In 1908, Springfield, Illinois was the site of the first race riot in the North in over fifty years. In mid-August, a report was made that a white woman had been assaulted by a Black man. A few hours later, there was a report of a second assault (please be mindful that such accusations are often not true). A lynch mob formed and marched to the jail to take the two men arrested on suspicion. The mob failed in their mission as the two men had been moved to an unspecified location. The mob then proceeded to turn their racist aggression on all the Black folks of Springfield. By the time the violence ended, eight Black people were dead. The property damage—the mob targeted Black people’s homes and businesses, as well as businesses that served Black customers—totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and somewhere around two-thousand Black people were driven away from the city. The riot occurred north of the Mason-Dixon line and in the city where President Lincoln was laid to rest. It garnered national attention and was a part of the impetus for creating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Spurred on by the race riot in Springfield and the ongoing campaign of lynching across the nation, a small group of liberal, white activists met to discuss the framework of organizing for civil rights. They sent out solicitations, asking prominent activists to meet in New York on February 12, 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Though the first large meeting wouldn’t take place for a few more months and though it took a year to settle on a name and to establish organizational leadership, this marks the founding of the NAACP. Among those in attendance for the birth of the oldest civil rights organization were: W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, Oswald Villard, and William English Walling.
Taking direction from Du Bois’ Niagara Movement and Villard’s idea for an organization for the advancement of Black folks, the NAACP established as its mission: “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, in his role as Director of Publicity and Research, was the primary force behind the organization’s campaigns of education and agitation. Du Bois established The Crisis, the NAACP’s house publication, in 1910. In its pages, he outlined his philosophical arguments for equity for all people, used his acerbic sarcasm to point out to white readers the injustices endured by Black people, and worked to bolster the pride of Black Americans by showcasing the work of Black artists and writers.
The primary focus of the NAACP in its early years was on dismantling Jim Crow through the court system and, as evidenced by cases like Guinn v. the United States, was often successful. In the intervening period between World Wars I and II, efforts were focused, in addition to pursuing legal action against Jim Crow laws, on fighting the lynching of Black folks. A women’s organization was founded under the sponsorship of the NAACP, the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, with the explicit goal of showing political (and financial) unity among women against lynching. Though, thanks to voting blocs of Southern Democrats (and, later, Dixiecrats), none would be signed into law, the NAACP backed several legislative attempts to make lynching a punishable crime. Finding no legislative remedy, the NCAAP would continue visibly reminding the nation of the cruel extra-judicial murders by flying a banner every time a lynching was reported.
Because of its continuing success in challenging Jim Crow laws in court, the NAACP became a leading organization in the fight for desegregation. One of the first desegregation lawsuits supported by the NAACP was a 1935 case argued by Thurgood Marshall; in Murray v. Pearson, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision that the segregation of the University of Maryland School of Law was unconstitutional. Such challenges, spearheaded by the NAACP’s legal team, continued through to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On the heels of that victory, the NAACP pushed for complete desegregation of the South, leading to actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the picketing of the Texas State Fair.
The state of Alabama retaliated against the NAACP, compelling the organization to either divulge a list of members or cease operating in the state. Though the Supreme Court would eventually rule against the state’s actions, the time the NAACP couldn’t operate in Alabama cost the organization some of its footing in the Civil Rights Movement. Some of its prominence returned in the 1960s as the NAACP push for civil rights legislation. In the following decades, the NAACP experienced quite a bit of turbulence and controversy, as well as changes in leadership.
In recent years, as racism regains a foothold in public life and as we’ve seen attacks on what were thought of as guaranteed protections, like the invalidation of the core tenets of the Voting Rights Act, the NAACP is experiencing a resurgence. Of particular note—and it’s not just that I’m biased because I live here or because I participate in some of these direct actions—is the increasing prominence of the North Carolina NAACP in progressive organizing. The HKonJ (Historic Thousands on Jones Street) coalition is led by the North Carolina NAACP. The Moral Monday movement is an outgrowth of the HKonJ People’s Assembly coalition. Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, the North Carolina NAACP is arguably one of the most visible branches of the NAACP in the nation.
As social safety nets are increasingly threatened, leaders like Rev. Barber and organizations like the NAACP that have already built coalitions and can take direct action to help vulnerable people are and will be vital. So, let’s celebrate all that the NAACP has accomplished in its one hundred and eight years! Let’s also throw our efforts and resources into organizing. Like former NAACP president Ben Jealous said, “I often tell people I don’t care whether they join the NAACP or some other group, but you better join something. Because the reality is in a democracy there are only two types of power; there’s organized people and organized money and organized money only wins when people aren’t organized.”