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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was incorporated in 1910 as an organization dedicated to mobilization on behalf of racial justice. The founding of the organization occurred through the discourse and several meetings among black and white intellectuals, business persons, educators, and professionals who, over a number of years prior to the NAACP’s founding, laid the groundwork to mobilize efforts to fight racial discrimination against African Americans. Many of the leaders and participants of these precursory efforts reached a consensus on developing a major organization that would fight racial discrimination, and eventually, the NAACP was established.
One meeting that contributed to the development of the NAACP was held in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1905; this meeting marked the founding of the Niagara Movement. At the meeting, the participants discussed their opposition to the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). They supported black progress by way of higher education in cultural and scientific studies, economic development, and integration within the formal political structures with full citizenship rights, the franchise, and civil rights.
By the time of the second annual Niagara Movement meeting in 1906, several members were alarmed by the continuing brutality, lynching, and loss of property, among other oppressive conditions, facing blacks at that time. This led white leaders Mary White Ovington (1865–1951) and Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949), grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), along with W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), to convene a meeting, referred to as The Call, to discuss the “Negro question.” On February 12, 1909, the onehundredth anniversary of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), fifty-three signatories (who comprised the membership of the National Negro Committee) called for a national conference to be held on May 30, 1909.
By the time the second national conference was held in May 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was incorporated by five people: Du Bois, Villard, Ovington, Walter E. Sachs (1884–1980), and John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964). The Niagara Movement, from which the NAACP was an outgrowth, eventually dissolved. Many of the movement’s members, however, were also members of the NAACP. Continuing many of the concerns of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP proposed to address the social and political equality of African Americans. A 1911
NAACP program declared that its objectives were to sponsor meetings and lectures on questions about race, political representation, foreign affairs, antilynching policy, disfranchisement, educational inequities, discrimination in employment, crime, and public accommodations.
The Organizational Structure
The organization’s leadership consisted of a National Board of Directors that was elected from a slate of candidates chosen by the NAACP Nominating Committee. Members of the National Board of Directors had the power to establish committees, departments, bureaus, branches, and college chapters. The National Board of Directors consisted of the president (an ex officio member), vice president, treasurer, chairman of the board (the most powerful officer of the association), and the executive secretary. Other NAACP members made up youth councils, college chapters, and various branches within states.
Some notable former members of the NAACP Board of Directors include the political scientist Ralph Bunche (1904–1971) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). Other famous members include Du Bois, who acted as the director of publicity and research and who, for a number of years, acted as editor of the association’s chief publication, The Crisis. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), a strong advocate of antilynching policy in the early twentieth century, was also a member. James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), known for writing the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem,” was a national organizer of membership, and he later became executive secretary of the organization.
NAACP membership was (and continues to be) open to all people, regardless of race. Much of the leadership in the early organization consisted of whites. Since 1932, when Louis T. Wright (1891–1952), a black man, was appointed to the Board of Directors, African Americans have been more central to the association’s leadership. Today, the organization is structured similarly to its past organization, comprising a National Board of Directors, several departments, state branches with regional offices, youth councils, and college chapters. Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights activist, became chair of the Board of Directors in 1998. In 2005 Bruce S. Gordon became NAACP president, replacing Kweisi Mfume, a civil rights activist and former Maryland representative of the U.S. House of Representative who had served as NAACP president since 1996.
Despite its sound leadership, strong following, and prior financial stability, the NAACP faced both financial difficulties and leadership woes during the early 1990s. During this time, the NAACP experienced alleged financial malfeasance, a budget deficit, and a sex scandal that involved its president, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. (now known as Benjamin F. Chavis Muhammad). The controversy surrounding Chavis’s leadership led to his being asked by the National Board of Directors to resign from the presidency. Mfume is credited with leading the organization out of its troubled period.
In 2006 the NAACP comprised over two thousand local chapters and more than 500,000 members. It faces the challenge of increasing its membership among a younger generation of political activists. Financial support comes mostly from individuals and corporate donors. Prior to the separation of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF, also known as the “Inc. Fund”) from the main organization, the association benefited financially from tax-exempt donations made to the Inc. Fund. The NAACP also has tax-exempt charitable status, which was initiated via the NAACP Special Contribution Fund in 1964.
