Flag flown at NAACP headquarters, ca. 1920. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

As segregation tightened and racial oppression escalated across the United States, some leaders of the African American community, often called the talented tenth, began to reject Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory approach. W. E. B. Du Bois and other black leaders channeled their activism by founding the Niagara Movement in 1905. Later, they joined white reformers in 1909 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Early in its fight for equality, the NAACP used the federal courts to challenge disenfranchisement and residential segregation. Job opportunities were the primary focus of the National Urban League, which was established in 1910.

During the Great Migration (1910–1920), African Americans by the thousands poured into industrial cities to find work and later to fill labor shortages created by World War I. Though they continued to face exclusion and discrimination in employment, as well as some segregation in schools and public accommodations, Northern black men faced fewer barriers to voting. As their numbers increased, their vote emerged as a crucial factor in elections. The war and migration bolstered a heightened self-confidence in African Americans that manifested in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. Evoking the “New Negro,” the NAACP lobbied aggressively for a federal anti-lynching law.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided more federal support to African Americans than at any time since Reconstruction. Even so, New Deal legislation and policies continued to allow considerable discrimination. During the mid-thirties the NAACP launched a legal campaign against de jure (according to law) segregation, focusing on inequalities in public education. By 1936, the majority of black voters had abandoned their historic allegiance to the Republican Party and joined with labor unions, farmers, progressives, and ethnic minorities in assuring President Roosevelt’s landslide re-election. The election played a significant role in shifting the balance of power in the Democratic Party from its Southern bloc of white conservatives towards this new coalition.

See timeline for this period

NAACP Founder William English Walling

William English Walling (1877–1936) was a prominent socialist and journalist. He was a founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Social Democratic League, and the NAACP. In 1908 he traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to investigate a recent race riot in which whites had targeted blacks. In his article, The Race War in the North, Walling declared: “the spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and Lovejoy, must be revived and we must come to treat the negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality.” He appealed for a “large and powerful body of citizens to come to [blacks] aid.” The article aroused the conscience of Mary White Ovington, who wrote a letter to Walling offering her support.

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NAACP Founder Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington (1865–1951), a social worker and freelance writer, was a principal NAACP founder and officer for almost forty years. Born in Brooklyn, New York, into a wealthy abolitionist family, she became a socialist while a student at Radcliffe College. Ovington befriended W.E.B. Du Bois in 1904, when she was researching her first book, Half a Man (1911), about black Manhattan. In 1906 she covered the Niagara Movement and the Atlanta anti-black riot for the New York Evening Post. Ovington played a crucial role in the NAACP’s evolution. She recruited women into the ranks, mediated disputes, and guided the transition to black leadership. She served as secretary (1911–1912), acting secretary, treasurer, and board chairman.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910. Reproduction. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (318.00.00)

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The Founding of the NAACP

William English Walling’s (1877–1936) exposé about a bloody race riot in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s hometown and burial site, resulted in the assembly of an interracial group to discuss proposals for an organization that would advocate the civil and political rights of African Americans in January 1909. The group issued a “call” resulting in the first National Negro Conference held in New York on May 31 and June 1, 1909. At the second annual meeting on May 12, 1910, the Committee adopted the formal name of the organization—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP’s goals were the abolition of segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial violence, particularly lynching.

Platform adopted by the National Negro Committee. Printed document, 1909. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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The Pink Franklin Case

The NAACP undertook its first major legal case in 1910 by defending Pink Franklin, a black South Carolina sharecropper accused of murder. When Franklin did not show up for work after receiving an advance on his wages, a warrant was sworn for his arrest. Armed policemen arrived at Franklin’s cabin before dawn to serve the warrant and shots were fired, killing one officer. Franklin, who claimed self-defense, was convicted and sentenced to death. The NAACP interceded and Franklin’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was set free in 1919. In this letter, Albert Pillsbury, an attorney and NAACP founder, recommends an appeal to South Carolina Governor Martin F. Ansel.

