An interracial group of women and men founded the group that would soon become known as the NAACP in 1909. A coalition of white journalists, lawyers and progressive reformers led the effort. It would take another 11 years until, in 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the first Black person to formally serve as its top official.
A violent attack by white people on the Black community in Abraham Lincoln’s longtime hometown inspired the NAACP’s founding. In August 1908, two African American men in Springfield, Illinois were accused without clear evidence of murder and assault and taken into custody.
Two of the NAACP’s most prominent African American founders were W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, historian, activist and author, and the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who had been publicly challenging lynching since the early 1890s.
They were joined by a number of white people, including New York Post publisher Oswald Garrison Villard and social worker Florence Kelley in issuing “the call” for racial justice on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth: Feb. 12, 1909.
The group organized a precursor to the NAACP known as the National Negro Committee in 1909, which built on earlier efforts known as the Niagara Movement. This loose affiliation of Black and white people called on “all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Du Bois chaired a May 1910 conference that led to the NAACP’s official formation.
As the historian Patricia Sullivan writes the NAACP emerged as a “militant” group focused on ensuring equal protection of under the law for Black Americans.
The NAACP’s founders, in their words, envisioned a moral struggle for the “brain and soul of America.” They saw lynching as the preeminent threat not only to Black life in America but to democracy itself, and they began to organize chapters across the nation to wage legal challenges to violence and segregation.
The group also focused its early efforts on challenging portrayals of Black men as violent brutes, starting its own publication in 1910, The Crisis. Du Bois was tapped to edit the publication, and Wells was excluded from this early work despite her expertise and prominence as a writer – an exclusion she later blamed on Du Bois.
James Weldon Johnson joined the organization as a field secretary in 1916 and quickly expanded the NAACP’s work into the U.S. South. Johnson was already an accomplished figure, having served as U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua under the Taft and Roosevelt administrations.
Johnson also wrote a novel called “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” – a powerful literary work about a Black man born with skin light enough to pass for white. And he wrote, with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which to this day serves as the unofficial Black national anthem.
As field secretary, Johnson oversaw circulation of The Crisis throughout the South. The NAACP’s membership grew from 8,765 in 1916 to 90,000 in 1920 as the number of its local chapters exploded from 70 to 395. Johnson also organized more than 10,000 marchers in the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade of 1917 – the first major street protest staged against lynching in the U.S. James Weldon Johnson became the first Black American to head the NAACP in 1920. Library of Congress
These clear successes led the board to name Johnson to be the first person – and the first Black American – to serve as the NAACP’s executive secretary in November 1920, cementing Black control over the organization. He united the hundreds of newly organized local branches in national legal challenges to white violence and anti-Black discrimination, and made the NAACP the most influential organization in the fight for Black equality before World War II.
Johnson united local chapters in advocating for the introduction of an anti-lynching bill in Congress in 1921. Despite efforts in 2020 to finally accomplish this goal, the U.S. still lacks a law on the books outlawing racist lynching.
Johnson did, however, preside over the NAACP when the group notched its first of many major Supreme Court wins. In 1927, the court ruled in Nixon v. Herndon that a Texas law barring Black people from participating in Democratic Party primaries violated the constitution.
Johnson’s tenure at the NAACP’s helm ended in 1930, but his ability to unite local chapters in national litigation laid much of the groundwork for numerous Supreme Court wins in the years ahead, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which marked the beginning of the end for legalized segregation in the United States.
Among Johnson’s contributions to the NAACP was hiring Walter White, an African American leader who succeeded Johnson as executive secretary. White presided over the organization between 1930 and 1955, a period that included many successful legal actions.
Rosyln M. Brock reflects on how her great-grandmother, Cousie Pittman, could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, despite the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. On a video published by the First Woman Voter Campaign, she talks about how Ms. Pittman, who lived in rural Florida and the segregated South, cast her first vote in the 1968 presidential election.
“My family often shares the story of how my grandmother would get dressed up in her Sunday Best, and wait for a ride to the polls on election day,” said Brock in the video.
