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NAACP: 100 Years of Grace and Struggle


A Dream Realized
Sweet Land of Liberty
Cry Freedom

Rosa Parks forever changed history when she refused to yield her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1956. A lesser-known piece of history reveals that one of the motives behind her act was that she was haunted by the kidnapping, beating and murder of Emmett Till the year before. Parks was, simply, fed up.

Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mutilated body, unrecognizable even to his mother, coupled with the acquittal of his killers, made headlines.

On hand throughout Rosa Parks’s ordeal, the Emmett Till trial and countless other chapters in African-American history for the last century was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fearless soldier/citizens committed to defending the most vulnerable.

The organization turns 100 this month, but its mission—and the vitality with which it has been carried out—is ageless.


A Dream Realized

Whether he realizes it or not, President Barack Obama begins his term with the weight of every African-American on his shoulders. It’s a heavy burden: Some of the votes likely cast his way were from older black citizens who haven’t always been able to exercise that privilege.

But the issue of voting rights is only one facet of the struggle African-Americans have faced in the past century. The NAACP has stood guard through every battle.

The group’s tenets are simple: “To promote equality of rights; to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before the law.”

The fight to ensure these rights, however, hasn’t been so easy.

Founded on February 12, 1909, by 60 multiracial activists in New York City, the NAACP’s principal goal was to improve the lives of black Americans, many of whom lived under the oppressive Jim Crow laws which legalized and enforced segregation.

The NAACP set to work early on trying to eliminate the lynching of black citizens. In 1919, the NAACP published Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, which awakened white America to the epidemic. In 1921, the organization took a step further by sponsoring the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Lynchings sharply declined as a result.

But the NAACP truly came into prominence through its own Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Started in 1940 as a wing of the NAACP, the LDF made headlines in the 1950s after Linda Brown, a Kansas student, was refused admittance to an all-white elementary school.

Her father, Oliver Brown, sought counsel with Topeka’s branch of the NAACP. Wanting to end segregation in public schools, the LDF sprang into action. Born from that struggle was the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The NAACP has also done epic work with voters’ rights. Despite the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that civil liberty, black citizens in some states faced scare tactics, literacy tests and poll taxes designed to discourage.

The NAACP countered like a general waging battle, sending troops to the front lines in the form of trained activists who risked their lives to register black voters.

Many historians believe the NAACP’s efforts quietly guided President Lyndon Johnson’s hand as he signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. The black community prevailed that day, but it was the true spirit of America that won.

The NAACP’s formation in February of 1909 was intended to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday. It’s a fitting connection: Lincoln freed the slaves; the NAACP fought to let that freedom ring.

And the fight continues. Today, the organization offers programs dedicated to civic engagement, education, economic empowerment and training.

The NAACP, by encouraging African-Americans to realize their own potential, is continuing a legacy that has made the United States stronger, fairer. By focusing on color, the NAACP has helped to make our country color-blind.

Perhaps it seeks to prevent another tragedy like Emmett Till. In the wake of his murder, blacks in the 1950s were galvanized—and mobilized—into action. Donations to the NAACP soared. Volunteering skyrocketed. Like Rosa Parks, people were fed up.

Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, had this to say of the African-Americans who, under the watchful eye of the NAACP, spoke out against the white men who murdered her son and the white establishment that made life for blacks across the country intolerable:

“When they saw what had happened to my son, people became vocal who had never vocalized before. People stood up who had never stood up before.”

They have been standing proudly ever since.—C.H.

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