Black History Month - Day 23
The Power and Agency of Black People
So far in my series on Black history, the events I’ve presented have shown the injustice that white people have perpetrated on to them. I’ve only scratched the surface of that broader story in the first 22 posts.
However, what might be more important and certainly more consequential in terms of outcomes, is the agency and action that black people took to protect themselves, their rights and future generations. This part of the story of Black Americans is heroic and I’ll focus on that part of the narrative for the rest of my posts this month.
When students read about the Civil Rights Movement, they generally learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his historic leadership to bring about positive changes in the legal structure. It is a courageous and important story. But there are two myths that become ingrained in this story that we will dispel today.
Myths to be Destroyed
First, white people generally think or perceive that the rights that were extended to blacks through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 along with other victories, were the act of whites “bestowing” these rights to black people. White people did NOT give these rights to blacks. Black people had these rights all the time.
If anything is true in the Declaration of Independence, it is that each person is born with inherent equal rights. The only thing that white people did was to DENY these rights through the power structures that were erected to keep black people from enjoying their birthright status. In the end, white people did very little to change those power structures. Black people did this work themselves.
Our work now is to disavow this idea through how we talk about black history, teach it to our children, and how the media report it. Blacks won these rights through their own action and agency despite the obstacles that most white people put before them.
The second myth is that the fight for equal status and rights began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. This is nonsense. As brave and important as Rosa Parks’ actions were that day, the reality is the fight for dignity and equal rights had been going on since 1619. Black leaders emerged in every generation to demand, demonstrate, and work for their rights. Some even led rebellious, but righteous uprisings. What Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and others were able to do, is build upon the work that their ancestors had already started. The time was ripe in 1955 for a change to occur, but these changes were already in the making.
Today, I’ll highlight two Black leaders that used their own intelligence, effort, agency and militancy to start laying the groundwork for the victories that would only come perhaps a hundred years later. The two heroes I’ll focus on today are Alexander Clark of Iowa, and Ida B. Wells.
Mr. Alexander Clark of Iowa
Children everywhere, in every school need to learn about the amazing efforts of Alexander Clark. Not just students in Iowa.
It was September 12, 1867, when 12-year-old Susan Clark was denied admission to Muscatine's Second Ward Common School Number 2 because she was black. She was told to go to a black school, the African Methodist Episcopal African School. They didn’t expect what Susan’s father, Alexander Clark, would do next.
Mr. Clark was a businessman in Muscatine and wanted the best education for his daughter. Himself an educated man, he would settle for no less. He had already been active in changing the Iowa Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War to remove the word “white” referring to those who could vote. This enshrined voting rights in Iowa as early as 1868.
Mr. Clark had already been active during the Civil War to help recruit and raise an all-black regiment of troops that entered the war. This was no small feat in Iowa given the small population of black people. Clark was a man committed to acquiring and using equal status and rights.
Segregated schools were the norm in both the north and the south especially after the Civil War. These dividing lines became sharper and more actively enforced as Jim Crow rules were applied after Reconstruction. But Iowa would become an exception.
Clark filed suit against the Muscatine school board. The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled in 1868 that the school board, "cannot deny a youth admission to any particular school, because of ... color, nationality, religion or the like." Susan along with her sister Rebecca and their brother Alexander Jr., went on to graduate from Muscatine High School.
This doesn’t mean that there weren’t instances of discrimination and forced segregation in Iowa after this, but it does mean that 86 years before the landmark “Brown v. Board of Education” decision ended segregation nationally, integration, at least in schools was permitted in Iowa’s schools.
The Muscantine decision wasn’t just a one-off. I found this 1907 picture of the high school class of Washington, Iowa on the Fortepan Iowa website. Notice the black student in this picture? This was still 47 years before Brown. This would have life-long, intergenerational impact for students of color to be able to receive an equal education.
You can also watch this short video of the importance and influence of Alexander Clark.
Clark became a highly respected member of the Republican Party, and in 1890 President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Resident Minister and Consul General to Liberia. Mr. Clark traveled the long distance to Africa early in 1891. There he became ill with a fever and died.
Ida B. Wells
Long before the Civil Rights movement, Ida B. Wells launched her own crusade against discrimination and more specifically, lynching.
In 1883, Ida B. Wells was working as a schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee, when a white conductor forced her off a train for refusing to move out of the first-class car. 72 years before Rosa Parks, Wells took action.
Citing her rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Wells sued the railroad company for damages. The Circuit Court of Shelby County ruled in Wells’s favor, stating that she was “refused the first-class accommodations to which she was entitled under the law”; however, the Supreme Court of Tennessee later reversed the decision on appeal.
Wells went on to become a prominent journalist and civil rights activist whose campaign against lynching brought worldwide attention to racial violence and injustice in the Jim Crow South.
Wells’s focus on anti-lynching laws arose in 1892 when a mob in the city of Memphis lynched a black grocier Calvin McDowell. McDowell had defended himself from an assault from a white man and ended up in jail for beating up the white fellow. The details of this lynching are disturbing. Not only was McDowell shot and hanged, but two other black prisoners that just happened to be in the cell were also lynched.
Among the outraged African Americans who lived in Memphis at the time was now a journalist, Ida B. Wells, who was in New York when the murders occurred. She had been born a slave in 1862 during the Civil War, and afterward her family became active in the Republican Party and the Freedman’s Aid Society. Wells was known for standing up to the humiliations of segregation.
She returned to Memphis, she penned an inflammatory editorial in the local newspaper, the Free Press, that confronted whites directly about lynching. She described ten lynchings that had taken place that week across the South in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In the editorial, she wrote,
“This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was: an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
Wells’s editorial made her a target of a white mob that destroyed the press and threatened her, forcing her to flee to New York City. She launched a campaign to publicize the horrors of lynching and began writing and lecturing about it across the country.
She wrote two pamphlets, entitled A Red Record: Lynchings in the United States and Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases .
In those works, she catalogued 241 lynchings. She exploded the myth that lynchings were carried out in retribution for black men’ raping white women, because the overwhelming majority of sexual relationships were consensual or merely a product of fear in white imaginations. She asserted that lynching was “that last relic of barbarism and slavery.”
In 1898, Wells went to Washington, DC, to implore President William McKinley to institute reforms against lynching and discrimination. She continued to fight against the unfair treatment of African Americans and became a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Of course we know that an anti-lynching law was never passed. At least not until 2022. But Wells along with many others laid the groundwork for changes that would eventually come. She is a hero…our children need to learn about this remarkable, fearless woman.