Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day where Americans celebrate not just the work of an extraordinary man and civil rights leader but the strides made by many who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
Since I write fiction that takes place during the Progressive Era, I wondered if civil rights, like women’s rights, started earlier decade than the mid-20th century events we’re more familiar with. I did some digging and it turns out this is indeed the case. The progressives brought civil rights to the table some fifty years earlier than the word of King and others in the form of one of the instrumental organizations that worked for African American rights: the NAACP.
The NAACP (which stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) began in 1908 as a response to a wave of lynchings that occurred in Lincoln’s birthplace, Springfield, Illinois. Not surprisingly, a group of progressives, outraged by the violence, organized a meeting that included some of the most well-known abolitionists of the previous era such as W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells. From this meeting emerged the roots of the NAACP, formally established in 1909.
Photo Credit: A display featuring highlights and emblem of the NAACP at the Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to celebrate 100 years of the formation of the NAACP, Feb 2009: UCCS Kraemer Family Library/Flickr/CC BY NC SA 2.0
The NAACP’s mission was to fight racial injustice and discrimination not through violence or grassroots call to action but through the democratic system already in place in America. In other words, they used the same system that oppresses African Americans and other people of color to change laws and policies to fight injustice and discrimination. This is a different approach than many of the later civil rights activists, who believed the system could never work for them and chose more direct means outside the system to achieve their goals of justice and equality.
The NAACP won several victories in court in the early 20th century. For example, they won a case against the “Grandfather Clause,” (passed in some Southern states which made certain activities, including voting, illegal for people whose grandfathers had not served in the Confederate army). In 1917, they also won a case against racial segregation in Louisville, Kentucky where the court ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit African Americans from buying land in mainly white neighborhoods.
Prior to World War I, the NAACP didn’t see much action beyond the above-mentioned court cases. However, after the war, the organization began to gain more prominence and exposure. Their focus changed with the times such as fighting for more opportunities for African American workers during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The NAACP still exists today and fights for racial justice and equality. In 2000, the organization launched a campaign to encourage more African Americans to vote and succeeded in increasing the votes in that community by almost a million. They continue to fight for the African American voice in today’s issues. I think the headline on their home page, “Continuing to fight for Democracy” says it all.
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