Timothy J Minchin. Journal of Southern History. Volume 74, Issue 3. August 2008.
On the morning of March 3, 1970, three buses carrying black schoolchildren arrived at Lamar High School in Lamar, South Carolina, a small town in the eastern part of the state. The buses were transporting some of the 514 children who were integrating the school in accordance with a recent federal court order. Shortly after 8:00 A.M., the buses entered the school grounds and were promptly attacked by an angry mob of white adults carrying bricks, ax handles, and heavy chains. The black children were trapped inside, and many were injured by bricks and flying glass. Bullets were fired into one bus, and two were tipped over only moments after the children had dashed into the school. It was a terrifying ordeal that the youngsters never forgot. “Within seconds,” recalled bus-rider David Lunn, “every window in the bus was broken out and glass was in my face and ears.” ‘The crowd was shouting ‘get them niggers’ and ‘run, nigger, run,'” added another student. “The policemen didn’t seem very interested in what was going on.”
The Lamar violence received extensive press coverage and was widely condemned by both local and national political leaders. South Carolina governor Robert E. McNair termed the episode “unspeakable,” while Vice President Spiro T. Agnew declared that the Nixon administration would not “tolerate violence or unlawful interference in efforts to desegregate. The case highlighted how black and white southeners were still fighting over racial issues well after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the passage of federal equal rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Like Darlington County, where Lamar is located, most southern school districts carried out substantial integration only after 1969, when the federal courts finally brought to an end the stalling tactics that many school boards had used for well over a decade. In January 1969, 68 percent of black children in the South still attended all-black schools, and close to 79 percent were enrolled in schools that were at least 80 percent black.
The Lamar violence also highlighted the central role that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People played in this ongoing civil rights struggle. Immediately following the violence, local NAACP leaders were instrumental in securing federal marshals to protect the children and in obtaining contempt citations against seven local whites on riot charges. Earlier, it had been NAACP lawyers who filed the federal lawsuit that led to the controversial desegregation order in Lamar. When federal judge Robert Martin rejected the lawyers’ motions, the local NAACP branch also pushed for the case to be appealed. The incident spotlighted how the NAACP’s legal work, far from being separate from the grass roots, drew on local activism. Across the region, NAACP members worked with the association’s lawyers to bring hundreds of suits that desegregated public schools and workplaces and helped protect blacks’ right to vote. After 1965 the NAACP was the only civil rights group able to maintain a mass membership in the South. In his recent personal history of the organization, former NAACP official Gilbert Jonas has noted that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Black Panthers would all “disappear as effective agents of change by the next decade.” Organizational histories of CORE and SNCC have documented how these formerly vibrant groups were ripped apart by disputes over Black Power. The SCLC’s main historian has shown that after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death the group was hurt by personal rivalries and failed to achieve the “national victories” that it craved. The NAACP was left standing as the only organization capable of enforcing the new laws at the grassroots level in the South.
While other groups declined, the NAACP did not suffer a big fall in membership. The association had great continuity, partly a reflection of the stable leadership of its executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, the
dogged activist who remained at the helm from 1955 to 1977. During his long career, Wilkins remained deeply committed to fighting for a racially integrated society. Worried that direct action was a foolhardy and counterproductive tactic that only encouraged white supremacists to “fight harder,” Wilkins also strongly believed in careful legal work to protect black rights.
Despite the NAACP’s staying power and historical significance, historians have been slow to recognize the importance of the group to the black freedom struggle. As Adam Fairclough noted in 1995, “The NAACP is, paradoxically, the most important but also the least studied of the civil rights organizations.” In 2002 Charles W. Eagles declared with some surprise that no historian had yet produced “a major work on the NAACP.” “[F]or many years,” added Manfred Berg in 2005, “the NAACP has been the stepchild of civil rights historiography.”
The “Montgomery to Selma” narrative dominated initial writing on the movement, and the NAACP’s reluctance to embrace direct action in this defining era of protest between 1955 and 1965 meant that the organization received short shrift in the movement’s early literature. Recognized histories of the SCLC, CORE, and SNCC all appeared well before similar work on the NAACP. The sheer size and staying power of the NAACP also deterred historians from attempting comprehensive studies of the group. Founded in 1909, by the mid-1960s America’s oldest civil rights group had close to 450,000 members in more than eleven hundred branches.
Over the last decade or so, however, pathbreaking studies of the movement in Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi have shown that in the 1940s and 1950s the NAACP’s legal actions and work on voting directly challenged Jim Crow. Building on this scholarship, in 2005 Manfred Berg and Gilbert S. Jonas published survey works on the NAACP. These books provide valuable insights into the NAACP’s history and stress its important contribution to the black freedom struggle. Despite these attributes, neither work covers the period after the 1960s in detail. Berg’s study, for example, focuses exclusively on the association’s fight for the ballot, a struggle that culminated in the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The time is now right to extend studies of the NAACP beyond 1965. Over the last two decades, many scholars have challenged the 1955-1965 framework by emphasizing the importance of black protest before the 1950s. Building on this work, historians such as Robert J Norrell and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall are now calling for more inquiries into recent civil rights history. In 2005, for example, Hall urged historians to pay more attention to a “long civil rights movement” and to reject a “dominant narrative” that “often obscures both the movement’s rich antecedents and the nationwide struggles that continue today.” Heeding this call, important work on the post-1965 struggle is now emerging from scholars such as Komozi Woodard, Jeanne Theoharis, and Winston A. Grady-Willis.
New parts of the NAACP’s voluminous papers are constantly being cataloged, and these documents allow scholars to chart the major features of the group’s activism after 1965. This article draws on the rich records of the NAACP’s legal department, as well as other archival sources, to spotlight the association’s activism in the decade immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In these years the NAACP continued to be deñned by its belief in litigation as the best means to combat racial injustice. Its leaders still agreed with James Weldon Johnson, who had declared in 1934 that “legal victories” would “provide the ground upon which we make our stand for our rights.” The aim of this article is to provide a broad overview of the NAACP’s legal work that will complement recent scholarship and stimulate further work on the crucial post-1965 era.
