Combining the white philanthropic support that characterized Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist organizations with the call for racial justice delivered by W. E. B. Du Bois’s militant Niagara Movement, the NAACP forged a middle road of interracial cooperation. Throughout its existence it has worked primarily through the American legal system to fulfill its goals of full suffrage and other civil rights, and an end to segregation and racial violence. Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, the influence of the NAACP has waned, and it has suffered declining membership and a series of internal scandals.
The NAACP was formed in response to the 1908 race riot in Springfield, capital of Illinois and birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln. Appalled at the violence that was committed against blacks, a group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both the descendants of abolitionists, issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, only 7 of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. Echoing the focus of Du Bois’s militant all-black Niagara Movement, the NAACP’s stated goal was to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which promised an end to slavery, the equal protection of the law, and universal adult male suffrage, respectively.
The NAACP established its national office in New York City and named a board of directors as well as a president, Moorfield Storey, a white constitutional lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association. The only African American among the organization’s executives, Du Bois was made director of publications and research and in 1910 he established the official journal of the NAACP, The Crisis. With a strong emphasis on local organizing, by 1913 the NAACP had established branch offices in such cities as Boston, Massachusetts; Kansas City, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; Detroit, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri.
A series of early court battles, including a victory against a discriminatory Oklahoma law that regulated voting by means of a grandfather clause (Guinn v. United States, 1910), helped establish the NAACP’s importance as a legal advocate, a role it would play with overwhelming success. The fledgling organization also learned to harness the power of publicity through its 1915 battle against D. W. Griffith’s inflammatory Birth of a Nation, a motion picture that perpetuated demeaning stereotypes of African Americans and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Its membership grew rapidly, from around 9,000 in 1917 to around 90,000 in 1919, with more than 300 local branches. The writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson became the association’s first black secretary in 1920, and Louis T. Wright, a surgeon, was named the first black chairman of its board of directors in 1934; neither position was ever again held by a white person. Meanwhile, The Crisis became a voice of the Harlem Renaissance, as Du Bois published works by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and other African American literary figures.
Throughout the 1920s the fight against lynching was among the association’s top priorities. After early worries about its constitutionality, the NAACP strongly supported the federal Dyer Bill, which would have punished those who participated in or failed to prosecute lynch mobs. Though the U.S. Congress never passed the bill, or any other antilynching legislation, many credit the resulting public debate—fueled by the NAACP’s report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919—with drastically decreasing the incidence of lynching.
Johnson stepped down as secretary in 1930 and was succeeded by Walter F. White. White was instrumental not only in his research on lynching (in part because, as a very fair-skinned African American, he had been able to infiltrate white groups), but also in his successful block of segregationist Judge John J. Parker’s nomination by President Herbert Hoover to the Supreme Court of the United States. Though some historians blame Du Bois’s 1934 resignation from The Crisis on White, the new secretary presided over the NAACP’s most productive period of legal advocacy. In 1930 the association commissioned the Margold Report, which became the basis for its successful reversal of the separate-but-equal doctrine that had governed public facilities since 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1935 White recruited Charles H. Houston as NAACP chief counsel. Houston was the Howard University law school dean whose strategy on school-segregation cases paved the way for his protégé Thurgood Marshall to prevail in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that overturned Plessy.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was disproportionately disastrous for African Americans, the NAACP began to focus on economic justice. After years of tension with white labor unions, the association cooperated with the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in an effort to win jobs for black Americans. Walter White, a friend and adviser to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was sympathetic to civil rights, met with her often in attempts to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to outlaw job discrimination in the armed forces, defense industries (which were booming in anticipation of U.S. entry into World War II), and the agencies spawned by Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Though not initially successful, Roosevelt agreed to open thousands of jobs to black workers when the NAACP supported labor leader A. Philip Randolph and his March on Washington movement in 1941. Roosevelt also agreed to set up a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to ensure compliance.
Throughout the 1940s the NAACP saw enormous growth in its membership, claiming nearly 500,000 members by 1946. It continued to act as a legislative and legal advocate, pushing (albeit unsuccessfully) for a federal antilynching law and for an end to state-mandated segregation. By the 1950s the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, headed by Marshall, secured the last of these goals through Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed segregation in public schools. The NAACP’s Washington, D.C., bureau, led by lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., helped advance not only integration of the armed forces in 1948 but also passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964, and 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite such dramatic courtroom and congressional victories, the implementation of civil rights was a slow, painful, and sometimes violent process. The unsolved 1951 murder of Harry T. Moore, an NAACP field secretary in Florida whose home was bombed on Christmas night, was just one of many crimes of retribution against the NAACP and its staff and members during the 1950s. Violence also met black children attempting to enter previously segregated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and other southern cities, and throughout the South many African Americans were still denied the right to register and vote.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s echoed the NAACP’s moderate, integrationist goals, but leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), felt that direct action was needed to obtain them. Though the NAACP was opposed to extralegal popular actions, many of its members, such as Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers, participated in nonviolent demonstrations such as sit-ins to protest the persistence of Jim Crow segregation throughout the South. Although it was criticized for working exclusively within the system by pursuing legislative and judicial solutions, the NAACP did provide legal representation and aid to members of more militant protest groups.
Led by Roy Wilkins, who had succeeded Walter White as secretary in 1955, the NAACP cooperated with organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in planning the 1963 March on Washington. With the passage of civil rights legislation the following year, the association had finally accomplished much of its historic legislative agenda. In the following years, the NAACP began to diversify its goals and, in the opinion of many, to lose its focus. Millions of African Americans continued to be afflicted as urban poverty and crime increased, de facto racial segregation remained, and job discrimination lingered throughout the United States. With its traditional interracial, integrationist approach, the NAACP found itself attracting fewer members as many African Americans became sympathetic to more militant, even separatist, philosophies, such as that espoused by the Black Power Movement.
Wilkins retired as executive director in 1977 and was replaced by Benjamin L. Hooks, whose tenure included the Bakke case (1978), in which a California court outlawed several aspects of affirmative action. At around the same time tensions between the executive director and the board of directors, tensions that had existed since the association’s founding, escalated into open hostility that threatened to weaken the organization. With the 1993 selection of Benjamin F. Chavis (now Chavis Muhammad) as director, more controversies arose. In an attempt to take the NAACP in new directions, Chavis offended many liberals by reaching out to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After using NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, Chavis was forced to resign in 1995 and subsequently joined the Nation of Islam.
At the end of the 20th century, the NAACP focused on economic development and educational programs for youths, while also continuing its role as legal advocate for civil rights issues. Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, is president and chief executive officer, and Julian Bond is chairman of the board. The organization currently has more than 500,000 members.