In the public imagination, the NAACP is synonymous with tenacious civil rights litigation and impassioned speeches.
It was instrumental in numerous legal battles in South Carolina, including the 1952 Briggs v. Elliott case, which challenged segregation in public schools, and the 1961 case of the Friendship 9, which produced the movement mantra "Jail, No Bail."
More recently, the NAACP led the charge in 2000 against flying the Confederate battle flag atop the Statehouse. It remains at the forefront of attacking institutional racism in policing, schools and elsewhere, a battle that the local Charleston branch has been waging for 100 years.
But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Much of the work at local branches consists of consultations with people calling to complain about perceived discrimination, according to Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott.
“We get calls all the time.” Two or three every day, on average, and a lot of those calls come from people outside the branch’s jurisdiction.
Scott takes them all, offering support, advice, referrals and — when the situation demands it — promises of action. She hears complaints about schools, law enforcement, housing, businesses and more. Sometimes she must tell her callers that the onus is on them, that what they perceive as an injustice is perhaps something else.
“Everything is not always discrimination, and I’m the first to tell them that,” Scott said.
Follow-up calls are common. Scott and her colleague, the Rev. Joseph Darby, will reach out to city, school or police officials, business owners, corporate attorneys and others to discuss problems.
“Most of what we do gets resolved out of the spotlight,” said Darby, first vice president of the branch.
The Charleston branch of the NAACP will mark its 100th anniversary on Friday, and local leaders will honor the occasion by opening its East Side office doors to the public for drop-ins from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and by doubling down on its advocacy on behalf of minority populations.
Local residents are encouraged to visit the office at 81-A Columbus St. to meet officers and executive committee members, learn about the history of the NAACP and discuss issues the local branch is addressing. Scott and Darby will be in attendance.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg will pay tribute to the branch's centennial. And the Rt. Rev. Samuel L. Green, presiding bishop of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Steven Green, director of the National NAACP’s Youth and College Division, each will offer remarks. Visitors are invited to see the Mother Emanuel Memorial Room.
Scott took the helm in 2001 and immediately brought Darby on board, she said. She was compelled to confront social, political and economic challenges, advocating on behalf of the disenfranchised. He was pastor of the historic Morris Brown AME Church and had a statewide reputation as an effective civic leader. They have remained close partners for more than 15 years.
“I wouldn’t be president without Joseph Darby’s wind beneath my wings,” Scott said.
Publicly, Darby is the soft-spoken one, Scott the passionate torchbearer. The pair is the public face of the Charleston NAACP, though its membership exceeds 800 and includes dozens of white and Latino people.
Since the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, membership has been growing, Darby said.
Margaret Seidler is lead facilitator of the city of Charleston Illumination Project and well acquainted with Scott and the work of the local NAACP.
The Illumination Project kicked off in September 2015 with a sense of urgency after the church shooting. Its aim was to bring police and members of the community together for honest dialogue and problem solving. A series of public meetings, led by Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and Seidler, resulted in a host of recommendations, many of which have been adopted in some form by law enforcement.
Scott heard about the effort early on and wanted to be part of it, Seidler said.
"It became clear to us that there was a important relationship for us in the community," she said. "I consider Dot a really good friend. I think she’s one of the smartest ladies I know. We’ve really developed a very solid relationship. I’m excited about her voice, and the chief’s voice, coming together in a way that is in service of the community."
It was the Race Riot of 1908 in Springfield, Ill., that prompted the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP had a predecessor, The Niagara Movement, which was a group of mostly African-Americans concerned about segregation and racial violence in the South. But it was the particular brutality and madness of the Springfield riot that jump-started what would quickly become one of the most important and lasting civil rights organizations ever established.
In 1908, a white lynch mob numbering in the thousands, frustrated that it could not get to two black men accused of assaulting whites, unleashed its anger on the black community. Several were killed and 40 homes and 24 businesses were destroyed over two days before the militia put a stop to the violence.
The NAACP, founded by Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Moscowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villiard and William English Walling, was initially called the National Negro Committee but soon adopted its current name. It sought to renew the struggle for civil and political liberty at the height of Jim Crow and the apex of the lynching crisis in the South.
In 1916, James Weldon Johnson began organizing throughout the South in an effort to increase membership. By 1920, nearly half of the NAACP’s 90,000 members lived in the South.
The Charleston branch was chartered in 1917, just eight years after the founding of the organization. Early members of the branch included artist Edwin Harleston and educator Septima Poinsette Clark. During the decades before 1950, the NAACP focused largely on the scourge of extrajudicial lynchings, as well as racism and discrimination within the criminal justice system and other institutions.
By mid-century, the group was devising a strategy to combat segregation itself, relying especially on a legal team led by Thurgood Marshall to argue in court that the separate-but-equal doctrine was unconstitutional. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund has remained a vital weapon in the organization’s civil rights arsenal.
The legal battle to dismantle segregation began with public schools, and the Charleston branch of the NAACP played a supporting role in facilitating Briggs v. Elliott, argued in Charleston and one of five legal cases the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in reaching its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Today, the Charleston NAACP continues its scrutiny of public school policies, especially school choice and spending priorities, advocating on behalf of students left behind in struggling neighborhood schools. The Trump administration's embrace of voucher programs and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' push for more school choice has put the NAACP on the defensive.
“We have to be careful that we don’t lose ground,” Darby said.
“We’re at the point where we know there’s going to be an onslaught (of privatization),” Scott added.
She continues to assert that there has been “a consistent pattern of discrimination” within the Charleston County School District, which recently closed the predominantly black Lincoln Middle-High School in McClellanville and, she said, has done little to invest sufficiently in other mostly black neighborhood schools, such as Burke High School downtown, St. John’s High School on Johns Island, North Charleston High School and others.
These schools are “like a hospital that gets all the sick people and uninsured people,” while the healthy and more affluent kids go to Wando High School or Academic Magnet or School of the Arts, she said.
Other key issues relate to racial profiling by law enforcement, police violence, housing discrimination and economic justice concerns, Darby and Scott said.
The 2017 Charleston NAACP Gala is scheduled for the evening of Sept. 23 at the Gaillard Center. The annual gala is the organization's primary fundraising event. About 1,000 people attend each year, paying $100 a ticket. Keynote speakers have included Hillary Clinton, Julian Bond and the Rev. William Barber. This year’s speaker has not yet been announced.