It began before it began.
This was in 1905 when the great black scholar W.E.B. DuBois called a meeting of prominent black men. They met on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls because hotels in their own country would not accommodate them and formed what became known as the Niagara Movement.
The Movement, which held a subsequent meeting at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., issued a statement that said in part, “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.” But the movement, hampered by various difficulties, soon sputtered and became inactive.
Then the riot came.
For six days in August 1908, a mob of white people surged through the streets of Springfield, Ill., lynching and maiming black people at will and at whim. The irony of this happening in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, earnestly if somewhat simplistically revered as the Great Emancipator, was lost on no one, the rioters least of all. “Lincoln freed you, we’ll show you your place,” they cried as they flogged black people through the streets.
The appalling spectacle energized white liberals like Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard. On Lincoln’s 100th birthday, Feb. 12, 1909, they joined with DuBois and other remnants of the Niagara Movement to issue a call for a conference on race. That call, a century ago Thursday, was the birth certificate of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The milestone simultaneously demands and defies commemoration.
It is, after all, hard to hug an institution. And if it’s true that history is biography, it’s not hard to understand why the NAACP has often seemed overshadowed by larger-than-life personalities like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson. Even its most celebrated members — DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks — are better known for what they did than for the organization to which they belonged.
Who regards the NAACP with the reverence those men and women inspire? DuBois notwithstanding, there is in the NAACP story no central charismatic figure. Instead, there is The Work. There is fighting voter suppression and protesting lynch law and writing legal briefs. There is issuing press releases and filing complaints and lobbying lawmakers. There is awarding scholarships and publishing reports and sponsoring workshops and holding accountable. There is advancement made in increments.
Until one day you look up and see that because of those increments, the world has changed as if in a bolt of lightning. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision is the most obvious illustration, but really, the proof is the whole country since 1909. It is Sidney Poitier and Condoleezza Rice and Guion Bluford and Barack Obama. And me. Maybe even you.
For all that, one often senses in African America a certain ambivalence toward the NAACP. Too middle class, says one school of criticism. Not relevant, says another. Still others are offput by scandals of leadership over the last 15 years or so. And for some, perhaps the organization’s greatest sin is simply this: It is not exciting.
Organizations seldom are.
But they do The Work, don’t they? The Work that is bigger than one person and longer than one life. Because the NAACP has done The Work, we can pause upon a milestone in a world transformed, a world in which Obama is president and Oprah is queen. If the difference looks like a lightning bolt, we know better.
And we celebrate the increments by which we advance.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.