National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, African Americans gained a major advocacy organization.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the civil rights achieved by African Americans during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period were under severe attack. Supported by rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court—such as in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of racial segregation—southern states enacted laws that effectively disfranchised most African American voters and barred their access to public institutions on an equal basis with whites. In the North, racial discrimination was not sanctioned as openly, but it remained an underlying assumption of society. Tensions between the two races sometimes flared into violence, taking the forms of lynchings and urban riots. In these confrontations, African Americans were accorded little sympathy by the mainstream press, the courts, or law-enforcement agencies. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People African Americans;organizations [kw]National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded (Feb. 12, 1909) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People African Americans;organizations [g]United States;Feb. 12, 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded[02360] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 12, 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded[02360] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 12, 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded[02360] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 12, 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded[02360] Du Bois, W. E. B. Washington, Booker T. Trotter, William Monroe Villard, Oswald Garrison Walling, William English Ovington, Mary White Marshall, Thurgood

Reactions to the deterioration of individual rights varied within the African American community. The most prominent spokesperson for African Americans, educator Booker T. Washington, had adopted a policy of accommodation in the 1890’s, urging African Americans to abandon temporarily their drive for civil and political rights and to concentrate instead on acquiring the economic skills that would enable them to find a place in an industrialized United States. Washington believed that if African Americans demonstrated their competence through hard work, American society eventually would grant them the same rights that whites enjoyed. Washington’s policies were supported widely by wealthy white philanthropists.

Washington’s position, which historians call “gradualism,” was countered, although ineffectively at first, by W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor at Atlanta University and founder in 1905 of the Niagara Movement, Niagara Movement an organization composed of educated African Americans. Du Bois agonized over the steady erosion of African Americans’ rights and viewed protest rather than acquiescence as the most appropriate avenue to equality. Support for this second point of view, called “immediatism,” crystallized among both African Americans and whites in 1909 and led to the launch of an organization dedicated to combating racial discrimination in all areas of American life.

The immediate catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a bloody race riot that took place in Springfield, Illinois, in August, 1908, during which white mobs destroyed much of the black section of Springfield and lynched two African Americans. The riot left more than fifty African Americans dead or injured, and two thousand African American residents fled the city. The fact that Abraham Lincoln’s hometown could be the site of such violence made it clear that racial discrimination and its accompanying violence were not just southern problems.

A group of white liberals began to consider how to rekindle the spirit of moral indignation that had animated the pre-Civil War abolitionists and then channel that indignation into constructive action. William English Walling, a Kentucky journalist and labor organizer, wrote several articles in the Independent condemning the Springfield riot and called for a powerful body of citizens to come to African Americans’ aid. Early in 1909, Walling met with Mary White Ovington, the socialist descendant of an abolitionist family, and Henry Moskovitz, Moskovitz, Henry a New York social worker, to discuss ways of attracting support for his idea. They invited the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, Oswald Garrison Villard, to join them, and the group soon expanded to more than fifteen, including two prominent African American clergymen, Bishop Alexander Waters Waters, Alexander and the Reverend William Henry Brooks. Brooks, William Henry

After initial discussions, the members of this planning committee decided to draw attention to their cause by holding a conference in New York City. On February 12, 1909, sixty prominent African Americans and Euro-Americans signed a “call” to the gathering, which was titled the Conference on the Status of the Negro Conference on the Status of the Negro and was scheduled to be held May 31-June 1, 1909; the call pointed to the discrimination and violence that afflicted African Americans and urged northerners to cast off the “silence that means tacit approval.”

Three hundred men and women, including many white liberals, attended the two-day meeting, where they set up a permanent organization and listened to scientific refutations of arguments that persons of African descent were genetically inferior. The most notable African American in attendance was Du Bois, who suggested in a speech that African Americans’ problems were as much political as economic. Villard had invited Booker T. Washington to the conference but had told him that the new organization was to be an aggressive one. Under the circumstances, Washington declined to attend.

Washington’s absence did not mean the participants were in complete agreement on the course to be taken, however. Heated arguments preceded the selection of the Committee of Forty on Permanent Organization Committee of Forty on Permanent Organization (NAACP) and the passage of resolutions demanding equal rights and protection against violence for African Americans. Leading the opposition to Villard’s proposals were William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston newspaper The Guardian, and J. Milton Waldron, Waldron, J. Milton president of the National Negro Political League. Both advocated more radical positions than those favored by the majority. In the end, they were not included in the Committee of Forty.

