Sociology Index

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Charles Spurgeon Johnson

Charles Spurgeon Johnson (July 24, 1893 – October 27, 1956) was an American sociologist and college administrator, the first black president of historically black Fisk University, and a lifelong advocate for racial equality and the advancement of civil rights for African Americans and all ethnic minorities. Charles Spurgeon Johnson preferred to work collaboratively with liberal white groups in the South, quietly as a "sideline activist," to get practical results. His study was interrupted by service in France during World War I as a non-commissioned officer with the US army. After returning to the US, he resumed graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in sociology. In 1930 Johnson was awarded the Harmon Prize for Science, for his work The Negro in American Civilization. His position is often contrasted with that of W. E. B. Du Bois, who was a powerful and militant advocate for blacks and described Johnson as "too conservative." During Charles Spurgeon Johnson's academic studies and leadership of Fisk University during the 1930s and 1940s, the South had legal racial segregation and Jim Crow discriminatory laws and practices, including having disfranchised most black voters in constitutions passed at the turn of the century. Johnson was unwavering in personal terms in his opposition to this oppressive system, yet he worked hard to change race relations in terms of short-term practical gains. Charles Spurgeon Johnson figures among eminent sociologists of the world.

His work was fundamental to The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922), published by the University of Chicago Press. It was considered a classic model for comprehensive commission reports. In the 1920s Johnson moved to New York City, where he became research director for the National Urban League. Charles Spurgeon Johnson was an "entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance," the creative movement by African-American writers and artists of that time.

In 1926 he moved to Nashville, taking a position as chair of the Department of Sociology at Fisk University, a historically black college. There he wrote or directed numerous studies of how combined legal, economic and social factors produced an oppressive racial structure. Two of his works have become classics: Shadow of the Plantation (1934), and Growing up in the Black Belt (1940).

In 1946 Johnson was appointed as the first black president of Fisk University. He attracted outstanding faculty, including the author Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas and others. In 1946, Charles Spurgeon Johnson was one of 20 American educators selected to advise on educational reform in occupied Japan. He was also a consultant for several White House conferences related to youth in American society, and a member of the first Board of Foreign Scholarships for the Fulbright Program.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson lived to celebrate the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. He played a key role in the effort to implement the decision in the face of "massive resistance" in the South. His work and that of his peers also contributed to passage of federal civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.