The NAACP at 100

Against the Current, No. 140, May/June 2009

Malik Miah

THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) marks its 100th anniversary this year. It plans a full celebration at its centennial national convention July 11-16 in New York City.

Many may wonder if the NAACP — the nation’s oldest civil rights group — is still relevant. Doesn’t the election of the first African American president, Barack Obama, mean the legacy of slavery and legal discrimination becomes a lesson for history?

If you asked a right-wing conservative (white or Black), the answer would be “Yes.” Not that these conservatives deny that discrimination still exists or prejudice is gone. They argue, however, that the laws of the land and the fact that a Black man was elected president prove racism and discrimination are no longer a central issue facing Americans.

Many liberals buy into much of that analysis. They recognize that the United States is not truly a colorblind country. There is still discrimination; there is still a legacy of institutional racism that explains the social-economic and political gap between whites and African Americans. Like many moderate conservatives, however, they see racism as no longer a top priority.

The attitude is: let’s focus on common economic and social “issues of concern for all Americans” — whites, Blacks, Asians and Latinos. The Obama domestic agenda reflects this more neutral view about race and racism. It is the core of Black middle class ideology — recognizing the continuing reality of racism while focusing on the “bigger picture.”

The NAACP leaders, who like other civil rights officials now have full access to the White House — something that was not the case for the past eight years — reflect the middle-class outlook. Yet the organization’s stated mission is to make sure that racial discrimination is eliminated.

The contradiction facing Obama, as a representative of the Black elite but also head of the most powerful country on the planet assigned to protect the interests of the ruling class, is how to downplay racism while making sure that more young African American men and women can do what he has done. (There is no doubt that this is the genuine view of Barack and Michelle Obama, and the leaders of the NAACP and other Black civil rights groups.)

Progress is Reversible

But the most important lesson of African American history is how quickly progress can be reversed or significantly rolled back. Civil rights historians and activists are fully aware of what happened to the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The counterrevolution was in full swing less than 20 years after Lincoln’s assassination. The infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision codified Jim Crow segregation laws.

To disabuse those who may think that racial progress is permanently engraved in the laws of the land, consider a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on voting rights. Ruling on a dispute in North Carolina, the Supreme Court narrowed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the dilution of minority voter strength in the drawing of voting districts.

The ruling “could result in a reduction of minority districts by encouraging drafters to pack traditional minority districts with more than fifty percent minority voters, rather than aiming for widespread distribution across several voting districts.” (Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor, March 10)

As the editors of The New York Times explained: “The regrettable 5-to-4 ruling overturns two of the court’s central goals: protecting minority voting rights and moving the nation toward a more colorblind future.” (March 11, 2009)

In the historic 2008 presidential election, four to five million voters did not cast a ballot because they encountered registration problems or failed to receive absentee ballots, which was roughly the same number of voters who had problems in the 2000 election. An additional two million to four million registered voters were “discouraged” from voting due to administrative hassles like long lines and voter identification requirements.

These “problems” disproportionally affect minority citizens. Republicans have pushed voter ID laws, effectively to deny voting rights to former convicts and immigrants. How many homeless will be counted? How many people who rent will be left out of the census? That’s an issue for the 2010 Census.

Former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell explained in the acclaimed television program “Black List: Volume 1 and 2” (first aired by HBO in February) that simply because many African Americans have made great achievements, “We should not think that this second Civil War is over until we have provided opportunities for all Americans — African Americans, Hispanic Americans, poor white Americans. We should not think we can rest on the achievements of the past 30 to 40 years.”

The Niagara Movement

In that context, it is useful to review the NAACP’s history.

While the NAACP was formed in 1909, its true origins go back four years earlier with the Niagara Movement. In July of 1905 W.E.B. Dubois, the most prominent Black intellectual of the time, called a meeting of the “Talented Tenth,” held in Fort Erie, Ontario because no hotel on the U.S. side would rent them a meeting room.

Twenty-nine people attended to respond to the challenge of a rising Ku Klux Klan, lynching and intense bigotry. Here’s a summary of the Niagara Movement’s central demands:

1. Freedom of speech and criticism. Mainly directed at the internal debate within the Black community between the Talented Tenth layers and Booker T. Washington’s more conservative (“don’t rock the boat”) Tuskegee Institute supporters.

2. An unfettered and unsubsidized press. The goal was to make sure the views of the radicals were widely spread.

3. Male suffrage. To participate fully in the American political system as equals. (Women didn’t get the vote until 1920.)

4. Abolition of all caste distinctions based on race and color. The demands were squarely aimed at Jim Crow in the South and de facto racism in the North.

5. Recognition of the principles of human brotherhood as a practical present creed.

6. Recognition of the highest and best human training as a monopoly of no class or race. It emphasized the importance of publicly financed education.

7. Belief in the dignity of labor. The demand was not just for equal employment opportunities but sharp criticism of not only the employers but the discrimination prevalent in the trade unions.

8. United efforts to realize ideals under wise and courageous leadership. Constant protest was approved as the method to secure equal rights.

