110 Years: When We Fight We Win

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created after a White mob in Springfield, Ill., destroyed a Black neighborhood and lynched two African American men. A group, including renowned scholar and historian W.E.B Du Bois, said no more. And for the next 110 years, the NAACP would fight to “advance the interest of colored citizens.”

Its fight would change the nation.

The civil rights organization rallied against lynching, spoke out against the film Birth of a Nation and successfully opposed a Supreme Court nominee. It fought against bus segregation, housing segregation, school segregation — and won.

Though most associate the NAACP with the historic 1954 Brown case which ruled separate but equal schools unconstitutional, few knew that Rosa Parks was an NAACP member who investigated the 1944 rape of Recy Taylor in Alabama or that James Weldon Johnson, author of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, was an NAACP executive secretary.

The NAACP fought on behalf of Black servicemen. It dismantled Jim Crow in the courts with a team of brilliant legal minds put together by Charles Hamilton Houston. And members like Septima Clark, who created “Citizenship Schools” demonstrated the power of local leadership.

The following is just a glimpse of the NAACP’s many victories over the years, because when we fight, we win.

NAACP Established | Feb. 12, 1909

By Lisa Snowden McCray

In August 1908, a White mob gathered outside the Sangamon County Jail in Illinois wanting to lynch two Black prisoners – one was accused of killing a White man, the other of raping a White woman. The sheriff had the men escorted out of town. The mob turned its anger to the Black community and a riot ensued. Two dozen Black-owned businesses and an estimated 40 homes were destroyed during the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Two Black men were lynched, five White men died and dozens more injured.

Something had to be done.

Out of this chaos, the NAACP was born.

A group of White liberals sounded a call and a meeting of about 60 people, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, convened to form what would be the NAACP. The group’s aim: “To promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice among 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 their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law.”

The NAACP opened a national office in New York City in 1910. Moorfield Storey, a White man, was the president. Du Bois was the only Black person on the board of directors.

NAACP Challenges Birth of a Nation | 1915

By Shannon Gibney and Ronda Racha Penrice

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation is notoriously well-known for its incendiary depictions of Black people — and the NAACP did everything in its power to stop its release and challenge its fairytale narrative of the Antebellum South. In the context of early 20th century America, many Whites were only too eager to embrace a White supremacist “retelling” of the nation. African Americans worried that Birth of a Nation would encourage further racist violence already plaguing their communities.

The NAACP national secretary May Childs Nerney, who was White, felt very strongly that the fledgling organization had to take a stand. “If it goes unchallenged it will take years to overcome the harm it is doing,” she wrote of the film in a memo to NAACP leadership. Nerney feared that the country would believe the revisionist history of Thomas Dixon’s 1905 book, The Clansman, D.W. Griffith dramatized on screen.

But protesting the film proved difficult. The NAACP’s appeals to censorship boards and government officials to halt the film were largely unsuccessful at the time. Picketing theaters didn’t keep the film from becoming a blockbuster either. But all was not bleak and, in some cities, egregiously offensive scenes were cut. Kansas and Ohio even banned the film.

President Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film in the White House, later walked back some of his initial praise. In fact, bans of the film by government officials in various cities stretched into the 1930s.

NAACP membership boomed, doubling to 10,000 by the end of 1915 and reaching 80,000 before decade’s end. Ultimately the campaign set the tone for the NAACP, establishing it as a premier civil rights organization and paving the way for its later protest efforts during the Civil Rights Movement.

The Jesse Washington Lynching in Waco, Texas | May 15, 1916

By Karen Juanita Carrillo

Seventeen-year-old Texas farmhand Jesse Washington was dragged from a courtroom in Waco, Texas, lynched, dismembered and burned to death May 15, 1916.

“This is an account of one lynching. It is horrible, but it is matched in horror by scores of others, in the last thirty years, and in its illegal, law-defying, race-hating aspect, it is matched by 2,842 other lynchings which have taken place between Jan. 1, 1885, and June 1, 1916,” NAACP investigator Elisabeth Freeman wrote in a highly descriptive account of the Washington case for W.E.B. DuBois and the editors at The Crisis.

The murder of Washington was so gruesome that it was known as the “Waco Horror.” It became one of the central cases the NAACP used to organize against the use of lynching laws. “What are we going to do about this record? The civilization of America is at stake. The sincerity of Christianity is challenged. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposes immediately to raise a fund of at least $10,000 to start a crusade against this modern barbarism.”

