Confronting the Modern Era
Confrontimg Fighitng 01 Birth of a Nation Confrontimg Fighitng 02 Fisk Junior Confrontimg Fighitng 03 Founding Niagra Confrontimg Fighitng 04 Atlanta Con NAACP Confrontimg Fighitng 05 Fisk Extempo Confrontimg Fighitng 06 Fisk Library Confrontimg Fighitng 07 Fick U Lab

Fighting Back

With Jim Crow laws and the dangers of a lynch mob, it was difficult to fight back against racial segregation. Some African Americans did. 

Black women, especially those who were educated and socially prominent, did not like being treated with disrespect. Ida B. Wells fought a train conductor who attempted to move her from a seat that a white man wanted. Julia Hooks complained about segregated theater seats in Memphis. She was arrested on disorderly conduct charges and fined $5. 

Men also fought back. The New York Times ran this article in October 1897:

Negro Kills a “White Cap”

He Wounds Four Other Men in Tennessee

and a Race War May Follow

Milan, Tenn., Oct. 13—White Caps attacked the home of Dot Price, a negro living near this place, last night and fired into his house. He returned the fire, killing William Sires, a white man, and wounded four others. The negro was shot through the arm. Intense excitement prevails, and a race war is expected as a finale to the bloody tragedy.

In 1909 a group of African Americans, including Ida B. Wells, joined with whites in organizing a national organization to fight segregation. It was named the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The group began to organize branches in states including ones in the South.

Some African Americans in the South joined secretly because they were afraid they could lose their jobs if their membership was known in the white community. The NAACP tried to get a bill passed that would make lynching a federal crime, but were unsuccessful. They also protested the 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan and showed blacks as sub-human.

Eventually the NAACP turned its fight against segregation to the courts. Here they were ultimately successful when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools in a ruling in 1954.

Fisk Student Protests
In 1925, tensions were high between Fisk students and the white school president, Fayette McKenzie. Fisk University had been established after the Civil War as a school for African Americans. McKenzie had forbidden dances on campus and restricted conversations between male and female students. He was supposedly seeking donations to the school from a northern foundation that wanted to make sure that Fisk students did not follow militant tactics about segregation.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a former Fisk student, spoke at the school in June 1925. With the president sitting there, he attacked him for “choking freedom, with threats replacing inspiration, iron clad rules, suspicion….” This speech seemed to inspire the students to protest more.

When the board of trustees next met on campus, they were greeted by students chanting anti-McKenzie statements. When McKenzie agreed to a few of the students’ demands, and then broke his promises, the students rioted. They overturned chapel seats and broke windows. All the time, they were chanting “Du Bois, Du Bois,” and “before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.”

McKenzie called in Nashville police who broke down dorm doors and arrested six students. The other students called a strike which went on for eight weeks. Finally McKenzie decided the job wasn’t worth the stress and resigned.

The Fisk students inspired students at Howard University in Washington D.C. who also went on strike. The white president of Howard resigned, and was replaced by the first black president of the school.

Picture Credits:
  • Photograph of a scene from Birth of a NationThis movie was made in 1915 and directed by D. W. Griffith. The film showed African Americans in a demeaning manner. This scene features a white man in black face, being captured by hooded Klansman.
  • Photograph of the Fisk University Junior normal class. This photo was taken sometime between 1890 and 1906 in Nashville. Library of Congress.
  • Photograph entitled, “Founding members of the Niagara Movement.” This photo was taken in 1905. The Niagara movement was the precursor to the NAACP. W. E. B. Du Bois is pictured on the third seat from the left on the second row.   New York Public Library.
  • Group photograph from the Atlanta Conference of the NAACP. This photo was featured in The Crisis, a newspaper founded by the NAACP and edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. New York Public Library.
  • Photograph of the Fisk University Extempo Club. This photo was taken sometime between 1890 and 1906 in Nashville. Club members practiced public speaking skills. Library of Congress.
  • Photograph showing the interior of the Fisk University Library. This photo was taken in 1900 in Nashville. Several students are shown reading. Library of Congress.
  • Photograph of a Fisk University lab class. This photo was taken in Nashville and shows Dr. Calloway’s class. Tennessee State Museum Collection.

   Confronting the Modern Era >>  Racial Segregation >>  Living with Segregation >>  Fighting Back

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