What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality


From the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, millions of American men and women participated in fraternal associations—self-selecting brotherhoods and sisterhoods that provided aid to members, enacted group rituals, and engaged in community service. Even more than whites did, African Americans embraced this type of association; indeed, fraternal lodges rivaled churches as centers of black community life in cities, towns, and rural areas alike. Using an unprecedented variety of secondary and primary ...

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From the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, millions of American men and women participated in fraternal associations—self-selecting brotherhoods and sisterhoods that provided aid to members, enacted group rituals, and engaged in community service. Even more than whites did, African Americans embraced this type of association; indeed, fraternal lodges rivaled churches as centers of black community life in cities, towns, and rural areas alike. Using an unprecedented variety of secondary and primary sources—including old documents, pictures, and ribbon-badges found in eBay auctions—this book tells the story of the most visible African American fraternal associations.

The authors demonstrate how African American fraternal groups played key roles in the struggle for civil rights and racial integration. Between the 1890s and the 1930s, white legislatures passed laws to outlaw the use of important fraternal names and symbols by blacks. But blacks successfully fought back. Employing lawyers who in some cases went on to work for the NAACP, black fraternalists took their cases all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in their favor. At the height of the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, they marched on Washington and supported the lawsuits through lobbying and demonstrations that finally led to legal equality. This unique book reveals a little-known chapter in the story of civic democracy and racial equality in America.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Co-Winner of the 2007 Oliver Cromwell Cox Award, Race, Gender, and Class Sectionof the American Sociological Association

"Heavily researched and illuminating throughout, this unique study is not necessarily a book for the masses, but for those, mostly in academia, interested in examining a little-considered dimension in the complex history of the civil rights movement, and out civil society as a whole."Publishers Weekly

"This excellent, very readable, scholarly book fills many gaps in understanding the African American community."Choice

This excellent, very readable, scholarly book fills many gaps in understanding the African American community.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Ariane Liazos received her Ph.D. in history from Harvard and is currently an independent scholar. Marshall Ganz is lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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What a Mighty Power We Can Be African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality
By Theda Skocpol Ariane Liazos Marshall Ganz Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2006
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13836-7


On february 15, 1964, a "Freedom Now Rally" was held at the 369th Street Armory in New York City to demand "jobs and freedom for all Americans." This event was organized by the state-level organization of a leading African American fraternal group, the "Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge" of the Free and Accepted Masons of the "State of New York and Its Jurisdiction." As Grand Master James Harold Johnstone explained, "Our freedom now rally is a partial implementation of a solemn pledge taken at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the historic 28th of August 1963, in the Centennial Year of Emancipation"-that is, a pledge taken during the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights activists.

Many hundreds of New York's Prince Hall Masons took that pledge, along with thousands of other persons of all races and creeds. In that pledge, we affirmed our complete personal commitment to the struggle for Jobs and Freedom for all Americans. To fulfill that commitment, we pledged we would not relax until victory is won. Here and now,on the 15th of February, 1964, we Prince Hall Masons reaffirm that pledge. We welcome all those who join us in that reaffirmation at this rally.

To orchestrate the February 1964 Freedom Now Rally, the New York Grand Lodge of the Prince Hall Masons mobilized participants and tapped resources from a broad network of fraternal and nonfraternal organizations. Rally organizers created an attractive pamphlet with a cover depicting the New York Prince Hall Masons carrying their banner in the March on Washington. Dozens of supporting advertisements appeared in the pamphlet, many of them emblazoned with civil rights slogans. Declarations of solidarity came from fifty Prince Hall Masonic lodges located in New York City, in other cities across the state of New York, and in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut-and also from ten women's lodges of the Prince Hall-affiliated Order of the Eastern Star. Some thirty-nine businesses, most of them no doubt black-owned or situated in black neighborhoods, helped to sponsor the rally. In addition, Baptist churches, trade union bodies, politicians and political clubs, a society of black New York firemen, and the Jewish Teamsters Goodwill and Benevolent Association lent their support.

Beyond activating a network of groups and enterprises to cosponsor their 1964 rally, the New York Prince Hall Masons used the event to promote organized activism. The "Freedom Now Rally" pamphlet urged local Prince Hall lodges that had not already done so to donate the money necessary to become "life members" of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Illustrations in the pamphlet honored slain Mississippi Civil Rights leader-and fellow Prince Hall Mason-Medgar Evers, and featured New York Prince Hall leaders presenting checks in support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League, and the United Negro College Fund. Entire pages were devoted to chronicling and honoring the increasingly militant activities of the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In effect, New York Prince Hall Masons served as interorganizational brokers, channeling loyalties, energies, and moneys from apparently nonpolitical social and economic organizations toward ongoing protest struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement.

