Arts & Culture

The first civil rights movement

5 min read

1920s and beyond marked by dissent and progress

Most of us think of the Civil Rights movement as something that took place in the transitional 1950s and the tumultuous 1960s. It’s seen as a cultural artifact squeezed between the defiance of Rosa Parks (1955) and the demise of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968).

Yale University historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore wants to correct that popular misconception. The one-time Radcliffe Fellow just wrote “Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950” (Norton & Co.), which casts light on earlier, and largely forgotten, battles against Jim Crow.

She points out that legal challenges to segregated schools began in 1933, two decades before the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. And that Jim Crow resisters in the South started arguing about Gandhi’s principles of passive resistance not during the 1960s, but in the 1920s.

The North Carolina-born historian laments “the erasure of the first civil rights movement,” which started in the 1920s. It was the one informed by labor radicalism, internationalist views of civil rights, and even by Communism, the only ideology, she said, in the years after World War I that seemed to champion racial equality.

Gilmore also sets her sights on the misconception that civil rights began in black churches, was dominated by “middle-class black men in ties,” and only reached the consciousness of white Americans by way of 1960s television.

She counters these misconceptions by framing her book’s narrative around the lives of the heroes of those early battles. Featured among these figures is biracial lawyer, poet, Episcopal priest, and pioneer feminist Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, whose civil rights struggle began before World War II.

Murray was the focus of Gilmore’s Feb. 22 Schlesinger Lecture at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, “Guts, Greyhounds, and Gandhi: Pauli Murray’s Civil Rights Movement, 1935-1973.”

“Pauli Murray was a one-woman civil rights movement,” said Gilmore after the lecture, attended by 75 listeners who braved a winter storm to attend. Her causes — black civil rights, sexual liberation, and feminism — prefigured the great social movements of decades later.

In 1938, Murray — already a Hunter College graduate — joined other black activists “storming the ivory tower,” a phrase Gilmore uses in a section of her book called “Imagining Integration.” Knowing about the racial and gender obstacles, Murray defiantly applied for graduate studies at the all-white, all-male University of North Carolina.

But NAACP lawyers refused to take her case. They were spooked by Murray’s flirtation with Communism and by her self-confessed conflicts with sexual identity. In Thurgood Marshall’s words at the time, Murray was not “Simon Pure.” (Years later, Lyndon Baynes Johnson used Murray’s one-time Communist leanings to block her nomination as chief counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

Starting in the 1930s, Murray went on to challenge all-white juries, poll taxes, and — famously — the Jim Crow color line on interstate Greyhound buses. Her refusal in 1940 to give up her seat in the white section of a bus got her arrested in Petersburg, Va., a town where more than 70 years earlier her grandfather had fought as a black soldier in the Union Army.

The NAACP legal team declined to follow up on an appeal, and Murray spent 30 days in jail. She used the time to deepen her earlier studies of Gandhi, whose civil protest Murray regarded as an antidote to the NAACP’s more conservative legalistic approach to change.

For all these early protests, said Gilmore after the lecture, “Pauli Murray embodies the kind of person I was writing about [in “Defying Dixie”] — someone who tries everything to defeat white supremacy.”

She called Murray “the ultimate outsider in everything” — not white, not black; born in Maryland, but a Yankee by inclination; and a woman who thought that God had intended her to be a man. (Riding the rails as a hobo during the Great Depression, Murray masqueraded as a boy — a cross-dressing ruse she continued to cultivate in later life.)

All of these conflicts within herself and the causes she chose to fight for “simply made [Murray] more aware of the universalization of discrimination,” said Gilmore.

But Murray was a woman estranged from her own time, whose bluntness and precocious sense of social justice would take years for the culture at large to grasp. “It’s not just who Pauli Murray is,” said Gilmore. “It’s when she was.”

Murray, who died in 1985, is just one figure that Gilmore used in “Defying Dixie” to trace the history of civil rights in the interwar period. Others include the well known, like NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson, and the more obscure, like Murray, or Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the first American-born black Communist (who starved to death in a Soviet Gulag).

Gilmore wrote of these figures, “I have learned something of the dialectics of patience and impatience, of anger and fear, of working hard and daring much.”

Later in life, Murray reflected on all the social issues she struggled for starting as young woman, including civil rights, feminism, and sexual identity. “I’ve lived,” she said, “to see my lost causes found.”