The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the premiere civil rights organization in the United States with the largest membership and longest record of combating racism and discrimination. As a democratic, independent, grassroots organization, the NAACP played a vital role in every major civil rights struggle in the 20th century. The NAACP pioneered the combined use of litigation, lobbying, political action, education, and social action within a national social reform movement spanning decades. The organization is renowned for obtaining equal access to integrated education, the right to vote, residential housing, and public accommodations for Black Americans, in particular, radically improving their lives.
The official founding of the NAACP is February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary birthday of former President Abraham Lincoln. However, the conference planned for that date was held May 31 to June 1, 1909; at that conference, the National Negro Committee was formed. When the committee met again, in May 1910, the name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was adopted, with incorporation in 1911.
Why Was the NAACP Needed?
The 14th Amendment (1868) to the Constitution guaranteed Blacks (freed from slavery in 1865) the same freedoms and rights as Whites. The 15th Amendment (1870) guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of race. However, equality for Blacks remained elusive, at the dawning of the 20th century, as an epidemic of race riots reigned; Whites entered Blacks’ homes, lynched occupants of all ages, and burned down homes and businesses. Also common were false accusations of Blacks raping White women, insulting Whites, or committing other crimes; mobs removed Black suspects from jail and lynched them.
With formation of the NAACP, a solution arose involving lawyers traveling across states to defend the accused; legal scholars devising strategies for the enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments and all existing laws and enactment of new laws to secure civil rights; activist social workers garnering public sympathy; diverse religious leaders lending moral imperative to reform; and journalists educating the public on the racial discrimination, constitutional rights, and lawful action to secure exercise of those rights. The official monthly NAACP publication, The Crisis, provided such education, building grassroots support for reform. Hence, the NAACP filled a void, mobilizing resources and people of all races and religions for a social reform movement.
Branches, Membership, and Key Historical Developments
The NAACP has over 2,000 branches across the United States, including youth, college, and international chapters. With membership in the hundreds of thousands, most members have been women. Membership peaked in 1963, the year of the March on Washington, with 535,000 dues-paying members.
The NAACP has roots in what began in 1905 as the Niagara movement—a group of influential African Americans that first met in Canada under the leadership of the Black Harvard scholar William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. In 1906, three Whites became members—activist social workers Mary White Ovington and Henry Moskowitz and prominent journalist William English Walling. A 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of former President Lincoln, underscored the crisis of violence against Blacks. Walling wrote an article, calling of others to take a stand. Prominent White reformers responded, meeting in May 1909 with Du Bois, Niagara movement members, and the antilynching crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. They formed the National Negro Committee, renamed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at their 1910 conference. Initially, most elected officials were White, including first president Moorefield Storey. The only Black official, Du Bois was director of publicity and research (1910-1934) and editor of The Crisis. Jewish leadership was prominent, including the first chairman of the legal committee, Arthur B. Springard.
An integrated team of lawyers won three important Supreme Court decisions within 15 years, helping secure the right to vote, regardless of race; striking down racial restrictions on access to residential housing; and making courts an effective weapon in the fight for full citizenship. Other citizenship rights and racial discrimination cases were chronicled in The Crisis, highlighting injustice suffered by real people and motivating many to become NAACP members and activists—building a grassroots and financial base. Also, across the first three decades, an unsuccessful campaign for an antilynching bill was led by James Weldon Johnson—the African American chief executive officer (CEO) from 1920 to 1930. Johnson initiated NAACP field staff positions, expanding organizational reach.
Walter White, an African American with features allowing him to pass for White when traveling to investigate cases, became CEO in 1931. During his tenure, White utilized state conferences, regional meetings, and annual national convention workshops to prepare members for changes to come with litigation. In 1939, the NAACP organized the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (known as the LDF)—permitting collection of tax-deductible contributions as a 501(c)3 to support expanding litigation.
Across the 1940s, the NAACP created regional offices to support distant branches. Annual campaigns increased membership and funds. Cases focused on practices to bar Blacks from equal access to residential housing; Thurgood Marshall successfully argued they were unconstitutional and unenforceable. Other cases involved White primaries and educational discrimination in the South. The main architect of NAACP legal strategy was Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston selected Marshall to assist him.
After the death of Houston in 1950, Marshall was assisted by Robert L. Carter. The legal team included White and Jewish lawyers, including Jack Greenberg. Some cases challenged unfair voter registration laws. By 1951, Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell, Jr. formed powerful coalitions with labor unions and Jewish organizations—both central to lobbying. The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka led to school desegregation, the most important victory won by the NAACP. In legal arguments, the use of social psychological evidence provided by Kenneth Clark was pioneered.
Another strategy involved coalition building (e.g., with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress on Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), as well as activism via marches, sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, and boycotts. The NAACP supported the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, triggered by lifetime NAACP member Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus for a White passenger. Coalitions also brought tension. Becoming executive secretary in 1955, Wilkins frequently disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr., over strategy: King’s nonviolent mass protests versus the NAACP’s litigation and lobbying. Mitchell, head of the NAACP Washington Bureau, was heralded as the leading lobbyist of his era, working closely with Wilkins and helping to secure the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The historic 1963 March on Washington was another victory the NAACP helped to coordinate through coalitions.
In the 1970s, cases covered violation of Blacks’ voting rights. Across the 1970s and 1980s, Jack Greenberg provided leadership for the Legal Defense Fund for cases on school integration, equal employment, fair housing, and voter registration. Some cases covered enforcement of the new civil rights legislation of the 1960s, including public accommodations and health care. Campaigns were started on prisoners’ rights and against capital punishment. Also, in 1982, the NAACP registered more than 850,000 voters—a milestone. In 1982, the Supreme Court upheld the argument of William T. Coleman, LDF board chair, against granting tax exemptions to religious schools that discriminate.
The LDF assisted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, restoring protections against job bias. In 1993, the NAACP endorsed and participated in the march by gays and lesbians in Washington, D.C. Controversy and financial scandal led to the 1994 ouster of the Reverend Benjamin Chavis as CEO. Revitalizing leadership followed: Myrlie Evers-Williams became chair of the board of directors in 1995; Democratic congressman and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kweisi Mfume, became president and CEO in 1996; Julian Bond became board chair in 1998; and, after Mfume’s resignation, the business executive, Bruce S. Gordon, became president and CEO in 2005. Also, in the past decade or so, the NAACP (a) launched an economic reciprocity pro-gram in response to anti-affirmative action legislation springing up around the country, (b) launched a campaign against an increase in youth violence, and (c) negotiated agreements to increase diversity in television and film. Thus, up to the present day, the NAACP continues to be a vital organization.
- Berg, M. (2005). “The ticket to freedom”: The NAACP and the struggle for Black political integration. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
- Greenberg, J. (1994). Crusaders in the courts: How a dedicated band of lawyers fought for the civil rights. New York: Basic Books.
- Jonas, G. (2005). Freedom’s sword: The NAACP and the struggle against racism in America, 1909-1969. New York: Routledge.
- Wedin, C. (1998). Inheritors of the spirit: Mary White Ovington and the founding of the NAACP. New York: Wiley.
- Wilson, S. K. (Ed.). (1999). The Crisis reader: Stories, poetry, and essays from the N.A.A.C.P.’s Crisis magazine. New York: Random House.
- Wilson, S. K. (1999). In search of democracy; The NAACP writings of James Weldon, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins (1920-1977). New York: Oxford University Press.