In 1864, during the Syracuse (New York) meeting of the National Convention of Colored Men, the National Equal Rights League (NERL) was created to fight for full citizenship rights for slaves freed by the Civil War. Afraid that after the war, blacks freed during the fighting would become slaves again, the organization emphasized black self-help and the gaining of legal rights to ensure their permanent freedom. Leaders of the NERL included Henry Highland Garnet, Frederic Douglass, and John Mercer Langston, who was elected as the first president of the organization. After the Civil War NERL emphasized the need for black voting and in many ways became a political arm of white and black Republicans during the Reconstruction period.
From the moment of its creation, however, the NERL faced internal divisions over where to locate its headquarters, the direction of its political policy, its organizational structure, and its means of financial support. John Mercer Langston presided over a badly divided group which struggled to come to agreement on any major issue. Langston did have success in creating active local branches in Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, New York, and especially, North Carolina.
After the demise of Reconstruction, black political interest waned. By the 1890s, Booker T. Washington and his followers criticized openly political groups such as the NERL and the organization nearly died. In 1908, William Monroe Trotter and other Northern black activists revived the National Equal Rights League, making it an advocacy group for black civil rights and encouraging the organization to bring lawsuits because he and others felt the courts were more sympathetic to African American claims for equality than the state legislatures or Congress. In this regard the organization anticipated the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Trotter and many of his followers eventually joined the Association but they continued to use the NERL to press claims for justice. In 1913, for example, the organization staged sit-ins in Northern cities and was even successful in gaining an audience with newly elected President Woodrow Wilson.
Trotter's uncompromising opposition to Booker T. Washington's control over African American organizations and opinion and his fiery disposition created an unstable position for the NERL. He made constant attacks on Washington, insulted President Wilson during their meeting, and finally, offended many other members of the NERL who failed to support his approach. Eventually most NERL members left the organization and joined the more successful NAACP. By 1915 the NERL ceased to exist.
Sources: William F. Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black freedom,
1829-65 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Vincent Harding,
There is a River : the Black Struggle for Freedom in America (New York
: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); and Nina Mjagkij, Organizing Black
America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations (New York:
Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001).
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