On Feb. 26, the Library of Congress held a symposium to reflect on the first 100 years of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It was fitting that this event took place at the Library of Congress, the official repository of the NAACP records since 1964.
“The NAACP records now consist of approximately 5 million items dating from 1909, the year of the association’s inception,” said Adrienne Cannon, a historian with the Manuscript Division.
“The NAACP records function as a general reference tool, a sort of encyclopedia of the black experience in the 20th century,” said Cannon. Moreover, the collection “chronicles the NAACP’s fight to break down the barrier of the color line, which encompassed every aspect of American life and also extended beyond America’s shores, particularly to Africa and the Caribbean.”
Patricia Sullivan, the first of three speakers at the symposium, spoke of the NAACP’s early days and the decades of groundwork that led to the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Sullivan, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a former John W. Kluge fellow at the Library, is the author of “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement” (The New Press, 2009).
“This place is a treasure,” said Sullivan, who spent a decade researching her book in the NAACP Records at the Library of Congress. (See story on page 36.) “What I took away from my research was the men and women who kept the light burning.”
According to Sullivan, in its early days, the organization relied on its members to be in the field investigating legal cases, recruiting members, working with branches to fight racial injustice, and lobbying in Washington.
“Up until the 1950s, the NAACP operated on a shoestring and relied on dues of a largely black membership to sustain its work,” Sullivan said.
During the NAACP’s first two decades of existence, it won favorable rulings on issues such as voting rights in the South, segregation in schools in the North, and criminal-justice cases in the North and the South, while establishing a strong presence in the field. In the 1920s, the NAACP had branches extending from Boston to Los Angeles to the Deep South.
Sullivan also talked about the strong will of the organization’s members.
“Through their beliefs and actions they created a reality that bridged racial barriers and sustained a promising democracy in the face of its routine denial, generating the hope and fortitude that made change possible,” she said.
Sullivan noted that her book was published just one month prior to the election of the nation’s first African American president.
“The inauguration of Barack Obama is the realization of the hope in the century of NAACP Records that live in the Library of Congress.”
Robert Zangrando, professor emeritus of history at the University of Akron, discussed the NAACP’s campaign against lynching—murders by mobs, which killed more than 4,700 people in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Of that number, some 3,400 were racially motivated mob killings of black men and women who had not been found guilty of violating any laws. Some of the NAACP’s earliest work was in support of a federal anti-lynching law.
“Racism is the designation of inferiority toward an entire group of people, based on nothing more than physical differences,” said Zangrando. “It is irrational, mindless and indefensible.”
According to Zangrando, the NAACP mobilized to create a climate of change—in values, behavior and institutions. They publicized the indecency of lynchings. And they campaigned for a national law against the practice. Although the NAACP’s campaign against lynching never produced such a law with national scope, the group’s campaigns brought the foul practice to public attention.
“The NAACP had now brought race relations not only into the open but to the center of the stage of political discourse — and, in doing that, had ended the terrible blight that blacks faced during the early part of the century,” said Zangrando.
A fair housing law passed in 1968 included a section that declared that it was a “federal crime to injure or cause the death of a citizen in pursuit of his or her citizenship.”
“The racists were holding all the cards in the deck until the NAACP came along,” said Zangrando. “White violence gave the NAACP its motivation. The NAACP addressed racial isolation and corrected it, and we are all better for it.”
Kenneth W. Mack, professor of law at Harvard University, shared insights from his new book “Representing the Race: Creating the Civil Rights Lawyer, 1920–1955” (Harvard University Press). He told the story of Charles Houston (1895-1950), one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history. As an attorney for the NAACP, the Harvard-educated Houston played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws. He also mentored future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Houston has been credited for developing the NAACP’s legal battle plan to attack and deconstruct the fiction of “separate but equal” through the courts.
“The image of the NAACP was a black lawyer in the courtroom, representing an entire race,” said Mack, who added, “The first black president of the United States is also a black lawyer.”
Jennifer Gavin, senior public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office, and PAO office operations assistant Kimberly Rieken contributed to this story.