Turning 100, NAACP fights to keep struggle alive

Associated Press | 2/18/2009, 4:09 a.m.
Hundreds of blacks were being lynched each year. An early NAACP focus was the passage of a federal anti-lynching...
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond stands alongside a more youthful image of himself at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards Pre-Show in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. The civil rights organization, which turned 100 years old last Thursday, faces a daunting modern challenge now: convincing people that the struggle still continues. AP /Earl Gibson III

Hundreds of blacks were being lynched each year. An early NAACP focus was the passage of a federal anti-lynching law, but it never happened. A flag reading “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” often flew from the window of the group’s headquarters in New York City.

In 1917, the NAACP won its first Supreme Court case, a unanimous ruling that states could not segregate people into residential districts based on race. This was an early example of perhaps the NAACP’s most powerful argument: Equal rights are a fundamentally American value.

“We are the only country that was founded on an idea or a premise … the notion of equal citizenship,” says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement. “Pretty much all of our history has tested what that meant. Most often the greatest crises have been around race.”

The NAACP framed its arguments as “something that was racial only because that was where America breached its promise,” Branch says. “Civil rights doesn’t mean black rights, it means rights pertaining to citizenship.”

This stance provided huge moral leverage.

“Their power came from knowing they were right,” Bond says. “And even when the courts and the legislatures and the newspapers and the pulpits said they were wrong, they knew they were right, and they knew they would prevail.”

Power also came from thousands of average citizens like Levi Pearson, a South Carolina farmer. He agreed to be a plaintiff for an NAACP school desegregation case that became part of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Pearson’s credit was cut off and he lost his farm, and a local minister who helped with the case had his home and church burned down, says William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University.

“If you didn’t have farmers willing to put their lives on the line to go to court, you wouldn’t have cases that made up the Brown decision,” Chafe says. “Thurgood Marshall’s brilliance was the instrument of victory, but that brilliance was essentially rooted in the courage of ordinary farmers and workers.”

Those legal victories laid a foundation for many different groups to demand equal protection under the law.

“It spread to women, disabled groups, the elderly,” Branch says. “Most Americans are unaware of the things that it sparked, not just by other groups, but in areas other than school desegregation or race relations.”

Searching for identity in a new era

Before the recent presidential election, Myrlie Evers-Williams dug into her files and retrieved a slip of paper. It was a receipt for a poll tax, the payment system once used to keep blacks from voting.

Her husband Medgar, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, used to carry it in his wallet. It still has his blood on it.

“I don’t believe in living in the past,” says Evers-Williams, 75. “I also do not believe in forgetting the past.”

“So do I ever go back?” she asks of the era of humiliations and beatings and the murder of her husband by a white supremacist in the driveway of their home in 1963. “It never leaves me.”