Before the Revolution: Crisis within the Philadelphia and Chicago NAACP, 1940-1960

By Nelson, Berky | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1998 | Go to article overview

Before the Revolution: Crisis within the Philadelphia and Chicago NAACP, 1940-1960


Nelson, Berky, Negro History Bulletin


Between 1940 and 1960, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attained its greatest victories as a civil rights organization. Nevertheless, during this period, the organization also experienced problems that made it appear dysfunctional and passe while undergoing an era of unprecedented success. Internal bickering between middle class leaders and diverse class interests within the larger African American society produced a series of unspoken and under reported dilemmas that stymied NAACP progress. The trials and tribulations of this venerable human rights association may be observed through an examination of NAACP chapters in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Philadelphia and Chicago received NAACP charters in 1913 and 1914 respectively. From their inception through the 1920s, the Philadelphia and Chicago branches achieved only modest success. During the early 1930s, the Great Depression pushed each branch to the brink of total collapse. Fiscal concerns, internal dissension, serious confrontations with the national office in New York City, and a myriad of additional problems rendered these NAACP chapters ineffective. The doldrums of the 1930s, however, lapsed into insignificance as World War II rejuvenated the African American community. Thus, members of the NAACP at the national and local levels gained new opportunities to demonstrate leadership in civil rights activities.(1)

A dramatic positive change in branch fortunes occurred in Philadelphia as early as November 16, 1940. On that fateful day, blacks living in North Philadelphia marched through the streets to protest against unemployment in their neighborhood. The police arrested 565 demonstrators. With alacrity, the local branch secured the release of all persons incarcerated and gained significant prestige in the African-American community. By gaining freedom for the demonstrators, the branch doubled its membership over the previous year and grossed in excess of $3,300 for the national association.(2)

In 1941 and 1942, the numerical strength of the Quaker City branch increased dramatically. By June 1943, the chapter brought 6,726 people and more than $10,000 into the organization. Under the leadership of president Theodore Spaulding and executive secretary Carolyn Davenport, the chapter investigated job complaints, housing discrimination, and unfair hiring practices in the Philadelphia Transit Corporation. By September 1944, thirteen thousand Philadelphians had joined, and nine months later, another 2,796 had joined the ranks of the local branch. The augmented income and purchasing power black Philadelphians enjoyed during the war enabled them to feel good about themselves and gain a sense of pride in the NAACP.(3)

The Chicago branch attained even greater heights during the early war years. When Ira W. Williams assumed the presidency of the branch in 1940, the organization faced imminent bankruptcy. Under his leadership and with the assistance of Daisy Lampkin, national office field secretary, membership fees increased from a paltry $331 in 1939 to $2,829 by October 1941. The Chicago branch immediately became one of the three largest NAACP chapters in the nation. Still, members of the national office were disenchanted with Williams and the Chicago branch, which Walter White, national executive secretary, deemed "a weak sister." Meanwhile, the local branch honored Williams for his effective work in ameliorating housing for African Americans. Williams also received praise for reducing racial discrimination in restaurants and placing blacks in corporations that were awarded national defense contracts. Attorney Oscar C. Brown succeeded Williams as Chicago branch president in 1942. Brown provided the branch with energetic leadership. First, Brown asked Walter White for permission to expand the Legal Redress Committee so that more civil rights cases could be handled. Brown then proposed that the local chapter compile a yearbook for 1942 that contained information on the history of the branch, a list of members, and a report on branch operations and objectives. …

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