In 1959, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was fifty years old. At the time, one of its preeminent founders, W.E.B. Du Bois, was 91 and traveling in China.
“Beware, Africa,” Du Bois told a throng of dignitaries as he hailed Africa and China.
“America bargains for your soul. America would have you believe that they freed your grandchildren; that Afro-Americans are full American citizens, treated like equals, paid fair wages as workers … this is not true. Some are near freedom, some approach equality with whites, some have achieved education; but the price for this has too often been slavery of mind, distortion of truth and oppression of our people.”
What the ever-prophetic Du Bois invoked in 1959 are admonitions the NAACP are very wary of today as it prepares to celebrate its centenary. During its century-long battle for justice and equality, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization has taken on most of the issues Du Bois raised and those milestones of achievement are embedded in the nation’s history. “We’ll be celebrating the centennial, but at the same time we’ll be preparing for the future. The future for us will be rich,” the organization’s newest and youngest executive director, Ben Jealous, promises.
The real success of the NAACP, Jealous adds, has been its wise decision to pick big goals and to exert discipline in pursuit of them. The organization must now continue to invest “in stoking the outrage in this country — the righteous, rightful outrage for the massive mistreatment of young people, for the failure to educate young people, for the failure to train and to educate adults who were failed as young people,” he says.
“Our job is to tap into that sense of injustice, and then to focus that energy on policy solutions that make the country better for all of us,” he told a reporter at U.S. News & World Report in September.
The election of Barack Obama, an African-American, as the 44th president of the United States was made possible by decades of work by the NAACP, Jealous explains. “Voters [are getting] used to the notion that people who have brown skin or curly hair can lead them. So this is a great moment.”
In 1973, when Jealous was born, the NAACP was embroiled in two long-standing lawsuits involving segregation in the Detroit Public School system and discriminatory seniority lines of promotion at U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers of America. Both cases ended in victories for the organization. The latter included a court-ordered systematic promotion of Black workers and imposed goals and timetables for hiring Blacks in hitherto all-white job classifications. Du Bois would have cheered these developments.
Whether you go back beyond 1973 or forward to the present, the NAACP has been at the forefront — against police brutality; in the landmark court decision of Brown v. Board of Education; in its commitment to the anti-lynching campaign; its defense of the unjustly accused Scottsboro Boys; and in its ongoing advocacy for voting rights and opposition to the death penalty.
“What makes us different from many organizations in this country,” Jealous says, “is our track record for successfully transforming this country for the better; not just for Black people, for some people, but for all people in this country, over and over again.”
Du Bois addressed this very notion at a conference whose attendees would later be charter members of the NAACP. “Its net result,” Du Bois said of the initial meeting of delegates, “was the vision of future cooperation, not simply as in the past, between giver and beggar — the older ideal of charity — but a new alliance between experienced social workers and reformers in touch on the one hand with scientific philanthropy and on the other with the great struggling mass of laborers of kinds, whose condition and needs know no color line.”
That credo and proposal remain at the core of the NAACP’s mission and that mission at 100 years is by no means sclerotic or diminished. The operative word, as ever, is “advancement.”