Historic Presence

The NAACP's four conventions in Baltimore reflect the times and struggles of the civil rights group

Naacp 2000

July 13, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Today ends the NAACP's fourth-ever convention in Baltimore. Those gatherings in Baltimore over a span of 86 years reflect human progress but its failure, too.

Some of the most noxious problems deliberated over by the earlier Baltimore conventions - lynchings, Jim Crow, apartheid - have long been absent from the agenda, relegated to history. But other issues - principally economic disparity and deprivation, vexed this year's conventioneers as much as those at all the earlier Baltimore meetings.

The first Baltimore NAACP convention occurred during the organization's infancy, barely six years after its birth. Conventioneers, numbering perhaps 2,000, discussed lynchings in the South, segregation, education and political and civil rights. The majority press paid them hardly any mind. In The Sun, the convention started as Page 5 news and slipped from there. The black press was far more attentive. It was The Afro-American Ledger rather than the majority media that reported a philosophic divide at the convention about the most effective path to racial justice.

Several white speakers friendly to the cause of blacks, including a U.S. senator and Dr. Howard Kelly, an eminent gynecologist and one of the original professors at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, asserted that blacks could best achieve racial progress by practicing "clean living" -- staying sober, acquiring property and otherwise displaying good citizenship.

Joel E. Springarn, one of the NAACP's founders, took issue with this bland prescription. To a cheering crowd at the Lyric on the convention's opening night, he said that the Negro had long been urged "to be a decent citizen, get a bank account and buy property, and that he would then enjoy the rights that other citizens have." Instead, Springarn, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University who later became an NAACP president, blacks had only suffered further erosion of their rights. Going along quietly was a failed strategy, he asserted.

Subsequent sessions of that convention were held in some of Baltimore's most august African-American churches, including Sharon Baptist, Union Baptist and Sharp Street Memorial. The highlight was to be the closing ceremonies scheduled at McCoy Hall at Johns Hopkins University, even though it did not admit black students at the time. However, when conventioneers showed up that Tuesday evening, they found the building locked and dark. Chagrined and humiliated, they were forced to retreat to the Bethel AME Church, where they were to hear the convention's most newsworthy speakers, Charles Bonaparte, a former U.S. attorney general, Belle LaFollette, wife of the populist senator from Wisconsin, and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Post, which the Afro-American described as "one of the fairest papers in the country in regard to the Negro."

Difficult 1936 meeting

The Baltimore convention in the summer of 1936 was a far more tumultuous affair. Again the black press gave the most extensive coverage, although even the Afro-American was still preoccupied by - and smarting from - the shocking defeat two weeks earlier of boxer Joe Louis at the hands of Max Schmelling.

The convention also occurred on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. It was a time of realignment for America's black electorate. "That was an important period that marked a change in the allegiance of blacks from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party," said Ron Walters, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Maryland who spoke at this year's convention.

But at that 1936 convention, the allegiance to the Democrats was still tenuous. Ralph Bunche, then a Howard University professor, told conventioneers that he regarded the Democrats as the lesser of two evils, not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of the Roosevelt administration. At the convention, which occurred in the depths of the Great Depression, there was much recrimination about blacks receiving less economic relief than whites.

Harold Ickes, a close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt who was secretary of the interior, sought to defend the administration during his speech at the Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church. He asserted that no president since Abraham Lincoln had been as supportive of blacks as had Roosevelt.

Perhaps that was true, wrote a young Clarence Mitchell in an Afro-American column, but the standard wasn't all that high. Mitchell of Baltimore, who would later become one of the NAACP's most revered officials, said Roosevelt had been particularly deficient in his failure to pass an anti-lynching law. In the year 1935, at least 20 lynchings occurred in the country.

"It is not sufficient," Mitchell wrote, "for the leader of a nation so great as ours to be merely a congenial, liberal-minded individual. In addition, he must be courageous enough to speak out and act in the interest of all the people."

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