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T. Thomas Fortune: He Paved the Way for Civil Rights Organizers

W.E.B. Du Bois. Mary McLeod Bethune. Stokely Carmichael. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. These are names of civil rights leaders you're likely to hear during Black History Month. But here's one you may not: T. Thomas Fortune.


You might say that Fortune was the forefather of civil rights organizers. In 1890, he founded the National Afro-American League, the precursor to a host of groups, including today's powerful National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP).

Fortune was born a slave in Marianna, Fla., in 1856, and gained his freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. His father was active in Reconstruction politics and was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1868.

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Fortune achieved his own success after attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., and pursuing a career in publishing in New York City. He was a gifted writer and climbed the publishing ranks to own a black newspaper, the New York Age.

But Fortune never lost sight of the conditions and injustices that black people endured, especially in the South. He became a pioneer activist who in founding the National Afro-American League laid out six principle grievances the organization needed to combat - mainly discrimination and the weakening of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave citizenship and the vote to African Americans.

Failing to attract mass support and funding, the League disbanded in 1893. But Fortune didn't give up. He and Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church revived the organization in 1898 as the Afro-American Council. It held on until 1901, when clashes over leadership with the more conciliatory Booker T. Washington and his supporters doomed the group.

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While Fortune's organization had few successes, its legacy lives on. Its ideals and push for black political action helped lay the groundwork for today's NAACP, which was organized in 1909 by some of the same individuals - Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, to name a few ­- who stood with Fortune in his quest for black equality and empowerment.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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