The Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) was organized in Mound Bayou in 1951 and worked as a Mississippi civil rights organization into the early 1960s. Its founder, wealthy business leader and physician T. R. M. Howard, conceived the group, organized its first meeting, and remained its most prominent figure throughout its history.
By some combination of necessity and strategic choice, the RCNL, at least originally, seemed a somewhat conservative alternative to other civil rights groups. Howard tended to talk about leadership, personal character, education, and economic empowerment rather than desegregation, and he initially presented the group as an African American version of the powerful and all-white Delta Council. However, the RCNL included a wide range of civil rights leaders active in 1950s Mississippi—Emmett J. Stringer, George Lee, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore, Jackson journalist Percy Greene, Arenia Mallory of Saints Junior College in Lexington, and J. H. White of Mississippi Vocational College in Itta Bena. Historians David Beito and Linda Royster Beito argue that the “RCNL acted as a kind of advance guard,” enabling some people who feared being identified with an activist group to become involved before moving on to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The first RCNL protest took place in 1952, when it boycotted gas stations that did not allow African Americans to use their restrooms. Medgar Evers, who worked for Howard in the insurance business, was involved in the boycott. The group also worked to oppose police brutality against African Americans, investigated specific acts of violence, and staged a number of voter registration drives. In 1953 Howard rejected efforts to equalize rather than segregate schools, an approach the NAACP had already rejected as part of the legal strategy that resulted in the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Time Bomb, a 1956 pamphlet published by the RCNL, made clear the group’s perspective. Author Olive Arnold Adams condemned the killing of Emmett Till, linked it to other violence directed against activists such as George Lee and Gus Courts, criticized the White Citizens’ Councils, and concluded that the Till murder could take place in any area where “white supremacy is god. This was the primitive law of plantation life.” When the Citizens’ Councils exerted economic pressure on African American activists, the RCNL worked with the NAACP to offer financial assistance.
In 1952 the first RCNL convention, held in Mound Bayou and attended by several thousand African Americans, featured an address by US congressman William Dawson of Chicago and music by Mahalia Jackson. Two years later, NAACP lead attorney Thurgood Marshall spoke.
The RCNL’s influence began to decline in the late 1950s. In 1956 Howard moved the group’s annual conference to Jackson and invited Martin Luther King Jr. and New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, but neither attended. Howard moved to Chicago the same year, depriving the organization of its founder and most dynamic leader, and first the NAACP and later the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee eclipsed the RCNL.
- Olive Arnold Adams, Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed and the Full Story of Emmett Till (1956)
- David Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (2009)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)