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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People marked its centenary in 2009. This important anniversary of the nation's oldest and arguably most influential civil rights organization is ably marked by Long Is the Way and Hard, a collection of fifteen essays (plus a foreword by the eminent historian Adam Fairclough and an essay on the historiography of the NAACP) written primarily by scholars working in universities in Britain and the Netherlands. The collection is divided into two parts: six essays devoted to looking at the NAACP from the perspective of the national leadership with the balance constituting studies at the local and state levels.
Taken as a whole, the pieces on the national leadership are a corrective to a prevalent caricature of the NAACP as a hidebound, conservative, and bureaucratic organization. While it is true that at the national level the association's legalism tended to make the organization slow to respond in some areas, it was, as George Lewis's essay shows, surprisingly nimble; in the 1950s, the NAACP's public-relations department succeeded in deploying resources to combat the southern segregationists' attempts through massive resistance to undermine the victory won in Brown v. Board of Education. Jenny Woodley's article overviews the enthusiasm with which the NAACP sought to raise up African Americans' image in American culture, from the campaign against Birth of a Nation to the Harlem Renaissance to Hollywood in the 1940s; she also shows the difficulties the NAACP encountered on account of the leadership's belief that racism could be overcome through better racial representation. Essays [End Page 435] on Roy Wilkins's leadership, the association's difficult relations with Martin Luther King, and conflicts with black-power organizations point out the limitations of the legalism of the NAACP and identify significant personal, political, and generational reasons the national leadership scoffed at direct action.
Of the local studies, Beverly Bunch-Lyons and Nakeina Douglas's essay on the first rural NAACP branch in Virginia reminds us of the terrible difficulties facing civil rights advocates in the South in the first half of the twentieth century. Charles Zelden's essay on the campaign against the Texas Democratic Party's white primary and Patrick Flack's offering on the Detroit branch highlight conflicts between the national office and local chapters. Often national leaders viewed the branches primarily as cash cows to fund various legal and lobbying efforts and cared little for—and gave little support to—campaigns of local significance. At the same time, as shown in the essays on Alabama and Louisiana, the NAACP's local base was often the middle class, which was not always attuned to the demands and desires of the working masses. Some branches, such as the one in Detroit, overcame their bourgeois orientation and experienced explosive growth when they aligned with the industrial-union movement in the 1940s. The essay on the Cleveland branch, however, rejects the national–local dichotomy as a theory for explaining the development of the NAACP. Andrew Fearnley points out the historically comfortable relationship between the Cleveland leaders and the national office and also the close alliance between the staid branch leaders and militant local outfits that engaged in direct action, like the Future Outlook League. Rather, Fearnley points to patterns of black migration from the South as key influences on the growth in branch membership and local civil rights activity.
Long Is the Way and Hard will not replace Patricia Sullivan's Lift Every Voice (2009), an outstanding examination of the NAACP from both national and local perspectives. What the essays under review do is offer snapshots of the first century of the NAACP from different points in time and from different vantage points. It does so capably, and it would be useful in a classroom setting. [End Page 436]
Kenneth R. Janken is a professor in the department of African and Afro-American studies at the University of...