Just a few days ago, on February 12, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its 100th anniversary. What a great time, during Black History Month – and within the first few weeks of our first African American President having taken office – to reflect on this organization’s achievements. The Baltimore Sun has a good feature on the org’s history, and National Public Radio has covered the anniversary as well, including with an interview with the new NAACP president and CEO, Benjamin Jealous.
According to its Web site, “the NAACP was formed partly in response to the continuing horrific practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, the capital of Illinois and birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln. Appalled at the violence that was committed against blacks, a group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both the descendants of abolitionists, William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscowitz issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.”
Many readers may not be aware that the National Consumers League, which was founded just a few years before, in 1899, has some history in common with the NAACP. Back in the early days of NCL, which was founded by activists emerging from the suffrage, abolition, and settlement house movements, many activists for labor and women’s suffrage didn’t yet see the need to represent the interests of black Americans, who were often paid the lowest wages and worked in the dirtiest jobs. But the National Consumers League was different. NCL leadership argued that black workers were the most vulnerable and needed protections as much if not more as other workers. Throughout the League’s 109 years of activism and leadership in social justice, NCL’s leaders have had close ties to African Americans and the civil rights movement.NCL’s great first leader, Florence Kelley, was a strong supporter of early black civil rights. Although the early work of the League focused on the plight of urban workers in the American Northeast at a time when more African Americans lived in the South, Kelley had strong goals of racial equality. In her role in the suffrage movement, Kelley was critical of the National Woman’s Party for its friendly acceptance of white supremacist southern women members. A friend of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kelley was herself a founding member of the NAACP. At Kelley’s death, DuBois gave a eulogy for her, saying: “Save for Jane Addams, there is not another social worker in the United States who has either had her insight or her daring, so far as the American Negro is concerned.”
Hats off to the NAACP for its first 100 years of important contributions to American social justice and history. Three cheers from your friends at the National Consumers League!