NAACP celebrates 100 years

Protesters (from left) Alvin Latten, David Richardson, Verna Jean McNeil, Minerva Brown King and Fred Smalls stage Charleston's first sit-in at the S.H. Kress store on King Street in April 1960. Many protesters involved in lunch counter sit-ins were members of the NAACP Youth Chapter.

What was life like for black people in America a century ago?

The Jim Crow era of institutionalized segregation was entrenched by 1909, the year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded by a group of civil rights advocates meeting in New York City.

The summer before, in Springfield, Ill., the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, a white mob demanded the release of two black prisoners accused respectively of rape and murder so that vigilante justice might be served. When the sheriff and a local restaurant owner managed to transfer the men to safety, the mob exacted its revenge, burning black-owned businesses and homes.

The violence was so severe, the state militia and National Guard were deployed. Two black men were killed defending their property. Five white people were killed in the melee. Dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed. Later, Mabel Hallam admitted she had falsely accused George Richardson of rape. The other black prisoner,

Joe James, was convicted and hanged.

The episode drew national attention to the growing racial tension in the North, especially among industrial laborers. An article about the riots written by William English Walling prompted Mary White Ovington, the daughter of abolitionists, to call a meeting and form, as Walling had put it, a "large and powerful body of citizens" that could come to the aid of oppressed blacks.

"Of course, we wanted to do something at once that should move the country," Ovington wrote. "It was January. Why not choose Lincoln's birthday, February 12, to open our campaign? We decided, therefore, that a wise, immediate action would be the issuing on Lincoln's birthday of a call for a national conference on the Negro question."

Thus the NAACP was born.

Brutal times

The need for a group advocating civil rights was immense. Mississippi passed the "Pig Law" of 1876. It subjected anyone stealing property worth $10 or more, including cattle or swine, to five years in prison. The law was in response to a post-Reconstruction rise in petty crime as destitute blacks resorted to extremes to feed their families. The prison population exploded and the convict lease system became a profitable business enterprise. Prisoners were "leased" to contractors who, in turn, sub-leased them to farmers, railroad managers, levee builders and loggers. The law was repealed in 1887 at the demand of poor whites.

In the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court that segregated facilities, so long as they were of equal quality, were constitutional. The "separate but equal" doctrine that established segregation as the law of the land would not be repudiated until the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1870, guaranteed blacks the right to vote, but that didn't stop Southern states from enacting a poll tax, literacy requirements and other impediments that effectively disenfranchised blacks. It wasn't until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices once and for all, though problems persisted.

And there were the lynchings. Between 1880 and 1951, lynchings claimed 3,437 black victims and 1,293 white victims, most in the South, according to Tuskegee Institute records.

South Carolina saw its share of brutality.

"From 1901 through 1910 the seven counties in the outer coastal plain endured nearly 60 percent of the lynchings that occurred in the region from 1881 to 1940, making this the worst decade for lynching (in percentage terms) for any region in the state's history," wrote Terence R. Finnegan in a 2003 essay collected in "Toward the Meeting of the Waters."

Lynching was a tactic of white supremacy whose goal was intimidation and marginalization of blacks. Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and later a U.S. senator, put it bluntly: "We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will," he said on the Senate floor. "We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."

Work to be done

This was the racial climate of the United States when the NAACP was formed in 1909. Since then, the organization has fought the Ku Klux Klan and decried lynching, defended black workers against discrimination, pushed for school integration, launched voter registration drives and pushed voting reforms, supported affirmative action and organized innumerable marches and protests.

In South Carolina, an NAACP lawyer — Matthew J. Perry Jr. — went on to become the state's first black U.S. District Court judge. Eventually, he would see a new courthouse in Columbia named after him.

In South Carolina, a Presbyterian minister — McKinley Washington Jr. — would establish in the 1960s an NAACP branch on Edisto Island and oversee voter registration drives. Eventually, he would serve in the Legislature and, later, as an Employment Security Commissioner.

Today, Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, fields phone calls from aggrieved Lowcountry residents. Complaints have surged since the presidential election and the onset of the economic crisis, she said.

At a recent diversity meeting in Greenville, Scott heard from a health insurance manager who said her company sent an e-mail to employees offering them counseling after Barack Obama won the presidency. She heard from a caller that a local principal said her school is "getting too black." She said she was negotiating with area officials on behalf of a man who said he was wrongly arrested and beaten by police.

Today, the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, chief of field operations for the NAACP and a Charleston native, is celebrating the centennial of his organization, but with a degree of caution. "There is so much work to be done," he said.

The mortgage lending crisis has affected hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom are victims of discriminatory exploitation, he said. The criminal justice system badly needs reforming. Public education is failing too many students. Affordable health care is in short supply.

Mayor Joe Riley issued a proclamation this week naming Feb. 12, 2009, "NAACP Centennial Day in the City of Charleston." On Statehouse grounds in Columbia stands a monument to "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman.

The Confederate battle flag flaps in the wind. Much progress has been made, Rivers said. But vigilance is required.

"This is why you need a civil rights organization like the NAACP to stay on guard," he said. "In times of peace, you need an army to keep the peace. In times of war, you need an army to fight your battles."

NAACP MILESTONES

1909: NAACP founded in New York City by W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villiard and William English Walling.

1913: NAACP protests President Woodrow Wilson's sanctioning of segregation, launching public protest.

1915: NAACP organizes protest of racially inflammatory film "Birth of a Nation."

1918: Under pressure from the NAACP, Wilson speaks out against lynching.

1930: NAACP protests nomination of John Parker to the Supreme Court.

1935: NAACP lawyers Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall will lead the legal battle to admit black students to the University of Maryland.

1939: After the Daughters of the American Revolution barred soprano Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall, the NAACP moved the concert to Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people came.

1946: NAACP wins Morgan v. Virginia case. Supreme Court banned states from instituting laws sanctioning segregation in interstate train and bus travel.

1948: President Harry Truman signs executive order banning discrimination in federal government.

1954: Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education desegregates public schools.

1955: NAACP member Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a bus, signaling the start of grass-roots civil rights movement.

1960: NAACP Youth Council in Greensboro, N.C., organizes a series of lunch-counter sit-ins.

1963: NAACP's first field director, Medgar Evers, is assassinated. Five months later, President Kennedy is assassinated.

1964: Supreme Court ends Alabama's efforts to ban NAACP activities in the state.

1965: Voting Rights Act is passed.

1982: NAACP registers more than 850,000 voters and prevents President Ronald Reagan from giving tax break to segregated Bob Jones University.

1985: NAACP leads anti-apartheid rally in New York.

1987: NAACP launches campaign to defeat nomination of Robert Bork to Supreme Court.

1991: NAACP launches voter registration campaign in Louisiana to defeat Senate contender and former Klan leader David Duke.

1997: NAACP launches Economic Reciprocity Program in response to anti-affirmative action legislation; group also begins Stop the Violence campaign.

2000: March in Columbia to protest flying of Confederate battle flag over Statehouse.

2001: Announcement of five-year Strategic Plan.

2005: President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon resigns.

2008: Benjamin Todd Jealous elected 17th president and CEO.

2009: NAACP celebrates 100 years.