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National NAACP History

On February 12, 1909, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, sixty prominent black and white citizens issued “The Call” for a national conference in New York City to renew “the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Principal among these was W.E.B. DuBois, who formed the Niagara Movement which drew up an agenda for aggressive action not unlike the group he now joined. Also involved was Ida Wells-Barnett, a young journalist, whose eloquent editorials focused national attention on the epidemic of lynchings. Participants at the conference agreed to work toward the abolition of forced segregation, promotion of equal education and civil rights under the protection of law, and an end to race violence. In 1911, that organization was incorporated as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – the NAACP.

Working through the Courts

The distinctive strategic emphasis of the NAACP – ending discrimination through legal action – evolved during its first twenty years. By assuming the legal challenges that were required to gain full citizenship for blacks, the Association became a formidable force for change even in its early years. First in Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court in 1910 struck down the grandfather clauses of state constitutions as an unconstitutional barrier to voting rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. In 1917, the Court declared unconstitutional a Louisville ordinance that required blacks to live in certain sections of the city, thus changing residential segregation through city ordinances. Subsequent NAACP lawsuits nullified restrictive covenants – clauses in real estate deeds that pledged white buyers never to sell the property to blacks. And in 1923, the court declared that exclusion of blacks from juries was inconsistent with the right to a fair trial. Thus, in just a few years, formidable obstacles to black voting, integrated communities and integrated juries had been removed through concerted legal action. The Association then widened its scope and faced the next barrier to equal rights. Case precedents were established “culminating in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared an end to segregated and, in so doing, ended de jure segregation.” The process was slow and evolutionary, but as history has demonstrated it was the only way to win full constitution guarantees for the rights of minorities.

A Voice for Change

For 90 years, the NAACP, through political pressure, marches, demonstrations and effective lobbying – has served as the voice, of African Americans. As the nation’s largest advocacy organization, our prolonged agitation for peaceful change has been felt in every aspect of American life.

Born in response to racial violence, the Association’s first major campaign was the effort to get the anti-lynching laws on the books. In 1919, to awaken the national conscience, the Association published an exhaustive review of lynching records entitled, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918. NAACP leaders, at potential risk to their own lives, conducted first-hand investigations of racially motivated violence which were widely publicized.

Though bills passed the House of Representatives several times, they were always defeated in the Senate. Nonetheless, NAACP efforts brought an end to the excesses of mob violence through public exposure and the public pressure it mobilized.

In the 1930’s, as lynchings declined, the NAACP shifted its focus from racial brutality to the grim economic conditions produced by the Great Depression. The Association lobbied fiercely against racial discrimination in New Deal programs. Only the imminent threat of a national march on Washington led to FDR’s Executive Order to create a Fair Employment Practices Committee and to ban racial discrimination in industries which received federal contracts. The door to new employment opportunities had opened slightly.

As the nation threw itself into World War II, the NAACP launched a “second war” to end discrimination and segregation in the Armed Services, while expanding employment opportunities on the home front. Though unable to obtain the creation of racially mixed voluntary units, the NAACP affected formation of the nation’s first black Air Force units. It was not until 1948 that President Truman issued an Executive Order prohibiting racial discrimination in the federal service. Through the Association’s sustained pressure, the desegregation of the armed forces had become inevitable.

While Brown v. Board of Education proved the end of a long struggle, it also marked the beginning of a new one. Despite attempts to outlaw the NAACP throughout the South, the Association pressed ahead with voter registration, sit-in demonstrations (the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City pioneered the tactic in 1958), and grassroots protests of injustice. One memorable example took place in Alabama in 1955. NAACP Montgomery Branch Secretary Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This defiant act triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott and another chapter in the civil rights struggle.

The NAACP’s creation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights – a coalition of civil rights organizations – institutionalized broad-based support for the struggle and was crucial to the Association’s drive to win passage of civil rights legislation in Congress. It began with the 1957 Civil Rights Acts – the first since Reconstruction. Subsequently, the NAACP-led coalition produced the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act – laws which ensured government protection for legal victories going back some 75 years. In one decade, a non-violent social revolution had transformed American society.

