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Officers sans Army

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 277-281 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0043

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An Army of Lions examines a group of African American leaders who sought to defend the assault on their civil rights from the 1890s to the first decade of the twentieth century. These activists fought white supremacy in the South but also in the North, while the federal government displayed complicit indifference. Alexander does a yeoman’s job to piece together fragmentary sources that allow for better understanding of the range of ideas among African Americans—nationalism, self-help, education, and political agitation—about how to reverse the “steamroller” of white supremacy (p. 262). From this base of research, he takes great care to chronologically trace the attempts of the Afro-American League, Afro-American Council, Constitution League, Committee of Twelve, and the Niagara Movement to create a black-led national civil rights organization. While none of these organizations succeeded in lobbying for legislation, arguing in the courts, or even rallying Americans to the cause of civil rights, the activities of these previously obscure and often dismissed civil rights organizations help us understand that black leaders did not sit idly by and watch their rights evaporate.

Alexander also depicts the debates of a larger group of African Americans who spanned a geographically diverse set of contexts across the nation. The response to the rise of terror and segregation not only came from familiar black leaders like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and William Monroe Trotter, but also from a larger cast of characters who had significant standing and voice within these civil rights organizations. Naming just a few, these leaders included the architect of the Afro-American Council and League, T. Thomas Fortune; Brooklyn attorney T. McCants Stewart; newspaper editors Harry C. Smith, W. Calvin Chase, and John Mitchell, Jr.; and Bishop Alexander Walters from New York City. By widening the leadership circle, Alexander puts more prominent leaders into the context of their collaborative organizational civil rights work. For example, he delineates the rise of Booker T. Washington from the perspective of his influence over the Afro-American League and then the Council. Both organizations benefited from Washington’s growing influence; but, in the case of the Council, it became overly conservative by 1904 due in part to Washington’s accommodation to Jim Crow. As a result, other black leaders looked to new organizations like the Constitution League and the Niagara Movement. Similarly, Alexander suggests that a singular focus on W. E. B. Du Bois, the often-cited nemesis of Washington in this era, has led historians to focus too much attention on the Niagara Movement. The Niagara Movement, Army of Lions shows, emerged later (1905), adopted many of the ideas of the previous organizations, and competed with several of these organizations in the early twentieth century.

Complementing this expansion of leaders, the book covers sporadic organizing and activism across the nation, including challenges to civil rights violations in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida, but also New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and California, where similar, though less harsh, restrictive laws and practices emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The national scope of the study prevents a full grassroots exploration of each of these regions, but the inclusion of these efforts suggests that civil rights energies emerged in unlikely places even if they never cohered into a robust movement across America. Due to this wide, deep, and careful research, Army of Lions succeeds in analyzing the response of “a wider range of intellectuals and activists” whose collective efforts demonstrated “active agitation during ‘the age of accommodation’” (pp. xiii–xiv).

The failure to engage “the masses” in African American communities across the United States becomes a common refrain in Army of Lions to explain why these civil rights groups proved largely unable to slow the spread of Jim Crow. In fact, Alexander concludes that by 1904 the Afro-American Council “had continued to be baffled by the lack of mass support” (p. 241). Like the Council, the reader remains in the dark as to why more African Americans did not join or support these civil rights groups. Alexander never explicitly addresses the social class of these black leaders; but one assumes these intellectuals, newspaper editors...



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