The long road to equality

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  1. Despite the rise of Barack Obama, many African-Americans still feel like second-class citizens. John Kirk charts the progress of the civil rights movement through its most prominent body, the NAACP, which celebrates its centenary this year.

  2. Further Reading

Despite the rise of Barack Obama, many African-Americans still feel like second-class citizens. John Kirk charts the progress of the civil rights movement through its most prominent body, the NAACP, which celebrates its centenary this year.

On February 12th, 1909 — the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth — a group of 60 activists, both black and white, signed a petition issuing 'The Call' for America to rededicate itself to the ideals of racial justice that Lincoln had come to represent. 'Besides a day of rejoicing,' the petition read, 'Lincoln's birthday … should be one of taking stock of the nation's progress since [his assassination in] 1865.' Today, 100 years later, the organisation born out of The Call, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is America's oldest and largest civil rights group. Its history is the history of American civil rights in the past century.

The NAACP's origins had numerous strands. At the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) the promise of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was fulfilled when southern slaves were freed. During the period of Beconstruction (1865-77), the victorious Bepublican North sought to create a biracial democracy in the South. The cornerstone of this project was three constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment (1865) officially abolished and prohibited slavery. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted former slaves (and all US citizens) 'equal protection' under the law. The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited denial of the vote because of 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude'.

When a new generation of Republican politicians abandoned Reconstruction in 1877, prioritising national unity and economic progress over racial justice, Southern Democrats, many of whom had supported and fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, seized power. They quickly set about undermining the civil rights of former slaves. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, racial discrimination was formalised in a set of laws that provided for the segregation and disenfranchisement of the black population.

Southern Democrats could not blatantly ignore constitutional amendments. But they did, with northern and federal complicity, find various ways around them. The US Supreme Court condoned segregation in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) by upholding the legal doctrine of 'separate but equal'. Homer Plessy had appealed against his jail sentence for sitting in a train carriage for whites only. The court said that as long as facilities for blacks were 'equal' to whites, the phrase used in the 14th Amendment, they could be provided separately. In practice, separate hardly ever meant equal. By introducing literacy tests and poll taxes as voter qualifications, Southern Democrats undermined the 15th Amendment by effectively disenfranchising a largely illiterate and almost uniformly poor black population.

Beneath the velvet glove of constitutional subtleties lay an iron fist of violence and intimidation. It was not just the vigilantism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan that enforced white supremacy. The idea became deeply embedded in southern society. African-Americans who transgressed the law, or who simply failed to show adequate deference to whites, could face deadly consequences. Lynchings were rife. One study compiled by the NAACP reported 3,224 lynchings of African-Americans between 1889 and 1919.

African-Americans responded in a number of ways. Those who could afford to do so moved in the Great Migration to northern and western cities. Although they escaped formal segregation in the South, they often encountered other forms of racial discrimination elsewhere. But there were many who viewed the South as their home, a place where they had been born and raised and where they had family ties. Some subscribed to the ideas of southern-born Booker T. Washington, a former slave and America's foremost black leader at the turn of the century. Washington extolled the benefits of individual thrift and hard work, and the building of strong black institutions as the key to uplifting his race. Although his approach has sometimes been dismissed as too tolerant of segregation and oppressive conditions, it offered a pragmatic response to a worsening racial climate when African-Americans had few alternatives open to them.

Washington's most outspoken critic was the northern, free-born, Harvard-educated black intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. From the marginally less oppressive racial climate of the North, Du Bois advocated forthright and unceasing protest against all forms of racial discrimination. In July 1905, he led 29 black activists in forming the Niagara Movement, taking its name from a meeting held at Niagara Falls, which demanded 'every right that belongs to a free-born American — political, civil and social'. Despite making little progress in its own right, the Niagara Movement became a forerunner of the NAACP.