The efforts of the New York Prince Hall Masons in the 1960s flowed from traditions in their fraternal order. "As Prince Hall Masons," explained Grand Master Johnstone, "our resolution is strengthened by our awareness that, in this great crusade for freedom, we are continuing in the historic traditions of our Institution as exemplified almost two hundred years ago by our namesake, Prince Hall of Massachusetts Colony, who was the first Negro Freemason in America."

Johnstone was referring to the establishment in 1775 of the first African American Masonic lodge in Boston, Massachusetts, by Prince Hall and other men of color who fought for America in the Revolutionary War. Prince Hall Masons eventually spread to many U.S. states. They were leaders in the fights to abolish slavery and extend rights and build social capacities for African Americans during the turbulent decades that followed the Civil War.

Twentieth-century Prince Hall Masons cooperated with the NAACP and got involved in civil rights politics. Back in 1925, for example, Mrs. Joe Brown, head of the Prince Hall-affiliated Supreme Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, called on constituent state organizations to cooperate with the NAACP in establishing Junior Divisions to further race pride and prepare young people for future leadership. She likewise urged "our women everywhere ... to make use of their right of suffrage, where they are permitted to do so and ... when they vote not to fail to place in office men and women who will safeguard the interest of our group as well as the public in general in both State and National legislatures, and by so doing we may do away with the present status wherein our National Congress has failed for two sessions to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill."

In the late 1950s, more than 300,000 Prince Hall Masons meeting in three dozen state grand lodges and more than four thousand local lodges took decisive steps in support of the modern Civil Rights movement. Along with other Masonic bodies, including the African American Shriners, Prince Hall Masons undertook to raise large contributions to support NAACP legal challenges to racial discrimination and segregation. State grand lodges spearheaded this and additional campaigns. As the Prince Hall Grand Master in Virginia put it in his January 1, 1958 Emancipation Day address, not only should "every colored American ... resolve to support the N.A.A.C.P. this coming year, and then do it," black Masons in Virginia should also lead the way in registering to vote and helping others to exercise the franchise. The Virginia Grand Master advocated voter mobilization even in a southern state where such endeavors could be challenging, because, as he explained, the "Negro vote is the key factor in our struggle ... freedom has never been given, to any race on a silver platter."

* * *

These civil rights undertakings by Prince Hall Masons offer a window into a vibrant African American organizational world that contributed significantly to historic and modern struggles for equal rights for all American citizens. As we will learn in this book, although Prince Hall Masonic lodges may have been the first African American fraternal bodies to emerge in the United States, they were far from the only ones. Between the early 1800s and the mid-twentieth century, dozens of African American fraternal federations emerged and flourished-federations rooted in local lodges yet also organized within and across states. Quite a few of these federations grew to be nationally prominent, including black fraternal federations-such as the Prince Hall Masons, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and the Knights of Pythias of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia-that paralleled major white fraternal organizations. Other nationally prominent fraternal federations-such as the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, and the Knights of Tabor and Daughters of the Tabernacle-were entirely distinctive to African Americans.

An extremely important part of U.S. associational life from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, fraternal groups are self-selecting brotherhoods and associated female groups-and sometimes gender-integrated brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Stressing community under God and shared citizenship, fraternal lodges involve people from many occupations and walks of life, ranging from professionals and business persons to people supported by white-collar jobs, farming, and blue-collar labor. Fraternal lodges are typically linked together in federations that span local communities and may also tie states and regions together. In addition to local meetings, recurrent district, state, and national conventions are a prominent feature of fraternal life.

Fraternal federations foster mutual aid among members, and in many instances provide formal insurance benefits to cover costs due to sickness or death. Yet fraternals are cultural as well as mutual-aid organizations, for they invariably enact distinctive rituals at weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings. "Secret" in that only members are supposed to know them, fraternal rituals are morality plays in which officers and members have roles to enact. Rituals cement group identities, teach members about shared values and norms, and instruct ever-rotating sets of elected officers in the rules they must follow to carry through their official responsibilities honestly and effectively.

Although many of their activities are for members only, fraternal groups have also undertaken civic and political activities-to improve local communities and influence state and national governments. The civic presence of fraternal groups may be expressed by something as basic as organizing or participating in a parade-perhaps, as often happened with African Americans, with a banner or a float dramatizing support for equal rights. Fraternal groups have prepared citizens for wider participation by teaching organizational and leadership skills to millions of Americans. Fraternal groups have contributed to community causes as volunteers and made donations to community projects and educational scholarships. They often maintain halls in which groups in addition to the fraternal lodges themselves can meet. And from time to time, American fraternal groups have gotten involved in legislative or policy campaigns or sponsored lawsuits-in the case of African American groups, often in order to promote civil rights or outlaw racial segregation.

