The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, celebrates its 100th anniversary this week.
It’s amazing to think it all started in 1909 with 60 people (including founding member W.E.B. Du Bois) who were tired of the rampant racism pervading our country. They decided to end injustice for all through nonviolent, legal action.
The film “The Birth of a Nation” opened in theaters in March 1915 and depicted Piedmont, South Carolina, where African-Americans are ridiculed as ignorant, brutish slaves who, by the film’s end, are overthrown by the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP tried to organize a boycott of the film, but failed when it became a hit with White audiences throughout the country, including President Woodrow Wilson, who had a private screening at the White House.
One of the smartest moves ever made by the NAACP was to hire Thurgood Marshall as an attorney in 1936. He later became the director of NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Marshall argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 29 of them. He was later nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court as the first African-American to sit on the nation’s highest court.
Thurgood Marshall’s most famous win was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools in 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court decided to end the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. It included five legal cases brought on by Black parents who felt their children were not receiving an equal education.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White man on the bus. Alreday a member of the NAACP, Parks became the figure they were looking for to stand up to the justice system and fight back. When Rosa Parks was arrested, her one phone call was made to her pastor, Reverend E.B Nixon, who was also the president of the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama. Nixon called the Washington, D.C., NAACP, who then called Reverend A. Philip Randolph and Reverend Martin L. King. The rest, as they say, is history.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Under the initial plan, more than 300 Black students were supposed to be admitted. The Board only approved 25 in 1957 but even with the support of the Little Rock branch of the NAACP, the parents of just nine students allowed their children to attend. The National Guard had to walk with those nine Black students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to school for several months.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech) was organized in part by NAACP president Roy Wilkins. Estimates of the number of people who came out vary between 200,000 to over 300,000, where roughly 80 percent of the marchers were African-American.
The NAACP goes global in its attempts to protest apartheid in South Africa. In 1985, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks encouraged local branches to step up their antiapartheid rallies and demonstrations. More than 10,000 people filed down Fifth Avenue in New York City, marching with the NAACP against apartheid.
NAACP leaders convinced more than 50,000 people to march in their 2000 campaign against flying the Confederate battle flag on state grounds in South Carolina. The NAACP called the flag a symbol of slavery and racism. The flags were removed from the Statehouse dome and the House and Senate chambers.
The murder of Emmett Till has been said to be the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. In 2003, the NAACP convinced the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the Till murder case to determine if there were more people involved other than the two men who were tried and acquitted. Since an autopsy had never been performed on Till’s body, it was exhumed and reburied.
The NAACP was at the forefront in the December 2006 incident in Jena, Louisiana, when six Black high school students were charged with the attempted murder for a school fight against a White student who allegedly taunted them by hanging nooses from a tree at school. The student was treated at a local hospital, released, and attended a social function later that evening. Meanwhile, all six were expelled from school and faced up to 22 years in prison.
According to the NAACP, the “N-word” died on July 9, 2007, as hundreds of people participated in a public burial of the racial slur during that year’s convention in Detroit. Two horses pulled a pine box adorned with artificial black roses. It was buried at Memorial Park Cemetery where it has an actual headstone.
The organization that started with 60 people now has a membership of more than 500,000 people. In 2008, Benjamin T. Jealous became the latest president and CEO of the NAACP. At 36, he is the youngest person to ever hold the position.
Congratulations to the NAACP on its unwavering support of the African-American community for the last 100 years.