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‘Lift Every Voice’

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 7/6/2011, 1:38 a.m.
Historian Patricia Sullivan’s recent book on NAACP details hidden history of Civil Rights Movement Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil ...
Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, The New Press, $29.95, 514 pages.

Historian Patricia Sullivan’s recent book on NAACP details hidden history of Civil Rights Movement

Ossian Sweet seemed to exemplify the black middle class dream. He completed his medical degree at Howard University, went on to establish his own practice in Detroit, later got married and with his wife, travelled to Austria and France to pursue advanced training in pediatrics and gynecology.

 But when the successful doctor returned to Detroit and tried to purchase a new home, he was met with resistance. Seeing that they were black, realtors immediately turned the couple away from houses in white neighborhoods. When the Sweets eventually did purchase a home, far above the actual value of the house, white mobs arrived on their property to protest their presence.

 One night, a mob numbering in the thousands converged on Sweet’s lawn and started shouting racial slurs and hurling rocks at the house. In response, Sweet’s younger brother fired a rifle from a window in the house, hitting one white man and killing another. The 10 black men in the Sweet’s home were then arrested and charged with murder.

 The Sweet story typifies the racial animus of the early 1920s — housing discrimination, violence, unfair police treatment and disproportionate charges. Except in one way: despite the odds stacked against him, Sweet was found not guilty.

 With the help of a new interracial civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Sweet raised enough money to hire one of the best lawyers in the country.

 The Sweet case marked one of the NAACP’s first major legal victories and underscored the power the association would eventually wield.

 In an impressive new book, “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” historian Patricia Sullivan chronicles the history of the NAACP, from its origins in 1909 to the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Relying on the well-preserved NAACP archives housed at the Library of Congress, Sullivan offers a fascinating view into the personalities, legal cases, struggles and victories of the country’s oldest civil rights organization.

 “This book captures a hidden history,” Sullivan, a professor at the University of South Carolina and fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, said at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. just months after the publication of her work. “The public memory of the Civil Rights Movement pretty much begins with the Brown decision and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she explained. “But two generations prior to 1954 laid the groundwork that made the gains of the 1960s possible.”

 The NAACP was conceived in 1909, when Oswald Garrison Villard, a white journalist, wrote “The Call,” a manifesto on race relations and an appeal to “believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of the present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil rights and political liberty.”

 Several interracial meetings followed and were attended by prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, John Dewey, William Lloyd Garrison Jr. and Jane Addams. The name for the organization bears Du Bois’ influence — the use of “colored” instead of “negro” signaled a commitment to the advancement of all non-white people, not just blacks.