Robert R. Church, Jr., an under-recognized figure of the black freedom struggle, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1885. The son of Robert R. Church, Sr., perhaps the first black millionaire in the nation, and the younger half-brother of Mary Church Terrell, the famed women’s and civil rights advocate, Bob Church, as he was commonly known, believed in formal politics as the key way for achieving first-class citizenship for African Americans. He believed that it was crucial to work in the two-party system and that the Republican Party held the most promise for achieving gains. He became the most prominent black Republican in the country by the 1920s and remained Republican until he died in 1952. He fiercely fought for the party to embrace civil rights stances, and his views were colored by the Republican Party’s actions for African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, as opposed to black Americans of the younger generation, who, like many other African Americans, turned to the Democratic Party during the New Deal years of the 1930s.
Unlike most black southerners, black Memphians could vote and exercise political leverage at the polls after the end of Reconstruction and into the twentieth century. Reasons included state political conditions, skilled black leadership, a mobilized black public, and white machine politics. Edward H. Crump, one of the most dominant political bosses in U.S. history, began his political ascent by 1909, when he was elected mayor. The most powerful political figure in Memphis until he died in 1954, this white Democrat incorporated African Americans into his political machine. His manipulation of black votes has been commonly written about; less well known is that a two-way street existed in which black Memphians exercised political leverage. Gains that they achieved included better job opportunities, improved public services, and the election of their candidates of choice at the polls. They also used politics as a forum for speaking out for racial justice. In 1914, for instance, the Colored Men’s Civic League successfully pressured Crump to have Thomas Dixon’s play The Leopard’s Spots banned from showing in the city because of its negative treatment of African Americans.
For Bob Church, his background and wealth contributed to his desire and ability to use politics as a strategy for racial advancement. He grew up in a neighborhood that included black political officials, and he and his father were connected with Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, W. C. Handy, and other luminaries of black politics and culture. Church, Jr., inherited wealth from his father and used it to further his goals. He funded local black political campaigns, contributed to the Republican Party as a way of exercising influence, and refused to accept any political appointments, although offered two by presidents, because of his desire to independently exert political leverage.
Church served as a delegate to Republican National Conventions starting in 1912, and his rise to political heights really took off with his formation of the Lincoln Republican League in 1916 in Memphis. He mobilized black Memphians in a way that attracted regional and national attention, spurring him to form the Lincoln League of America in 1919, which brought together black Republicans from across the country in part as a protest against racial violence taking place that year. This league led to his further recognition by Republicans nationally, catapulting him to become the leading black Republican in the country in the 1920s; he met with presidents and took part in state and national campaigns for the Republican Party.
To be sure, Bob Church was not immune from opposition and criticism from both whites and blacks. He was sent a noose anonymously in the 1920s. He and black Memphians faced bombings during one campaign effort. Some black Memphians resented him because of his wealth and light skin. African Americans criticized him for the fact that Lincoln League of America officials received political appointments, leading them to think that the league had selfish motivations, and Crump turned against Church in 1940, leading to his exile from Memphis. Yet, Church was also widely praised and respected by African Americans and even some whites for his political work and ambitions.
Church, Jr.’s story is one that reveals significant formal political activity of black southerners during the Jim Crow era. Black southerners elsewhere, especially in urban areas, could sometimes politically mobilize as well. I do not mean to dismiss the opposition and disenfranchisement that African Americans faced after the end of Reconstruction. At the same time, it is important to recognize what African Americans could do politically within these confines and the gains that they made for racial advancement, providing an important foundation for the mass-based civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
For more information on Robert R. Church, Jr., and black political thought and activities in the Jim Crow era, see: Elizabeth Gritter, River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954, Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century Series, edited by Steven F. Lawson and Cynthia G. Fleming (University Press of Kentucky, February 2014). The book’s University Press of Kentucky web page provides additional information as well: http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=3530#.U_4OXaMvtWw