National Equal Rights League

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The National Equal Rights League (NERL) is the oldest nationwide human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of black people in the United States. Its origins can be traced back to the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies in 1833.

Organizational history[edit]


As a result of the 1833 British West Indies emancipation, a large celebration of pro-abolitionist, free black men was held in Buffalo, New York. During this celebration, planning began for the creation of a wholly black organization to fight for the human rights for blacks in the United States.

Ten years later, in 1843, after the establishment of several state conventions, the first National Convention of Colored Men of America was held in Buffalo with several hundred delegates, free black men and escaped slaves, from throughout the U.S.

At this convention, the Chairman Samuel H. Davis defined their purpose:

"... we wish to secure for ourselves, in common with other citizens, the privilege of seeking our own happiness in any part of the country we choose ... unconstitutionally denied us in part of this union. We wish also to secure the elective franchise in those states where it is denied us - where are rights are legislated away, and our voice is neither heard nor regarded. We also wish to secure, for our children especially, the benefits of education, which in several States are entirely denied to us, and in others, are enjoyed only in name. These, and many other things, of which we justly complain, bear most heavily upon us as a people; and it is our right and our duty to seek for redress, in that way which will lead most likely the desired end." [1]

Several resolutions were passed endorsing the abolition of slavery, legal equality regardless of color or race, and black manhood suffrage. The members also wrote their own constitution and founded the National Equal Rights League (NERL), and its subsidiary state Equal Rights Leagues.

The NERL used the susu economics practices of its many West Indies immigrant members to fund its activities, which included the establishment of self-sufficient black communities (Black Wall Streets) throughout the U.S.

The work of the membership of the NERL created other such organizations as the National Negro Business League, the National Negro Bar Association, and the Pan-African Conference.

The NERL also had significant international influence as well. Its leadership was received by heads of state and they even had a delegate attend the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

The two most well known leaders of the NERL were John Mercer Langston and William Monroe Trotter. Some notable members included Madam C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (who founded its Anti-Lynching Bureau), Mary Church Terrell, Marcus Garvey, Octavius V. Catto, Charles Lewis Reason, John Rock, William Cooper Nell, and Frederick Douglass.

Formation of a rival organization[edit]

In 1905, NERL leaders met with other black leaders, in what is now known as the Niagara Movement, to discuss the growing debate between followers of Booker T. Washington and followers of W. E. B. Du Bois, and to develop a new strategy for dealing with race relations at the turn of the 20th century. At this meeting, Du Bois unsuccessfully tried to convince the NERL members present, Trotter and Wells-Barnett, that whites should be permitted to help revitalize the NERL.

With this disagreement, Du Bois left to create NERL's rival organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The rivalry between the two organizations persisted for almost three decades before the NERL was eventually disbanded.

One of the major skirmishes in this rivalry was during the aftermath of the Elaine Race Riot of 1919.


  1. ^ Buffalo Evening News, April 3, 1973, page B3.