Chapter One: Know Something to Believe in Something
It is imperative that young people be told that we have come a long way, otherwise they are likely to become cynical. A cynical young person...means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing in nothing.
When I was a teenager and a member of the Youth Division of the NAACP, we picketed a supermarket in Indianapolis that refused to hire blacks.
I joined the picket line again while studying at Indiana University when the local NAACP branch was marching in front of a barbershop near the Bloomington campus that would not serve African-Americans. In both instances the local branches were successful in eliminating racial discrimination. NAACP branches around the country have repeatedly planned and carried out similar attacks on racism. And much of the time their efforts have been effective because the NAACP is relentless. Shelley v. Kraemer is a case in point. It took thirty-one years, but the NAACP won its battle against restrictive covenants -- clauses in real estate deeds forbidding the sale of property to a buyer because of his race. In a unanimous decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that such clauses were unconstitutional.
The title Till Victory Is Won is a phrase from the NAACP's official song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I use it here in homage to the NAACP's persistence. Although their tactics have changed as circumstances have dictated, the organization is committed to staying the course on this long journey to freedom and justice until victory is finally won.
In a speech, Julian Bond, board chairman of the NAACP, reminded his audience, "American slavery was a human horror of staggering dimensions. It lasted twenty times longer than the Nazi holocaust, killed ten times as many people, and destroyed cultures on three continents. The profits it produced endowed great fortunes and enriched generations."
In 1909 when the NAACP was founded, only forty-four years had passed since slavery had officially been outlawed. Today, slavery's legacy -- racism in all areas of American life -- remains with us. Before the NAACP was up and running and for many years afterward, whites and blacks were not allowed to interact openly unless the black person was clearly perceived as being subservient. Everything -- public transportation, education, restaurants, hotels, entertainment, neighborhoods, employment -- was segregated by race. It was apartheid American-style. In some states the segregation was supported by legislation; however, in those states without such laws, such as New York, where the NAACP was first established, the custom was just as rigidly enforced. It took incredible self-possession, commitment, and courage for the black and white founders and charter members to meet and work together in such an environment. Even after twenty-four years of intense effort by the NAACP, W. E. B. DuBois, a founder, wrote in the Crisis, their official journal, "There seems no hope that America in our day will yield in its color or race hatred any substantial ground."
The freedom of movement that African-Americans take for granted today is largely due to the perseverance of the NAACP. Admittedly, this is a work in progress, but the incremental changes have made a monumental difference.
Most Americans, including African-Americans and especially the young, don't have any idea that the NAACP played such a pivotal role in American history. This is not common knowledge because to examine African-American history and the role of the NAACP is to talk about racism. And talking about racism is outside the American comfort zone, particularly in public and in interracial gatherings. Cornel West, the Harvard professor, puts it succinctly: "To talk about race in America is to explore the wilderness inside ourselves and to come to terms with a history that we'd rather conceal." When African-Americans are included in textbooks, film, and the news media, our story -- past and present -- is often distorted negatively. To spread the word of the proud accomplishments of the NAACP would diminish the myth of inept, sexually promiscuous, criminally inclined darkies who deserve their inferior status.
The young people who participate in the NAACP's Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) are not the aimless, cynical ones whom Angelou refers to as "knowing nothing" and "believing in nothing"; they know their history and believe in themselves. Vernon Jarrett, from Chicago's Southside branch, created ACT-SO as a year-round enrichment program run by NAACP branches to stimulate and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students. Till Victory Is Won is dedicated to ACT-SO in celebration of their twenty-fifth anniversary and because they are the future of the NAACP and America.
LIVES ON THE LINE
While researching this book, I was deeply moved by the courage of countless NAACP members who have put their lives and livelihoods on the line -- Walter White investigating lynchings, Septima Clark sticking to her principles and losing her career, Medgar Evers registering voters in Mississippi and losing his life. My admiration for the NAACP was renewed as I read about DuBois's unyielding defiance of anyone who would deny him his "full manhood rights" in an era when black men were lynched regularly with impunity. Then there was eventual Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall tirelessly traveling the country to defend black folk in malevolent courtrooms and not being certain if he would get home alive. To paraphrase Flo Kennedy, the New York attorney, racists weren't willing to die for racism, but they were certainly willing to kill for it.
I was astonished to learn (cherchez la femme) that it was a woman who had brought the passion and indignation of DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett of the all-black Niagara Movement together with the money and influence of the all-white National Negro Committee. That committee included Oswald Garrison Villard, William English Walling, Mary White Ovington, and others. Ovington, the persistent catalyst, an educated woman from one of New York's finer European American families, came to the new organization with an abolitionist heritage, as did Villard, the grandson of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The two groups essentially merged to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Trotter and Wells-Barnett shortly became disillusioned with the pace and control set by the white leaders, but DuBois shrewdly understood that to build the widely effective organization he envisioned, ample financing was essential. And a people just two generations removed from being enslaved, and still laboring under fierce and systematic racial oppression that circumscribed every area of their lives, had the will but not the way to mount a sustained attack on that system.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Under the NAACP's long and relentless insistence that this country live up to its expressed ideals, it became decidedly more difficult to justify racial restrictions. Encouraged by former NAACP field director Ella Baker, college students took the baton and moved the struggle to another level with the direct action of freedom rides and sit-ins. Then the NAACP added affirmative action and economic boycotts to its traditional focus on legal redress. The fight has now moved from finding seats on buses and at lunch counters to seeking seats in government and on corporate boards. For the new century the NAACP's goals encompass not only protecting civil rights, but also promoting economic development and educational excellence, reaching out to young people and gaining more political power. These goals of the twenty-first century are used as categories by which this book is divided, presenting the words of a variety of NAACP officers, members, and award recipients. Each chapter includes a statement from various U.S. presidential administrations to provide a hint of the political environment in which the NAACP labored.
After several years of internal turmoil, the new national leadership team of Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO, and Julian Bond, chairman of the board, is restoring the organization's luster. The NAACP is a volunteer organization funded by membership dues and contributions. Some branches have paid staff, most do not. Fortunately the association has the powerful support of proud and independent black churches around the country. Julius C. Hope, national director of religious affairs, credits the organization's Youth Division and Religious Affairs Department for the strong showings at marches on the state capitals of Florida (in support of affirmative action in higher education) and South Carolina (against flying the Confederate battle flag). The two chief officers -- Benjamin Hooks and Benjamin Chavis -- immediately preceding Mfume were members of the clergy.
To make my own contribution to the NAACP, I decided to gather the wisdom of NAACP leaders, members, and award recipients -- past and present -- and share these words with the world. I have chosen the quotations for this look at the NAACP to present a range of ideas and perceptions and so that those most intimately involved with the organization could speak for themselves. Their words are defiant, controversial, provocative, and inspiring.
This collection is meant only to whet your appetite, so I have included a list of suggested further reading for those who want more. Please read, enjoy, be informed and inspired.
Copyright © 2002 by Janet Cheatham Bell