Crisis on the Color Line

After 100 years of 'pleading our own cause,' is the NAACP equal to the task ahead?

So, at seminal moments in American history—the first World War, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, the civil rights struggle—The Crisis kept the score, via dispatches “rooted in local communities and paying particular attention to the color line,” says Sullivan. In each issue, a section called “Along the Color Line” sparked conversation under subject areas like “America,” “Europe,” “Schools,” “Folks” and “Sport.” The section “Work, Wealth, and Waste” kept readers informed about the economy; while “Mr. James Crow” listed that month’s tally of racial discriminations and controversies from across the nation. Letters to the editor streamed into the Manhattan offices; in the December 1930 issue, education advocate Mary McLeod Bethune and liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow were published side by side. The process became a form of editorial espionage, as the magazine elevated kitchen-table whispers and barbershop conversations to a national plane. 

It only helped that the NAACP leadership over the years boasted a remarkable concentration of writers and media figures, from Wells and Du Bois to Walter White, Roy Wilkins and James Weldon Johnson—to name a few. Their talents, connections and interest in creating a virtual town hall were critical to the magazine’s success. 

But by far the most significant contributor to the early Crisis magazine was Du Bois, its intrepid editor-in-chief. Until he passed the torch to Roy Wilkins in 1934, most issues carried a “postscript by W.E.B. Du Bois” column—signed, always, in his flourished script. Roger Wilkins, whose family knew Du Bois intimately, says that the abolitionist co-founders wanted Du Bois for president of the fledgling NAACP—a figurehead position. Du Bois, however, believed in the news medium. “He wanted to be director of publications—he knew there was a message, that there needed to be a message; and he was determined to use this vehicle to get the message out.” While there were many other black media outlets, large and small—New York’s Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, the Jackson Advocate—his stewardship of The Crisis made it a giant among black reviews of arts, culture and politics. “It was Du Bois,” says Bond. “It was his unceasing criticism of white supremacy. These other papers played a role, but never as brilliantly or as incisively as he did.” 

Under Du Bois’ leadership, The Crisis maintained an unpredictable, hybrid sensibility. Some content was political—the very first editorial lambasts school segregation in the North, says Sullivan. Some writing was purely literary—Harlem Renaissance scribes Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer all wrote for The Crisis. For a time, mid-century, the magazine offered a $1,000 “Du Bois Literary Prize” to encourage creative writing and sold copies of black novels under its “Crisis Publishing Company” imprint. The Crisis was one of the few magazines to regularly feature black women on its cover. It advertised both steamship tickets and upholstery, higher education and beauty products; one period hair advertisement insisted: “No, we cannot all be beautiful—but we can be neat and attractive.”