"Can These Bones Live?": The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Alabama, 1918-1930

Article excerpt

A state located in the "Heart of Dixie" is an unlikely leader in the establishment of NAACP branches. Nevertheless, a chapter of the militant civil rights organization was formed in the state in 1913 - which was just four years after the formation of the national organization and four years before a branch was organized in any other southern state. World War I interrupted the formation of other chapters in Alabama. In the postwar era and the 1920's Alabama blacks formed thirteen branches, ranking the state in the number of branches established above all but four southern states (Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) and placing it above every other state except California, Illinois, Ohio, and Oklahoma.(1) Unfortunately, a hostile racial environment and problems within the chapters cut short the existence of these nascent NAACP units. Most declined long before they became effective weapons against the racial oppression which dominated their communities.

The era after World War I was a period of growth for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The appointment of the editor, poet, and diplomat, James Weldon Johnson, first in 1916, as national field director and four years later as Executive Secretary, both coincided with and ushered in a fervent era of branch organizing. At the beginning of 1918, the Association counted only 9,869 members in eighty-five branches. As result of the organizational activities of Johnson, the Association was able to take advantage of the surge of racial consciousness which took place among blacks after World War I. By the end of 1918, its members had increased to nearly 44,000 in 165 chapters. In 1919, its tenth anniversary year, with 91,203 members, the NAACP was truly a national and an international organization, including members in Canada and Panama.(2)

Alabama blacks were a part of this new NAACP growth. They formed the first postwar branch in Montgomery during the summer and fall of 1918. By December, the second branch had been formed in Selma. During 1919, seven additional branches were organized in Birmingham, Mobile, Ensley, Blocton, Anniston, and Tuscaloosa. The decade of the twenties saw branches organized in Gadsden (1921), Florence (1923), Decatur (1926), and Greensboro (1927). A total of thirteen branches were organized after World War I to 1930.(3)

A variety of factors brought about the formation of NAACP branches in this era. Appreciation for the Association's role as agitator for the rights of blacks was the primary factor in the formation of the Florence branch. Mrs. Mary Hough, an initial organizer of the unit, was inspired to form an NAACP chapter because of her gratitude to the agency for its efforts in petitioning for the freedom of the condemned soldiers of the all-black Twenty-fourth Infantry, one of whom was her brother. The soldiers had been charged with the murder of seventeen whites in the 1917 Houston Riot and the NAACP had fought for their freedom.(4)

Apart from personal motives, branch founders seemed driven by a realization that general conditions affecting all black Americans - and specific conditions affecting blacks in their communities - called for a radical change which could be achieved through the establishment of an NAACP chapter. Alabama NAACP organizers were a part of the phenomenon of the post-World War I period and the decade of the twenties known as the "New Negro" movement. Essentially an artistic, literary, scholarly movement, it was also a psychological and spiritual awakening. Its origins lay in the changes taking place in the attitudes of blacks during the World War I and postwar era. The "New Negro" was a product of experiences which heightened his awareness of his plight in America but which also strengthened his awareness of blacks' contributions to American society, elevated his self-esteem and activated his long suppressed hostility against racism. The result was more assertive, self-reliant blacks who were less inclined to accept positions of subjugation. …

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