A century ago, James Weldon Johnson became the first Black person to head the NAACP

A century ago, James Weldon Johnson became the first Black person to head the NAACP

Anthony Siracusa, University of Mississippi

In this moment of national racial reckoning, many Americans are taking time to learn about chapters in U.S. history left out of their school texbooks. The early years of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group that initially coalesced around a commitment to end the brutal practice of lynching in the United States, is worth remembering now.

An interracial group of women and men founded the group that would soon become known as the NAACP in 1909. A coalition of white journalists, lawyers and progressive reformers led the effort. It would take another 11 years until, in 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the first Black person to formally serve as its top official.

As I explain in my forthcoming book “Nonviolence Before King: The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggle,” interracial organizing was extremely rare in the early 20th century. But where it did take place — like in many of the summer of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests — it was because some white Americans united with Black Americans over their shared concern about wanton violence directed against Black people.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary White Ovington were among the NAACP’s founders.
David/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Lynching in America
Between 1877 and 1945, more than 4,400 Black Americans were lynched. Many of these lynching’s were public events that attracted thousands of spectators in a carnival-like atmosphere.

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