The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the oldest and most prominent civil rights organisation in the United States. Founded in 1909, the NAACP has a long and storied history of fighting for equal rights and racial justice. This comprehensive overview covers the organisation’s founding, key campaigns and victories, prominent members, and ongoing work in the 21st century.
Founding of the NAACP
The NAACP was established in February 1909 in response to the Springfield race riot in Illinois. A white mob burned down homes in the city’s Black residential district, ransacked local businesses, and murdered two African Americans. The organisation’s founding members included white progressives like Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling, and Oswald Garrison Villard, as well as African Americans such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Archibald Grimke, and Mary Church Terrell.
These early members, who came from various backgrounds, such as suffragists, social workers, journalists, labour reformers, and intellectuals, were dedicated to the goal of an integrated society. The NAACP’s charter promised to champion equal rights, eliminate racial prejudice, and “advance the interest of coloured citizens” regarding voting rights, legal justice, and educational and employment opportunities.
Some founding members of the NAACP had previously been involved in the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group started in 1905 and led by sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois. The NAACP was formed as an interracial organisation to further the goals of the Niagara Movement, which aimed for full political and civil rights for African Americans.
Major campaigns and victories
From 1920 to 1950, the NAACP focused on five major areas: anti-lynching legislation, voter participation, employment, due process under the law, and education. The organisation achieved significant victories in each of these areas through a combination of judicial action, lobbying, and peaceful protests.
Fight against lynching and the grandfather clause
The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was a central focus in its early decades. While not successful in passing federal anti-lynching legislation, the organisation’s efforts did lead to the condemnation of mob violence by President Woodrow Wilson and other politicians.
In 1910, the NAACP won a significant legal victory when the US Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. United States that grandfather clauses, which allowed illiterate whites to vote while discriminating against illiterate African Americans, were unconstitutional.
Civil rights era victories
The NAACP played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the organisation’s key victories was the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated education was unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) at the time, successfully argued the case before the court.
The NAACP also helped organise the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest civil rights rallies in US history and played a crucial role in the passage of landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Prominent NAACP members and leaders
The NAACP has been led by many influential figures throughout its history. Some of the most prominent NAACP members and leaders include:
- W.E.B. Du Bois: One of the founding members of the NAACP and a key leader in the Niagara Movement, Du Bois was a prolific writer and sociologist who used his platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice.
- Ida B. Wells: Another founding member of the NAACP, Wells was a journalist and activist who led crusades against lynching and other forms of racial violence.
- Walter White: A mixed-race journalist and activist, White led the NAACP from 1929 to 1955, overseeing the organisation’s participation in numerous civil rights campaigns, race riot investigations, and anti-lynching efforts.
- Thurgood Marshall: As the head of the NAACP LDF, Marshall won numerous important civil rights cases, including Brown v. Board of Education. He later became the first African American Supreme Court justice.
- Medgar Evers: The first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, Evers was assassinated in 1963 by a white supremacist for his work in the civil rights movement.
Role in the civil rights movement
The NAACP was a vital force in the civil rights movement, working alongside other organisations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to advance the cause of racial equality. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP provided legal support, fundraising, and organisational assistance to various civil rights campaigns.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The NAACP was instrumental in supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in 1955 after NAACP member Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. The organisation provided lawyers and financial assistance throughout the boycott, which ultimately led to the desegregation of buses in Montgomery.
Voter Education Project
In 1962, the NAACP partnered with organisations such as the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the National Urban League to launch the Voter Education Project (VEP). This grassroots voter registration and mobilisation campaign aimed to increase voter participation among African Americans in the South.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
In 1963, the NAACP joined forces with the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the National Urban League to organise the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in US history. The march played a significant role in raising awareness about racial inequality and helped to pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ongoing work and modern challenges
Today, the NAACP continues to focus on issues such as inequality in jobs, education, health care, and the criminal justice system, as well as protecting voting rights. The organisation has also pushed for removing Confederate flags and statues from public property.
The NAACP also hosts several annual events, such as the Image Awards, which honour individuals who excel in the arts and media; the Theater Awards, recognising achievements in the dramatic arts; and the Spingarn Medals, awarded to outstanding Black leaders in various fields.
Despite facing financial difficulties and criticism in the late 20th century, the NAACP remains a powerful and influential voice for racial justice in the United States. With more than 2,200 branches and over half a million members worldwide, the organisation’s legacy and impact continue to grow.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and racial equality in the United States for over a century. Through its tireless efforts in legislation, litigation, and peaceful protest, the NAACP has played a crucial role in shaping the course of American history.