By Daniel Lewis, ProQuest Senior Product Manager
Of all the civil rights organizations that were active during the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP was the best organized and most solidly established throughout most of the South. It was therefore a conspicuous target for those who opposed the changes sought by the civil rights movement. Most states in the Deep South attempted by one means or another to curtail the activities of and even to destroy the NAACP in their states. Among their tactics were special taxes, fines, special reporting requirements, and grilling by state "investigating committees." The NAACP was enjoined from operating in Alabama and its leaders were constantly harassed to divulge membership lists in Florida and elsewhere.
In addition to the significant attacks on the NAACP in Alabama and Florida, a case in Georgia, NAACP v. Overstreet, had a significant impact on NAACP protest strategies and the financial health of the organization. NAACP v. Overstreet arose out of an incident on May 30, 1962, in a Savannah grocery store. On that day, Robert Bolton, a 14-year-old African American male, reported to the Savannah police that Haldred Overstreet, the owner and operator of the grocery store, had physically assaulted him. Bolton’s mother contacted the Savannah NAACP branch, and the branch quickly decided to stage a boycott of Overstreet’s store. The boycott continued until June 22, when Overstreet won a temporary restraining order against further picketing. Shortly thereafter, a jury awarded Overstreet damages in the amount of $85,793.05. After the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the judgment of the trial court, the NAACP filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 1965, the Court initially agreed to consider one of the questions in the case but dismissed the writ of certiorari in April 1966, and therefore, the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court held.
The significant impact of NAACP v. Overstreet on the organization’s operations is illustrated in part by a July 7, 1966, memorandum from NAACP General Counsel Robert L. Carter to all NAACP branches and NAACP personnel. In the memorandum, Carter discussed how the decision would affect NAACP participation in boycotts and other protests against private persons or businesses. Carter stressed the need for the NAACP to be very cautious in its conduct. He also mentioned that when local branches undertook such protests, it was essential that they did so as units distinct from the NAACP national corporation. Carter noted that this strategy was necessary in order to prevent persons like Overstreet from coming to New York to collect money from the NAACP.
The NAACP Legal Department Files in ProQuest History Vault also include several other cases that pertain to the rights of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to engage in public protests against racial discrimination. The case of Kelly v. Page arose from civil rights demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, in the early 1960s. Asa D. Kelly, the mayor of Albany, sued the local Albany Movement, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP in an attempt to stop the demonstrations in Albany. In North Carolina, Sellars v. NAACP involved the boycott of a Winston-Salem grocery store. The owners of the store, Howard E. Sellars and Jesse E. Sizemore, charged that the national NAACP, the Winston-Salem NAACP branch, and the Kimberly Park Neighborhood Association conspired to prevent consumers from entering their store. In their defense, the three organizations argued that Sellars treated his African American customers in a derogatory manner, sold beer and wine to minors, and once threatened to summon the Ku Klux Klan.
These cases pertaining to the rights of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to demonstrate against racial discrimination are just three of over 600 cases from 34 states in the History Vault module, NAACP Papers: The NAACP's Major Campaigns--Legal Department Files. The cases in this module cover the key issues the NAACP confronted during the peak years of the modern civil rights movement. The case files document the NAACP’s aggressive campaign to bring about desegregation throughout the United States, particularly in the South. Among the contested issues in these cases were school desegregation, abuses of police procedure, employment discrimination, freedom of speech and freedom of association, and housing discrimination.
The NAACP Legal Department Files are just one of six modules that compose the NAACP Papers collection in ProQuest History Vault. For more information on the NAACP Papers, please see the NAACP Papers brochure and the Library Journal review of NAACP Papers.