Establishment of the NAACP

  • The NAACP, or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was established in 1909 and is America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It was formed in New York City by white and Black activists, partially in response to the ongoing violence against African Americans. In the NAACP’s early decades, its anti-lynching campaign was central to its agenda. During the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s, the group won significant legal victories, and today the NAACP has more than 2,200 branches and some half a million members worldwide.

    The NAACP was established in February 1909 in New York City by an interracial group of activists in response to the 1908 Springfield race riot in Illinois. In that event, two Black men being held in a Springfield jail for alleged crimes against white people were secretly transferred to a prison in another city, spurring a white mob to burn down 40 homes in Springfield’s Black residential district, ransack local businesses, and murder two African Americans.

    The NAACP’s founding members included W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Archibald Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling, and Oswald Garrison Villard. Many of the organization's founding members were suffragists, social workers, journalists, labor reformers, and intellectuals involved in the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group, started in 1905 and led by Du Bois.

    In its charter, the NAACP promised to champion equal rights, eliminate racial prejudice, and “advance the interest of colored citizens” regarding voting rights, legal justice, and educational and employment opportunities.

    A white lawyer, Moorfield Storey, became the NAACP’s first president. Du Bois, the only Black person on the initial leadership team, served as director of publications and research. In 1910, Du Bois started The Crisis, which became the leading publication for Black writers; it remains in print today.

    Since its inception, the NAACP has worked to achieve its goals through the judicial system, lobbying, and peaceful protests. In 1910, Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment allowing people whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote in 1866 to register without passing a literacy test. This “grandfather clause” enabled illiterate whites to avoid taking the reading test while discriminating against illiterate Black people, whose ancestors weren’t guaranteed the right to vote in 1866 by requiring them to pass a test to vote. The NAACP challenged the law and won a legal victory in 1915 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. the United States that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional.

    The NAACP played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the organization’s key victories was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools. Pioneering civil-rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense, and Educational Fund (LDF) head, successfully argued the case before the court. Marshall, who founded the LDF in 1940, won several other critical civil rights cases involving voting rights and discriminatory housing practices. In 1967, he became the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

    During the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, one of the most significant civil rights rallies in U.S. history, and ran 1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer, registering Black Mississippians to vote. The NAACP also successfully lobbied for landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 barring racial discrimination in voting.

    Today, the NAACP focuses on such issues as inequality in jobs, education, health care, the criminal justice system, and protecting voting rights. The group also has pushed for the removal of Confederate flags and statues from public property. It is estimated that as of 2021, the NAACP had more than 2,200 branches and more than half a million members worldwide.