In the early 1900s, vicious attacks against African Americans were almost as common in the North as in the South.
“Many whites and blacks saw the need for an organization that would be a kind of national presence, both in speaking out against this kind of racial terrorism, but also beginning to advocate politically and legally for the rights of African Americans,” said Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis.
After the upsetting events of 1908’s Springfield Riot, William E. Walling, a white Harvard-educated socialist and labor reformer from Kentucky, wrote an article for The Independent, and described the violence against African Americans. Disturbed by the increasing number of attacks against blacks, he called for a “large and powerful body of citizens” to come to their aid.
Mary Ovington, a journalist and reformer, responded to Walling’s article. On February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Ovington and Walling called for a national conference to address racial justice.
Three months later, black and white social workers, intellectuals, educators, reformers, and lawyers met in New York City and established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The mission of the NAACP was to end forced segregation and racial violence and to ensure civil liberties for all.
In 1915 lawyers for the NAACP won a Supreme Court case, which ruled that the grandfather clause, used by some states to stop blacks from voting, was unconstitutional. Another early success came in 1917 when the Supreme Court declared segregated housing was unconstitutional.
“They focused on litigation, changing the laws, and so therefore they lobbied through Congress and with the president, to get the federal government to transform state laws, to ensure the civil rights of blacks,” said Manning Marabel, a professor at Columbia University. “But also education. They believed that you could change the hearts of white America if you could reeducate them.”
One way the NAACP reeducated people was through a monthly magazine called The Crisis. The magazine, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, served as a newspaper, a literary review, and a voice for the “rights of men, irrespective of color or race.” Du Bois wrote eloquent and forceful articles in the magazine to report and denounce racial segregation and injustice.
By 1920, the NAACP had more than 300 local branches across the United States and almost 100,000 members. As their numbers grew, so did their impact. In the fight against Jim Crow and segregation, the NAACP would become one of the leading protest organizations in the United States.