Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Introduction: Documenting the NAACP's First Century-From Combating Racial Injustices to Challenging Racial Inequities

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Introduction: Documenting the NAACP's First Century-From Combating Racial Injustices to Challenging Racial Inequities

Article excerpt

With its emphasis on litigation and challenging the laws and practices of the courts and law enforcement agencies, the NAACP played a direct or indirect role in the dismantling of the white supremacist legal structures built into the "American" legal system that carried over from the 19th into the first half of the 20th century. There was a time when those of the Black Power generation and their progenitors went so far as to try and make fun of the stolid, serious middle-class professional approach pursued by the NAACP's national and local leaders. The broad strain of elitism that went along with how the NAACP operated in many places, and the slowness of the process of litigation in achieving positive changes, meant that the organization was open to criticism from members of the younger generation who were anxious to move and sometimes were asked to put their lives on the line "to advance the race." (1)

The pedigree of the NAACP certainly explains the elitist tendencies. Since the founders were prominent social reformers, jurists, educators, and philanthropists, the early leadership included elite and prominent professionals in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, and other cities. The racial violence in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 originally galvanized the Progressive reformers. The NAACP's modus operandi became investigating, protesting, and publicizing incidents of racial violence and lynching, which a few years later would devolve into the "American Pogrom" that took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1917. (2) In that first decade the relationship between what the masses of African Americans needed and demanded, given their oppressed circumstances, and what the NAACP elites and non-elites would be able to deliver, was often strained and tense and remained this way over the next few decades. From the beginning, poor and working-class black southerners appealed to the NAACP for help surviving in the highly racialized environment of the so-called Progressive South. The NAACP Legal Committee set up the "Legal Bureau" in 1913 to accept complaints and offer assistance, but was quickly inundated with letters and appeals for help. Supported by contributions and membership fees alone, NAACP leaders operated under strong financial pressures from the beginning, and this forced them to scale back what the organization could undertake. In 1913 NAACP attorney Arthur Spingarn remarked, "Every colored man or women in the country who has been cheated or wronged or lost a position or wants a promotion assumes that through our association he can obtain the end he desires." Spingarn, Charles Sturdin, and other attorneys were working pro bono, and the organization was constantly running deficits. Thus according to historian Patricia Sullivan, when the NAACP received hundreds of complaints of "unfair racial bias," the early leaders decided to follow social welfare activist Jane Addams's suggestion, and agreed that "the association limit itself to those cases that tested broad legal principles, such as residential segregation ordinances or voting rights." (3)

At the same time, the first major victories actually came in the courts with the Supreme Court decisions in Guinn v. United States in 1915 and Buchanan v. Warley in 1917. In Guinn, Moorfield Storey, one of the leading lawyers in the early 20th century and one-time president of the American Bar Association, was allowed to file an amicus curie brief on behalf of the NAACP in a case brought by Solicitor General John W. Davis in 1913. John Milholland, NAACP founder and president of the Constitution League, brought to Davis's attention the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals to outlaw the state's "grandfather clause," exempting certain voters from having to fulfill several registration qualifications. Grandfather clauses were placed in state constitutions beginning in the early 1890s to enfranchise poor, illiterate whites who had become disgruntled by the naked class condescension expressed by wealthy planters and politicians who continued to harp on the need for an "educated electorate. …

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