The lineage of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is as old as African-Americans’ fight for freedom and equality. Notable army organizations opposed to racism and discrimination from the antebellum era to the beginning of the 20th century are the American Colonization Society, National Negro Convention Movement, the African Civilization Society and the American Negro Academy.
A direct predecessor to the NAACP was the Niagara Movement, which emerged from the American Negro Academy with the eminent scholar W.E.B. Du Bois as perhaps the singular strand of connective tissue bonding these significant organizations. There is a growing consensus that the NAACP was partly created in reaction to the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington and partly a response to the outbreak of race riots in 1908, particularly the orgy of violence in Springfield, Ill., where eight African-Americans were killed, two of them by lynching. Activist-journalist William English Walling witnessed the riot and was incensed by the brutality.
“The spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and of Lovejoy must be revived and we must come to treat the Negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality … Who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?” he asked in The Independent, a Springfield periodical.
Walling’s indignation was soon bolstered by Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the legendary abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; socialist Charles Edward Russell; and social workers Henry Moskowitz and Mary White Ovington. Villard believed it was time for a national conference to discuss the condition of Black Americans and their plight in a racist society. More than 300 people attended the conference, 60 of whom signed a resolution demanding that the U.S. Constitution be strictly enforced and civil rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment; that there be equal education opportunities for all; and that the 15th Amendment be upheld and Black Americans granted the same rights as other citizens.
“We denounce the ever-growing oppression of our 10,000,000 colored fellow citizens as the greatest menace that threatens the country,” the “Call” charged. Thus, a civil-rights organization born in a little apartment in New York, was officially launched on June 1, 1909, with Du Bois among them. He subsequently was hired as director of publicity and research, mainly at the suggestion of Ovington. Like many of the founders of the NAACP, Ovington was a socialist and over the years had developed an intimate acquaintance with Du Bois. “It was impossible to read him and not be moved,” she once confessed.
If Du Bois’s relationship with Villard, the organization’s chairman of the board from 1912 to 1914, was not as warm and congenial, it never spilled over into public hostility. Villard, often an unsung pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement, played a pivotal role in the creation of the NAACP while assuring his activist pedigree. As the son of a wealthy publisher, Villard had access to such prominent publications as The Nation and the New York Evening Post, where he posted the “Call” and other articles to promote equal rights causes.
John E. Milholland, the organization’s first treasurer, along with Moorfield Storey, the national president; and Frances Blascoer, executive secretary, comprised the rest of the founding officers. Milholland was a Presbyterian from New York City and even after many had deserted the Republican ranks who honored the tradition of Abe Lincoln, he remained a stalwart.
Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells Barnett were not officeholders but they were among the 60 distinguished signers of the Call. Terrell and Barnett soon left the group, neither satisfied with the preponderance of whites in leadership roles. By the end of 1914 there were 50 branches of the NAACP in the United States. And that was only the beginning.