Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Part II: A New Look at the Civil Rights Movement: A Review of Susan D. Carle’s Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915

Susan D. Carle, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, aptly describes the burgeoning progress of the civil rights movement in her book: Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice.[1]  Carle takes her readers through the intricate and at times overlooked progressions of the early rallying attempts of organizations such as the National Urban League (NUL), the Afro-American League (AAL), the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the Niagara Movement. She paints a well-rounded picture of the preliminary work that went into the creation and intricate inner-workings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and ultimately the impactful Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

Well before the emergence of the NAACP, social activism was taking place among African American populations throughout the U.S.  By comparing and contrasting the inner workings of women’s clubs during the early 1900s with men’s organizations, Carle highlights the division of labor and successes and failures of each group as a result.

Many of the women participating in women’s clubs such as the National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW) and the National Colored Women’s League (NCWL) were married to lawyers.  However due to racial and gender restrictions of the time, few women of color were given the opportunity to practice law themselves.  Charged with the decidedly feminine duty of maintaining “hearth and home” women of the time navigated political activism through a social lens while incorporating aspects of law they had exposure to from their husbands.

‘Men protected the race and women cared for it.’  This was the sentiment of the period, an idea that Carle describes as a return to the ‘Victorian era’ of female delicacy and male dominance.  By using the concept of ‘caring for the children’, women’s clubs of the time were able to steer themselves into the political arena of civil discourse under the supported idea that they were simply preparing for future generations and caring for the children of today.  Through education reform, community programs and fundraising efforts, both for their organizations and men’s groups (predominantly in law cases), women were able to make a place for themselves during this period of social movement.

Women’s groups thrived because of their ability to incorporate and accept varying opinions in the interest of forward movement.  Realizing that they were essentially fighting for the same goals, women’s clubs welcomed varying viewpoints.  They saw the need for a plethora of ideas and embraced the concept from an early stage of ‘Unity in Diversity’, a slogan that Margaret Murray Washington, the third wife of Booker T. Washington and the first elected secretary of the NACW formulated herself.

Men on the other hand struggled in their pursuits as they focused primarily on political endeavors and formal legality which left organizing members on opposing sides of issues unable to reconcile their differences long enough to take action.  This particular problem was highlighted significantly amongst the men of the Niagara Movement, a group founded by W.E.B DuBois.  During the 1907 meeting of the organization many members boycotted their annual meeting due to rumors of illegal election practices within the Massachusetts branch.  Although DuBois himself had overseen re-voting processes and spoken to both sides of the feuding groups, the issues became a matter of pride and would soon come to be a crucial aspect in the demise of the Niagara Movement as an organization.

What makes Carle’s book so interesting is her attention to smaller aspects of organizing history that have been largely overlooked in today’s retelling of the facts.  Unlike most historians who focus on the “major historical figures” of the civil rights movement, Carle takes a step back from them and instead highlights the preceding actors who made it possible and set the way for the key events, organizations and figures in civil rights history.

She takes time to explain how the creation of the most influential women’s organization; the National Association of Colored Women, came about from the joining together of two separate but equally influential groups; the NFAAW which was headed by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the NCWL which was run by Mary Church Terrell who would later go on to become the first president of the NACW.  She explains the elite background of the two women and how it later played a role in the tension and power conflicts that develop between them and within the NACW organization.

She delves into the married life of Church Terrell, and the close relationship her husband, the first elected African American judge in D.C, had with Booker T. Washington, a relationship which fostered Terrell’s career while also straining Washington’s relationship with DuBois.  She explains the warring battle that developed between the two men, as Washington fought to push African Americans into vocational jobs and maintain the status quo and DuBois sought to nurture what he called the ‘talented tenth’; the intellectually elite members of African American society; and encourage education and equal citizenship rights for all people of color.  His dealings with Washington and Washington’s close ties with members of the NACW would in part impact DuBois’ decision to create his opposing organization and not fully include women’s groups in the Niagara Movement.

Carle explains the founding of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor to the NAACP in structure and overall objectives.  She highlights its success and failures and the key players in its creation.  She discusses Fredrick McGhee, the charismatic handsome orator from Aberdeen, Mississippi who would be a huge supporter of the Niagara Movement and one of the first African American lawyers in the United States.  Carle also discusses the not so publicized case of Barbara Pope v. Commonwealth of Virginia, a significant case for the Niagara Movement.  In this case Pope, a resident of Washington D.C. was asked and went on to refuse to move to the Jim Crow car of a train while passing through Virginia. Carle presents this case as the biggest political undertaking of the Niagara Movement and shows how its success; though small would later shape the way future civil rights leaders would approach political lawsuits and class actions in later generations.

Insightful and detailed, Carle shows a side of the African American social and political struggle that many have not cared to look at closely.  Although she makes it clear that the actual Civil Rights Movement did not take place until much later, she creates a seat at the table for those who made it possible for the significant turn of events of the late 50s and early 60s.  Through her book, Carle effectively proves the significance of these early game players helping us to define the social, political, racial and gender struggles of the time in a whole new way.

Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice is truly a book about re-establishing the history behind social movement and progression for America’s many marginalized groups.  It is a must read for anyone interested in the late Civil Rights Movements or the continued fights for justice and equality taking place today.  

Susan Carle’s book, Defining the Struggle is a great read.  For part I of the CLP review, click here.

Ife Afolayan
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner 

Image from Amazon.

[1] Susan D. Carle, Defining The Struggle: National Organizing For Racial Justice1880-1915 (Oxford University Press ed., 2013).

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