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Taking the Long View of Black History
The civil rights movement was not an isolated event, but rather the culmination of years of building and strengthening Black civil society
By Marcus M. Witcher and Rachel S. Ferguson
Thurgood Marshall, former chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, declared at the height of the civil rights movement (1958) “that without Masonic financial assistance, many of the NAACP’s victories before the Supreme Court would not have been possible.”
As we conclude Black History Month, we should celebrate the Black organizations and businesses without whose success the civil rights movement would never have been possible. We should absolutely recount the great victories that were achieved for Black equality from 1954 to 1968, but we shouldn’t reduce Black history to this 14-year period. After all, Black civil society institutions such as the church, fraternal organizations and business networks—painstakingly built over time from emancipation to the Civil Rights Act—made the great civil rights victories of the 20th century possible.
Black American Institutions
Decades before the civil rights movement, Black institutions such as churches, educational organizations and businesses were creating a strong and vibrant African American community. The Black church stands as the “cultural womb” of Black America, a haven that affirmed Black self-esteem grounded in the biblical doctrine of the “imago Dei”—the belief that human beings are infinitely valuable and precious because they are made in the image of God. Developing independently from white oversight, the Black church acknowledged the spiritual leadership of elders, affirmed Black manhood and womanhood and celebrated its own ecstatic forms of worship. As a theologically rich social institution, the spirituality of the Black church inspired the self-discipline, project management and commitment to nonviolence required during the civil rights movement. But it also served as a social hub from which more overtly economic and political networks arose.
Today there is little talk about the amazing efforts by Black Americans during Reconstruction to educate themselves. For instance, the Hampton Institute trained Black educators and helped establish schools across the South. Its efforts resulted in an almost completely unlettered population reaching a literate majority by 1910. One economic historian has called the achievement of so much in such a short amount of time (and with so few resources) an accomplishment “seldom witnessed in human history.”
Furthermore, as we point out in our forthcoming book, “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America,” Black business owners and entrepreneurs (and their white allies) created the essential institutions that undergirded the civil rights successes of the 1950s and 1960s. Individuals such as the Reverend Montrose, William Thornton, Ida B. Wells, Madam C.J. Walker, Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, John H. Johnson and Thurgood Marshall spent their lives building the churches, newspapers, businesses, networks, unions and other institutions (such as the NAACP) necessary to achieve racial equality for Black Americans. Their stories should be front and center this month.
Black Fraternal Societies
In the masterful “What A Mighty Power We Can Be,” sociologist Theda Skocpol shows how fraternal societies bear out the central role that civil society institutions have played in Black history. Fraternal societies played a key role in the success of the NAACP by providing money, members, lawyers and, most importantly, a vast network already in place when the need for racial solidarity was greatest. Throughout the struggle for civil rights, Black lodges helped raise money for the cause.
One of the most prominent Black lodges, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World—or, for short, the Black Elks—pledged “the full weight of our membership, our money and our property in the fight to keep the NAACP’s banner flying.” In an editorial in their national newspaper, they insisted “every local Lodge and Temple” go “on record with a Life Membership.” The editorial explained that the NAACP needed all the help it could get to “fight the Southern protest in every court of law, whenever and wherever it is necessary.”
Black fraternal societies provided the NAACP with lawyers and an extensive network of support. Early in their history, Black lodges had to fight legal challenges by white lodges that didn’t want them to use the white lodges’ name. As they ultimately emerged victorious at the Supreme Court, the Black societies created the “organizational infrastructures” and “leadership networks” that “kept resistance alive” under Jim Crow. In the process of waging these legal battles, a large number of Black lawyers got essential experience navigating the complex legal system across state borders and levels of government authority. Many of these fraternal lawyers later went on to work for the NAACP.
The Black Elks and other Black fraternal societies also contributed to the cause of civil rights by educating their members and the community in activism. For instance, the Black Elks created an educational department whose purpose was to “teach all members about their constitutional rights and how to protect them.” These societies served as “schools of self-government.” By the 1950s, fraternal orders were at the heart of the civil rights movement “as financial contributors, inter-organizational facilitators, and direct organizers and activists.” As Skocpol concludes, Black fraternal societies “developed the collective and strategic capacity to mobilize human and financial resources on behalf of the widespread, popularly rooted protests that, in the 1950s and 1960s, finally broke the back of legal racial segregation in America.” Along with the Black church and the efforts of men such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Black fraternal societies provided the foundation for the civil rights movement.
2022 has been another year of celebrating Black History Month by venerating the great achievements of the civil rights movement—and rightly so. But it’s too tempting to treat this movement and its heroes as an isolated event, when in fact, it was the culmination of a long struggle arising from robust Black American civil society institutions.
The long view of the civil rights movement teaches us that there are no shortcuts to success. Communities can’t be built overnight, and the trust and investment necessary to revitalize neighborhoods, rehabilitate failing schools and empower Black families won’t be orchestrated from Washington. What we need today is an emphasis on empowering civil society to address the most pressing issues facing America. This Black History Month, dig deeper into this beautiful history of Black solidarity that worked from the bottom up.