With the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the NAACP confronted an internal dispute and external criticism over the merits of pursuing an agenda of civil and political equality versus an agenda of economic development and independence. The merits were debated at the Amenia Conference in 1933. In the political arena, the NAACP won the first successful campaign against a Supreme Court nominee, Judge John J. Parker, demonstrating the association’s growing influence. By 1931, the NAACP undertook the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths wrongfully accused of raping two white women, before losing control of the case to the Communist-led International Labor Defense. Later, based on the findings of attorneys Nathan Margold and Charles H. Houston, the NAACP launched a legal campaign against de jure segregation that focused on inequalities in public schools. Towards the end of 1932, in response to employment discrimination, the NAACP sent Roy Wilkins, then the assistant NAACP secretary, and George Schuyler, a journalist and author, undercover to investigate conditions for the 30,000 black workers in the War Department’s Mississippi River Flood Control Project.
In 1939 the NAACP created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., to litigate cases and raise money exclusively for the legal program. On the cultural front, the NAACP deliberated about the prospect of Jesse Owens’s and other black athletes’ participation in the 1936 Olympics in light of Nazi propaganda and urged them not to participate. After the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall in 1939, the NAACP worked with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to stage a concert for her at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Rejection of Judge John Parker
In 1930 President Herbert Hoover nominated federal Judge John J. Parker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to the Supreme Court. A decade earlier, as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina, Parker had advocated black disenfranchisement. The NAACP launched an aggressive public campaign to defeat the nomination. The American Federation of Labor and organized labor joined the fight because of Parker’s decision barring the unionization of coalminers in West Virginia. As a result, the Senate rejected Judge Parker’s confirmation on May 7, 1930, by a vote of 41 to 39.
Telegram from NAACP Acting Secretary Walter White to U.S. Vice President Charles Curtis concerning the confirmation of Judge John Parker, May 7, 1930. Carbon copy of typescript. Page 2. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (067.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # na0067p1]
NAACP Plan to Challenge Underfunding of Black Schools
Nathan R. Margold. Preliminary Report to the Joint Committee Supervising the Expenditure of the 1930 Appropriation by the American Fund for Public Service . Typescript. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (070.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # na0070p1
The Scottsboro Case
On March 25, 1931, nine black youths were falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama. Eight of the nine youths were convicted and sentenced to death within a month. In this letter Dr. P. A. Stephens, a black physician and president of the Methodist Episcopal Church Layman’s Association, asks the NAACP for assistance. The NAACP vied with the International Labor Defense for the right to represent the “Scottsboro Boys” in the retrials. The NAACP lost the bid because it lacked a full-time legal staff, spurring Executive Secretary Walter White to hire Charles H. Houston and set up a legal department. There were a total of eleven trials, two before the Supreme Court. Five of the Scottsboro Boys were convicted; Charles Weems was paroled in 1943, Ozie Powell and Clarence Norris in 1946, and Andy Wright in 1944, but returned to prison after violating parole and was released in 1950. Haywood Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, and fled to Detroit, Michigan. He was convicted of manslaughter in 1950 and died of cancer in prison two years later. Norris, paroled in 1946, violated his parole and fled to New York, where he lived as a fugitive until he was pardoned by the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board in 1976.
Youth Leader Juanita Jackson
In January 1937 Juanita Jackson (1913–1992), the NAACP’s first national youth director, visited the Scottsboro Boys in prison. Under her leadership, NAACP youth groups launched a letter-writing campaign to protest the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys and a fund-raising drive to support their defense. The following year Jackson married Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., who served as director of the NAACP Washington Bureau from 1950 to 1978. She led the key NAACP Baltimore branch during the same crucial period. The first black woman admitted to practice law in Maryland; she also successfully prosecuted cases against segregation in Baltimore. In 1987 she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
Nixon v. Condon
In defiance of the Nixon v. Herndon decision, which allowed blacks to vote in the Texas Democratic primary, the Texas legislature passed a law to enable the Democratic Party State Executive Committee to establish its own voting qualifications limiting eligibility to whites. Dr. L. A. Nixon filed a new lawsuit against James Condon, the election officer who denied him a ballot in the 1928 Democratic primary. On May 2, 1932, in Nixon v. Condon, the Supreme Court struck down the law as another violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Undeterred, the Texas Democratic Party voted at the state convention to ban blacks from membership, once again, circumventing the Court’s action. In this letter Fred Knollenberg, the NAACP’s counsel in El Paso, urges Walter White to continue the fight, but financial constraints prevented further litigation.
