How Did Black Women in the NAACP
Promote the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, 1918-1923?


Mary B. Talbert, Organizer of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders
Source: Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

Documents selected and interpreted by
Angelica Mungarro
under the supervision of Professor Karen Anderson
at the University of Arizona, May 2002

Project revised and edited by Marian Horan

        Black women were among the first to publicly protest the crime of racially motivated lynching in the late nineteenth century. (See the first section of the document project, "How Did Black and White Southern Women Campaign to End Lynching, 1890-1942?" also on this website.) In the early 1920s, as experienced activists they took part in the campaign in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, named after its author Congressman Leonidas Dyer, was the first anti-lynching bill to be voted upon by the Senate, despite many earlier attempts by anti-lynching groups.

       An important part of black women's contribution to the NAACP campaign for the Dyer Bill was the establishment of an organization that publicized the horrors of lynching and provided a focus for campaign fundraising. The Anti-Lynching Crusaders, founded in 1922 under the aegis of the NAACP, was a women's organization that aimed to raise money to promote the passage of the Dyer Bill and for the prevention of lynching in general. The Crusaders sought to include white women but were largely unsuccessful despite the efforts of their director, Mary Talbert, who sent 1,850 letters to "white women known to be sympathetic to social reform." The Crusaders' slogan was, "A Million Women United to Stop Lynching" and their aim was to get one million women to donate "at least" one dollar each toward the NAACP anti-lynching campaign. As historians Gerda Lerner and Jacqueline Dowd Hall have emphasized, the Anti-Lynching Crusaders never achieved their fundraising or legislative objectives but did successfully publicize the issue of lynching and continue a tradition of campaigning begun by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the 1890s and later taken up by white women in the 1930s through Jessie Daniel Ames's Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.[1]

       The American Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed redefined the racial structures and sentiments of the South. The emancipation of black slaves motivated Southern whites to search for new systems of racial and economic control. By the 1890s, Southern whites had passed Jim Crow laws--segregation laws intended to isolate and intimidate blacks. After 1890, lynching, which had existed since colonial times, became a particularly widespread method by which whites sought to control blacks. Lynching was the practice of citizens taking the law into their own hands to end the lives of other citizens who stepped outside of social norms.[2] Lynching has been described "as a systematic weapon of terror against African Americans, white and black Republicans, and anyone who challenged the construction of a new, white supremacist, southern regime."[3] From 1880 to 1930 approximately 723 whites and nearly 5,000 blacks were lynched. Lynching peaked in 1892 with 155 black and 71 white victims. Most lynchings in the South were of blacks, and in the North, whites.[4] White officials, who dominated Southern governments after federal troops left in 1877, did not extend legal protections commonly available to whites to African Americans. In response, African Americans and whites formed civil rights organizations to fight against discrimination, prejudice, and the denial of basic civil protections to African Americans. By the 1920s legislative reform had become one of the weapons in the arsenal of anti-lynching activists and several Southern states had anti-lynching legislation as part of their constitutions. These laws, however, were not well enforced.[5]

       First introduced into the House of Representatives in 1918, Congressman Leonidas Dyer's anti-lynching bill was intended to punish state, county, and local authorities who failed to prevent lynching and act as a deterrent to end the practice altogether (see Document 1). In a report he wrote in support of his bill, Dyer described why anti-lynching legislation was crucial to the cause of anti-lynching campaigners:

The people of the United States suffer justly under the grievous charge that they continue to tolerate mob murder. It is well known that the innocent, equally with the guilty, suffer the cruel inflictions of mob violence. Mobs have even invaded court rooms and prisons to seize and murder prisoners whose punishment had already been fixed. Local and State authorities frequently offer only the feeblest objection to the actions of the mob which is permitted to do its will unchecked. Rarely are the members of a mob sought out and prosecuted even when, undisguised and in full daylight, they have participated in murder, and only in a few isolated cases has any lyncher ever been punished. Patriotic citizens throughout he country feel the shame which lynchings cast upon the Nation. . . .  We can no longer permit open contempt of the courts and lawful procedure. We can no longer endure the burning of human beings in public in the presence of women and children. . . .[6]

The NAACP quickly took up the cause of the Dyer Bill, publicly expressing support for the Bill at the National Conference on Lynching held in May 1919 at Carnegie Hall, New York. The NAACP was a primary sponsor of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and Mary Talbert was the most prominent black woman behind the NAACP support for the Bill (see Documents 2 and 3).[7] The NAACP began its campaign against lynching in 1909 and promoted federal anti-lynching legislation for the following four decades, largely without success.[8] The Dyer Bill represents one of the NAACP's most vocal, and as James Weldon Johnson argued in 1923, most successful attempts to publicize nationwide the barbarity of lynching (see Document 23).