Brock is Associate Minister at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, and a nationally recognized health policy advocate, social justice change agent, and noted public speaker. She holds the distinct honor of being the youngest person and fourth woman in 2010 elected to the role of National Board Chairman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its history. Brock currently serves as its Chairman Emeritus.
The First Woman Voter campaign and national women’s organizations, such as the National Women’s History Museum, the League of Women’s Voters, and Obama’s When We All Vote, celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This bipartisan campaign encourages women to pay tribute in a unique and personal short video to the first woman voter in their family or the one who most inspired them to vote. Four former first ladies, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Rev. Bernice A. King, and other high-profile women in academia, business, the arts, entertainment, government, and more fields are participating in the virtual video campaign. Even with the heartwarming messages by women of all races noting the 100-year milestone, Brock’s story and others underscore acknowledging that the struggle didn’t end in1920 for many Black women in the South.
“The history has to be told that black women were fighting for the right to vote in the 1800s, through the AME clubs, the black women’s clubs … the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs were active in the early 1800s well before the white women were organizing to think about coming into the public square,” said Brock. “White women can celebrate that they marched in 1912 or 1913 and then seven years later, in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. Black women had to wait almost half a century until the 1965 Voting Rights Act before they had full, unfettered access. Now, many black women in the 1920s lived in the North and were able to vote. I was from South Florida. My grannies … it took us a little longer.”
August 2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act’s passage, which, according to the Justice Department, is hailed as the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a vital part of the Voting Rights Act, which required municipalities, counties, and states to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. It didn’t take long for voter suppression efforts to resume.
“I chose to participate in the campaign because it gave me an opportunity to share my great-grandmother’s first voting experience. And I believe it’s important as a black woman in today’s society to acknowledge the role that we did play and continue to play in securing the right to the franchise,” said Brock. “As many of us know, voting remains the only power that we have to affect change in our communities. And the only language that politicians seem to understand is the power of the vote. That’s why I believe so many today are trying to suppress votes by those in minority communities.”
According to a study last year by Pew Research, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 37% of the 2020 electorate. However, older generations are more likely to go to polls or actually vote. This year, voters are highly engaged, but concerns are mounting about difficulties in actually voting. That’s a big deal when so many critical issues are top of mind for many voters — access to affordable health care in the era of COVID-19 and beyond, violence and discriminatory policing, climate change, unemployment, and homelessness.
As a leader in the social justice, racial equity, and community investment space, Brock is inspired and hopeful as she sees the next generation push forward despite the obstacles and political games. Her philosophy is embodied in an African proverb: Care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.
“Courage must not skip this generation. And as Black women stand confidently now in their place of power, they no longer have to accept that they don’t belong at the political table or don’t have a seat. We’ve got to remember Shirley Chisholm, who said, “If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, you come in and bring your own folding chair, and you sit down.”
Conceived about 50 years apart, both Black Lives Matter and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense galvanized frustration with police brutality against black people in the US.
Alicia Garza created Black Lives Matter, with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, as a call to action after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2013. The Black Panther Party was formed, in part, in reaction to the police killing of Matthew Johnson, an unarmed black 16-year-old, in San Francisco in 1966.
The commonalities between Black Lives Matter and the Black Panther Party are more striking when they are compared to the mid-20th-century civil rights movement, which took place when segregation was legal and black people protested politely and defensively.
According to filmmaker Stanley Nelson, it was important for civil rights leaders to win the hearts and minds of the press, a majority white American public, and a cautious black middle class. In an interview with NPR, he goes on to explain that civil rights organizers insisted, “‘we’re going to look proper…’ to show the difference between them and the mobs that would be chasing them or screaming at them.”
The Black Panthers were not interested in mainstream press or general public approval. They had their own newspaper designed, art-directed and heavily illustrated by Black Panther Party artist and Minister of Culture Emory Douglas. It showed images that would never appear in the mainstream press.