The NAACP’s legal department concentrated heavily on the South. Most of the major civil rights protests had been held in the region, and federal civil rights legislation was directed at it. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act had a great impact in the South, where legal segregation was most firmly entrenched. The act’s key provisions included Title VII, which prohibited discrimination in employment. Title VI, which empowered federal officials to stop sending aid to southern school districts that practiced de jure segregation, and Title II, which banned discrimination in public accommodations. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act only applied to seven southern states with long histories of resistance to black voting. These four central areas—schooling, voting, employment, and public accommodation—provide this article’s primary focus. NAACP leaders concentrated on these areas because they understood that these issues were central to the struggle for full citizenship rights. As political philosopher Judith N. Shklar has argued, voting and earning make up the twin pillars that have defined true belonging in U.S. society. Association strategists felt that integrated schools were essential if African Americans were to enjoy the American dream of equal opportunity, while it was also crucial to end the humiliation of having to use separate and unequal public facilities. The NAACP’s legal approach became highly relevant after 1965 because the key remaining task was to ensure that the new civil rights laws were fully enforced. As a report published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights commented in 1969, “It is not so much new laws that are required today as a strengthened capacity to make existing laws work.”
The association’s drive to enforce the new civil rights laws was coordinated from a tenth-floor office on New York City’s Broadway. Gilbert Jonas has called the legal department the NAACP’s “proudest jewel,” and it certainly produced gifted strategists. In the post-1965 era, new figures sought to maintain the high standards established by Charies Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. A key role was played by NAACP general counsel Robert Carter, who “had argued three of the five cases” that later became Brown v. Board of Education. After 1965 Carter also began to tackle de facto school segregation in the North, yet the department’s lawyers focused most of their work on the South, a region that was still home to over half of all African Americans. In 1972 Carter became a federal judge and was replaced as general counsel by Nathaniel Jones, another hardworking and experienced strategist.
While the New York attorneys coordinated the NAACP’s legal work, local activists also played a crucial role. It was grassroots lawyers who took on the difficult civil rights cases and argued them on the ground. They received meager payments for their work and often risked social isolation. As a Texas-based attorney told the national office in 1970, “You may feel lonely in New York City but you don’t know what loneliness is until you try to be a civil rights lawyer in the South.
Lawyers were sustained in their challenging work by the NAACP’s vast branch network. As Mark V. Tushnet and Genna Rae McNeil have shown, in its early years the NAACP viewed litigation not just as a legal strategy but also as a way of mobilizing blacks at the grassroots level. This was certainly true after 1965 as well, as the legal work both drew on and encouraged branch activism. Branch members acted as plaintiffs and passed on many complaints to affiliated lawyers.
After 1965 healthy membership levels allowed the NAACP to fund hundreds of lawsuits. In January 1967, for example, the association had 441,139 members in more than eleven hundred branches. By August 1968 the association’s membership was 40 percent higher than it had been in 1955, the year that the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. In much of the Deep South, membership actually increased after 1965 as civil rights laws gave many African Americans the confidence to publicly support the NAACP for the first time. By the end of 1971 the number of dues-payers had fallen back to 388,715, but it rose again to reach 440,000 at the end of 1974.
The NAACP’s legal work was distinct from that of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), an independent organization that had its own board and offices. The NAACP had originally established the LDF in 1940 in order to achieve a separate and distinct organization. The LDF qualified for tax-exempt status as an educational and litigation group, whereas the NAACP engaged in political activities such as lobbying. In 1957 the Internal Revenue Service “insisted that the NAACP divest itself of the tax-deductible” LDF, and the latter moved to office space on Columbus Circle in New York. After this change, the relationship between the two organizations deteriorated, and the association even tried to get the LDF to drop the NAACP’s initials from its name. Because the LDF’s work was separate, this discussion will focus entirely on the efforts of the NAACP and only uses its records.
In the South, NAACP activists mobilized quickly to enforce both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “The NAACP in the Southeast Region pushed and prodded for implementation of all the new laws,” noted that region’s annual report in 1965. The actions of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches were typical; it declared 1965 to be the “year of implementation—Civil Right [sic] Act of 1964” and mobilized accordingly. “Every unit of the NAACP in North Carolina must give added meaning to the Civil Rights Act by making the best use of this new law,” declared conference president Kelly M. Alexander in February 1965. “The days, weeks and months ahead call for determined, powerful, and dignified efforts to implement the civil rights law of 1964.” Branches in the Tar Heel State carried out surveys of how whites were reacting to the law and passed on complaints to the conference.
Across the South, branches were particularly involved in enforcing the 1964 act’s public accommodations provisions. Many of the direct-action protests that had occurred between 1955 and 1964 had demanded that public facilities be opened to blacks, and in 1964 and 1965 the NAACP acted quickly to enforce Title IL In Mississippi the state conference responded to Title II by beginning a series of systematic tests to determine whether whites in one of the South’s most repressive states were obeying the law. On June 22, 1965, for example, Canton’s city parks were “successfully integrated” by local NAACP members. Other actions were similarly successful; in the course of 1965 the women of the Biloxi branch had lunch in a beachfront restaurant, and NAACP representatives were also served by restaurant staff in Laurel, Hattiesburg, and Clarksdale. Again, the NAACP took action against establishments that flouted the law, and grassroots protest worked hand in hand with legal work. In January 1965, for instance, the legal department filed suit against the Alamatt Hotel in Greenville, the only establishment in the Mississippi city that was still refusing to serve blacks.
Similar actions occurred in several other locations. In June 1965 a “freedom caravan” of more than two hundred NAACP members successfully integrated the restaurants, hotels, and motels of Madisonville, Kentucky. In Georgia, NAACP branches were particularly active. In 1965 the Dublin branch filed complaints and demonstrated against the continuation of segregationist practices in several public facilities, including a filling station owned and operated in the black community by a white woman. In Rome the local NAACP selected volunteers to desegregate movie theaters, restaurants, and drive-ins, and there were similar tests in Savannah, Albany, Atlanta, and Americus. In June 1967, for another example, blacks in Atlanta picketed the Wren’s Nest, a “high-class restaurant” that was still refusing to serve them.
Alongside these efforts, NAACP lawyers also won a number of crucial and symbolic public accommodations cases. In 1965 seven NAACP members in Fort Myers, Florida, brought suit to end segregation in the community’s recreational facilities. As a result, in the following year the city agreed under pressure to implement “complete desegregation.” The most well known case, however, was Willis v. Pickrick Restaurant, brought on behalf of a group of local activists who had been denied service at an Atlanta restaurant. In 1964 the association secured a court order requiring restaurant owner Lester Maddox to serve black customers. Maddox, who went on to become govemor of Georgia in 1966, had steadfastly refused to serve blacks and had famously kept an ax handle behind the restaurant’s counter to intimidate potential protesters. Rather than obey the order, he closed the restaurant, although it was eventually reopened on an integrated basis in 1974, a clear victory for the NAACP’s lawyers.
