The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Long Struggle for Civil Rights in the United States

"A man was lynched yesterday" flag, NAACP headquarters, 69 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 1936
Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (2015647092)

In 2009 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People celebrated its 100th anniversary.  In the article below historian Susan Bragg provides a brief introduction to the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest continually active civil rights organization in the United States.

Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has provided critical institutional support and leadership in the fight against racial inequalities in America.  Although sometimes criticized as too moderate or bureaucratic in nature, the NAACP’s repeated legal campaigns eventually overturned the infamous 1896 Supreme Court ruling sanctioning segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson) and is still a significant political organization to this day.

A violent mob attack on black residents of Springfield, Illinois in 1908 galvanized a handful of progressive white social activists to reach out to African American leaders.  Socialist William English Walling, settlement house worker Mary White Ovington, Jewish social worker Henry Moskowitz, and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, circulated “The Call” to protest the rise of racial violence and discrimination around the nation.  They were joined in this venture by black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois.  Long a critic of the “social uplift” agenda advocated by black educator Booker T. Washington, Du Bois saw the NAACP as both an opportunity to re-invigorate demands for full black civil rights and an important reminder of the national dimensions of Jim Crow.  After a series of meetings held in 1909 and 1910, the NAACP emerged as an organization dedicated to protesting racial inequality in American public life.

Over the course of the 20th century, the NAACP explicitly promoted itself as a model of interracial exchange, while also implicitly encouraging activism by both men and women.  Initially, formal national leadership positions in the NAACP were largely held by white progressives based in New York City but W. E. B. Du Bois served as editor of the organization’s main source of publicity, The Crisis.  This important journal circulated news of civil rights activism and promoted black art, writing, and poetry with the vision of challenging mainstream stereotypes of African Americans.

African Americans made up the majority of participants of the many local NAACP chapters that spread slowly throughout the nation and by the era of World War I, a new cadre of black male leaders such as James Weldon Johnson and Walter White emerged as national leaders of the organization.  At the same time, the organization regularly relied upon black women’s participation, particularly at the branch level.  While prominent anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett reported feeling dismissed by both black male leaders and white female progressives associated with the organization, many women associated with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) supported the goals of the NAACP through fund raising activities and membership drives.  By the 1930s, women like Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Ella Baker emerged as important staff workers in the national organization of the NAACP.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenged racial inequalities largely by publicity and targeted legal challenges, a program initially dictated by the fact that the majority of African Americans lived in the South where direct protest against Jim Crow was dangerous.  Such tactics sometimes discouraged grass-roots activism by prioritizing the leadership role of the national staff, yet the NAACP proved successful in winning some important early battles such as overturning the “grandfather clause” (Guinn v. the United States, 1915) and residential segregation ordinances (Buchanan v. Warley, 1917).

The organization also served as an important voice against lynching throughout the 20th century, particularly by lobbying for anti-lynching bills in the 1920s and 1930s.  Despite the failure of these legislative efforts, early court victories and increasing national publicity reinforced the NAACP’s commitment to forcing change through political pressure and legal campaigns.  Most prominently, a series of NAACP-funded challenges to education inequalities eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court ruling overturning de jure segregation.

The NAACP’s emphasis on civil rights agendas supported its larger cultural vision of American pluralism, but over the years the organization has been repeatedly criticized as narrow or even elitist.  While the Crisis emerged as a critical source of black creative expression during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) gained more members because of its grass roots emphasis on black unity and community development.  In the 1930s, the NAACP created influential relationships with northern Democrats through its anti-lynching efforts even as it struggled to assert a strong vision of economic justice.  The organization finally built a mass movement during the years of World War II by pressing the “Double V campaign” to integrate the defense industries, partnering with the CIO and other labor unions, and extending branches into the South.

These developments, in combination with the NAACP’s continuing legal campaigns against segregation, provided critical support for the modern Civil Rights movement.  At the same time, the NAACP has struggled to both defend itself against criticism from outside pressures and to translate legal victories into broader social change.  Defenders of Jim Crow denounced the NAACP as a “radical” organization and sought to restrict its development in southern states.  Yet, by the 1960s, the organization also found itself pressured by youth-led protests that rejected the mediating role of the NAACP in favor of direct activism and grass-roots interests.  These tensions reflected the larger difficulty of defining the NAACP’s social justice agenda in the years after Brown v. Board.

While the NAACP continues to identify and protest various forms of racial inequality in America, finding resolutions to de facto forms of racial discrimination have proven an ongoing challenge.  Ultimately, the NAACP remains a powerful watchdog organization, promoting African American opportunity as a gauge of American democratic health.