The NAACP and the Fight for Equality
Cobb, William Jelani, The Crisis
BOOKS The NAACP and the Fight for Equality Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969 By Gilbert Jonas (Routledge, $29.95)
The broad outlines of the story are known, as are the outsized figures of history who shaped its path: W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall. Word association for the NAACP yields terms like anti-lynching work and Double V campaigns, The Crisis magazine and Brown v. Board of Education. But the full, three-dimensional history - the century-long epic in which skilled leaders and legions of ordinary folk had the democratic audacity to demand that the United States obey its Constitution - had yet to be told. And therein lies the significance of Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969 by Gilbert Jonas.
Given its decades-long standing as the country's preeminent civil rights organization, there have been surprisingly few full-length treatments of the NAACP's history. Langsten Hughes produced an organizational snapshot, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, in 1962. The first volume of Charles Kellogg's thorough history of the association appeared a few years later, but the subsequent volumes were never completed. Currently, University of South Carolina historian Patricia Sullivan is at work on another complete history of the organization.
There have been, however, several important books on specific aspects of the organization's history, like its fight against lynching, its bitter conflicts with the Communist Party and the Brown decision.
With Freedom's Sword, Jonas traces the lineage of the organization from its birth in the wake of the Springfield (Ill.) Riot of 1908 through its pivotal role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The book is organized thematically, rather than chronologically -a structure that detracts somewhat from Jonas's narrative - but does highlight the central themes in the NAACP's history. Jonas's telling of this tale is guided by his early observation that successfully pursuing racial equality required vastly different skills and tactics in different eras. The struggle against lynching in the association's first decade was markedly distinct from the fight against economic exploitation in the 1940s. Challenging restrictive covenants that excluded Blacks from particular neighborhoods in the 1920s was not the same as lobbying for the first civil rights bill of the century during the McCarthy era. There is also an inherent challenge in writing the history of a group whose membership has topped 500,000 and has literally hundreds of chapters across the country.
Freedoms Sword traces the history of the organization's leadership and the unique challenges confronting it. Given the constantly shifting demands of their work, and. the sheer size of the organization, it is tempting to say that Jonas has not so much rendered a history of a singular organization as told the story of some of the plural NAACPs.
In its strongest sections, Freedom's Sword captures the courage, tenacity and moral zeal of a set of "new abolitionists" determined to deliver racial democracy in the United States. In one such section, Jonas relays the story of Walter White, the light-skinned, blue-eyed future executive secretary who used his appearance as camouflage when he investigated lynchings for the association.
Jonas notes: "White actually succeeded in interviewing the governor of Arkansas, who gave him his official reassurances and an autographed photo. In the small town of Helena, however, the climate was not nearly as hospitable, and the anti-Negro sentiment became palpable to White. When he was recognized, he was forced to flee for his life, barely escaping on the next train to Memphis."
Jonas ably details the inception of the association and the financial and resource challenges confronting it, the origins of the strategy to use the law as a primary weapon against injustice, the organization's struggle to empower Black Americans politically and the dawning recognition that labor union desegregation had to become a priority in the struggle for equality. …