The history of the Civil Rights Movement did not begin with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the 1950’s. Long before then, an entire series of abolitionists and racial-equality activists had fought and died for African-American liberation.
Although there were more than 200 slave revolts and rebellions recorded in the South before the Civil War, none had the scope or the impact of Nat Turner’s Rebellion.
Nat Turner was born a slave in October 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia. An extremely intelligent man, Turner taught himself how to read and write at a young age, and while reading the Bible, became deeply religious. His fellow slaves soon took to calling him “The Prophet”.
In 1823, Turner escaped from his owner—but returned to slavery, after receiving what he called a “vision” from God telling him to “return to the service of my earthly master”. A year later, while working in the fields, Turner had another vision, in which God told him he had been chosen to carry out a great task in the “day of judgment”. Four years later, another vision told Turner that he would soon “fight the Serpent”.
In February 1831, a solar eclipse occurred in Virginia, and Turner interpreted this as a sign from God that he should begin his rebellion. Four fellow slaves joined him, and they made secret plans to rise in revolt on the Fourth of July. When the proposed rebellion was delayed by the illness of several slave conspirators, Turner waited for another sign from God. It came on August 13, when the sun was turned green (probably by atmospheric dust from a recent eruption of Mt St Helens in Oregon). Turner gathered his supporters and armed them with knives, clubs and axes. On August 21, they struck.
The small band began by killing their owner and his entire family. They then moved throughout the county, from house to house, freeing all the slaves and killing every white person they found, whether man, woman or child. Within two days, the group had swelled to over 100 slaves, and almost 60 slave owners and their family had been killed.
Two days after the rebellion began, it was crushed when Turner’s band was surrounded and scattered by a force of local militia and artillery.
Turner escaped the militia, and managed to hide out in a cave for two months before being captured. He was given a hasty trial in November and hanged. His body was skinned, decapitated, and cut into pieces.
Though Turner’s rebels never got beyond Southampton County, the effects of the rebellion swept the entire South. Fearing slave rebellions of their own, Southern whites as far away as Alabama summarily killed any Black, slave or free, suspected of any animosity towards whites. In addition to the 200 or so African-Americans who were summarily killed across the South, the State of Virginia executed another 56 slaves who were suspected of participating in or aiding the rebellion. The State Assembly passed laws making it illegal to teach slaves how to read or write—a law that was quickly echoed in other Southern states. Other laws restricted the right of free Black men to vote, outlawed public or private gatherings of slaves, and required that white ministers be present at all Black religious services.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, in 1818. Taken from his mother while still an infant, he was raised by his grandmother until he was seven, when he was given to Hugh Auld, in Baltimore.
Within a few years, Auld’s wife Sophia began teaching the young Frederick how to read and write—an illegal act. After reading newspapers and books condemning slavery, the sixteen-year-old Douglass began teaching his fellow slaves to read and write—an activity that was soon broken up by local slaveholders with whips and clubs.
Douglass was then sent to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had a reputation for brutally breaking the spirit of rebellious slaves. Instead, Douglass escaped and traveled north dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying the papers of a freed Black man. He reached Philadelphia, New York and then New Bedford, Massachusetts, in September 1838.
In Massachusetts, Douglas became a member of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist group, and was soon giving anti-slavery speeches and writing for Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. In 1845, Douglass wrote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave. During a lecture tour in England and Ireland, Douglass became legally a free man, after British supporters raised money and purchased his freedom from his owner Auld.
On his return to the US, Douglass formed his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most well-known abolitionists in the country, and met several times with President Lincoln.
After the Civil War, the US Government formed a Freedman’s Bureau to aid the newly-emancipated slaves, and Douglass was given several prominent posts in the organization. For a time, he served as Ambassador to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He also continued as a lecturer and writer, speaking out on issues ranging from supporting women’s suffrage to independence for Ireland from the UK.
He died in February 1895.
Booker T Washington
Booker T Washington was born in slavery in April 1856, on a plantation in Virginia. At the time of Emancipation, Washington was nine years old. He moved with his mother to West Virginia, where he worked in a coal mine. The mine-owner’s wife encouraged him to go to school, where he learned to read and write. In 1872, Washington was accepted at the Hampton Normal School in Virginia, which had been set up by the Federal government and church groups to train African-American teachers. After graduating, Washington attended a seminary in Washington DC, then returned to Hampton as a teacher.
In 1881, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute opened in Alabama. Washington became its first principal. Like Hampton, the goal of Tuskegee was to produce African-American teachers. Tuskegee soon established a reputation as the predominant Black school in the US.