The NAACP brought other changes through public pressure and raised consciousness. Since our protest of Birth of a Nation in 1915, we have long fought to end the racial stereotypes that create misunderstanding and prejudice. We have worked to change attitudes, laws, and institutions for the good of all Americans. We have repeatedly rejected the voices of hate and separatism, seeking to bind old wounds and unify our nation. Today, after years of unrelenting struggle, were affirm our commitment to the true American Dream – an integrated society rich in diversity and open equally to all. The struggle continues and we invite all Americans to stand with us – Native-American, black, white, and Hispanic, young and old, Jew and Gentile, male and female. Wherever Americans of good will and decency reside – they are welcome to join our ranks until freedom for all is won.

Texas NAACP History

[The source of this history is the Handbook of Texas.]

By organizing and financing landmark civil-rights lawsuits, the NAACP in Texas became an important component of the national organization. The state’s African Americans, who included a significant number of well-educated, urban professionals, had the financial resources and organizational talent to press for racial equality through litigation. As part of a national trend, Texas NAACP memberships increased dramatically during the World War I era. The state’s first chapter, which had been established in El Paso in 1915, was joined by four new branches in 1918. In December of that year national board member Mary B. Talbert toured the state promoting Liberty Loans and organized NAACP branches in nine cities. With 7,046 members and thirty-one branches, Texas became the association’s leading state in these categories. A series of events in 1919, however, revealed the racial hostility that the organization faced. In July a Longview mob burned black homes and businesses and beat a teacher, precipitating a sense of alarm among both blacks and whites (see LONGVIEW RACE RIOT OF 1919). Soon afterward the state attorney general subpoenaed the Austin branch’s records to scrutinize its right to conduct business in Texas. When NAACP national secretary John Shillady learned of the impending challenge, he traveled to Austin to meet with state officials. He soon found himself an unwelcome visitor and, after receiving verbal abuse, was beaten by a gang composed in part of local officials. Governor William P. Hobby blamed Shillady and recommended that the organization stay out of Texas. The atmosphere of intimidation grew worse in the 1920s with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of the state’s branches discontinued operations. Only five remained active by 1923. The Beaumont branch thought it best to disband temporarily “on account of the high race feelings in this part of the state.” In Galveston the organization’s leaders seemed unwilling to pursue association programs that might displease whites. An NAACP member in Dallas reported that the branch president and officers seemed “afraid to death” to hold a meeting because of the Klan. When branches were unwilling to meet, however, the New York office encouraged them to raise funds quietly for activities elsewhere.

These cycles of activism and dormancy continued through the organization’s first twenty-five years. A modest resurgence in the late 1920s gave way to another decline during the Great Depression. The branches did not revive again until the late 1930s. Typically, new leaders would wrest control of stagnant branches, and brief flurries of activity and membership drives would follow, but ultimately the chapters would lapse into inactivity. Six or seven years might pass before the New York headquarters again heard from a “revitalized” branch. Letters urging the local branches to rally went unanswered. Requests for investigations of reported racial discrimination or violence failed to generate responses. National field secretaries might rally the branches briefly while touring the state, but the units would soon fade out again. Some branches did flourish for a time. El Paso, which the national office regarded as “so thoroughly cooperative and so immediately responsive,” mounted a sustained assault on the White Primary. With more than a thousand members, the San Antonio branch thrived under the leadership of J. A. Grumbles but became dormant after his death. Houston, Fort Worth, Galveston, Yoakum, and Beaumont were active at various times. The overall pattern, however, was one of a few individual branches rousing themselves temporarily only to retire again. Only after the formation of the Texas State Conference of Branches in 1937 was the NAACP able to mount a sustained, statewide movement. Under the leadership of A. Maceo Smith of Dallas, the State Conference expanded dramatically during World War II and the immediate postwar years to become the second-largest in the nation by 1945. Its total membership in more than a hundred branches averaged almost 30,000 until 1949.

Several factors contributed to the NAACP’s phenomenal growth. Improved economic conditions with almost full employment meant that more blacks could afford to contribute to such causes. The war itself generated a spirit of awareness and militancy among African Americans: if they were obliged to battle totalitarianism abroad, they also saw a duty to fight racism at home. A successful assault on the Democratic white primary elections in the Supreme Court case Smith v. Allwright also gave the NAACP momentum. Not only did the suit give the organization an issue with which to rally Texas blacks, but the victory provided ample proof of the NAACP’s effectiveness. The State Conference followed the white primary litigation with a systematic attack on segregated public education. After a successful four-year battle to secure Heman M. Sweatt’s admission to the University of Texas law school, additional lawsuits were filed to desegregate undergraduate, secondary, and elementary education. Although victories at the college level came swiftly, the association met strong resistance at the lower levels. Mobs prevented the desegregation of Mansfield High School and elsewhere (see MANSFIELD SCHOOL DESEGREGATION INCIDENT), while other public school desegregation cases were tied up in the courts for years.

