Rebels in the NAACP
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 7, 1999
In the early to mid-1930s, I used to do some work for the Spokesman, a liberal black newspaper in San Francisco. The editor and writers were my buddies. We were all a bunch of rebels. In Oakland, they used to say we were communists because of the way we acted at the NAACP meetings.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the daddy of all the civil rights organizations in the country, met once a month at Third Baptist Church in Oakland, which was then the biggest black church in the Bay Area. We didn't like the leadership at all. We used to come to the meetings and jump up on the floor all the time, questioning what they were doing. Of course, with all those solid people, we didn't stand a chance of getting anything done. We thought they were provincial in outlook, and weren't aggressive enough. It looked like they were afraid to challenge the establishment.
I have had a membership in the NAACP at different times in my life. In the 1940s and again in the 1960s, when close friends of mine became president of the San Francisco chapter, I served as their press chief.
I had attended NAACP meetings in Marysville, California when a teenager, and was much impressed with the program. Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, Roy Wilkins, and other nationally known forces of the NAACP used to travel all over the country every year and speak in the large cities, and I went to see them in Oakland.
The members of the NAACP were liberal in the way that middle-class people called themselves liberal. Everybody who wanted to express themselves had to be a member of the NAACP. You didn't have too many other organizations. There wasn't an Urban League in Northern California until the mid-1940s.
The NAACP was founded in New York City in 1909. It didn't try to get legislation passed, but had a tremendous belief in the Constitution, and studied the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments very thoroughly. The 13th ended slavery, the 14th said you couldn't be discriminated because of prior status in your life, and the 15th guaranteed the right to vote.
The NAACP was more liberal in its early years, when W.E.B. Du Bois was head of it. It became more conservative, which is one of the reasons they got rid of Du Bois in 1934. They were scared of him. At that time, the Communists were trying to get deeply involved with the NAACP; they joined, and wanted to develop policy.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) received his Ph.D. in social sciences from Harvard University in 1895 and published his classic book of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903. From 1910 to 1934 he was the NAACP's best-known spokesman, serving as its director of research and publicity, and editor of its monthly magazine, Crisis.
When the NAACP started, it had a rivalry with Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington went to white businessmen primarily, to get money.
Du Bois was from Massachusetts. Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia. There's a difference. Washington didn't have the mind that Du Bois had, but I think he performed something that had to be done at the time. At least he had blacks learning to read and write, and there's always hope if they can do that.
The leaders of the NAACP also scorned Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the movement he brought from Jamaica to the United States in 1916. They had no use for him at all. They went to the courts, whereas Garvey didn't.
The NAACP was formed by black and white intellectuals, and failed to pay any attention to the uneducated blacks. But Garvey did mingle with the black masses. He caused much concern among those whites who lived in fear that blacks might resist their role of second-class citizenship. Many blacks were simply waiting for some Messiah type of leader. Garvey fitted that role with his program of self-help and raising funds to start blacks in businesses, in which the Black Star steamship line was the big attraction.
His idea was to start a shipping line to Africa, to ship goods and people between the U.S. and some African ports. Liberia was intended to be the African terminus, since it had some ties with the U.S. In the 1820s, the U.S. had attempted to establish a black nation in that part of Africa with liberated slaves. Most of the leaders in Liberia had some black roots in the U.S.
But Garvey was jailed on federal charges and deported to Jamaica.
When the NAACP started, it didn't have any money. For years, the membership was $1 a year, and that couldn't carry the organization. Even when the fees were that low, it didn't have a national membership exceeding half a million.
The NAACP never would have come into existence, had it not been for whites financing it. Wealthy Jews from New York and Chicago put up a lot of the money.
Since the beginning, the NAACP has conducted legal wars in its long and costly fight to bring full citizenship to black Americans, which were so stoutly denied and blocked by a well-entrenched white society through legal and pseudo-legal methods, simply because white people held the power. Affirmative action means nothing more than equality of opportunity, a term the NAACP has often used.
The NAACP's Resolutions, adopted by the National Negro Committee on June 1, 1909, stated: "As first and immediate steps toward remedying these national wrongs. . . we demand of Congress and the Executive:
"(1) That the Constitution be strictly enforced and the civil rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment be secured impartially to all.
"(2) That there be equal educational opportunities for all and in all the States, and that public school expenditure be the same for the Negro and white child.
"(3) That in accordance with the Fifteenth Amendment the right of the Negro to the ballot on the same terms as other citizens be recognized in every part of the country."
Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
Produced exclusively for the Columbus Free Press, this column is edited by Max Millard, who has conducted over 100 hours of interviews with Fleming, and blends Fleming's spoken words with his writings. Born in 1907, Fleming is the founding editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's oldest weekly black newspaper. Fleming's 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Send request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109.
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