Bishop Alexander Walters: Religious Leader and Civil Rights Activist

Bishop Alexander Walters, founder of NAAL and AAC
Bishop Alexander Walters, founder of NAAL and AAC. Public Domain

Overview

Noted religious leader and civil rights activist Bishop Alexander Walters was instrumental in establishing the National Afro-American League and later, the Afro-American Council. Both organizations, despite being short-lived, served as predecessors to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Early Life and Education

Alexander Walters was born in 1858 in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Walters was the sixth of eight children born into slavery. By the age of seven, Walters was freed from slavery through the 13th Amendment. He was able to attend school and showed great scholastic ability, enabling him to receive a full scholarship from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to attend private school.

Pastor of the AME Zion Church

In 1877, Walters had obtained a license to serve as a pastor. Throughout his career, Walters worked in cities such as Indianapolis, Louisville, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Cattanooga, Knoxville and New York City. In 1888, Walters was presiding over Mother Zion Church in New York City. The following year, Walters was chosen to represent the Zion Church at the World’s Sunday School Convention in London. Walters extended his overseas travel by visiting Europe, Egypt, and Israel.

By 1892 Walters was selected to become a bishop of the Seventh District of the General Conference of the AME Zion Church.

In later years, President Woodrow Wilson invited Walters to become an ambassador to Liberia. Walters declined because he wanted to promote AME Zion Church educational programs throughout the United States.

Civil Rights Activist

While presiding over Mother Zion Church in Harlem, Walters met T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age.

Fortune was in the process of establishing the National Afro-American League, an organization that would fight against Jim Crow legislation, racial discrimination and lynching. The organization began in 1890 but was short-lived, ending in 1893. Nevertheless, Walters’ interest in racial inequality never waned and by 1898, he was ready to establish another organization.

Inspired by the lynching of an African-American postmaster and his daughter in South Carolina, Fortune and Walters brought together a number of African-American leaders to find a solution to racism in American society. Their plan: revive the NAAL. Yet this time, the organization would be called the National Afro-American Council (AAC). Its mission would be to lobby for anti-lynching legislation, end domestic terrorism and racial discrimination. Most notably, the organization wanted to challenge ruling such as Plessy v. Ferguson, which established “separate but equal.” Walters would serve as the organization’s first president.

Although the AAC was much more organized than its predecessor, there was great divide within the organization. As Booker T. Washington rose to national prominence for his philosophy of accommodation in relation to segregation and discrimination, the organization split in two factions.

One, led by Fortune, who was Washington’s ghostwriter, supported the leader’s ideals. The other, challenged Washington’s ideas. Men such as Walters and W.E.B. Du Bois led the charge in opposition to Washington. And when Du Bois left the organization to establish the Niagara Movement with William Monroe Trotter, Walters followed suit.

By 1907, the AAC was dismantled but by then, Walters was working with Du Bois as a member of the Niagara Movement. Like the NAAL and the AAC, the Niagara Movement was rife with conflict. Most notably, the organization could never receive publicity through the African-American press because most publishers were part of the “Tuskegee Machine.”  But this did not stop Walters from working towards inequality. When the Niagara Movement was absorbed into the NAACp in 1909, Walters was present, ready to work.

He would even be elected as vice president of the organization in 1911.

When Walters died in 1917, he was still active as a leader in the AME Zion Church and the NAACP.