National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Multiracial national organization whose strategic purpose is to defend equality under the law and promote, using legal means, the material advancement of African Americans and other people of color.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the lynching of African Americans, their inability to vote, the poverty of northern urban black people, and the negative effects of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which created the separate but equal doctrine, consolidated the national civil rights movement. The fierce debate between black conservatives and radicals on how best to fight for equality before the law and promote the material advancement of African Americans increased in its urgency.Civil rights and liberties

In this 1956 photo, four of the NAACP’s leaders–from left to right, Henry L. Moon, Roy Wilkins, Herbert Hill, and Thurgood Marshall–hold a membership poster for the organization.

(Library of Congress)

A national multiracial coalition of leading African Americans and prominent white leaders led to the creation of the NAACP in 1910. The NAACP’s purpose was to use all legal means to judicially reverse the laws and regulations that resulted in deteriorating political, economic, and social conditions for African Americans above and below the Mason-Dixon line. W. E. B. Du Bois, a leader of black radicals, believed that seeking legal remedies through the NAACP was the best means to address these strategic problems. Booker T. Washington, a leader of black conservatives, disagreed with the general philosophy of the NAACP and refused to join it, preferring an accommodationist approach. Nonetheless, the NAACP became the leading national civil rights organization and brought before the Supreme Court many issues of strategic concern to African Americans.

The Early NAACP and the Court

White primariesThe first case that the NAACP argued before the Court was Guinn v. United States[case]Guinn v. United States[Guinn v. United States] (1915). The Court, in an 8-0 vote, struck down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, which had the effect of preventing blacks from voting. In Nixon v. Herndon[case]Nixon v. Herndon[Nixon v. Herndon] (1927), the NAACP decided to contest the constitutionality of the whites-only primary system in Texas. The Court unanimously declared such primaries unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, in Grovey v. Townsend[case]Grovey v. Townsend[Grovey v. Townsend] (1935), the Court ruled that a primary run by the Democratic Party, a private entity, could restrict participation to whites. This ruling prevented African Americans from voting in the primaries of the dominant party in the South. In 1939, to manage the increasing volume of legal cases, the NAACP created the Legal Defense Fund,Legal Defense Fund, NAACP under the direction of eminent lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall. Marshall successfully argued Smith v. Allwright[case]Smith v. Allwright[Smith v. Allwright] (1944) before the Court, which struck down the Texas whites-only primary system.

In Buchanan v. Warley[case]Buchanan v. Warley[Buchanan v. Warley] (1917), the NAACP attacked Zoningzoning laws, which prohibited African Americans from living in white residential areas. The Court ruled that racial zoning laws violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Shelley v. Kraemer[case]Shelley v. Kraemer[Shelley v. Kraemer] (1948) and McGhee v. Sipes[case]McGhee v. Sipes[MacGhee v. Sipes] (1948), the NAACP sought to overturn restrictive covenants; and in both cases, the Court ruled that such covenants were unconstitutional. In Hollins v. Oklahoma[case]Hollins v. Oklahoma[Hollins v. Oklahoma] (1935) and Hale v. Kentucky[case]Hale v. Kentucky[Hale v. Kentucky] (1938), the NAACP argued that prohibiting African Americans from serving on juries in criminal cases violated the equal protection clause, and the Court agreed. The NAACP also moved to dismantle the segregated educational system in the United States. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada[case]Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada[Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada] (1938), the Court ruled that an African American man should be admitted to the University of Missouri Law School. It made a similar ruling in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma[case]Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma[Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma] (1948). By the end of the 1940’s, the NAACP had established its legal ability, and it would win cases across the range of strategic issues of concern to African Americans in the early 1950’s.

The Modern NAACP and the Court

One of the most important cases that the NAACP argued in the 1950’s was Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954). The Court, in an 8-0 decision, ruled that the separate but equal doctrine established by Plessy was unconstitutional, leading to the slow desegregation of the U.S. educational system, especially after the Court’s ruling in the second Brown v. Board of Education (1955) decision.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 led to its challenge in South Carolina v. Katzenbach[case]South Carolina v. Katzenbach[South Carolina v. Katzenbach] (1966). The Court, in an 8-1 decision, upheld the act. Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provided African Americans relief from racial discrimination by desegregating public facilities. In various other cases involving equal housing, jury discrimination, interracial marriages, and the administration of justice, the NAACP won favorable rulings from the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren.

In the late 1960’s and well into the 1990’s, the Court moved away from its support of minority issues. During this period, NAACP litigation before the Court under Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist resulted in more losses than wins. The dominance of conservative judicial doctrine in the Rehnquist Court presented major challenges for the NAACP.

Further Reading
  • Howard, John H. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction. New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  • Lawson, Stephen F. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
  • Levy, Peter B. The Civil Rights Movement. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • Ross, Joyce. J. E. Spingarn and the Rise of the NAACP. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
  • Spann, Girardeau A. Race Against the Court: The Supreme Court and Minorities in Contemporary America. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Brown v. Board of Education

Civil Rights movement

Desegregation

Education

Employment discrimination

Housing discrimination

Legal Defense Fund, NAACP

Marshall, Thurgood

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button

Race and discrimination

School integration and busing

Vote, right to

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