National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Founded (1909)
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)[a] is a civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909 as a bi-racial endeavor to advance justice for African Americans by a group including W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington and Moorfield Storey.
Its mission in the 21st century is “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.” National NAACP initiatives include political lobbying, publicity efforts and litigation strategies developed by its legal team. The group enlarged its mission in the late 20th century by considering issues such as police misconduct, the status of black foreign refugees and questions of economic development. Its name, retained in accordance with tradition, uses the once common term colored people, referring to those with some African ancestry.
The NAACP bestows annual awards to people of color in two categories: Image Awards are for achievement in the arts and entertainment, and Spingarn Medals are for outstanding achievement of any kind. Its headquarters is in Baltimore, Maryland.
The NAACP is headquartered in Baltimore, with additional regional offices in New York, Michigan, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Colorado and California. Each regional office is responsible for coordinating the efforts of state conferences in that region. Local, youth, and college chapters organize activities for individual members.
In the U.S., the NAACP is administered by a 64-member board, led by a chairperson. The board elects one person as the president and one as chief executive officer for the organization. Julian Bond, Civil Rights Movement activist and former Georgia State Senator, was chairman until replaced in February 2010 by health-care administrator Roslyn Brock. For decades in the first half of the 20th century, the organization was effectively led by its executive secretary, who acted as chief operating officer. James Weldon Johnson and Walter F. White, who served in that role successively from 1920 to 1958, were much more widely known as NAACP leaders than were presidents during those years.
Departments within the NAACP govern areas of action. Local chapters are supported by the ‘Branch and Field Services’ department and the ‘Youth and College’ department. The ‘Legal’ department focuses on court cases of broad application to minorities, such as systematic discrimination in employment, government, or education. The Washington, D.C., bureau is responsible for lobbying the U.S. government, and the Education Department works to improve public education at the local, state and federal levels. The goal of the Health Division is to advance health care for minorities through public policy initiatives and education.
As of 2007, the NAACP had approximately 425,000 paying and non-paying members.
The NAACP’s non-current records are housed at the Library of Congress, which has served as the organization’s official repository since 1964. The records held there comprise approximately five million items spanning the NAACP’s history from the time of its founding until 2003. In 2011, the NAACP teamed with the digital repository ProQuest to digitize and host online the earlier portion of its archives, through 1972 – nearly two million pages of documents, from the national, legal, and branch offices throughout the country, which offer first-hand insight into the organization’s work related to such crucial issues as lynching, school desegregation, and discrimination in all its aspects (in the military, the criminal justice system, employment, housing).
Predecessor: The Niagara Movement
The Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York featured many American innovations and achievements, but also included a disparaging caricature of slave life in the South as well as a depiction of life in Africa, called “Old Plantation” and “Darkest Africa,” respectively. A local African American women, Mary Talbert of Ohio was appalled by the exhibit, as a similar one in Paris highlighted black achievements. She informed W.E.B. DuBois of the situation, and a coalition began to form.
In 1905, a group of thirty-two prominent African-American leaders met to discuss the challenges facing people of color and possible strategies and solutions. They were particularly concerned by the Southern states’ disenfranchisement of blacks starting with Mississippi’s passage of a new constitution in 1890. Through 1908, southern legislatures dominated by white Democrats ratified new constitutions and laws creating barriers to voter registration and more complex election rules. In practice, this caused the exclusion of most blacks and many poor whites from the political system in southern states, crippling the Republican Party in most of the South. Black voter registration and turnout dropped markedly in the South as a result of such legislation. Men who had been voting for thirty years in the South were told they did not “qualify” to register. White-dominated legislatures also passed segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Because hotels in the US were segregated, the men convened in Canada at the Erie Beach Hotel on the Canadian side of the Niagara River in Fort Erie, Ontario. As a result, the group came to be known as the Niagara Movement. A year later, three non-African-Americans joined the group: journalist William English Walling, a wealthy socialist; and social workers Mary White Ovington and Henry Moskowitz. Moskowitz, who was Jewish, was then also Associate Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. They met in 1906 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and in 1907 in Boston, Massachusetts.
The fledgling group struggled for a time with limited resources and internal conflict, and disbanded in 1910. Seven of the members of the Niagara Movement joined the Board of Directors of the NAACP, founded in 1909. Although both organizations shared membership and overlapped for a time, the Niagara Movement was a separate organization. Historically, it is considered to have had a more radical platform than the NAACP. The Niagara Movement was formed exclusively by African Americans. Three European Americans were among the founders of the NAACP.
The Race Riot of 1908 in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital and President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, was a catalyst showing the urgent need for an effective civil rights organization in the U.S. In the decades around the turn of the century, the rate of lynchings of blacks, particularly men, was at a high. Mary White Ovington, journalist William English Walling and Henry Moskowitz met in New York City in January 1909 to work on organizing for black civil rights. They sent out solicitations for support to more than 60 prominent Americans, and set a meeting date for February 12, 1909. This was intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated enslaved African Americans. While the first large meeting did not take place until three months later, the February date is often cited as the founding date of the organization.
The NAACP was founded on February 12, 1909, by a larger group including African Americans W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Archibald Grimké, Mary Church Terrell, and the previously named whites Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling (the wealthy Socialist son of a former slave-holding family), Florence Kelley, a social reformer and friend of Du Bois;Oswald Garrison Villard, and Charles Edward Russell, a renowned muckraker and close friend of Walling. Russell helped plan the NAACP and had served as acting chairman of the National Negro Committee (1909), a forerunner to the NAACP.
On May 30, 1909, the Niagara Movement conference took place at New York City’s Henry Street Settlement House; they created an organization of more than 40, identifying as the National Negro Committee. Among other founding members was Lillian Wald, a nurse who had founded the Henry Street Settlement where the conference took place.
Du Bois played a key role in organizing the event and presided over the proceedings. Also in attendance was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African-American journalist and anti-lynching crusader. At their second conference on May 30, 1910, members chose the new organization’s name to be the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and elected its first officers:
- National President, Moorfield Storey, Boston
- Chairman of the Executive Committee, William English Walling
- Treasurer, John E. Milholland (a Lincoln Republican and Presbyterian from New York City and Lewis, New York)
- Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard
- Executive Secretary, Frances Blascoer
- Director of Publicity and Research, W. E. B. Du Bois.
The NAACP was incorporated a year later in 1911. The association’s charter expressed its mission:
To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.
The larger conference resulted in a more diverse organization, where the leadership was predominantly white. Moorfield Storey, a white attorney from a Boston abolitionist family, served as the president of the NAACP from its founding to 1915. At its founding, the NAACP had one African American on its executive board, Du Bois. Storey was a long-time classical liberal and Grover Cleveland Democrat who advocated laissez-faire free markets, the gold standard, and anti-imperialism. Storey consistently and aggressively championed civil rights, not only for blacks but also for Native Americans and immigrants (he opposed immigration restrictions). Du Bois continued to play a pivotal leadership role in the organization, serving as editor of the association’s magazine, The Crisis, which had a circulation of more than 30,000.
The Crisis was used both for news reporting and for publishing African-American poetry and literature. During the organization’s campaigns against lynching, Du Bois encouraged the writing and performance of plays and other expressive literature about this issue.
The Jewish community contributed greatly to the NAACP’s founding and continued financing. Jewish historian Howard Sachar writes in his book A History of Jews in America that “In 1914, Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn of Columbia University became chairman of the NAACP and recruited for its board such Jewish leaders as Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.”