National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
February 12, 1909 – Present
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, its origins date back to 1905. It was during that year that W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter gathered a group of Black intellectuals in Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada which inspired the group’s name the “Niagara Movement”. The meeting had been called to organize Black men who were in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s ideology of accommodating racism. Once gathered, the men wrote a “Declaration of Principles” which detailed their mission to fight against the discrimination of Black people.
Over the next few years, the group’s membership would expand across 34 states and boast 170 members at its peak. Its tradition of holding meetings would continue on an annual basis with an estimated 800 people participating in the 1907 meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
Despite this promising growth, a variety of issues would cause the group to disband six years after its founding. To start, the founders had different visions for membership as they disagreed on whether or not women should be admitted as members. Combined with weak financial support and a public feud with Washington and his followers, the group was unable to establish a national foothold. Trotter would eventually leave to form a separate organization. The last annual meeting of the Niagara Movement would be held in 1908, though it wouldn’t be officially dissolved for another three years.
In 1908, a race riot broke out in Springfield, Illinois when a potential lynch mob was thwarted by the transfer of their two intended Black male victims to the safety of a jail beyond their reach. Displeased, the mob wreaked havoc on the city’s Black neighborhood by murdering two residents, destroying property, and looting businesses.
In response, a group of White progressives which included Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling, and Oswald Garrison Villard called a meeting to discuss race-based violence and discrimination. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Archibald Grimke, and Mary Church Terrell answered the call and became the first Black members. This interracial group formed the foundation of what began as the National Negro Committee but would become the NAACP.
From its inception, the NAACP was decidedly interracial and welcomed members of both genders. Yet, excluding Du Bois, the NAACP’s early leadership was entirely White. Headquartered in New York City, the NAACP launched The Crisis, a magazine aimed at spotlighting social justice issues, politics, and culture. One of its earliest initiatives was a boycott of the racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation. The NAACP also contributed to the anti-lynching movement by organizing protests and publishing investigative reports that challenged the fabricated stories that were often used to rationalize lynchings.
Since its founding, the NAACP had taken cases to court in attempts to challenge unjust laws and discriminatory practices across various facets of society. During the World Wars, the NAACP pushed for integration of the military and equal treatment for Black soldiers. The NAACP collaborated with unions to build on the momentum of World War II’s “Double V campaign” which focused on victory against tyranny abroad and at home. Beginning in 1931, the NAACP joined the years-long legal effort to defend the Scottsboro Boys. But it was the 1939 launch of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) that would formalize and establish consistent funding for the organization’s legal efforts.
Serving as the dedicated legal branch of the NAACP, the LDF achieved wide-reaching victories by fighting cases in courtrooms across America, including the Supreme Court. Organized and spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall, the LDF litigated key cases such as Brown v. Board of Education which overturned the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The verdict was significant because it found that separate but equal was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Additional legal victories helped to pave the way for the emerging Civil Rights Movement. The cases established a precedent for the federal government taking action against state and local laws that sought to infringe on the civil rights established by the Constitution and Amendments. The NAACP helped to organize key initiatives during the 1960s such as the March on Washington and Mississippi Freedom Summer. Combined with lobbying and advocacy these wins would help the push for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Within a decade of its founding, the NAACP had established several hundred local chapters across the country and boasted almost 100,000 members. This was despite The Crisis being unlawfully banned in many Southern towns and members facing the threat of financial retribution and even violence. Over time the organization would remain interracial though the membership and eventually leadership would become predominantly Black. Women were prominently at the forefront with iconic figures such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Daisy Bates, and Ella Baker having stints within the organization.
For the first few decades of its existence, the NAACP was regarded as a radical organization. By the mid-1960s, it was criticized by younger and more militant activists as being too focused on lobbying and working within the legal system while other organizations protested and took other confrontational actions.
In the years since conservatives have criticized the NAACP as being unnecessary since progress was made during the Civil Rights Movement. While some liberals regard the NAACP as being out of touch and irrelevant in part due to its difficulty in attracting younger activists. Despite these difficulties, the NAACP remains one of the largest and most powerful Black civil rights groups with more than 2,000 branches and 500,000 members worldwide.
- Bragg, Susan. 2009. “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Long Struggle for Civil Rights in the United States.” Blackpast.org. January 19, 2009. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/national-association-advancement-colored-people-and-long-struggle-civil-rights-united-s/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2019. “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. November 5, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/National-Association-for-the-Advancement-of-Colored-People.
- History.com Editors. 2021. “NAACP.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. January 25, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/naacp.
- History.com Editors. 2021. “Niagara Movement.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 24, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/niagara-movement.
- “Nation’s Premier Civil Rights Organization.” 2020. NAACP. November 19, 2020. https://naacp.org/nations-premier-civil-rights-organization/.
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