Assessing the Role of the NAACP in the Civil Rights Movement

By Watson, Denton L. | The Historian, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Role of the NAACP in the Civil Rights Movement


Watson, Denton L., The Historian


Because of the attention focused on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent strategy, the role of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been overshadowed and its major contributions to modern civil rights overlooked. King's ability to arouse the spirit of African Americans and give them a sense of involvement in their own liberation was unparalleled. From the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954 to the Birmingham demonstrations in 1963, as well as in other activities, King sought to awaken the United States to the egregious wrongs done to African Americans. The NAACP's early leaders anticipated competition from King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which he headed, but NAACP leaders never had an effective public relations strategy to counter the overwhelming emotional appeal of King's oratory and the civil rights demonstrations in the South, which were tailored for the news media, especially television. Martyred in 1968, King has become so popular that the NAACP'S influence and visibility have suffered. Yet, no other organization contributed more to making the U.S. Constitution responsive to the needs of all citizens.(1)

The NAACP was organized in 1909 owing to the need for an effective civil rights organization amid an explosion of racial prejudice in Springfield, Illinois. William English Walling, a white Kentuckian who was visiting nearby Chicago with his wife, voiced alarm that such violence was spreading from the South to the North. He saw an urgent "need for a nation-wide effort to combat the evil." Walling and several others joined in issuing "The Call" on 12 February 1909, which marked the founding of the NAACP. Their goal was to achieve absolute political and social equality for African Americans.(2)

The NAACP's philosophy was linked to the same currents of eighteenth-century liberalism that had given birth to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The NAACP's founders were concerned that the "republican experiment is at stake, every tolerated wrong to the Negro reacting with double force upon white citizens guilty of faithlessness to their brothers." The founders agreed to use every available means to publicize the neglected issues of civil and political equality for African Americans. By 1929 these rudimentary beginnings had become a full-scale attack on all forms of racial discrimination.(3)

As editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's journal, W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the signers of the NAACP's "Call," broadened the focus of the struggle and set its tone with what he called his "stinging hammer blows" against racial injustices. In his books, pamphlets, and articles, Du Bois exposed the abysmal state of race relations in the country and defined the philosophy for the struggle.(4)

James Weldon Johnson, who succeeded several whites to become NAACP executive secretary in 1920, is better known for creating "Lift Every Voice and Sing"--the "black national hymn"--and for his other literary accomplishments than for his effectiveness as a civil rights leader. Yet, he expanded the NAACP's membership--the base of the organization's strength--tenfold between 1916 and 1920. Johnson molded the NAACP into an effective organization by consolidating its early initiatives into full-fledged programs against disenfranchisement, peonage in the South, and U.S. atrocities in Haiti. Moreover, he expanded the NAACP's attack on lynching into a crusade that, more than any other program, defined the organization as a formidable political machine.(5)

Johnson's indefatigable assistant, Walter White, headed one branch of the antilynching program-investigating the crime and arousing public opinion against it. In 1919, the NAACP initiated a drive in Congress for an antilynching bill, which only the House of Representatives passed in 1922. In 1930, White, who became executive secretary that year, increased respect for the organization as a political force when he teamed up with the American Federation of Labor to defeat President Herbert Hoover's appointment of Judge John J. …

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