The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) first came to Mississippi less than a decade after the organization’s 1909 founding, but the group was obscured in its early days by a racial caste regimen that severely punished activity in opposing that system. Since the NAACP sought to destroy the Jim Crow system, its members suffered loss of jobs, intimidation, and physical violence. Nevertheless, the organization’s activists persevered, and by the twenty-first century, change had indeed come.
The presence of the NAACP in Mississippi can be divided into four periods, the last of which began in the early 1960s when the group consolidated into a powerful outlet of political expression. The first period was associated with the expansion of the national organization into organized southern state chapters from World War I into the early 1920s. The second period occurred immediately after World War II, when the organization experienced a growth spurt. The third period coincided with the emergence of the modern civil rights movement in the mid-1950s and saw the legal demolition of “separate but equal” public schools. The fourth period, after 1962, focused on political mobilization via the courts and structural integration into the political process.
During the first period, branches organized but then dissolved almost immediately in Vicksburg in 1918 and in the entirely African American town of Mound Bayou the following year. Other chapters followed in Jackson, Meridian, and Natchez, urban centers where some African Americans were independent of the white economic structure. These chapters, too, had short life spans. Leaders and chapters everywhere faced the perils of public discovery, since state law prohibited membership in organizations such as the NAACP and since those identified as “troublemakers” faced violence from white individuals and organizations intent on crushing any threat to the established social order. Membership also posed an economic burden, with the result that few chapters attained the required fifty members. These constraints severely limited even furtive activity. Membership throughout the state remained small, perhaps well below five hundred.
The second period began after World War II and saw the ascendancy of the Jackson chapter, where a member sued the school district for equal pay and was promptly fired. The incident helped inspire the creation of other chapters and the appointment of the state’s first paid NAACP official, William Bender, a chaplain at Tougaloo College, an integrated private institution that afforded Bender some protection. This appointment also situated the state chapter to stimulate public debate on some of Mississippi’s most important race-related issues, particularly segregated schools and disfranchisement.
During the third period, the organization came into its own, significantly aided by the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, which in the late 1940s organized the first mass meetings of the type that became commonplace a decade and a half later. These carefully planned events brought together large crowds of African Americans in black-owned venues in racially segregated enclaves. Aaron Henry emerged from within this local structure to become the state’s most successful NAACP leader.
Events outside Mississippi helped propel the growth of the state organization during this era. The national NAACP was waging an intense legal battle against segregated schools, recording a resounding victory with the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Although the Court declared “separate but equal” education to be unconstitutional and required the desegregation of schools, the State of Mississippi moved to equalize schools for African American children in hopes of forestalling integration with support from certain African American community leaders. The plan failed, as black leaders associated with the NAACP refused to cooperate with the plan and insisted on full integration. The organization mushroomed across Mississippi, with chapters springing up in new towns. Less than a year later, Medgar Evers was appointed the group’s Mississippi field secretary, and plaintiffs began to petition for school desegregation, though they achieved no immediate results. In 1960 Henry became the president of the Mississippi NAACP, joining with Evers to form an unabashedly aggressive team at the forefront of an escalating civil rights movement. The two men traversed the state, ramping up the pressure for school desegregation and with it social change. In addition, Henry headed up an NAACP-sponsored street movement in his hometown of Clarksdale. The organization soon joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella civil rights group for the state. Henry became head of COFO and subsequently played a leadership role in virtually every Mississippi entity that challenged segregation.
Mississippi’s white political leaders and prosegregation organizations such as the Citizens’ Council continued to identify the integrated NAACP as their chief enemy. Its chief symbol and spokesman, Evers, became a marked man, and he was murdered in June 1963.
The fourth period saw the NAACP’s most intensive activity, much of it in coordination with the other COFO members. Henry remained president of the NAACP until 1993, overseeing street protest campaigns, boycotts, and above all legal challenges. One of the most notable efforts involved the 1962 admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, which brought the national spotlight on the state. The Mississippi NAACP’s later challenges included segregated public accommodations, disfranchisement, and media discrimination. In addition, working with the national organization and other groups, the Mississippi NAACP was a major force in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The civil rights coalition splintered in the mid-1960s, leaving the NAACP as the state’s predominant civil rights organization. As street mobilization waned, the NAACP intensified challenges to school segregation. The victories were piecemeal, keeping the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund busy for years. Similarly, as the Voting Rights Act was implemented, the Legal Defense Fund collaborated with others in challenging reapportionment plans for the state legislature and other political bodies.
In the mid- to late 1960s politics in Mississippi entered a new phase, marked by new types of competition for political power. The NAACP became a major political player with its members most active in registration campaigns and electioneering. The greatest indicator of the new phase was the struggle for control of the state Democratic Party. After the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party failed to unseat the segregated Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, members of the NAACP collaborated with Mississippi whites to develop the Loyalist Democrats. The new party, chaired by Henry, quickly increased the number of black Democrats elected to office, and eight years later the Loyalists merged with the “Regular” Democratic faction, with Henry serving as cochair of the unified party.
While the NAACP today is less visible, its footprints remain omnipresent. Mississippi now has enormous numbers of African American elected officials, and black Mississippians enjoy routine access to public facilities, public conveyances, and full voting rights, all as a direct consequence of the work of the NAACP.
- David Beito, Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (2009)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Aaron Henry with Constance Curry, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning (2000)
- Neil McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964 (1994)
- Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1990)
- Minion K. C. Morrison, Aaron Henry of Mississippi: Inside Agitator (2015)
- Minion K. C. Morrison, ed., Black Political Mobilization, Leadership, and Power: African Americans and Political Participation (1987)
- Frank Parker, Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (1990)
- Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (2009)