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Founding the NAACP

By Susan D. Carle


The story of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s founding 105 years ago has traditionally focused on the gathering of a small group of whites outraged by the Springfield, Illinois, race riots of the summer of 1908. In January 1909, they gathered in a small New York City apartment to discuss founding a new biracial organization. By February 1909—the date sometimes taken as the official date of the NAACP’s founding—Mary White Ovington, a white social worker who had proposed this meeting, had expanded the group to include two African American clergymen with whom she was working on race issues in New York City.

Mary White Ovington
Mary White Ovington, Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
One of these was Rev. William Henry Brooks, minster of St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal Church, who sat with Ovington on the Committee to improve the Industrial Conditions of Negros in New York City, which would soon merge with other organizations to become the National Urban League. Another was Rev. Alexander Walters of the AME Zion Church, who headed the National Afro American Council. Ovington regarded these two men as among the most savvy and experienced leaders on racial justice organizing in the city, and she was right. It was these leaders, and many others like them, who brought the experiences and resources to the fledgling NAACP that allowed it to survive the tentative period of its infancy.

But the story of the NAACP’s founding is not usually told this way. The traditional story misses the origins of the NAACP in several decades of national organizing by African American activists, in organizations largely forgotten in popular civil rights history today. Those organizations include the National Afro American League, founded by T. Thomas Fortune in the late 1880s; the National Afro American Council, founded by Rev. Walters in 1898; the National Association of Colored Women, founded by Mary Church Terrell and others in 1896; and the Niagara Movement, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and other so-called “radicals” who broke away from the Afro American Council in 1905.

The true story of the NAACP’s founding emerges from close attention to the many ways in which the NAACP was a direct continuation of decades of prior national organizing, extending back into the 1880s. For example, key leaders, such as Du Bois and Walters, transferred their wisdom gained through decades of prior national racial justice organizing efforts to advise the NAACP on its organizational design. The NAACP’s founding platform blended test case litigation ideas with a left-wing, progressive democratic political ideology.

These were far from new ideas; they framed the organizing vision reflected in T. Thomas Fortune’s founding platform for the National Afro American League, organized several decades earlier. Similarly, the NAACP announced as it key national litigation priority a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the so-called “grandfather clause,” a device inserted in the 1890s into southern states’ constitutions to permanently wipe African Americans off voter registration rolls. This also was not a new idea; a decade before, attacking the grandfather clause had been the litigation priority of the National Afro American Council. The Council’s test case litigation efforts had ended in defeat, although in one case, secretly funded by Booker T. Washington, brilliant US Supreme Court litigation strategist Wilford Smith forced Oliver Wendell Holmes to proclaim that grandfather clauses represented “a great political harm” — but then declare that the high court was powerless to do anything about them in the face of the political power of the states.

The Crisis
By W. E. B. DuBois (Cover of “The Crisis” Magazine, 1911). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Other key resources similarly moved directly from prior national organizations to the NAACP. For example, the magazine Du Bois created and edited for the Niagara Movement, The Horizon, retained its format, tone, content, and even its aesthetics, in becoming the NAACP’s renowned mass circulation publication, The Crisis. Most important of all, experienced grassroots activists who had led the local activities of predecessor organizations, especially (but not exclusively) women leaders active in National Association of Colored Women, and also in the Niagara Movement, transferred their energy and experience to the NAACP to build its early local chapters.

Why did these predecessor organizations and leaders agree to transfer efforts to the NAACP? I believe a big part of this explanation had to do with funding. What white progressives offered to the longstanding organizing efforts of African American leaders was access to philanthropic funds previously been locked under Booker T. Washington’s control. Washington was opposed to open, militant civil rights agitation. Without new allies to break Washington’s control over funding sources, there was no way to push forward this more insistent model of racial justice advocacy, which the members of the Niagara Movement and other civil rights “radicals” embraced. Thus Du Bois wrote an important article in 1909 in The Horizon calling on African American civil rights activists to join in coalition with white progressives from other reform traditions who were calling for a new bi-racial organizing effort on race justice issues. This effort produced the NAACP.

Du Bois made this appeal somewhat reluctantly, I believe, because he recognized the danger to African American leadership of the movement such a step entailed. But he also realized that any sustained, major national organizing effort would need financial resources he had been unable to secure. Thus a great new national organization was born — just not quite the way the standard story tends to tell the tale.

Susan D. Carle teaches courses on anti-discrimination law, labor and employment law, and the legal profession, at American University Washington College of Law. She is the author of Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915. Like Defining the Struggle on Facebook.

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