Lee Johnson, Notable Southern Californians in Black History (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, 2017).

80.

Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1939.

81.

Flamming, Bound for Freedom, 367; Sides, L.A. City Limits, 154. See also Paul Finkelman, “Charlotta Bass,” in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 155–156.

82.

Russell interview.

83.

Ibid.

84.

Ibid.