Art for Equality: The NAACP’s Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights

By Jenny Woodley

University Press of Kentucky

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

jenny woodley

Changing hearts and mind through art

When I accepted the job as only the sixth editor of the Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, the magazine founded in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois, the only real direction I received from the CEO of the organization, Benjamin L.  Hooks, and the man who recruited me, was “see if you can get more of the arts in there.”

At that time, at the very end of 1984, coverage of the arts had long been absence from the magazine, as much as everything else. But that was not always the case. Once in its long history, the Crisis was highly praised, and quickly became one of the most influential and respected publications in America because of political fearlessness, its understanding of the written laws of this country and the unwavering willingness to fight for the equal rights of blacks; and, interestingly enough, for its coverage of the arts.

In fact, the arts quickly became a central focus of the NAACP, founded in 1909 by white liberals, one year before the Crisis magazine.

The author of Art for Equality, a lecturer in modern history at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England, framed her book perfectly in the first paragraph of the introduction, which went to the very heart of Dr. Hooks mandate to me.

In 1926, Dr. Du Bois one of the first blacks to get a degree from Harvard University, rhetorically asked an audience in Chicago, “How is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about art?”

A few years later, James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP’s first black Executive Secretary, fully articulated in an article the answer to Du Bois’ question. He believed that the “race problem” was “more a question of national mental attitudes toward the Negro than a question of his actual condition.”

Later Johnson wrote, “No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.”

Although over the years the leaders of the NAACP fought long, bruising battles over which direction to take to gain equality for blacks and bring true democracy to America, most wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson that what the Negro needed most, beside bread and water, and protection from lynching, was a makeover that would then compel whites to reconsider their negative attitudes towards black people.

The NAACP’s first major battle, the book rightly points out, was trying to get the groundbreaking movie, Birth of a Nation, banned from movie theaters.

Director D.W. Griffith film, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, made cinematic history. Even members of the NAACP called it “a masterpiece,” although Walter White, who succeeded Johnson as the leader of the organization, noted “by its very excellence…make it to my mind a most vicious and dangerous thing.”

Over the years when I was teaching the film segment in my History of the Mass Media course, I would often show the film (When I was teaching at UC Berkeley a white radical organization called the Socialist Workers Party threatened to interrupt my class if I showed it again. I gave them the finger).

The film was indeed vile.

Woodley points out that “the racist imagery that filled the screen was not just the creation of Dixon and Griffith. They drew on at least a hundred years of American culture for their inspiration. African Americans are portrayed in a derogatory manner, using almost every stereotype in American culture. There are happy, loyal slaves (complete with “Mammy” and “Uncle Tom); foolish comics; watermelon eating, banjo-playing “darkies” oversexed, lustful and power hungry mulattos (male and female); dandified, ridiculous upstarts; and vicious and savage black brutes.”

And, as I often pointed out to my often incredibly bright students, the major scorn in Birth of a Nation was not against blacks, but those “oversexed, lustful, power hungry Mulattos.”

Writes Woodley, “It is no coincidence that the two most important named black characters in Birth are mulattos…the storyline betrays one of the great obsessions of both Griffith and Dixon, as well as many white southerners: interracial sex.”

I would add to that that they hated mixed race Americans so much because they also knew that these people were their children; their cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandkids. The One Drop Rule they invented, while it gave some cover, couldn’t change that. What they feared most about mixed race Americans, and still do, as you bare witness to all the grief President Obama is getting—is that they saw themselves; that they were looking deeply into their own souls and didn’t like what they saw.

These were the kind of blacks that you couldn’t trust.

In the end, the campaign against the movie ultimately failed. But it put the fledgling film industry on notice that they would be watched. It also was the first major national campaign for the new organization. It can be said, as it has been noted by a number of historians, that some good did come from the campaign against Birth of a Nation. All the national, and indeed, international publicity generated, help put the NAACP on the map.


The next major boost for this cultural campaign was helped along by the rise of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. It also produced major challenges to the idea that the arts should be only used for only political reasons.

Woodley points out “the Harlem Renaissance lasted from around 1919 until the middle of the 1930s. This was a period when many intellectuals and artists debated what was meant by “Negro art.” In the 1920s Harlem, New York, became the center, psychologically and physically, for an outpouring of African American culture. This concentration of poets, novelists, artists, dancers and musicians was, in part, a product of the massive migration of African Americans out of the South to the cities of the North and Midwest. In the 1920s nearly a million blacks moved from the rural South to the cities. Men and women were drawn to Harlem because of the promise of jobs and the bright lights of city life. James Weldon Johnson called Harlem, “’the Negro capital of the world.’”

NAACP leaders like Du Bois, Johnson, Walter White and Jessie Fauset played an important role in shaping the movement. But the question soon became what kind of art should artists be producing? All of the folks I just mentioned were well educated, mixed race blacks; and only one, the composer, novelist, literary editor, song writer, James Weldon Johnson, was an artist in its truest sense; but even he was “grounded in the notion that the creation of ‘high’ art…was seen as a signifier of a group’s status.”

Soon, younger members of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman started pushing back at the NAACP, and especially at Dr. Du Bois, who they came to see as “controlling.” They considered themselves artists first, not makers of racial propaganda just to please white folks, and black college professors.

Langston Hughes put it best in his famous essay in the Nation, The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain: ”We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

There is so much more to write about in this insightful book, but I will end this review with an observation. In the end, the leaders of the NAACP were proven right in thinking that art could elevate the image of American blacks. But both Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were wrong that this welcome change in perception would come about through what they called “high art.”

They both, especially Du Bois, had a distain for the art coming from the brothels and greasy spoons that dotted black America. Yet, Bessie Smith singing, “Give me a pig foot and a beer” helped bring forth music, lowbrow that it was, that conquered the entire world, and made black Americans among the most famous people on the planet.

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