“Part of Douglas’s genius was that he used the visually seductive methods of advertising and subverted them into weapons of the revolution. His images served two purposes: to illustrate conditions that made revolution a reasonable response and to construct a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized.”
The Black Panther newspaper showed photographic evidence of police brutality along with editorial drawings and cartoons illustrating black people fighting back.
Each movement used available media to reach broad constituencies and stimulate action.
The Panthers’ messages were instructive, visual, and covered a range of ambitions, included in the party’s 10-point platform.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” may seem deceptively simple to those who receive the words as a veiled threat. Perhaps they believe that equality has been achieved and systemic and institutionalized racism no longer exist.
In the 50 years since segregation and legal discrimination ended and the US tried to “move past” its racist history, much of that history was ignored and effectively forgotten. Blacks and whites have differing perceptions of how much progress has been made on racial equality. Polls show that white millennials have about the same racial viewpoints as baby boomers.
This racial knowledge vacuum does not allow some people to believe that black people and other people of color are routinely treated more harshly by police and law enforcement officers. Black Lives Matter’s insistence on presenting evidence of inequality is disturbing to these deniers.
At the time of the Black Panthers, just a few years after civil rights legislation, most black people still lived in poverty with substandard everything – from housing to schools to health care. Even though the political establishment disagreed on what should be done to change it, no one denied there was a problem.
Disruption and pushback
As activist Deray McKesson points out, “protest is confrontation and disruption.” In addition to protesting at the time and scene of controversial police events, Black Lives Matter protesters disrupt everyday life and activities, which creates pushback.
Black Lives Matter organizer Netta Elize explained why the protests must happen at seemingly nonrelated events. She said, “Black people in the US do not have free space to live. The ability to participate in everyday activities without having to think about race is a privilege.”
In their time, the Panthers were marginalized and vilified, limiting their main sphere of public operations to college campuses and other left-friendly venues. Only the most fear-producing images of Panthers appeared in mainstream press, reiterating the FBI’s claim that the organization was the greatest threat to national security.
Like the Black Panther Party, Black Lives Matter protesters use elements of “visual theater.” The Panthers’ carefully constructed visual presence included uniforms for members, creating icons for party members that represented strength, purpose, and discipline. As Stanley Nelson’s film points out, the Panthers understood media and the power of visual images.
Black Lives Matter uses visual tactics such as light brigades and more theatrical “die-ins,” to convey an omnipresent threat of violence or death.
To comment on current conditions for black people in the US, artist Emory Douglas repurposed one of his drawings – 39 years after its original appearance in November 1976 in the pages of The Black Panther newspaper – to promote Black Lives Matter.
The original image, he said, was about justice in general, not a specific event. In the new version, Douglas made the scales of justice even larger.
As an 18-year-old student attending a training session for activists at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, John Lewis stuttered and struggled to read. A visiting professor mocked his stammered speech and “poor reading skills” and dismissed Lewis’ potential as a “suitable leader” for the burgeoning movement.
Famed activist and organizer Septima Clark rose to his defense and her support of Lewis paid off.
The unassuming teenager from the backwoods of Troy, Alabama, became a giant of the Black freedom struggle and, ultimately, would go on to serve more than three decades in Congress. He died on July 17.
Enthralled by ‘Social Gospel’
Lewis enrolled in American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, mainly because it charged no tuition, but also due to the profound moral calling that he felt in his life. It was in Nashville where Lewis grew fascinated with the potential of the Social Gospel – a theoretical movement that applied Christian principles to addressing social problems such as poverty and white supremacy.
He soon came under the tutelage of James Lawson, a graduate student at Vanderbilt who was fully immersed in the doctrines of non-violence. Lawson trained other notable activists such as Diane Nash, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette – all friends and contemporaries of Lewis.
The student activism that emerged from southern Black colleges beginning in February of 1960 was the catalyst that the modern civil rights movement desperately needed to confront segregation. The thrust of direct-action protests, such as sit-ins and Freedom Rides, provided the dramatic confrontation that the earlier bus boycotts did not.
