The NAACP State Conference won a series of important legal victories that struck blows against Jim Crow and charted a path toward the democratization of the state’s political system.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formally founded in 1910 by a group of progressive white northerners and prominent African American leaders, most notable of whom was the Harvard University–trained intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois. Formed as Jim Crow segregation tightened its grip on life in the South and as racial violence extended its reach into northern cities such as Springfield, Illinois, the NAACP dedicated itself to securing and defending the constitutional rights of African Americans. The organization’s first branches in South Carolina were chartered in Charleston and Columbia in 1917. In the years that followed, the NAACP battled to destroy Jim Crow and led the fight for black voting rights, equality, and respect in the Palmetto State. Since its inception, the South Carolina NAACP has been a leader of the African American struggle for civil rights in the South and the United States.
During World War I, black South Carolinians led efforts by the NAACP’s national office to expand the organization’s presence across the South. In addition to the branches in Columbia and Charleston, the organization took root in Aiken, Anderson, Darlington, Florence, Orangeburg, and Beaufort. The NAACP quickly proved a formidable advocate for African American rights and interests. From battles for better schools, to jobs in the Charleston Navy Yard, to efforts to register black voters, the organization captured the imagination and loyalty of black South Carolinians from all walks of life: male and female, urban and rural, professionals and everyday folk. By 1929 four additional communities chartered NAACP branches (a branch required a minimum of fifty members) and nine others attempted to do so. But a growing white backlash, deteriorating economic conditions, black out-migration, and, at times, ineffectual local leadership prevented the organization from establishing a stronger presence in South Carolina. The early advances made by the organization had eroded substantially by the opening years of the 1930s, with the organization barely maintaining a foothold in the two cities that chartered its first branches.
Between 1943 and 1955 the NAACP in South Carolina experienced a resurgence that firmly established the organization as the leading advocate of African American civil rights and a force for democratic reform in post–World War II America. The organization’s resurgence began in the late 1930s, when an unlettered plumber from Cheraw, Levi G. Byrd, began efforts to organize a State Conference of NAACP branches. Despite resistance from members of the Columbia NAACP, Byrd managed to convince twenty-nine representatives from branches in Charleston, Cheraw, Columbia, Florence, Georgetown, Greenville, and Sumter to meet on the campus of Columbia’s Benedict College on November 10, 1939, to create a State Conference to coordinate the NAACP’s activities on a statewide scale. For the first years of the state organization, members of the Cheraw branch held the key leadership roles, but Columbians assumed the primary leadership positions by 1943. For more than a decade the Reverend James M. Hinton served as president of the State Conference and Modjeska Montieth Simkins served as the organization’s secretary. Byrd served as the organization’s treasurer into the 1970s. With the assistance of South Carolina notables such as Osceola E. McKaine, Septima Poinsette Clark, John H. McCray, Harold Boulware (the organization’s chief legal counsel), and Eugene A. R. Montgomery, who in 1948 became the State Conference’s first full-time and paid executive secretary, Hinton and Simkins led the charge for civil rights and equality into the 1950s.
The NAACP State Conference won a series of important legal victories that struck blows against Jim Crow and charted a path toward the democratization of the state’s political system. It secured the equalization of salaries for black and white public schoolteachers in Charleston and Columbia by 1946. The organization’s efforts to integrate the University of South Carolina’s law school led to the creation of a law school for African Americans at South Carolina State College, which trained prominent attorneys including the civil rights lawyer and future federal court judge Matthew Perry. In conjunction with the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the NAACP hastened the passing of the all-white Democratic primary through two major federal court decisions, Elmore v. Rice (1947) and Brown v. Baskin (1948). But the NAACP in South Carolina is perhaps best known for its participation in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared segregation in public school education unconstitutional.
Since the mid-1940s the Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine had led efforts to equalize public school facilities in rural Clarendon County. The efforts of DeLaine and other heroic members of Clarendon’s black community converged in 1947 with the efforts of the NAACP State Conference and national office to put an end to the injustices of Jim Crow. The result of their combined labors was Briggs v. Elliott, one of five cases, and the only one from the Deep South, included in the Brown ruling. Although white resistance to the NAACP and efforts to achieve the integration of schools and other public facilities in South Carolina proved formidable in the years following Brown, the NAACP survived to remain a champion of African American rights.
During the NAACP’s heyday in South Carolina, roughly 1943 to 1955, the number of branches in the state expanded from fifteen to eighty-four and membership topped the ten thousand mark. The organization achieved a presence in the state’s urban centers, backwoods, cotton fields, and rural churches. Massive white resistance to the implementation of Brown, however, cut the number of branches by more than fifty, and individual membership in the organization plummeted. The General Assembly adopted extreme measures in spring 1956 to curtail the organization’s influence, including the prohibition of NAACP members from employment in local, county, and state government.
Partly an effect of massive resistance, younger members of the 1960s civil rights generation often viewed the NAACP as a conservative force in an era of rapid and dramatic change. Yet the NAACP in South Carolina had laid the crucial groundwork for those changes and adapted remarkably well to the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s. Under the leadership of the Reverend I. DeQuincey Newman, the State Conference supported direct action protests as well as legal efforts to integrate the state’s schools and public facilities. In Charleston and Rock Hill, respective NAACP stalwarts J. Arthur Brown and the Reverend C. A. Ivory pioneered direct action campaigns, and NAACP College and Youth branches led sit-ins across the state.
The 1960s did not, however, mark an end to the African American struggle for civil rights, equality, and respect in South Carolina. Issues such as access to health care, employment, and the ballot box and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds in Columbia occupied the front lines of the NAACP’s ongoing campaign for racial justice as it entered the twenty-first century.
Aba-Mecha, Barbara W. “South Carolina Conference of NAACP: Origin and Major Accomplishments, 1939–1954.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1981): 1–21.
Baker, R. Scott. “Ambiguous Legacies: The NAACP’s Legal Campaign Against Segregation in Charleston, South Carolina, 1935–1975.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1993.
Hoffman, Edwin D. “The Genesis of the Modern Movement for Equal Rights in South Carolina, 1930–1939.” Journal of Negro History 44 (October 1959): 346–69.
Lau, Peter F. “Freedom Road Territory: The Politics of Civil Rights Struggle in South Carolina during the Jim Crow Era.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2002.
Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.