By Eben Miller
On the evening of February 12, 1937, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commemorated its twenty-eighth anniversary at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. The grand, grey, neo-Gothic structure was recent to 137th Street — it had been completed in 1925 — but Mother AME Zion was one of the nation’s oldest black churches, dating to the late 18th century and a reputed stop along the Underground Railroad.
On this night, seventy five years ago, an audience of 2,500 packed the pews to participate in the NAACP’s national Anti-Lynching Day. It’s the kind of event that was amply reported on at the time (especially in African American weekly newspapers and The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly magazine), but that has nearly wholly dimmed from our collective memory. It’s worth remembering, though — not only during African American history month — for what it reveals about the long struggle to secure black freedom. It demonstrates, for instance, the crucial role the NAACP played in forming a national civil rights movement, as seasoned activists and young people rallied local communities across the country in protest against lynching.
Since its founding in 1909, the NAACP had dedicated a sizeable portion of its often meager resources to ending the scourge of lynching. During its first decades The Crisis regularly recorded the grim tally of racial violence. Through the 1920s and 1930s, NAACP officials lobbied — persistently, if unsuccessfully — to secure passage of federal anti-lynching legislation. In September 1936, hoping to retain focus on the issue, officials unfurled a 6 by 10 feet black flag outside its Manhattan office, a “Death Flag” bearing the brief, unnerving announcement: “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” National Anti-Lynching Day was conceived to coincide with the anniversaries of Lincoln’s birthday and the founding of the NAACP. Envisioning a coordinated series of events, officials intended to mobilize public support for the Gavagan bill, the latest anti-lynching measure to be taken up in Congress.
Juanita Jackson, the NAACP’s twenty-four year old national youth council coordinator, assumed a good deal of responsibility for organizing the February 12th events. A star in the Methodist Episcopal youth movement, Jackson hailed from Baltimore, where her activism had earned the NAACP’s notice earlier that decade. Wooed and finally hired in 1935 as a full-time special assistant, she quickly forged a unique role within the Association, traveling for weeks at a time helping to found dozens of NAACP youth councils from Boston to Birmingham. Created as auxiliaries of local NAACP branches, youth councils in such cities formed a frontline of Association-based activism. At the beginning of 1937, Jackson called upon NAACP youth councils to provide, as she wrote, “a channel through which the voice of black and white youths throughout the country might be heard in a demand for a lynch-less America.” In the Midwest, where Jackson had organized youth members the previous fall, youth councils responded with plans for dramatic rallies. On a number of college campuses Jackson had visited in the South, council members announced commemorative activities.
New York was at the hub of the movement. That January, volunteers in Harlem launched a drive to sell thousands of “Stop Lynching” buttons. The New York Amsterdam News took measure of the community’s anticipation in the proliferation of flyers, posters, and car stickers announcing the “mammoth” mass meeting at Mother AME Zion. Convening initially at the 135th Street YMCA, the United Youth Committee Against Lynching brought together representatives of more than a hundred New York-area youth groups. On February 12th its members bore picket signs, donned distinctive armbands, and marched in procession into the grey stone church — among them, nine young men paraded in striped prison johnnies, outfitted to represent the famed Scottsboro boys, the decade’s most recognizable victims of racial injustice. Those gathered inside heard the NBC radio broadcast of New York senator Robert Wagner’s address, “The Lynching Problem Viewed on Lincoln’s Birthday.” A formidable series of speakers followed, including Mary White Ovington, a founding member of the NAACP who stood at the rostrum to attest to the organization’s long commitment to ending lynching. The Association’s energetic executive secretary, Walter White, likewise arose to appeal for united pressure on Congress to pass a meaningful anti-lynching law.
Beyond Harlem, many hundreds marked national Anti-Lynching Day with gestures both grand and humble. In Chicago, members of the NAACP youth council held a “No More Lynching” march through the downtown Loop. Not to be outdone, Detroiters claimed one of the largest demonstrations of the day, accompanied by a local radio broadcast. In Richmond, Virginia, supporters gathered in the historic Leigh Street Methodist Episcopal Church, while in Columbus, Ohio, lynching’s opponents telegrammed appeals directly to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Such appeals did little to sway the president toward championing the cause. In fact, legislation making lynching a federal crime would never pass through the Senate. But if the NAACP’s national Anti-Lynching Day failed to result in the concrete form of an anti-lynching bill, it nonetheless deserves recognition. On this day, seventy five years ago, Juanita Jackson, Walter White, and thousands of other advocates of African American freedom brought attention to a national shame. While doing so, they helped sustain an ongoing fight for black equality that stretched back so many decades and that would soon effloresce into the modern Civil Rights Movement that’s so widely commemorated during this month dedicated to remembering the African American past.