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James Dombrowski

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Title: James Dombrowski  
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Subject: African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–68), Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Dombrowski v. Pfister
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James Dombrowski

James Anderson Dombrowski (January 17, 1897 - May 2, 1983) was a southern white Methodist minister and intellectual who was active in the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He lived in New Orleans from 1946 until his death but was involved in public affairs across the country.

Early life and education

James Dombrowski was born in Tampa, Florida, to William Dombrowski and the former Isabella Skinner. He attended public schools in Tampa and Newark, New Jersey. He obtained a bachelor's degree from Methodist-affiliated Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1923. Dombrowski also attended Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, both in New York City. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1933. Dombrowski studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and the liberal Methodist clergyman Harry F. Ward.

Dombrowski enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces during World War I, and served from October 1917 to March 1919 as an airplane mechanic near Paris. He obtained the rank of sergeant.

He was the first secretary of the Emory University Alumni Association and the founding editor of Emory Alumnus. In 1926, he became the assistant pastor of a Methodist church in Berkeley, California. He married the former Ellen Krida of New York, the daughter of Arthur Krida and the former Johanna Kunkel. There were no children.

Activist in South

Dombrowski was cofounder with Myles Horton and educator Don West of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle in Grundy County in southeastern Tennessee. He was an administrator at Highlander from 1933 to 1942. This institution took an early lead in the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks obtained instruction there during the 1950s. So did various southern leaders in organized labor. Highlander was a particular bête noire to segregationists, who claimed that it was a communist-oriented organization. In 1957, a photograph was taken of an audience at the school, which showed King sitting on the front row next to Abner Berry, the correspondent for the communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. King's enemies posted the photograph on billboards across the South in an attempt to discredit the civil rights movement.

Dombrowski also founded the Conference of Younger Churchmen of the South, established in 1934. He was executive director of both the Southern Conference for Human Welfare from 1942 to 1946 and the Southern Conference Educational Fund from 1946 to 1966. He edited the liberal journal Southern Patriot from 1942 to 1966.[1] He was the founder of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice from 1975 until his death.

Dombrowski was the primary defendant in a landmark civil liberties case decided in 1965 by the United States Supreme Court. In Dombrowski v. Pfister, the court struck down a Louisiana law that attempted to force members of anti-segregation groups to register as pro-communist subversives. Dombrowski briefly joined the Socialist Party in the 1930s but then became a Democrat during U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. He denied charges of being communist, and he had left the Highlander School before segregationists challenged it for loyalty.

Under Dombrowski's leadership, a number of white southerners joined the Southern Conference Educational Fund and labored to end segregation and the disfranchisement of blacks in the South.

Dombrowski wrote The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America (1937). He was also an engraver and artist. Some of his paintings were donated to the University of New Orleans.

He died in New Orleans. His body was cremated.



  • "James Anderson Dombrowski," A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 1 (1988), p. 249.
  • Thomas A. Krueger, And Promises to Keep: The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, 1938-1948 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967).

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