Post It! A New Civil Rights Stamp Collection
The Root's editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s profiles a selection of black trailblazers featured on a series of new stamps by the U.S. Postal Service.
2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the modern Civil Rights Movement. In 1909, W.E.B. Du Bois and several black colleagues who had created the Niagara Movement in 1905 joined with a small group of white reformers and civic leaders to form the NAACP. Together, they created the foundation for the greatest movement for civil rights in American history, a movement that was carried forward across several generations, culminating with the great March on Washington in 1963.
Ella Baker (1903-1986) played a formative role in the struggle for civil rights from the 1940s through the 1960s. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, she graduated from Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1927 and moved to New York where she became active in the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, participated in the Workers Education program of the WPA, and conducted a major investigative study of black domestic work. From 1940 to 1946, she worked as a field secretary and then director of branches for the NAACP, and expanded and reinvigorated branches in the South and around the nation during the war years. During this period membership increased more than eight times to nearly 400,000. Baker’s emphasis on community-based organizing helped lay the groundwork for the southern civil rights movement. She organized northern support for the Montgomery bus boycott, and in 1957 became acting director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the aftermath of the wave of student sit-ins early in 1960, King and Baker both signed the call to the student conference that met at Shaw University in Raleigh and resulted in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s approach mirrored Baker’s emphasis on grass roots activism over strong centralized leadership, and she remained a trusted advisor and mentor to the student movement.
Ruby Hurley (1909-1980) was a leader of the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Hurley was born in Washington, D.C. and studied law at Robert H. Terrell Law School. Her introduction to civil rights activism began when she helped organize Marion Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson was barred from the D.A.R.’s Constitution Hall. Hurley went on to revive the Washington branch of the NAACP. During the 1940s, she worked as the director of Youth Work for the NAACP, and traveled around the country supervising and organizing youth councils and college chapters. In 1951, she went to Birmingham as southeastern field secretary for the NAACP, a position she held for the next two decades. She left Birmingham in the cover of darkness after the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP in 1956 and set up her office in Atlanta. Hurley aided in all of the major school desegregation cases of the period, took part in the investigations of the murder of Emmett Till, and worked closely with statewide field organizers around the South, including Medgar Evers and Vernon Jordan. Jordan, who claims Hurley as one of his early mentors, has noted that she probably would have been appointed to the top post in the NAACP if she had been a man.
J.R. Clifford (1848-1933), Union Army veteran and West Virginia’s first African American attorney, was a founding member of the Niagara movement, a forerunner to the NAACP. J.R. Clifford, born a free black in Hardy, West Virginia, was educated in Chicago and at the age of fifteen enlisted in the Union Army. Hardy became a teacher and served as a school principal in Martinsburg, Virginia and in 1882 founded The Pioneer Press, a weekly newspaper with a national distribution. He was admitted to the West Virginia bar in 1887, and went on to practice law for the next forty-five years.
In 1898 he won a major civil rights case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Williams v. Board of Education, which successfully challenged the decision of the Tucker County School Board to shorten the school year for black school children from nine to five months. This case reinforced the principle and practice of equal educational rights for black students in West Virginia. In 1905, Clifford joined W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter and twenty-seven black men in founding the Niagara movement, which claimed for all African Americans “every single right that belongs to a freeborn American” and promised that “the voice of protest of ten million Americans” would “never cease to assail the ears of their fellows” until those rights were secured.
The program and platform of the Niagara movement provided the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Joel Spingarn (1875-1939), a literary critic and Columbia University professor, was among the leading figures in the NAACP during its first three decades. W.E.B. Du Bois described him as “my nearest white friend.” Spingarn devoted his time and resources toward building up the organization during its early years, taking yearly “Abolitionist Tours” through the Midwest, recruiting members and establishing branches. In 1914 in Memphis, Tennessee he and Du Bois staged a spontaneous mass meeting to protest the refusal of a major sociological conference to address the race issue. Spingarn served as president and chairman of the Board of the NAACP, and provided the kind of leadership that helped facilitate the broad participation of younger black intellectuals and activists.
