100 YEARS The Centennial of the NAACP
NAACP Is Working to Redefine Its Mission a Century After Its Founding
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People turns 100 today, and its leaders are confronting provocative questions: How relevant is the NAACP in the age of Barack Obama? Now that an African American occupies the nation's highest office, is there still a crying need for an organization founded in 1909 after a half-dozen black men were lynched in Springfield, Ill., their homes burned to the ground?
Benjamin Jealous, the 36-year-old activist who became president of the association six months ago, has been taking on such questions eagerly. He argues that black Americans are really facing a new beginning as the nation's oldest and most prestigious civil rights organization crosses into its second century.
"For many black people in this country, you feel the culmination of a baton of dreams that has been handed in the seemingly endless track race, and we have reached another big milestone in the race," Jealous says. "But then you go home for the holidays and you gather with relatives at Christmas and cousins are locked up; and the men can't find a job; and the women are being paid too little at their jobs; and the kids' schools suck; and you realize the race is really just beginning."
The intersection of Obama's presidency and those realities encapsulates "a moment of confusion in the black community," says Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. "How are we to continue to talk about how race and racism determine the life chances of Americans in the context of a black man holding the presidency in his hands? We can look at the NAACP as a kind of petri dish for answering that question."
The NAACP has long been on the front lines of the historic debates about how to advance the cause of blacks at moments of transition. The philosophical discussions about how forcefully to push for equality in the hostile post-Reconstruction era centered on NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois. The legal battles for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s were constructed and led by NAACP lawyers. Jealous already has framed his argument for whether the NAACP and its mission of "eliminating race prejudice and removing all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes" are still necessary in an America willing to elect a black man president.
He has answered often in recent days -- with a pinch of sarcasm -- that the NAACP is not the "National Association for the Advancement of a Colored Person"; it is the "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."
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On any given day in the 1920s, if you had stopped by the NAACP's New York headquarters you would have seen James Weldon Johnson, the famous poet, songwriter and lawyer who was NAACP executive secretary. Scholar Du Bois, who edited the association's fiery Crisis magazine, was there, too, often locked in debate with the poet and author Jessie Fauset, a literary editor of the magazine. Langston Hughes, the famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, later wrote the first history of the NAACP, calling the five letters the "most famous initials in America."
The NAACP was founded soon after Abraham Lincoln's home town went up in flames. In the summer of 1908, a white mob sparked a two-day race riot, killing and wounding black residents and chasing others out of Springfield with such taunts as: "Lincoln freed you; we show you where you belong."
For its first quarter-century, the association was central to black American culture, and its most recognizable figure was the Harvard-educated Du Bois. The multiracial group of progressives that founded the NAACP included a white woman who was a Unitarian and social reformer, a Jewish physician, a white male trade unionist with socialist ties and a black woman who had crusaded against lynching. Du Bois's involvement with the NAACP aligned the organization with the "radical" critics of the most influential black leader of the time, Booker T. Washington, who urged blacks to patiently accept discrimination for a time as they elevated themselves through hard work and material prosperity. Du Bois blasted Washington's doctrine as one that "tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro's shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs."
Du Bois would also become a fierce internal critic of the NAACP, clashing in a nasty power struggle with Walter White, who led the organization in the 1930s and '40s. Du Bois had grown more militant over time and was frustrated by the slow progress of the struggle for equality. He left the NAACP in 1934.
White had often risked his life by using his pale skin and blue eyes to "pass" for white on trips to the South to infiltrate lynch mobs and record for the NAACP firsthand accounts of the violent lawlessness. He and other NAACP leaders stood firmly for integration despite Du Bois's growing calls for black racial solidarity. The struggle between Du Bois and White over how forcefully to push for racial equality was one that would rise again and again.