       From the inception of the NAACP campaign for anti-lynching legislation, women were important figures in the movement. Even before the founding of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in 1922, women involved in the NAACP anti-lynching cause were significant as both donors and fundraisers (see documents 2 and 4). Women recognized their important role as fundraisers, a task crucial to the success of the anti-lynching cause of the NAACP, and this activity became the central objective of the women who formed the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in 1922. The founders of this organization recognized a need for the NAACP to have a group dedicated to fundraising and saw themselves as the most suitable means to supply the necessary funds. Mary B. Talbert, then president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), headed the new organization.[9] Sixteen women formed part of the original organization, a number which increased to 900 over the first three months of activity. Talbert was the National Director, Miss Mary E. Jackson was the National Organizer, and each state was to have its own director and "key women." No positions within the organization were to be paid.[10] The idea for the Crusaders originated, Mary Talbert believed, with Helen Curtis, one of the directors of the Crusaders, after Curtis heard a speech by Leonidas Dyer at the June 1922 annual conference of the NAACP (see Document 14).[11] Black women from the Club movement and the Young Women's Christian Association became leaders in the new organization and existing women's clubs around the nation were targeted for additional membership (see Document 8). Documents 6, 7, 8 and 9, authored by activists, tell the story of the establishment of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders as they articulated their cause, the shape of their organization, and its goals.

       The Anti-Lynching Crusaders had specific aims and its directors hoped to achieve their goals in a short period of time. The organization came into being mid-1922 and was dissolved on the 1st of January 1923. The Crusaders had a specific set of goals for the last five months of 1922 (see Documents 11A and 11B). In a letter Mary Talbert wrote to the NAACP's State Director in July 1922, Talbert listed the Crusader's objectives: in August the Crusaders intended to organize their program for the remainder of the year; in September they were to work on instructing members on campaign tactics; on the first Sunday in October members were to begin a more active campaign to which prayer was to be an important part. Talbert hoped "that over a million women will unite in prayer to God" to end lynching. A special prayer was to be used by all Crusaders which spoke to the organization's position on lynching and its hopes for the Dyer anti-lynching bill (see Document 13). With a mixture of prayer, fundraising, political promotion of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and publicity, the Crusaders hoped to achieve their goals (see also Document 14).

       The Crusaders publicized selected lynchings in order to demonstrate the need for financial and political support for the Dyer Bill. These stories stress, contrary to popular myth, that only a sixth of the 3,465 people lynched from 1889 to 1922 were accused of rape (see Document 7).[12] The injustice of the crime and the horror the victims experienced fueled the cause of the Crusaders and were powerful components of their publicity flyers. Documents 7, 12 and 16 describe graphic incidents of lynching and stress that women, typically black but also white women, were among the victims of lynching. The gender of the victims and of the black clubwomen who sought to involve themselves in stopping this crime, may have played an important part in the goals the Crusaders set for themselves. In the male-dominated world of the NAACP, the all-women Crusaders initially emphasized that their organization aimed to end the lynching of colored women in particular. While the Crusaders did in fact raise money for the wider anti-lynching cause, regardless of the gender of the lynch victims, early publicity fliers did focus their attack on the lynching of women (see Documents 7 and 8).

       The Anti-Lynching Crusaders formed a fundraising auxiliary for the NAACP campaign in support of the Dyer Bill. The NAACP was to give support to the Crusaders with press guidance and an initial monetary investment (see Document 9) and all money raised by the Crusaders was to be given to the NAACP before or on the 1st of January 1923. The NAACP was to use the money raised by the Crusaders for publicity, to put pressure upon Congress and state legislatures, for investigation of lynchings, and for legal processes necessary to the cause of the Dyer Bill (see Document 15). The relationship between the Crusaders and the NAACP, however, did not always go as smoothly as Mary Talbert might have hoped. A letter dated 21 October 1922 addressed to Talbert indicated that a request from Talbert for additional funding for the Crusaders was likely to be declined (see Document 19).

