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The answer to the question – were progressive intellectuals, labor reformers, and suffragettes supportive of and/or active in the civil rights movement – is yes, they were. Most progressives, suffragettes, and labor reformers viewed the struggle for civil rights for blacks as an extension of their own struggles for equal rights. In fact, support for civil rights for blacks was probably more wide-spread than support for gender equality. The two movements, though, often moved in step with each other. The landmark 1848 women’s suffrage movement convention at Seneca Falls, New York, both illuminated the emotional and intellectual overlap between constituencies and the differences that emerged in terms of near-term priorities. One of the few men at that convention was black civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, whose speech before this gathering of progressive women noted his long association with the women’s suffrage movement and the shared commitment of both efforts for equal rights for all. Similarly, progressives were inherently supportive of the civil rights movement, although, as the following passage notes, the level of emphasis among progressives differed:
“Progressives sought the elimination of government corruption, women’s suffrage, social welfare, prison reform, prohibition, and civil liberties. While the progressive promotion of public health initiatives and universal education benefitted everyone, especially the poor and immigrants, progressives did not organize to promote black suffrage or equal rights. However, many progressive individuals did fight for civil rights on a smaller scale, and progressive activists, journalists, and thinkers formed advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).” [“Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism,” Slavery by Another Name, http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/progressivism/]
Prominent members of the women’s suffrage movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were outspoken supporters of civil rights for blacks, often attending and speaking at anti-slavery conventions. It was at an 1860 anti-slavery society meeting in Philadelphia where Mott noted the convergence of issues that represented the struggle for social justice:
“I have no idea, because I am a non-resistant, of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the slave. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity. Quakerism, as I understand it, does not mean quietism. The early Friends were agitators; disturbers of the peace; and were more obnoxious in their day to charges, which are now so freely made, than we are."
Mott’s role in advancing the cause of civil rights was a product in no small part, as she noted in the above remarks, of her Quaker heritage. One of the most prominent linkages among the social causes that collectively comprise the progressive movement throughout pre-American and American history was the Quakers, who were early and active supporters of abolition and who would agitate on behalf of women’s rights as well as rights for blacks. The labor reform movement, however, was more splintered with respect to civil rights. Contentious debates between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) marred early efforts at merging the two organizations, with the former resistant to linking workers’ rights to rights for African Americans. The innately conservative sentiments among many laborers contrasted with the anti-war activities of many progressives and African American civil rights activists. The AFL-CIO, however, was an important supporter of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Divisions within and between the various organizations involved in social and political causes reflect the diversity of character of the populace at large. It would be correct, however, to conclude that the labor, suffragette, and progressive movements were actively supportive of the cause of civil rights for blacks.
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