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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), headquartered in Baltimore, was instrumental in securing a major civil rights victory in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ended state-imposed racial segregation in public schools.

"Nineteen fifty-four really ushers in a whole new period in American race relations. It was the great victory of the NAACP," says Herbert Hill, who served as national labor director of the NAACP for 29 years until 1977. The famous decision contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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NAACP leaders - including Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court justice - were "the ones who combatted legal segregation on all levels of American life.... They led one case after another. They chipped away at it decade after decade," says Joseph Boskin, professor of history and Afro-American studies at Boston University.

But after the Brown decision, the NAACP failed to move forward in pushing an agenda of social activism, Mr. Hill says.

"The NAACP had exhausted the possibility at that point of using the laws to institute social change... It had to move toward confrontational activism. The NAACP failed to do that," says Hill, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin.

During the tenure of NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, 1955 to 1977, the organization was run by a distinguished, committed board of directors, says Hill. But in recent years, the group has been troubled with bitter divisions and a lack of focus, he says.

The NAACP began to "slip into decline because the activists organizations took over dealing with issues," Professor Boskin says.

The NAACP's executive director, Benjamin Hooks, will step down April 1. Some observers hope that the change in leadership will prompt a change in direction for the organization.

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