In 1900, Washington worked together with W.E.B. Du Bois to set up the “Negro Exhibition” at the Universal Expedition in Paris. Not long afterward, Washington and Du Bois had disagreements over strategy and tactics, which led to a lifelong split. Du Bois wanted the full immediate integration of African-Americans into US society, including voting rights and civil liberties. Washington, on the other hand, thought that white Americans were not ready for this, and a confrontation over the issue would be disastrous for the far-outnumbered Blacks. Washington therefore advocated a slow incremental approach, in which legal equality would be sacrificed in favor of individual economic training and education. In Washington’s view, African-Americans would win equality only by a slow patient process of demonstrating, through education and economic success, that they were capable of becoming full citizens of the United States. Du Bois, in turn, dismissed Washington as “The Great Accomodator”. Secretly, however, Washington was also channeling money to people who were fighting legal challenges to end segregation and gain voting rights for African-Americans.
Part of the reason for Du Bois’s antipathy may also have been the many wealthy white friends that Washington had, who often donated large sums of money to his education projects. Washington was friendly with Andrew Carnegie, who was a benefactor for Tuskegee, and also had friendly contacts with John D Rockefeller, William Baldwin, and a future President, William Howard Taft. He was particularly close to self-made oil millionaire Henry Rogers, who often invited Washington to his private yacht, the Kanawha. (Years later, the Kanawha was purchased by Marcus Garvey for his Black Star Line.) Du Bois was a socialist, and viewed the wealthy robber barons as implacable enemies.
In 1901, Washington published his autobiography, Up From Slavery.
In early 1915, Washington collapsed while on a speaking tour in New York City, and returned to Tuskegee. His health faded rapidly, and he died in November.
W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868. His great–grandfather, a wealthy white landowner, had been given a large land grant in the Bahamas as a reward for remaining loyal to England during the American Revolution, and had fathered several children there with his slaves. The Du Bois family disowned the black children.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s father, Alfred, deserted his mother shortly before he was born, and when he was two years old, his mother had a crippling stroke. They survived on money given to them by family members and, when W.E.B. was old enough, on odd jobs.
As a free Black man in Massachusetts, Du Bois was able to attend public school, where he excelled. In 1888, he graduated from a Black college in Tennessee and entered Harvard on a scholarship later that year. Graduating cum laude in 1890, he was given a scholarship to the University of Berlin, where he spent several years before returning to the US to become the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard, in 1895. He worked as a social sciences professor at Wilberforce University in Ohio, the University of Pennsylvania, and Atlanta University.
Inspired by his years in Europe, where there was no institutional racism such as existed in the US, Du Bois became politically active for civil rights and African-American liberation. In 1900, he joined Booker T Washington to set up a “Negro Exhibition”, celebrating Black history and culture, at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Although Du Bois and Washington became the two most prominent Black activists of the first half of the 20th century, their political differences led to a split and a running argument that lasted the rest of their lives. Washington, the “moderate”, believed that fighting for political rights, such as voting rights or desegregation, was unimportant, and that African-Americans should concentrate on improving the economic condition of the Black community through small incremental steps in education and job training, and thus be accepted, little by little, into white society. Du Bois, on the other hand, the “radical”, argued for immediate full legal equality for African-Americans, in every sphere.
In 1905, Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement with William M Trotter, which argued for full racial and economic justice. A split soon appeared, however, over whether white activists should be allowed to join. Trotter argued that African-American liberation had to be the work of Blacks themselves (an early forerunner of the “Black Power” movement), while Du Bois wanted to recruit white supporters as well. In 1909, Du Bois broke with Trotter, and, with a group of supporters, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He left his academic position to work fulltime as NAACP’s Secretary and as Editor of its journal.
Over time, however, the NAACP leadership became more moderate while Du Bois became more radical, and in 1934, Du Bois left and returned to a teaching position at the Atlanta University.
During this time, Du Bois also became involved in a long-running political dispute with Marcus Garvey. Unlike Du Bois, who wanted full integration of Blacks into American culture as equals, Garvey concluded that African-Americans would never be accepted by white America, and instead called for Blacks to leave the United States and return to Africa. Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement (an early forerunner of Black Nationalism), set up a shipping company, the Black Star Line, for African-Americans who wanted to emigrate to Liberia.
Just before the Second World War, Du Bois was invited to visit Nazi Germany. While remarking that the German intellectuals had treated him with more respect than American professors did, Du Bois condemned the Nazi anti-Semitism as “an attack on civilization”. (Du Bois also opposed the eugenics programs that were then popular in Europe and the United States, viewing them simply as pseudo-scientific justifications for racism—his scholarly work The Negro had presented a history of African cultural achievement to counter the notion that Blacks were “genetically inferior” to whites.)
