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African American Citizen Action in the 20th Century

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 case of 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. 

Essential Question
How do citizens participate in a democracy?
Check for Understanding
Describe the methods and means that African Americans have used to exercise their citizenship in the 20th century.

     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.

     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 who helped to co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
In August of 1919, the Secretary of the NAACP, John R. Shillady, traveled to Austin, Texas in connection with the organization’s anti-lynching campaign. He was attacked and brutally beaten. DuBois wrote to Ferdinand Q. Morton, an African American political leader and lawyer at the New York County District Attorney's Office, to ask for his help in getting 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.

     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.

     Testimony of Leslie Levi, Jr. before NYS Assembly Sub-Committee on Affirmative Action
New York State Archives, NYSA_L0177-90_B1_Levi
Document Description
Excerpt of the testimony of Leslie Levi, Jr. before the New York State Assembly's Sub-Committee on Affirmative Action, 1987. Levi argued that New York's Wicks Law protected the rights and opportunities of minority owned businesses in the state, and should therefore not be repealed.