Mistreatment of Black Workers
In 1932 numerous complaints about the mistreatment of black laborers working on the War Department’s Mississippi River Flood Control Project led the NAACP to send Helen Boardman to investigate. She found private contractors subjecting blacks to unequal pay, higher commissary prices, unsanitary camps, overwork, and beatings. Her report was referred to the War Department. When conditions persisted, the NAACP sent Roy Wilkins and George Schuyler to investigate. Disguised as laborers, Wilkins and Schuyler toured contractors’ camps for three weeks and confirmed Boardman’s report. The NAACP printed 10,000 copies of a leaflet, Mississippi River Slavery–1932, to inform the public. In September 1933, the Secretary of War announced a pay raise and shortened hours for unskilled Mississippi levee camp laborers.
George S. Schuyler to NAACP Secretary Walter White concerning the Mississippi River Flood Control Project investigation, December 23 . Autograph note cards and typed letter. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (074.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # na0074p1]
Roy Wilkins in Workman’s Disguise
From December 15, 1932 to January 5, 1933, Roy Wilkins and George Schuyler investigated conditions in the construction camps of contractors building levees along the Mississippi River from Memphis south to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The pair used the home of prominent businessman Robert R. Church, Jr. in Memphis as their headquarters. Church was the half brother of NAACP founder Mary Church Terrell.
Roy Wilkins, Assistant Secretary of the NAACP, in workman’s disguise during his investigation of workers’ conditions on the Federal Flood Control Project, Memphis, Tennessee, 1932. Photograph. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (076.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # cph.3c19164]
The Second Amenia Conference
In 1933 Joel Spingarn and W. E .B. Du Bois organized a second Amenia Conference with the help of Walter White and Roy Wilkins. Their purpose was to assemble young black leaders to discuss solutions to the problems facing “the Negro race.” The conference was held August 18–21 at Spingarn’s “Troutbeck” estate near Amenia, New York. The general consensus was that the NAACP should develop an economic program. The conferees criticized the New Deal for not giving blacks equal consideration, but agreed that the New Deal’s “reformed democracy” was preferable to fascism and communism. They concluded that the union of black and white labor was needed for the nation’s economic and political progress. In 1934 the NAACP established the Committee on Future Plan and Program to consider the issues raised by the conference.
The Amenia Conference Attendees
This photograph shows the men and women who attended the Amenia Conference of 1933. The group included lawyers, educators, organization workers, and other intellectuals.
Participants in the Amenia Conference, 1933. Third Row (left to right): Ralph Bunche, Edward P. Lovett, W.E.B. Du Bois, Abram Harris, Charles Houston, Grace Nail Johnson, Roy Wilkins, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, Lillian Alexander, Emmett Dorsey, William Pickens, Mary White Ovington, Ira De A. Reid, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White. Second Row (left to right): Hope Spingarn, Hazel Brown, Juanita Jackson, M. Moran Weston, Wenonah Logan, Joel Spingarn, Elmer A. Carter, Mabel J. Bryde, Frank Wilson, and Marion Cuthbert. Front Row (left to right): Dr. Ernest Alexander, Ruth McGee, Dr. Virginia Alexander, Howard Shaw, Anna Arnold, Sara E. Reid, Pauline Young, Frances Williams, unidentified. Photograph. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (078.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # cph.3c17806]
Du Bois’s Editorial Advocating Segregation
W. E .B. Du Bois’s activities often sparked controversy. In the January 1934 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois published an editorial proposing voluntarily segregation as an economic strategy for black workers and farmers, an idea that came under fire from the NAACP’s board of directors. As a result of the discord and the fact that The Crisis was in dire financial straits, Du Bois resigned from the editorship of The Crisis and the NAACP board in July 1934. However, overriding these issues was the personal conflict between Walter White and Du Bois and the acknowledged fact that White ultimately persuaded the board to take his position on the primacy of integration.