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing:

NAACP Official Song | 1920

By Kathy Pierre

James Weldon Johnson wrote Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing as a poem in 1899. The song is made up of three stanzas embodying weariness, resilience, faith and hopefulness. He first performed the powerful lyrics in 1900 to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Johnson joined the NAACP in 1916 and in 1920 became the organization’s executive secretary. The NAACP adopted Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing as its official song a year earlier, in 1919, and it has since been known as the Negro National Anthem.

Although the song was written expressly for and by Black people in reference to the struggle of being Black in the United States, Johnson would receive messages from people around the world who were singing it as well.

The anthem has endured. It was featured at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, and has been performed worldwide by international artists.

Mistreatment of Workers on Mississippi Levee Flood Control Project | December 1932

By Cynthia Yeldell Anderson

By the end of 1932, there were approximately 30,000 African Americans working for the War Department’s Mississippi River Flood Control Project. Numerous complaints about the mistreatment of Black laborers led the NAACP to investigate.

They found private contractors subjecting Blacks to unequal pay, higher commissary prices, unsanitary camps, overwork and beatings. When conditions persisted, the NAACP sent Roy Wilkins, assistant secretary of the NAACP, and George Schuyler, a journalist and author, to conduct an undercover investigation.

Disguised as laborers, Wilkins and Schuyler toured contractors’ camps for three weeks and confirmed the discrimination reports. They used the Memphis, Tenn,. home of prominent businessman Robert R. Church, Jr., brother of NAACP founder Mary Church Terrell, as their headquarters.

The NAACP printed 10,000 copies of a leaflet, Mississippi River Slavery –1932, to inform the public.

In a 1933 article, Wilkins wrote, “The War department knows all about this exploitation on the river.” He went on to say, “This fight is more than a struggle against inhuman conditions. It is estimated that a minimum sum of five million dollars a year would be added to the wages of Negroes on the flood control project if they were paid a decent scale.”

In September 1933, the Secretary of War announced a pay raise and shortened hours for unskilled Mississippi levee camp laborers.

Charles Hamilton Houston: The Man Who Killed Jim Crow

By Ronda Racha Penrice

Charles Hamilton Houston is not as well-known as his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board decision dismantling school segregation and later became the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. But it was Houston who masterminded the strategy to kill Jim Crow. Tackling the educational system, Houston focused on how Southern states violated the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the critical 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision.

Born in 1895, the Washington, D.C. native didn’t initially pursue a legal career even though his father, William LePre Houston, was a practicing lawyer. Serving in the segregated Army during World War I changed that for Houston, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and one of six valedictorians of Amherst’s 1915 class. After earning two law degrees at Harvard Law where he also became the Harvard Law Review’s first Black editor, Houston served as vice dean at Howard University School of Law, transforming the institution into a full-time, accredited, premier training ground for legal warriors.

In 1935, Houston joined the NAACP as its first general counsel also recruiting Marshall and other former students. Houston’s mission to destroy Jim Crow gained momentum when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a state to fund Black students to attend another state’s law school in lieu of granting them admittance to the only in-state one in its 1938 Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada decision. Health issues forced Houston to leave the NAACP in 1940. He died on April 22, 1950 at age 54. Today Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and Howard University School of Law’s Charles Hamilton Houston Hall are named in his honor.

The Scottsboro Boys Case | 1937

By Michelle Sims-Burton

On April 2, 1931, Dr. P.A. Stephens, president of the Laymen’s Association, Methodist Episcopal Church, East Tennessee Conference, wrote a letter to NAACP executive secretary Walter White about “an account [in the press] of nine Negro boys who were arrested [in] Scottsboro, Ala., a week or two ago charged with criminal assault upon two White girls aboard a freight train after these boys had repulsed six White boys aboard the same train.” Stephens requested the support of the NAACP in seeking justice for the boys.

The case of the Scottsboro Boys would become one of the most infamous trials involving Black boys being wrongfully accused of raping White women in U.S. history. The NAACP joined the Scottsboro Defense Committee in 1935, which included the International Labor Defense.

There was a total of 11 trials involving the Scottsboro Boys, two before the Supreme Court. Ultimately, in a 1937 compromise, four of the boys were convicted of rape, one was convicted of assaulting a deputy and four were set free. The NAACP assisted the young men in finding jobs after their release from prison and helped one of them, Clarence Norris, get a pardon from the State of Alabama.

