The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 by an interracial group of intellectuals, reformers, and socialists dedicated to achieving fully the civil and political rights of African Americans as guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Although largely financed and controlled in the early years by sympathetic whites of the stripe of Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Mary White Ovington, the socialist settlement-house activist, it was W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the Niagara Movement, a short-lived black protest organization, who shaped the public image of the NAACP as a militant association.
As director of publications and research and the sole black executive staff member, Du Bois edited the association's official publication, the Crisis, during a period in American history replete with grotesque torture, mutilation, castration, and rampant homicide committed by whites upon blacks. No fewer than 3,438 men and women were lynched between 1882 and 1951. White supremacists from janitors to judges justified mob violence as necessary in order to punish alleged black murderers and rapists lest they be acquitted by jury trial. More generally, such violence was deemed justifiable as a sine qua non to white domination.
As black outmigration from the South increased during the first decade of the century, the August 1908 riot in Springfield, Illinois (burial place of Abraham Lincoln), signaled that the race problem had become a national crisis. Two weeks after some two thousand terrorized African Americans had fled Springfield, the socialist writer William English Walling wrote an article admonishing would-be reformers to look to their consciences. Ovington's response and Villard's financial support led to the founding of the NAACP, an organization birthed by violence. Shortly after its founding, two lynchings occurred in the summer of 1911: one in the upper South, and the other in the North.
After a black man was charged with murdering a white man in Livermore, Kentucky, tickets were sold at a local theater to witness and participate in his lynching. The audience in the orchestra could fire unlimited shots into Will Porter's lifeless body, while those in the gallery were limited to only one. No lynchers were ever convicted. In Coatesville, Pennsylvania, following a gun duel with a factory guard, a wounded Zachariah Walker confessed to killing a popular local white man in self-defense. Hours later, lynchers stormed the hospital, ripped Walker's bed from the floor, and delivered him to a mob of four thousand men, women, and children. Walker was burned alive, his hospital bed serving as a pyre, and his remains were distributed as souvenirs.
Such terror spurred the NAACP to action. Du Bois's editorial in the Crisis grimly predicted that "nothing [would] be done," and implored black men, next time, "to perish like men and not like bales of hay." The association investigated the scene of the crime, hired private detectives to obtain evidence against the lynchers, entreated the U.S. attorney general to take action, and organized protest meetings to raise money for antilynching efforts. The process initiated with the Coatesville lynching resulted in the NAACP's most effective strategy against racial violence. Antilynching, in particular, and violence against blacks, in general, became the NAACP's primary focus during its first thirty years. The association published its first pamphlet, Notes on Lynching in the United States, in 1912, only months after Coatesville; the NAACP report Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919, was released in 1919.
Publicizing racial violence also came in the form of parades, conferences, and journalistic exposés. Newly hired field secretary James Weldon Johnson organized the "Negro Silent Protest Parade" on 28 July 1917. Held in New York City, the parade brought national attention to the bloody East St. Louis Riot, which claimed the lives of thirty-nine blacks and eight whites. During the "Red Summer" of 1919, in which race riots erupted in twenty-six northern and southern cities, the association faced one of its pivotal challenges with the massacre in Elaine, Arkansas. When members of the all-black Farmers Progressive Household Union of America held a mass meeting in a local church, a deputy sheriff was killed in a shoot-out triggered by a white mob's attack on the assembly. In retaliation, hundreds of deputies and federal troops were called to the scene, resulting in the murder of twenty blacks, allegedly for resisting arrest.
In a trial that lasted all of one hour and five minutes, twelve black men were condemned to death, and sixty-seven were coerced, by threat of lynching, to plea-bargain in exchange for long prison sentences. The NAACP's new assistant executive secretary, Walter White, light-skinned and blond, posed as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News in order to investigate the Elaine riot and broadcast its details nationwide. The association eventually won a reversal of all convictions on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923 (Moore v. Dempsey). This ruling was a powerful strike against the southern tradition of mobled court proceedings and was one of the NAACP's most significant early legal successes.
The NAACP waged legal battles over other crucial issues: due process in jury trials, restrictive covenants, disfranchisement laws, equalization of teachers' salaries, and segregation of public schools, although antiviolence proved to be its most widely supported strategy before the 1940s. Even so, failure to secure congressional enactment of its federal antilynching bill was to be one of the association's biggest disappointments. Despite repeated pleas by NAACP officials to U.S. attorneys general, members of Congress, and five presidents (from William H. Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt), innumerable demonstrations, and congressional hearings, lynching was never made a federal crime. In 1922, 1937, and 1940, federal antilynching legislation was passed in the House but died on the Senate floor.
Despite such legislative defeats, the NAACP's lobbying efforts, publicity, and legal victories helped to slow the pace of mob violence across the nation after the 1930s, until its resurgence in the 1950s with the Civil Rights movement. Throughout its history, the NAACP paid a high price for its assault on white supremacy. The beating in 1919 of John R. Shillady, NAACP secretary, by an Austin, Texas, mob and the near abduction of Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, by Columbus, Tennessee, police officers in 1946 were frightening omens of what was to befall Harry T. Moore and Medgar Evers. Moore, the NAACP state coordinator for Florida, was murdered along with his wife when their Miami home was bombed in 1951. Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers died in the arms of his wife and children from an assassin's bullet in 1963.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, racial violence became virtually state-sponsored in the South. The 1955 Interstate Commerce Commission's order banning segregated interstate travel was flouted, public school integration in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi was completely stymied, and black voter registration in eight southern states slowed to a glacial pace. Although more than five hundred cases of reprisals against African Americans were recorded between 1955 and 1958, the NAACP was one of the primary targets in this official campaign to resist integration. Texas and Alabama hamstrung the local branches with injunctions. Georgia revoked the organization's tax-exempt status. Virginia passed sedition laws, and South Carolina banned public employment of association members.
Intimidation and personal threats had always been part of the job descriptions of NAACP officials, and continued to be so during the 1960s as the nation lurched toward greater fulfillment of the promises of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.