NAACP: Civil Rights Stalwarts

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One of the oldest organizations seeking to advance the rights of African-Americans is the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909.

Among the founding members of the NAACP, four were African-American: NAACP founders

  • W.E. B. Du Bois, the celebrated author and activist who was the first African-American to earn a doctorate
  • lawyer and former slave Archibald Grimké
  • Mary Church Terrell, a writer and educator and one of America's first African-American women to earn a college degree; she also was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women
  • editor and journalist Ida B. Wells, who was well-known in documenting lynching and other punishments employed by white Americans against African-Americans. A 1908 race riot in Springfileld, Ill., is believed to have been an impetus for the founding of the organization.
The other founding members were these:
  • activist Florency Kelly, known for her campaigns against sweatshops
  • Henry Moskowitz, well-known for his campaigns for Jewish civil rights
  • Mary White Ovington, a journalist and campaigner for women's right to vote
  • Charles Edward Russell, a well-known journalist and editor
  • New York Evening Post writer Oswald Garrison Villard, who helped publicize the group's first announcement in his newspaper and whose grandfather was famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
  • William English Walling, a labor reformer who also founded the National Woman's Trade Union League.

Some of the founding members had also been involved in the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group led by Du Bois.

The NAACP met in New York City; its first president was Moorfield Storey, a white lawyer, and Grimké was its first vice-president. A total of 60 put their names to founding documents.

The official founding date of the NAACP was Feb. 12, 1909. The mission of the organization was this:

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.
W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois took a leading role in print and publications, and he founded The Crisis, a publication featuring African-American writers that proved a powerful voice for the Harlem Renaissance and to this day remains in print.

The goals of the NAACP were to effect change through the judicial system and through peaceful protests. The organization made a habit of challenging discriminatory laws in states and at the federal level. One of the organization's early successes was challenging an Oklahoma consitutional amendment "grandather clause," which enabled illiterate white people to avoid taking a literacy test in order to register to vote; African-Americans, on the other hand, whether they could read or not, were required to take the test. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1915 ruled that such grandfather clauses were unconstitutional.

In that same year, the NAACP gained more of a national focus for its role in organizing protests against the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, which demeaned African-Americans and made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan.

The organization's strong anti-lynching focus resulted in a 10,000-strong protest in New York in 1917; it was one of the country's first mass demonstrations against racial violence, and the protest was itself silent.

The NAACP endeavored to spread its organization across the country; by the end of its decade, the organzation had 90,000 members and more than 300 branches nationwide.

Membership in and the public profile of the group continued to grow as the 20th Century progressed, thanks in large part to the influential leadership of executive secretaries James Weldon Johnson and Walter F. White.

The NAACP in 1931 offered legal representation to a group of young African-Americans who came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys; they were falsely charged with attacking two white women.

Thurgood Marshall

In the wake of continued racial discrimination during the 1940s, attorney Thurgood Marshall founded the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, to further the NAACP's aim of challenging discriminatory laws. It was Marshall himself who argued before the Supreme Court the famous Brown v. Board case that resulted in a mandate for school desegregation.

Just a year later, an Alabama local chapter secretary of the organization named Rosa Parks sparked a monthslong bus boycott in Montgomery by refusing to give up her seat. The NAACP was heavily involved in those efforts.

NAACP logo

The organization played a prominent role in subsequent lawsuits and court cases that steadily reduced the number of legal discriminations against African-Americans; that work continues to this day.

The NAACP also, led by executive secretary Roy Wilkins, played a large role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and in lobbying Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The work of the NAACP continued throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. Today, the NAACP, with its headquarters in Baltimore, has 2,200 chapters worldwide, with a membership of more than half a million.

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