When you think about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, initial thoughts focus on the 1960s and the political turmoil that was going on during that time frame. It was the post-Reconstruction era and despite African Americans’ new freedoms, they were still being treated as second-class citizens and being denied their rights. The focus of the Civil Rights Movement was about achieving legal equality and abolishing racial discrimination, particularly in the southern states. Immediate national organizations that come to mind are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Panthers Party, and famous people of the era were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. However, many people fail to take notice that the Civil Rights Movement began long before the 1960s.
In Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915, Susan D. Carle takes us back in time through a historical and strategic study of past national organizations that laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement that we learned about in history class. Specifically, she takes us through the early years of the Civil Rights Movement by focusing on important, but forgotten, figures and the late nineteenth and early twentieth century organizations that helped shape the ideas and plans that the NAACP, the National Urban League (NUL), and civil rights leaders used successfully.
Carle, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, begins her book with an argument saying why early organizations during the Nadir Period, decades following the end of the Reconstruction Period where conditions for African Americans were at their worst since the abolition of slavery, is an important area of history that is forgotten but influences later organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. In her argument, she stresses that these early leaders and organizations generated various legal ideas and initiatives that precede and influenced the later organizations of the twentieth century. NAACP and NUL learned both from the failings and successes of these older organizations and evolved their strategies to best tackle and initiate changes for the benefit of African Americans. Defining the Struggle covers thirty-five years of history, 1880 to 1915, discussing the people involved in early civil rights movements and early organizations that were predecessors to the NAACP including the Afro-American League, the Afro-American Council and the Niagara Movement.
One of the first national civil rights organizations was the Afro-American League (AAL). The AAL was founded in 1880 and was largely founded based on the ideas and vision of T. Thomas Fortune. Mr. Fortune, a former slave turned leading intellectual activist, wanted a permanent, national organization that focused on gaining justice and the enforcement of African American rights by working with other interest groups, fund-raising, and conducting test case litigation. He firmly believed that the democratic process was the best way to stimulate change through the legislative and judicial process, but through self-help and intraracial advancement. In Mr. Fortune’s papers, he focused on the need to challenge the segregation of whites and African Americans in public accommodations, entertainment, and education. He believed in government reform to lead to racial and economic justice. Through the AAL’s many state-level activity, the members were involved in state legislation and test-case campaigns. Mr. Fortune himself won a case in New York involving racial discrimination he personally experienced in a New York pub. Despite this success and successes in Wisconsin and Michigan, the AAL did not last long and began to collapse in 1892. One of the main reasons for the failure of the AAL was because the state leagues that were part of AAL failed to transfer funds to the national organization to sustain the national operation. Another reason for the failure was because the members of AAL also had other agendas and did not show strong support for the organization. Although the AAL closed its doors, the organization did lay a foundation for the Afro-American Council, the Niagara Movement, and the NAACP. It proposed a basic strategy and substantive template that the NAACP would follow when it was founded a couple decades later.
Following the unsuccessful attempt of the AAL to nationalize and mobilize sustained membership, the Afro-American Council (AAC) was founded in 1898 as an attempt to pick up where the AAL left off. The AAC was founded by the combined efforts of Alexander Walters, T. Thomas Fortune, and Reverdy C Ransom. Although a direct successor of the AAL, the AAC was different from the AAL in a number of ways, such as engaging in more national level activities, having national conferences at least bi-annually, and being an organization that was open to broad political views and allowing such views a place to be heard. Although the AAC suffered from tension between Booker T. Washington’s “accommodationist” views and Reverdy Ransom’s “radical” views, the AAC was able to develop its local leadership, engage in grassroots fundraising, have a national lobbying presence, and focus their test case litigation strategy. The test case strategy developed into focusing on constitutional challenges to the state laws in the hopes to bring it in front of the Supreme Court to get the state law declared unconstitutional. The AAC also encouraged African American communities to engage in self-help and pursue education to elevate the community as a whole. Despite the more focused approach of the organization, due to Washington’s attempt to seize control of the AAC and other failures, many members began to feel that the Council was no longer useful and thus began to form a new organization, the Niagara Movement.
By presenting and giving light to both the AAL and the AAC, Carle enriches our understanding of the Civil Rights movement by providing us with a historical backdrop that the later organizations such as the NUL and the NAACP used to foster change. Her thoughtful analysis of all the players involved and how their thought-processes interacted and resulted in forgotten, but important contributions to the movement has significantly added to the literature to the Civil Rights Movement.
Susan Carle’s book, Defining the Struggle is a great read.
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner