Posted Feb 01, 2012 07:00 am CST
On Aug. 16, 1908, Southern journalist William English Walling arrived in Springfield, Ill., where an uneasy peace prevailed after two days of rioting, during which scores of black homes and businesses were destroyed, two black men were lynched, and hundreds of others fled the city. The grim historical irony—a vicious race riot in Abraham Lincoln’s adopted hometown 45 years after the Emancipation Proclamation—was not lost on Walling, who was struck by the lack of remorse among whites he met in the riot’s aftermath.
He recorded those encounters in a piece for the Independent magazine, in which he issued an urgent challenge to revive the spirit of the abolitionist movement. Walling’s challenge was taken up by Northern settlement house organizer Mary White Ovington, who arranged a meeting in early 1909 with Walling and prominent New York social worker Henry Moskowitz, setting in motion the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Oswald Villard, a grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, was enlisted to draft a document (which came to be known as “the Call”) that laid out the dismal conditions under which blacks lived in the U.S. and concluded with a summons for a national conference to spur the “renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Released on the centenary of Lincoln’s birth, the Call heralded the founding of what would become the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.