Crisis on the Color Line

Illustration for article titled Crisis on the Color Line

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.” 

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.”  

Black Americans have always fought to balance two conversations—one among themselves and one with “everyone else,” says Ben Jealous, current president and CEO of the NAACP. Freedom’s Journal, for instance—the first black paper founded in the United States—boasted a front page that was focused externally, promoting the case against slavery from the perspective of free blacks. The back page (in 1827, there were only two pages) provided instruction to free men newly arrived in the North, about how to survive and prosper in New York City. “The NAACP really has its greatest impact when we do both things well,” Jealous adds.  


Jealous praised the journal as a “master of creating public conversation,” which made “the pain felt by African Americans—whether the issue was lynching, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in the corporate sector, an unlevel political playing field—felt by the entire country.” But after 100 years, it has lost the ability to frame and accelerate national debates on race and politics. Perhaps as a result of hyperactive media culture, perhaps as a testament to racial advancement, such debates are taking place without the NAACP. And in an age of unprecedented mobility, the group’s organizational clout is waning as well: Their much-touted, 25,000-person online voter registration drive was dwarfed by the multimillion-voter registration push from within Obama for America, the new media juggernaut that elected the first black president. 

Whichever modern reality is to blame, the NAACP can’t afford to see its most valuable asset—its voice—disappear. It has the tools to change; Jealous, himself a former newspaperman and media executive, has worked to expand the reach of the black press, and says a “robust” conversation on the fate of the magazine is underway.  


In his inaugural address, Obama spoke to a nation still at war and paid homage to the interwoven traditions of black American liberation and colonial American mythology. He cited a “father of our nation”—presumably George Washington—urging early patriots to arms, so that history might say “that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Surely, the hyper-literate Obama knew he was citing Paine’s “Crisis.” But he invoked NAACP history as well: The Crisis was named for a poem of the same name by James Russell Lowell, whose final stanza, this winter, seems a clear echo of the message sent by Paine, Washington, Wells, Du Bois and the new president: “New occasions teach new duties … we ourselves must Pilgrims be / Launch our Mayflower and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea.”


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.