Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement

by Patricia Sullivan; The New Press

Featuring the perilous adventures of such vivid and larger-than-life combatants for justice as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Ella Baker, Charles Houston and that swaggering, indefatigable force of nature, Thurgood Marshall, Lift Every Voice includes enough action-packed material for a handful of historical novels, monographs and biographies, as well as a few movies and a TV series or two. From previously unseen archival materials and more familiar sources, Patricia Sullivan has fashioned a compelling story: how the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) battled deadly odds throughout the first half of the 20th century to take down Jim Crow.

Founded a century ago, when any African-American man, woman or child could be killed in cold blood and without reprisal just for appearing to challenge the customs of white supremacy, the NAACP emerged from the collaboration of black (DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett) and white (Oswald Garrison Villard, Mary White Ovington) intellectual activists. The evils of racism, they contended, could be subdued only through direct, disciplined action in the courts of both law and public opinion. Their approach both advanced and challenged the more accommodating tactics of Booker T. Washington.

A few years later, confronting a world war, the migration of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, and myriad eruptions of violent race hatred, the NAACP became a force to be reckoned with. The organization instigated the first of the century’s great protest marches, the 1917 silent parade in New York City after the East St. Louis riots that left an estimated 100 dead. It supported the flamboyant Walter White, who used his fair skin as a cover for witnessing white hysteria, to provide front-line, first-person coverage of lynching. James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics to the “negro national anthem” that gives this book its title, used his diplomat’s cunning and poet’s passion to cultivate the organization’s public profile. Charles Hamilton Houston, a brilliant Harvard-educated attorney, inspired and trained a generation of African-American lawyers who ultimately overturned legally sanctioned segregation.

Even as she advances the narrative at a breakneck pace, Sullivan doesn’t skimp on the major legal landmarks along the NAACP’s path to glory. Nor does she skim over the bickering among mercurial temperaments like DuBois, White and newspaperman-turned-executive secretary Roy Wilkins over what tactics to pursue. But like the organization she chronicles, she doesn’t allow ego battles to overshadow the key point: social transformation. To paraphrase James Baldwin, not everything the NAACP faced could be changed, but the NAACP proved to America that nothing could change until it was faced.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here