In 1901, African American civil rights activist Mary Talbert was walking through The Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York. Among the various exhibits, which showcased great American innovation, she stumbled upon a disparaging scene labeled “Old Plantation” to describe life in Africa as well as a parody of slave life in the Deep South.

Appalled, she notified W.E.B. Du Bois, prompting a group of activists to come together to discuss these and other issues regarding racial prejudice and discrimination.

The Niagara Movement played a pivotal role in early race-based discussions

By 1905, with the legal implementation of Black disenfranchisement in the South, as well as Jim Crow laws and segregation, 32 African American activists, led by Du Bois, met on the Canadian side of Niagara, Ontario — a place where segregation was not an issue — and thus, formed what became known as the Niagara Movement.

A year later, three white activists joined the coalition: Socialist and journalist William English Walling, abolitionist and suffragist Mary White Ovington and Jewish social worker Henry Moskowitz.

Although the Niagara Movement convened for annual meetings in the proceeding years, limited resources and conflicting agendas began to weaken the group. In 1908, after massive race riots broke out in Springfield, Illinois — the home of Abraham Lincoln — Ovington decided to revisit what the Niagara Movement had started but in a larger, more inclusive way.

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Inspired by Walling’s article “Race War in the North,” which called on America to end the violence against its Black citizens, Ovington worked with him and Moskowitz to launch a national campaign to fight for African Americans’ civil rights on Lincoln’s centennial birthday, February 12, 1909.

W.E.B. DuBois, in the office of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis

W.E.B. DuBois in the office (top right) of the NAACP’s magazine, “The Crisis”; Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Du Bois led the NAACP’s initial efforts

Knowing Du Bois would be a pivotal figure in their cause, Ovington recruited him as well as other intellectual reformers to create what was initially called the National Negro Committee and what would later become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1909 Du Bois led organization efforts for the committee’s first official event, helping to bring a multitude of progressive groups together — from social workers, abolitionist descendants, members of the Niagara Movement, the Jewish community, Black churches, and anti-lynching crusaders.

Among the 60 reformers who attended the meeting were Black activists Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Archibald Grimke. White progressive activist Oswald Garrison Villard, president of The Evening Post, also contributed to the formation of the NAACP by offering meeting space at The Post and drafting a manifesto entitled “The Call,” which urged progressives to fight for democracy and civil liberties.

In 1911 the NAACP issued its official mission statement:

“To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.”

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Although Du Bois was the only African American currently serving on the executive board (he was elected as Director of Publicity and Research in 1910), his presence made a huge impact on the organization.

Launching the NAACP’s official journal, The Crisis, Du Bois edited the publication to include news reports on race issues as well as creative writing by African Americans. The publication would go on to have an indelible influence on the Harlem Renaissance by promoting works by Langston Hughes and other famous Black writers.

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In its early days, the NAACP strongly influenced the Supreme Court

Among its early achievements, the NAACP helped open the door for African Americans to serve in World War I. In 1915 it also organized national marches to protest director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which romanticized the Ku Klux Klan, and resulted in many cities boycotting the film.

But what the NAACP was most known for in its early days was breaking ground on Black disenfranchisement and segregation through litigation and legislation.

It strongly influenced the Supreme Court decisions of 1) Guinn v. United States (1915), which deemed Oklahoma’s grandfather clause unconstitutional because it made voting requirements for Black citizens much more difficult than for white citizens and 2) Buchanan v. Warley (1917), which forbid local governments to segregate Black people into residential districts.

Under the legal counsel of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP would have another major legislative victory decades later in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which deemed racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.

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