NAACP Celebrates 100 Years Of Change

President Lincoln's birthday is on Thursday, but there's another anniversary on that day: One hundred years ago, a multiracial group of activists chose Lincoln's 100th birthday to announce "a call for a national conference on the Negro question." With that, the NAACP was born.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

President Lincoln's birthday is on Thursday. There is also another anniversary that day. One hundred years ago, a multiracial group of activists chose Lincoln's 100th birthday to announce, quote, "a call for a national conference on the Negro question." With that, the NAACP was born. NPR news analyst Juan Williams has written extensively about African-American affairs and civil rights, and he is here in the studio. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk about the early years of the NAACP. What was, as the founders call it, the Negro question at the opening of the 20th century?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's roots obviously are in emancipation in the middle of the 1800s, and with the Southern states resisting the idea of independent free black people, and so all sorts of black codes and laws are put in place to limit the rights and mobility even of black people to move around. And you get lots of alternate visions of exactly how black people can respond, and you get Booker T. Washington saying you know what, black people should just work by themselves, even though we have to cooperate obviously with our white neighbors. And then you get W.E.B Du Bois, and he formed something called the Niagra Movement, which is pretty much an all-black organization. And that then leads to work with white philanthropists and people who have been white abolitionists, and they come together and form the NAACP.

WERTHEIMER: There was also a lot of violence during this immediate period -lynchings, that sort of thing. A lot of concern in the whole country about what was going to happen.

WILLIAMS: Indeed. And you get, you know, prominent journalists who are saying, you know what, if you go down South, there are atrocities being committed against black people in public, white people gathered, celebrating, having picnics as they are hanging and burning black bodies, and this must be stopped, and we must get the Congress to act. And this is the first large-scale mandate of the NAACP, is to end lynching in this country.

WERTHEIMER: Perhaps its most famous achievement was in court though - Brown vs. the Board of Education.

WILLIAMS: Right. What you get is that there is legal strategy for how can we best go about deconstructing legal segregation in the country and the decision is reached in the area of education is where you can best take on the 1896 decision that says separate but equal is the law of the land. And the way that they go at it is to begin looking at the graduate and professional schools around the country and forcing the states to say if you're not going to admit black people to your state institution, then you must end that institution because it's unconstitutional, illegal, or allow for integration.

WERTHEIMER: So this continued sort of drumbeat on school integration which finally went all the way to the Supreme Court, led by Thurgood Marshall, and it made him famous, it made him a great leader.

WILLIAMS: And you're exactly right, Linda. What Thurgood Marshall did is begin saying if you are going to have separate but equal but you don't properly fund schools for young black people, then that's a violation and you must integrate the existing facilities with regard to public schools. Of course that leads to tremendous currents of resistance to the idea of black and white children going to school together that we know to this day.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that was the high point of the NAACP's influence in this country?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there's a couple of things to say here. They've had on a number fronts a tremendous impact, but it comes during that period - �40s, �50s - and then into the �60s they start to get out of sync with the whole notion of direct confrontation and protest and freedom rides, and Dr. King, who is a member of the NAACP but has his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And why does he form that group? Because so many of the Southern states are attacking the NAACP, and King decides its easier to do this with a Christian organization that the Southern governors and politicians won't be as successful in attacking.

WERTHEIMER: When the NAACP's influence waned, there were a lot of other difficulties - financial difficulties, internal disputes, drops in membership.

WILLIAMS: Tremendous. As you get into the - especially the late �70s and then into the �80s, what you see is a sort of graying revolutionaries still hanging on, a real reluctance to bring on younger leadership, and people saying, well, exactly what does the NAACP do? Obviously we don't have an era of lynching, we don't have legal segregation. We're dealing with other issues. And I would say that if you're asking about their purpose, that's the problem. The joke inside the NAACP is, well, you know, young people don't come. They don't see the need. Maybe when they're in their mid-30s and mid-40s and run into some discrimination at work, then they quickly write off a check and join the NAACP. But for many young people of color in the country it seems that the NAACP is an anachronism.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. His books on civil rights include "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary."

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