Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Call

One hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, a group of concerned individuals issued a call for a meeting to discuss race relations in the United States. The immediate catalyst was a race riot in Springfield, Illinois--the one-time home of Lincoln¬— the previous year. The initiators of the call were primarily white progressives, concerned about the continuing deterioration of black rights in the United States, the series of political and legal actions that had neutered the intentions of the mighty 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution (and to some extent, even the 13th amendment), returning blacks to a form of bondage in the South, and keeping them from enjoying the rights and privileges of full citizenship anywhere in the United States. The Call, as it came to be known, asked for a meeting to be held in New York City to discuss these problems. The meeting, which was held later in the year, became the founding convention of what became known as (by 1910) as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.


One hundred years ago today, the Civil Rights Movement began. There had been efforts, since 1865, since the beginning of Reconstruction, to advance the rights of racial minorities, and to arrest their decline. They were all, more or less, failures, if honorable failures, sporadic, short-lived, ineffective, and largely marginal to the political debate. With the founding of the NAACP, this changed, albeit slowly and awith all deliberate speed. The NAACP had the stature and status to make politicians and the general public take notice, and the path that would make it possible for another one-time legislator in Springfield, Illinois to become president in 2009 started one hundred years ago today.

Only seven of the sixty signers were black, including W.E.B.DuBois, who would become the voice and epitome of the NAACP for the next quarter century, in addition to such prominent figures as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. But most of the signers were white, including a cross section of progressive reformers, social workers, ministers, rabbis, journalists, academics, and socialists. Let us particularly honor the chief initiators of the Call (all white), William Walling, Mary White Ovington, Charles Edward Russel, and Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison.

Today is also the 100th anniversary of the day when the greatest and largest city in the United States first began in a serious way to concern itself with the greatest social evil in the country. New York City was, throughout the 19th century, probably the most racially conservative of large northern cities. New York State’s honor in fighting for racial justice was largely preserved upstate, through individuals like Frederick Douglass and Gerritt Smith. Today, a century ago, New York City started to pull its own weight, and started down the path that would make it, certainly by mid-century, a center, and in many ways the national center for progressive racial reform and reformers.

I was searching for a list of the signers of The Call on the web, and after a quick search this is the best I could do. It does not have sixty names, and perhaps reflects its original signers, omitting those who signed it subsequently. I'm not sure. Perhaps the most notable omissions are the brothers Spingarn, Arthur and Joel, two philanthropists and educators who played a crucial role in the organization for its earliest days. The Spingarns were Jewish, and I had forgotten that two rabbis signed The Call, Stephen Wise, and Emil Hirsch (a Chicago rabbi), and that Henry Moskowitz (husband of Belle Moskowitz, of Al Smith fame) also signed it. Today is also perhaps the 100th anniversary of the Black-Jewish alliance, and the transfomation movement of the cause black equality from one associated with Christian evangelism to
a broader coalition, at once multi-religious and more secular.

I do not know why The Call has received so little attention today. As an event in the movement to an America which is truly governed “of the people, by the people, and for the people” it rivals anything done by Abraham Lincoln. And when we think of our hopeless causes today, let us remember how hopeless the cause of racial equality seemed in 1909, and how far we have come in a mere hundred years.

In any event, let us honor The Call and its signers, the famous, the not-so famous, and the obscure:

Jane Adams, Chicago; Samuel Bowles (Springfield Republican); Prof. W.L. Bulkley, New York; Harriet Stanton Blatch, New York; Ida Wells Barnett, Chicago; E. H. Clement, Boston; Kate H. Claghorn, New York; Prof. John Dewey, New York; Dr. W. E. B.DuBois, Atlanta; Mary E. Dreier, Brooklyn; Dr. John L. Elliott, New York; Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Boston; Rev. Francis J. Grimke, Washington, D.C.; William Dean Howells, New York; Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Chicago; Rev. John Haynes Holmes, New York; Prof. Thomas C. Hall, New York; Hamilton Holt, New York; Florence Kelley, New York; Rev. Frederick Lynch, New York; Helen Marot, New York; John E. Milholland, New York; Mary E. McDowell, Chicago; Prof. J. G. Merrill, Connecticut; Dr. Henry Moskowitz, New York; Leonora O’Reilly, New York; Mary Ovington, New York; Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, New York; Louis F. Post, Chicago; Rev. Dr. John P. Peters, New York; Dr. Jane Robbins, New York; Charles Edward Russell, New York; Joseph Smith, Boston; Anna Garlin Spencer, New York; William M. Salter, Chicago; J. C. Phelps Stokes, New York; Judge Wendell Stafford, Washington; Helen Stokes, Boston; Lincoln Steffens, Boston; President C. F. Thwing, Western Reserve University; Prof. W. I. Thomas, Chicago; Oswald Garrison Villard, New York Evening Post; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, New York; Bishop Alexander Walters, New York; Dr. William H. Ward, New York; Horace White, New York; William English Walling, New York; Lillian D. Wald, New York; Dr. J. Milton Waldron, Washington, D.C.; Mrs. Rodman Wharton, Philadelphia; Susan P. Wharton, Philadelphia; President Mary E. Wooley, Mt. Holyoke College; Prof. Charles Zueblin, Boston.