One hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States who freed the slaves, a group black and white Americans founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on February 12, 1909. Focused on overturning discriminatory laws throughout the United States, the NAACP has grown into one of the most influential organizations in American politics.
After the Civil War, legislative bodies throughout the South enacted statutes designed to undermine amendments to the US Constitution made to elevate African-Americans to full citizenship. These “Jim Crow” laws emanated from efforts to keep black freedmen away from the voting booth after the Reconstruction Era was complete in 1876 — and violated rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment in 1870. Legislation designed to isolate minorities from their white counterparts filtered into several aspects of life, from education to politics and beyond.
Once the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” facilities were legal in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, it seemed as if the system would become endemic. A combination of literacy tests, poll taxes and residency requirements left most blacks and many poverty-stricken whites without the right to choose their representatives. Laws were so strict, the state of North Carolina ended up with no registered voters of African-American descent whatsoever from 1896-1904.
In July 1905, 29 men gathered on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to lay out a plan for overturning racial discrimination. Led by Harvard graduate and historian W.E.B. Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, the group issued a Declaration of Principles built on free elections for all citizens regardless of race or gender, fair opportunities for success in the classroom and in business, as well as social integration across the spectrum of American life. This Niagara Movement, with minimal financial backing and differing ideals among the membership, struggled to gain a foothold.
Three years later, the city of Springfield, Illinois — Lincoln’s hometown — exploded in fury. Two African-American men accused of different crimes against local whites were taken 70 miles away to Bloomington by the sheriff. An angry white mob gathered to protest the decision, plowing through black neighborhoods and businesses despite the presence of the Illinois National Guard. Five whites were killed, but not before two black men were lynched — hung from trees for nothing other than the color of their skin.
Fed up after the 1908 Springfield Race Riot, Du Bois founded the NAACP with Mary White Ovington, Ida B. Wells, Henry Moscowitz and many others on February 12, 1909. Unable to officially meet for three months, letters were exchanged to help form the basis for an organizational structure to be discussed at a meeting of the Niagara Movement in New York City on May 30th. Then known as the National Negro Committee, the 40 people present appointed William English Walling to be acting chairman.
The following year, members gathered once again, this time in greater numbers and with more diversity — particularly buoyed by a number of white Jewish activists providing financing — the official designation of NAACP was selected. In 1911, the organization incorporated to “promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States” as membership continued to grow.
Over the next four decades, NAACP chapters sprung up all over the United States. By the late 1930s, financial support was great enough for the establishment of a Legal Defense Fund to provide attorney services on behalf of African-Americans facing trial — especially when the lawsuits contested unfair provisions of American law.
The culmination of the organization’s hard work against segregation came during the 1950s, as a number of landmark cases brought national attention to the NAACP cause. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, backing Rosa Parks and others frustrated with the seating policies of the transit system in the Alabama capital, generated headlines and forced change. This after the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), overturned the “separate but equal” clause in Plessy and required integration nationwide. (An issue which later revealed the ugliness of discrimination in the South during the Little Rock Nine’s first days attending high school in Arkansas.)
During the 1960s, the NAACP’s profile raised further as demonstrations by the Civil Rights Movement and speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr. captured national consciousness. Though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 officially outlawed all the group was originally formed to conquer, it has continued to be a force for African-American interests in the decades since.
Also On This Day:
1554 – Lady Jane Grey is beheaded for treason one year after claiming the English crown for nine days
1809 – Abraham Lincoln, future 16th President of the United States, is born in Hodgenville, Kentucky
1809 – English naturalist Charles Darwin, author of On The Origin of Species, is born in Shrewsbury, United Kingdom
1912 – The last Emperor of China, Puyi of the Qing Dynasty, abdicates the throne
2004 – The City of San Francisco begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the orders of mayor Gavin Newsom
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