The immediate trigger for the birth of the NAACP was a race riot in August 1908 in Springfield, Illinois — symbolically significant as the place Abraham Lincoln called 'home'. The riot led to six African-Americans being killed, 50 injured and thousands forced to flee for their lives.

A meeting in New York City in May-June 1909 followed The Call and led to the founding of a National Negro Conference. The next year it was renamed the NAACP. A board of directors was created, with Moorfield Storey, a white lawyer, as the NAACP's first president. Headquarters were set up in New York City. Du Bois, as director of publications and research, was the only black executive officer. In 1910, he became editor of the NAACP's influential journal The Crisis. During its first decade, NAACP membership grew from less than 200 to more than 50,000 nationwide. Local branches mushroomed to a total of 220 in 1919.

The NAACP's growth built on its early campaigns. It lobbied Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill. Though unsuccessful in this ambition, it succeeded in raising public awareness of the problem. When D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan and included derogatory black stereotypes, NAACP members protested outside cinemas. During the First World War, the NAACP won appointments of black army officers in segregated units. Du Bois called for African-Americans to 'close ranks' and to fight and prove their worth to the nation. Over 350,000 served in the US army. Around 200,000 were sent to Europe and over 40,000 were involved in combat. Yet, after the war, any idea of a reward for military service was rapidly quashed. A new wave of race riots erupted as whites looked to reassert their authority over emboldened black veterans.

The NAACP's early years also saw a number of landmark victories in the Supreme Court. Guinn v United States (1915) struck down a law disenfranchising black voters in Oklahoma because it violated the 15th Amendment. Buchanan v Warley (1917) set aside a law requiring residential segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Moore v Dempsey (1923) overturned the convictions of 12 black men sentenced to death for their alleged role in a race riot in Elaine, Arkansas.

After its first decade, control of the NAACP began to shift from white to black. In 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the NAACP's first black executive secretary, the most influential post in the organisation. Since then only African-Americans have held this position. Walter White replaced Johnson in 1929. The following year, the NAACP was successful in helping to block President Herbert Hoover's Supreme Court nomination of Judge John J. Parker. The NAACP objected to Parker's past racist rhetoric and his vocal opposition to black suffrage. Its 1930 annual conference declared of this victory: 'The NAACP Comes of Age'.

The political and demographic changes of the 1930s had a far-reaching impact on the NAACP. President Roosevelt's New Deal ushered in an era of more active federal government. Though the New Deal had an ambiguous impact on African-Americans — Roosevelt was more concerned with tackling economic depression than bringing about racial equality — there was a palpable shift in federal sympathies. Many abandoned Lincoln's Republican Party: 'That debt is paid in full', one commentator wrote. Instead African-Americans began to vote for the nationally more progressive Democratic Party — even though, at a local and state level in the South, it remained the party of white supremacy.

The New Deal profoundly altered the landscape of the South. Industrialisation and urbanisation were promoted to wean the region from its precarious reliance on a cotton-based, agricultural economy. Policies of collectivisation and mechanisation pushed many African-Americans off the land and into growing southern towns and cities. Larger urban black populations were less vulnerable to attack than in rural and isolated areas. Stronger black communities, along with the vibrant organisations and institutions they created, paved the way for the growth of the NAACP and later the civil rights movement.

Amid these upheavals, lawyers were busy shaping the NAACP's legal strategy. In 1925, a donation from the white philanthropic Garland Fund provided money for litigation. The NAACP hired the white lawyer Nathan Margold to draw up a report on how it should be spent. In 1935, the NAACP hired the black lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston as its special counsel to implement the report's findings.

Houston's legal strategy focused on education. One avenue was to pursue better higher education opportunities for African-Americans. In Murray v Pearson (1936), Houston's aspiring young protégé Thurgood Marshall, won the case in the state courts for the admission of Donald Murray to the University of Maryland's law school. In 1938, Houston successfully argued before the Supreme Court that Lloyd Gaines should be allowed to study in his home state at the University of Missouri law school. In the past, the university had funded scholarships for black graduate students to study in other states rather than providing its own separate facilities. Gaines, however, never took up his place. In 1939, on a trip to Chicago, he mysteriously vanished and was never seen again. (In 2001, the University of Missouri-Columbia renamed its Black Culture Center in Gaines's honour and in 2006 it granted Gaines an honorary law degree.)

