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African American Citizen Action in the 20th Century

The following questions are designed to test your ability to work with historical documents. As you analyze the documents, take into account both the source of the document and the author’s point of view.
Historical Context
African Americans' struggle for freedom and civil rights in New York, as in communities across
the United States, has been driven by the actions of countless ordinary individuals and small
organizations. While students are commonly exposed to the most charismatic leaders of the
Civil Rights Movement, the most memorable public protests, and the landmark court rulings and federal laws, individual acts by civic minded people are often lost to history. It is these
seemingly insignificant acts that have combined together to spread ideas, empower leaders, and ultimately force change.

In 1919, for example, W.E.B. DuBois enlisted the help of a lesser-known lawyer in the New
York County District Attorney's office to seek justice in the caseof NAACP Secretary John
Shillady, recently assaulted in Texas. Ferdinand Q. Morton succeeded in enlisting the support of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith in the call for justice. The Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem likewise drew Governor Herbert Lehman's attention to the vital importance of the work being carried out by the New York State Temporary Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored Population in the 1930s.

New York State War Council member Elmer Carter used his office to lobby for an end to discrimination in the World War II defense industries. New York City resident Mary A. Young brought a case of alleged discrimination to the attention of the State War Council Committee on Discrimination in Employment. Leslie Levi, Jr. testified before the New York State Assembly Subcommittee on Affirmative Action regarding the opportunities provided to minority businesses under the Wicks Law. Time after time, everyday citizens used the civic channels that were open to them to challenge their government and communities to extend equality and justice to all.

African Americans' struggle for civil rights and equality continues in New York and across the
nation today. The lessons evident in the many individual acts that have made up this struggle help us to understand the Civil Rights Movement as well as the general power of civic
engagement and participation in a democratic society.

Task Description
Using the information from the following documents, and your own knowledge of history, answer the questions in Part A that follow each document. Your answers to these questions will help you complete the writing assignment given in Part B.
Part A: Instructions
Read and analyze each document and answer each of the questions in the space provided.
Part B: Essay
a. Using information and evidence from all of the documents to support your thinking, and using your own knowledge of history, write an essay that discusses the various ways that African Americans have exercised citizenship in the 20th century. What methods and means have they used to participate in or influence the government to benefit their cause?
Your essay should be well organized and should include an introduction, at least three paragraphs, and a conclusion.

b. Using information and evidence from all of the documents to support your thinking, and using your own knowledge of history, write an essay answering the following question: Have ordinary individuals or famous activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. been more instrumental in the struggle for civil rights? Your essay should be well organized and should include an
introduction, at least three paragraphs, and a conclusion.


     Letter from Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem to Gov. Lehman
New York State Archives, NYSA_13682-53_B100_F24_001
Document Description
Letter from Lucile Spence, secretary of the Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem, to Governor Herbert Lehman, 1937. The Committee urged the governor to support the work of the New York State Temporary Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored Population, saying that only state action could publicize and address discrimination.
  1. What is the date of this letter?
  2. Who is the letter written to? Who is it from?
  3. What does the organization ask the governor to do?
  4. Why might this organization be interested in supporting the investigation?
  5. Why does the organization feel that state action is necessary?
  6. What might some alternatives to state action be? How successful do you think they would be?

     Letter from W.E.B. DuBois to Ferdinand C. Morton
New York State Archives, NYSA_13682-53A_260_167_1
Document Description
W.E.B. DuBois was an African American rights activist, historian, and author. He helped to co-
found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an African
American civil rights organization, in 1909. He was also the editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s
monthly magazine. In August of 1919, the Secretary of the NAACP, John R. Shillady, traveled
to Austin, TX in connection with the organization’s anti-lynching campaign. He was attacked
and brutally beaten by a mob that included a judge and a constable and forced to leave the state. In this letter DuBois is writing to Ferdinand Q. Morton, an African American political leader in Harlem, to ask for his help in getting justice for Mr. Shillady.
  1. What is DuBois’s plan for influencing the Governor of Texas?
  2. What does DuBois ask Mr. Morton to do?
  3. How does DuBois think a committee will help achieve his plan for influencing the Governor of Texas?
  4. Why do you think DuBois did not simply contact the Governor of Texas himself to urge justice for Mr. Shillady?

     Letter from Mary A. Young to NYS War Council, Committee on Discrimination in Employment
New York State Archives, NYSA_A4278-78_B3_F116_001
Document Description
Letter by Mary A. Young alleging racial discrimination in hiring, 1942. Young indicated that she and two friends had applied for clerical positions, but had "not very subtly" been passed over because of racial discrimination by the employment agency.
41 St. Nicholas Terrace
Apt. 57
New York City, N.Y.
July 7, 1942
St.[ate] War Council Committee on
Discrimination In Employment
New York, N.Y.
Dear Sirs:
This morning two friends and I went to the Hamilton Employment Agency to apply for
clerical and secretarial work and were discriminated against in employment. The nature of the discrimination was this: there were about 100 white girls waiting when we—three Negroe —entered, one of the interviewers called out to us, “What do you girls want?” We stated our business there as applicants for the named jobs. The interviewer gave us a card to fill out and mail to the agency, however, the top was torn from our cards which made the card void (this information was stated on the back of the blank)[.] In our opinion we were discriminated because of our nationality and not very subtly.
Can you do anything about this?
Thank you,
Mary A. Young
[N.B. A handwritten note under the
writer’s address reads “Given to me in Person 7-7-42” and is
stamped “Bernard Gittelson”.
  1. What is the date of this letter?
  2. To whom is the letter written?
  3. What do you think the committee’s purpose is?
  4. What does Mary Young claim happened to her at the Hamilton Employment Agency?
  5. What evidence does she give that she was discriminated against?
  6. What do you think Mary Young hopes will happen as a result of her sending this letter?

     Speech by Elmer Carter, New York State War Council
New York State Archives, NYSA_A4278-78_B8_F411_001
Document Description
Speech by Elmer Carter, member of the New York State War Council, arguing that racial discrimination in hiring by defense industries hurt the war effort, 1942.
  1. On what date was this speech delivered?
  2. What major event in history was taking place at the time this speech was delivered?
  3. To whom was the speech delivered?
  4. What is Carter’s main argument?
  5. Why does Carter argue that discrimination against African Americans in the workforce is
    dangerous to the country?
  6. Why does Carter make a connection between fascism and racial bigotry?

     Testimony of Leslie Levi, Jr. before NYS Assembly Sub-Committee on Affirmative Action
New York State Archives, NYSA_L0177-90_B1_Levi
Document Description
The Wicks Law was passed in 1912 to promote competition and protect workers’ rights. The
law requires that each part of state construction projects be put out for separate bids from contractors. Contractors can compete to offer the lowest price for each part of the job. This
allows many companies to benefit from state construction projects. It also limits the corruption
that can happen when one contractor is hired to do the whole job.
  1. On what date was this testimony given?
  2. Who is Leslie Levi, Jr.?
  3. To whom is he testifying?
  4. What is Levi’s main argument?
  5. Why does Levi argue that repeal of the Wicks Law will hurt minority-owned businesses?
  6. What do you think Levi hopes to achieve with his testimony?