However, it was Lawson’s young pacifist disciples from Nashville that heavily influenced the ideology of the early student movement. It also aided in the creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC.
In dedicating his life to the movement as a young student, Lewis willingly gave up the comforts, experiences and accoutrements of a typical college student. Instead of gaining traditional work experience, Lewis got an insider’s look at numerous southern jails and prisons. His activism led to 40 arrests between 1960 and 1966.
Late-night bull sessions with his fellow SNCC activists who debated the proper path towards freedom became his laboratory. Sit-ins and Freedom Rides served as his examinations. They often resulted in beatings and bloodshed.
Lewis and other SNCC organizers were forced to swallow a bitter pill during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech became a focal point, it was Lewis’ speech that drew the most controversy.
Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, along with march organizer Bayard Rustin, forced Lewis to change his original draft that placed a heavy critique on the slow response of the Kennedy administration in protecting the civil and human rights of activists in the Deep South. The edit prompted Malcolm X to derisively refer to the event as “The Farce on Washington.” It was not the last ideological scrum SNCC would have with liberals and moderates.
During the Democratic National Convention in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, arrived in Atlantic City, New Jersey, expecting to be the duly recognized delegation from the Magnolia State in place of the all-white delegation of the party that had used violence and intimidation in an attempt to keep Blacks from the polls.
Famed activist Fannie Lou Hamer declared that “if the MFDP is not seated now, I question America.” The party was not seated. A backroom compromise – orchestrated between traditional Black moderates such as NAACP head Roy Wilkins, SCLC organizer Bayard Rustin and Dr. King – left many younger activists bitter and broken. “This was the turning point of the civil rights movement,” Lewis declared. “We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as requested, had arrived at the doorstep, and found the door slammed in our face.”
A year after the disappointment of Atlantic City, the learning curve would continue for Lewis.
As bitter as he and other SNCC activists were about the fallout from the 1964 Democratic Convention, Lewis was still a committed ideologue who held fast to his belief in non-violence as a way of life. That position grew increasingly unpopular with younger activists who championed their constitutional right to armed self-defense in the face of tyranny.
Many SNCC activists grew wearisome of the practical politics, moderation and compromise that some (including Lewis) argued produced setbacks within the movement. This frustration was on full display during Lewis’ most famous moment – the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. SNCC’s executive committee had voted against the organization’s involvement because they saw such protest marches as largely ineffective. Lewis participated anyway. The result was “Bloody Sunday,” a horrific display of white terrorism that served as a springboard for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. The world watched in horror as television cameras captured the moment that Lewis and hundreds of other peaceful protesters were teargassed, beaten and trampled by state troopers.
Like many committed activists, the social and political education of John Lewis had numerous twists and turns – from a wide-eyed and eager disciple of nonviolence (a commitment that never wavered) to a seasoned activist and organizer whose heroics and courage made him an icon of the movement. That journey came with bumps and bruises – both literally and figuratively – and he would later employ some of those lessons as a United States congressman representing the 5th Congressional District of Georgia for 33 years. In this role, Lewis would champion legislation that upheld the ideals that made him an icon of the movement. He sponsored or co-sponsored thousands of bills targeting poverty, gun violence, civil rights, health care and reform of America’s justice system, just to name a few. He became an award-winning author, and he was lionized as “the conscience of Congress.”
While Lewis learned the fine art of negotiating during his years as a movement leader, he never compromised in his insistence for justice and equality for all. In a tweet from 2018, Lewis implored young idealists and activists to “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Lewis remained a noise maker and a “drum major for peace” until his final days, and his courage and sacrifice should be an inspiration for us all.
That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.
From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
As Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters, says: “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”
Sojourner Truth was driven to anti-slavery activism by spiritual visions. GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.
We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.
Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.
As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.
Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.
Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.
In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.
Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”
Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washingtonobserved, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”
At heart, a preacher
The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.
“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.
Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.