This important national organization for civil rights began in 1909 in protest of violent forms of racism, including lynching; of racial segregation; and of disfranchisement of African American voters. Events and people from Tennessee played a major role in its formation and subsequent history.
The NAACP sought to improve the legal status of African Americans and their social, political, and economic opportunities, especially in combating the pernicious effects of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” provisions for black and white Americans were constitutional. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a founding member of the NAACP, became well acquainted with the meaning of separate but equal in her years in Tennessee as a teacher and journalist. In 1884 she protested her removal from a train in Shelby County, where she taught. She insisted that her first-class ticket entitled her to ride in a car reserved for white women and their companions and refused to move to another, obviously less desirable, car where all passengers could use tobacco and liquor regardless of race. In overturning lower court verdicts that had supported Wells, the Tennessee Supreme Court suggested that she should have just found “a comfortable seat for a short ride.” This was not her nature, and with her personal example of courage and duty she infused the NAACP with a determination to protest both subtle and profound forms of racial subordination and was in the vanguard of the institution's early initiative to pass antilynching laws. Nothing expressed the racial subordination of African Americans as completely as the incredible number of lynchings of African Americans which were committed with complete impunity and which sparked protests by Wells and others in Shelby County during the 1890s.
A second NAACP founder with a significant Tennessee association was W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended Fisk University and taught briefly at a African American public school in Wilson County. Du Bois's initial 1905 effort at a national organization of protest and advocacy, the Niagra Movement, sputtered to an end after a few years. Shortly thereafter, Du Bois and Wells, who now lived in Chicago, joined forces in a national effort for increased racial equality. Wells helped in a petition drive to use the one-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth to protest and improve the conditions of African Americans. The National Negro Conference which emerged from that effort eventually grew into a committee of fifty that founded the NAACP. The basic goals of the NAACP were to end violence towards African Americans and to secure equal protection of the laws. Its strategy focused on the judicial system since NAACP leaders believed that the courts provided the best hope to challenge segregation and racial inequality.
The first NAACP chapter in Tennessee was established in Memphis in 1917. From there similar efforts spread to other cities; by the following year chapters existed in Nashville and Chattanooga, while chapters were established in Knoxville in 1919 and Jackson in 1920. The organization then slowly moved into rural counties. A local chapter of the NAACP in Brownsville, for example, began an effort to register African Americans to vote in 1940. As in many other cases in Tennessee and the South, the members of the Brownsville chapter came from the local business and professional class of African Americans, primarily the “talented tenth,” as Du Bois called them. The efforts to increase political participation in Haywood County met violent reaction. In 1940 Elbert Williams, one of their members, was lynched, the last verified lynching in the state's history. Seven other leaders of the branch were literally expelled from the county by white mobs that included law enforcement officers. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, gained some of his initial experience in civil rights in these events. He investigated the Brownsville case for the NAACP. No charges were brought in the case and the local branch was suppressed. In a historic irony, Mildred Bond, the daughter of one of the expelled local NAACP leaders, would join the national staff of the NAACP and return to Haywood County for the formal organization of a new NAACP chapter in 1961.
Tennessee also provided Marshall, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, his closest brush with violence. In 1946 he traveled to Columbia to assist the defense of African Americans accused of participating in a race riot that summer. One hundred African Americans had been arrested and two killed while in police custody, but an all-white federal grand jury found that no civil rights had been violated. Eventually, charges against the defendants were dismissed, some convictions were vacated, and only one defendant served jail time. At the conclusion of the trial, Marshall was driving from Columbia to Nashville with Z. Alexander Looby, a prominent African American attorney from Nashville, when he was stopped by local police, who separated the two attorneys. Looby refused to drive away. Instead, he followed the police car that had taken Marshall, probably averting violence against Marshall. After hiding in Columbia for the night, Marshall and Looby escaped to Nashville the next day.
The courageous leadership of NAACP officials and members provided a foundation for the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee. The first voter registration drives in Haywood and Fayette Counties drew upon NAACP support. The sit-in demonstrations in Nashville found support from Looby and other NAACP leaders in Nashville. At the same time, Ella Baker, field secretary of the NAACP, urged the young protestors of the emerging Civil Rights movement to develop their own organizations. Students from Nashville and other areas took her advice and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the same time, the NAACP led or joined coalitions that demonstrated for and achieved legislation that enfranchised African Americans, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
From 1977 to 1993 Benjamin J. Hooks of Memphis was the NAACP's executive director. During these years, the Legal Defense Fund invoked the provisions of the Voting Right Act of 1965 to dismantle remaining informal barriers to African American political participation such as the at-large elections for city councils that diluted the votes of racial minorities. Between 1969 and 1990 these efforts helped to increase the number of African American elected officials from 1,200 to 7,000. Under Hooks's period of leadership, however, it became apparent that increased civil rights and legal protections had not been matched with sufficient improvement in the socioeconomic position of African Americans. The changed political climate of the 1980s and 1990s also included less support for civil rights programs. Despite this, the NAACP supported major civil rights legislation successfully in the 1980s.
After Hooks's retirement in 1993, internal conflict over new directions rocked the organization for almost two years. In 1995 Myrlie Evers-Williams became chair of the NAACP board of directors, and a year later Kweisi Mfume was elected president.
The NAACP's determination to create a better future continues to express the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ben Hooks, and the thousands of prominent and unnoticed Tennesseans who have supported it.
Lester C. Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (1977)