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Political scientist Megan Ming Francis’s Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State fills a gap in historical literature on the campaigns for African American rights in the late-19th and early-20th centuries by examining the relationship between modern state building and the NAACP’s political and legal battles against mob violence and lynching. Previous scholarship on lynching and Jim Crow legislation has concentrated on the social and economic implications of mob violence, particularly its impact on daily lives, grassroots mobilization, and southern black migration to cities in the North and West. Francis challenges the way scholars have discussed the political and constitutional processes of state- building in the early 20th century by placing the NAACP and ordinary citizens as critical actors in the creation of modern institutional definitions of citizenship. Using archival collections of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service, the papers of Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, and judicial records, Francis invites scholars of U.S. constitutional law and political history to re-conceptualize the role of black political organizations and grassroots activism in crafting the modern U.S. legal system and the definitions of citizenship.
Founded in 1909 as a response to racist mob violence in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign served as an opportunity to advocate for the U.S. Supreme Court’s power to intervene in criminal cases. Through an empiri- cal analysis of The Crisis magazine’s circulation figures between 1911 and 1919 and references to the NAACP in The New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution, Francis argues that print media functioned as a catalyst for the organization’s reception among predominantly white audiences in the North. The NAACP took up Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign as the primary vehicle to demonstrate the prevalence of racial violence throughout the United States. Despite the organization’s increased visibility on the national stage, the “Red Summer of 1919,” a phrase coined by NAACP executive secretary James Weldon Johnson to describe the increasing violence, inspired the group’s leaders to refashion their mobilization strategy from print to direct appeals to the U.S. President and Congress.