Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement

This is a chapter by chapter review, of Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement . The intention of this review was to examine the significant people and events that shaped the NAACP and its crusade to achieve racial equality in the twentieth century.


Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement
by Patricia Sullivan

Reviewed by Tom White

Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement documents in chronological order the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and provides a revealing behind the scenes look at the organization. Sullivan traces the early decades of the organization, its activism, and its early leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Charles Houston, Ella Baker, and Thurgood Marshall.  All were instrumental in combatting racism in an often prejudicial legal system, while at the same time overcoming the early struggles and dissension that raged within the group. Beginning with chapter one, this review will examine the pivotal people and events which advanced the cause of civil rights as chronicled in Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.

Chapter One: Call to Action

The year 1909 marked the founding of the civil rights organization the NAACP, followed shortly after by the appointment of W.E.B. Dubois as “director of publications and research for the fledgling organization”[1] in August of 1910. Many of the original founding members of the NAACP, such as Dubois and Oswald Garrison Villard, were absolutely convinced that some type of vehicle for change was necessary to protect and secure the civil rights of African Americans as evidenced by the  “ nearly nine hundred documented lynching’s”[2] which occurred during the first decade of the twentieth century. The newly founded organization decided from the beginning to work within the legal system to “campaign on behalf of the human rights and for enforcement of the constitution”[3] for all men regardless of color. Concurrently with the organization’s legal strategy, Dubois began the publication of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which helped to expose the plight of African Americans to a much wider audience.

Chapter Two: Welding the Hammers

During the time period preceding World War I, Sullivan reveals the formidable scale and scope of Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency as one characterized by a “segregation policy [which] was unprecedented.”[4]  It was during the Wilson administration that “no fewer than twenty bills were introduced”[5] to Congress aimed at restricting the rights of blacks. However despite the Wilson administration’s efforts, the NAACP’s effective efforts of protest and lobbying ensured that, “not a single segregationist bill passed.”[6] It was also during the timeframe, that the NAACP would endure the first turmoil of many amongst its top leadership, resulting in the resignation of founding member and Chairman Oswald Garrison Villard in 1914.

Chapter Three: Going South: The NAACP in the World War I Era

As America entered World War I the demand for labor created huge job opportunities for blacks, resulting in a mass migration of blacks from the South in pursuit of job opportunities in the North. With black migration North, so too came a huge increase in racial animosities. Cities such as East St. Louis saw riots in which upwards of “two hundred blacks were killed.”[7] In the NAACP’s ongoing battle for civil rights, a legal blow against segregation was struck when the Supreme Court in 1917 in the Buchanan vs. Warley case, “overturned Louisville’s residential segregation ordinance.”[8] The NAACP was also instrumental in leading the charge in the 1920 election season by pressing for enforcement of both the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments which guaranteed blacks the right and equal protection under the law. Coincidently the NAACP also saw James Weldon Johnson assume one of its top administrative positions followed by his very successful expansion of the NAACP into the Southern states.

Chapter Four: Making a Way: The “New Negro” in Postwar America

The black migration from the South continued through the 1920’s and along with this exodus the racial terrain of many urban areas became drastically altered. Coupled with black migration came renewed efforts from entrenched white segregationists intent on denying blacks their fourteenth and fifteenth amendment rights through any means possible. The NAACP responded under the leadership of James Weldon Johnson by throwing their collective lobbying efforts behind federal anti-lynching legislation known as the Dyer Bill. Although the bill was defeated in the Senate, it did result in raising the NAACP’s national image as a fighting force intent on seeking racial justice. This enhanced national standing enabled the NAACP to attract some of the best legal defense lawyers in the country such as Clarence Darrow in their fight for justice. Also during this time period the NAACP engaged in legal challenges aimed at school segregation, black voter disenfranchisement, and using the collective power of the black voting block to stop the nomination of John J. Parker to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Chapter Five: Radical Visions: The Depression Years

In 1930 Walter White assumes the post of Executive Secretary of the NAACP, a post previously held by James Weldon Johnson. Unfortunately White is ill prepared for the job at the start, as the NAACP comes under scrutiny for its initial missteps concerning the handling of the Scottsboro case involving nine black Alabama men charged with the rape of two white women. It is during this same time period that the NAACP sees further dissension amongst its upper echelons as W.E.B. Dubois mounts a challenge to White’s leadership. The challenge although short lived, exemplifies some the problems that have plagued the NAACP during the beginning of the decade. Despite internal dissension within the organization a valued member is added to the group. Charles Hamilton Houston, the former Dean of the Howard University Law School. Houston is to head up the NAACP’s new legal office, and lead the charge in dismantling the South’s discriminatory caste system.

