Rosa Parks changed history when she refused to yield her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1956. A lesser-known piece of history reveals that one of the motives behind her act was that she was haunted by the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till the year prior. Parks was, simply, fed up.
Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mutilated body, unrecognizable even to his mother, coupled with the acquittal of his killers, made headlines the world over.
On hand throughout Rosa Parks’s ordeal, the Emmett Till trial and countless other chapters in African-American history for the last century was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fearless soldier/citizens committed to defending the most vulnerable. The organization celebrates its 102nd birthday this month. But its mission has never aged.
Founded on February 12, 1909, by 60 multiracial activists in New York City, the NAACP’s principal goal was to improve the lives of black Americans, many of whom lived under the oppressive Jim Crow laws which legalized and enforced segregation.
The NAACP came into prominence through its own Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Started in 1940 as a wing of the NAACP, the LDF made headlines in the 1950s after Linda Brown, a Kansas student, was refused admittance to an all-white elementary school. Born from that struggle was the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The group has also done epic work with voters’ rights. Despite the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that civil liberty, black citizens in some states faced scare tactics, literacy tests and poll taxes designed to discourage. The NAACP countered like a general in battle, sending troops to the front lines in the form of trained activists who risked their lives to register black voters.
Many historians believe the NAACP’s efforts quietly guided President Lyndon Johnson’s hand as he signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. The black community prevailed that day, but it was the spirit of America that won.
The NAACP’s formation in February of 1909 was intended to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday. It’s a fitting connection: Lincoln freed the slaves; the NAACP fought to let that freedom ring.
And the fight continues. Today, the organization offers programs dedicated to civic engagement, education, economic empowerment and training. The NAACP, by encouraging African-Americans to realize their own potential, is continuing a legacy that has made the United States stronger, fairer.
By focusing on color, the NAACP has helped to make our country color-blind.
Perhaps it seeks to prevent another tragedy like Emmett Till. In the wake of his murder, blacks in the 1950s were galvanized into action. Donations to the NAACP soared. Volunteering skyrocketed. Like Rosa Parks, people were fed up.
Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, had this to say of the African-Americans who, under the watchful eye of the NAACP, spoke out against the white men who murdered her son and the white establishment that made life for blacks across the country intolerable:
“When they saw what had happened to my son, people became vocal who had never vocalized before. People stood up who had never stood up before.”
They have been standing proudly ever since.
Illustration: Salvatore Vuono