Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 117-33.
wr 1 he Negro's friend has dwindled to a Smith & Wesson pistol, a Repeating Rifle, 50 rounds of ammunition for each, a good, strong nerve, a lesson in good marksmanship, and then use." That was the call from the editors of the Wichita Searchlight on January 19, 1901, just one week after the streets of Leavenworth, Kansas, witnessed the burning of Fred Alexander, a twenty-two-year-old black Spanish-American war veteran. The brutal murder of Alexander horrified many African Americans throughout the region, who decided that it was time to stand up and let their grievances be heard by argument and hot lead if necessary. It was in this environment that many black citizens banded together to create a state branch of the country's only national civil rights organization of the period, the Afro-American Council. This article highlights the activities of the Kansas Afro-American Council and its response to the lynching of Fred Alexander. In doing so it demonstrates that the Council, on the national and local levels, represented the persistence of a protest tradition in post-Reconstruction America and showed the desire among certain individuals for the creation and preservation of a national civil rights organization.
To understand the desire of many within the African American community to create a national civil rights organization, it is important to know the social and political situation in which much of the community lived. Only a generation removed from slavery, African America remained locked in a brawl with white America over their very existence. Although many white Americans prospered during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, benefiting from limited political, social, and economic reforms, conditions for African Americans reached their lowest point in the post-Emancipation era. This was a time of political disfranchisement, segregation, sharecropping, mob violence, Social Darwinism, and pseudoscientific racism. In the economic sphere, laws were written and rewritten to restrain black mobility. In politics, beginning in 1890 with the Mississippi Plan, which used a combination of literacy tests, an "understanding" clause, and a poll tax, African Americans were systematically disenfranchised in much of the South and border states. In the social realm, beginning with Tennessee in 1880, states steadily passed statutes that segregated African Americans on railroad cars, in depots, and on wharves. Then, after the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 'unconstitutional in 1883, southern governments began banning blacks from public and private establishments, including hotels, restaurants, theaters, parks, and libraries. Within a few years numerous states also began instituting laws that segregated schools, and in little over a decade the Supreme Court, with its famous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, legally sanctioned Jim Crow or racial segregation as long as the facilities provided were equal.
De jure political and social segregation was only the symbolic result of a process and system that was being imposed by a reign of terror on black individuals and communities throughout the nation from virtually the end of the Civil War into the twentieth century. From 1880 through 1910 the visibility of racial violence assumed new proportions as violence beset and frequently consumed reform throughout the nation. The act of lynching and mob violence was used to intimidate blacks into submission in the political, social, and economic realms. These lynchings often became ritualistic affairs, where blacks of all ages and genders were slowly executed by mutilation and burning in a public forum, often with a carnival-like atmosphere.