These goals clashed with the accommodationist politics of Washington (the recognized Black leader for white America) who feared upsetting the white power structure. The Niagara Movement agenda and strategy was radical, advocating direct action protests.

Washington’s policy was to look to friends in government and soft lobbying. His campaign against the Niagara Movement and the “uncompromising Negros” made it impossible to build a broader alliance with white liberals, which led to the Movement’s demise. Its core ideals, however, lived on.

The effort to build a broader civil rights organization led to the formation of the NAACP. After “riots” in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, a group of Black intellectuals and white liberals issued a call on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1909, leading to the first meeting on May 31-June 1 of the National Negro Committee in New York City. A year later the Committee changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Principal Objective Still Incomplete

Echoing the focus of Du Bois’ Niagara Movement, the NAACP’s stated goal was to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which respectively promised an end to slavery, equal protection of the law, and universal adult male suffrage.

The NAACP established its national office in New York City in 1910 and named a board of directors as well as a president, Moorfield Storey, a white constitutional lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association. The only African American among the organization’s executives, Du Bois was made director of publications and research and in 1910 established the official journal of the NAACP, The Crisis.

Its mission: “The NAACP’s principal objective is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of United States and eliminate race prejudice. The NAACP seeks to remove all barriers of racial discrimination through the democratic processes.” (National NAACP web site)

While this principal objective has been greatly filled legally, it is still uncompleted institutionally.

The NAACP’s formation and its continued existence show why racism is still a central element in society, even if the issues are not the same as 100 years ago — and a continuing reminder of the transformational impact of the Black movement.

The NAACP symbolizes why these organizations and Black publications (Obama for the first time invited the editors to the White House thanking them for their support, and for the first time ever had a senior correspondent of Ebony magazine ask a question at a presidential press conference) must continue to spotlight the problems of racial discrimination and the battle to achieve full equality.

It’s not enough to have Black faces in high places, as significant as that is for young African American boys and girls to see. The issue of racism and legacy discrimination remains. It can’t be buried or minimized even as progress has been made, as Powell pointed out. Despite Obama’s claim that he can stand above “race,” that’s not possible. We are not in a “post-racial” society.

Remaining Vigilant

By 1909 when the NAACP was formed, denial of voting rights was common throughout the South. A number one civil rights fight was to end lynching by white vigilante groups and to prosecute the white terrorists.

It had been 40 years earlier that Black people were freed from slavery.

In 1914 the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey built a mass urban following for Black self reliance. He started the Universal Negro Improvement Association and began speaking out publicly in favor of worldwide Black unity and an end to colonialism.

Garvey opposed the belief of the NAACP and especially Du Bois that whites could be won to the cause of Black freedom. Both a charismatic and highly controversial figure, Garvey and his followers saw all whites as anti-Black, advocated an all-Black party and supported a “Back to Africa” program. He was prosecuted for alleged corruption and his movement essentially crushed by the government in the 1920s.

In the 1930s and ‘40s Blacks pressed for civil rights during the Great Depression and organized a March on Washington in 1941 (later called off) to press for full equality. It took until the Korean War for the military to be desegregated.

The NAACP’s most important legal case after World War II was Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Years in preparation, the case was argued before the Supreme Court by the NAACP’s lead counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would become the Court’s first African-American Justice. The Court held “separate but equal” public education unconstitutional because it could never be truly equal.

The graphic timeline — from chattel slavery, emancipation, loss of rights, desegregation and recovery of most legal rights in the 1960s and now to the election of the first Black president — chronicles a period of mostly second-class citizenship.

For the past century, the NAACP was central to most of these fights. Its members helped found other civil rights groups. From its Niagara Movement origins, it used lawyers and direct action to fight the cause. While more militant Black groups, including Black trade unionists like those leading the Sleeping Car Porters, organized fightbacks, the NAACP remained front and center, especially in the South.

The SCLC and Martin Luther King, the youth of SNCC, along with the NAACP legal department, led the battles in the 1950s and 1960s to end Jim Crow. Sometimes called the Second Civil War, that battle is still ongoing but made it possible for Obama to be elected president.  Yet the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act in 2009 shows, again, how quickly what has been won can be eroded.

This contradictory and at times sordid history explains why civil and human rights groups must remain vigilant. Until a new socialist-based system that outlaws discrimination permanently, civil and human rights activists must be aggressive in pressing their democratic, socio-political and economic demands.

The 100th anniversary of the NAACP thus is not just a time to look to the past. It is an opportunity to understand what needs to be done today to go forward and build a mass direct action movement to protect past gains and bring about revolutionary change.

A brief list of important readings:

John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans (1947)

Elliot Rudwick, W.E.B. Du Bois: Voice of the Black Protest Movement (1982)

Langston Hughes, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962)

Peter B. Levy, The Civil Rights Movement (1988)

Philip S. Foner, American Socialism and Black Americans: From the Age of Jackson to World War II (1977)

ATC 140, May/June 2009