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Art for Equality

The NAACP's Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights

Jenny Woodley

Publication Year: 2014

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the nation's oldest civil rights organization, having dedicated itself to the fight for racial equality since 1909. While the group helped achieve substantial victories in the courtroom, the struggle for civil rights extended beyond gaining political support. It also required changing social attitudes. The NAACP thus worked to alter existing prejudices through the production of art that countered racist depictions of African Americans, focusing its efforts not only on changing the attitudes of the white middle class but also on encouraging racial pride and a sense of identity in the black community.

Art for Equality explores an important and little-studied side of the NAACP's activism in the cultural realm. In openly supporting African American artists, writers, and musicians in their creative endeavors, the organization aimed to change the way the public viewed the black community. By overcoming stereotypes and the belief of the majority that African Americans were physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to whites, the NAACP believed it could begin to defeat racism.

Illuminating important protests, from the fight against the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the production of anti-lynching art during the Harlem Renaissance, this insightful volume examines the successes and failures of the NAACP's cultural campaign from 1910 to the 1960s. Exploring the roles of gender and class in shaping the association's patronage of the arts, Art for Equality offers an in-depth analysis of the social and cultural climate during a time of radical change in America.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century

Front cover

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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: “The national mental attitude”

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pp. 1-10

In 1926 W. E. B. Du Bois was addressing an audience in Chicago when he rhetorically asked of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art?” ...

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1. The Birth of a Cultural Strategy

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pp. 11-34

This book begins, perhaps inevitably given the nature and scale of the struggle, with the NAACP’s fight against The Birth of a Nation. The campaign against D. W. Griffith’s film remains the best-known and most widely discussed of all the examples of the NAACP’s attempts to challenge offensive depictions of the race in popular culture. ...

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2. Representing the New Negro


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pp. 35-62

In 1925, James Weldon Johnson, literary critic, author, mentor, songwriter, poet, and first black executive secretary of the NAACP, published the Book of American Negro Spirituals with his brother, Rosamond. This collection showed some of the many sides to this (Harlem) Renaissance man. ...

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3. Du Bois's Crisis and the Black Image on the Page

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pp. 63-96

The front cover of the April 1911 issue of the Crisis shows a hand-colored photograph of a young African American woman in profile (figure 1). She is dressed smartly and demurely, wearing a high-necked and long-sleeved blouse, trimmed with lace. She is looking down at a hand-drawn copy of the Crisis. ...

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4. "A union of art and propaganda"

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pp. 97-126

The NAACP believed that it could use the arts to change white perceptions of African Americans, and for much of the first three decades of the twentieth century it also used this principle to challenge attitudes toward lynching. The NAACP’s strategy for ending mob violence was based on its conviction that the responsibility for lynching lay with the American public. ...

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5. White in Hollywood

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pp. 127-158

Walter White had a somewhat utilitarian attitude toward the arts and popular culture: he tended to see them in terms of how they could assist the African American struggle for equality. He promoted the artists of the Harlem Renaissance because he admired their talent but also because they were shining examples of black culture and achievement. ...

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6. Blacks, Reds, White

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pp. 159-190

The decade or so after the end of the Second World War was a time of flux in race relations in the United States. On the one hand, there was a lingering liberalism from the New Deal and the war; there was a growing international context to understanding race; and the federal government, at least to begin with, displayed some willingness to engage with racial issues. ...

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Conclusion: “The true picture of America”

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pp. 191-204

The NAACP’s protest against Amos ’n’ Andy seemed to bring the association back to where it had started, vigorously protesting what it saw as the demeaning portrayal of African Americans in “mainstream” white American culture. There were similarities between its campaign against The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and Amos ’n’ Andy in 1951. ...

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pp. 205-206

This book would not have been possible without funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). I was also lucky enough to be one of the first recipients of an AHRC–Library of Congress grant, which allowed me to spend three happy months as a fellow at the Kluge Center; many thanks to the staff at the center and to my fellow scholars for making my stay both productive and enjoyable. ...


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pp. 207-226


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pp. 227-240


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pp. 241-258

Other Works in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813145181
E-ISBN-10: 081314518X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813145167

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century
Series Editor Byline: Steven F. Lawson & Cynthia G. Fleming See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 879606749
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Art for Equality

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- History -- 20th century.
  • Arts -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Anti-racism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American artists -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans in art -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
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