NAACP President Kweisi Mfume
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Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was one of the earliest and most influential civil rights organization in the United States. During its early years, the NAACP focused on legal strategies designed to confront the critical civil rights issues of the day. They called for federal anti-lynching laws and coordinated a series of challenges to state-sponsored segregation in public schools, an effort that led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional. Though other civil rights groups emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP retained a prominent role within the movement, co-organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and successfully lobbying for legislation that resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Act.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909-1910 in New York City by a group of white and black intellectuals. United in their opposition to the gradualism preached by Booker T. Washington, the NAACP leaders sought, first, to make whites aware of the need for racial equality. To do this, the organization launched a program of speechmaking, lobbying, and publicizing the issue. It also started a magazine, the Crisis, which was edited for years by the black leader W. E. B. Du Bois. At the same time, the NAACP attacked segregation and racial inequality through the courts. It won a Supreme Court decision in 1915 against the grandfather clause (used by many southern states to prevent blacks from voting) and another in 1927 against the all-white primary.

In 1916, a new field secretary, James Weldon Johnson, began expanding the organization’s membership in the South. Johnson became the NAACP’s first black executive secretary in 1920, by which time membership had grown to ninety thousand, of which nearly half was in the South. Under his leadership, followed by that of Walter White (who served as secretary from 1930 to 1955), the NAACP became the dominant civil rights organization in the country, noted particularly for its work in publicizing the evils of Jim Crow discrimination and for its leadership in the fight for a federal antilynching law.

In 1950, the NAACP began its campaign against the legal doctrine–first established in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896–that separate but equal schools for black and white children were constitutional. In a series of cases, it demonstrated that separate facilities provided to black students were not equal to those for whites. Then, drawing on extensive scholarly testimony showing the pernicious social and psychological effects of segregation, the NAACP set out to prove that facilities separated according to race were inherently unequal. Five desegregation suits were launched in different states (1950-1952). The 1954 Supreme Court decision on the case that reached it first–Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas)–declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. The decision was greeted with bitter hostility in the South, and among the reactions was a concerted attack–using both legal and illegal methods–on local NAACP branches. By 1957, its membership in the South had dropped from nearly half of the organization to 28 percent.

Other civil rights groups attracted more members in the South during the 1960s, many using direct mass action instead of the legal strategies pioneered by the NAACP. The NAACP, however, remained active nationally both through its main organization and through its Legal Defense Fund. Although rivalry among civil rights groups was a continuous problem within the movement during those years, particularly at the leadership level, there were also innumerable instances of cooperation and mutual support, most notably the March on Washington in 1963. In the late 1970s, the NAACP broadened its scope by committing itself to the struggle for equal rights around the world.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.