Founded in 1909, the NAACP is an organization whose purpose is to use the legal system of the United States to force the government to provide civil rights equitably to U.S. blacks. It came into being in reaction to the violent racism that plagued the United States at the time.
After the end of Reconstruction allowed the imposition of de facto and then de jure segregation, African Americans lost many of the legal protections established by laws and amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Violence against blacks became common as lynching reached epidemic proportions.
Economic and social discrimination increased. Blacks found themselves second-class citizens or worse in white America. Black leaders were in a quandary over how their people should handle the deteriorated situation.
In 1895 educator Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black of his time, proposed that African Americans should accommodate. They should allow segregation to continue while they used self-help to develop their own society and to improve their economic condition.
Washington hoped that U.S. society would notice the gradual improvement and come to accept black participation in the white political and social systems. Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as a segregated vocational school to teach blacks practical skills they needed for everyday life.
Not all black leaders agreed with Washington's accommodationism. Some looked at the increase in poverty and the backwardness of a Jim Crow system as separate and blatantly unequal. They also noted the outrageousness of hundreds of lynchings a year. They regarded Washington as a tool of the white system. Among the critics who engaged Washington in a long debate was the intellectual W. E. B. DuBois.
For over a decade the debate continued as black Americans suffered. Then in 1905 DuBois and William Monroe Trotter called a meeting at Niagara Falls, Canada. The meeting led to the formation of the Niagara movement, which rejected Washington's gradualist accommodationism and called for vigilance and protest.
The Niagara movement was premature. Washington was too powerful. By 1908 the movement was history. Its message, however, lingered: There would be no more appeasement of white racism by black Americans.
The NAACP came into being in 1909, formed by DuBois and other blacks and whites dedicated to legal resistance of Jim Crow discrimination and segregation. Among the founders was Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of the New York Evening Post and grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
A charter member was Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. Also among the founders were the lawyer Clarence Darrow and Jane Addams, social worker, peace activist, and founder of Hull-House.
The NAACP campaign against the decades-old plague of lynching set the approach it would take—long, deliberate, and difficult campaigns that would entail first bringing attention to the problem through its newspaper, The Crisis, then issuing lengthy and detailed reports and lobbying Congress for changes in the laws.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed federal antilynching laws in 1922, 1937, and 1940, but each time the legislation died in the Senate, falling victim to actual or threatened filibusters. The NAACP persisted, but the federal government never passed such legislation.
The NAACP did not spend all of its time on the antilynching effort. It also investigated other civil rights abuses and litigated discrimination cases in areas including the segregation of streetcars and railroad trains, residential restrictive covenants, segregated schools, and general abuses of civil rights and liberties including the ban on blacks on juries and the denial of voting rights.
Civil rights action through the mid-1930s included work on behalf of accused criminals who rarely enjoyed juries of their (black) peers. The NAACP was also active in working to get equal salaries for black public school teachers. Sometimes it won. Often it lost. Always it kept the issues in the public awareness.
On the matter of fair trials, a significant success occurred in 1919 in Arkansas. That year black farmers tried to form a union. In retaliation, a white mob killed more than 200 black men, women, and children. Local authorities arrested 79 black sharecroppers and charged them with murder.
The trial featured coerced testimony and a defense that called no witnesses. A white mob threatened during the trial to lynch any found not guilty. After a single hour of deliberation, the jury declared 12 of the defendants to be guilty of crimes warranting a sentence of death.
Others received long prison terms. The NAACP appealed the case for four years before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. In Moore v. Dempsey the court overturned the convictions.
The NAACP attempted to fight restrictions on the black vote. In Guinn v. United States the NAACP successfully convinced the Supreme Court to overturn Oklahoma's grandfather clause, which allowed the vote to only those persons whose grandfathers had voted and effectively excluded all but a handful of blacks. Southern states found new methods of disenfranchising blacks.
A popular choice was defining political parties as private and allowing them to select their members, which meant that the parties and their primaries would be white only. In the one-party South the primary was the election, so the white primary denied blacks access to the ballot. Decades later, in 1945, Smith v. Alright, brought by the NAACP, eliminated the white primary.
The NAACP had early on developed a somewhat schizophrenic character, with DuBois, as editor of The Crisis, stressing publicity and lobbying, and the legal staff continuing the slow and tedious work of litigation. DuBois became more radical as he aged. He was more concerned with civil liberties and the working class across race lines, and he thought that the NAACP's preoccupation with segregation was excessive.
He also thought that the NAACP was becoming increasingly conservative, moving toward Washington's accommodationism. When the NAACP shifted its focus from The Crisis to the courts in the 1930s as it took up segregation as its major target, it completed the split. In 1934 DuBois left the NAACP and established the National Negro Congress, a union of 600 black organizations with a focus on economic justice.
With DuBois and the economic radicals out of the picture, the NAACP under president Walter White used the resources of the NAACP legal department, especially Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall. For two decades the NAACP focused strongly on ending school segregation, lynching, and the Jim Crow system.
The process entailed litigating against one city, state, or county at a time, forcing the party sued to show that it was complying with Plessey v. Ferguson. The NAACP forced those it sued to either upgrade their black facilities to the white standard or abandon the separate but equal myth of Plessey.
In the 1930s and 1940s the NAACP began eroding the legal basis for segregated educational systems, and in 1954 it won its most important victory in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ruled that separate was inherently unequal and opened the door to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
The "Second Reconstruction" occurred thanks to, but largely without, the NAACP. After white backlash and timid enforcement of the laws by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, black Americans began forcing the battle in the early 1960s with sit-ins, freedom rides, and other methods of peaceful confrontation.
The NAACP was hamstrung by state efforts such as one that occurred in Alabama. There the state used anticommunist legislation to demand the membership rolls of the NAACP. Because the NAACP was a locally based rather than a national organization, the release of its membership rolls would have proved fatal. But the case kept it in court and unable to be an effective part of the Civil Rights movement.