The Costigan–Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill
In 1934 the NAACP renewed the fight for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law with a bill introduced by Senators Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan. The Costigan-Wagner bill provided for federal punishment of lynchers and state officials who did not enforce the law, and damages against the county where the lynching occurred of up to $10,000. To rally support, the NAACP released a pamphlet on the brutal lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida. However, Southern senators defeated the bill by filibuster.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950) was the chief strategist of the NAACP’s legal campaign that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Born in Washington, D.C., he graduate from Amherst College in 1915. In 1923 he became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree at Harvard, where he studied under Felix Frankfurter. Houston intermittently practiced law as a partner in Houston and Houston, the prestigious firm his father founded in 1892. In 1924 he joined the faculty of Howard University Law School and was appointed vice dean in 1929. By 1932 he had transformed the law school from a part-time evening school to a fully accredited institution that trained a cadre of civil rights attorneys. In 1935 the NAACP hired Houston as its first salaried Special Counsel and created the Legal Department under his supervision. Although he returned to private practice in 1938, Houston continued to advise the NAACP until his death on April 22, 1950.
Plan to Fight Discrimination in Higher Education
Nathan Margold resigned from the NAACP in 1933 to join the Interior Department as a solicitor. In 1934 the Joint Committee of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service retained Charles Houston on a part-time basis to direct a legal campaign against discrimination in education and interstate transportation. Houston reviewed the Margold Report, then later composed this memorandum, in which he advocated using the scant $10,000 funds available to fight “the more acute issue of discrimination in education.” Houston diverged from Margold by delaying a direct strike on public schools, instead attacking state graduate and professional schools. He devised a systemic assault that would “us[e] the court as a laboratory” to develop a succession of test cases and gradually chip away at the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Memorandum for the Joint Committee of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service, Inc. from Charles H. Houston, October 26, 1934. Memorandum. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10 - Page 11 - Page 12 - Page 13. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (079.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # na0079p1
William Henry Hastie
William Henry Hastie (1904–1976), civil rights attorney, public official, and federal judge, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Hastie followed in his cousin Charles Houston’s footsteps by attending Amherst College and Harvard Law School, where he studied under Felix Frankfurter, receiving a Bachelor of Law in 1930 and a Doctor of Juridical Science in 1933. Between degrees, Hastie joined Houston and Houston and the faculty of Howard Law School, becoming Dean in 1939. During the 1930s he began his tenure with the NAACP as a strategic advisor and counsel. He also served as chairman of the Legal Committee from 1939–1949 and on the Board of Directors of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1941–1968. In 1949 Hastie was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 1954 and 1967, he was considered for the Supreme Court.
William Hastie Chairman of the National Legal Committee, NAACP, n.d. Gelatin silver print. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # ppmsca-05515
Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) graduated from Lincoln University cum laude in 1930 and from Howard Law School in 1933 at top of his class. He practiced law privately in Baltimore before joining the NAACP as assistant counsel in 1936. As the chief attorney for the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall led the legal campaign against discrimination from 1938 to 1961. Under his leadership the NAACP won 27 of 32 cases it argued before the Supreme Court. He achieved his greatest victory in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Four years later President Lyndon B. Johnson named him solicitor general of the United States and in 1967 nominated him to the Supreme Court, from which he retired in 1991.
Donald Murray’s First Day of Law School
Donald Murray was the first black student admitted to the University of Maryland Law School, in 1935. Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall prosecuted Murray’s case for the NAACP. In this statement to Thurgood Marshall, Murray describes the events that occurred on the first day he attended classes and also expresses his views on integration and prejudice.
“I have enumerated these incidents because in no other way can I more clearly express the attitude of my class & to a lesser extent that of the remainder of the school. They have been kind, reasonable, and mature in their attitude of acceptance and several times I have found myself wondering if prejudice isn’t simply an unreasonable bias toward something one does not know—at least I am fairly sure this can be said of the more educated.”
Italian Aggression against Ethiopia
The NAACP sent correspondence to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Russian diplomat Maxim Litvinov of the League of Nations to protest Italian aggression against Ethiopia in 1935. The NAACP also protested the Franco-British peace proposals that gave Italy half of Ethiopia and the mass slaughter of Ethiopians in 1937. To rally public support, The Crisis ran a series of articles on the Ethiopian situation, and Charles Houston joined the executive council of American Aid for Ethiopia, an organization that collected donations for war relief.