He hosted to two major meetings of African Americans at his estate in Amenia, New York at pivotal moments in the NAACP’s history – in 1916, after the death of Booker T. Washington, and in 1933 during the crisis of the Great Depression and the rise of more militant activism. Joel Spingarn’s brother Arthur Spingarn headed the NAACP’s Legal Committee during the first twenty-five years, and was called “the Attorney General of the NAACP” by Kelly Miller. In 1913 Joel Spingarn and his wife Amy established the Spingarn award, still given annually to an African American for outstanding achievement.
Medgar Evers (1925-1963), World War II veteran and civil rights leader in Mississippi, assassinated on June 12, 1963. Medgar Evers grew up in Decatur Mississippi and was inducted into the Army at the age of eighteen. After serving on the front lines in Normandy, he returned home with a determination to secure his rights as a citizen. His initial effort to register and vote failed, but he persisted. After graduating from Alcorn College he married Myrlie Beasley in 1951 and the couple moved to Mound Bayou. Evers became active in the NAACP, helping to establish chapters in the Delta. After the 1954 Brown decision, Evers applied to the University of Mississippi Law School, but was denied admission. The NAACP subsequently hired him as the first field secretary for Mississippi. Working out of Jackson, Mississippi, Evers supported the fragile infrastructure of NAACP branches which provided a base for the student activists of the 1960s. Evers organized protests in Jackson, including a boycott of Jackson merchants in the early 1960s, and led the effort to have James Meredith admitted to the University of Mississippi. Opposition to Meredith’s admission to the university culminated in a riot that left two people dead, compelling President Kennedy to send troops and drawing national attention to Mississippi. On the evening of June 12 1963, Evers was murdered as he returned home; he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. After juries failed to reach a verdict in two trials, his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 –1977) worked as a sharecropper for most of her life. In 1964, she won national attention during the Democratic Convention when she represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) before the credentials committee in a challenge to the all-white Mississippi delegation. Mrs. Hamer, who had been jailed and beaten by the police for her civil rights activities, offered a dramatic account of the methods used to deny blacks the ballot in a testimony that was televised across the nation. “Is the America?” she asked, “home of the brave and land of the free?”. Until she attended a voter registration conducted by SNCC volunteers in 1962, Hamer did not know blacks had a constitutional right to vote. She volunteered to go to the courthouse and register, and was promptly thrown off of the plantation where she worked. Hammer became a field secretary for SNCC, led voter registration efforts around the state, and was a cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She and many members of the MFDP delegation refused to accept the “two seat” compromise offered by the national Democratic Party. Hamer continued to work in the MFDP, ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and attended the 1968 Democratic convention as a delegate. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights legislation of the mid 1960s, Hamer focused her efforts on exerting newly won political power to expand educational and economic opportunity for poor blacks. She helping to establish a Head Start program in Sunflower County, founded a farm cooperative, and worked with Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s campaign.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was born in the year of Emancipation and died just months after the 1954 Brown decision. Throughout her life, as a writer and lecturer, Terrell was a leading voice for racial justice and women’s rights in the United States and abroad. Born in Memphis, Terrell graduated from Oberlin College and began her professional career as a teacher at M Street High School in Washington, D.C. In 1891 she married Robert Terrell, the prominent lawyer and municipal court judge. In 1895 she was the first black woman appointed to the DC Board of Education. Terrell was one of two black women (the other being Ida B. Wells) to sign “The Call” to the meeting that culminated with the founding of the NAACP, and she became a founding member of the association. She was active in the suffrage movement and a founder of the Colored Women’s League in Washington, which became part of the National Federation of Colored Women; Terrell served as the first president of that organization. Terrell provided an important link between the club women’s movement and the NAACP. An outspoken advocate of equal rights for blacks and women, Terrell “took to the streets” in her eighties to picket segregated restaurants in Washington D.C. She published her autobiography, A Colored Women in a White World, in 1940.
Mary White Ovington (1865-1951) was a founder of the NAACP and a leading figure in the association for nearly four decades. Ovington, the daughter of an abolitionist, became active in the cause of racial justice after hearing Frederick Douglass speak at a church in Brooklyn in 1889. She was a leader in the settlement house movement in New York. In 1906, Ovington attended the second meeting of the Niagara movement in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia as a reporter for the New York Evening Post, and solidified her friendship with W.E.B. Du BoisIn response to the Springfield race riot of 1908, she and William English Walling led in convening a small group which became the seed for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ovington immediately enlisted W.E.B. Du Bois in their venture. She, Du Bois, Oswald Garrison Villard and a handful of others kept the fledgling organization alive during its earliest years. She served as chairman of the board for several years, was a longtime member of the Board of Directors, and traveled extensively for the NAACP, helping to build up branches.
Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) is often referred to as the architect of the civil rights movement. Houston, born and raised in Washington DC, was the first African American elected to the Harvard Law Review. At a time when most blacks were barred from voting, he believed that the black lawyer had a unique role to play in using the law as a tool for social change. After becoming dean of Howard Law School in 1929, he transformed the school into a laboratory for civil rights law, training a generation of students who would lead the battle against Jim Crow in cities and towns across the South. In 1934, Houston became Special Counsel for the NAACP and soon hired his former student, Thurgood Marshall as his assistant and ultimate successor. Houston devised a long-term legal strategy that chipped away at the legal foundation of Jim Crow in a slow, deliberate process that sought to organize black communities in support of what ultimately had to be their fight. The primary focus was on schools, though there were parallel struggles around voting, transportation, and the right to work. The movement Houston began, which was carried forward by Thurgood Marshall and his associates, culminated with the 1954 Brown decision, paving the way for the final assault on the segregation system in the 1960s.
Walter White (1893-1955) was one of the most important civil rights leaders of the twentieth century. As a twelve year old, White witnessed the 1906 Atlanta race riot, one of the worst incidents of white mob violence up to that time, and an experience that informed his life-long work against racial discrimination. As a young college graduate, he helped establish the first NAACP branch in Atlanta in 1917, and soon caught the attention of NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson, who created a position for White on the national staff as assistant secretary. White, a blue-eyed man with a fair complexion, could easily pass for white, and used this to his advantage in his daring undercover investigations and exposes of lynchings and the infamous Elaine, Arkansas massacre. In 1930, White succeeded Johnson as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and went on to lead the organization during its formative decades. White moved easily among the well connected and powerful, and used this talent to push a civil rights agenda in Washington. His efforts were especially effective after the New Deal created a broad arena for liberal policy initiatives. Known as a brilliant publicist as well as one of the most effective lobbyists in Washington, White laid the foundation for the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s. He also recruited other individuals to the NAACP who complemented his own strengths, including Charles Houston, who led the legal campaign that culminated with Brown, and others who worked in the field, such as Ella Baker and Ruby Hurley, laying the groundwork for the development of a mass-based movement.
Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949) was a founder of the NAACP and served as the first Chairman of the Board. Villard, grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and heir to a railroad fortune, was owner and publisher of the New York Evening Post and The Nation, and had been an early supporter of Booker T. Washington’sA major expose of peonage in the South in 1903 shook his faith in the accommodationist approach, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks captured his attention and won his praise. Villard drafted “The Call” that led to the founding meeting of the NAACP. When the hoped for philanthropic support for the new organization did not materialize, Villard donated office space and provided financial support essential to launching the NAACP as a permanent organization and setting up The Crisis magazine. Villard’s early support along with DuBois’s vision for the NAACP were critical to the successful establishment and growth of America’s oldest civil rights organization.
Daisy Bates (1914-1999) won national attention for her leading role in the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, one of the pivotal moments in the modern Civil Rights Movement. Bates and her husband L.C. Bates were publishers of the Arkansas State Press, which they established in Little Rock in 1942. The paper helped amplify black demands for full civil rights, which escalated in the aftermath of World War II. Daisy Bates was a leader of the local branch of the NAACP and was elected president of the Arkansas State Conference of NAACP branches in 1952. She served as an adviser and spokesperson for the nine students who, in the wake of the Brown decision, attempted to enroll in the previously all white Central High School. When white mobs and the governor attempted to block the enrollment of the students in defiance of a court order, President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to ensure that the law was enforced and the students admitted to Central High. During the tense year that followed, Bates, in the face of death threats and a violent attack on her home, guided the students and became one of the figure most commonly associated with the successful integration of Central High. Bates continued to play an active role in the Civil Rights Movement and went on to work in the anti-poverty programs of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.