Another legal avenue was the fight for equal pay for black teachers. Thurgood Marshall, who succeeded Houston as NAACP special counsel in 1938 and whose mother was a teacher, championed this cause. In Montgomery County, in his home state of Maryland, Marshall won his first out-of-court settlement in 1937 and a court order for equalisation of teachers' salaries in Anne Arundel County in 1939. He secured his first southern teachers' salary victory in the Virginia case of Alston v School Board of Norfolk in 1940. Marshall argued that the board was violating the 14th amendment by paying black teachers less than white teachers, despite their having identical qualifications.

The same year the NAACP's legal wing became the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF). The move followed pressure from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which denied the NAACP tax-exempt status because of its political lobbying. The LDF, set up to deal with legal and educational matters only, could therefore claim tax-exemption. Marshall became its director-counsel. The NAACP and LDF remained essentially interlocking organisations until the two formally split in 1957.

During the Second World War black leaders and the black press actively encouraged parallels to be drawn between America's battle against racist enemies abroad and the struggle against racism at home. Over 700,000 blacks served in segregated regiments. In 1941, the NAACP supported the black union leader A. Phillip Randolph's March on Washington Movement, which threatened a gathering of 100,000 African-Americans if equal wartime employment opportunities were denied. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Commission to forestall the protest. An upsurge in black activism saw NAACP membership balloon from 50,000 in 1940 to around 450,000 in 1946. The organisation now had a black mass membership with over a thousand branches, many of them in the South. In 1948, partly as a result of NAACP lobbying, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which heralded an end to segregation in the US armed forces.

More victories were claimed in the courts. Smith v Allwright (1944) prohibited the exclusion of African-Americans from local and state Democratic Party primary elections. Morgan v Virginia (1946) brought an end to segregation on interstate buses. In a precursor to the Rosa Parks incident 11 years later, Irene Morgan, a 27-year-old black woman, had refused to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus from Gloucester County, Virginia, to Baltimore. Morgan, who was ill and travelling to see a doctor, had been sitting in an area reserved for 'coloreds' but was ordered to move when a white couple needed a seat. When the bus was stopped and a sheriff tried to arrest her, Morgan ripped up his warrant and kicked him in the groin. After appeals to state courts came to nothing, Marshall won the landmark ruling in the Supreme Court.

Further legal success was achieved in 1948 when Shelley v Kraemer outlawed the use of restrictive covenants which prevented African-Americans from owning or occupying certain properties.

But the most sustained legal attack was in education. Between 1939 and 1947, the NAACP won 27 of 31 teachers' salary suits. In Sipuel v Oklahoma State Regents (1948), the Supreme Court, reaffirming the Gaines decision, ruled that the University of Oklahoma law school must provide an equal education for a black applicant Ada Louis Sipuel. The university admitted Sipuel, but created a separate law school for black students. Faced with the prospect' of having to set up separate graduate schools for all subjects to which black students might apply, which it could not afford to do, the university adopted a policy of actively seeking to dissuade their applications. African-Americans were forced to sit in classrooms partitioned from whites by a screen, made to use segregated library facilities, and given limited use of the university cafeteria.

LDF lawyers challenged this in McLaurin v Oklahoma State Regents (1950) on behalf of a black graduate student George W. McLaurin. The court decreed that the university's arrangements did not provide a truly equal education. The next day, in Sweatt v Painter (1950), the court said that the University of Texas's separate law school for a black student Herman Sweatt was unconstitutional. The court ruled that the law school was not equal for a number of reasons, including 'intangible' factors, such as the effect on Sweatt of isolation from his peer group. Although the court stopped short of overturning Plessy's 1896 'separate but equal' doctrine, it left universities with few practical alternatives to desegregation.

