The NAACP Campaign for Teachers' Salary Equalization: African American Women Educators and the Early Civil Rights Struggle

Article excerpt

The one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the NAACP shines a spotlight on the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. Capturing the history of that organization has been notoriously difficult due to its multifaceted interests, campaigns, and programs, and sometimes complex levels of bureaucracy. (1) One of the most important phases of the NAACP's history came in the late 1930s and 1940s when a number of factors helped to shape its future. Led by NAACP special counsel Charles Hamilton Houston and then by his protege and successor Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP developed a legal strategy centered on attacking racial inequalities in education that culminated in its most celebrated victory, the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954. Yet the foundation of that legal strategy in a campaign to equalize African American teachers' salaries remains one of the most neglected aspects of the NAACP's history. Examining that campaign reveals much about the development of the NAACP's early legal strategy and especially the all too often marginalized role of African American women educators in the early civil rights movement.

THE ORIGINS OF THE NAACP'S SALARY EQUALIZATION CAMPAIGN

The roots of the NAACP's legal strategy in the area of public education and the teachers' salary equalization campaign go back to 1925 when the American Fund for Public Service, also known as the "Garland Fund" after its main benefactor Charles Garland, offered a donation for a coordinated campaign of litigation against racial inequality in the areas of public transportation and education, voting, and jury service. The NAACP hired Harvard-trained lawyer Nathan Margold to draw up a litigation plan, and in 1935 it hired Harvard-trained attorney Charles Hamilton Houston as its Special Counsel to implement the plan. However, instead of simply implementing the Margold Plan, Houston altered it decisively, making the NAACP's legal strategy his own. In particular, Houston narrowed the focus of attack to concentrate on gaining more resources for African Americans in "separate and unequal" public education. In doing so, Houston decided to follow a strategy for the equalization of conditions rather than the immediate desegregation of public facilities. He believed that by seeking to enforce the legal doctrine of "separate but equal" established in the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the courts would be more receptive to NAACP's arguments asking for complete desegregation. Houston also believed that winning court rulings for equalization in public education would in turn put such financial pressure on white school officials that would give them little option but to desegregate educational facilities. (2)

As it unfolded, Houston's legal strategy was assisted by two key developments. The first came in 1940 with the setting up of a separate legal arm of the NAACP called the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., commonly known as the LDF or "Inc. Fund." Houston's successor as NAACP Special Counsel in 1938, Thurgood Marshall, also assumed the role of LDF director-counsel. The founding of the LDF was a response to pressure from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which denied the NAACP tax-exempt status because of its lobbying activities. Since the LDF dealt with legal and educational matters only, it received tax-exempt status. Although the NAACP and the LDF remained closely entwined, with overlapping board membership, the creation of the LDF gave more autonomy to NAACP attorneys in developing the organization's legal strategy and led to a greater focus on litigation as a force for social change. In 1957, under continuing pressure from the IRS, the NAACP and LDF formally split into two separate and distinct organizations. (3)

The wartime upsurge in African American activism in the 1940s also played an important role in the evolution of the NAACP's legal strategy. …