Movement Building during
the World War II Era
THE NAACP’S LEGAL INSURGENCY IN THE SOUTH
“There is nothing much to report here,” NAACP assistant secretary Roy Wilkins wrote on December 1, 1941, in a letter to field organizer Madison Jones. “Thurgood is back from Texas, Louisiana, Florida and way stops…. He left with a tooth brush and one shirt thinking he would be gone only two days, but he was gone twenty-eight. Fred and Walter are in Indiana in a combining job speaking for the YWCA forum and reviving the Indianapolis branch…. Daisy had two very fine campaigns in Wilmington, Delaware and Chester, Pennsylvania. Ella managed the campaign in Albany (N.Y.) and is in the office until at least after the holidays…. We are continuing to pound on the main theme of the Negro in national defense, and there seems to be a little progress here and there.”1
Wilkins’s letter, written on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, reveals a defining feature of the thirty-year-old organization. Its nationwide spread and highly mobile staff made it a vital barometer of black life and race relations across America. The NAACP, dependent largely on membership for funding, was a lean enterprise anchored in communities throughout the country. This loose infrastructure was reinforced in the South by the legal campaign launched by Charles Hamilton Houston in the mid-1930s and carried forward under Thurgood Marshall. With the exception of Wilkins, the association’s small professional staff—all named in Wilkins’s letter—spent most of their time outside the national office in New York, investigating conditions, recruiting members, working with branches to fight racial injustices, and, in the case of Executive Secretary Walter White, lobbying in Washington. Four of the seven were full-time field workers: veteran organizers Daisy Lampkin and Frederick Morrow and newly hired Ella Baker and Madison Jones.
Social dislocation, wartime expansion of federal power, and the enlistment of nearly a million black men and women in the armed forces combined to fuel heightened black resistance to the racial barriers that structured American life. The NAACP was uniquely positioned to engage these far-reaching changes,