Duty to the Race: African American Fraternal Orders and the Legal Defense of the Right to Organize
Abstract

In 1904, leaders of three major white fraternal orders launched a nationally coordinated legislative and legal campaign to force their black counterparts out of existence, a struggle that spread to at least 29 states and culminated in victories for the African American groups before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1912 and 1929. The organizational structures of the black orders, usually consisting of a tripartite system of local, state, and national lodges, were critical in this successful defense of the legal right to form and operate fraternal organizations. These structures enabled fraternal members and leaders to turn local disputes into national ones, devise strategies based on the interplay of different levels of government, and sustain a discourse that facilitated internal mobilization and minimized external opposition. While most scholarship on resistance to Jim Crow has focused on local activism, the defense mounted by these orders facilitated the development of sophisticated, nationwide networks binding together local fraternal leaders and African American lawyers. These networks became a critical venue for the development of oppositional traditions, organizational infrastructures, and leadership ties that kept resistance alive under Jim Crow and laid the building blocks for future political and civil rights–related work. In particular, these fraternal lawyers, a number of whom went on to work for the NAACP, honed skills in these trials that were also central to the NAACP's legal strategy, especially in learning to tailor cases to achieve federal hearings.