The Fight Against Segregated Busing

By Shannon Gibney

The fight to desegregate busing throughout the United States was long and bitter, and the NAACP was at the forefront the whole time.

In 1946, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were co-counsel in Morgan v. Virginia, a Supreme Court case that found that a state law calling for segregated seating in Virginia’s interstate busing was unconstitutional. The case centered around Irene Morgan, a Black woman who was riding a Greyhound bus from Gloucester County, Va., to Baltimore in 1944, and refused to give up her seat to a White person.

“If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can,” said Morgan. “The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court.”

Although Virginia and other Southern states largely ignored the ruling and continued to segregate riders, Morgan v. Virginia was an early and important victory in the Civil Rights Movement. The case spurred a similar blow against segregation in “Boynton v. Virginia,” in 1960, which ruled that Virginia could not segregate interstate bus terminals. In this way, the NAACP’s legal arm built energy and momentum for future wins -- both in the courtroom and in the streets.

Landmark Supreme Court Ruling

in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case

By Lottie L. Joiner

In 1951, Oliver Brown filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kan., when his daughter, Linda Brown, was not allowed to attend an all-White elementary school. Brown argued that Black schools were not equal to White schools and that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Brown’s case was combined with four other school segregation cases that had come before the Supreme Court from plaintiffs in South Carolina (Briggs v. R.W. Elliott), Delaware (Belton v. Gebhart) (Bulah v. Gebhart), Virginia (Davis, et. al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County) and Washington, D.C. (Bolling, et. al. v. C. Melvine Sharpe, et. al.).

The NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall served as the plaintiff’s lead attorney. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled separate but equal public schools were unconstitutional and denied Black children equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the unanimous ruling for the landmark case: "We conclude that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Septima Clark Develops Citizenship Schools

By Karen Juanita Carrillo

Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898 in Charleston, S.C. Clark’s mother was of Haitian descent and named her daughter, Septima which means “sufficient” in Haitian Creole.

After earning a teaching degree in 1916 at age 18, Clark learned that as a Black person she was not allowed to teach in Charleston-area public schools. But after becoming a member of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP in 1919, she immediately took to its pursuit of activism and defense of the Black community. According to the Charleston Branch website, by 1920, “the Charleston Branch used a petition signed by three-fourths of the Blacks in the city to persuade White leaders to hire Black teachers to teach in Black public schools.” Clark eagerly took on these efforts to change the laws throughout the state of South Carolina so that African-American teachers would have the same salaries as White teachers. “[It was] the first time I had worked against people directing a system for which I was working,” Clark later stated.

Over a span of 40 years, Clark was employed in Charleston and Columbia, S.C., as well as McClellanville, N.C. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the integration in public schools, South Carolina banned government employees from membership in the NAACP. Clark refused to resign from the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, and in 1956 she lost her job — and her pension.

Clark turned to her NAACP membership for even more inspiration — as well as employment. She began traveling around the South, organizing and registering people to vote. Clark developed “Citizenship Schools” on John’s Island in South Carolina and at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Clark would go on to teach leadership skills, nonviolent methods and the tactics of civil disobedience. She famously taught Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis and Ella Baker.

Enolia P. McMillan

NAACP First Female National President | 1984

By Hamil Harris

Enolia P. McMillan was the first female national president of the NAACP. McMillan, who served as NAACP president from 1984 to 1990, was a Maryland educator and activist.

Born Oct. 20, 1904, McMillan was the daughter of a slave and a domestic worker in Willow Grove, Pa. Her family moved to Baltimore when she was 8 years old. In 1926, she earned a bachelor of arts degree from Howard University and went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1933. McMillan became an educator and worked on getting better pay for Black teachers.

In 1970, McMillan became president of the NAACP’s Baltimore Branch, raising $150,000 for the local branch through selling NAACP lapel pins and other grassroots fundraising efforts. She was elected president of the national organization in 1984 and helped put it on sound financial footing through her grassroots efforts.

McMillan worked with then executive director, Rev. Benjamin Hooks to move NAACP’s headquarters from New York to Baltimore in 1986. McMillan remained active in the NAACP after her presidency helping to lead a historic protest against apartheid at the South African Embassy in Washington in 1985. She died in 2006 at age 102.

- The Crisis Magazine Staff

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