Throughout the year that followed, Villard and a handful of other committee members struggled to raise funds and plan for a second conference. Despite general indifference from the white press and open disputes with Booker T. Washington, the committee succeeded in formulating an organizational framework for presentation to the conference. The National Committee, which comprised one hundred members, was charged with raising funds and giving prestige to the organization; the smaller Executive Committee, composed primarily of members of the former Committee of Forty, would direct the organization’s activities. In an executive session held on May 14, 1910, the group, now bearing the name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, approved this arrangement.


At the NAACP’s second conference, Du Bois was appointed director of publicity and research, a move that underscored the aggressive direction the delegates sought to follow. For Du Bois, the post represented an opportunity to redeem his years of frustration with the Niagara Movement. He resigned his faculty position at Atlanta University and moved to New York City. Within six months, he had launched the NAACP magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, Crisis, The (magazine) which soon became a major organ for molding opinion on race issues. The inaugural press run of one thousand copies sold out, and within five years the publication’s circulation exceeded fifty thousand.

The NAACP continued to grow throughout the twentieth century. NAACP attorneys, including the future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, mounted numerous legal challenges to the institutional segregation that plagued the United States. Marshall argued thirty-two civil rights cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP, of which he won twenty-nine. In cases such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) Marshall and other attorneys with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund worked to demolish inequality in education, employment, and access to facilities such as restaurants and hotels. The NAACP’s efforts to help African American plaintiffs fight racial discrimination on the job and elsewhere continue in the twenty-first century.

The NAACP’s successes in fighting racial discrimination have occasionally been accompanied by problems within the organization. In the 1930’s, a major rift developed between founder Du Bois and newer members such as Walter White. Internal dissension almost tore the organization apart. Du Bois left, but the organization survived.

Similar problems developed in the 1990’s. Following the 1993 retirement of Benjamin L. Hooks Hooks, Benjamin L. as executive director of the NAACP, the organization endured two stormy years of controversy and dissension. The new executive director, Benjamin F. Chavis, Chavis, Benjamin F. found himself under attack following the disclosure that he used organization funds to settle a lawsuit brought by a former employee. Chavis was fired in 1994, and under the guidance of board chair Myrlie Evers-Williams, Evers-Williams, Myrlie the NAACP managed to weather the controversy, although both financial contributions and overall membership declined.

In January, 1996, the NAACP announced that Kweisi Mfume, Mfume, Kweisi a forty-seven-year-old African American congressman from Baltimore, Maryland, had accepted the position of chief executive officer. With Mfume assuming a leadership role, the NAACP appeared confident that it would continue to fight for racial equality for many years to come. Mfume suffered some personal controversy, however, and during the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, the NAACP’s open support for the Democratic Party brought into question its official nonpartisan status. Mfume was succeeded by Bruce S. Gordon in June, 2005.

The founding of the NAACP marked the first major attempt since Reconstruction to make African American rights the focus of national reform efforts. The manner of the organization’s birth displayed many of the same strengths and weaknesses that characterized it in its early years: a substantial proportion of white leadership and dependence on white financial support, a program emphasizing political and civil rights and seeking change through legislation and judicial decisions, and criticism from within the black community concerning both of these points. In the early years, the protests were loudest from those, such as Washington, who found the new organization too militant, but even at the outset other critics, such as Trotter, felt it did not go far enough. Despite numerous victories, such as those in the court cases of Brown v. Board of Education and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 (1973), those same criticisms continued. Despite the competing demands for aggressive action and for moderation, however, the NAACP managed to move race relations steadily forward for most of the twentieth century. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People African Americans;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonas, Gilbert. Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969. New York: Routledge, 2004. History of the NAACP’s first sixty years provides comprehensive coverage of the organization’s accomplishments. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kellogg, Charles Flint. NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1909-1920. 1964. Reprint. Bodmin, England: Bodmin Books, 1997. History of the early years of the NAACP.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Fascinating, detailed biography of Du Bois’s early life includes discussion of his interactions with Booker T. Washington and his evolution into an activist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meier, August. Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington. 1963. Reprint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. Provides a general context for the debate among African Americans in the early twentieth century concerning accommodation versus aggressive activism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Lanham, Md.: SR Books, 2003. Provides a detailed overview of the debate between Washington and Du Bois concerning their different approaches to the problems of segregation and discrimination against blacks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zangrando, Robert. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980. Describes the NAACP’s efforts to eliminate the horrors of lynching from the U.S. South.

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