Patricia Sullivan, University of South Carolina professor of history, and Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, joined the Progressive Studies Program last week at the Center for American Progress to discuss the NAACP’s history and ongoing work. Sullivan’s recent book, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, served as the foundation for the discussion that focused on the organizational reasons for the NAACP’s success.
NAACP’s history is considerably more diverse than commonly thought. Jealous and Sullivan both noted that it was originally founded as an interracial organization. Both black and white leaders joined the organization to express their shared humanity and to fight for racial equality through legal and legislative actions, while many African Americans at the local level joined to participate in the organization’s effective challenges to the staggering injustices they faced everyday. The modern NAACP follows a similar pattern, focusing on issues that affect African Americans but finding solutions that can help everyone. The organization is a powerful advocate for immigrant and prisoner rights, regardless of race.
Sullivan noted that the NAACP’s success is due to its work at both the grassroots and national level as a powerful advocate for federal policy changes. Activists were able in this way to capture the public imagination at the local level as well as speak truth to those in positions of power. Jealous explained that this comprehensive strategy has always been necessary because “changing the law would mean nothing if people didn’t buy into it.” For this reason, the NAACP works both in “the court of public opinion” and “the court of law.”
Sullivan and Jealous agreed that it remains important to remember how difficult it was to achieve past civil rights successes. Each success was followed by retrenchments, and each success cost some activists their lives, but Sullivan noted that the progress made in a century of NAACP activism was “positive, extraordinarily positive, and very vital that we’ve made it happen.” Jealous agreed that the struggles of the past served to “rebaptize” new activists into the pursuit of racial justice and equality in the United States. He also noted that these retrenchments are what to be expected when those accustomed to having unfettered access to power are forced to share it.
For Jealous, the enduring mission of the NAACP continues to be the progressive pursuit of a more perfect and just society: “We have to remind people what the 18th century looked like, and ask what the 21st century should look like,” he said. “We must dream bold dreams and give our children permission to dream bold dreams, pursue with pragmatic strategies and hard work, and sustain them with our faith.”
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Copies of Lift Every Voice will be available for purchase at the event.
Patricia Sullivan, Author, Lift Every Voice; Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina
Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
John Halpin, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Ruy Teixeira, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation