Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Part Two: Organizing in the Shadow of Jim Crow

Reference: JSource Original

If times were so hard for African-Americans, why were the major strides for equality not made until well into the 20th century? The truth of the matter is that the struggle for equal rights has been long and arduous, and the era most people associate with the Civil Rights Movement (the 1950s and 60s) was the culmination of years of hardship, strategizing, and community organizing.

The African-American community was never complacent or accepting of their lowered status. From the early slave rebellions to the Underground Railroad, and even after the failed experiment of Reconstruction, African-Americans continually fought for their freedom in all stages of their history.

Though segregation was in full-force nationwide, Blacks were able to organize in their communities, wherein they found their true strength. One of the most important moments in the struggle for racial equality was in 1909, with the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Founded by former activists from the Niagara Movement such as W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP set to work as an advocacy group for African-American rights. They grew rapidly in size and esteem, quickly becoming recognized as the single biggest threat to racial segregation in America.

Congruent to their belief that the races should not be divided, the NAACP welcomed help from all ethnicities, and the Jewish community was particularly willing to contribute to the cause. One of the founding members of the NAACP was, in fact, Jewish social worker Henry Moskowitz. Even prior to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, American Jews found common ground with African-Americans, being themselves the descendants of an enslaved race.

Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)

The NAACP would become one of the most well-known organizations of the 20th century, but it was not the only one with a plan for the African-American community. In 1916, Marcus Garvey arrived in the U.S. from the Caribbean at the behest of Booker T. Washington, who actually died before Garvey touched American soil. Washington was a controversial Black scholar whose “accommodationist” practices during the Jim Crow era incited anger from Blacks who wished to be proactive in fighting for civil rights; Nonetheless, he was extremely influential in his time and is considered to be one of the greatest American minds of the 19th century. Garvey was heavily influenced by Washington’s teachings, and developed his own philosophy for freedom: Black Nationalism, or “Pan-Africanism.”

The idea was simple. If Blacks were treated poorly in America, they should return to the place from which they were originally taken: Africa.

Garvey, a Jamaican by birth, traveled all around the Caribbean islands, speaking to the masses of his plan. Returning to Africa was the only way, he believed, to truly emancipate Blacks from the injustices they suffered, and many stood by him firmly. The problem was that most people of African descent in the Americas had no knowledge of African culture, religion or geography. Although it was known that most slaves had been brought from Northern Africa, it was rare to know from which country. Today, through the Human Genome Project, we are able to trace bloodlines back to a specific place, but in 1916 former slaves and their children had little to go on. Most had been American for generations, and the only remnant of Africa was the color of their skin.

William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” DuBois (1868-1963)

The NAACP was unsupportive of Garvey’s extreme approach, and clashed with his cause on several occasions. Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois were engaged in a public feud for many years, which made cooperation between their respective factions nearly impossible. Garvey felt DuBois looked down upon him for having darker skin, DuBois himself being of mixed race and lighter skin. DuBois openly mocked Garvey, and questioned his sanity and the legitimacy of his movement. It was one of the first times the civil rights movement would experience rifts, but it would not be the last.