By 1950, Marshall was convinced it was time to 'go for the jugular'. A decision was made to 'attempt a bold, all-out frontal attack on segregation'. The focus switched to secondary schools. By targeting institutions at the heart of everyday community life, school desegregation would have a profound impact. The stakes had never been higher.

In 1954, appeals of five separate school cases culminated in the US Supreme Court's unanimous landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The court finally threw out the 'separate but equal' doctrine in regard to schools by unequivocally stating that 'separate educational facilities are inherently unequal'. The court was swayed in part by a black psychologist Kenneth Clark's research. Clark had conducted numerous experiments with black and white pupils in southern classrooms, assessing their responses to black and white dolls. He concluded that children as young as three years old were already aware that to be black meant to be viewed as inferior. On the basis of his research, the court said that separation of black children in segregated schools 'may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone'.

Gaining this breakthrough in the courts was one thing. Implementing the decision was another. The Brown case raised a storm of 'massive resistance' from southern whites. NAACP members were singled out for retribution. Nine southern states passed laws prohibiting schools from hiring NAACP members. In 1956 Alabama outlawed the NAACP altogether.

In 1957, when Central High School was due to desegregate in Little Rock, Arkansas, the state governor Orval Faubus called out National Guard troops to stop nine black students entering. After Faubus withdrew the soldiers under court order, a white mob gathered to intimidate the students. President Eisenhower then sent federal soldiers to escort the black students into the school. They continued to attend under armed guard. The next year, Faubus closed all of the city's schools to prevent integration.

At the height of its success, the NAACP proved most vulnerable. Under pressure from segregationists, membership numbers, and even entire branches, collapsed in the late 1950s. New civil rights organisations were formed to fill the void, such as Martin Luther King Jr's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. These groups were more likely to pursue nonviolent direct action in the streets than to take legal action in the courts. When the NAACP frowned upon non-violent direct action, it appeared out of touch. The appointment of Boy Wilkins as executive secretary in 1955 did not help. Wilkins was more cautious and less charismatic than leaders like King and others who breathed new dynamism into the struggle for civil rights.

Nevertheless, the NAACP's imprint on the civil rights movement was evident. Local NAACP branch secretary Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger on December 1st, 1955, triggered the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that launched King's leadership. NAACP Youth Council members in Greensboro, North Carolina, started the 1960 sit-in movement that led to the founding of the SNCC. Those arrested in non-violent direct action protests needed NAACP money to bail them out of jail and NAACP lawyers to represent them in court. The NAACP lobbied Congress through its Washington bureau director Clarence Mitchell to assist passage of the 1957, 1960 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Thurgood Marshall left the LDF in 1961 after being appointed a federal appeals court judge by President Kennedy. In 1965, under President Johnson, he was appointed US Solicitor General, the federal government's advocate before the Supreme Court. In 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall the first black justice to sit on the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1993.

Like other civil rights organisations, by the mid-1960s the NAACP was forced to reassess its priorities. The 1964 Civil Rights Act ended racial segregation in public facilities, accommodation and employment, finally upholding the 14th Amendment. The same year Congress ratified the 24th Amendment, which outlawed payment of a poll tax as a voting requirement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and provided federal monitoring of the polls in some states, finally upholding the 15th Amendment.

According to some, the NAACP lost its focus after the 1960s, in part because overseeing the implementation of such far reaching legislation was such an enormous task. Its most visible successes still took place in the courts. For example, Loving v Virginia (1967) struck down laws in 16 states that forbade intermarriage between blacks and whites. Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenherg Board of Education (1971) ushered in a new chapter in school desegregation by upholding the use of city-wide bussing of black and white students into schools to achieve integration.

