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While there have been other organizations whose contributions to the cause of civil liberties were comparable, no organization has done more to promote civil liberties in the United States than the NAACP. For over a century, it has tackled white racism - in the courtroom, in the legislature, and in the streets - while promoting a vision of racial justice, integration, and equal opportunity that more accurately reflects the spirit of the American Dream than the actual U.S. founding documents did. The NAACP has been, and remains, a patriotic institution -- patriotic in the sense that it demands that this country can do better, and refuses to settle for less.
1905W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918. Cornelius Marion (C.M.) Battey/Wikimedia
One of the intellectual forces behind the early NAACP was pioneering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who edited its official magazine, The Crisis, for 25 years. In 1905, before the NAACP was founded, Du Bois co-founded the Niagara Movement, a radical black civil rights organization that demanded both racial justice and women's suffrage.
On the heels of the Springfield race riot, which decimated a community and left seven people dead, the Niagara Movement began to favor a clearer integrationist response. Mary White Ovington, a white ally who had worked aggressively for black civil rights, came on board as the Niagara Movement's vice-president and a multiracial movement began to emerge.
Concerned about the race riots and the future of black civil rights in America, a group of 60 activists gathered in New York City on May 31st, 1909 to create the National Negro Committee. A year later, the NNC became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In some respects, 1915 was a landmark year for the young NAACP. But in others, it was fairly representative of what the organization would become over the course of the 20th century: an organization that took on both policy and cultural concerns. In this case, the policy concern was the NAACP's successful first brief in Guinn v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that states may not grant a "grandfather exemption" allowing whites to bypass voter literacy tests. The cultural concern was a powerful national protest against D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a racist Hollywood blockbuster that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and African Americans as anything but.
The next successful landmark NAACP case was Moore v. Dempsey, in which the Supreme Court ruled that cities may not legally ban African Americans from purchasing real estate.
Women's leadership was instrumental to the growth of the NAACP, and the election of Mary McLeod Bethune as vice-president of the organization in 1940 continued the example set by Ovington, Angelina Grimké, and others.
The NAACP's most famous case was Brown v. Board of Education, which ended government-enforced racial segregation in the public school system. To this day, white nationalists complain that the ruling violated "state's rights" (beginning a trend in which the interests of states and corporations would be described as rights on par with individual civil liberties).
The NAACP's string of legal victories caught the attention of the Eisenhower administration's IRS, which forced it to split its Legal Defense Fund into a separate organization. Deep South state governments such as that of Alabama also cited the "state's rights" doctrine as a basis for restricting the personal freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment, banning the NAACP from legally operating within their jurisdiction. The Supreme Court took issue with this and ended state-level NAACP bans in the landmark NAACP v. Alabama (1958).
1967 brought us the first NAACP Image Awards, an annual awards ceremony that continues to this day.
When NAACP chairman Julian Bond delivered remarks critical of President George W. Bush, the IRS took a page from the Eisenhower administration's book and used the opportunity to challenge the organization's tax-exempt status. For his part, Bush, citing Bond's remarks, became the first U.S. president in modern times to refuse to speak to the NAACP.
The IRS ultimately cleared the NAACP of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, NAACP executive director Bruce Gordon began to promote a more conciliatory tone for the organization - ultimately persuading President Bush to speak at the NAACP convention in 2006. The new, more moderate NAACP was controversial with membership, and Gordon resigned a year later.
When Ben Jealous was hired as the NAACP's executive director in 2008, it represented a significant turning point away from the moderate tone of Bruce Gordon and towards a firm, radical activist approach consistent with the spirit of the organization's founders. While the NAACP's present efforts are still dwarfed by its past successes, the organization appears to remain viable, committed, and focused more than a century after its founding - a rare achievement, and one that no other organization of comparable size has been able to match.