By Daniel Lewis, ProQuest Senior Product Manager
In recent years, civil rights scholarship has focused on local movements in the U.S. The new scholarship has revealed vibrant civil rights movements in locations outside of the southern United States. The result is a variety of new secondary sources for researchers.
Recent notable books devoted to local civil rights movements include:
- Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue
- Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, edited by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard
- To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City by Martha Biondi
- Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia by Matthew Countryman
- American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland by Robert O. Self
During the 1940s, the NAACP grew into a mass membership organization. From a nationwide membership of approximately 50,000 in 1940, by 1946 the NAACP could boast almost 450,000 members and over 1,000 branches. For primary source research, the NAACP Branch Department Files in History Vault document civil rights activities across the nation, especially in larger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and New York City. An outstanding feature of the NAACP Branch Department Files collection is the extent to which they document less well-known episodes, and in so doing reveal the nationwide explosion of civil rights activity that occurred after 1955.
Here is a just a small sampling, moving from West to East, of some of the activities and developments researchers can follow using the NAACP Branch Files.
In the early 1940s, the Vallejo branch worked to combat discrimination in employment at the Mare Island navy yard.
San Francisco, California
In the 1950s, the NAACP was victorious in the case of Terry et al. v. San Francisco Civil Service Commission, in which the district court of appeals ruled that the San Francisco Civil Service Commission violated the constitutional rights of job applicants by arbitrarily limiting applicants to a select group of colleges.
In the early 1960s, the Oakland branch waged a multi-faceted campaign against discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The campaign included the use of direct action protests and the formation of a civil rights coalition group called the Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights.
Los Angeles, California
In 1956, Los Angeles branch president Thomas G. Neusom proudly proclaimed: “To say that the Los Angeles NAACP had a good year would be an understatement of fact.” Neusom reported that the branch reached a membership of almost 15,000, and the branch’s income for the year was over $81,000. While $31,000 was turned over to the national office, other parts of this money were used to support civil rights initiatives in Alabama and Mississippi.
From 1956 to1965, the Chicago NAACP branch conducted a lengthy and determined campaign to eliminate segregation and discriminatory practices in the Chicago schools. The branch was particularly critical of overcrowding at the predominantly African American schools, lower spending for African American students than for white students, large pupil to teacher ratios in the predominantly African American schools, and inferior equipment and teaching materials at these schools. The Chicago NAACP directed harsh criticism at the superintendent of the Chicago public schools, Benjamin C. Willis. In 1965, the branch charged that Willis had failed for 10 years to respond to NAACP demands and that since 1964 he had not addressed the problems cited in two separate studies of the Chicago school system conducted by professors at the University of Chicago. In a February 1965 statement, the branch publicly opposed the renewal of Willis’s contract, charging that Willis had actually helped to increase racial tensions in the city.
In Cairo, NAACP youth council members teamed up with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in an attempt to desegregate the swimming pool and roller rink in Cairo.
In March 1960, the Cincinnati NAACP branch decided to picket Cincinnati Woolworth and Kress stores. Branch president William Bowen said that the pickets were initiated to support the sit-in movement in the South, but that it was also done because there were no African American employees in 13 Kress and Woolworth stores in the Cincinnati area. The branch used the momentum from these demonstrations to launch actions against other companies with discriminatory employment practices. In 1961, efforts primarily focused on the Coca-Cola Company. As of May 18, 1961, Coca-Cola employed only two African Americans, both as janitors. The branch demonstrated at Coca-Cola’s factory in Cincinnati and at grocery stores selling Coca-Cola. The slogan for the campaign was “It’s No Joke, We’re Not Buying Coke.”
New York State
The reports of New York–New England area field secretary Thomas H. Allen describe picketing of the Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, New York, and a demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange regarding a boycott of Mississippi-made products.
These anecdotes are just a very small sampling of the many and diverse activities documented in the NAACP Branch Files. In total, the NAACP Branch Files contain detailed files on 34 states and 181 branches. In addition, the NAACP Branch Files contain branch activities reports from 571 branches in 48 states plus the District of Columbia.
Researchers interested in studying local movements for civil rights will also find valuable documentation in ProQuest’s Black Historical Newspapers™ such as the Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro-American, Cleveland Call & Post, Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel, New York Amsterdam News, The Norfolk Journal & Guide, The Philadelphia Tribune, and Pittsburgh Courier. ProQuest’s ebrary contains numerous works on local civil rights struggles, including Freedom North, To Stand and Fight, American Babylon, and many more.
Librarians: request a complimentary Curriculum Analysis, and sign up for free trials of History Vault records on civil rights as well as related ProQuest resources like ProQuest’s Black Historical Newspapers™, Black Studies Center, and more.