By Daniel Lewis, ProQuest Senior Product Manager
In 1958, the NAACP awarded its prestigious Spingarn Medal to the nine high school students who desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School “in the face of extreme provocation and peril.” Daisy Bates, the adviser to the students and the president of the Arkansas NAACP State Conference, also received the Spingarn Medal for her “tireless, dynamic and courageous” leadership during the school desegregation crisis.
The attorney Pauli Murray, a self-described “loyal supporter of the NAACP” and a former NAACP student leader, in a letter to the Spingarn Award Committee, strongly praised Bates’ leadership and recognized her important role in the civil rights struggle. Murray wrote, in part:
“Daisy Bates is an example of the emerging leadership from the ranks of the NAACP itself … She worked within the framework of the NAACP, demonstrating a courage and non-violent approach which was every whit as inspiring as that of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In a sense, she represents the tough-minded tactical leadership in this struggle as Martin Luther King represents the moral and spiritual leadership. Yet she brings to it that graciousness and attractiveness which is the unique contribution of women to the cause.” (ProQuest History Vault, NAACP Papers, 1958 Spingarn Medal awarded to Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates, NAACP Papers: Special Subjects, Folder ID 001483-005-0753)
Murray’s comment about the “contribution of women to the cause” is especially interesting because historians have emphasized the crucial importance of women in the NAACP as well as in the larger civil rights movement. While there has been much outstanding scholarship on women in the civil rights movement, there are still excellent opportunities for new research on this topic.
In this blog post, we look at both well-known and lesser-known women in the NAACP.
Alongside Daisy Bates, two other important leaders of the NAACP during the civil rights years were Ruby Hurley and Ella Baker.
Ruby Hurley served as NAACP youth director from 1943 until 1951. Her files as youth director in the NAACP Papers document her leadership and troubleshooting abilities. The large amounts of incoming material in Hurley’s files report on various aspects of local-level activities, such as interracial work, membership recruitment, and political, fraternal, and cultural events in many local communities. In 1951, Ruby Hurley took over the leadership role for NAACP activities in the Southeast. She served as Regional Secretary for the NAACP Southeast Regional Office from 1952 to 1978. As regional director, Hurley traveled extensively to the branches in her region as she oversaw and assisted with local initiatives such as membership campaigns, voter registration drives, and desegregation campaigns.
In May 1963, for example, Hurley was in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to assist the community in a campaign to desegregate the public facilities in Clarksdale. In March 1963, Hurley traveled 3,945 miles to the branches in her region as she assisted in activities like the campaign in Clarksdale. Ruby Hurley’s career as head of the Southeast Regional Office is very well-documented in the NAACP Papers: Board of Directors, Annual Conferences, Major Speeches, and National Staff Files and NAACP Papers: Branch Department, Branch Files, and Youth Department Files in History Vault. Researchers interested in Ruby Hurley will also find a wide variety of coverage of Hurley’s life in ProQuest Historical Newpapers™.
Ella Baker had a shorter career in the NAACP but, like Ruby Hurley, also made a significant impact on the civil rights movement. Baker served as Director of Branches of the NAACP from 1943-1946. Under Baker’s leadership, the number of members and the number of branches of the NAACP grew substantially. This growth helped turn the NAACP into a mass membership organization, setting the stage for nationwide civil rights activity after World War II and the triumphs of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1946, Baker resigned her position with the NAACP, but she remained active in the New York NAACP branch.
In 1957, Baker returned to national civil rights work when she joined the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Three years later, when the sit-in movement took off across the South, Baker played an important advisory role to the young students who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker especially encouraged the leaders of SNCC to embrace group leadership and to emphasize the development of leaders among local populations. One of the best examples of Baker’s leadership was Mississippi Freedom Summer.
A full-text search on “Ella Baker” in History Vault leads to results from the records of NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC, providing documentation on the different phases in the civil rights career of an extraordinary woman. A search on “Ella Baker” in ProQuest Historical Newpapers™ for the years between 1910-1989 retrieves over 1,000 results, with the largest numbers of results coming from the New Journal and Guide, New York Times, Afro-American, and Chicago Defender. In addition, the papers of SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, and the Congress of Racial Equality in ProQuest History Vault contain substantial documentation on Freedom Summer. Researchers will also find significant coverage of Freedom Summer in ProQuest Historical Newpapers™.
Almost 50 years before Daisy Bates received the Spingarn Medal, two other women made an important contribution to the NAACP.
Mary White Ovington
Following a riot in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Mary White Ovington joined a group of concerned individuals who, in 1909 formed the National Negro Committee, which, one year later, was chartered as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ovington served in the NAACP for the next 38 years of her life. She led the NAACP as Secretary from 1911 through 1912 and as Acting Secretary during 1916. Ovington served as Acting Chairman of the Board from 1917-1918, as Chairman of the Board from 1919 to 1932, and as Treasurer from 1933 to 1947.
Researchers can trace Ovington’s NAACP career via the NAACP Papers in History Vault. Documents pertaining to Ovington in the NAACP Papers reveal the outreach role she played for NAACP as a writer and via her correspondence with journalists, academics, and reform organizations such as the YMCA, missionary societies, social work organizations and philanthropic foundations.
May Childs Nerney
May Childs Nerney served as NAACP secretary from 1912-1916. During her tenure as secretary, Nerney spearheaded the NAACP’s fight against the motion picture, Birth of a Nation. The film glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted African Americans in a grotesquely negative light. Nerney, borrowing a tactic from the women’s suffrage movement, of which she was also a member, pioneered the use of pickets to protest the film at theaters. The NAACP’s campaign against Birth of a Nation is fully documented in the NAACP Papers: Special Subjects module of History Vault.
Daisy Bates, Ruby Hurley, Ella Baker, Mary White Ovington, and May Childs Nerney are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of women who made important contributions to the NAACP and the civil rights movement in the 20th century. Other women who can be researched via NAACP Papers include the following: Daisy Lampkin, Julia Baxter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Althea Simmons, Bobbie Branche, Kathryn Magnolia Johnson, Constance Baker Motley, Gertrude Gorman, Addie Hunton, June Shagaloff, Lucille Black, Lulu B. White, Mary McLeod Bethune, Tarea Hall Pittman, Frances Blascoer, Margaret Bush Wilson, Martha Gruening, Irvena Ming, Noma Jensen, Virna Canson, and Mildred Bond. This list consists of women in the national or regional offices of the NAACP during the years 1909-1972. Even more, women were involved in local NAACP branches during this time period and their contributions are documented in the NAACP Papers: Branch Department, Branch Files, and Youth Department Files in History Vault.
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