The first NAACP Branches in South Carolina were organized in Columbia and Charleston in 1917 with 75 members. One of the founding members in Charleston was a famous artist, Edwin Harleston. Septima Poinsette Clark was one of the activists early in the life of the Charleston Branch. This was nearly a decade after W.E.B. DuBois founded the national organization in New York in 1909. By late 1917, just over 1,400 people subscribed to the NAACP’s national journal, The Crisis. Two years later, the state membership was just over 1,100, though about eighty percent of the membership was in Charleston. Their greatest single success in this early formative period was in 1920, when the Charleston Branch used a petition signed by three-fourths of the blacks in the city to persuade white leaders to hire black teachers to teach in black public schools. Previously only white teachers were hired. Other local branches included units in Georgetown, Sumter, Florence, Cheraw, Rock Hill, Greenville, and Aiken.
The NAACP began to have a more tangible impact in the state when local Branches came together and formed a state-wide conference in 1939. The first president was Reverend A.W. Wright. Other early leaders included Septima Poinsette Clark, Modjeska Montieth Simpkins, Ossie McKaine, and the Reverend James Hinton, who led the group through many important civil rights battles. In an interview in 1976, Rev. I DeQuincy Newman traced the leadership of the state organization up till that time, when it was composed of 32 youth chapters and 82 adult chapters.
One of the most important legal battles fought by the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP was Briggs v. Elliott, which concerned the desegregation of schools. This case was grouped together with the Brown v. Board of Education case by the Supreme Court in 1954. Many local people played important roles in this case, and many lost their jobs or were even driven from the state with death threats. That effort was preceded by many other efforts to improve the educational opportunities for African-Americans in the state. In the middle 1940’s, Ossie McKaine, after reorganizing the Sumter branch, persuaded the state NAACP Conference to make equal pay for teachers their number one priority. With the money the group raised for legal challenges, teachers in Columbia and Charleston won equal salaries in 1944 and 1945.
The S.C. NAACP helped raise money for the Supreme Court case that originated in Texas that outlawed the “white primary.” After this victory, white political leaders did not relent and allow blacks to vote in the state primary. Rather, they rescinded all primary laws and turned the Democratic Party into a kind of private club that could then refuse membership to blacks. The state NAACP responded with a test case, which began with George Elmore trying to vote in the 1946 primary. In July of 1947, Federal Judge Waites Waring, who was a member of a prominent Charleston family, ruled that the state must allow all people of all races to vote in its primaries. This battle did not win the war against political inequality because of discriminatory practices in the voting registration process, but it was an important victory along the way. Enough blacks did overcome the registration process so that white politicians began to pay them a little attention. For example, African-American voters in the 1950 Democratic primary were the key in helping Senator Olin Johnston survive a challenge from Governor Strom Thurmond. The late Attorney Matthew Perry, who retired as a Federal Judge, was the lead counsel in most of the cases fought by the NAACP in the Civil Rights era of the mid-twentieth century.
During the tenure of Ms. Dot S. Scott, who became the Charleston Branch President in 2001, the Charleston Branch has been faithful to the work of those who laid the foundation, while working to see that the NAACP is a relevant and active voice in the present day with a diverse membership. The Charleston Branch now has the only staffed Branch Office in South Carolina and has grown to be the second largest Branch in the South Carolina Conference of Branches.
The Charleston Branch has advocated for freedom and justice in areas ranging from tenant rights to employment issues to equity in law enforcement. The Charleston Branch has been instrumental in advocating for progress in the Charleston County School District. The Charleston Branch is the only Branch in South Carolina with an active outreach and collaborative effort with the Latino community. The Charleston Branch has again become a strong and respected voice in the Lowcountry, and has collaborated with other organizations like the YWCA of Greater Charleston, ACLU of South Carolina and the League of Women Voters.
We celebrate the victories of the past, are committed to meet the needs of the present, and will equip ourselves and our posterity to stand tall and fight for a bright future.