The national leadership of the NAACP went through considerable turmoil in the late 1970s. Executive secretary Benjamin L. Hooks (1977-92) clashed with NAACP board members on a number of occasions. His replacement, Benjamin Chavis (1993-95), lasted just 18 months before leaving, accused of using NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

Since 1995 three people have steered the NAACP: Myrlie Evers-Williams (chairman, 1995-98), is the widow of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi NAACP field secretary who was murdered by a Klan member in 1963; Kweisi Mfume (president and chief executive officer, 19962004) gave up his congressional seat in Maryland to tackle the financial difficulties faced by the NAACP in the 1990s; and Julian Bond, the current chairman (since 1998), a former director of communications for the SNCC.

Bond has encountered his own controversies in his criticism of President Bush and the Republican Party. In 2001, he accused Bush of selecting political appointees 'from the Taliban wing of American polities', appeasing 'the wretched appetites of the extreme rightwing', and choosing cabinet members 'whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection'. That year, Bush declined an invitation to speak at the NAACP annual conference. In fact, Bush was the first president since Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) to go a whole term (2001-05) without addressing the NAACP. He did so only in 2006 as important mid-term congressional elections loomed.

In recent years, a conservative ascendancy in US politics and especially in the membership of the Supreme Court has placed the NAACP on the back foot. In 2006, it worked to get provisions of the Voting Rights Act extended over opposition in Congress. The same year it fought for justice for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. But in 2007, ruling in two cases, Meredith v Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District, the Supreme Court outlawed methods used by school districts to promote diversity. The LDF called the decision 'a step backward from Brown'.

Barack Obama's election as US president in 2008 points to how far things have changed in the last 100 years. Yet the cries of 'Kill Him!' and 'Terrorist!' yelled when Obama's name was mentioned at some Republican presidential rallies demonstrate that there is still some way to go. On the centenary of the NAACP's founding, and 200 years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, America stands once again at a racial crossroads.

For further articles on this subject, visit:

"the NAACP reported 3,224 lynchings of blacks between 1889 and 1919"

"in 2007, the Supreme Court outlawed methods used by school districts to promote diversity"

"the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended racial segregation, finally upholding the 14th Amendment"


PHOTO (COLOR): This souvenir postcard of 1909 for Lincoln's centennial and depicting his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation speaks as much to persisting

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Booker T. Washington, former slave and believer in the benefits of hard work, came under criticism from W.E.B. Du Bois.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The first issue of The Crisis, the NAACP's monthly magazine, published in 1910.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Du Bois, Weldon Johnson and White were among those attending the 20th annual session of the NAACP in Cleveland, 1929.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Texas, May 1916: Jesse Washington, a mentally impaired black teenager sentenced to death for murder, was dragged from court, stabbed, beaten, hanged and burned.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Segregation signposted on a California bus in the 1950s.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Under Thurgood Marshall (special counsel from 1938) the NAACP pursued a strategy of litigation that did much towards outlawing segregation.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A new youth-led phase in the civil rights movement was heralded by the Greensboro Four. The four black students from North Carolina were members of the local NAACP Youth Council who refused to move from the whites-only section of the lunch-counter at Woolworths in South Elm Street, Greensboro, in February 1960. Similar protests rapidly followed across the South. Here NAACP members demonstrate at a Florida lunch-counter.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The NAACP picketed the St Louis Board of Education in 1963 after they issued a modified enrolment plan which fell short of full school integration.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Myrlie Evers-Williams, at the funeral of her husband Medgar Evers, a Mississippi NAACP field secretary, who was murdered by a Ku Klux Klan member in 1963. In 1995 Evers-Williams became the first woman to lead the NAACP.

Further Reading - bib1upManfred Berg, The Ticket to Freedom: The NAACP and the Struggle for Black Political Integration (University Press of Florida, 2005); Gilbert Jonas, Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969 (Routledge, 2005); Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Block America's Struggle for Equality (Vintage, 1976); Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983); Mark Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law. Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1956-1961 (OUP, 1994); Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (Temple University Press, 1980).


By John Kirk

John A. Kirk is Professor of US History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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