Today is not only the birthday of the Great Emancipator, but also of the anniversary of the founding of America’s oldest Civil Rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909.
The date, coinciding with the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, was not coincidental. It was largely a response to the 1908 race riots in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois.
In 1905 a group of black intellectuals led by W.E.B Dubois, the Harvard historian had met in Fort Erie, Ontario on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls—they could not meet in American hotels because were segregated and most would not rent to Blacks—to discuss how to counter the alarming advance of Jim Crow laws across the old Confederacy and most border states. They agreed that there was a need for a single national organization to speak for the interests of “colored people.”
The result was a loose organization called the Niagara Movement. The organization was beset by financial burdens, leadership squabbles, and difficulty in getting the press to pay attention to the complaints of Negros.
Dubois realized that to be effective, he would have to recruit White liberals, with their personal wealth and access to the press. In 1908 Mary White Ovington, the descendent of a family of abolitionists and prominent Unitarian lay woman and social activist, Dr. Henry Moscowitz, Oswald Garrison Villard, William English Walling joined the movement.
After the Springfield riots erupted Ovington was the prime mover after when she realized the need for a stronger organization. Along with Walling, a muckraking journalist, and Moscowitz, a leader of the largely ethnic Jewish Society for Ethical Culture she issued a call to form a new organization which was sent out to over 60 leading liberals.
A call to a founding Convention was issued on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1909. A formal founding convention was finally held in a New York Settlement house in May. Dubois chaired.
The Black leadership of the Niagara Movement although appreciative of the White support, was leery of joining an organization so dominated by whites. Many refused to attend the founding convention of the new organization. But Dubois and Chicago anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Welles, and others threw their support fully behind the new group known as the National Negro Committee.
At the second convention of the Committee in May 1910, the name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was selected to replace The Negro Committee. Dubois was the only Black elected to the Executive Committee as Director of Publicity and Research.
The first President was Moorfield Storey, a White Constitutional lawyer and former President of the American Bar Association. He was a Democrat and classical liberal. William English Walling, a Socialist and labor reformer who had investigated the Springfield Riots was named Chair of the Executive Committee. For balance the largely ceremonial job of Treasurer went to John E. Milholland, a so-called Lincoln Republican and leading Presbyterian layman. Most of the duties ordinarily assigned to the Treasurer were given to a Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard, a journalist who was a veteran of the anti-imperialist movement against the Spanish American and Philippine Wars. Rounding out the original officers was Executive Secretary Frances Blascoe charged with day to day administration.
A headquarters was established in New York City and the NAACP received its charter in 1911 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 same year Dubois launched The Crisis as the official organ of the NAACP. Under his leadership it became the leading intellectual journal of Black life
Ovington remained active, especially as a fundraiser. Other early active members included Jane Adams, Clarence Darrow, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, John Dewy, and William Dean Howells, A great many early White activists were Jews including Jacob Schiff, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, Julius Rosenwald, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch.
Among the organization’s early battles were campaigns against increasing voter restrictions in the South, vigorously opposing the segregation of the Federal Government under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and launching a thirty year long anti-lynching campaign.
Through the years the NAACP often filed law suits to affirm civil rights. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund raised the money to employ lawyers like Thurgood Marshall who won the famous Brown v. the Board of Education case outlawing public school segregation.
In the Fifties it supported, but also was sometimes at odds with, the boot-on-the-ground style of confrontation and protest promoted by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
It took a long time for Black members to assert leadership in the integrated organization. The first Black executive secretary was writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson in 1920, and Louis T. Wright, a surgeon, was named the first black chairman of its board of directors in 1934. It did not elect a Black President until 1975.
Along with another integrated old line civil rights group, The Urban League this led to heavy criticism from Black Nationalist groups in the later 20th Century, many of whom, ironically looked to Dubois as their ideological inspiration.
Since the 1990’s the NAACP has suffered embarrassing leadership turmoil which sapped its strength and led to funding crises. Those issues seem mostly resolved and the organization has re-imagined its mission entering the current century.
Today the venerable organization may be best known to the general public for its sponsorship of the annual NAACP Image Awards launched in 1967 and broadcast annually on national TV since 1974.