NAACP history steeped in quest for justice

Organization's mission included fighting lynchings and ending discrimination

December 05, 2004|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN STAFF

Late in the 19th century, a strange fruit began appearing on trees in the South. The dangling bodies of black victims of lynching signaled the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

By the early 20th century, the racial violence had extended beyond the South. A race riot in Springfield, Ill., in 1908 spurred a group of progressive blacks and whites to band together to fight racial violence.

The next year, they founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

One of the NAACP's founders, W.E.B. Du Bois, was a leader in the Niagara Movement, a pioneer civil rights group that in 1906 held its first public meeting in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. A year earlier, members of the interracial group met secretly in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to sidestep racial segregation in the United States.

The group's mission was to fight lynching and racial segregation laws and to return voting rights to Southern blacks who had been disenfranchised.

The NAACP opened its first national office in New York City and named a white constitutional lawyer, Moorfield Storey, as its first president.

Whites held most of the organization's leadership positions, and Du Bois was the only African-American executive. In 1910, he established The Crisis, the organization's official publication.

In 1917, the NAACP had 9,000 members - but the figure grew to 90,000 in just two years. The organization's growth coincided with the spate of race riots that punctuated the period. In 1919 alone, there were 26 race riots in urban areas and scores of blacks were killed.

In 1920, the writer James Weldon Johnson became the first black secretary of the organization, and Dr. Louis T. Wright, a surgeon, became the first black board chairman.

At least 3,436 African-Americans were lynched from 1882 to 1950. In the 1920s, the NAACP began a campaign for federal anti-lynching legislation that lasted for decades, but Congress never enacted it. Nevertheless, the organization is credited with focusing public attention on the lynchings.

By 1946, the NAACP claimed 500,000 members, a figure it says has remained unchanged for six decades. In 1954, the NAACP scored a major victory with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools. Brown provided the legal underpinnings that resulted in the end of segregation laws.

In the 1960s, under the leadership of Roy Wilkins, the NAACP was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, but it favored legal and legislative battles over nonviolent protests.

The NAACP was criticized for its conservatism, but it provided financial and legal help to groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which sent protesters to the streets.

The NAACP's Washington lobbyist, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., of Baltimore, worked behind the scenes to persuade members of Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In recent years, the NAACP's mission hasn't been as well defined as it was during the days of lynchings and segregation. Last year, a federal judge dismissed a case the NAACP filed against the firearms industry. The lawsuit accused gun manufacturers and distributors of marketing practices that hurt the black community.

This year, the NAACP claimed victory when the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain agreed to an $8.7 million settlement for a discrimination lawsuit. The NAACP was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In July, President Bush declined to attend the NAACP convention. Bush said NAACP leaders had called him names and targeted him for harsh criticism.

This history was compiled from The Sun's archives and information on the NAACP's Web site.

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