The NAACP’s actions helped to ensure that most southern businesses quickly complied with Title II. By April 1966 President Lyndon Johnson was able to proudly report to Congress that the fruits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were “already impressively apparent.” He added, “Discrimination in places of public accommodation—perhaps the most unbearable insult to Negro citizens—has been made unlawful. The mandate of that law has spread faster and more effectively than its most optimistic supporters believed possible. Effective federal enforcement and a realization that black activists would expose any ongoing violators had pushed the change. With only isolated public accommodation cases still occurring, by the late 1960s NAACP attorneys concentrated chiefly on the fight for jobs, integrated schools, and political representation.
Though it was resolved relatively quickly, opening up public accommodations was a very significant achievement. The change meant a great deal to ordinary blacks because the Jim Crow system had caused considerable psychological damage. All blacks could recall the humiliation they had felt in having to sit at the back of the bus or to explain to their children why they could not use “white” facilities. It was a central theme of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” one of his most evocative writings. Under segregation, explained Charlotte native Alfred L. Alexander in one interview, “you were mentally kept inferior.” Once public accommodations were opened up, African Americans threw off these shackles.
The NAACP invested over a decade of legal work in the Brown case, and after 1965 the association gave a high priority to fighting for integrated schools. Leaders placed great hopes in the schools. “Education,” claimed an NAACP petition to President Richard M. Nixon in 1970, “is that step ladder out of poverty and anarchism into the mainstream of America and democracy. The problem we face is centered on education. Segregated education is wrong legally and morally. Many NAACP members also had a strong interest in securing a quality education for their children, and they pressed lawyers for action. As Nathaniel Jones commented in 1972, “Weekly we receive requests from parents, branches and others seeking the help of the NAACP in bringing lawsuits to desegregate schools.
More than a decade after Brown, the need for action was compelling. In March 1966 just 180,000 of the South’s 2.9 million black schoolchildren attended classes with whites, and teaching staffs were still overwhelmingly segregated. The standard “freedom of choice” plans had produced very little integration because only the most courageous blacks were willing to take the risk of trying to enroll in all-white schools. As Time reported in 1966, “countless parents who have elected to send their children to white schools have been evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, even shot at.” Some whites were certainly willing to use violence to stall school integration. In September 1966, for example, white mobs attacked the first black students who attempted to integrate schools in Grenada, Mississippi, scenes that were repeated at several other locations over the next few years, including Lamar.
In several southern cities, NAACP lawyers worked persistently to dismantle segregated systems. Much of the attorneys’ energy was focused on Richmond, Virginia, where a legal fight to desegregate the schools dated back to 1961. Fronted by Carolyn and Michael Bradley, two young siblings, the plaintiffs fought hard for the full implementation of Brown. In the mid-1960s, however, the city still operated a “feeder” system that allowed whites to progress automatically through white schools while blacks had to apply to transfer to these schools and pass tests in order to be admitted. As a result, the school system remained overwhelmingly segregated.
The Richmond battle was typically long and arduous; between 1966 and 1970 the NAACP’s case lay dormant as the federal courts allowed the school board to proceed with a freedom of choice plan that failed to integrate the schools. It was not until June 1970 that the plaintiffs won a ruling that the Richmond school board “must explore any and all reasonable means to dismantle the dual system and eliminate racial characteristics in the Richmond schools.” At this time, three of the seven high schools in the city had all-black student bodies, and one was “nearly all white.” This decision was backed up by Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.’s 1972 order that the predominantly black city school system should merge with the schools of two white suburban counties. In a clear boost to the NAACP, in a preliminary order Merhige even praised the “great sacrifice” borne by the plaintiffs and termed the school board officials “obstinate and unreasonable.” The New York Times noted that the decision was a “landmark” ruling, especially as whites across the country were fleeing cities partly to avoid school integration. Following Merhige’s order, however, the NAACP’s “metropolitan remedy” promised to stall white flight by merging urban and suburban school districts together.”
The fusion of branch activism with legal work was illustrated particularly well by events in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1964, 1966, and 1967 the vibrant NAACP branch conducted a series of boycotts of the public school system there. Branch leaders Wendell P. Holmes and Rutledge Pearson coordinated the effort, which was designed to pressure the school board to speed up the pace of integration. In October 1966 the branch members presented the school board with an elevenpoint petition to justify their two-day protest. “Of 31,000-plus Negro students in Duval County,” they charged, “less than 800 are in desegregated learning situations.” Most black students were still being transported to “dilapidated” black schools and were denied access to the better-equipped white schools. The protests were well organized and effective; in March 1966, for example, a two-day boycott was supported by 59 percent of all black pupils. The school board consequently sued the NAACP because, the board claimed, the walkouts had cost the schools funding and had violated the state’s compulsory school attendance law. “[L]arge numbers of children were absent from school,” the board complained, “which resulted in great monetary loss to the plaintiff.”
Local attorney Earl M. Johnson took up the case, coordinating closely with Robert Carter. Citing Brown, the two argued that the protests were constitutional and explained that the school board’s repeated unwillingness to desegregate had led to deep-seated frustration in the black community. “[A] majority of the Negro parents decided to join in this protest,” the attorneys explained, because of “a longstanding dissatisfaction by members of the Negro community of Duval County with the educational facilities, environment and opportunities provided their children by the appellant county school board.” The NAACP eventually prevailed: circuit court judge Robert J. Waybright ruled in April 1967 that the black parents’ frustration was “understandable.” Waybright also asserted that Florida’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional because it had been amended in 1959 in order to allow parents to keep their children out of desegregated schools.
Along with a separate NAACP-backed case to integrate the schools, the boycott eventually helped dismantle segregated schools in Jacksonville. In 1971 the Duval County school board reluctantly implemented full desegregation under a strict court order. The order proved highly unpopular with most whites, but it did allow black children to finally get access to the better-equipped white schools.
The NAACP’s diverse branch structure also helped the association to bring many school cases in the rural South, where white resistance to integration lingered on well after 1965. In Jefferson County, Arkansas, Robert Carter and Barbara Morris coordinated a lengthy fight to force the school board to abandon a freedom of choice plan that had produced only minuscule levels of desegregation. Carter was involved in the case from 1959 to 1968, and in that time just 49 out of some 1,260 black students were transferred to majority-white schools. School board officials consistently defended freedom of choice and asserted that they had to proceed slowly in order to retain “parental support.” It was not until the 1970-1971 school year that a stringent federal court order forced the Jefferson County school board to abandon freedom of choice and accelerate the pace of desegregation.
