Southern Conference on African American Studies, Inc. C. Calvin Smith Book Award “An original portrait of a largely unheralded African American political and civil rights leader in the first half of the twentieth century. Young draws from an impressive range of primary and secondary sources to provide a much-needed biography of this important figure.”—Elizabeth Gritter, author of River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954
“A meticulous and well-researched biography that reintroduces us to a titan of the early civil rights struggle.”—Charles W. McKinney Jr., author of Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina
This volume highlights the little-known story of Robert R. Church Jr., the most prominent black Republican of the 1920s and 1930s. Tracing Church’s lifelong crusade to make race an important part of the national political conversation, Darius Young reveals how Church was critical to the formative years of the civil rights struggle.
A member of the black elite in Memphis, Tennessee, Church was a banker, political mobilizer, and civil rights advocate who worked to create opportunities for the black community despite the notorious Democrat E. H. “Boss” Crump’s hold over Memphis politics. Spurred by the belief that the vote was the most pragmatic path to full citizenship in the United States, Church founded the Lincoln League of America, which advocated for the interests of black voters in over thirty states. He was instrumental in establishing the NAACP throughout the South as it investigated various incidents of racial violence in the Mississippi Delta. At the height of his influence, Church served as an advisor for Presidents Harding and Coolidge, generating greater participation of and recognition for African Americans in the Republican Party.
Church’s life and career offer a window into the incremental, behind-the-scenes victories of black voters and leaders during the Jim Crow era that set the foundation for the more nationally visible civil rights movement to follow.
Darius J. Young is associate professor of history at Florida A&M University.