NAACP Chairman Julian Bond stands alongside a more youthful image of himself at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards Pre-Show in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. The civil rights organization, which turned 100 years old last Thursday, faces a daunting modern challenge now: convincing people that the struggle still continues. (AP photo/Earl Gibson III)
The bookends of the NAACP’s century testify to the change it has wrought.
In 1908, a race riot in Springfield, Ill., left at least seven people dead and led to the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2008, Barack Obama, who had launched his campaign just blocks from where Springfield’s blood once spilled, became the first African American president.
In between, wielding legal arguments and moral suasion in equal measure, the NAACP demanded that America provide liberty and justice not only for blacks, but for all. Now, its very achievements have created a daunting modern challenge for the NAACP, which turned 100 last Thursday: convincing people that the struggle continues.
“When I was in college, I could see signs that said ‘white’ and ‘colored’ when I went to the movie theater. That was an easy target for me to aim at,” says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board. “Today, I don’t see those signs, but I know that these divisions still exist.
“It’s not anywhere near as life-threatening as it used to be,” Bond says, “but it’s more difficult to get your hands around, and it’s more difficult to convince people that there’s a problem.”
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the new president and CEO of the NAACP, says his greatest obstacle is “the lack of outrage about the ways that young people and working people are routinely mistreated.”
He cites figures such as a 70 percent unsolved murder rate in some black communities, blacks graduating from high school at a far lower rate than whites, and studies showing that whites with criminal records get jobs easier than blacks with clean histories.
“There are issues of basic fairness, obstacles to opportunity, that still exist,” Jealous says. “The NAACP is needed now as urgently as it has ever been.”
No one group did more to pave the way for Obama’s ascension than the NAACP, historians say, pointing to its primary role in three towering civil rights victories — the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But now that the black son of a poor single mother has moved into the White House, a new era has clearly begun.
“We’ve got to rise to the occasion today,” says former NAACP board chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was married to the slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers.
“We cannot continue to sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” she says. “It’s a dear, valued, valuable song that expresses a time that should live with us. But I want a new song.”
‘They knew they were right’
Nobody liked the new name.
The first incarnation of the NAACP was the Niagara Movement, a 1905 conference of prominent blacks led by the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. After the Springfield riots, Du Bois and other Niagara members joined a group of mostly white Northerners to form the National Negro Committee. They chose the date of their founding as Feb. 12, 1909 — the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
In 1910, the group changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That didn’t sit well with anyone, founder Mary White Ovington wrote in her memoirs: “It was so cumbersome, but we couldn’t find a better [one] … even initialed it’s too long.”
Notably absent from the group was Booker T. Washington, the most famous black American of the time. His strategy of sacrificing social gains for economic progress was deemed out of touch with the NAACP’s primary goals: equality and justice.
The NAACP’s first major legal case involved a black farmhand accused of murder. The farmhand had a dispute with his landlord; a sheriff entered the farmhand’s house without a warrant at 3 a.m. and was shot to death. The NAACP got the sentence commuted from death to life in prison, and several years later the farmhand was released.(p2)