Du Bois’ stance towards Imperial Japan, however, was softer. He applauded Japan’s military victory over Tsarist Russia in 1905, citing it as an example of non-white power. He largely accepted Japan’s view that its invasion of China was an attempt to expel the white European imperialists from Asia and establish a “Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere”, which would practice “Asia for Asians”.
After the war, Du Bois became increasingly more radical. In 1950, he ran for US Senator on the socialist American Labor Party ticket, and won 4% of the vote. He spoke favorably of the Soviet Union, obstinately dismissed any criticism of Stalin (from Left or Right) as “propaganda lies”, and defended the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1959, Du Bois was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR, and two years later he joined the Communist Party, USA, at the age of 93. His pro-Soviet views won him the attention of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and also of Hoover’s FBI.
In 1961, Du Bois was invited to visit Ghana by its socialist President, Kwame Nkrumah, but was denied a passport by the American government. In response, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana, obtained a Ghanan passport, and went anyway. While there, his health declined rapidly, and he died on August 27, 1963—the day before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC. He was 95.
At the King rally, NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins, who had worked with Du Bois, asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence in memory of the man who had formed the organization.
Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in August 1887, the son of a mason and a domestic worker. When he was 13 years old, Garvey apprenticed to his uncle Alfred Burrowes as a printer. Both his father and his uncle had large libraries, from which Garvey developed a lifelong love of reading and education. By age 14, Garvey was working in Kingstown as a printer, and in November 1907 he was elected Vice President of the Printer’s Union. After the Printers Union lost a strike in 1908, however, Garvey was blacklisted, and two years later he left Jamaica for Costa Rica and Panama. He returned to Jamaica briefly, then moved to London in 1912.
While in London, Garvey attended Birkbeck College and worked for the African Times and Orient Review, a Black newspaper. His experiences in Central America and Europe, meanwhile, had convinced Garvey that Black people would never be fully accepted into white society, and that the only way they could ever be free was to have a Black homeland of their own in Africa, their motherland. Returning to Jamaica in July 1914, he formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose goal was “to unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.” His “United States of Africa” program became known as “Garveyism”. It was the inspiration for the Pan-Africanism of the 1960’s.
In 1916, Garvey wrote to Booker T Washington, seeking help in setting up a lecture tour to raise money for a Black school in Jamaica. With Washington’s help, Garvey spoke in 38 states, set up UNIA chapters across the country, and began the newspaper Negro World. By June 1919, UNIA had over two million members.
Garvey then began the most ambitious of his undertakings, establishing the Black Star Line, a shipping company whose primary purpose was to provide transportation to those African-Americans who wanted to leave the US and emigrate to Liberia. The Black Star Line’s first ship was christened the SS Frederick Douglass.
As part of its effort, UNIA began raising money, with the support of the Liberian government, to build schools, factories, and infrastructure in Liberia, to make it more attractive to African-Americans. The effort collapsed because of diplomatic pressure from several European countries who had their own economic interests in Liberia. Black Star ships stopped sailing in 1922.
During this time, Garvey engaged in a bitter feud with W.E.B. Du Bois which began over political tactics and eventually turned personal. Du Bois, who wanted African-Americans accepted in the United States as full and equal citizens, disagreed strongly with Garvey’s “back to Africa” ideas, and those feelings were intensified when, in the 20’s and 30’s, Garvey and his supporters began working actively with the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist Southern Democrat Congressmen to try to pass laws deporting Black Americans to Africa. (One of these was the Greater Liberia Act, introduced in 1937 by Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo to “reduce unemployment” by moving a million African-Americans to Liberia at government expense.)
By 1919, however, Garvey’s activities had attracted the attention of a then-obscure Federal law enforcer named J Edgar Hoover, who headed the anti-subversive unit of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation). In a pattern that would become depressingly familiar in later decades, Hoover turned his resources to finding some way to “neutralize” Garvey and his movement. Hiring five African-American agents (the first ones ever), Hoover instructed them to infiltrate Garvey’s organization and report to him.
In November 1919, the Federal government, at Hoover’s behest, brought charges of mail fraud against Garvey, alleging that the White Star Line was fraudulently claiming to own ships that it did not yet legally own. Although one of the government’s witnesses acknowledged that he had been ordered to lie in his testimony by a US Postal Inspector, and although the three other White Star Line officers who had been charged were acquitted, Garvey was found guilty in 1923 and was sentenced to five years in Federal prison. After serving almost three years, his sentence was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge, and he was deported to Jamaica. In 1935, he left Jamaica for London, where he remained until he died in 1940.