June 12, 1917 (96 Years Ago) - Founding Meeting of Hubert Harrison’s Liberty League, First Organization of the Militant “New Negro Movement”
On June 12, 1917, a rally at Harlem’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 52-60 W. 132nd Street off Lenox Avenue, drew 2,000 people to the founding meeting of Hubert Harrison’s “Liberty League,” the first organization of the militant “New Negro Movement.” The audience rose in support as Harrison demanded “that Congress make lynching a Federal crime,” urged support of resolutions calling for enforcement of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments (outlawing slavery, establishing national citizenship and equal protection, and guaranteeing the right to vote), and called for democracy for “Negro-Americans.”
Scheduled speakers at the event included Harrison, the young activist Chandler Owen, Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 40th St.), and other prominent ministers and laymen. Other speakers included a young lawyer, James C. Thomas, Jr. who, later in the year, would run unsuccessfully for Alderman in Manhattan’s 26th district, and Marcus Garvey, a relatively unknown former printer from Jamaica, who had spent some time in Costa Rica, England, and touring the United States.
Harrison made clear that this “New Negro Movement” was “a breaking away of the Negro masses from the grip of old-time leaders—none of whom was represented.”
The Liberty League, in June 1917, also adopted a tricolor flag. Because of the “Negro’s” “dual relationship to our own and other peoples,” explained Harrison, “[we] adopted as our emblem the three colors, black brown and yellow, in perpendicular stripes.” These colors were chosen because the “black, brown and yellow, [were] symbolic of the three colors of the Negro race in America.” They were also, he suggested, symbolic of people of color world-wide. It was from this black, brown, and yellow tri-color that Marcus Garvey would later, according to Harrison, draw the idea for the red, black, and green tri-color racial flag which the UNIA would popularize, and which later would become identified as Black liberation colors.
While the June 12 meeting at Bethel Church formally founded the Liberty League, it was a July 4, 1917, rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 138th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, which drew national attention to the organization and saw the first edition of the Hubert Harrison-edited newspaper “The Voice: A Newspaper for the New Negro.”
Information on the founding of the Liberty League and “The Voice” and on the Declaration, Petition, and Resolutions of the Liberty League can be found here.