The Beginnings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

The New Crisis, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Beginnings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People


The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in America, Dedicated to ending racial inequality and segregation. the association evolved from two organizations. One, the Niagara Movement, began with 29 African Americans who didn't accept Booker T. Washington's dictum that "in all things that are purely social we [blacks and whites] can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

These individuals from 14 states met at Niagara Falls in 1905, united in wanting "every right that belongs to a freeborn American, civil and social, and until we get these rights we shall never cease to protest and assail the ears of America with the stories of its shameful deeds toward us."

The other group was the "new abolitionists" who gathered after journalist William English Walling reported a Springfield, Illinois, race riot in the liberal New York weekly The Independent. He described the barbarity in Lincoln's hometown and asked: "What large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to [the Negro`s] aid?"

Walling conceived an idea of a national biracial organization. Mar White Ovington, a descendant of abolitionists and an independently wealthy social worker, wrote to Walling and suggested they form the organization he had in mind. Ovington, Walling and Henry Moskovitz met in New York City to consider a plan of action. The three issued a "call for a conference" on February 12, 1909, the 100th Anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

The conference was held on May 30, 1909, and resulted in the creation of the National Negro Committee. At its second annual meeting in 1910, the Committee incorporated under the laws of New York as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Walling was elected Chairman of Executive Committee. By 1914 the new organization had 13 African Americans on the board of directors, most of whom had been members of the Niagara Movement.

Many people thought the association's simple pleas for justice were rhetorical, unattainable, but the NAACP kept to its goals. It reached many of them through moral suasion, protest and lawsuits. In 1914 the association established the National Legal Committee. Unable to afford a house staff of lawyers, it contracted for legal services on an as-needed basis, thereby obtaining such noted attorneys as Clarence Darrow, Arthur Hayes and Moorfield Storey.

The association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a suit to invalidate Oklahoma's grandfather clause, which essentially enfranchised only those Oklahoma citizens whose grandparents were eligible to vote before 1866.

The association also won a civil rights case in New York City in 1912 that enabled citizens to attend an amusement park. It saved the jobs of black firemen when the Southern Pacific Railroad Company yielded to the pressure of white firemen and discriminated against black workers. It argued before the Supreme Court in 1916 and 1917 against ordinances limiting black citizens to certain parts of a city (Buchanan v. Warley). It won another major housing case in 1948, when the Supreme Court invalidated racially restrictive covenants (Shelley v. Kramer). In 1935, a grant enabled the association to have a Special Counsel. Charles H. Houston was the first person to hold the office. He served in this post from 19351940, when he was succeeded by his assistant, Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall had been a law student of Houston's at Howard University Law School before joining the association in 1938. Houston and Marshall rethought previous court decisions in ways that made them precedents for reinterpreting old law and devising new law. Marshall eventually gained the title of "Mr. Civil Rights" because of his prowess in the courts.

The new team began to dismantle the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that legalized separate-but-equal education. The NAACP's first successful case of school integration was winning admission for Baltimorean Donald G. …

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