An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP

An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP

An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP

An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP


In January 1890, journalist T. Thomas Fortune stood before a delegation of African American activists in Chicago and declared, "We know our rights and have the courage to defend them," as together they formed the Afro-American League, the nation's first national civil rights organization. Over the next two decades, Fortune and his fellow activists organized, agitated, and, in the process, created the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.

An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP traces the history of this first generation of activists and the organizations they formed to give the most comprehensive account of black America's struggle for civil rights from the end of Reconstruction to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Here a host of leaders neglected by posterity--Bishop Alexander Walters, Mary Church Terrell, Jesse Lawson, Lewis G. Jordan, Kelly Miller, George H. White, Frederick McGhee, Archibald Grimké--worked alongside the more familiar figures of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington, who are viewed through a fresh lens.

As Jim Crow curtailed modes of political protest and legal redress, members of the Afro-American League and the organizations that formed in its wake--including the Afro-American Council, the Niagara Movement, the Constitution League, and the Committee of Twelve--used propaganda, moral suasion, boycotts, lobbying, electoral office, and the courts, as well as the call for self-defense, to end disfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence. In the process, the League and the organizations it spawned provided the ideological and strategic blueprint of the NAACP and the struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century, demonstrating that there was significant and effective agitation during "the age of accommodation."


Agitate and act until something is done. While we are resting
on our oars, seemingly content with expressing our indignation
by resolutions at the outrages which daily occur, others are presuming
upon this inaction of our rights—nay upon life itself.

—Iola (Ida B. Wells)

“Th e Negro must organize,” wrote Brooklyn- based African American lawyer T. McCants Stewart in 1889. “He must be peaceable, but if … forced to fight,” argued Stewart, invoking two famous Civil War battles involving African American Union troops, “he must do so with the same pluck, energy and spirit which he displayed at Fort Fisher and Battery Wagner; and if he must die, let him make his death so costly to the whites in blood and fire as to force the conservative and moral white elements of the South to stand up for peace, and to insist upon equal and exact justice to all men alike.” These “fighting words” were written in response to Stewart’s confidant, journalist and political activist T. Thomas Fortune and Fortune’s call to assemble a national convention of the local branches of the Afro- American League and form the country’s first national civil rights organization.

Fortune’s desire for a national civil rights organization resonated with African Americans in the late 1880s. After the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes—one of the most contentious and hotly disputed elections in American history—southern states, backed by violence, intimidation, and the invocation of white supremacist racial politics, rewrote their constitutions and passed legislation stripping African American citizens of their civil, social, and political rights. At the same time, black citizens’ rights in the North were also being increasingly curbed. African American leaders and activists responded in many ways ranging widely from self- help and racial solidarity to economic nationalism, emigration, and political agitation.

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