The National Afro-American League: First Civil Rights Organization

Kansas Branch of the National Afro-American League
Kansas Branch of the National Afro-American League. Public Domain

Following the Civil War, African-Americans gained full citizenship in the United States with the 14th Amendment. The 15th Amendment provided voting rights for African-American men. Following the Reconstruction period, many states began establishing black codes, poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to keep African-American men from participating in the political process.

The National Afro-American League was established in response to these laws--its purpose was to establish full citizenship for African-Americans (NAAL). NAAL was one of the first organizations established in the United States to fight for civil rights of its citizens.

When Was the National Afro-American League Formed?

The National Afro-American League was founded in 1887. The organization changed its name to the National Afro-American League. The organization was created by Timothy Thomas Fortune publisher of the New York Age and Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Washington DC.

Fortune and Walters established the organization to seek equal opportunities for African-Americans. As Fortune once said, the NAAL was here “to fight for the rights denied them.”  Following the Reconstruction period, the voting rights, civil rights, educational standards and public accommodations African-Americans enjoyed began to disappear. Fortune and Walters wanted this to change. Also, the group lobbied against lynchings in the South.

First Meeting of the NAAL

In 1890, the organization held its first national meeting in Chicago. Joseph C. Price, president of Livingston College was elected as the organization’s president. The League drafted a constitution that would not allow politicians to hold office so that there was no conflict of interest. The NAAL also decided that its main focus should be ending Jim Crow Laws legally. The organization established a six-point program that outlined its mission:

  1. The securing of voting rights
  2. The combating of lynch laws
  3. The abolition of inequities in state funding of public school education for blacks and whites
  4. Reforming the southern penitentiary system --- its chain gang and convict lease practices
  5. Combating discrimination in railroad and public travel conveyances;
  6. and discrimination in public places, hotels, and theaters.

Accomplishments and Demise

The NAAL won several discrimination lawsuits during its existence. Most notably, Fortune won a lawsuit against a restaurant in New York City that refused him service.

However, it was difficult to fight Jim Crow Era legislation through lawsuits and lobbying. The NAAL had very little support from powerful politicians that could have helped reform Jim Crow Era laws. Also, it branches had goals that were reflective of its local members. For instance, branches in the South focused their energy on challenging Jim Crow laws. Branches in the North lobbied white northerners for greater participation in the socio-economic concerns. However, it was difficult for these regions to work towards and a common goal. Also, Fortune admitted that the NAAL was lacking funds, support from African-American civic leaders and may have been premature in its mission.  The group formally disbanded in 1893.

The Legacy of the National Afro-American League?

Five years after the NAAL ended, the numbers of lynchings continued to grow in the United States. African-Americans continued to suffer white terrorism in the South and North. Journalist Ida B. Wells began publishing about the number of lynchings in the United States in many publications. As a result, Fortune and Walters were inspired to resurrect the NAAL. Keeping the same mission and taking on a new name, the Afro-American Council, Fortune and Walters began bringing together African-American leaders and thinkers. Like the NAAL, the AAC would become a predecessor to the Niagara Movement and ultimately, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.