NAACP political activism consists of policy reviews, political lobbying, political protests, political mobilization, and legal challenges. The organization’s early policy concerns were related to African Americans acquiring civil rights. The NAACP compiled and disseminated information to members and other blacks about senators’ and representatives’ votes on policies that affected civil rights. This information served as a public record of official support for antiblack policies and as a means by which support could be galvanized for NAACP policy concerns.
The NAACP lobbied U.S. presidents and members of Congress for support of civil rights policies, and openly opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s (1856–1924) initiation of segregation in the federal government. Early pressure from the NAACP in the 1940s contributed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s implementation of Executive Order 8802, which desegregated the American defense industry. Such pressure on the executive branch also resulted in President Harry S Truman (1884–1972) implementing Executive Order 10308, which created a committee to enforce the prohibition of racial discrimination in employment.
In 1930 the NAACP successfully galvanized support in Congress to block the confirmation of Judge Robert Parker of North Carolina (an opponent of black rights) to the U.S. Supreme Court. Similar tactics have been used by the association in more recent years to acknowledge support or nonsupport of various nominations to government posts.
In the early twentieth century, Walter White (1893–1955), former NAACP executive secretary, and James Weldon Johnson lobbied Congress to secure the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, but the bill failed due to a lack of support in the Senate, despite its passage in the House of Representatives. Thereafter, the NAACP decreased its attention to antilynching policy and adopted a focus on other policy interests. Important legislative victories—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968—occurred as a result of the efforts of NAACP leaders Roy Wilkins (1901–1981) and Clarence Mitchell (1911–1984).
In international affairs, the NAACP denounced African colonization, calling international conferences on the subject in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, and 1944. The Pan-African Congress (under the direction of DuBois) specifically asked the U.S. president to take a stand against colonialism and the exploitation of black people around the world.
Political protests by NAACP members also challenged segregated environments. Rosa Parks (1913–2005), an NAACP member, ignited protests across the South when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Moreover, sit-ins by NAACP Youth Council members in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 led to nonviolent protest strategies that challenged and eventually desegregated lunch counters.
One of the most effective strategies for fighting racial discrimination consisted of the NAACP litigating Jim Crow laws in the South and eventually in other regions of the country. Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950), special counsel for the NAACP and dean of Howard University Law School, launched the NAACP’s litigation campaign.
In 1939 Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), an NAACP attorney who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, formalized the litigation strategy within the NAACP when he developed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Becoming a formal entity within the NAACP in 1940, the LDF fought cases that challenged restrictions against blacks voting in primary elections (Smith v. Allwright, 1944); restrictive covenants (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948); and educational segregation and discrimination (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954). These LDF efforts effectively changed the second-class citizenship status of African Americans. The landmark decision in Brown declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was unconstitutional.
Upon the separation of the LDF from the NAACP in 1957, Robert Carter (NAACP general counsel) continued the NAACP’s litigation strategies through the NAACP Legal Department. Under Carter’s counsel, the NAACP won a decision in Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), in which the Supreme Court acknowledged the concept of “one person, one vote.”
The NAACP was one of the leading civil rights organizations of the modern civil rights movement, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, founded in 1942), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, founded in 1960), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, founded in 1956), and the National Urban League (founded in 1910). These organizations mostly supported nonviolent, direct action strategies (sit-ins, marches, picketing, and especially litigation) to protest racial discrimination.
By the mid-1960s SNCC (whose membership comprised many of the black youth in the movement) and CORE became more radical and militant as members became frustrated with the violent and mostly unmoved opposition of many white Americans to black progress. SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998) expressly supported the notion of “Black Power” as a new objective of black protest. The commitment of the NAACP and other organizations to integrationism (integrating blacks in white society) contrasted with the increasingly nationalistic sentiments of activists like Carmichael and other black youth, as Black Power and black nationalism garnered more support among the black masses.