Change also came slowly in other rural areas. In Lee v. Macon County (1966), the NAACP’s Alabama branches sued the entire state in an effort to strike down a state law that empowered a governor’s commission to represent school boards that were being pressured to integrate by federal agencies. White school officials who testified in the case again felt that freedom of choice plans were adequate to protect black rights despite the fact that the plans were yielding few results. Robert Cunningham, the superintendent of the school board in rural Walker County, told the court in November 1966 that 82 of the county’s 1,400 black pupils had transferred to majority-white schools. “I feel like that they already have freedom of choice,” he explained. Since “they are going where they want to go, there is no problems involved.” These officials were oblivious to the burden that was placed on black students who sought transfers to white schools. Clearly, only significant outside pressure would desegregate many rural schools. It was not until October 1969 that a panel of three federal judges ordered a hundred school systems in Alabama to submit desegregation plans for the 1970-1971 school year.
The Lee case highlighted how NAACP litigation helped to ensure that school integration was completed in the South despite enduring white opposition. The New York Times dubbed Lee a “pioneer desegregation case,” and it certainly paved the way for the integration of Alabama’s public school system. The key breakthrough, however, came in late 1969, when LDF lawyers won a Supreme Coun ruling in Alexander v. Holmes County that southern school districts should terminate dual school systems “at once.” Brought by civil rights attorneys on behalf of children in thirty-three Mississippi districts, the case proved to be a watershed. With school districts unable to continue stalling, the percentage of black children attending majority-white schools in the South climbed from 23.4 percent in the 1968-1969 school year to 33.1 percent in 1970-1971. Building on Alexander, in 1971 the Supreme Coun also mandated the use of busing in order to bring about racial balance.
After 1971 the NAACP ensured that these rulings were implemented properly across the region. Using the organization’s branch structure, NAACP lawyers pressed for busing to be applied in a range of southern and border-state cities, including Mobile and Louisville. Without busing, the attorneys argued, the schools were already resegregating. In Louisville, for example, white flight meant that all but 850 of the city’s 12,500 black elementary schoolchildren were attending historically black schools in 1972, and the situation was little better for junior high and high school students. Like NAACP leaders, many blacks on the ground viewed busing as the only way to break down stubborn patterns of segregation. As Louisville parent Mary Woods commented in 1975, “If there was a better way of bringing about racial equality in the schools, we’d go for it, but there doesn’t seem to be.”
Whites across the South saw busing as costly and destructive, and they wrote thousands of letters to their political representatives to complain about it. In 1969 Chariotte resident James M. Sheppard told local congressman Charies Raper Jonas, “This is the most ridiculous action I can think of to force our children to ride a bus for 30 to 60 minutes, twice a day, when they can walk to school in at least 50% of the cases. Some white southerners even wrote to the president. As Virginia parent Mrs. Henry H. Parish told Richard Nixon in 1972, “It hurts to watch our little children being bussed miles from home—passing several (schools) they could attend—for no other reason than to meet an artificial racial ratio in our schools.” These letters reflected what Matthew D. Lassiter has recently termed “the suburban ethos of middle-class entitlement,” which contributed greatly to the growth of the Republican Party in the region. NAACP leaders, however, dismissed their opponents as thinly disguised racists; as Roy Wilkins thundered, “Anybody who is opposed to the busing of black children is saying that he does not want them to have the best education that is available in the area.” The courts tended to side with the NAACP and pushed along the pace of integration by backing busing in a range of cases in the early 1970s.
Once school systems had begun to desegregate, the NAACP switched its focus and started to fight racism within the schools. “Now that schools are being integrated,” explained the association’s education director in 1972, “the NAACP wants to make sure the children are getting quality education.” In 1972-1973, for example, the association represented black students in Charlotte who claimed that they were more likely to be suspended or disciplined than whites. As southern schools integrated, there were many reports of “mass ousters of black students,” and the NAACP saw the trend as a reflection of racism. In Charlotte, NAACP youth workers hit back by trying to organize branch chapters within the schools. The white authorities, however, resisted the black students’ efforts for greater representation and obtained a Superior Court order limiting the ability of NAACP officials to organize. NAACP lawyers took up the complex case and argued—with some success—that the students’ First Amendment rights were being violated. Following an order allowing its representatives onto school premises, by November 1973 the NAACP had been able to organize youth councils at two major high schools in Charlotte. The councils ensured the inclusion of black studies in the curriculum and secured bus transportation for disadvantaged students.
NAACP lawyers also took up the cudgel for black teachers who lost their jobs when segregated schools merged. In the early 1970s the “dismissal and demotion of black teachers” was a common by-product of school desegregation. One study by the National Education Association found that 69 percent of southern school boards had experienced a decline in their proportion of black teachers between 1968 and 1970. The NAACP’s legal department fought a long and unsuccessful battle to secure the reinstatement of Travistine Alexander, one of the many who were affected by the dismissals. A veteran teacher in Warren, Arkansas, Alexander was fired in May 1970, following complaints from white parents that she had an incomprehensible “black” accent. In addition, the aggrieved parents charged that Alexander was not qualified to teach modem math. Alexander’s case spotlighted broader problems; during the 1969-1970 school year, for example, white officials had dismissed three black teachers and hired white replacements. In a tense hearing in the summer of 1970, local black lawyer T. E. Patterson accused white parents of hypocrisy. “[Y]ou don’t have these complaints when most of the white kids in this town were brought up by uneducated black people until they are about 6 or 7 years old constantly, and they are not handicapped at all,” he charged. “They are treated better than anybody else, and you trusted them completely with your children … [Y]ou didn’t care very much how she taught in the all black school. Now you want her over here and so give her a chance to make the transition. That’s all we want.”
These pleas fell on deaf ears, for in November 1971 federal district judge George Harris upheld Alexander’s dismissal on the grounds that school boards had “wide discretion” in hiring and firing teachers. The case typified the difficult struggle to represent African American teachers, thousands of whom were removed as schools desegregated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alexander appreciated the NAACP’s efforts, yet she received no compensation for the loss of her livelihood. “I want you to know that I am appreciative and deeply concerned about my welfare,” she wrote NAACP assistant general counsel James Myerson in September 1972. “I am sure … you would be too If your life’s career was at stake as mine.”
