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National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  (NAACP)


Introduction: In 1905, a group of 32 prominent, outspoken African Americans met to discuss the challenges facing “people of color” (a term of the time used to refer to people who do not have white skin or a Caucasian appearance) in the U.S. and possible strategies and solutions. Because hotels in the U.S. were segregated, the men convened, under the leadership of Harvard scholar W.E.B. DuBois, at a hotel situated on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. As a result, the group came to be known as the Niagara Movement. A year later, three whites joined the group: journalist William E. Walling; social worker Mary White Ovington; and Jewish social worker Henry Moskowitz.

Man Drinking From a "Colored" Water Cooler in Oklahoma City, Mid-20th Century
Man Drinking From a “Colored” Water Cooler in Oklahoma City, Mid-20th Century

The fledgling group struggled for a time with limited resources and decided to broaden its membership in order to increase its scope and effectiveness. Solicitations for support went out to more than 60 prominent Americans of the day, and a meeting date was set for February 12, 1909, intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln. While the meeting did not occur until three months later, this date is often cited as the founding date of the organization.

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois the previous summer had highlighted the urgent need for a large civil rights organization in the U.S. This event is often cited as the spark that initiated the formation of the NAACP.

May 30, 1909, the Niagara Movement conference took place at New York City’s Henry Street Settlement House, from which an organization of more than 40 individuals emerged, calling itself the National Negro Committee. DuBois played a key role in organizing the event and presided over the proceedings. Also in attendance was African American journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, co-founder of the NAACP. The organization held its second conference in May of 1910, where members chose the name the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The name was formally adopted May 30, and the NAACP incorporated a year later, in 1911. The association’s charter delineated its mission:

To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.

The conference resulted in a more viable, influential and diverse organization, where the leadership was predominantly white and heavily Jewish. In fact, at its founding, the NAACP had only one African American on its executive board, DuBois himself, and did not elect a black president until 1975. The Jewish community contributed greatly to the NAACP’s founding and continued financing. Jewish historian Howard Sachar writes in his book A History of Jews in America of how, “In 1914, Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn of Columbia University became chairman of the NAACP and recruited for its board such Jewish leaders as Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.”  Early Jewish co-founders included Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch and Wise.

DuBois continued to play a pivotal role in the organization and served as editor of the association’s magazine, The Crisis, which had a circulation of over 30,000.

The president of the NAACP from its founding to 1930 was Moorfield Storey, who was white. Storey was a long-time classical liberal and Grover Cleveland Democrat who advocated laissez faire free markets, the gold standard, and anti-imperialism. Storey consistently and aggressively championed civil rights not only for blacks but also for American Indians and immigrants (he opposed immigration restriction).

Fighting Jim Crow: In its early years, the NAACP concentrated on using the courts to overturn the Jim Crow statutes that legalized racial discrimination. In 1913, the NAACP organized opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s introduction of racial segregation into federal government policy.  By 1914, the group had 6,000 members and 50 branches, and was influential in winning the right of African-Americans to serve as officers in World War I. Six hundred African-American officers were commissioned and 700,000 registered for the draft. The following year the NAACP organized a nationwide protest against D.W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation, a film that glamorized the Ku Klux Klan.

The NAACP began playing a leading role in lawsuits targeting racial segregation and other denials of civil rights early in its history. It played a significant part in the challenge to Oklahoma’s discriminatory “grandfather” rule that disenfranchised many black citizens. It persuaded the United States Supreme Court to rule in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917 that states and local governments cannot officially segregate African Americans into separate residential districts. The Court’s opinion reflected the jurisprudence of property rights and freedom of contract as embodied in the earlier precedent it established in Lochner v. New York.

In 1916, when the NAACP was just seven years old, chairman Joel Spingarn invited James Weldon Johnson to serve as field secretary. Johnson was a former U.S. consul to Venezuela and a noted scholar and columnist. Within four years, Johnson was instrumental in increasing the NAACP’s membership from 9,000 to almost 90,000. In 1920, Johnson was elected head of the organization. Over the next ten years under his leadership, the NAACP would escalate its lobbying and litigation efforts, becoming internationally known for its advocacy of equal rights and equal protection for the “American Negro”.

The NAACP devoted much of its energy between the First and Second World Wars to fighting the lynching of blacks throughout the United States. The organization sent Walter F. White to Phillips County, Arkansas, in October, 1919, to investigate the Elaine Race Riot in which more than two hundred black tenant farmers were killed by roving white vigilantes and federal troops after a deputy sheriff’s attack on a union meeting of sharecroppers left one white man dead. The NAACP organized the appeals for the twelve men sentenced to death a month later — based on the fact of the testimony used in their convictions having been obtained by beatings and electric shocks — and obtained a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision in Moore v. Dempsey 261 U.S. 86 (1923) that significantly expanded the federal courts’ oversight of the states’ criminal justice systems in the years to come.

The NAACP also spent more than a decade seeking federal legislation barring lynching. The organization regularly displayed a black flag stating “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” from the window of its offices in New York to mark each outrage.

The NAACP led the successful fight, in alliance with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to prevent the nomination of John Johnston Parker to the Supreme Court based on his support for denial of the right to vote to blacks and his anti-labor rulings. It organized support for the Scottsboro Boys, although the NAACP lost most of the internecine battles with the Communist Party and the International Labor Defense over the control of those cases and the strategy to be pursued. The organization also brought litigation to challenge the “white primary” system in the South.

Desegregation: The NAACP’s Legal department, headed by Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, undertook a campaign spanning several decades to bring about the reversal of the separate but equal doctrine announced by the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Beginning by challenging segregation in state professional schools, then attacking Jim Crow at the college level, the campaign culminated in a unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that held that state-sponsored segregation of elementary schools was unconstitutional.

Bolstered by that victory, the NAACP pushed for full desegregation throughout the South. Starting on December 5, 1955, NAACP activists, including E.D. Nixon, its local president, and Rosa Parks, who had served as the chapter’s Secretary, helped organize a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation on the city’s buses when two-thirds of the riders were black. The boycott lasted 381 days.

The State of Alabama responded by effectively barring the NAACP from operating within its borders for its refusal to divulge a list of its members, out of fear that they would be fired or face violent retaliation for their activities. While the Supreme Court eventually overturned the decision in NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958) the NAACP lost its leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement during those years to organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that relied on direct action and mass mobilization, rather than litigation and legislation to advance the rights of African-Americans. Roy Wilkins, its president at that time, clashed repeatedly with Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders over questions of strategy and prestige within the movement.

At the same time, the NAACP used the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown to press for desegregation of schools and public facilities throughout the country. Daisy Bates, president of its Arkansas state chapter, spearheaded the campaign by the Little Rock Nine to integrate the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

By the mid-1960s, the NAACP had regained some of its preeminence in the Civil Rights Movement by pressing for civil rights legislation. The March on Washington DC for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963. Congress passed a civil rights bill aimed at ending racial discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations in 1964, followed by a voting rights act in 1965.

After Kivie Kaplan died in 1975, Benjamin Hooks, a lawyer and clergyman, was elected the NAACP’s executive director in 1977.

Source: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, July 12, 2006

4 Replies to “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”

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