Crisis on the Color Line
After 100 years of 'pleading our own cause,' is the NAACP equal to the task ahead?
Just before Christmas 1776, colonist Thomas Paine published the first of a series of essays on early American values that would come to be known as “The American Crisis.” In it, Paine, a strong voice for the American colonies’ independence from Britain, wrote of setbacks on the path to liberty as “the times that try men’s souls.”
The spirit of these op-eds is a fitting match for the events surrounding the bloody founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded 100 years ago today. Through the NAACP, The Crisis was reborn, as a freedom pamphlet for a new group of revolutionaries.
Like the United States, the NAACP owes its birth to violence—the 1908 race war in Springfield, Ill., sparked by false rape accusations, which nearly leveled the town that bred Abraham Lincoln, born a century, to the day, before the organization’s founding. In Springfield, an angry majority “went on a killing spree, a burning-down spree and a chasing-the-blacks-out-of-town-spree,” says Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and prominent alumnus of the civil rights movement. When the fires went out, W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, along with a group of former abolitionists, decided that their nascent plans to organize against endemic racial inequality could not wait. “Their minds were blown by the savagery of Springfield,” says Wilkins, nephew of onetime NAACP head Roy Wilkins; and so the interracial, interfaith coalition—that promised advancement where there had been only oppression—began.
Today, the upstart project started by Wells and Du Bois has matured into the oldest civil rights organization in North America. The Crisis, a magazine published continuously since the first year of the NAACP’s existence, is—like Paine’s original—living proof that, “words matter.”
As the NAACP struggles to remain relevant in a time of shifting attitudes about race, politics and how to best achieve equality, a look back at the rise of The Crisis, and its period of dominance, offers insight into some potential strategies for the future of an organization that many believe is past its prime.
Over the past century, The Crisis has been “the tribune, the call to action, the disseminator of news and information” among blacks, says Julian Bond, civil rights activist and board chairman of the NAACP since 1998. “It’s just been indispensable.” It went from an initial circulation of 500 subscribers to 27,000 in just a few years—swelling to 100,000 readers by 1920. Its popularity, says Patricia Sullivan, author of Lift Every Voice, a history of the NAACP, ensured that the fledgling civil rights group survived. “In the early days, it was a very improvisational, flexible, lean organization,” she notes. “The Crisis lay the groundwork for the NAACP to grow.”
For decades before 1909—by dint of law or custom—blacks could not congregate freely in the U.S. So, just as the black church became a place of civic organizing, the black press also offered a chance for call and response, for shared experience and robust debate. (In the first part of the 20th century, the Baltimore Afro-American had greater circulation than the New York Times.) In the days when white media would rarely venture into communities of color, this was a necessity: “The black press,” says Bond, “always felt the need to be explainers of black life to black people. In its heyday and even in the recent past, you were dependent on an organ like The Crisis to tell you what was going on.”