The NAACP, established in 1909, was formed as an integrated organization to confront racism in the United States rather than seeing the issue as simply a southern problem. It is the longest running civil rights organization and continues to operate today. The original name of the organization was The National Negro League, but this was changed to the NAACP on May 30, 1910. Organized to promote racial equality and integration, the NAACP pursued this goal via legal cases, political lobbying, and public campaigns. Early campaigns involved lobbying for national anti-lynching legislation, pursuing through the US Supreme Court desegregation in areas such as housing and higher education, and the pursuit of voting rights. The NAACP is renowned for the US Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that desegregated primary and secondary schools and is seen as a catalyst for the civil rights movement (1955–1968). It also advocated public education by promoting African American achievements in education and the arts to counteract racial stereotypes. The organization published a monthly journal, The Crisis, and promoted African American art forms and culture as another means to advance equality. NAACP branches were established all across the United States and became a network of information, campaigning, and finance that underpinned activism. Youth groups and university branches mobilized younger members of the community. Women were also invaluable to the NAACP in local, regional, and national decision-making processes and campaigning. The organization sought to integrate African Americans and other minorities into the American social, political, and economic model as codified by the US Constitution.
Christopher W. Schmidt
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional state-mandated racial segregation in public schools, which at the time was policy in seventeen states. Brown v. Board of Education marked the culmination of a decades-long litigation campaign by the NAACP. White-controlled states across the South responded by launching a “massive resistance” campaign of defiance against Brown, which was followed by decades of struggles, inside and outside the courts, to desegregate the nation’s schools. Brown also signaled the new and often controversial direction the Supreme Court would take under leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren—one that read the rights protections of the Constitution more broadly than its predecessors and was more aggressive in using these rights to protect vulnerable minorities. Brown is nearly universally celebrated today, yet the terms of its celebration remain contested. Some see the case as a call for ambitious litigation strategies and judicial boldness, whereas others use it to demonstrate the limited power of the courts to effect social change. Some find in Brown a commitment to a principle of a “colorblind” Constitution, others a commitment to expunging practices that oppress racial minorities (often requiring race-conscious policies). Brown thus remains what it was in 1954: a bold statement of the principle of racial equality whose meaning the nation is still struggling to work out.
Amanda M. Nagel
In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.