[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Historians tell stories, and stories have beginnings and ends. Most human eras, however, are not so neat. Their beginnings and ends tend to blend into one another. This is why historians are often arguing about when eras–the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc.–started and stopped. One usually learns very little from these debates, primarily because the established beginnings and endings were agreed upon for good reason. Nothing really big had been missed, so nothing really big has to be changed.
But there are exceptions, times when historians discover–or at the very least bring to light–evidence that truly moves the chronological bounds of an era or movement. One such exception is Susan D. Carle‘s excellent new book Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915 (Oxford UP, 2013). I will only speak for myself, but I always considered the formation of the NAACP in 1909 to be the beginning of the organized, national effort to fight discrimination against African Americans. Having read Susan’s book, I now know that I was wrong. She ably tells the stories of a number of national organizations that pursued the agenda of the NAACP (and, for that matter, the Urban League) decades before the NAACP (and the Urban League) was founded. It would, I think, be a mistake to see Carle’s book as a “pre-history” of the organized struggle for racial justice; rather, it is more appropriate to see it as a book about the true beginning of that struggle. Listen in to our fascinating discussion.