       Founded and led by black women, the Anti-Lynching Crusaders hoped to have both white and black women contribute funds and sustain the organization.[13] Gaining white women's support in the movement against lynching was an objective shared by the black women active in the Anti-Lynching Crusaders with their forerunners. From Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the 1890s to Charlotte Hawkins Brown in the first decades of the twentieth century, black women reformers argued that white women had the power to aid the cause of ending racially motivated lynching. Brown believed that white women had the power to "control" white men and thus to protect blacks from violence.[14] White women spoke publicly against lynching as the example of Juliette V. Harring indicates (see Document 12), and Mary Talbert sought to encourage white women to join with their black sisters in aiding the cause of the Anti-lynching Crusaders. Lynching, Talbert claimed, was a "terrible blot upon America's civilization" and, contrary to common beliefs, did not serve to protect white women against rape as too few of those lynched were accused of this particular crime (see Documents 7 and 12). Furthermore, women as well as men were the victims of this heinous crime and not all--the Crusaders' literature pointed out, but did not dwell on--were black. White women were lynched alongside black, though in significantly smaller numbers (see Documents 6, 7 and 12). Talbert called for white women to join in this largely black cause, because, she argued, black women had long been loyal to the causes of white women (see Document 18). At least 2,000 white women offered support to the Crusaders during the campaign between October and December (see Document 13) and Talbert managed to gain the support of what were described as "powerful" women's organizations (see Document 19).

       In addition to the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, women worked with the main body of the NAACP to raise money for the anti-lynching cause (see Documents 17, 21A, and 21B). Women like Emily W. Osgood and Mary McMurtrie were solicited by the NAACP for large sums of money in the final months of the 1922 campaign for the Dyer Bill when fundraising became crucial to keep the campaign going after its initial successes. Women promoted the cause of the Dyer bill through letter and telegram campaigns to Congress in support of the Bill. They presented anti-lynching bills before the legislatures of a number of states in the hope that they would force the federal government to pass similar legislation. Mrs. Mossell Griffin, Chairman of the Legislative Department of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, was credited with the passage of an anti-lynching bill modeled on the Dyer Bill by the legislature in Pennyslvania (see Document 20).

       The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was not the first or last of its kind. Prior to 1922 numerous legislative measures intended to curb the practice of lynching had been presented at state and federal levels, but with little real success. From 1901 to 1920, sixteen anti-lynching bills were presented to the Senate, but none made it beyond the Committee level. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was the first to make it to a House vote. The Dyer Bill passed the House of Representatives on the 26th of January 1922 with a vote of 230-119 and was given a favorable report by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Unfortunately, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1922 failed to become federal law. Donald Grant that "a combination of Republican inaction and Southern Democratic action by means of a filibuster prevented the Senate from voting" on the measure in late 1922. The Bill was to be re-introduced in the next congressional session in 1923, but no further action was taken and the tenets of the Bill and NAACP interest in anti-lynching legislation languished until the 1930s.[15] Those opposed to the Dyer Bill, and similar measures, successfully drew upon "the doctrine of 'states rights'" to argue that such bills contravened the rights of states to resolve issues of "law and order"--a doctrine implicit in the 1877 compromise between the North and the South.[16] The Dyer Bill was reintroduced into the Senate on several occasions throughout the 1920s, but never became law, and during subsequent attempts to have the bill passed the NAACP provided only minimal support.[17]

       Although the Dyer Bill ultimately failed in 1922 and 1923, its supporters succeeded in bringing attention to and generating greater condemnation of the crime of lynching. Mary Talbert handed the NAACP the money raised by the Crusaders in early January 1923. At this time the Dyer Bill was all but dead. The fund raised by the Crusaders was preserved by the NAACP and drawn upon in the 1930s during the NAACP's next major campaign for Federal anti-lynching legislation.[18] The dedicated women of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders--the clubwomen and individuals involved in lobbying the government and raising funds for the NAACP campaign--succeeded in promoting the anti-lynching cause, even if the legislation they supported failed. These women had a grand vision of uniting one million women in a movement against lynching--black and white women, Southern and Northern women--an ambitious campaign that did not succeed, but it did provide an important record of how black clubwomen sought to shape their world. Significantly, in 1922, the black women who formed the backbone of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders offered an example that would inspire white women to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930.[19]

back to top