In the summer of 1908, a race riot erupted in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Scores of blacks were killed or wounded in the melee. The brutality of the event ignited a debate in the national press about the state of race relations. "Doesn't anyone care what happens to blacks in America?" As it happens, a wealthy young white woman named Mary White Ovington was deeply concerned about the plight of blacks in her native New York City. In 1909, Ovington met William English Walling, a liberal Southern journalist. The two agreed to convene a bi-racial conference to address "the Negro Question". It was out of this conference that the NAACP was born.
When the NAACP was founded in 1909, the crisis was unmistakable. Thirteen years earlier the Supreme Court had handed down Plessy v. Ferguson, legally enshrining "separate but equal". The poll tax, the literacy test, the grandfather clause - not to mention the burning cross - made sure the descendants of slaves "knew their place".
Among the early leaders of the Association was Harvard intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, a prominent voice in an already established organization of influential black thinkers known as the Niagara Movement. The initial 1905 Niagara Movement conference had to be moved to Niagara Falls, Canada because housing for an integrated group could not be found on the U.S. side. Dubois was instrumental in bringing the Niagara Movement into the orbit of the NAACP, and the two organizations were effectively merged.
Early members included Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, William Du Bois, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Lillian Wald, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida Wells-Barnett.