restricted access The NAACP in Historiographical Perspective
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Booker T.Washington,a former slave fromVirginia,had been the bestknown face of black America and the most influential African American in the land. A man of indefatigable drive and determination , as well as a masterful diplomat, Washington made a humble school in Alabama, Tuskegee Institute, the symbol of a new approach to race relations. Decrying Radical Reconstruction as a mistake, Washington urged blacks to eschew politics, avoid “rights” agitation, and devote their energies to practical education, moral improvement, and the acquisition of property. Coupled with a plea for friendly relations with whites in the South, Washington believed that his conservative policy would take the sting out of southern racism, facilitating black economic progress and paving the way for the eventual restoration of civil and political rights, only this time with the acceptance of the white population. Dubbed the “Wizard of Tuskegee” for his ability to conjure up financial and political support, Washington forged strong personal ties with northern philanthropists and industrialists, enabling him to channel outside money to black schools and colleges in the South. Through his relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt (–), Washington also acquired a degree of behindthe -scenes political influence. By , however, it had became painfully clear that Washington’s strategy of conciliating white southern leaders,and downplaying of constitutional rights in favor of self-improvement, had failed to halt the relentless decline in the status of blacks in the South. Two of the most influential founders and early leaders of the NAACP, W. E. B. Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard, were both former supporters of Washington who had concluded that his appeasement of the white South had become self-defeating. The foundation of the NAACP thus moved the center of black leadership from the South to the North. Before his death in  Washington—who kept a wary eye on the NAACP’s rapid growth—seemed to recognize that fact himself. For decades, the NAACP suffered from its perception in the South as an “outside”organization,and its branches in the South proved highly vulnerable to threats and violence from whites.Yet the NAACP never gave up on the South: on the contrary, the formation of southern branches was always a top priority. Its northern base enabled the NAACP to survive as a national organization and to maintain an organizational presx ADAM FAIRCLOUGH 1VERNEY_pages:Layout 1 10/7/09 11:54 AM Page x ence in the South despite everything that white southerners could throw at it. The NAACP directly challenged the notion that the South’s “race question” was a regional, rather than a national, concern. The NAACP’s founders invoked the moral passion of the abolitionist movement—some were the descendants of abolitionists—and vowed to be “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.” They warned that “the systematic persecution” of law-abiding black citizens threatened the very existence of the United States as a democratic nation. Rejecting all theories of racial hierarchy, and denouncing racial segregation as wrong in principle as well as practice, they unveiled an “organized and aggressive movement on behalf of the Negro’s rights.” The NAACP promised to investigate lynching, publicize other injustices, and combat racial stereotypes by advertising the “marvelous achievements of the colored people.” It undertook to mobilize public opinion and to lobby Congress. Above all, it planned a systematic campaign of litigation, using the best lawyers in the land, in order to force the Supreme Court to confront the issue of racial discrimination . The NAACP’s deceptively simple demands—strict enforcement of the Constitution and “equal educational opportunities for all”—were enough to keep the organization occupied for the next hundred years. The NAACP’s activities and achievements have been so wideranging that they defy a simple summary. NAACP lawyers represented black defendants and saved many from the gallows, gas chamber, and electric chair, sometimes appealing convictions all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the Association never achieved its goal of making lynching a federal crime, its dogged campaigning contributed to the rapid decline of lynching after . The NAACP launched legal challenges against the“white primary”and other forms of disfranchisement , a campaign for universal suffrage that lasted fifty years. It protested against discrimination in federal programs and opposed segregation in the armed services. At the end of the s it joined hands with the labor movement to further the interests of black workers. Its alliance with labor,however,never inhibited the NAACP from criticizing racism in the unions.Documenting and attacking employment...


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Subject Headings

  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
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