Oswald Villard, the NAACP and The Nation
In 1909, when the founders of the NAACP needed help organizing their new civil rights group, they reached out to Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation's future editor and owner.
February 12 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The "new abolition movement," as it was sometimes called, owes its existence in large measure to Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, the Great Abolitionist. It was Villard who wrote the Lincoln's Birthday "call" -- a summons to action in protest of the political and social disabilities of the Negro and a proposal for the national conference which led ultimately to the creation of the NAACP. It was Villard who mapped out the plan for organization of the new movement as it gathered momentum, and it was he, with his dominating personality, his drive and vigor, his dedication to the Garrison ideals and his fearless and outspoken determination, who held the group together in the early and difficult years.
The high point in the curtailment of the political, economic and civil rights of the Negro had been reached by the turn of the century. The waves of violence, intimidation and lynching in both North and South had brought about a "new slavery," the identification of color with degraded social conditions, giving countenance to laws and attitudes increasingly detrimental to the Negro.
In the South, Booker T. Washington tried to advance the status of the Negro through a program promoting Negro business, the buying of land and technical education. Toward civil and political rights, he adopted a policy of expediency and accommodation. This policy of moderation was protested by a group of Negro intellectuals -- W. E. B. Du Bois' "talented tenth." His group, however, had been unable to pierce the strong wall of political power held by Washington, who had the majority of Negroes, as well as Southern whites, on his side. The conflict between the two points of view led to the alignment of "conservatives" and "radicals" within the Negro community.
White social workers and reformers in the North were also protesting the spreading racial discrimination. Among the white champions of the Negro was Villard, who all his life took pride in the Garrison tradition, a feeling carefully fostered by his uncles, the sons of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1897, Villard joined the editorial staff of the New York Evening Post, owned by his father. He was assigned to a desk in the office of his uncle, Wendell Phillips Garrison, then editor of The Nation, which was at that time the literary supplement to the Evening Post. Later, in 1918, Villard became editor and owner of The Nation, and he directed the publication in these capacities until 1932. From 1932-35 he was The Nation's publisher and a contributing editor.
In 1902, Robert C. Ogden, president of the Southern Education Board, invited Villard to become a member of his party traveling by special train to the annual Conference on Education in the South. This trip gave him new and deep insights into the living conditions of Negroes in the South. "I feel as if I had emerged from darkest America and the sense of the wrongs of the people of color is strong upon me," he wrote his mother after visiting a small Negro school in a rural community in South Carolina. The conviction that he must take an active part in the cause of Negro education led him to become, in the following year, the president of the Board of Directors of the Manassas Industrial School in Virginia and to support the work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama under the direction of Booker T. Washington.
By 1908, Villard was beginning to visualize a program of wider scope than that offered by the industrial schools. He had an idea that the colored people should band together under a common "clan" in the support of a large national organization for their defense. He wanted the organization to be incorporated and to raise money by securing gifts and bequests. A central defense committee would employ lawyers to prosecute lynchers, take cases of discrimination into the courts, agitate for the restoration of civil rights where denied, and to act as a publicity bureau to get facts and statistics to public attention. He believed that a united Negro population would support this project; and he hoped that the celebration by the colored people of the fiftieth anniversary of John Brown's death might inspire its birth.
It was not the John Brown celebration, however, that stimulated the formation of the kind of organization Villard had in mind, but the outbreak of race riots in Springfield, Illinois, in August, 1908. It was a particularly horrifying event; two persons were lynched, six others killed and over fifty wounded before 4,000 militiamen were able to gain control after two days of riots.
Villard expressed his indignation in an editorial in the Evening Post. He looked upon the outbreak as the climax of a wave of crime and lawlessness that was sweeping the country, and he was incensed that lynchings and anti-Negro riots should occur in the home city of Abraham Lincoln.
An even stronger protest came from William English Walling in The Independent. Walling was a wealthy Southerner, a settlement-house worker and Socialist who, with Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, had founded the National Woman's Trade Union League. He was shocked that the press and public opinion should accept race hatred and warfare as inevitable in a Northern city, and he appealed to the nation to meet this attack on the principles of democracy.