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February 12, 2023
On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Exactly 100 years later, journalists, reformers, and scholars meeting in New York City deliberately chose the anniversary of his birth as the starting point for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
They vowed “to promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice among citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law.”
The spark for the organization of the NAACP was a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, on August 14 and 15, 1908. The violence broke out after the sheriff transferred two Black prisoners, one accused of murder and another of rape, to a different town out of concern for their safety.
Furious that they had been prevented from vengeance against the accused, a mob of white townspeople looted businesses and burned homes in Springfield’s Black neighborhood. They lynched two Black men and ran most of the Black population out of town. At least eight people died, more than 70 were injured, and at least $3 million of damage in today’s money was done before 3,700 state militia troops quelled the riot.
When he and his wife visited Springfield days later, journalist William English Walling found white citizens outraged that their Black neighbors had forgotten “their place.” Walling claimed he had heard a dozen times: “Why, [they] came to think they were as good as we are!”
“If these outrages had happened thirty years ago…, what would not have happened in the North?” wrote Walling. “Is there any doubt that the whole country would have been aflame?”
Walling warned that either the North must revive the spirit of Lincoln and the abolitionists and commit to “absolute political and social equality” or the white supremacist violence of the South would spread across the whole nation. “The day these methods become general in the North every hope of political democracy will be dead, other weaker races and classes will be persecuted in the North as in the South, public education will undergo an eclipse, and American civilization will await either a rapid degeneration or another profounder and more revolutionary civil war….”
He called for a “large and powerful body of citizens” to come to the aid of Black Americans.
Walling was the well-educated descendant of a wealthy enslaving family from Kentucky and had become deeply involved in social welfare causes at the turn of the century. His column on the Springfield riot prompted another well-educated social reformer, Mary White Ovington, to write and offer her support. Together with Walling’s friend Henry Moskowitz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who was well connected in New York Democratic politics, Walling and Ovington met with a group of other reformers, Black and white, in the Wallings’ apartment in New York City in January 1909 to create a new civil rights organization.
In a public letter, the group noted that “If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh he would be disheartened and discouraged.” Black Americans had lost their right to vote and were segregated from white Americans in schools, railroad cars, and public gatherings. “Added to this, the spread of lawless attacks upon the negro, North, South and West—even in the Springfield made famous by Lincoln—often accompanied by revolting brutalities, sparing neither sex, nor age nor youth, could not but shock the author of the sentiment that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.’”
The call continued, “Silence under these conditions means tacit approval,” and it warned that permitting the destruction of Black rights would destroy rights for everyone. “Hence,” it said, “we call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.”
A group of sixty people, Black and white, signed the call, prominent reformers all, and the next year an interracial group of 300 men and women met to create a permanent organization. After a second meeting in May 1910, they adopted a formal name, and the NAACP was born, although they settled on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth as their actual beginning.
Supporters of the project included muckraking journalists Ray Stannard Baker and Ida B. Wells, and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who had been a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a Black civil rights organization formed in 1905. In 1910, Du Bois would choose to leave his professorship at Atlanta University to become the NAACP’s director of publicity and research. For the next 14 years, he would edit the organization’s flagship journal The Crisis.
While The Crisis was a newspaper, a literary magazine, and a cultural showcase, its key function reflected the journalistic sensibilities of those like Baker, Wells, and especially Du Bois: it constantly called attention to atrocities, discrimination, and the ways in which the United States was not living up to its stated principles. At a time when violence and suppression were mounting against Black Americans, Du Bois and his colleagues relentlessly spread knowledge of what was happening.
That use of information to rally people to the cause of equality became a hallmark of the NAACP. It challenged racial inequality by calling popular attention to racial atrocities and demanding that officials treat people equally before the law. In 1918 the NAACP published Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918, reporting that of the 3,224 people lynched during that period, 702 were white and 2,522 Black. In 1922 it took out ads condemning lynching as “The Shame of America” in newspapers across the country.
When Walter Francis White took over the direction of the NAACP in 1931, the organization began to focus on lynching and sexual assault, as well as on ending segregation in schools and transportation. In 1944 the secretary of the NAACP’s Montgomery, Alabama, chapter, Rosa Parks, investigated the gang rape of 25-year-old Recy Taylor by six white men after two grand juries refused to indict the men despite their confessions. Parks pulled women’s organizations, labor unions, and Black rights groups together into a new “Committee for Equal Justice” to champion Mrs. Taylor’s rights.
In 1946 it was NAACP leader White who brought the story of World War II veteran Isaac Woodard, blinded by a police officers after talking back to a bus driver, to President Harry S. Truman. Afterward, Truman convened the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, directly asking its members to find ways to use the federal government to strengthen the civil rights of racial and religious minorities in the country.
Truman later said, “When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a… Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out… his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.” And that is what the NAACP had done, and would continue to do: highlight that the inequalities in American society were systemic rather than the work of a few bad apples, bearing witness until “the believers in democracy” could no longer remain silent.
Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2011).