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Fourth International, May-June 1950


Jean Blake

The NAACP at the Crossroads


Source: Fourth International, May-June 1950, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp.78-80.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by: Andrew Pollack for ETOL.


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is slipping – in membership, in effectiveness, in prestige. The need for a strong, independent organization to struggle for equality for Negroes in the United States is greater than ever, but the organization faced with that responsibility by its program, base and history is paralyzed and torn by contradictions and confusion.

Membership has dropped to half the 500,000 of three years ago and the effectiveness of what is left is being dissipated in piddling, uninspiring write-your-congressman politics that brings nothing but defeats. The leadership of the Association, the executive staff in the national office, is completely disoriented in the face of its tasks, torn between responsibility to the Negro membership and potential membership, and enslavement to the traditions and defects of the past continued in the self-perpetuating board of directors which controls the organization.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, capitalist Bourbon reaction had wiped out the gains of the Reconstruction by force and violence and was consolidating its victory by legally disfranchising and segregating the Negro, depriving him of his rights as a citizen.

Birth of a Movement

Young Negro intellectuals in the North, led by W.E.B. DuBois, saw the need for organized and aggressive defense of Negro civil rights. They met at Niagara, on Canadian soil, in 1905 to plan a national organization to combat all forms of segregation and discrimination. This new group represented a more advanced Negro leadership, opposed to the gradualism, conservatism and conciliatory policies of the dominant Booker T. Washington group at Tuskegee.

An atrocity – a race riot in Springfield, Illinois in 1908 in which many Negroes were killed or wounded – shocked a group of white liberals with an Abolitionist heritage into organizing another movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1909.

The following year the two tendencies merged when DuBois accepted the post of director of publicity for the NAACP and editor of its monthly publication, The Crisis. The first task was to reach the potential Negro base with the program. DuBois’ militant editorial policy immediately won broader support for the magazine than the Association itself enjoyed. In the first year circulation reached 12,000 and in the next it was mailed into every state in the Union but one.

A vigorous anti-lynching campaign was begun, the first branch was set up in Chicago in 1911, and Crisis circulation reached 16,000 a month by 1912.

World War I and its aftermath provided the conditions for a new stage in the development of the organization. Mass migration of Negroes to the North resulted in compact urbanized communities. Of the 200,000 Negro soldiers taken overseas, 150,000 were forced to serve in labor battalions.

The NAACP investigated and protested Army discrimination and mistreatment of Negro soldiers, exposed the occupation of Haiti by US Marines in 1916, defended Arkansas Negro cotton pickers victimized for organizing a union in 1919 and Negro victims of other riots.

The turn to the masses resulted in a tumultuous growth in membership. In 1916 there were 54 branches, nine locals and four college chapters, totaling 9,500 members. In 1917 there were 11,524 members, and by 1919, 88,000 in 300 branches.

The Association was winning its first legal victories in the US Supreme Court – against the disfranchising of Negroes in the Southern states by means of “grandfather clauses” providing impossible conditions for voting, and against segregation ordinances. By 1922 the first anti-lynching bill was passed in the House of Representatives.

Inside the NAACP developments were also taking place. Negro intellectuals had replaced white staff members so that when James Weldon Johnson became executive secretary in 1920 all of the officers responsible for the day-today work of the organization were colored. The membership was more than 90 per cent colored and provided the bulk of the organization’s financial support. But control remained centralized in the self-perpetuating board of directors consisting of Negro professional people – ministers, lawyers, social workers – and their white patrons and friends – philanthropists, ministers, lawyers and social workers.

In the period of the twenties relative prosperity seeped down to the Negro professional and business elements, who were able to base themselves on the sizeable communities of the ghettos. The more privileged began to seek to improve their condition by moving out of the slums into residential neighborhoods where they were met by hostility from whites. In 1925 in Detroit the NAACP successfully defended Dr. Ossian Sweet and his relatives and friends against a murder charge based on the shooting of a man in a mob threatening the Sweets in their new home.

Growth as an Agency of Protest

But in the NAACP of the Talented Tenth the millions of underprivileged were finding no adequate leadership for their protests against oppression, discrimination and second class citizenship. So the Negro masses flocked to the Universal Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey, who exalted the lowly, preached complete independence as opposed to integration into white American society, organized Negro co-operative enterprises and agitated for migration to Africa.

While the Garvey movement did not last – any more than other mass organization to which Negroes turned from time to time to fill the needs the NAACP ignored – it left its mark on the consciousness of the Negro masses in terms of greater self-confidence and more articulate expression of the independent aspects of their struggle.

With the Great Depression, the Roosevelt regime and the Second World War, Negro mass needs could no longer be denied or thrust aside. The NAACP added to its function of legal defender of Negro civil rights that of their negotiator with the federal government and with the unions.

Again mass migrations to urban centers strengthened Negro organization. Again in the 40’s the war-time labor shortage, this time without an immigrant source of supply, strengthened the bargaining position of Negro labor. The NAACP did not take the lead, but its officers and members participated in the March-On-Washington movement led by A. Philip Randolph, which secured, by the mere threat of mass action, the Executive Order establishing the war-time Fair Employment Practices Committee.

