Debunking the Myth of Civil Rights Liberalism: Visions of Racial Justice in the Thought of T. Thomas Fortune, 1880-1890
56 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2008 Last revised: 4 May 2015
Date Written: Forthcoming 2009
In recent years, the supposed achievements of the American civil rights movement have come under attack as part of a critique of the ideology of legal liberalism. That critique argues that civil rights lawyers and other activists too greatly emphasized court-focused strategies aimed at achieving what would turn out to be pyrrhic "civil" rights victories - i.e., gains solely in "formal" equality in requirements enshrined in law as to how the state should treat its citizens. This critique of legal liberalism is well deserved insofar as it is aimed at a tendency within legal academia to extol the virtues of the American legal system, especially the U.S. Supreme Court's allegedly laudable protection of civil and political rights. But in this Article I argue such critiques of legal liberalism should not be allowed to bleed into evaluations of the goals of the civil rights movement itself, especially when taking a long view on the movement for racial justice.
I seek to promote taking such a long view of the movement for racial justice by evaluating the legal liberal critique of that movement in relation to an important early leader: T. Thomas Fortune, a law-educated militant journalist, public intellectual and organizer. In 1887, Fortune founded the Afro-American League, a national organization that was short-lived but nevertheless played an important historical role in the transmission of ideas to later groups including the Afro-American Council, the Niagara Movement, and the NAACP. Fortune's multi-dimensional view of the struggle for racial justice embraced a number of ideas we tend to see as distinct or even opposing today. Fortune supported reactive court battles and proactive legislative reform, establishment of equal civil and political rights and an ultimate goal of economic justice, intra-race self-help and interracial coalition politics aimed at eliminating poverty for all persons regardless of race. Examining Fortune's ideas helps remind us that the history of the civil rights movement was more complex and multidimensional than the contemporary legal-liberal gloss remembers today.
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