History of the NAACP
Founded February 12, 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s foremost, largest, and most widely recognized civil rights organization. Its more than half-million members and supporters throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, leading grassroots campaigns for equal opportunity and conducting voter mobilization.
Yet the real story of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization lies in the hearts and minds of all those who refused to stand idly while race prejudice tarnished our nation. From bold investigations of mob brutality, protests of mass murders, segregation and discrimination, to testimony before congressional committees on the vicious tactics used to bar African Americans from the ballot box, it was the talent and tenacity of NAACP members that saved lives and made change.
While much of NAACP history is chronicled in books, articles, pamphlets, and magazines, the true movement lies in the faces of the multiracial, multi-generational army of ordinary men and women who united to awaken the consciousness of a people and a nation. With such a powerful membership base, all 2,200 chapters of the Association continue to persevere. Together, the NAACP will remain vigilant in its mission until the promise of America is made real for all Americans.
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FOUNDING GROUP: IN 1908, A DEADLY RACE RIOT ROCKED THE NATION
In 1908, a deadly race riot rocked the city of Springfield, Illinois, resting place of President Abraham Lincoln. The Springfield riot was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP. A group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard (both descendants of famous abolitionists), William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moskowitz called a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.
The NAACP aimed to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, promising an end to slavery, equal protection of the law, and universal adult male suffrage. The NAACP’s mission was to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of the U.S. and eliminate prejudice, seeking to remove all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes.
The NAACP established its national office in New York City in 1910 and named a board of directors and a president, Moorefield Storey, a white constitutional lawyer and former American Bar Association president. Other early members included Joel and Arthur Spingarn, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Inez Mulholland, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Lillian Wald, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard and Walter Sachs. W.E.B. DuBois, the only African American among the organization’s original executives, was made director of publications and research and established the official journal of the NAACP, The Crisis.
THE CRISIS: FOUNDED BY W.E.B. DUBOIS FOUNDED THE CRISIS IN 1910
W.E.B. DuBois founded The Crisis, originally subtitled ” A Record of the Darker Races”, in 1910. The Crisis was a groundbreaking outlet for discussing critical issues and sharing the intellectual and artistic work of people of color. In its first decade, The Crisis focused on vital issues like lynching and World War I.
DuBois also published a children’s edition, The Brownies’ Book, the first periodical exclusively for black youth in American history.
The Crisis became a voice of the Harlem Renaissance, as DuBois published works by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and other famous African American literary figures. In 1928, DuBois founded Krigwa Players (Crisis Guild of Writers and Artists) to foster theater production about, by, for, and near the African American community.
Now published quarterly, The Crisis remains the official NAACP publication and articulates the human rights struggle for people of color. A respected journal of thought, opinion and analysis, The Crisis explores past and present issues concerning race and its impact on educational, economic, political, social, moral and ethical issues.
A PERIOD OF GROWTH: 1913 - 1950
By 1913, with strong local organizing, the NAACP established branch offices in Boston; Baltimore; Kansas City and St. Louis, MO; Washington, D.C. and Detroit. Membership grew from around 9,000 in 1917 to around 90,000 in 1919, with more than 300 local branches.
Joel Spingarn, professor of literature and an NAACP founder, formulated much of the strategy fostering the organization’s growth. NAACP Board chairman in 1915, he served as president from 1929-1939. Writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson became the association’s first black executive secretary in1920, and Louis T. Wright, a surgeon, was the first black board chairman in 1934. A series of early court battles helped establish the NAACP’s importance as a legal advocate, harnessing the power of publicity through its 1915 battle against D.W. Griffith’s inflammatory “Birth of a Nation,” a motion picture that demeaned African Americans and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Among NAACP top priorities was eradicating lynching. Throughout its 30-year campaign, the NAACP waged legislative battles, gathered and published crucial statistics, organized mass protests, and produced artistic material to bring an end to the violence.
Despite repeated opportunities, Congress never passed any anti-lynching legislation. Many credit the NAACP report ” Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919″ with drastically decreasing the incidence of lynching.
In 1930, Walter F. White succeeded Johnson as Executive Secretary. A very fair-skinned African American, White had been able to infiltrate white groups to produce significant research on lynching. White was also successful in his block of segregationist Judge John J. Parker’s nomination by President Hoover to the U.S. Supreme Court.
