Timothy Thomas Fortune was a New Yorker. But don’t hold that against him. Nobody’s perfect, and he faced challenges greater than ours: Born into slavery in Florida in 1856, he moved to New York, where he spoke and wrote — he edited Booker T. Washington’s autobiography.
In 1890, Fortune gathered 141 delegates from 23 states to Chicago on “the free soil of Illinois” for the first meeting of the National Afro-American League, an early civil rights organization. Fortune gave an impassioned speech, trying to move his audience to action.
“Apathy leads to stagnation,” he said. “It is a narrow and perverse philosophy that condemns as a nuisance agitators.” Those who stand up, he said, are in fact essential to establishing their people as proud, free, equal and valued American citizens.
Fortune saw a different path than history took: He thought the violence America used against Blacks ought to be met in kind: “The arsenal, the fort, the warrior are as necessary as the school, the church, the newspapers and the public forum of debate,” he said. “It’s time to fight fire with fire.”
Were I a teacher, I might ask my class to discuss whether Fortune’s strategy would have worked better or worse in the slow crawl toward attaining the rights the Constitution hints all Americans deserve.
That isn’t why I picked Fortune to kick off Black History Month. But for what he said when listing the reasons for his organization. The first is: “The almost universal suppression of our ballot in the South.”
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