On February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a group that included African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett announced the formation of a new organization. Called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it would have a profound effect on the struggle for civil rights and the course of 20th-century American history.
The conference that led to the NAACP’s founding had been called in response to a race riot in Illinois. The founders also noted the disturbing trends of lynchings, which reached their peak not during or immediately after the Civil War but in the 1890s and early 1900s, as segregation laws took effect across the South and white supremacists once again gained total control of state governments. Many of the organization’s early members came from the Niagara Movement, a group created by Black activists who were opposed to the concepts of conciliation and assimilation.
In its early years, the NAACP spread awareness of the lynching epidemic by means of a 100,000-person silent march in New York City. It also won a major legal victory in 1915, when the Supreme Court declared an Oklahoma “grandfather clause” that allowed whites to bypass voting restrictions unconstitutional. Perhaps its most famous legal victory came in 1954, when NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund founder Thurgood Marshall won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Marshall went on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice in 1967. In addition to other legal victories during the Civil Rights Era, the NAACP helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a seminal voter registration drive. The campaign came two years after an NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers, was assassinated at his home in Jackson.
Due to its prominent members, landmark legal victories, and lobbying for laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the NAACP holds a place of distinction in the history of the civil rights movement. It remains the largest and oldest active civil rights group in the nation, and its emphasis on voter registration, legal defense and activism have set an example for subsequent groups to follow.