Very few women in the 20th century has done as much as Mary White Ovington in bringing about racial equality. Inspired largely by her Unitarian faith, she dedicated her life to the cause of social justice for black people. She was born a few days before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and died after the second world war-meaning that she never saw the legal dismantling of separate but equal as a legal doctrine. However, if not for her work as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, that goal would not have been achieved until much later in the history of the republic.
Inspired by an article written by journalist William English Walling describing a race riot in Lincoln’s hometown Springfield, Illinois, she answered his call to revive the spirit of the abolitionist by creating an organization to protect the negro (this was the common term to describe black people until about 1970). After starting a correspondence with Walling she gathered a group of journalist, educators, and philosophers in her apartment to form the NAACP in 1909. The NAACP started out advocating for causes that directly affected black people such as anti-lynching laws, voting rights, income parity, and an overall integration of blacks into American society.
The early years of the NAACP was formed by a multiracial coalition, which was quite unusual at that time. Before creating the NAACP, she lived in and studied areas that were predominately black, and witnessed first had the discrimination they experienced, while facing some discrimination of her own for associating for black people. She was a tireless advocate for the organization serving various roles such as executive secretary, acting chairman, chairman of the board, treasurer, and directed several branches. In addition to her management roles she was the chief marketing expert who operated fund-raisers and ran publicity campaigns. Her public relations efforts involved creating a magazine, The Crisis, and writing several books on race relations. These volunteer efforts expanded the presence of the organization to the point it needed trained and paid staff.
The NAACP took an integrationist and legal approach to gain equality for black people. The integrationist approach stressed social and political equality for black people, as opposed to the more accommodationist approach advocated by Booker T. Washington. In order to achieve these goals, the NAACP sought to win battles in not only in the court of public opinion, but winning legal battles. Their efforts were largely successful, but in order for laws to be implemented-they have to have public support, otherwise the legal decrees are meaningless. Considering the fact that the organization is still going strong today is a testament to her efforts that began over 100 years ago. The bravery and risk taking of her actions is something organizations like Making It to The Finish Line promote in order to make a better community. A more full length biography of Mary Ovington can be found at www.naacp.org and www.uudb.org.