In the decade after 1965 the NAACP also placed a heavy emphasis on securing employment rights for African Americans. Prior to 1965, however, civil rights leaders had largely neglected economic issues because the activists had concentrated on establishing basic individual rights first. By the mid-1960s it was becoming painfully clear that legal equality did not translate into economic equality. “We see the economic issues,” Martin Luther King Jr. commented in 1966, “as probably the basic issue.” Southern blacks needed jobs, and they needed higher-paying jobs. In textiles, the region’s largest industry, blacks were only just starting to overcome a long history of exclusionary practices. Regardless of the industry, blacks also earned considerably less than whites. NAACP leaders were very concerned by these lingering economic disparities. “It is hard,” declared Roy Wilkins in 1972, “to overestimate the importance of employment in the civil rights struggle.”
After 1965 the NAACP was able to tackle employment discrimination in a meaningful way. During World War II the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) paved the way for this fight, especially as it helped to mobilize local communities around equal employment issues. Unlike Title VII, however, the FEPC did not have the power to push wholesale changes in employment practices in the South.
Armed with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, lawyers had a potent weapon that they could use against recalcitrant companies and unions. Under Title VII the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was authorized to solve job-discrimination complaints through “conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” If the commission failed to achieve voluntary compliance within sixty days, it was required to notify the complainant that he or she was permitted, within the next thirty days, to bring civil action. Although the sheer number of complaints soon overwhelmed the fledgling agency, the law did offer aggrieved workers a constructive mechanism that they could use to tackle racial discrimination. The EEOC s powers were also extended in 1972, when it was authorized to bring litigation on its own. The NAACP pushed for these expanded powers, and between 1965 and 1975 both its lawyers and its members led the fight to enforce the mandate of Title VII.
Title VII became effective on July 2, 1965, but even before then, the NAACP had launched a drive to ensure that the legislation would be properly used. Warning that the law was “not self-enforcing,” the Crisis advised in June 1965, “It is the responsibility of civil rights advocates to see that the law is utilized in every state in the Union to end job discrimination. True to their word, NAACP lawyers were soon filing EEOC charges. On September 15, 1965, the legal department filed 214 complaints, followed by a further 26 on November 8. Most of these charges were against southern employers, particularly in the textile, steel, paper, and chemical industries. The complaints targeted an employment system that confined blacks to the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs and denied them promotion into “white” positions. As well as blaming both companies and unions, the NAACP charged state employment services with channeling black workers into traditional jobs. The EEOC noted that the NAACP had generated over one-third of all the charges that the commission received in its first year of operation, and most of these cases had come from the South. The NAACP claimed to have filed 1,600 EEOC charges by May 1967, and the pace did not slacken in subsequent years. In 1977 the New Republic credited the NAACP with inspiring over 10,000 EEOC charges.
Hardworking and combative, NAACP labor director Herbert Hill played a central role in filing many of these charges, and he acted as a crucial linchpin between the membership and the legal department. One of the few whites in a top position at the NAACP, the New York University graduate served as labor director from 1951 to 1977, when he moved into an academic position at the University of Wisconsin. Growing up in Brooklyn, Hill had become interested in racial issues after reading the poetry of Langston Hughes and the novels of Richard Wright. Hill soon became part of what he called “an inter-racial bohemia” and was drawn to the NAACP. In the late 1940s he was hired by Walter White with a mandate to make the NAACP more responsive to its burgeoning working-class membership.
Hill succeeded, quickly becoming a dynamic figure who helped many branches set up labor committees. He also had a “special informal arrangement” with the EEOC that allowed him to secure copies of the commission’s confidential investigations. Armed with these revealing reports, he was able to pass on inside information to the association’s lawyers. Hill targeted well-paying manufacturing industries such as steel and aerospace manufacturing because of pressure from the grass roots. “We had to be responsive to our membership,” he recounted later. “We had a membership of half a million, and we wanted to concentrate on some areas where we could bring some benefits to the black community, some benefits to black workers.” Hill was also involved in a bitter campaign to integrate the lily-white building trades unions, but these efforts were almost completely concentrated in northern urban centers, where unions were much stronger than they were in the South.
In the South a number of major lawsuits resulted from Hill’s efforts, and they were mainly concentrated on the region’s biggest manufacturing employers. For example, the NAACP sued the Chrysler Corporation in 1967 on behalf of four black workers who sought higher-paying jobs at the company’s space division in New Orleans. The plant employed 3,200 people, yet just 187 of them were black and they all held menial posts. The case revealed typical complaints that white workers and managers were colluding to keep the best positions for themselves. “Let’s put promotions this way,” explained plaintiff Allison L. Chapital, himself a lifelong NAACP member. “We weren’t even given the opportunity to even be interviewed for promotions, put it that way. We didn’t even know about a lot of promotions that were going on until they were filled.” These complaints were upheld by the EEOC.
At other major companies the situation was similar. The largest private employer in the South was Lockheed-Georgia, a division of the California-based aircraft manufacturer. In 1968 the firm’s Atlanta plant employed 23,000 workers. Just 6 percent of these workers were black, despite the fact that the population of metropolitan Atlanta was around 23 percent black. Plaintiffs in the NAACP’s Banks v. LockheedGeorgia case described how they had been channeled to low-paying posts regardless of their qualifications. “They just told me that the only thing available was a wash rack attendant or a utility worker,” recalled college graduate Lincoln Woods. “Although I had my background down, it was irrelevant. So they hired me as a utility worker.” After failing to secure promotion. Woods filed EEOC charges and later left the company to become a salesman. Black workers also complained that they had to take employment tests that bore little relation to job performance. NAACP lawyers argued that these tests were discriminatory because the evidence indicated that blacks were “equivalent to whites in job performance, despite lower test scores.”
African American workers related that they were harassed if they sought higher-paying jobs, especially when they turned to the EEOC for assistance. Racial epithets remained commonplace in the southern workplace. “I leamed more racial terms at Lockheed than I’ve ever learned during my entire life,” explained lead Banks plaintiff Ralph Banks. NAACP members at Lockheed became subject to “birddogging,” as managers constantly watched them in the hope that they would make a mistake or quit. White workers also subjected their black coworkers to a great deal of racial harassment, on one occasion even using a doll to enact a fake lynching in the plant. At Chrysler, black workers had to confront racist graffiti that company officials did little to prevent. The EEOC determined that Chrysler had “not provided a working environment free of racial intimidation.”