White presided over the NAACP ‘s most productive period of legal advocacy. In 1930 NAACP ‘s Margold Report became the basis for successful reversal of the separate-but-equal doctrine that had governed public facilities since 1896. In 1935, White recruited Howard University law school dean Charles H. Houston as NAACP chief counsel. His strategy on school-segregation cases paved the way for his protege Thurgood Marshall to prevail in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s was disproportionately disastrous for African Americans; the NAACP began to focus on economic justice. After years of tension with white labor unions, NAACP cooperated with the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations in an effort to win jobs for black Americans. White, a friend and advisor to NAACP national board member Eleanor Roosevelt, met with her often, attempting to convince President Roosevelt to outlaw job discrimination in the armed forces, defense, and New Deal agencies.
Roosevelt ultimately agreed to open thousands of jobs to black workers when labor leader A. Philip Randolph, collaborating with NAACP, threatened a 1941 national March on Washington. Roosevelt also set up a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to ensure compliance. The NAACP recorded roughly 600,000 members by 1946, continuing to act as a legislative and legal advocate, pushing for a federal anti-lynching law and an end to state-mandated segregation.
CIVIL RIGHTS ERA: 1950 - 1975
By 1954 the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational fund, headed by Marshall, secured the last of these goals through Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregation in public schools. NAACP ‘s Washington, D.C. bureau lobbyist, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. advanced integration of the armed forces in 1948, passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964, and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite these victories, implementation of civil rights was slow, painful and often violent. The unsolved 1951 murder of Florida NAACP field secretary Harry T. Moore and his wife, whose home was bombed on Christmas night, was one of many crimes of retribution against NAACP staff and members. In 1962, the home of Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers and his wife Myrlie was firebombed. Later Medgar was assassinated by a sniper in front of their residence. Violence also met black children attempting to enter previously segregated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and other southern cities.
Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. felt that direct action was needed to reach NAACP ‘s goals. Working within the system, NAACP provided legal representation and aid to members of protest groups over a sustained period of time, such as posting bail for hundreds of Freedom Riders in the ’60’s who had traveled south to register black voters and challenge Jim Crow policies.
Roy Wilkins had succeeded Walter White as secretary in 1955; NAACP collaborated with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and others to plan the historic 1963 March on Washington. The following year, NAACP accomplished an insurmountable task: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Assisting the NAACP throughout the years were many celebrities, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson, and Harry Belafonte. NAACP director of branches, Ella Baker, stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization.
Daisy Bates served as NAACP board member, Arkansas state conference president and advisor to the Little Rick Nine. Kivie Kaplan, Boston businessman and philanthropist was NAACP president from 1966 to 1975, personally leading nationwide Life Membership efforts and fighting to keep African Americans away from illegal drugs.
CLOSE OF FIRST CENTURY
De facto racial segregation remained, job discrimination lingered and crime increased as NAACP advocacy remained critical for African Americans.
In 1977, Wilkins retired, replaced by Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks. During his fifteen-year term, Dr. Hooks implemented many NAACP programs that continue today, including Women in the NAACP and NAACP ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) competitions. His term also included the Bakke case (1978), in which a California court outlawed several aspects of affirmative action.
In 1993, the NAACP found a leader who could replace the prolific Dr. Hooks as executive director/CEO. That leader was Benjamin F. Chavis (now Chavis Muhammad).
In 1995, Myrlie Evers-Williams (widow of Medgar Evers) became the third woman to chair the NAACP, succeeded in 1998 by Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond. In 1996, the National Board of Directors selected former congressman and Congressional Black Caucus leader Kweisi Mfume for president/ CEO. In doing so, the board eliminated the elected office of president.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM
The NAACP, in 2000, launched a massive get-out-the-vote campaign, resulting in one million more African Americans casting their ballots in the 2000 presidential election than in 1996. NAACP initiatives for the 21st century are: economic sustainability, education, health, public safety and criminal justice, voting rights and political representation, and expanding youth and young adult engagement.
Recent leaders have included Bruce S. Gordon, Benjamin Todd Jealous, Dennis Courtland Hayes, and Cornell William Brooks. Derrick Johnson presently serves as President/CEO, and Leon W. Russell is chairman of the National Board of Directors.