Today’s blog is written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
February 12, 2014 marked the 105th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Founded in 1909, by a diverse group of people, which included educator W. E. B. Du Bois and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the NAACP has had a long history of fighting for equal rights for people of all races during the twentieth century. The organization was particularly active during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s and provided legal counsel in many discrimination cases. The founding date of the NAACP was also significant because it was the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
During its early years, the NAACP fought Jim Crow laws in the South, which promoted segregation in the schools, transportation, and in public places. The NAACP used the courts to overturn these laws. Members of the organization led various lawsuits that challenged racial segregation and most of them went to the United States Supreme Court. One case in particular was Guinn v. United States (1915), which challenged Oklahoma’s racial discriminatory grandfather clause that disenfranchised African Americans from registering to vote. In the end, the court ruled that the grandfather clause violated the 15th Amendment and ruled it unconstitutional. This was the beginning of many victories to come for the NAACP.
During World War I, the NAACP was influential in winning the right of African Americans to fight overseas and the rights of working Black women. Several NAACP representatives sent letters and telegrams to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and to President Woodrow Wilson seeking federal action for the protection of African American women in the workforce. One such telegram from NAACP’s secretary John R. Shillady in New York to President Wilson, asked for such protection.
The Crisis magazine, edited by Du Bois, printed several articles about the mistreatment of African Americans both at home and abroad during the war years. One particular article in May 1918, “The Negro and the War Department,” discussed the injustices that were inflicted upon Black soldiers.
After World War I ended in November 1918, the NAACP began a crusade against the lynching of African Americans in the United States, particularly in the South. Many NAACP staff members such as Assistant Secretary Roy Wilkins and Secretary Walter White wrote to several government agencies seeking federal legislation against lynching. Subjects of these letters included the investigation into a double lynching in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; support for the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill; the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida; and drafting a measure to punish perpetrators of mob violence against any religious, political, or racial minority groups. All of these letters are from the records of the DOJ numerical file #158260 in the Straight Numerical Files series (National Archives Identifier 583895) that contains all sorts of letters relating to racial violence.
At their office in New York City, NAACP staff hung a black flag outside entitled “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” Its purpose was to remind every one of what was happening to African Americans in the South.
Bolstered by the Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, the NAACP began a campaign of desegregation in the South. Famous campaigns of desegregation were the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the Little Rock Nine of 1957.
By the 1960s, the NAACP’s reputation had grown. They were involved in most major events that occurred during the years of the modern Civil Rights Movement, which included the March on Washington and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. These events contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. NAACP’s Executive Director Roy Wilkins played a major role during the civil rights movement, including the March on Washington. For more on his career and the NAACP’s growth and impact of the movement, please watch a video entitled Roy Wilkins, The Right to Dignity (National Archives Identifier 2546045) narrated by Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier.
Today, the NAACP continues to fight for equal rights for all citizens of race, gender, religion, etc. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us remember the NAACP as they celebrate 105 years of hard work and fighting for equal justice.