NAACP branches were integrally involved in helping plaintiffs fight for their workplace rights. The huge Banks case originated out of grievances from Lockheed workers who were members of the large NAACP branch in Atlanta. The NAACP dispatched Herbert Hill to Georgia to help the workers prepare their charges. “I’ve handled literally thousands, literally thousands of such complaints in virtually every state in the Union in the past twenty-two years,” he told the court in 1971. In 1968 the Memphis branch secured legal representation for James W. Holmes, an outspoken activist who was fired by the Kroger grocery chain. As the EEOC noted. Holmes was “an aggressive and effective voice for employment rights within Respondent’s plant.” Shortly after Title VII became effective. Holmes had set up a meeting between management and NAACP representatives to discuss compliance with the law. An active board member of the NAACP, Holmes was the first African American to secure a production job at the firm’s Memphis bakery, and he filed several EEOC charges against the company. In 1972 district judge Harry W. Wallford praised Holmes as an “intelligent and knowledgeable man” and reinstated him, although the judge failed to award the back pay that Holmes sought.
In the steel center of Birmingham, the large NAACP branch was similarly involved in assisting black laborers. The steel plants in Birmingham were strictly segregated, and it was only after 1965 that employers began to integrate jobs. NAACP efforts in Birmingham had a strong economic focus. “The main target of the Birmingham Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” noted one branch report in 1966, “is employment discrimination against Negro citizens.” After Title VII became effective, the branch established a “Labor and Industry Committee” to coordinate the filing of EEOC charges. Within a year of the law’s debut, the branch had filed 225 complaints against U.S. Steel and more than 500 against Birmingham employers in general. Local civil rights leaders concentrated most of their attention on U.S. Steel because it was the area’s largest employer and was regarded as a “pattern-setter.”
One prominent example of the NAACP’s endeavors in the Magic City was Pettway v. American Cast Iron Pipe Co., filed by black steelworkers who accused the company of maintaining segregated facilities and discriminatory wage rates. As their case progressed through the courts, the workers cooperated closely both with the local branch and with Hill, who did much to assist them. As Robert Carter explained in 1966, the case occurred because “a number of persons, employees of the American Cast Iron Pipe Company and employees of various other companies in Birmingham, have come to the office of the NAACP Branch in Birmingham making complaints about the existence of discrimination in their various places of employment.” The American Cast Iron Pipe workers coordinated their efforts through a plant-level “Committee for Equal Job Opportunity.” The committee exposed that company managers still maintained a segregated cafeteria, as well as separate entrances to their medical facility and even racially separate charity funds. Blacks were also kept off the employee-run Board of Operatives and were restricted to an “Auxiliary Board” that lacked policy-making powers. Legal action was necessary before company officials began to address these egregious violations of Title VII.
These cases were not unusual; across the South, the NAACP’s branches cooperated closely with civil rights lawyers. Where branches were not involved, workers often corresponded directly with the NAACP’s legal department. In 1966, for example, a group of Arkansas train porters wrote directly to the New York office to seek the NAACP’s help. Their principal grievance was a common one for black workers in the South: they were required to perform the same duties as whites but were not paid accordingly. “We, the so called Train Porters of the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, are asking the help and support of you and the NAACP in securing our rights on said line that we have been denied for a number of years,” they began. The porters explained that they were required to take the same examination as the white “brakemen” and to perform identical duties. Aware that the NAACP had already brought similar cases, associate counsel Barbara Morris told the workers that she was confident of being able to “start suit without any delay.” Her predictions proved prescient, as Norman V. Missouri Pacific Railroad Company soon became another major class-action suit. The NAACP again tackled a giant southem employer: Missouri Pacific employed twenty-three thousand workers in several states. Following a protracted struggle, in December 1973 a federal court granted the porters the right to transfer to other positions without forfeiting their seniority, a move that constituted an important breakthrough.
The NAACP’s employment litigation ran alongside a coordinated effort to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For decades NAACP leaders had viewed the ballot as a “ticket to freedom” for African Americans, and after 1965 the association worked tirelessly to ensure that the Voting Rights Act was properly enforced. While the act was an effective piece of civil rights legislation, continued litigation and voter registration campaigns were necessary to be certain that black voting did translate into increased political representation.
After 1965 the NAACP concentrated much of its effort on trying to stop southern states and localities from switching to at-large elections, in which each voter in a jurisdiction has a vote in the contest for every seat on a particular governmental body, such as a city council or a county commission. As black voting grew steadily in the post-World War II era, at-large elections became increasingly common in the South, and some localities used the system to try to negate the impact of the Voting Rights Act. Many studies have shown that at-large elections put minority voters at a disadvantage, especially when there is a history of resistance to minority participation in politics. In contrast, under the district system—in which an overall jurisdiction is divided and each voter casts a ballot for a representative of that smaller area—blacks fared better because they tended to live in well-defined, segregated neighborhoods. Because few white voters were willing to support black candidates, it was vital for blacks to get single-member districts if they were to secure greater political representation.
The NAACP fought to stall the move toward at-large districts. In 1970 the group brought a class-action suit on behalf of black voters in Alabama’s three major cities. In Montgomery the key plaintiff was E. D. Nixon, a veteran activist who had helped initiate the 1955-1956 bus boycott. The plaintiffs argued that the all-white Alabama legislature was “racist” because it had deliberately diluted the black “Ghetto” vote to ensure that urban blacks did not receive direct political representation. The plaintiffs also used the Voting Rights Act to argue that black votes should now be “meaningful.” Despite opposition from state political leaders, in 1972 a panel of three federal judges sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the legislature to reapportion itself into new House of Representatives districts. “[F]urther delay is inappropriate,” declared the court. The decision capped a decade-long legal effort, and it produced a rapid increase in black political representation in the Heart of Dixie. By 1974 there were fifteen African Americans in the state legislature.
In 1972 and 1973 the NAACP also brought two cases on behalf of its South Carolina branches to try to stop the state legislature from being elected on an at-large basis. Working with Columbia attorney Matthew J. Perry, the plaintiffs argued that the maintenance of at-large districts would “dilute and cancel out” black voting strength in the state. The plaintiffs explained that as most southern whites would not vote for black candidates, majority-black districts were essential if blacks were to be fairly represented. “[R]ace is an everpresent issue in South Carolina elections,” argued Perry in a polished and persuasive brief “The testimony is clear in showing that progress has been made toward eliminating race as an issue, but that there is a long way yet to go … [S]ubstantial numbers of white voters … simply will not vote for a candidate who is black or who is identified with the interests of black voters.” Under pressure from the NAACP, the state legislature was reapportioned, and black political representation slowly increased. In the Palmetto State, NAACP attorneys also worked with
branch members to bring suits that dismantled at-large elections at the local level. Their efforts produced significant results. As Orville Vemon Burton and his coauthors have documented, the shift to singlemember districts “substantially increased” black representation on county councils in South Carolina.
