After the Civil War, Congress championed the cause of newly freed African Americans by enacting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment provided citizenship and equal protection under the law. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote. Other legislation to enforce these amendments followed.
However, between 1873 and 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that set back federal efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans until 1957, when the first civil rights law since Reconstruction was passed. In the South, where ninety percent of African Americans lived, state constitutions were amended to legalize disenfranchisement. The Ku Klux Klan resorted to beating, lynching, and burning homes to reinforce white supremacy. Black labor was bound to the land as peonage and sharecropping replaced the antebellum plantation system of slavery. In both the North and the South, African Americans were segregated by law and by custom in schools, public accommodations, housing, transportation, armed forces, recreational facilities, hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.
In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned legal separation of the races in its ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that separate but equal facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Science, history, and popular culture bolstered racial policy by promoting the myth of Negro inferiority. By the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans found themselves reduced to a color-caste system almost as oppressive and destructive as the chattel slavery they had endured. A new wave of racial violence swept the U.S., erupting in a torrent of lynchings and race riots. The worst of these riots occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908.
Founding and Early Years
In response to the Springfield riot, a group of black and white activists, Jews and gentiles, met in New York City to address the deteriorating status of African Americans. Among them were veterans of the Niagara Movement (a civil rights group), suffragists, social workers, labor reformers, philanthropists, socialists, anti-imperialists, educators, clergymen, and journalists—some with roots in abolitionism. In the abolitionist tradition, they proposed to fight the new color-caste system with a “new abolition movement”—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP pledged “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 pursued this mission through a variety of tactics including legal action, lobbying, peaceful protest, and publicity.
The New Negro Movement
World War I created a transformation for African Americans from the “old” to the “new.” Thousands moved from the rural South to the industrial urban North, pursuing a new vision of social and economic opportunity. During the war black troops fought abroad “to keep the world safe for democracy.” They returned home determined to achieve a fuller participation in American society. The philosophy of the civil rights movement shifted from the “accommodationist” approach of Booker T. Washington to the militant advocacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. These forces converged to help create the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s, which promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.
Evoking the “New Negro,” the NAACP lobbied aggressively for the passage of a federal law that would prohibit lynching. The NAACP played a crucial role in the flowering of the Negro Renaissance centered in New York’s Harlem, the cultural component of the New Negro Movement. NAACP officials W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Jessie Fauset provided aesthetic guidance, financial support, and literature to this cultural awakening. The NAACP’s efforts on the international front included sending James Weldon Johnson to Haiti to investigate the occupation of U.S. Armed Forces there. In the courts the NAACP prosecuted cases involving disenfranchisement, segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, and lack of due process and equal protection in criminal cases.
The Great Depression
With the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the NAACP confronted an internal dispute and external criticism over the merits of pursuing an agenda of civil and political equality versus an agenda of economic development and independence. The merits were debated at the Amenia Conference in 1933. In the political arena, the NAACP won the first successful campaign against a Supreme Court nominee, Judge John J. Parker, demonstrating the association’s growing influence. By 1931, the NAACP undertook the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths wrongfully accused of raping two white women, before losing control of the case to the Communist-led International Labor Defense. Later, based on the findings of attorneys Nathan Margold and Charles H. Houston, the NAACP launched a legal campaign against de jure segregation that focused on inequalities in public schools. Towards the end of 1932, in response to employment discrimination, the NAACP sent Roy Wilkins, then the assistant NAACP secretary, and George Schuyler, a journalist and author, undercover to investigate conditions for the 30,000 black workers in the War Department’s Mississippi River Flood Control Project.
In 1939 the NAACP created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., to litigate cases and raise money exclusively for the legal program. On the cultural front, the NAACP deliberated about the prospect of Jesse Owens’s and other black athletes’ participation in the 1936 Olympics in light of Nazi propaganda and urged them not to participate. After the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall in 1939, the NAACP worked with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to stage a concert for her at the Lincoln Memorial.
World War II and the Post War Years
As the United States entered World War II, the NAACP joined union organizer A. Philip Randolph in support of a massive March on Washington to protest discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries. The march never took place. In the midst of the war, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White toured the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific Theaters of Operation to observe and report on the experience of black soldiers. In 1945 the NAACP sent Walter White and W. E. B. Du Bois to the United Nations Conference on International Organization to propose the abolition of the colonial system. Du Bois reinforced the NAACP’s position in 1947 by submitting to the United Nations “An Appeal to the World,” a petition linking the history of racism in America to the treatment of people of color under colonial imperialism. The following year, in response to NAACP pressure, President Harry Truman issued two executive orders banning discrimination in federal employment and armed forces. On the legal front, the Supreme Court handed the NAACP important victories against all-white voting primaries, segregation in interstate travel, and restrictive covenants in Smith v. Allwright, Morgan v. Virginia, and Shelley v. Kraemer.
The Civil Rights Era
The NAACP’s long battle against de jure segregation culminated in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine. Former NAACP Branch Secretary Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat to a white man sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern civil rights movement. In response to the Brown decision, Southern states launched a variety of tactics to evade school desegregation, while the NAACP countered aggressively in the courts for enforcement. The resistance to Brownpeaked in 1957–58 during the crisis at Little Rock Arkansas’s Central High School. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups targeted NAACP officials for assassination and tried to ban the NAACP from operating in the South. However, NAACP membership grew, particularly in the South. NAACP Youth Council chapters staged sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters to protest segregation. The NAACP was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, the largest mass protest for civil rights. The following year, the NAACP joined the Council of Federated Organizations to launch Mississippi Freedom Summer, a massive project that assembled hundreds of volunteers to participate in voter registration and education. The NAACP-led Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of civil rights organizations, spearheaded the drive to win passage of the major civil rights legislation of the era: the Civil Rights Act of 1957; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
A Renewal of the Struggle
The NAACP struggled through the 1970s and 1980s, a period marked by change and many challenges. NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins ended his long tenure with the association (1931–1977) and Margaret Bush Wilson became the first black woman to chair the NAACP Board of Directors. The NAACP built on the legal and legislative victories of the civil rights era by supporting race-conscious initiatives to redress the legacy of racial discrimination. The NAACP backed busing to achieve school desegregation and affirmative action programs with the government and private sector. But by the mid-1970s, the NAACP faced the threat of bankruptcy as the result of two lawsuits and criticism about its relevancy from proponents of the Black Power Movement. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration reduced the budget of the Equal Opportunity Commission, tried to disband the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, reduced the number of civil rights attorneys in the Justice Department, and urged the Supreme Court to end affirmative action. The confluence of challenges in the 1970s and 1980s spurred the NAACP to find new ways of defining its mission to address the issues of African Americans.
Towards A New Century
During the 1990s the NAACP pursued economic empowerment, youth programs, and voter registration as top priorities. To “stem the tide of black land loss,” the NAACP supported black farmers in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging racial discrimination. The NAACP began a campaign to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. The NAACP also addressed the rise in hate crimes, evinced by a series of black church fires that swept the Southeast.
As it celebrates its centennial, the NAACP is reflecting on the progress made and the work still to be done. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the NAACP continues to seek new ways of defining its mission. The organization is endeavoring to expand membership and build coalitions by reaffirming its origins as a racially and ethnically diverse human rights organization. While supporting enforcement of existing civil rights laws, the NAACP is devising new strategies to redress racial disparities in education, employment, housing, health care, the criminal justice system, civic engagement, and voting rights. As long as racial hatred and discrimination exist, the NAACP will wage a relentless campaign “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons.”
[JSource Editor’s note: The NAACP has also since established its support for the LGBTQ+ rights movement in its efforts to end discrimination]