It has been almost 100 years since 52 people, most of them prominent American leaders in their own right, issued a call for action on Feb.. 12, 1909 that launched what has since become the oldest, best and most successful civil rights organization in the world.
This call for action developed in response to an article by William English Walling, a Kentucky-born southerner who wrote: "Either the spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and Love-joy, must be revived and we must come to treat the Negro on A plane of absolute political and social equality, or Vardaman and Tillman will soon have transferred the race war to the North. Yet who realizes the seriousness of this situation and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid? "
Those 52 men and women who "came to their aid," included journalists, college presidents and other prominent educators, members of the clergy, at least one judge, other lawyers and social reformers. You may recognize two or three of the names in this group if you know almost anything about United States history. Consider, for example, Susan P and Mrs. Rodman Wharton, members of one of Philadelphia's most prominent families whoave millions of dollars to the University of Pennslyvania. Yes, that's the same family for whatever the Wharton School of Finance is named. Another name you may recognize is William Lloyd Garrison, son of the famous abolitionist. Other names, also signers of this call to action, while not nearly as well known historically, were also mostly leaders of various reform movements in this country – from labor unions to women suffrage.
So, unlike other organizations, including civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was launched from the work of a reliably small group of American leaders. Most of them were white. A few were Jews, and at least three – Ida Wells Barnett, WEB DuBois and Rev. Francis J. Grimke – were African Americans. Professionally, this group of leaders included great educators such as John Dewey; Published journalists, such as Samuel Bowles and Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher and editor of the New York Post; Well known religiousists, such as Grimke, John Haynes Holmes and Bishop Alexander Walters; And quite a number of social reformers, such as Jane Addams, founder of the US Settlement House movement in this country; Harriot Stanton Blatch, a feminist activist and suffrage strategist and writer, Kate H. Claghorn, one of the founders of the American Sociological Association, and a judge – Wendell Phillips Stafford, a former member of the Vermont State Supreme Court.
The leader of these leaders was Mary White Ovington, a suffragette, socialist, unitarian and journalist. She's listed in many books on US history as a co-founder of the NAACP. She became involved in the campaign for civil rights in 1890 after hearing Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn Church. During her work as a fellow of the Greenwich House Committee on Social Investigations, she met WEB DuBois and was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara Movement.
Ovington, Walling and Dr. Henry Moskowitz, a member of the New York mayor's administration, met in January 1909, and decided to issue the call for action on February 12th that year, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birthday, by having a national conference on the Negro question. These three solicited and received help from Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the New York Evening Post Company, who actually drafted the call, and publicized it broadly in his newspaper and others.
In soul-stirring language, reminiscent of many fiery abolitionist statements, one paragraph of this "call to action" said: "… the spread of lawless attacks upon the Negro, North, South and West, even in the Springfield made famous by Lincoln, often accompanied by revolting brutalities, sparing neither sex nor age nor youth, could but shock the author of the sentiment that 'government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth.' "Silence under these conditions means tacit approval. The indifference of the North is already liable for more than one assault upon democracy, and every such attack reacts as unfavorably upon whites as upon blacks. Discretion once permitted can not be bridled; Recent history in the South shows that in forging chains for the Negroes the white voters are forging chains for themselves. . . Hence we call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty. "
Then comes, according to an account written by Ovington, the signatures of the 52 leaders who helped give birth to the NAACP.
Despite the power of the call, and the power of the consequences, sadness permeates this story because research reveals that many of these men and women have become forgotten heroes in US history.
This notwithstanding, it appears that the trend that bodes the most danger for this organization does not come from without but within. Maybe as we continue this countdown to the organization's 100th anniversary, we need another call to action. May we need to ask, as English Walling did: "Who realizes the seriousness of this situation, and what large and powerful body of NAACP members stands ready to turn this organization to the true north of its purpose, the founding foundation of its resolve and The entrenched energy of its resolution?
Who will issue this new call? More importantly, will anyone answer? In 1909, 52 American leaders answered. In 2009, if and when the new call goes forth, who will answer, or will deafening silence peal the impending doom of an organization birthed by leaders, designed to lead and with a sterling record of responding to the call?
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