On Feb. 12, 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a “call” went out inviting all “believers in democracy” to a national conference dedicated to “the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Thus began the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The impetus for its founding occurred five months earlier in the wake of a race riot in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s hometown. For two days, whites rampaged through Springfield’s black community, torching more than 40 homes and destroying businesses, lynching two black men and injuring scores of others. It took 4,000 troops to restore order.
William English Walling, a young white man with southern roots, described the horrific event in an article, “The Race War in the North,” published in the Independent. He warned that “either the spirit of the abolitionists must be revived” and black men and women “treated on a plane of absolute social and political equality” or “every hope of political democracy will be dead.”
Walling’s article galvanized a small group of white progressives, including Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of anti-slavery leader William Lloyd Garrison, and Mary White Ovington, a settlement house worker with abolitionist roots. They recruited black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois and solicited signatories, black and white, to the “call” drafted by Villard and issued on the occasion of Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
The founding meeting of the NAACP in the late spring of 1909 marked an unprecedented interracial gathering, committed to addressing racial conditions in the United States. Du Bois described it as “a visible bursting into action of long gathering thought.” Infused with the spirit of the abolitionists and the memory of the Reconstruction era, the NAACP planted itself in the principles of American democracy and took its place at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice in the 20th century.
During its early decades, the NAACP often seemed to be fighting a losing battle as racial discrimination tightened its hold in all areas of American life. Woodrow Wilson extended segregation in the federal government; the color line hardened in the North and West as growing numbers of blacks sought freedom beyond the South; and terror, lawlessness and black disenfranchisement sustained the iron grip of Jim Crow in the South.
The strength of the association rested in an unwavering belief in the promise of America and the possibilities of democracy. While the range of black protest embraced varied ideologies and strategies, the NAACP distinguished itself, in the words of lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, as “the crystallizing force of Negro citizenship.” In 1924, an NAACP member wrote from the Mississippi Delta that the organization had “given the Negro race its second emancipation.”
By the end of World War I, the NAACP had branches in all parts of the nation. As a national organization, it stood as the singular counter-force to the racial beliefs and practices that structured American life deep into the 20th century. A lean operation with a necessarily improvisational approach, it was built for the long haul.
The NAACP is well-known for its precedent-setting legal victories in the areas of housing, voting, education, and criminal justice and for its leading role in securing the civil rights legislation of the post-World War II era. Yet, among its most significant contributions—both to the struggle for racial justice and to American political culture more generally—is the synergy it created between a national program dedicated to securing federal protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights and a grassroots movement of local people organized in membership branches across the country.
It seems fitting that the organization rooted in Springfield’s racial terror should celebrate its centennial the same year that the candidate who launched his campaign in the Illinois capitol has become the country’s first African-American president.
Just as Barack Obama’s inaugural concert had as its theme “We Are One,” so the NAACP’s centennial theme is “We Are 100.”
Julian Bond is a professor at American University and the University of Virginia and Chairman of the NAACP’s Board of Directors. Patricia Sullivan is a professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of the Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement forthcoming from The New Press.