Like other Southern states, Texas retaliated against the NAACP. In September 1956 the attorney general seized the association’s records and filed a lawsuit in Tyler to ban the organization from doing business in Texas. The charges were failing to pay the franchise tax and inciting lawsuits under the principle of barratry. The seizure of NAACP files by armed state troopers, a lengthy court proceeding, and a subsequent injunction against operations intimidated the organization so much that became almost dormant. The Texas legislature followed suit with a rash of anti-NAACP bills. Since the 1960s the NAACP has pressed for the implementation and extension of that decade’s civil-rights legislation and subsequent court decisions. Texas branches have been frequent litigants in school desegregation and legislative redistricting cases. NAACP lawyers have also targeted discriminatory practices in employment, housing, and the criminal justice system. The State Conference of Branches has estimated its average membership level in recent years at 19,000. See also CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

Michael L. Gillette , “NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE.” The Handbook of Texas Online. [Accessed Sun Sep 19 5:36:23 1999 ].

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Melvin J. Banks, The Pursuit of Equality: The Movement for First Class Citizenship among Negroes in Texas, 1920-1950 (Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1962). Michael L. Gillette, The NAACP in Texas, 1937-1957 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1984). Darlene Clark Hine, Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas (Millwood, New York: KTO Press, 1979).

Forever Free

Nineteenth Century African-American Legislators and Constitutional Convention Delegates of Texas

To commemorate Black History Month and the 75th legislative session, the exhibit “Forever Free” tells the inspiring story of 52 African-American men who served Texas as elected officials in the latter nineteenth century. Many of them had been slaves with no civil or legal rights until “Juneteenth” — June 19, 1865 and they did not receive the right to vote until 1870. Yet, African-American representation in Texas government flourished in the 1870s, with 36 of the 52 men serving during this decade. They promoted many important issues including education and economic development. Seantor George Ruby was one of 10 men elected to the 1868-69 Texas Constitutional Convention. There, and in the subsequent two legislative sessions, he worked to incorporate railroads and provide for a geological and agricultural survey of the state. Representative William H. Holland and Senator Walter Burton worked to establish an “agricultural and manual school for colored youths.” Holland became known as the “Father of Prairie View University.” Senator Matthew Gaines worked to establish free public education for all Texans, regardless of color.

In the 1880s, the election of African Americans to state office began a steady decline. Over the next twenty years, Texas African-American politicians watched as laws were enacted, despite their objections, which legally deprived African Americans of voting. Segregation policies — “separate but equal” facilities for African-American Texans became the norm throughout the state by the early twentieth century.

African-American legislators continued to fight passionately for causes in which they believed. Representative Elias Mayes fought the racial segregation of railroad cars. Representative Robert Lloyd Smith worked to improve both the educational opportunities and the civil rights of African Americans.

After the election of Representative Smith in 1896, seventy years passed before African Americans were again elected to serve in the Texas Legislature. But the African-American legislators of the nineteenth century have a great deal in common with their twentieth century counterparts. African-American scholar Minnie M. Miles notes, “…they fought for the most basic needs of their specific communities as well as for what would benefit all Texans regardless of race.”

The above is taken from a handout and press kit for “Forever Free,” an exhibit produced by the Texas State Preservation Board and displayed in the Texas State Capitol in 1997. Suggested reading on this topic: Negro Legislators of Texas, by J. Mason Brewer, 1935 (Mathis Publishing Company of Dallas); Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares, by Merline Pitre, 1985 (Eakin Press of Austin).

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift Every Voice and Sing was written by the noted black author, poet, and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson and his brother, successful composer J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1900. It was originally intended for use in a program given by a group of Jacksonville, Florida school children to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. As its words tend to convey a sense of birthright and heritage, it is often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem” and sung at the opening of various public gatherings.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

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