As well as tackling the discriminatory effects of at-large elections, the NAACP carried on a broader fight for black political representation. In October 1971, for example, the Georgia General Assembly reapportioned the state’s ten congressional districts so that each contained around 460,000 residents. Under the law, the heavily black parts of Atlanta were divided among three separate congressional districts. It was an obvious effort to exclude blacks from the congressional delegation, especially as the homes of potential African American candidates were deliberately excluded from the boundaries of the new Fifth District. Appealing the plan, NAACP attorneys in New York and Atlanta argued that the move violated both the Fifteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. The reapportionment was designed, they asserted, to “undermine and destroy the present and potential effectiveness of Black urban voters … and to benefit White Atlanta suburban voters.” Backing the NAACP, in 1972 the Justice Department ruled the move to be discriminatory and forced the state to enact a new plan that increased the black voting percentage in the main Atlanta district. The decision helped clear the way for the election to Congress of Andrew Young, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. In 1972 the talented politician became the first black congressional representative from Georgia since Reconstruction.
As the South Carolina case highlighted, NAACP branches were integrally involved in the broader fight for increased black political representation. Within a year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, around five hundred thousand new southern black voters had registered, a gain that was partly a reflection of what Roy Wilkins called “consistent and persistent work at the grassroots level.” In the late 1960s the pages of the Crisis were full of stories documenting local voter registration drives; in rural Coahoma County, Mississippi, for example, the NAACP branch helped to register forty-five hundred blacks within a year of the Voting Rights Act’s passage, and their efforts ensured that black voters outnumbered white ones in the rural county. In 1968 the NAACP also distributed well over eight million pieces of literature during a sustained campaign that concentrated heavily on the South. In 1970 and 1975 NAACP leaders joined with other civil rights groups and helped to guarantee that both Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford supported renewal of the much-needed provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
In all four areas surveyed here, it is undeniable that the NAACP achieved a great deal. Ongoing litigation sped the pace of school desegregation, and the percentage of black students in public schools that were 90 percent or more minority fell from 77.5 in 1968 to 24.6 in 1980. The South’s schools quickly became more integrated than those in other regions of the United States. Voting rights lawsuits were similarly vital; as the legal department asserted, its voting cases were “pilots for similar litigation over the entire South on the state, county and city level.” The NAACP deserves some of the credit for the large increase in the number of blacks holding political office in the South, one of the outstanding successes of this era. In 1965, 72 blacks served as elected officials in the region, but this figure had jumped to 1,555 by 1975. In the 1972 elections more than 600 blacks won election to public office in the eleven southern states, with Alabama leading the way. The rapid destruction of Jim Crow in public accommodations also paved the way for blacks to start moving back to the region in the late 1960s and 1970s. For example, census data shows that between 1970 and 1973, 166,000 blacks left the South, but 247,000 moved in. As African American writer Mary E. Mebane noted in 1972, “the primary reason for the infiux of blacks into the South is the Civil Rights Acts of 1964—65. Once the overt signs of racial discrimination were removed—’White Only’ and ‘Colored Only’—and some of the most vicious racist practices discontinued, either because of Government action or black political muscle, the North lost much of its allure.”
On issues of employment, the NAACP broke up segregated seniority systems and helped to establish affirmative action as an accepted way of overcoming the effects of decades of discrimination. Some cases were truly pathbreaking. In the early 1970s, for example, the association sued the Alabama Department of Public Safety because the state’s police force remained all-white. In what the Crisis trumpeted as a “major victory for the NAACP,” federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered the state to hire one black for every newly hired white until a quarter of troopers were African American. The 25 percent quota roughly corresponded to the proportion of African Americans in Alabama’s population. The February 1972 decision opened the way for the integration of the state’s police force and provided a model for courts to fashion affirmative action remedies. The case was, in fact, the first time that a federal judge had specified the population ratio in an integration order. The order produced major results; by June 1983 the percentage of black troopers had risen from 0 to 20 percent, and by 1992 Alabama had the most racially integrated state police force in the entire country.
It is important not to overstate the NAACP’s achievements, of course. Litigation was expensive and time-consuming, and it usually failed to produce quick results. As Roy Wilkins acknowledged in 1965, lawsuits involved “heavy costs” and frequently resulted in only “token compliance” with civil rights laws. By the mid-1960s, NAACP leaders were acutely aware that determined whites could effectively obstruct the implementation of legal decisions. Many civil rights cases also required a daunting commitment of resources for limited gains; the mammoth Banks v. Lockheed-Georgia case, for example, generated forty volumes of transcripts and over nine hundred exhibits, yet the NAACP emerged from it with only a compromise settlement. The legal department also invested well over a decade of effort in several school desegregation cases. These prolonged struggles strained the resources of the member-supported group, which operated with a financial deficit for much of the 1965-1975 period. Such problems were compounded in 1976, when the NAACP lost a boycotting case against a group of Mississippi merchants and was ordered to pay $1.25 million in damages.
It was inevitable that the NAACP, by investing heavily in legal struggles, would suffer setbacks as well as victories. In May 1972, for example, a divided Supreme Court blocked the merger of the heavily black Richmond school district with two predominantly white suburban counties. The decision was a severe blow to the association’s lawyers, and it encouraged further white flight. In the burgeoning metropolis of Houston, around 95 percent of all African American children still attended all-black schools in 1967, but the NAACP was unable to prevent a new school construction program that was based around the neighborhood school concept.
Even in communities where the NAACP did win school desegregation cases, whites often reacted by abandoning the public schools. In Jacksonville, for instance, court-enforced integration contributed to a gradual resegregation of the schools. The reaction was typical; between 1965 and 1970, over seven hundred all-white private schools were established in the former Confederate states. In January 1970 the New York Times predicted, “the major school issue of the 1970s may be resegregation.” True enough, in the ensuing years the national press documented that many whites did flee integrated public schools. Even in public accommodations, whites soon abandoned many of the facilities that blacks had fought to desegregate. In 1978 a northern journalist who visited Montgomery found that few whites sat on the city’s buses. “The bus line that Rosa Parks integrated carries mostly poor blacks who cannot afford automobiles, many of them maids who work on the east side,” wrote John Herbers. In Montgomery, as in many other southern cities, the downtown was in decline, and few whites shopped there.