The national executive director at that time, Roy Wilkins, publicly denounced what he perceived to be the racially separatist and antiwhite orientation of Black Power ideology. The Black Panther Party, at that time a prominent black nationalist organization and a leading proponent of Black Power, disagreed with a political strategy that focused on integrating blacks with whites in society. Instead, the Black Panthers emphasized building the black community (without white resources or integration) to address race and poverty. The party supported building a “black nation.”
The Black Panther Party criticized the NAACP as being a mainstream, passive, and bourgeois civil rights organization that represented older, outmoded views about the position of blacks in American society. Moreover, the Black Panthers disagreed with the NAACP’s strategy to address racial discrimination without self-defense and without critical opposition to class oppression. In contrast, the Black Panther Party supported more militaristic tactics to protest racial discrimination and violence by whites, and it focused on implementing programs that addressed the overwhelming poverty of black Americans. Although the NAACP supported pacifist resistance and protest movements on a national level, some local chapters and members—in particular, Robert F. Williams (1925–1966), president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP—supported self-defense tactics that were akin to the black nationalist tenets of the Black Panther Party.
The vanguard leadership of the NAACP also differed generationally and ideologically from the Black Panther Party, which was comprised mostly of black youth. This generational difference translated into what members of the Black Panther Party perceived to be the desire of older activists to assimilate into white society, as opposed to appreciating black culture as distinct from white influence. The Black Panther Party ushered in an increasing embrace of black pride among black youth and the black masses—a transformation of African American identity that also emphasized less reliance on white resources and more appreciation for black self-determination. As support for black pride became more popular among the black masses, the NAACP became more supportive of black consciousness and black community-building. As always, however, the NAACP was prejudicial about racial separatism.
Over the years, the NAACP has continued to address issues related to race and discrimination. It has also incorporated into its political agenda more programs focusing on economic inequality. Such issues as disparities in education, redistricting and vote dilution, fair housing, criminal justice, and environmental racism now form part of the NAACP’s commitment to fighting racial discrimination. The NAACP has also protested apartheid in South Africa, sponsored voter registration drives, encouraged increased voter turnout, challenged negative images of blacks in the media, promoted economic empowerment, and advocated improved healthcare regardless of race. NAACP activism has been extended to address the discrimination of various racial and ethnic minorities, while still focusing on the conditions of African Americans.
- Cose, Ellis, and Vern Smith. 1994. The Fall of Benjamin Chavis: Civil Rights: How the NAACP’s Controversial Leader Did Himself In. Newsweek 124 (9): 27.
- Greenberg, J 1994. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books.
- Hosenhall, Mark, and Vern Smith. 1994. Trial by Fire at the NAACP: Civil Rights, the Scandal Engulfing Director Ben Chavis Could Threaten the Entire Organization. Newsweek 124 (8): 24.
- Janken, Kenneth Rober 2003. White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. New York: New Press.
- Jonas, Gilber 2005. Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909–1969. New York: Routledge.
- Kellogg, Charles F 1967. NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
- Kweisi Mfume Takes the NAACP Out of the Recovery R Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 29: 40–41.
- Marger, Martin 1984. Social Movement Organizations and Response to Environmental Change: The NAACP, 1960–1973. Social Problems 32 (1): 16–30.
- Miller, Jake 2002. The NAACP and Global Human Rights. The Western Journal of Black Studies 26 (1): 22–31.
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People https://www.naacp.org/.
- Ogbar, Jeffrey G. 2004. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
- Ovington, Mary 1947. The Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- S James, Warren D. 1958. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: A Case Study in Pressure Groups. New York: Exposition Press.
- Topping, S 2004. Supporting Our Friends and Defeating Our Enemies: Militancy and Nonpartisanship in the NAACP, 1936–1948. Journal of African American History 9 (1): 17–35.
- Tyson, Timothy 1999. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Ware, Gilber 1994. The NAACP-Inc. Fund Alliance: Its Strategy, Power, and Destruction. Journal of Negro Education 63 (3): 323–335.
- Wickham, DeW 2004. Troubling Exit for NAACP’s Mfume. USA Today (November 30).
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