The History and Rhetoric of the NAACP: The Origins

By Collins, Stephen; Sturdevant, Katherine Scott | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The History and Rhetoric of the NAACP: The Origins


Collins, Stephen, Sturdevant, Katherine Scott, Black History Bulletin


The historical origins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, are of particular interest as we approach the organization's centennial. Its precise 100th birthday will be February 12, 2009, precise because the NAACP founders chose Abraham Lincoln's 100th birthday as the most appropriate date to be the "birthday" of the NAACP. They also wanted to make the Lincoln connection because, on the preceding August 14-15, 1908, Lincoln's home town of Springfield, Illinois, had seen the devastating race riots that reflected a "race war" across the cities of the North and Midwest. In Springfield, two exaggerated accusations against African American men for allegedly attacking white women led to riots that included lynchings, other deaths, the burning of many homes and businesses, and the arrival of both the militia and thousands of National Guard troops. Most African American citizens fled the town completely. The two men lynched were a barber and a cobbler, both married to white women. One was an 84-year-old man who had been cobbler and friend to Abraham Lincoln.

Visiting Springfield to witness the effects was an inspiration for the labor leader and settlement house activist William English Walling. He wrote an article for The Independent magazine called "The Race War in the North," published September 3, 1908. Walling called for an integrated movement of all Americans to end the violence and oppression that he compared to the treatment of Jews he had just seen on a visit to Russia. Marie White Ovington, a leader of the settlement house movement researching the conditions for African Americans, had already seen the potential of connecting the ideas of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois's Niagara Movement with progressive social reform. Under the inspiration of Walling's article, she began to gather intellectual reformers in meetings first called the National Negro Committee and then the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, then, would bring together several communities into one larger and thus more effective community. (1)

From its origins, therefore, the NAACP had both a chronological history and a rhetorical history. After Walling's inspiration, Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the New York Evening Post, drafted "The Call," a manifesto, signed by many prominent American progressives, urging "all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty." The first meetings included representatives from, among others, the progressive movement, the settlement house movement, the women's suffrage movement, the Niagara Movement, the African-American churches, the abolitionist movement's descendants, and the anti-lynching crusade personified in Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The organization brought W. E. B. Du Bois into its research and publicity management and, within a year, he began editing the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. (2)

The Souls of Black Folk and the NAACP

W. E. B. Du Bois had been documenting and decrying racism and its effects in America long before the NAACP was founded. Marie Ovington knew he was essential to the new organization and that it could revive the efforts of his Niagara Movement, which was losing ground. The efforts of the NAACP and its founders are summed up in its mission statement: "To ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination." Thus the NAACP set out to allow people, individually or collectively, to define who they are, so that society must accept their definition. The founders recognized people's need to be defined by their dreams, goals, sense of identity, and self-consciousness, not the identity thrust upon them by others. …

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