For the thousands of Negro soldiers drafted into the segregated armed forces and shipped all over the world to fight and die for a Jim Crow army, the NAACP was the only agency of protest.

And again the tumultuous growth of which the Association is capable was demonstrated: 85,000 members in 1940; 100,000 in 1942; 250,000 in 1943; 300,000 in 1944; 400,000 in 1945; 530,000 in 1946.

Dizzy with success and unmindful of what was happening to their base, the national officers set the goal for the annual membership drive in 1947 – “Make it a Million!”

But the war was over. Cutbacks threw Negroes out of work first. Soldiers returned and found few new jobs in industry waiting for them, ghettoes even more overcrowded, and the same police brutality. They needed defense, organization, but their National Association branches limped along like relics of the turn of the century – a paper membership represented by ministers, lawyers, dentists and morticians better equipped to direct funerals than the struggle of the Negro masses for a better life.

They did not “Make it a Million.” By the end of 1949 membership had dropped to 250,000.

“What is wrong?” many NAACP members are asking. So far as it goes, the program of the NAACP is all right.

Today national and regional conferences adopt programs broad and good enough for a mass organization; national and local action on employment, public housing, police brutality, voting and registration, civil liberties, united action with labor, and international solidarity with colonial peoples. At the NAACP conference in Los Angeles in 1949 resolutions sharper than those of the labor conventions condemned the government’s “loyalty” purges.

But it isn’t enough to have a good program in favor of civil rights today. Such programs are cheap; even the Democratic and Republican platforms have them.

What is needed now is the kind of action and direction that can make a living reality out of the promises and programs. That is where the present NAACP falls short. It suffers from four main defects:

  1. the non-democratic structure of its organization;
  2. its conservative, upper-crust leadership;
  3. their dependence on the capitalist politicians, and especially the Trumanites;
  4. their scorn and fear of the membership and inability to inspire and mobilize the Negro masses for action.

What have the present policies of the leadership accomplished? The national leadership concentrates the major part of its efforts on lobbying in Washington, depending on “friends” in the two old parties, and on the President. Both parties have promised civil rights legislation, but killed it. The President promised also, but he has not even used his executive authority to improve civil rights in areas where he has the power.

Lobbying and Apologetics

The National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization of 4,000 delegates from 60 organizations led by the NAACP in Washington in January was run as a polite lobby, not a mass protest. So, after they went home, the House rejected the Powell FEPC bill for the McConnell substitute, a worse than useless “voluntary” measure.

NAACP response? – Apologetics for its friends in the House and the announcement that the “fight for a strong FEPC now shifts to the Senate.” The Senate has already strengthened the filibuster device used to defeat civil rights legislation.

Unless these methods are changed, the fight for civil rights will undergo further defeat and the NAACP itself will go from bad to worse. The NAACP must make a sharp turn toward independence both in the political field and in other branches of its work. In the postwar years many Negro communities, impatient with support of the usual “friends” among Democratic and Republican politicians, ran their own candidates for office. Yet the NAACP maintains a fictitious and harmful non-partisanship and non-participation in these elections.

The Negro people require a vital mass organization of struggle, not a glorified lobby. If the NAACP is to hold its position as the leading organization in the Negro struggle for equality in the United States, it will have to base itself on the Negro masses because it is the Negro masses – in large urban communities, in unions, and at the polls – who are the major force to be reckoned with today, not just the Talented Tenth and their liberal white friends.

Complete Overhauling Needed

Everyone, it appears, but the chicken-hearted NAACP leadership, recognizes this fact, and acts accordingly. The government knows it, and attempts to placate the Negro masses by appointing a few to official posts. Truman knew it, and promised civil rights legislation in the 1948 campaign even at the cost of Dixiecrat votes. The labor leaders know it, and make room for a few Negroes in carefully selected posts in the union bureaucracy. The Stalinists know it, and are trying to wipe out the memory of their war-time abandonment of the struggle against Jim Crow. Even movies, radio and television reflect a growing awareness of the Negro audience.

A complete overhauling of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organizational structure and the leadership, from top to bottom, is necessary to equip it for the tasks of today. Elements in the leadership nationally and in the branches know this. Now is the time for them to demonstrate courage, responsibility and historic vision by breaking with the past, saying what must be done – and, above all, organizing themselves to do the job.

Now is also the time for the membership in the branches to assert their right to control their organization, change the autocratic board of directors and democratize the archaic organizational structure, select their own staff and leadership, utilize capable Negro unionists experienced in mass organizations of working people. The creative, militant, struggling potential of the branches must be released.

Such a reconstructed and regenerated NAACP could consolidate an independent nation-wide force for a sharp, hard-hitting offensive for civil rights, equality and social progress that could set back the forces of reaction, stimulate both the Negro masses and the labor movement, and raise the consciousness of the entire American working class.

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