By GAIL FINEBERG
An 87-year-old woman’s 3,000-mile pilgrimage from Redding, Calif., to the nation’s capitol on the coldest days of the new year did not end with President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, which she witnessed from a wheelchair parked some 40 yards from the new president.
The next day, Isaac Lowe, a long-time advocate of civil rights for her small black community, witnessed some of her own history preserved for all time in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) papers, the largest and most-used collection at the Library of Congress.
“That’s my letter,” she gasped, looking at the document placed before her by Adrienne Cannon, African American history and culture specialist for the Library’s Manuscript Division.
In her letter, dated May 5, 1975, Lowe assured the national organization she was taking all the necessary steps to retain the NAACP charter for the Redding, Calif., branch of the organization.
“We never lost that charter,” said Lowe, who with her husband, Vernon, shared in the stewardship and leadership of the Redding NAACP branch for 40 years.
Using original documents housed in the NAACP and other Manuscript Division collections, Cannon guided Lowe, her grandson Russell and her friend Lessie Washington through a two-hour African American history lesson.
Milestones in this history seemed to point toward the winter of 2009, with the celebration of what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday on Jan. 15, and several days later, the inauguration of America’s first African American president. The NAACP marks its centenary year on Feb. 12, which is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the date that the Library opens a major Lincoln exhibition, “With Malice Toward None.”
In Lowe’s personal history, these dates stand out as well. She admired King and drew strength from his courage as she conducted her own civil-rights struggle. With the force of the NAACP behind her and the help of local attorneys who provided free legal advice, she spent some 65 years lobbying city, county and school officials for safe, affordable housing for Redding’s black families, for jobs, for fair and equal treatment of black children in predominantly white schools and for fairness and justice for African Americans caught up in the judicial system.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Lowe eventually won the support of city hall in her effort to raise funds for construction of the only Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center between Sacramento and Oregon. An architect she knew designed the building, free of charge.
“Because of Dr. King, I’m here,” said Lowe, who was named Woman of the Year by the Redding City Council in 1993.
Lowe’s dream of attending the inauguration became reality as the greater Redding community rallied to help her. After her longtime congressional representative, Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., supplied three tickets for seats below the inaugural stand, the local press picked up the story and friends and fans helped pay for three plane fares. A local hospital provided a wheelchair and lodging for the group was arranged. The trip was nearly derailed by Lowe’s visit to the emergency room following a fall.
“They said they wanted to operate. I said ‘No way.’”
Had Lowe missed the inauguration, she would have also missed viewing the NAACP’s original founding documents and Cannon’s recounting of the organization’s origin.
William English Walling, a labor activist and descendant of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholding family, and his wife, Anna Strunsky, a revolutionary Russian Jew, traveled to Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Ill., to investigate a bloody race riot that had erupted on Aug. 14, 1908. In response to a rumor of a black man’s rape of a white woman, a white mob lynched two black men, a barber and an 84-year-old widower. The governor called 4,200 state militia troops to suppress the riot, which lasted two days, killing eight and injuring more than 70.
Walling wrote an expose of the violence, and the Independent published it on Sept. 3, 1908. Social worker Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and suggested the formation of an interracial group to advocate for the rights of all citizens. They issued a call for a conference to plan a national civil-rights organization.
“The Call,” which Cannon displayed in its protective cover, was issued on Abraham Lincoln’s centenary, Feb.12, 1909, and the National Negro Conference was held in New York, May 31 to June 1, 1909. From this effort the National Negro Committee, or Committee of Forty, was formed to plan a permanent organization. At the second annual meeting, May 12, 1910, the Committee adopted the formal name of the organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. W.E.B. Du Bois and other founders involved in the anti-imperialist movement “expressed an interest in the rights not only of African Americans but also of people of color under colonial rule around the world,” Cannon said, explaining the group’s name.
She also displayed the “Platform Adopted by the National Negro Committee, 1909,” the NAACP’s manifesto, which among other proclamations called for the immediate enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, voting rights for all citizens, and an end to disparate educations of black and white students.
The next gem Cannon produced was a memo written on Nov. 17, 1941, by Thurgood Marshall, then a young NAACP lawyer who was traveling through the South in search of voting-rights cases that would stand a chance of winning in the U.S. Supreme Court. He found one in Texas, where the state legislature had passed a law that in effect barred African Americans from voting in the Democratic Party’s primary elections. The Supreme Court struck down that state law on April 3, 1944.
Marshall won case after case for the NAACP, capping his career as a lawyer by arguing the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cannon showed her visitors three notes handwritten by Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas, Harold Burton and Felix Frankfurter to Chief Justice Earl Warren (a former governor of California). Each congratulated the chief upon convincing the full court to support his opinion in the famous case that outlawed segregated schools in the United States in 1954.
“This is a day of joy,” wrote Frankfurter.
Thoughts turned to the previous day of joy, when Lowe and her traveling companions had wept, laughed and cheered while watching the first African American take the presidential oath of office.
“It’s a new day,” she said.
NAACP Records at the Library
The records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were given to the Library of Congress between 1964 and 2000. The largest single collection acquired by the Library, the records of the NAACP comprise approximately 5 million items dating from 1842 to 1999. Included are manuscripts, prints, photographs, pamphlets, broadsides, audio tapes, phonograph records, films and video recordings.
A finding aid for the collection is accessible at www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/naacp-front.html.
The NAACP Records are the cornerstone of the Library’s unparalleled resources for the study of the Civil Rights Movement. The Library houses the most comprehensive civil rights collection in the country: the original papers of the organizations that led the fight for civil liberties, such as the NAACP; the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; the National Urban League; the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; the microfilmed records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King Jr.; the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and the personal papers of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Arthur Spingarn, Moorfield Storey, Patricia Roberts Harris, Edward W. Brooke, Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter and Joseph Rauh.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.