A radical fighter for racial equality gets his due at long last

April 22, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Color-Blind Justice

Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality

By Mark Elliott

Oxford University Press / 388 pages / $30

For most of his life, Albion Tourgee persevered on "a fool's errand." An advocate of the abolition of slavery, he enlisted in the Army soon after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Severely wounded, captured and released, Tourgee returned to duty as a lieutenant with the 105th Ohio Infantry. He would settle for nothing less than a "complete revolution and renovation" establishing a color-blind society, he wrote in 1863: "For this I am willing to die - for this I expect to die."

When the Civil War ended, Tourgee brought his Radical Republican carpetbag and confrontational style to North Carolina, as editor of the Greensboro Union Register and then superior court judge. At the state Constitutional Convention of 1868 - dubbed "The Gorilla Convention" by Southern conservatives - Tourgee told his fellow delegates that the scriptural revelation "of one blood are all nations of the earth" came with no proviso exempting Africans. The next year he and his wife adopted 13-year-old Adaline Patillo, a former slave. Threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, Tourgee left North Carolina for good in 1879, a few months before the publication of his novel, A Fool's Errand By One of the Fools, a runaway best-seller which blamed the "cowardly, vacillating and inconsistent" Republican Party for abandoning blacks to an unreconstructed, undemocratic and violent South.

With Color-Blind Justice, Mark Elliott, a professor of history at Wagner College in New York City, has written the first major biography of Tourgee in 40 years. Elliott is not a gifted stylist or a master of the narrative form. And his interpretation of Tourgee as a "radical individualist" does not really illuminate his lonely struggle for racial equality in the late 19th century. But with this meticulously researched book, Elliott has restored Tourgee to his rightful place as a perceptive and courageous civil rights activist who made important contributions to American literature, politics and law.

Tourgee's career as a civil rights agitator in the 1880s and '90s is especially instructive. For reasons Elliott does not explore, he oscillated between militancy and pragmatic accommodation, iconoclasm and coalition-building. Tourgee urged blacks to take direct action to integrate fashionable white neighborhoods and white churches. In his column, "A Bystander's Notes," for the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, he advised black victims of violence not to turn the other cheek. If he were a "colored man," Tourgee wrote, he would keep the name of every black "who kills a lyncher" on a "saints roll, giving every one his day until the whole year should be a calendar of brave deeds." Such men did more to secure the rights of their people "than a whole generation of `eloquent leaders.' "

At the same time, Tourgee helped craft anti-lynching legislation in Ohio, which became law in 1896. He designed an education bill which accepted segregated schools but distributed funds according to illiteracy rates to ensure equity. And he founded a National Citizens Rights Association to "collect and publicize" violations of civil rights, lobby legislatures and initiate suits to overturn oppressive laws. Convinced that inter-racial meetings might destroy the fledgling organization, he refused to sanction local chapters or a national convention.

As lead counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Tourgee claimed that a Louisiana law mandating separate accommodations for passengers on railroad cars violated the 14th Amendment by reducing blacks to a subject race. But he did not challenge the doctrine "separate but equal" on the facts - and granted the state the power to conform to the "prevailing sentiment of the community" in establishing segregated schools. Nonetheless, Tourgee presciently probed the logic of racial categories. Race, he argued, was a superficial physical attribute, arbitrarily determined, with profound social consequences. And "race inter-mixture has proceeded to such an extent" it is often "impossible of ascertainment." Should such a weighty decision be left to "the casual scrutiny of a busy conductor"?

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