Chapter Six: Crossroads: Protest and Politics in the New Deal Era

As the Depression wore on, the NAACP bore witness to further dissension in its ranks.  While Walter White and other young activists within the NAACP viewed the New Deal Era of Roosevelt “as creating opportunities for pursuing full integration into American life…[while] Dubois brought a different perspective to bear.”[9]  W.E.B. Dubois, in sharp contrast to the NAACP leadership believed that the effort of blacks to become an integral part of society was a failure, and as a consequence Dubois began expressing these sentiments in a series of articles that sounded amazingly similar to that of Booker T. Washington accommodation approach. Dubois’ opinions were in stark contrast to the goals and aims of the present NAACP leadership, and exposed a break in philosophy which resulted in Dubois’ resignation in 1934. It was also during this same time period due to a renewed climate of violence that the NAACP’s legal wing stepped up efforts to pursue federal antilynching legislation, while campaigning for educational equity. Leading the drive for educational equity was Charles Houston and a new member of the organization ,Thurgood Marshall. The resulting legal gains in educational equity achieved by Houston and Marshall helped increase membership within the organization.

Chapter Seven: In the Shadow of War: Battlefields for Freedom

During the early war years American life changed in unimaginable ways as America was witness to the “massive movement of black southerners to the North and West…”[10] Accompanying this movement came the stresses associated with dislocation, which were further compounded as determined whites sought to enforce the color line. These conditions led to a powder keg situation in major population hubs throughout the country as “growing numbers of black men and women refused to yield to racist attitudes and practices.”[11] Simultaneous with the people movement, a new group of black leaders were emerging within the NAACP organization. People such as Ella Baker and Madison Jones emerged who were instrumental in increasing membership numbers while crisscrossing the South documenting the conditions there. Meanwhile the legal arm of the NAACP continued to gain ground in its battle for equality in teacher salaries, voting and criminal justice. Meanwhile Charles Houston, special counsel of the organization, passed “the torch to his protégé Thurgood Marshall”[12] after resigning in 1940.

Chapter Eight: Justice Now: Claiming the Postwar Moment

As World War II came to an end, black voting rolls had increased in the North to 2.5 Million voters by 1944, giving black voters some added leverage in the electoral process. However the same could not be said for the South, as black attempts at engaging in the electoral process was met time and again with obstructionist tactics instigated by an entrenched southern white supremacy. One individual who epitomized the white supremacy effort was Democratic Senator Theodore Bilbo, who as part of his reelection campaign of 1946 urged white voters across Mississippi to “do whatever is necessary to keep blacks from voting.”[13]

 Chapter Nine: The Beginning of the End: Segregation Must Go

The period immediately following World War II saw the doubling of black college graduation rates from 1938 and the renewed legal challenges by the NAACP aimed at overturning the segregation practices within housing, transportation, armed forces, and educational institutes. The NAACP’s legal bulwark broke new legal ground in 1947 when “lawyers won a ruling outlawing South Carolina’s white primary”[14], the last of its kind still in operation. They also won another major victory when a “unanimous Supreme Court struck down judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants based on race.”[15] The year 1947 also saw the color line come down in Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson donned a Dodger’s uniform, becoming the first black ball player to join its ranks. The year 1947 marked another highpoint in civil rights history when Harry Truman became the first United States President to address the NAACP’s annual meeting, where in his remarks he affirmed equality and freedom for all Americans. 

Chapter Ten: On the Threshold of Victory

In the year 1950 the NAACP struggled to develop an effective strategy aimed at combatting government sanctioned segregation by federal housing agencies, noting that “unless these housing restrictions are removed, legislative and judicial restraints against segregation in public education…may be largely neutralized.”[16] Although the early 1950s did mark a high point with the integration of the armed forces, Thurgood Marshall noted that “criminal justice cases involving the violations of blacks’ rights during this period were ‘probably more shocking than at any time in the history of the Association.”[17].  As the 1950s rolled on, the south had mounted “an-all-out war on the NAACP”[18] as five states required the NAACP to now provide them with membership lists.

As the 1960s began, the South continued to be the main battle front of the NAACP’s effort at ending segregation, and achieving equality for all Americans. The battle which began in 1909 through the combined efforts of people such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Charles Houston, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall and others had finally realized “its fullest expression in the civil rights legislation…”[19] Their efforts resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed shortly after by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These monumental pieces of legislation were intended to end school segregation, job discrimination, and once and for all discriminatory voting practices. Sullivan’s revealing look at the organization’s early struggles of the NAACP serves as a testament to the group’s unwavering efforts at overcoming an often prejudicial legal system in order to mount an effective battle for civil rights.




Sullivan, Patricia. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement New York: The New Press, 2009.






[1] Patricia, Sullivan. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The New Press, 2009), 1

[2] 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Final Report, May 31, 2006 (Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2006), 121-54, 177-80; The Crisis, February 1913, 194 in Patricia, Sullivan. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The New Press, 2009), 2

[3] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 16

[4] Ibid, 28

[5] Ibid, 31

[6] Ibid, 32

[7] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 68

[8] Ibid, 72

[9] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 197

[10] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 285

[11] Ibid, 278

[12] Ibid, 249

[13] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 317

[14] Ibid, 350

[15] Ibid, 359

[16] WFW, “New Leader,” outline re Cicero case, NAACP Papers, II:A130; NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., report of March 1953 Conference Committee on Racial Discrimination in Housing, NAACP Papers, II:B77  in Patricia, Sullivan. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The New Press, 2009), 393

[17] Sullivan. Lift Every Voice, 398

[18] Ibid, 425

[19] Ibid, 430

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