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ARTHUR B. SPINGARN: Civil Rights Patriarch
By Henry Lee Moon

Arthur B. Spingarn, a patriarch of the civil rights movemnt [movement], is dead at 93. Death came to him gently in the early morning of last December 1, magically prolonging his deep and peaceful sleep into the far reaches of eternity. His had been a rich and rewarding life full of meaning to himself and to those associated with him in the long, bitter struggle to reclaim for black Americans the full rights and privileges of citizenship won for these once-enslaved people in a bloody civil war.

Born in 1878 in New York City, a year after consummation of the Hayes-Tilden deal, he grew into maturity during the period described by his friend, W.E.B. DuBois, as a time "when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars." It was the period of the great betrayal of the promised emancipation and the subversion of the only experiment in democratic government in the states of the late Confederacy. At the time of his birth, the treacherous erosion of Reconstruction was already well under way presaging the resurgence of the political structure of the ante-bellum days.

Meanwhile the poisonous racism of the Deep South began to take root elsewhere in the country, including Mr. Spingarn's native New York City. Despite state laws to the contrary, accommodations in hotels, restaurants, theatres and other facilities were widely denied to black citizens in many northern communities. The major newspapers in the North became increasingly indifferent, when not overtly hostile, to the plight of the freedmen and their children. The Abolitionist spirit waned. Church leaders and others who had been incensed by the horrors of slavery came to tolerate peonage, lynching, disenfranchisement and segregation as they concentrated, in Du Bois' words, their "energies on Dollars."

The Spingarn brothers, Colonel Joel E. and Arthur, would have none of this. Jews by birth, heirs to an ancient tradition of individual freedom, they were, in spirit, twentieth century Abolitionists geared to carry on the Fight for Freedom which many of their white Christian peers were abandoning as the glittering spoils of the nation's expanding capitalism became ever more enticing. It was not that the Spingarns rejected the fruits of this expansion of capitalism as an economic system (their father was a successful tobacco importer and merchant); it was that they more deeply cherished other values, not measurable in the coin of the realm. Theirs was a faith and a conviction deeply inbedded in the Judaeo-Christian commitment to the universal brotherhood of all mankind without distinction as to race, color, faith or national origin. 

After Col. Spingarn's death in 1939, Arthur was chosen to succeed his brother as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the inter-racial civil rights organization founded in response to a call issued on February 12, 1909, the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The historic document, signed by 60 eminent black and white men and women, called upon "all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty. 

The brothers Spingarn were ready for this call. They early joined in "the struggle for civil and political liberty," and each remained prominently in it until death, contributing generously of their resources of intellect, of talent, of energy, of inspiration and of finance. Their name became indelibly linked with the NAACP. Not since 1910 has the Association been without the assistance, inspiration and guidance of a Spingarn in an official capacity. It would be impossible to measure the contribution of this family to the civil rights movement. 

Arthur Spingarn was the advocate and activist. He was also a distinguished bibliophile and collector of fine works of art. His brother, Joel, was the scholar, and poet, the literary critic and university professor. Both were thoroughly committed to the continuing struggle to rid the nation of hideous racism. Each made memorable contributions to that effort. 


  In his eulogy at the last rites for Arthur Spingarn at Frank E. Campbell's funeral home in New York City, December 5, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court ventured the opinion that "had it not been for Arthur Spingarn we would not have an NAACP today." Certainly, in the development of the Association's legal program, Arthur Spingarn made an enormous contribution not only to the NAACP but also to the entire civil rights movement and to the nation itself.

  The well attended service also heard brief eulogies by Roy Wilkins, Dr. Buell G. Gallagher, national Board member, and Bishop Stephen G. Spottswood, chairman of the Board, who presided. Among those attending were members of the family, including the surviving brother, Sigmund; Mrs. Amy Spingarn, widow of Joel, and their children; NAACP Board and staff members; leaders of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund which Mr. Spingarn once headed; Herman Zand, his law partner and protege and other distinguished members of the bar.
  In his opening remarks, Bishop Spottswood said: "No citizen of our country has contributed more, or given a larger measure of devotion, to the ideals of constitutional democracy than Arthur Spingarn."
  Justice Marshall and Mr. Wilkins evoked fond memories of Mr. Spingarn's varied activities in earlier days of the Association. These activities endeared him to the NAACP and everyone interested in eliminating racial discrimination, the Supreme Court Justice said, adding: "There is not a Negro in this country who can but feel a kinship with Arthur Spingarn."
  As early as 1910, Mr. Wilkins asserted, Mr. Spingarn was challenging the "entrenched idea that not only black folk had no place in America but also that there was no place for white liberals. He methodically undertook the task of destroying racial segregation which cut Negroes off from their rights and all the good things of life. His efforts contributed to the overturning of public opinion which at that time largely condoned lynching."
  Then, directing a remark at today's youth, he said, "you never know the mettle of a man--or a mettle of a people until under the guidance of a man like Arthur Spingarn."
  Dr. Gallagher called the late NAACP president "the rallying center of the Association's agressive [aggressive] forward movement." Mr. Spingarn, he said, "believed in the truth and never hesitated to speak the truth as he knew it."
  In a message of condolence to Mrs. Amy Spingarn, Bishop Spottswood and NAACP President Kivie Kaplan said:             
    It was with profound regret that we 
    learned of the death of Arthur B. 
    Spingarn, our esteemed honorary president 
    of the NAACP. He was a scholar, 
    bibliophile and, above all, a 
    distinguished lawyer who spearheaded the 
    legal assault which crumbled numerous barriers 
    designed to deny Negro Americans their 
    full citizenship rights. Since 1913, 
    Arthur Spingarn served the NAACP in 
    various capacities--national Board 
    member, unpaid legal counsel, vice 
    president, chairman, National Legal 
    Committee, president, and, since 1966, 
    honorary president. He leaves a 
    distinguished record of which we are all 
    pustly [justly?]proud. His death is an 
    immeasureable loss not only to his family 
    but to the host of those who admired and 
    respected him and benefited from his 
    dedicated service for 58 years. In behalf 
    of the entire NAACP we join you in 
    mourning his passing.

  For Arthur Spingarn, as for his late brother, the struggle is over. Much, much more remains to be done before the goal of integration is fully achieved-a society in which skin color is irrelevant in the evaluation of any human being. But because of their contributions, today's struggle has taken on new dimensions and, while broader in many aspects, it is much more hopeful and receives far greater support from the white majority than in the dismal days of 1910. The goal has not yet been reached but a firm foundation has been laid, thanks in large measure to the enduring contributions of the brothers Spingarn.
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