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Arthur Spingarn NAACP Lawyer

Favorable publicity generated by the Pink Franklin case attracted new supporters to the NAACP. Among them were Joel E. Spingarn (1875−1939), chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and his brother, Arthur (1878–1971), a lawyer, shown here. In January 1911, the NAACP organized its first branch in Harlem with Joel’s help. The branch established a vigilance committee, which became the National Legal Committee, to deal “with injustice in the courts as it affects the Negro.” Arthur worked pro bono because the NAACP could not afford to hire attorneys on a regular basis and often convinced other prominent lawyers to volunteer their services. He served as the chairman of the committee until 1939. Members of the committee also included future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and prominent black lawyer Charles Houston.

Arthur Spingarn. Photograph, between 1935 and 1945. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

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The Founding of the Urban League

By the 1890’s, the distribution of the African American population shifted dramatically, as thousands migrated from the rural South to the urban North in search of better economic, social, and political opportunities. The Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes was founded in 1910 by a coalition of progressive black and white professionals. The following year the committee merged with two other interracial social welfare agencies in New York to form the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes, later known as the National Urban League. The league’s principal goal was to promote the improvement of “industrial, economic, social, and spiritual conditions among Negroes” in cities.

Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes. Minutes of the first meeting, September 29, 1910. National Urban League Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00) Courtesy of the National Urban League

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Guinn v. United States, 1915

Many Southern and border states devised legal barriers to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and prohibit black voting. These included poll taxes, literacy tests, “grandfather clauses,” and the “white primary.” In 1910 Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that held that only residents whose grandfathers had voted in 1865 could vote, thus disqualifying the descendants of slaves. The NAACP persuaded the U.S. attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the “grandfather clause” in 1913. Oklahoma appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Moorfield Storey argued the case on behalf of the NAACP. In June 1915 the Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. United States that the “grandfather clause” was in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Guinn v. United States. Board minutes, June 3, 1913. Typescript. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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Jim Crow Restrictions

Jim Crow laws mandating the separation of the races in practically every aspect of public life were systematically instituted in the South beginning in the 1890s. Water fountains, restaurants, theaters, restrooms, stores, buses, trains, workplaces, and other public facilities were typically designated with “White Only” and “Colored” signs. The Lonestar Restaurant Association based in Dallas distributed this sign to its members to hang in the windows of their restaurants, where American Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans were subjected to Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination. These types of laws existed until the 1960s.

“NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS.” Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas. Printed “Jim Crow” sign, n.d. Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

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Author Toni Morrison Interviewed by Camille O. Cosby in 2004

Author Toni Morrison (b. 1931) describes the ordeals of her parents in the segregated South and why they fled to Ohio in an interview conducted by Camille O. Cosby for the National Visionary Leadership Project in 2004.

National Visionary Leadership Collection (AFC 2004/007), American Folklife Center

An Open Letter of Protest to President Wilson

In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation into federal government agencies. Black employees were separated from other workers in offices, restrooms, and cafeterias. Some were downgraded; others discharged on fictitious grounds. Oswald Garrison Villard met privately with President Wilson to recommend the appointment of a National Race Commission to counter the new discriminatory policies. When President Wilson refused, the NAACP released this open letter of protest to the press. Segregation in the federal government persisted through the next three administrations.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A Letter to President Woodrow Wilson on Federal Race Discrimination, August 15, 1913. Printed document. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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The Silent Protest Parade

On July 1, 1917, two white policemen were killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, in a ruckus caused by marauders attacking homes of blacks in the area. The incident sparked a race riot on July 2, which ended with forty-eight killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of homes burned. The police and state militia did little to prevent the carnage, which mostly targeted African Americans. On July 28, the NAACP protested with a Silent March of 10,000 black men, women, and children down New York’s Fifth Avenue. The women and children dressed in white and the men in black suits, marched behind a row of drummers carrying banners calling for justice and equal rights. The only sound was the beat of muffled drums.

