The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the oldest and largest United States grassroots based civil rights organization. It was founded on Feb. 12, 1909, by a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of progressive thinkers and activists of varying political and religious backgrounds including Ida Wells Barnett, W.E.B. Dubois, Henry Moscowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, and William English Walling. They came together and all were committed to forming an organization dedicated to answering the call of justice.
The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.
In 1909, the NAACP commenced what has become its legacy of fighting legal battles to win social justice for all Americans. Charles Hamilton Houston was a black lawyer who helped play a role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws and helped train future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” he played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954). Mr. Houston’s brilliant plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by using the inequality of the “separate but equal” doctrine as it pertained to public education in the United States was the master stroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision.
Charles Ogletree Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is the founder and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, continuing the legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston, who dedicated his life to reversing the consequences of racial discrimination.
The NAACP was prominent in lobbying for the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — laws that ensured legislative protection for all Americans. These actions have improved the quality of life and benefited all Americans well into the future and foster a lasting progressive spirit in this nation.
For a nation that is less than 250 years old, the centennial of the NAACP is a major milestone. The NAACP will commemorate 100 years of advocacy, reforms and inroads toward equal opportunity. We have gone from a nation that embraced segregation just decades ago to a nation that just put an African American family into the White House. The NAACP has worked for 100 years to make this moment possible. From Board of Education to Rosa Parks, courage and hard work set the stage for victories that many of us thought we would never see in our lifetimes.
In many ways President Barack Obama represents the poster person for this organization. He represents the ideals we should stand for in a leader. First is his ability to reach across difference. Second is a peace of knowing who you are and staying true to it. Third is his ability to leverage his past success.
We’ve come a long way, but the journey is not over. There is still not a level playing field in economic and educational opportunities for every community. Continuing disparities exist in housing, health care and the workplace.
As the new president of the Martha’s Vineyard Branch of the NAACP, I am so proud of how the NAACP and our supporters have transformed America over the last 100 years, but we must continue to actively help to shape the values we wish to project for our country and Island community. The NAACP has advanced its mission through reliance upon members and supporters who are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.
The nation and the Island are in the midst of transition and change. We must stay involved and educate our young people about their history so they can get involved and continue the dreams of the future. Our local branch is committed to reactivating a youth council. The objectives will be to inform students of problems of other racial and ethnic minorities; to advance their economic, education, social, political status and harmonious cooperation with other people; to stimulate an appreciation of the African Diaspora and other people of color’s contribution to civilization; provide networking and social opportunities for youth and young adults in the local community; and encourage the participation of youth and young adults in all activities and leadership within the branch.
That is our most enduring responsibility to future generations. The national association is embracing that very mindset and is focusing on economic and social justice issues rather than the civil rights struggles of the past. Benjamin Todd Jealous, a 35-year-old Oxford-educated activist, is now the association’s president.
We have entered an era where we have seen “together we can” and “yes we can,” and now we must recommit to the struggle, because the journey is not over. Martin Luther King taught us to live a life of service, and he led by example. He once said: “If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
As we begin the next 100 years, I invite you to serve with the Vineyard NAACP and remind all Americans what ordinary people can accomplish when we stand together. Membership in the local branch is $30 per year, and the group meets every second Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Hillside Community Room in Vineyard Haven. For more information, visit our Web site at mvnaacp.org.