The Second Italo-Ethiopian War
In October 1935 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. The poorly equipped Ethiopian armies were defeated in the war that ensued. Italy formally annexed Ethiopia, along with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, to form Italian East Africa in May1936. Guerilla warfare continued in Ethiopia under Italian rule. When guerrillas tried to assassinate the colonial viceroy in 1937, the Italians killed thousands of Ethiopians in retaliation. In 1941 Ethiopian and British troops liberated Ethiopia and restored Emperor Halie Selassie to the throne. The following year Ethiopia declared war on Italy, Germany, and Japan. In 1945 Ethiopia became a founding member of the United Nations.
Dismantled 65 mm guns captured from Italians by Abyssinian troops are transported to forward positions in maneuvers of Italian Army, date unknown. Photograph. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (079.02.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # ppmsca.24951]
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada
Charles Houston, NAACP Special Counsel, targeted law schools with anti-Jim Crow lawsuits because he was optimistic that, based on their own experience, white judges would reject unequal training for black attorneys. After winning the Murray v. Maryland case, concerning the desegregation of the University of Maryland Law School, Houston worked with Marshall and Sidney Redmond on Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. In 1935 the University of Missouri Law School denied entry to Lloyd Gaines, an honor graduate of Lincoln University in Missouri, offering to build a law school at Lincoln or pay Gaines’s tuition at an out-of-state school. Houston and Redmond argued the case before the Supreme Court in 1938. The Court ruled Missouri must offer Gaines an equal facility within its borders or admit him to the University’s law school. In response, the State legislature tried to erect a makeshift law school, inciting Houston to renew litigation. Meanwhile, Gaines disappeared, abruptly ending the case. His fate remains a mystery.
Charles H. Houston. Agreement for Preliminary Investigation into Exclusion of Negroes from the University of Missouri, July 15, 1935. Typed document. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (080.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
[Digital ID # na0080p1]
A Letter from Walter White to Jesse Owens
In this letter, which was never sent, Walter White urges Jesse Owens not to participate in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which were under Nazi rule. The U.S. did send an Olympic team to Berlin and Owens was its star, winning four gold medals.
Olympian Jessie Owens
Jesse Owens (1913–1980) was born in Oakville, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. In 1922 the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became a star high school athlete. As a student at Ohio State University he made international headlines in 1935 by breaking five world records and tying another at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1936 Owens dominated the Berlin Olympics with gold medal and record breaking wins in the100- meter and 200-meter race, the long jump, and 400-meter relay. He later worked as a businessman, public speaker, and corporate spokesman. In 1976 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame in 1983.
A Letter from Walter White to Eleanor Roosevelt
In January 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) barred Marion Anderson from performing her Howard University-sponsored spring concert at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, the largest concert venue in Washington, D.C. The NAACP established the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee to rally public support for the singer and secure a venue. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR to protest the exclusion. She worked with Walter White and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange an outdoor concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in April coinciding with Easter and the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Mrs. Roosevelt also agreed to present the Spingarn Medal to Marian Anderson at the NAACP’s annual convention in July.
Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial Concert
On April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson, with NAACP support, performed an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial broadcast nationally by radio. The integrated audience of 75,000, including members of the Supreme Court, Congress, and President Roosevelt’s cabinet, extended to the base of the Washington Monument. The scene, which symbolically united the martyred Civil War-era president with the struggle for black equality, would be restaged and exalted by the 1963 March on Washington.
Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 9, 1939. Gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (084.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # ppmsca-23838
Creation of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund
In 1939 the Treasury Department refused to grant tax-exempt status to the NAACP because of a perceived conflict between the Association’s litigation and lobbying activities. In response, the NAACP created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. as a non-profit separate arm to litigate cases and raise money exclusively for the legal program. The “Legal Defense Fund” or “Inc. Fund” as it was commonly known, shared board members and office space with the NAACP and Arthur Spingarn was president of both organizations. Thurgood Marshall served concurrently as the Fund’s director and NAACP Special Counsel. Marshall hired a new team of lawyers to work for the Fund, including Robert L. Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, and Franklin Williams. The Legal Defense Fund severed ties with the NAACP in 1957, but retained its original name.