Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Supporting Our Friends and Defeating Our Enemies": Militancy and Nonpartisanship in the NAACP, 1936-1948

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Supporting Our Friends and Defeating Our Enemies": Militancy and Nonpartisanship in the NAACP, 1936-1948

Article excerpt

From its formation in 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sought to improve the social, political, and economic conditions for African Americans by attempting to secure their citizenship rights. (1) The NAACP, which according to its constitution was nonpartisan, metamorphosed in the 1930s and 1940s and became more actively involved in politics, began to forge links with other protest groups, black and white; and sought closer ties to the organized labor movement. The association also moved, almost imperceptibly, away from both its interracial and essentially middle class beginnings. By the early 1930s, for instance, the vast majority of the NAACP's senior officers were African American. However, the 1940s would be the most significant decade in the NAACP's history to that time. The organization became more mass-based during the Second World War: in 1940 it had 50,000 members in 355 branches; by 1946 it had 450,000 members in 1,073 branches. (2) Previously the membership had been largely middle class, with what some argued were class-based goals, but in the 1940s it became much more representative of the African American community as a whole. (3)

The changes the NAACP underwent in the 1930s and 1940s, especially during World War II, constituted a potential threat to its public position of "nonpartisanship." This essay examines the NAACP's involvement in the Presidential election campaigns in 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948. Historians have generally agreed that African Americans came to support Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and benefited directly from many of the programs. Indeed, the NAACP leadership's closeness to Roosevelt's New Deal and identification with the policies pursued by the Truman administration served to alienate potentially sympathetic leaders in the Republican party. (4) What became clear during World War II was that while the NAACP leadership's faith in Roosevelt was wavering, the African American electorate in northern cities and states still lacked an acceptable alternative.

In the 1920s and 1930s a number of factors, including migration, population concentration in urban centers, and an increasing sense of alienation from the Republican party, combined to help move African Americans and, particularly the NAACP membership, into the open arms of the Democratic party. The concerted efforts by northern Democrats to win the new black vote saw African American political influence grow steadily in Chicago, New York City, and other northern cities. African American political influence continued to grow in the early 1940s, yet it should not be overestimated. African American political power remained painfully limited in most sections of the country.

Walter White, the NAACP's Executive Secretary from 1930 until his death in 1955, may have overestimated this political influence in the 1940s, nevertheless, African Americans could exert some political pressure and in 1930 they helped to defeat Republican President Herbert Hoover's nomination of a segregationist judge, John J. Parker, to the Supreme Court. U.S. Senators and Representatives who had supported the nomination, invariably Republican, were targeted by the NAACP and a number were defeated in elections between 1930 and 1934. (5) In 1936 African American efforts helped thwart the presidential aspirations of William Borah, Senator from Idaho and implacable foe of the NAACP-sponsored anti-lynching legislation. (6) Despite African Americans' earlier support for the Party of Lincoln, Hoover and Borah became the targets of organized opposition. The increasing potential of the black vote eventually became the NAACP's main political weapon, and it was most often employed against the Republicans. In 1944 the black vote was large enough, or more accurately concentrated enough, to swing a close presidential election; and in 1948 Harry Truman would not have won without it in pivotal states. (7) This potential was recognized and publicized by the NAACP, and the leadership began to pursue political activism and, to a lesser extent, economic strategies to improve conditions of African Americans. …

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