Silent protest parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots. Photograph, 1917. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (254.01.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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Charles H. Buchanan v. William Warley, 1917

The NAACP sought out cases that infringed on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in order to set legal precedents and to secure the constitutional rights of African Americans. An early victory was Buchanan v. Warley, a case involving residential segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville, along with other cities, had passed ordinances to prevent people of color from residing in white neighborhoods. NAACP President Moorfield Storey, a constitutional attorney, argued the case before the Supreme Court in April 1917. The court ruled that the ordinance violated the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result of the ruling, some whites adopted private restrictive covenants, in which property owners agreed to sell or rent to whites only.

In the Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1916 [no.231] Charles H. Buchanan v. William Warley. Pamphlet. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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Failure to Pass Bill on Lynchings

In April 1918, U.S. Representative Leonidas Dyer (R-MO) introduced an antilynching bill in the House, based on a bill drafted by NAACP founder Albert E. Pillsbury in 1901. The bill called for the prosecution of lynchers in federal courts. State officials who failed to protect the rights of lynching victims or prosecute lynchers could face five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The victim’s heirs could recover up to $10,000 from the county where the crime occurred. NAACP Secretary James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) personally lobbied for the bill. After a prolonged fight, the House passed the bill on January 26, 1922, by a vote of 230 to 119, but a filibuster by Southern Democrats defeated it in the Senate.

Federal Law Against Lynchings, Speech of Hon. L. C. Dyer of Missouri in the House of Representatives, May 7, 1918. Pamphlet. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (255.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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A. Philip Randolph on Marcus Garvey

Civil rights leader and labor activist A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) recalls the appeal after World War I of the “Back to Africa” movement of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (1887–1940). The excerpt was included in NBC’s The American Revolution of ‘63, broadcast September 2, 1963.

Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Courtesy of NBC News

Report from the Detroit Branch of the NAACP

The Great Migration brought thousands of black Southerners to the North faster than the region could assimilate them. They were confronted with discrimination, socially sanctioned segregation, and racial violence born of white resistance. The majority who went to Michigan settled in Detroit to work in the auto industry, which was willing to hire black workers for lower wages. The NAACP founded a branch there in 1912. This monthly report notes the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to set up a chapter in Detroit, segregation in Eastern High School, and the refusal of a drug store soda fountain counter to serve black customers.

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Blues Musician "Big" Bill Broonzy Interviewed by Alan Lomax in 1947

Blues musician "Big" Bill Broonzy (1893–1958) recalls the brutal racism that African American veterans of World War I faced when they returned home from fighting for their country in an interview conducted by Alan Lomax (1915–2002) in 1947.

Alan Lomax collection (AFC 2004/004), American Folklife Center

Walter Francis White NAACP Leader

Walter White (1893–1955) was reared and educated among Atlanta’s black middle class. After graduating from college in 1916, he became an insurance salesman and secretary of the local NAACP branch. In 1918 the NAACP hired White as assistant secretary at the national office on the recommendation of his mentor James Weldon Johnson. White won international acclaim for his crusade against mob violence, personally investigating forty-one lynchings and eight riots.

He identified himself as an African American but had a complexion so light that he could pass for white. He infiltrated violent mobs in the South and became an eyewitness to numerous lynchings. In 1931 he succeeded Johnson as NAACP secretary, and led the organization during its most dynamic decades of growth. Under his leadership, the NAACP initiated a sustained legal campaign targeting segregation and disfranchisement in the South, developed an alliance with organized labor, and established a strong lobbying presence in the nation’s capital, which would prove critical for the enactment of civil rights legislation.

Walter Francis White. Photograph, between 1920 and 1940. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Walter White's Personal Tragic Story of the Segregated South

NAACP leader Walter White (1893–1955), interviewed by NBC radio host Mary Margaret McBride, tells of the death of his father in an Atlanta Jim Crow hospital and his inspiring last words. The program was broadcast live on December 26, 1947.

Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Courtesy of NBC News and the Estates of Mary Margaret McBride and Cynthia Lowry

The NAACP Flag

In conjunction with its 1920 antilynching campaign, the NAACP began flying this flag from the windows of its headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue each time a lynching occurred in the United States. By the late 1920s, ninety-five percent of lynchings occurred in the South. The words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” are stitched to both sides of the flag. The threat of losing its lease forced the NAACP to discontinue the practice of flying the flag in 1938. This original canvas flag is housed with the NAACP Records in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Flag flown at NAACP headquarters, ca. 1920. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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The New Negro

Educator and scholar Alain Leroy Locke (1885–1954) was considered the architect of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, while heading the Department of Philosophy at Howard University, Locke edited a compendium of African American art, poetry, social essays, and historical commentary, titled The New Negro. Contributed by many notable African Americans including writers Jean Toomer and Zora Neal Hurston; poets Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes; and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson. Locke sought to create new racial pride, self-expression, and literary discourse.

The New Negro: An Interpretation. Edited by Alain Locke; book decoration and portraits by Winold Reiss (1886−1953). New York: A. and C. Boni, 1925. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

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The Nineteenth Amendment

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “the right of U.S. Citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. . . .” This amendment, enacted in 1920, represents the culmination of a seventy-year effort to secure voting rights for women that began in 1848 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

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Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932)

In 1923 the Texas legislature passed a law that barred blacks from participating in the Democratic primary. Because the Democratic Party was the dominant political party in Texas, black voters were therefore denied participation in the electoral process. The NAACP secured a plaintiff, Dr. L. A. Nixon of El Paso, to contest the law. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Nixon v. Herndon that the so-called “white primary” law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Texas legislature then passed a new law allowing the Democratic Party State Executive Committee to establish voting qualifications limiting eligibility to whites. In 1932, the Supreme Court struck down the law in Nixon v. Condon. Undeterred, the Texas Democratic Party banned blacks from membership once again.

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  • L. W. Washington to Robert W. Bagnall, August 2, 1924. Typed letter. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)

  • Fred C. Knollenberg to NAACP Secretary Walter White, October 20, 1932. Typed letter. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (036.01.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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The Joint Committee on National Recovery

Cartoonist Clifford Berryman depicts President Franklin D. Roosevelt singing about economic recovery and New Deal programs. By mid-year of his first term, Roosevelt had overseen the passage of bills designed to counteract the Depression, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act that paid white farmers not to produce crops. This left black sharecroppers unemployed. In 1933, the efforts of attorney John P. Davis and economist Robert C. Weaver to secure the full inclusion of blacks in New Deal programs led to the establishment of the Joint Committee on National Recovery (JCNR) in Washington, D.C. This coalition of twenty civil rights groups was formed to educate African Americans about new federal programs and protest discrimination in New Deal programs.

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Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Civil Rights Activist

Educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) was a prominent advisor on race matters to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. A daughter of former slaves, she would become one of the most respected figures in the civil rights movement. Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904, which later became Bethune-Cookman University.

Bethune was also the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women and established its national office in Washington, D.C. She became one of the prominent figures in the National Association of Colored Women, where she would continue to campaign for the rights of all Americans. In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Bethune as the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. She served as a leading member of Roosevelt’s unofficial “Black Cabinet.” Members of the Cabinet were responsible for developing and advancing many civil rights strategies.

