NEW YORK – On Feb. 18, the auditorium was packed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in tribute to Louis Burnham and the inauguration of the Louis E. Burnham Award. Burnham, Barbados-born and Harlem-raised, was one of the African-American activists whose work paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
A Communist militant, Burnham began his activism at City College of New York during the 1930s, where he helped organize the American Student Union (ASU), and was president of the Frederick Douglass Society, the Black student organization. He then went on to organize the first chapters of the ASU and the Harlem Youth Congress.
In the early 1940s Burnham, his wife Dorothy, and Esther and James Jackson went to Birmingham, Ala., at the center of Southern racist Jim Crow to organize the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). SNYC organized across the South against discrimination, Jim Crow, lynch-terror and for voting rights. They organized sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration drives.
In the 1950s, McCarthyism drove the Burnhams out of the South, and Louis returned to Harlem where he founded the newspaper Freedom with Paul Robeson, and wrote for the National Guardian. Louis Burnham died in 1960.
The tribute began with a musical selection by Burnham’s son, Charles Robey Burnham, a violinist like his father, accompanied by singer Eisa Davis. Among the selections was a moving version of Bob Marley’s “Song of Freedom.”
Burnham’s daughter, Margaret, an activist and Boston judge, welcomed the crowd and read one of his articles from the 1940s about the Congress of SNYC in Birmingham, Ala. and their confrontation with Chief of Police “Bull” Connor, later notorious for his brutality against civil rights protesters.
Joanne Grant, who followed Burnham on the National Guardian newspaper, spoke of his commitment to Black-white unity. Historian Gerald Horne spoke of Burnham’s work in the context of the world struggles against imperialism of the time, and the role of Communists in these struggles.
Charlene Mitchell, who knew him when she was a child, appealed to the audience to continue the tradition of activism, especially by participating in the April 20 national demonstration for peace and justice in Washington.