02/11/2014 09:17 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Still We Rise: Recovering the Grassroots Impetus of the NAACP Post-1965

Gaines ex rel. Missouri v. Canada (1936) was the first case regarding race, education, and equal opportunity decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was arguably the most significant decision on this important issue until Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Gaines case was an important step along the long path toward the doctrine that racial segregation is inherently unequal.

Lloyd Gaines, the president of the senior class at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri wanted to go to law school. He applied to the state law school because of his qualifications caused university officials some difficulty. Missouri's segregation statutes measures fitness to law and graduate schools based on academic merit and felt unconstitutional to deny Gaines's application solely because of his race. Despite the unconstitutionality of the application Gaines' application was denied but given two choices: accept a scholarship to attend an out-of-state law school or apply to Lincoln University, a major institution of black higher education that would, the state said, create a full-scale law school on demand. Through litigation and arguments made by Charles Houston and the NAACP legal staff, the decision rendered by Chief Justice Hughes implied that if a neighboring state such as Kansas did not have a law school, Missouri would have a "constitutional duty" to open a law school for blacks. Responding to the Court's decision, the Missouri legislature appropriated 200,000 to improve and extend graduate instruction at Lincoln University beginning a law school, accredited by the American Bar association.

This decision didn't appease the NAACP legal team but indeed set the precedent in later cases such as Sweatt v. Painter (1947) in dealing with the issue of how can separate be "equal". I have been fascinated with the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision and concluded that the issue of present educational cuts of fundamental programs in my beloved home Georgia and the resurgence of affirmative action policies, the building of charter schools stems from the reality that the white majority will go to great length in assuring that blacks and whites are separate regardless of equality. Perhaps as Third Vice President of the Georgia Conference of the NAACP that it's not as surprising that Sunday morning as being the most "segregated hour" because look back at cases such as Gaines and the "buggy like" pace of enforcing the deliberate speed of the Brown decision that sixty years later we must recover the grassroots activism found in the NAACP between the years of our founding in 1909-1965.

Since 1965 because of the success of the Voting Rights Act the impetus of grassroots activism has been replaced by the national leaders emerging from this victory. Such as Maynard Jackson, first black mayor of Atlanta my hometown and many others that benefited from the white flight to suburbanization. However, just as efforts are to reverse the Voting Rights Act with redistricting and gerrymandering so is the gentrification of our urban centers that are slowly taking over the national power base that was achieved in access to voting in 1965. On the surface this seems bleak but in reality maybe like the birth of the NAACP in 1909 in response to the 1896 United States Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in attacking the undermining the racial subordination we can collectively as found in the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina now in Georgia recover the grassroots protest that has been lost.

So, as we commemorate our 105th anniversary on February 12, I am hopeful that we as an organization can rise and soar to new possibilities. With the help of the Lord, still we rise.

The prophet Isaiah knew this God well, thousands of years before the founding of the NAACP. Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of exactly who their Lord is. In case they have forgotten, God is the one "who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers ... who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing" (Isaiah 40:22-23).

Isaiah knows that true power is held by the one Lord God. When human beings practice injustice and discrimination, there is a greater divine justice that will eventually prevail. When God blows upon the rulers of the earth, "they wither," promises the prophet, "and the tempest carries them off like stubble" (v. 24).

This is the dream of Isaiah, the NAACP, Charles Houston, Lloyd Gaines and Thurgood Marshall. It is the dream of all who know that God is completely and totally serious when he says, "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17). In every time and place, faithful people are challenged to seek justice and rescue the oppressed -- whether the pressing issue of the day is voting rights or segregation or affordable housing or immigration reform or fair treatment in the workplace. In every era and community, each of us is challenged to follow God on the long march into the light of freedom, equality and justice.

But there is more to the message of Isaiah than a call to reform -- there is also a promise of divine help. "Have you not known? Have you not heard?" asks the prophet. The Lord "gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless" (40:28-29). This power was given to members of the NAACP to fight statutes that legalized racial segregation, battle regulations that made it difficult for blacks to vote, and help win the right of African-Americans to serve as military officers in World War I. God's strength was given to those who fought the lynching of blacks, worked for the desegregation of schools and pushed for a civil rights bill to end racial segregation. In all of these struggles, God gave power to the faint and strength to the powerless.

The same is true today. God continues to give this gift of strength, whenever we faint or grow weary, wherever we face injustice or discrimination.

"Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength," says Isaiah (v. 31). This is an important point -- it is those who wait for the Lord who will find their strength renewed. Spiritual solutions always begin with waiting for the Lord, and listening for what God wants us to be and to do. Those who "wait for the Lord shall renew their strength," promises Isaiah "They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (v. 31). It will be true when we see others as equals and work to build relationships with people different from ourselves. It will be true when we establish partnerships across the boundaries of race and culture and nationality. It will be true when we make any kind of effort to improve conditions in our homes, schools, neighborhoods or job sites.

The Lord wants us to work for justice and equality in the world today, and he promises to lift us up and strengthen us when we become weary from these efforts. We should never back down and never give up, because God will be true to his promise to give power to the faint and strength to the powerless. That's been the experience of all who believe, from Isaiah to the founding members of the NAACP one hundred and five years ago to members today. As Maya Angelou says, "We are a going-on people who will rise again."

And still we rise.