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The Margold Report

In 1922 Charles Garland, a dropout from Harvard, donated an $800,000 inheritance to establish the American Fund for Public Service, known as the Garland Fund. As a foundation dedicated to radical social reform, it awarded a $100,000 grant to the NAACP for the employment of a special counsel to study the legal status of African Americans and plan a legal campaign. The NAACP hired Nathan Margold, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Margold, focusing his report on an assessment of discrimination in public schools, advised the NAACP to “boldly challenge the constitutional validity” of underfunded black schools as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nathan R. Margold. Preliminary Report to the Joint Committee Supervising the Expenditure of the 1930 Appropriation by the American Fund for Public Service. Typescript, [1931]. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)

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NAACP’s Chief Strategist Charles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston was the chief strategist of the NAACP’s legal campaign that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Born in Washington, D.C., he earned a J. D. S. degree at Harvard in 1923, where he studied under Felix Frankfurter. As vice dean of Howard Law School, Houston trained a generation of civil rights lawyers. In 1934 the Joint Committee of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service retained Houston to direct a legal campaign against discrimination in education and interstate transportation. Houston wrote this memorandum, in which he advocated using the $10,000 funds to fight “the more acute issue of discrimination in education.” Houston devised a systemic assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine by using test cases focused on graduate and professional schools.

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Eleanor Roosevelt’s Efforts against Lynching

The NAACP’s fight for civil rights laws began intently with failed attempts to get a federal antilynching bill passed in the 1920s and 1930s. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a former president of the NAACP Chicago branch, were supportive of the association’s efforts, but President Roosevelt did not share their enthusiasm and believed that pressing for the NAACP’s demands would jeopardize congressional support for his New Deal programs. In this letter to Walter White, Mrs. Roosevelt stated some of the arguments that were used by the president and others against the passage of an antilynching bill. It is clear that Mrs. Roosevelt believed in aiding the antilynching cause, and she suggested various ways to win the support of members of Congress.

Eleanor Roosevelt to NAACP Secretary Walter White, March 19, 1936. Typed letter. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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A. Philip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was an early practitioner of the civil disobedience-nonviolent direct action tactics and black mass grassroots organization that became synonymous with the civil rights movement. A fervent labor unionist, he began organizing workers while a college student. In 1917 he became the cofounder and editor of the Messenger, a black socialist magazine. In 1936, he cofounded the National Negro Congress, a coalition of 585 organizations. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ victory of a collective bargaining agreement was recognized in 1937 and launched Randolph’s career as a national civil rights leader. Randolph played a key role in the formation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (1941) and the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. In 1963, he conceived and directed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He served as the first black vice president of the AFL-CIO from 1957–1968. In 1965, he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute with Bayard Rustin, another nonviolent, direct-action strategist.

Gordon Parks. Portrait of A. Philip Randolph, labor leader. Photograph, November 1942. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00)

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The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids (BSCP) on August 25, 1925. After a twelve-year struggle and new federal labor legislation, the BSCP signed a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Palace Car Company on August 25, 1937. It was the first such agreement between a black union and a major American company. The BSCP provided a solid base from which black labor challenged discrimination. The union’s members also supported Randolph’s various mass movements and demonstrations by contributing their labor and money.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Agreement with the Pullman Company, 1937. Pamphlet. A. Philip Randolph Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (044.00.00) Courtesy of the A. Philip Randolph Institute

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Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada, 1938

In Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada, Lloyd Gaines attempted to register at the University of Missouri law school, only to be denied admission because he was African American. There was no law school in the state of Missouri for African Americans, so Missouri offered to pay Gaines’ tuition to attend law school in a neighboring state. Gaines turned this offer down, maintaining that the University of Missouri’s refusal of admission violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the law. The court did not go so far as to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine from Plessy, but did hold that where only one school was available, to deny admission on the basis of race, was an infringement of equal protection under the law.

Charles H. Houston to Walter White, May 24, 1938. Autograph letter. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (046.00.00)

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NAACP Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall

Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall graduated from Howard Law School in 1933 and joined the NAACP as assistant counsel in 1936. Marshall created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in 1939 to litigate cases and raise money exclusively for the legal program. Marshall’s team of lawyers, Robert L. Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, and Franklin Williams, led the legal campaign against discrimination from 1938 to 1961. The NAACP won twenty-seven of thirty-two cases it argued before the Supreme Court. Marshall’s greatest victory was the 1954 Supreme Court landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court.

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