This book tells the story of popularly rooted, cross-class African American fraternal organizations that spanned local communities and bridged states. We pull together what is known so far about the numbers, characteristics, and activities of these remarkable organizations. By documenting how extensively and intensively African American men and women made use of fraternal forms of organization that were also popular among other American races, our book aims to retrieve the substantial place of African American fraternalism in the overall development of associational life in the United States.

By better documenting the long-term organizational achievements of African Americans, this book also aims to broaden understandings of the roots of the modern Civil Rights movement. Churches and formal protest organizations like the NAACP were not the only institutional supports for black collective assertion and modern civil rights agitation-not the only groups that fostered solidarity and built capacities for concerted agitation. From the nineteenth century to the 1960s, African American fraternal organizations also made central contributions to the struggle for equal rights.


Americans have long been known for their special proclivity to organize and join voluntary groups. "Associations are created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly and effectively than in any other country," observed James Bryce in The American Commonwealth. The "greater" associations "ramify over the country and have great importance in the development of opinion," influencing elections and public affairs. Lord Bryce's comments echoed earlier observations by Alexis de Tocqueville, and foreshadowed arguments about the centrality of voluntarism to U.S. democracy by twentieth-century scholars such as Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and Robert D. Putnam. Americans are a "nation of joiners," declared Schlesinger in his celebrated presidential address delivered to the American Historical Association at the height of World War II. Voluntary organization "has provided the people with their greatest school of self government.... In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way."

Yet where do African Americans fit in the nation's civic history? Contemporary scholars take it for granted that African Americans have long been devoted churchgoers, and many studies, past and present, document the pervasive role of African American churches in U.S. social life, culture, and politics. But received scholarly wisdom is much more at odds over the nature of African American associational achievements beyond church-building. As a once-enslaved people forced into long struggles for citizenship rights in the century after legal Emancipation, were African Americans also avid voluntary organizers and joiners, or were they civicly marginalized during much of the nation's past?

Recent scholarship highlights the deeply rooted inequalities that have discouraged full civic participation by African Americans. Some scholars stress the inherent weakness of social capital in impoverished, racially divided rural areas such as Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. Others argue that ethnic and racial divisions are inherent obstacles to social trust and high levels of associational membership. Still other scholars, such as Sidney Verba and his associates, analyze the ways in which the lower incomes and limited educational attainments of many African Americans have translated into reduced individual participation in non-church-based civic activities.

The best-known contemporary student of civic engagement, Robert D. Putnam, points to ethnically differentiated streams of immigration and legacies from the nation's bitter history of African slavery as key factors shaping the civic cultures of various U.S. states and regions. In Bowling Alone, Putnam assesses 1990s levels of "social capital" in U.S. states, using a quantitative index that omits church attendance but combines fourteen other (highly intercorrelated) variables measuring community participation, volunteering, social trust, and political participation. The resulting map of "Social Capital in the American States" shows that the historically whitest parts of the country are also the most civic, leaving aside church participation. Speculating about the causes of what he sees as long-standing disparities, Putnam (2000: 294) argues that "[s]lavery was, in fact, a social system designed to destroy social capital among slaves and between slaves and freemen. After emancipation the dominant classes in the South continued to have a strong interest in inhibiting horizontal social networks. It is not happenstance that the lowest levels of community-based social capital are found where a century of plantation slavery was followed by a century of Jim Crow politics." According to the full logic of Putnam's argument, historically black regions of the United States lagged in civic participation, and African Americans migrating to the North may have carried value legacies from slavery and Jim Crow that discouraged participation in new settings.


Excerpted from What a Mighty Power We Can Be by Theda Skocpol Ariane Liazos Marshall Ganz
Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
List of Tables ix
Preface xi
CHAPTER ONE: African American Fraternalism: A Missing Chapter in the Story of U.S. Civic Democracy 1
CHAPTER TWO: The Panorama of African American Fraternal Federations with the assistance of Jennifer Lynn Oser 21
CHAPTER THREE: African American Fraternals as Schools for Democracy 61
CHAPTER FOUR: Proprietors, Helpmates, and Pilgrims in Black and White Fraternal Rituals by Bayliss Camp and Orit Kent 95
CHAPTER FIVE: Defending the Legal Right to Organize 135
CHAPTER SIX: Black Fraternalists and the Mid-Twentieth-Century Movement for Civil Rights 174
CHAPTER SEVEN: The Achievements of African American Fraternalism 214
Notes 229
References 265
Index 283

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