NAACP at 100 Now Seeks Equal Rights for All
The nation's oldest civil rights organization celebrates its 100th birthday today under the reins of a young new leader who wants to expand the group's focus from civil rights for African Americans to human rights for everyone.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded on Feb. 12, 1909, by 60 people, both black and white, gathered in a New York apartment to discuss recent race riots and how to fight discrimination. They signed a proclamation known as "The Call," and the NAACP, initially known as the National Negro Committee, was born.
In its first three decades, the NAACP's primary mission was to end the lynching of African Americans. The group held protests, persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to make a public statement against lynching, and in 1922 published a full-page ad in major newspapers that said 3,224 people had been lynched between 1889 and 1918 for offenses such as offensive language and refusal to give up land. Educating the American public, NAACP leaders have long believed, is one of the most effective tools to gaining equal rights.
The organization's crusade then moved to fighting the Jim Crow laws that made segregation legal. NAACP lawyers won numerous courtroom battles that broke down barriers for African Americans and allowed equal access to education, the right to vote and employment opportunities.
A century later, the NAACP now has 225,000 dues-paying members, 1,700 branches, a 64-member executive board and the youngest leader in its history.
President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, 36, says the organization should no longer concentrate solely on equality between black and white people, but on human rights.
"The No. 1 challenge we face is the lack of outrage in this country about how everyday people are treated, and so that is what I'm focused on now," Jealous said. "We've practiced one formula with great success and need to continue to transform this country, not just for black people, but all people."
He plans to focus on health care, the genocide in Darfur and climate change.
A Bay Area native, Jealous has experience in journalism as well as human rights activism. Since he took over the NAACP in September, he has fielded nonstop questions about whether the organization is necessary now that a black man has reached the nation's highest office.
Several times over the last century, the NAACP has reached its goals - only to replace them with new ones.
In 1918, the goal was to desegregate the military; that happened in 1948. In 1932, the NAACP began its work to overturn Jim Crow laws, and it succeeded in 1964. In 1960, work started to secure a level playing field in politics; this year an African American was elected president.
Jealous says Obama's election does not mean the battle for equality is over, and he believes the organization has a renewed duty to hold the new president accountable.
On Wednesday, the organization released a white paper that outlined its goals for the coming year.
It calls for the creation of policing policies and practices that will help solve the high number of homicides in the African American community, drug diversion programs as an alternative to prison, reducing disparities in sentencing and improving educational opportunities.
Many of the changes the organization envisions - such as rebuilding the civil rights division of the Department of Justice - will fall to President Obama.
"We are out there with everyone else trying to make sure his agenda is our agenda," Jealous said.
Jealous also said he wants to transform the organization's presence on the Internet, build his development staff, launch a program to teach people how to use everyday technology to document civil and human rights abuses, and continue the court battles that have defined the organization over the past 100 years.
The NAACP's legal campaign has been its greatest contribution to the civil rights movement, said Francis Njubi Nesbitt, an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. "It is still a powerful force with its legal work and is the most important surviving civil rights organization."
The NAACP's first case was in 1910, when Pink Franklin, a black sharecropper in South Carolina, was accused of killing a police officer. Franklin, who shot the officer after he broke into his home to arrest him on a civil charge, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death until NAACP lawyers stepped in. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was freed in 1919.
Perhaps the biggest legal victory for the NAACP was Brown vs. Board of Education, argued by NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice. It made segregation in public schools illegal.
In 2008, the NAACP filed a discrimination lawsuit against 15 banks, claiming that black and Hispanic people had a greater likelihood of being issued a higher rate subprime loan than white borrowers.
One of the effective tools of the NAACP has been the activism of its members.
Carol O'Gilvie, 74, of San Francisco has been active in the NAACP since the 1950s. Her involvement with the organization began when she worked as a schoolteacher in a segregated town in Texas.
"Discrimination was embarrassing," O'Gilvie said "Drinking from a different water fountain in the train station was humiliating.
"I feel it is important for me to relate my past to the next generation. The Obama crowd needs a sense of history. This euphoria can't last forever. It has to be connected to some driven goal."
Across the country, NAACP leaders say they must be realistic about the state of racial equality.
Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch, said he is dealing with some of the same problems now as when the organization started in 1909 - economic empowerment, equal access to education and brutality.
He cited the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, a black man, by a white BART police officer, the lack of entrepreneurial opportunities for black people in the Fillmore district and the high dropout rates among black high school students.
"America hasn't changed," Brown said. "The NAACP is still very much needed."
Here are a few events scheduled to highlight the NAACP's 100th anniversary.
Resolutions: The California Legislature, as well as some counties and cities, including San Francisco, will recognize the NAACP with resolutions.
Tree planting: On April 18, California branches will plant 100 trees in Allensworth (Tulare County), a historical state park.
Run: A marathon will be held in Oakland on Sept. 12.
Display: The State Fair will display a tribute to the NAACP during August.
For more information about the centennial, go to www.naacp.org
1909: Founded Feb. 12 in New York.
1913: Launches a protest after President Woodrow Wilson officially introduces segregation into the federal government.
1915: Organizes a national protest against "Birth of a Nation," the racially inflammatory film by D.W. Griffith.
1917: Wins a battle to enable African Americans to be commissioned as officers in World War I. About 600 black officers are commissioned, and 700,000 African Americans register for the draft.
1918: Pressured by the NAACP, President Wilson makes a public statement against lynching.
1922: Places ads in major newspapers to present facts about lynching.
1930: Launches protest against Supreme Court Justice John Parker, who favored discriminatory laws.
1935: NAACP lawyers win battle to admit a black student into the University of Maryland.
1954: NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston win Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in schools.
1955: Member Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus.
1960: NAACP Youth Council starts nonviolent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
1963: NAACP's first field director, Medgar Evers, is assassinated in front of his house in Jackson, Miss.
1964: Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places and employment.
1965: Registers more than 80,000 voters after Voting Rights Act is passed.
1982: Protests stop President Ronald Reagan from giving a tax break to the segregated Bob Jones University.
1985: Leads a huge anti-apartheid rally in New York.
1991: Launches a voter-registration campaign that yields a 76 percent turnout of black voters to defeat former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke's run for the Senate.
2000: Organizes more than 50,000 in South Carolina to protest the flying of the Confederate flag at the Statehouse.