NAACP 100th Anniversary: Exploiting Color Instead of Erasing It
February 12, 2009
Jonathan J. Bean
George Orwell famously wrote “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” As the NAACP celebrates its 100th anniversary, its leaders present a past that squares with its present positions on racial preferences, welfare, and a public school monopoly that traps poor children in failed schools.
But that is not the NAACP’s past. The historic achievements of the NAACP—all but forgotten by most Americans—derived from a passionate dedication to colorblindness and individual freedom. From its founding in 1909 until the 1960s, the NAACP fought for a “colorblind Constitution.” Since then, it has become just another interest group pleading for favors. This flip-flop would make splendid material for an Orwellian novel: preference is equality, some “more equal” than others.
The history of the NAACP is usually presented as a story of triumphant radicalism. School children learn about the contributions of NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois but do not learn that DuBois quit the NAACP in the mid-1930s, joined the Communist Party, and left the country for self-exile in Africa.
The forgotten colorblind tradition of the NAACP can be told through the story of other key figures. The NAACP’s cofounders included lawyers Moorfield Storey and Louis Marshall, two white men dedicated to the principle of colorblind law. From 1909 to 1929, the NAACP relied on their legal firepower. As NAACP president, Storey successfully challenged cities that segregated neighborhoods by law. In 1917, the Supreme Court overturned this residential apartheid—a victory that came thirty-seven years before Brown v. Board of Education.
Louis Marshall followed with a victory in Nixon v. Herndon (1927), a decision banning the Democratic Party’s “white-only primaries.” Marshall also won a case in favor of school choice, winning a ruling that laws banning private schools, pushed in many states by the Ku Klux Klan, were unconstitutional. The court ruled in this historic case that private schools could not be banned because children were not “mere creature[s] of the state.” Today’s NAACP ought to take note of the irony: Its opposition to “school choice” is the position once taken by the bigots of the KKK.
Black lawyers took the lead from the 1930s onward. A young Thurgood Marshall, who became NAACP chief counsel at the age of thirty-two, after winning the very first case he argued before the Supreme Court, shared the colorblind sentiments of Storey and Louis Marshall. An aide recalled: “Marshall had a ‘Bible’ to which he turned during his most depressed moments. . . . Marshall would read aloud passages from Harlan’s amazing dissent [in Plessy v. Ferguson]. I do not believe we ever filed a major brief in the pre-Brown days in which a portion of that opinion was not quoted. Marshall’s favorite quotation was, ‘Our Constitution is color-blind.’ It became our basic creed.”
In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Marshall asked the Supreme Court to desegregate schools and end Plessy’s “separate but equal” standard by declaring the Constitution colorblind. Instead, the court based its decision on dubious sociology.
Nevertheless, into the 1960s the NAACP continued to argue that racial classifications were dangerous. For example, a letter writer asked NAACP attorney Robert L. Carter where the group stood on a bill to repeal racial identification on marriage certificates. Carter responded: “Color designations on birth certificates, marriage licenses and the like can serve no useful purpose whatsoever. If we are prepared to accept the basic postulate of our society—that race or color is an irrelevance—then contentions that race and color statistics are of social science value become sheer sophistical rationalization.”
Likewise, Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP’s chief lobbyist for nearly three decades, declared that “the minute you put race on a civil service form . . . you have opened the door to discrimination.”
Beginning in the 1970s, however, the Supreme Court upheld “benign” discrimination in the name of equality. When President Richard Nixon held out the prospect of racial preferences in jobs and government contracts, the NAACP shifted course and began seeking these favors. Those who still supported colorblind law became the new enemy.
George Orwell was famous for challenging the “smelly little orthodoxies” of his time.
The wayward NAACP needs the smelling salts of dissidents who can recapture the proud tradition that recent leaders have betrayed. They can begin by honestly presenting the history of “the civil rights century.” That history would be marked by the quest for a colorblind society—a legacy of liberty that contemporary NAACP leaders have abandoned.
Jonathan J. Bean is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Institute book, Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.