Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. By Patricia Sullivan. (New York and London: New Press, c. 2009. Pp. [xiv], 514. $29.95, ISBN 978-1-59558-446-5.)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been the Rodney Dangerfield of civil rights organizations. Although it has enjoyed a long and proud history, both journalists and historians have not given the NAACP the respect it deserves. Until now, there has not even been a decent history of the organization. Fortunately, that void has been more than filled. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement by Patricia Sullivan is a fitting tribute to the NAACP as it recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary. Comprehensive, thorough, and painstakingly researched, it invites comparison with From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York, 1947), the classic volume written by John Hope Franklin, to whom Sullivan dedicates her book.

Lift Every Voice focuses most of its attention on the work of the NAACP's national office and its strategy of "nationalizing the race question" by challenging all aspects of racial segregation in the courts (p. 19). Those who played major roles in the organization made up a who's who of the black freedom struggle. W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Charles Hamilton Houston, Ella Baker, and Roy Wilkins are famifiar figures to students of civil rights history and (with the exception of Wilkins) have been the subjects of impressive biographies. Sullivan has combined their stories into a narrative that traces the development of the NAACP from its founding in 1909 to the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. She has also discovered lesser-known activists who made significant contributions to the NAACP's development and growth.

Once a high school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, Kathryn Magnolia Johnson became the first full-time fieldworker for the NAACP in 1914, and she traveled the country helping establish branches in at least a dozen cities. Her attempts to persuade local blacks to stand up for their rights were frequently frustrated by "the often deep-seated cultural resistance to the fight against segregation within black communities," where "middle-class and professional people were reluctant to associate with the NAACP" (p. 52). Johnson identified what would become a serious problem for the NAACP when she observed that "[i]t was difficult to keep a branch alive" without some kind of immediate "protest or agitation" (p. 53). Johnson's successful work in the field drew praise from national leaders like Du Bois, but Johnson met strong opposition from Mary White Ovington and other board members, who charged that the African American organizer "failed to demonstrate 'an ability to reach liberal whites'" and that she lacked "'refinement'" and "'polish'" (p. 57). The NAACP board fired Johnson in the summer of 1916. Like Ella Baker, who took up the challenge almost three decades later, Johnson believed that the branches were the heart of the NAACP and that local people should take an active role in determining their own priorities, a point of view that found little favor in the national office.

Sullivan describes in compelling detail the infighting that characterized life in the New York office, including the historic rivalry between Du Bois and executive secretary Walter White. …

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