- Albion W. Tourgée and Louis A. Martinet: The Cross-Racial Friendship behind Plessy v. Ferguson
Does the idea of a cross-racial friendship in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) sound outlandish? If so, why? At least part of the answer lies in what we think we know about the history of racial justice advocacy in the United States, especially when it involves collaboration between whites and African Americans. Most of the scholarship about cross-racial collaboration has highlighted the white paternalism that marred it. This focus, growing out of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s, originated as a necessary corrective to previous historiography, much of which had uncritically glorified white progressives,1 overlooked the racism many (though not all) of them betrayed, and neglected the crucial role African Americans played in the struggle for justice and equality. In the effort to correct the errors of the past, however, the scholarship of the last few decades has produced an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of white progressives’ relations with African Americans. The relentless emphasis on white progressives’ failings has forced a diverse group of people into a single mold, flattened out historical complexities, eliminated nuances and distinctions, and sometimes ignored the countervailing testimony of the African Americans who worked most closely with the antiracist activists scholars now characterize as, at best, inadvertent racists.2
The label racist lumps together those who justified or excused racial discrimination with those who repudiated it, those who openly indulged in racial stereotyping with those who self-consciously sought to avoid it but may occasionally have succumbed to it, and those who chose not to rock the boat lest they jeopardize their social standing with those who renounced the privileges of caste (or whiteness) at substantial cost. The term further blurs the distinction between the psychological racism of individuals and the systemic racism built into the structure of society, which maintains white dominance through policies designed to distribute economic, political, social, and educational resources unequally. Unlike psychological racism, systemic racism does not inhere in individuals, although individuals may strive to abolish it, as did some white progressives.
The blanket disparagement of white progressives not only homogenizes them and empties the word racism of specificity but also substitutes one form of condescension for another. That is, present-day scholars condescend to the past when they judge the activists of earlier generations by present-day standards that do not take into account such matters as the crafting of [End Page 9] messages for particular circumstances and audiences or the changing connotations of language over time. They condescend to activists of both races, for they discount the sacrifices each made, devalue their collaboration, and disregard the tributes activists of color have paid to their white partners. Far from enabling activists to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors, the negative thrust of current scholarship can actually disempower them. After all, if no white person, no matter how dedicated, can ever succeed in overcoming racism, why should anyone engage in cross-racial collaborations or participate in interracial coalitions? If even individuals who have devoted their lives to fighting racism have not escaped its taint, how can we expect to create a society, let alone a world, free of racism?
I propose to reorient scholarship toward a more constructive approach to alliances between white progressives and people of color by using Albion W. Tourgée’s collaboration with African Americans during the nadir as a case study.3 Best remembered as the white lawyer who contested segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, Tourgée also enjoyed fame as the author of two best-selling novels about Reconstruction from the viewpoint of African Americans and their white allies (A Fool’s Errand  and Bricks without Straw ); as a columnist for a major Republican newspaper, the Chicago Inter Ocean; as the founder of an interracial civil rights organization that anticipated the NAACP, the National Citizens’ Rights Association; and as a dauntless agitator against lynching who exposed its economic motivation and helped to secure the 1896 passage of the first state anti-lynching law, in Ohio. The nadir was a period of extreme racial separatism...