In employment there were also mixed results. For all their efforts, NAACP lawyers were powerless to stop the economic decline of many of the industries they had fought to integrate. The association brought a series of cases against U.S. Steel in Birmingham at just the time that the company was starting to lay off large numbers of workers. The NAACP’s long fight to get better conditions for black train porters also occurred at a time when the railroads were reducing passenger services. The Banks settlement was undermined by the decline of the giant manufacturer, which was consolidating its aircraft manufacturing in California. Between 1968 and 1972, employment at the firm’s Atlanta plant tumbled from thirty-four thousand workers to thirteen thousand. The ongoing collapse of manufacturing industries has hit the African American community hard and has contributed to its persistently high poverty rate, perhaps the biggest racial challenge still facing Americans today. Despite the growth of the black middle class, in 2005 over 24 percent of African Americans were classified as poor, more than double the national average.
In the political sphere, the NAACP helped blacks make rapid gains, yet they remained underrepresented. In 1975 African Americans still made up barely 2 percent of the elected officials in the South, even though blacks constituted nearly a fifth of the voting-age population. Many of the new black elected officials also presided over poor, majority-black communities, and the officeholders lacked the power to tackle economic disparities in a meaningful way. In 1972, for example, around seventy black mayors set up the Southern Conference of Black Mayors to try to tackle “the impoverished condition of their cities and constituents.”
In the final analysis, however, the NAACP’s contribution to the ongoing civil rights struggle deserves to be recognized. Throughout the 1965-1975 decade the association maintained a mass membership and funded a great deal of vital litigation. While the group’s moderation—leaders rejected Black Power and refused to condemn U.S. intervention in Vietnam—was criticized by many on the Left, a moderate stance also helped the NAACP to maintain a broad appeal. As SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC all became more radical, they lost members and influence. In contrast, polls showed that the NAACP, although headed by an aging Wilkins, remained highly respected in the African American community. In February 1968 a Fortune survey of African Americans in thirteen cities showed that 70 percent of respondents rated the NAACP as fighting “very much for what the people wanted” and that 67 percent said the group was “very much trusted.” Even the NAACP’s opponents saw the group as effective. “The NAACP,” claimed an adviser to President Gerald Ford in 1975, “pioneered in making the legal system respond to black needs.” Opponents of busing also blamed “monumental prodding and political pressure by the NAACP” for sustaining what they viewed as an unpopular and destructive method of integrating the schools.
As the historian August Meier observed in 1991, “Over the long view, the importance of the NAACP is hard to overestimate.” Though historians neglected the topic for many years, a healthy reassessment of the NAACP’s role in the civil rights movement is now underway. Building on his case study of Louisiana, Adam Fairclough has given central emphasis to the association in a recent overview of the black freedom struggle. Other scholars have explored the NAACP’s early years in unprecedented detail. Writing on the association’s work in the 1920s, Mark Robert Schneider has challenged the “myth” that the organization was dominated by middle-class whites, while Kenneth Robert Janken has completed a comprehensive biography of pioneering NAACP leader Walter White. Scholars have also taken note of the NAACP’s faults: Janken’s biography, for example, does not shy away from recognizing its subject’s personal vanity and egoism, and Barbara Ransby has exposed how Ella Baker fought a lonely struggle as one of the few female leaders in the association. Carol Anderson has also argued that the NAACP’s anticommunism led it to abandon a broad vision of human rights in favor of a narrower agenda, claims that have been convincingly refuted by Manfred Berg. While taking due note of the NAACP’s limitations, all these scholars have recognized the group’s significance as the leading black organization of the entire twentieth century. According to Berg, by 1950 “the association had grown into the largest and strongest black civil rights organization with a solid base among the black working class.
This new scholarship is part of a broader historiographical shift. Over the last twenty years, scholars such as Beth Tompkins Bates, Robert Rodgers Korstad, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Patricia Sullivan have shown that a great deal of significant civil rights activism occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. These historians have established that the civil rights movement cannot be contained within a narrative that privileges the events of the 1955-1965 era. In particular, they have shown that black pioneers in the 1930s and 1940s laid the groundwork for later protests by surging into the NAACP and by registering to vote in record numbers. In the World War II era, over half a million African American workers also joined progressive unions that fought to break down segregation. Although postwar anticommunism later damaged the Left, the war had still irrevocably weakened Jim Crow and had acted as the “seedtime” for the modem civil rights movement.
Building on this work, historians now also recognize the need to explore the civil rights struggle after 1965. The dominant narrative, they note, gives short shrift to ongoing activism and overlooks the crucial efforts of early civil rights fighters. Charles W. Eagles pointed out in a review article in 2000 that “more attention needs to be paid to … the legacies or ramifications of the movement.” Several scholars have since produced pathbreaking work on the post-1965 civil rights movement. In her fine-grained examination of Claiborne County, Mississippi, Emilye Crosby asserts that it is now time to move beyond an “outdated narrative of progress,” with its “accompanying assumption that our nation has actually confronted and solved the problems generated by segregation and white supremacy.” In other influential studies, Timothy B. Tyson and Cynthia Griggs Fleming have graphically illustrated how the civil rights struggle is ongoing, a point that NAACP leaders have continually made. As Fleming puts it, “[T]he struggle to realize the promises made by the civil rights movement over a generation ago continues.”
Just as the NAACP laid the groundwork for the civil rights upsurge, the association also spearheaded the fight to ensure that federal legislation was forcefully implemented. As the group’s strategists realized, equal rights laws were not self-enforcing. The NAACP’s persistent efforts remind us that we need to leam more about the complex struggle to make “best use” of landmark federal civil rights laws. While important work on the NAACP is now appearing, scholars have tended either to examine the group at the national level or to present defined case studies. In reality, however, the national office and the branches interacted closely, and members were centrally involved in legal battles that were coordinated from the center.
While the NAACP has often been viewed as conservative and moderate, its continuing activism is ultimately a reflection of an ambitious and unfulfilled agenda. When interracial pioneers charted the new group in 1909, they adopted a program that strove to assure “each and every citizen, irrespective of color, equality of opportunity and equality before the law.” This bold agenda has still not been achieved, and what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “tragic gulf between civil rights laws passed and civil rights laws implemented” is still apparent in U.S. society. Despite suffering a period of political and financial turmoil in the 1990s, the NAACP still stands as America’s dominant civil rights group, and it maintains a strong branch network in the South. As we approach the centennial of the NAACP’s foundation, the association continues to be positively regarded. In 1998 a poll taken by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that 81 percent of African Americans held a favorable opinion of the NAACP. What Roy Wilkins once called the “relentless battle” for equal rights is as relevant today as it was a century ago, when America’s oldest civil rights group was organized on New York City’s Lower East Side.