Founded in Syracuse, New York in 1864, the National Equal Rights League (NERL) promoted full and immediate citizenship for African Americans. Created during the Civil War, the League based its call for full citizenship as compensation for military service in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. They argued that the sacrifices of African Americans on the battlefield entitled all black males to the ballot and all black men and women to full citizenship.
The founders of the NERL included Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, and John Mercer Langston, among other prominent leaders. Although it began in New York, it quickly spread throughout the country immediately after the Civil War. Active local branches grew in Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, and especially North Carolina.
The NERL quickly became associated with Republican politics at the local and national level. Although African American men were little more than 2% of the Northern population in 1870, they nonetheless worked toward full civil rights. In 1866, for example, the Pennsylvania League successfully brought lawsuits to end streetcar segregation. Their success led to similar NERL-inspired legal action in other Northern states.
The League also recognized the importance of education in guaranteeing equal rights. At the first annual meeting of the NERL in 1865 in Cleveland, Ohio, League leaders called for integrated education but they were careful to note that such integration should not result in discrimination against African American teachers. NERL found little support for school integration even during the Reconstruction period in the South or the North. The Pennsylvania League, for example, petitioned that state’s legislature annually and unsuccessfully from 1876 to 1880 to integrate schools.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the League nearly disintegrated but in 1908 William Monroe Trotter revived interest by promoting NERL as an important vehicle for pursuing equal rights through the courts,