J.R. Johnson

The Rapid Growth of the NAACP

(September 1947)

Originally published in The Militant, 22 September 1947.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 48–50.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The NAACP, I am informed, now has close to one million members. I doubt if many people know this. And I am pretty certain that if they do, few except the Marxists can understand what it means. It is one of the surest signs of the insoluble social crisis in the United States.

This growth has taken place during the last 12 years. In 1935, the membership was quite insignificant. In 1939, it was about 300,000. By 1943, it was half a million. And now, in 1947, it is almost one million. The Negro population is only 15 million. There is a small number of whites in the NAACP. The large majority of the membership is Negro. And when one out of every fifteen of the Negroes in the United States joins an organization aiming at the destruction of Negro oppression and discrimination, that becomes an indication of a tremendous social ferment in the nation as a whole.

What is it that has moved these Negroes to this tremendous mobilization? The answer is simple. There is obviously a dislocation of the whole social order which drives them towards unifying their forces for struggle. They are impelled toward the search for solidarity because they realize that all the great problems of the nation and of the Negro minority are now being posed. They gird themselves for a solution of their own.

Look at those two dates again, 1935 to 1947. To any Marxist student of American life, those dates must immediately call to mind the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Precisely during this time when the Negroes were just beginning to organize themselves, the labor movement of the United States accomplished one of the most astonishing mobilizations in the history of the working class.

The proletariat, in some of its deepest layers, felt that the foundations of American society were cracking under its feet, instinctively the long-overdue organization of industrial unions appeared out of the depths of dislocated capitalist society. If the CIO is a response of labor to the crisis of American society, then the organization of the Negroes in the NAACP is a response which has the same roots. Both were the reaction of Americans to the crisis of the American environment.

The NAACP response is not so much a Negro as an American phenomenon. But precisely because these Americans are Negroes, the mass mobilizations assume the astounding ratio of roughly one out of every fifteen Negroes in the nation. The Negroes are more bitterly oppressed, more disgusted, more humiliated, than any other section of the population. That is the reason why they react so strongly to the stimuli of disintegrating society.

That is what is important, the mass movement towards organizations. It expresses the sense that the conditions are intolerable; that the possibility of change exists; that it is necessary to act. Whenever hundreds of thousands of people take action of any significant kind, that is an infallible sign of social contradictions expressing themselves.

That being said, however, it is now possible to say certain other things. The NAACP, as led by Walter White and his fellow-fakers, is an organization miserably inadequate for the great cause it is designed to serve. For years, it has distinguished itself by its inability to mobilize its followers for mass action. It has done useful work in publicizing such barbarisms as lynching. It has fought cases in the courts. It has carried out a strictly legalistic type of propaganda and agitation.

Militant Negroes have long recognized the NAACP’s fear of mass action. Today the same leaders are in the saddle and with their long training, they undoubtedly wish nothing more than to carry on in the manner which has distinguished them in the past.

But history is overtaking them. An organization of one million is vastly different from an organization of one thousand. Furthermore, the Negro population in the United States is predominately proletarian or semi-proletarian. The moment you read a ratio like 1 in 15, it means that a substantial number of that million consists of working class families.

The very size of the organization gives confidence to its membership. They have not joined in order to send more telegrams to Washington or to make more cases before the Supreme Court. They want action. The NAACP is therefore in a state of turmoil. The membership is pressing for action. The leadership searches for some sort of program. It is impossible to give any forecast as to what the result will be.

For the time being, however, this much can be said. The fate of the extraordinary mass movement rests with the great social forces of the nation. This growth of the NAACP is not an accident; it represents the Negro mobilization following World War II which corresponds to the Negro mobilization that followed World War I. That mobilization was the Garvey movement. It took the extravagant form that it did precisely because there was not at that time in the United States an organized labor movement which could stand before the nation as the potential leader of all the oppressed. Today, that is not so. The Negro people as a whole believe in the CIO more than they believe in any social organization in the nation. In the industrial towns many of the members of the NAACP are good union men. Their education in the union movement has not lessened, but sharpened, their consciousness of their oppression as Negroes. They have heretofore joined the struggle of the NAACP as the most convenient medium for carrying on their own special struggle. It was the social crisis which precipitated the CIO into existence. It was the social crisis which has precipitated the phenomenal growth of the NAACP.

The deepening of the crisis will drive the American proletariat on to the road of political action on a scale corresponding to the social explosion which was the CIO. Any such movement will most certainly bring in its train convulsions in the NAACP. The solidity of American capitalist society is undermined, and under our eyes the forces that are to overthrow it are slowly but surely preparing themselves for the gigantic explosions which will usher in the actual revolutionary crisis.

Last updated on 17.7.2011